You are here:

This page contains links to the conversations students had on the discussion board regarding the essentialism vs. constructionism debate raised in class.  The issue was first raised the week the readings regarding this debate were assigned for the class.

Constructionism vs. Essentialism - JP 21:58:51 2/08/99 (7)
          Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism - Justin 22:40:29 2/25/99 (1)
               Re: Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism - JP 10:38:09 2/26/99 (0)
          Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism - GM 00:56:14 2/15/99 (0)
          Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism - Sandra 19:49:42 2/13/99 (0)
          Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism - Jenn 17:36:09 2/10/99 (0)

The Constructionist Confusion - Sandra 15:55:34 2/07/99 (1)
          Re: The Constructionist Confusion - Sandra 21:43:04 2/12/99 (0)
     Is there really a debate? - Melissa 22:37:01 2/05/99 (3)
          Re: Is there really a debate? - Emily 14:08:53 2/06/99 (2)
               Re: Re: Is there really a debate? - Samantha 14:23:15 2/10/99 (0)

Constructionism vs. Essentialism

Posted by JP on February 08, 1999 at 21:58:51:

As a gay individual who has felt an attraction for the same sex for as long as I can remember, I am having
trouble accepted the arguments of McIntoch and the social constructionist. To me it seems that by making the
argument that sexual orientation is more of a choice based on social circumstances we are adding fuel to the
christian right by legitimating their claim that gays make the choice to be gay. I believe it would be more
advantagous to make the argument that biology has an effect on determining sexuality, while using the
constructionist model to fight inequalities created by the social categories gays are placed in.

What do you think?

Posted by Justin on February 25, 1999 at 22:40:29:

In Reply to: Constructionism vs. Essentialism posted by JP on February 08, 1999 at 21:58:51:

Dear JP (kind of weird because since I have gone on-line, I have always gone by "jp" lower-case, anyway)

It appears as though based in part upon personal experience and in part upon critical thinking you feel that the
social constructionist view is both inaccurate and dangerous/bad because it both denies your experiential reality
and is detrimental politically. I concur with you on some areas and as is contemporaneous with the theme of this
class the ideology can not responsibly be separated from the political reality. However, I would like to respond
to your concerns.

First, I am not worried about the effect of the writings of sociologists in the upper echelons of academia giving
fuel to would be oppressors. I do think that they pay attention to works of this sort.

Second, I too believe that same sex desire, like other sex desire and simply other desire is at root biologically
determined and only the manifestations across time change, although the acts basically remain the same--JUST
LIKE WITH HETEROSEXUALITY. Surely hetero-sexual inter-sex relations and psychologies and personal
and group identities have changed as much as queer intra-sex ones have. But, ever since sex was invented by
bacteria (or god), people's sexual identities have evolved or been in a constant state of flux.

Third, perhaps because here, in the ivory tower so to speak, we have a luxury that those out in the trenches
don't have. We have the ability to look at what we should promote to achieve a high level of principled idealism
when it comes to fighting the battle over contested sexualities, while those out in the trenches only have the
luxury of looking at what we can do to achieve some modicum of success. The point is that you are right when
you say that a non-biological origin of sexual orientation (an the minimum level of identity awareness that must
accompany same) could be damaging to the political struggle. In our American legal system we have
institutionalized the legitimacy of the right of those who differ "only" biologically to be protected from the
plurality. Examples of this are of course, the Civil Rights Act, enfranchisement of African-Americans, a long line
of Supreme Court decisions, and even to a degree, the ADA. However, we have a long and ambivalent history
of abhorrence to institutionalized protections for those who are made different by economic/social/cultural
differences. A few examples are the extremely small size of our welfare state relative to all other Wester
democracies, our historic ambivalence and negativity towards multi-culturalism, etc.,. So it would seem that
since some gains (how much can be argued) by oppressed "minorities" have been made on the basis of
essentialism, we should follow that tried and true path.

However, there is one problem with this: determining legitimacy of difference on the basis that it only differs
biologically from the dominant class simply feeds the fans of hegemony. For us to say that "see we are just like
you, or we would be if only gene x, y or z had split in this or that way" is to implicitly and explicitly legitimize
hetero-normativity as the biologically pre-determined ideal type of human. We are simply using a suspect moral
currency to transfer the fault of our difference away from us, thus not defying our dominant Protestant work
ethic that we are all responsible for our own fate. However, when the criteria for achieving success are biased
towards a dominant class, it is only those whose identities most closely match the ideal that are able to succeed.
In our case think of the competition of our capitalist system and the strategies of dominance and of our political
system and its strategies of manipulation and domination and popularity and of the Article on a short and
unsuccessful academic career. Masculine traits (in a male body) are necessary for success. So, someone who
happens do be born black or female cannot help that and as long as they adopt the right amount of masculine
traits that embrace the protestant work ethic they are rewarded. But, what about the woman adopting a more
feminine homemaker role? She is effectively powerless because her domestic skills are undervalued in the
masculine job market so that if her relationship with her husband is terminated, he can still move up the social
ladder, and for her, her true bottom level status is laid bare. The point is that even those who are protected upon
biological grounds are only protected to the degree they (are allowed to) adopt the traits of the dominant class.
Therefore, are we really making progress if we build a platform for gay rights on the biological premise or
merely giving some opportunity for those gay men who have the inclination and/or are able to sacrifice enough to
adopt the characteristics of the dominant class, knowing full well, that like females and people of color, sexual
minorities will never be "real men."

I know that you said that we should start with the essentialist premise to sort of legitimize our base for attacking
the constructionist obstacles in our path. However, if our base is limited then our successes are guaranteed to be
limited. Is the struggle not all the more successful, if we can fight and win equality and inclusion of queer people
REGARDLESS of the origins of our identities. In this way, we perform our most powerful role in the larger
struggle to liberate those who have been marginalized arbitrarily for both essential and environmental reasons. In
this way, our struggle can help the woman's and racial minority movements in vast and amazing ways instead of
just riding their coattails. Success in this area would truly mark the beginning of a new social order. One that is
far richer in its inclusiveness than any that have existed on this large a scale before. "Brave words little Indian,
now welcome to the White Man's world."

Point in fact, although at its "essence," the queer movement is truly the embodiment of all social struggles
everywhere across time and place on this earth, we live here, in the U.S., in 1999. I need not remind anyone
that the leader of the free world was almost fired for hiding his sexual behavior (obviously something far less
important that sexual identity). OOOPPPPSSSS, busted as a liberal, oh, well. Anyway, because we live in a
world that is completely ordered by Anglo-male-hetero-normativity, attacking the system may be futile and
perhaps only gradual, incremental change is possible. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not
equal when most of America was explicitly prejudiced and now, 50 years later, a significant part of America is
still racist and blacks are still not equal, and segregation still exists, but "over-racial discrimination" is truly a
shadow of its former self and African-Americans are better off than they were at the time of the Brown vs
Board of Education decision.

Because changing the entire system in one grand movement is impossible, then incrementalism is our only way.
Therefore, since the system is set up to protect biological differences, even if promises of equality are note met,
then perhaps we should take advantage of it to gain more power to carry the movement forward further in the
future. After all, it is only relatively recently that the state is barred from castrating and incarcerating queer
peoples, perhaps going slow is the right track because it is the only possible track. I really feel for you on this
side of things JP, because I do see a war going on out there and it is a real one that affects the lives of 100's of
millions of people in the U.S.. Of course, it is the culture war. Because I am queer, and the lines HAVE BEEN
VERY CLEARLY DRAWN that the Democrats are for us and the Republicans are against us, I will always
vote Democratic because I would rather risk benign incompetence to potential deception. Because the Moral
Majority/Christian Right dominates the Republican party as never before, it seems like we have lost the luxury of
picking out the best candidate and now can only chose the one that won't harm us and has a chance of helping
us--a Democrat.

As I mentioned before, when we look at the topic of this class, it is impossible to tease out the ideological from
the political and it is perhaps irresponsible to do so in this case. I was on the panel discussion and I was very
aware that we were being presented as samples of a contested identity. As a result, I was very careful to put
forth an honest image that emphasized the realistic and positive side of the process, breaking as many
stereotypes as possible. When I saw the gender panel and Brian talked so much suicide and self-hatred, I felt
like "Oh, my god, we have been caught with our pants down--here is another and powerful example that will
reinforce the stereotype of the tortured queer person who wants nothing other than to be "normal" and would
rather die than be queer." That paints us in a very unflattering light.

Also, it did not match my complete joy when I first self realized that I was gay. Prior to that realization, I never
had any feelings of self hate. What bothered me the most about Brian was that I got the impression that if
surgery was low risk, he would jump at the chance to become a heterosexual man and be happy for the rest of
his life. Well, if there was a pill or surgery to "cure" homosexuality, I would never take it. I like being gay and I
have always thought of it as good. That doesn't mean that I discount or deny the real personal and spiritual
struggles that go on out there. WAIT. The point is that this is an example of Realpolitik like the essentialist base
and then constructionalist agitation that JP was advocating. I wanted to put forth the best presentation to have
the given effect of informing the audience and not simply reinforcing stereotypes. My close friends know that I
sometimes get "tired of being gay," but if I were to mention that in my brief 10 minutes it might come across as a
dominant part of my identity, like for straights when they sometimes swear off the opposite sex for a while. If
they were to present heterosexuality in a limited context and discuss that the wrong impression might be

The point is that I am strong believer in Realpolitik and think that the
nature/nurture-essentialist/constructionist-ideological/political-principled/pragmatic dilemma is indeed a tough
one. My purpose was to expand on this issue and to present both sides. As a gay man, my identity is always
being contested by others and as such it is under self scrutiny more often than if I was heterosexual and
therefore I care a great deal about the right answer to this dilemma. If anyone has any comments after reading
this really long post, please post.

Thank you all very much for your time.


Follow Ups:

     Re: Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism JP 10:38:09 2/26/99 (0)

Posted by JP on February 26, 1999 at 10:38:09:

In Reply to: Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism posted by Justin on February 25, 1999 at 22:40:29:

I am very impressed with the passion with witch you wrote your article.
I know that there are so many different twists to the debate over sexuality,
ideology and politics that as you said incremental change is the only way
we as queer individuals can make a difference. The debate lies in how to
make those incremental changes. As I have thought more about the essentialist
constructionist "debate" I have found that constructionism could possibly be
a powerful weapon in our fight. Although I still struggle with the idea of
my sexual identity being socially constructed (I do realize that there are
different levels of social constructionism), I do see its positive nature.

After reviewing several hate sites on the internet, I realized how these
groups used essentialism to order sexuality in a way that made homosexuals
deviant. I realized that sexual identities to these groups and the dominant
ideology of deviance in which they imbrance controled their thoughts and
their actions. As a gay male, mainly closeted I had never truely experienced
hate first hand. By reading through the various hate sites I realized just how
hateful people can be. I often wonder (given the ordered nature of our society)
what people who have known me for a long time will think when I finally come
out to them. I still struggle with the idea of rejection, and I have come
to realize that it is an overarching essentialized way of thinking that
perpetuates this feeling. This class through its socialogical way of seeing
the world has helped me to see the importance in "coming out" to key individuals
to slowly, incrementally break down deviant stigma attached to homosexuality,
even if it means doing it one person at a time.

Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism
Posted by GM on February 15, 1999 at 00:56:14:

In Reply to: Constructionism vs. Essentialism posted by JP on February 08, 1999 at 21:58:51:

I don't think McIntosh is trying to argue for the cause of homosexuality.
She simply changes the question of research. Whereas studies during her time
assume homosexuality is a pathology and try to find the cause of it, be that
by biological explanation or psychological explanation, she is saying the
question of etiology doesn't get at the issue of SOCIAL inequality and
social control. Instead, we should look at how homosexuals play a role in
society. They serve as "deviants" to keep the rest of us in heterosexual

Another point I want to address is what was mentioned quickly in class. If we
use a biological argument to fight for queer rights, it does not guarantee
that we would get this. Remember the power that be could use this against us
and say that this biological fact is a genetic defect. Gay babies should be
aborted just like inferior races should be subjugated to slavery or
extermination. As well, the Catholic Church may accept that gay individuals are
born that way, but it would not accept them to practice such a "lifestyle" that
is still considered an abomination to God.

So, in that way, I think a critical and constructionist approach offers a
better way of understanding the social construction of "homosexuality" --
practices (legal, religious, normative, "scientific") that makes it deviant
or not -- and its link to issues of social inequality. It has little to offer
on question of the CAUSE(s) of homosexual individuals.

What do you think?

Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism
Posted by Sandra on February 13, 1999 at 19:49:42:

In Reply to: Constructionism vs. Essentialism posted by JP on February 08, 1999 at 21:58:51:

I think that I,too, agree to some extent with the Essentialist point of
view, but cannot ignore some of the Constructions' arguements.

For example, where were gay people in the past? There is no evidence of
homosexuals in history, but we cannot deny the presence of same-sex
sexual behaviors. Of course, we know that older Greek men had sexual
relations with young boys, but neither one would label themselves as gay
men today. In fact, the large majority of both the men and boys went on
to have long heterosexual relations. It is only because Greek society
had socially constructed that kind of relationship to exist that we can
see what the relationship truely constisted of.

In late 19th cent./early 20th America, many women had very close,
passionate relationships with other women, but no one in society at that
time considered it a "queer" relationship because society at that time
sex-segregated social spheres where men and women rarely interacted with
each other. It was expected, then, that the women develop extremely
close bonds with each other. By reading letters from that time, we can
clearly see that these women were truely in love with each other, but
we'll never know whether or not they consummated that love. Their
relationships were not considered queer or deviant by 19th century
standards, but I'm sure they would be considered that today.

I don't know whether or not a biological reason for sexual orientation
is exactly what we should want. If that were found out to be the true,
don't you think that the dominant "hetero" anti-queer world would then
label queers as mutants or geneticly inferior or deviant to them? I think
that this is a very slippery slope that we should reconsider even
attemping to climb.

Re: Constructionism vs. Essentialism

Posted by Jenn on February 10, 1999 at 17:36:09:

In Reply to: Constructionism vs. Essentialism posted by JP on February 08, 1999 at 21:58:51:

I agree with you. I think that being gay is biological. I have heard many
gay people (some being friends) say that if it was a choice (as some believe)
that they would chose not to be gay. They say it would be so much easier
for them, because of all the ignorent close-minded people ot there who have
nothing but negative things to say about them.
I am not sure if this is the kind of answer you were looking for, but I
just wanted to say that I agree with it being biological.

The Constructionist Confusion

Posted by Sandra on February 07, 1999 at 15:55:34:

I just wanted to tell anyone who is still confused about constructionsim, I
read an article last quarter by John D'Emilio about Capitalism and the Gay
Movement and it was a very good article that clearly explained how he thinks
there came to be homosexuality as we know it today. If anyone wants the
specifics (i.e, title, date, etc.)I can get that for you.

Follow Ups:

     Re: The Constructionist Confusion Sandra 21:43:04 2/12/99 (0)

Re: The Constructionist Confusion

Posted by Sandra on February 12, 1999 at 21:43:04:

In Reply to: The Constructionist Confusion posted by Sandra on February 07, 1999 at 15:55:34:

I would like to know about the article, if possible.

Is there really a debate?

Posted by Melissa on February 05, 1999 at 22:37:01:

The theme of week three is the Constructionist debate. My question is does
such a debate really exist?

Whitam states that labeling is not what creates homosexuality(p.81). People
just know they are gay even if they don't have any connection to the gay
subculture. At the same time McIntosh seems to be making the same point.
People like William Shakespeare, Pope Jullian II, and Edward II may have
been homosexual eventhough homosexuality was not clearly defined. Therefore,
isn't McIntosh saying that it isn't labeling which creates homosexuality.
These men may have been homosexual without the presence of a gay subculture.

If anyone is still reading, I would really appreciate some further insight.
I don't see the debate to clearly.

Follow Ups:

     Re: Is there really a debate? Emily 14:08:53 2/06/99 (2)
          Re: Re: Is there really a debate? Samantha 14:23:15 2/10/99 (0)

Re: Is there really a debate?

Posted by Emily on February 06, 1999 at 14:08:53:

In Reply to: Is there really a debate? posted by Melissa on February 05, 1999 at 22:37:01:

Here's my take on the whole McIntosh and Whitam debate. I don't totally understand it either but this is what I
got from the reading and from discussion.

I think McIntosh is saying that the homosexual subculture came first and that in turn created homosexuality. She
talks about how the role of the homosexual was created in England through homosexuals clubs and brothels and
other types of culture. I think she is saying that through these mediums, homosexuality is socially constructed
because homosexuals have certain roles and expectations in society and through these, they behave a certain
way. With this role, we have certain ideas and stereotypes and meanings that we put on the homosexual. She is
saying that homosexuality is socially created because of the institutions and homosexual subculture that occurs in
our society which define homosexuality because the role of the homosexual is to react to these certain
institutions or ideas that are placed by society.

On the other hand, Whitam seems to be saying that homosexuality is not a role or a condition but rather a social
orienation. He is taking the essentialist view by saying that society is not the factor in homosexuality and that the
homosexual subculture does not define homosexuality. Rather he is saying that homosexuality is natural and that
children feel homosexual feelings and thoughts even before they know what a homosexual is or anything about
homosexuality. Also, he feels that a person can have a homosexual orientation without being involved in the
homosexual subculture. He believes that there is no homosexual role because he does not think that anyone
would choose the role because this world is predominantly heterosexual, and also the homosexual subculture is
mostly suppressed and not seen by the mainstream society, so since there is not an apparent homosexual
subculture, there will be no role for the homosexual to be defined by societal institutions.

So, basically, to me, McIntosh's take on this debate is that she is a social constructionist and that she feels that
homosexuals are playing a role and reacting to the subculture of the homosexual while Whitam is saying that
homosexuality is natural and that homosexuality is not a role because people feel homosexual thoughts before
they know what a homosexual is or their role is.

Anyway, feel free to reply back and correct me or anything like that because I'm sure I may have interpreted
this incorrectly. Thanks.\


Follow Ups:

     Re: Re: Is there really a debate? Samantha 14:23:15 2/10/99 (0)

Re: Re: Is there really a debate?

Posted by Samantha on February 10, 1999 at 14:23:15:

In Reply to: Re: Is there really a debate? posted by Emily on February 06, 1999 at 14:08:53:


I think you interpertation of the debate is correct, but I think that this is less of a debate than we are led to
believe. That is where my confusion lies. Whitam is concentrating on the feelings of the homosexual. That they
are essentially homosexual in their feelings, internally, from birth, and I think that that is a valid point. But I feel
McIntosh is dealing more with the social lable, the word "homosexual" and its connotations within society. That
homosexuals are just as socially constructed a behavior as being female is. We are all learned from birth how
one gender "should" act, but not all people in that gender "act" that way. We have tomboys and female
athleates, when women were always told to behave and not play like boys. And even within the socially
constructed ideas of a "lesbian" there are those that don't behave like others, yet they are all labeled the same.
Their only true similarity is that they are all women who like other women. They don't all listen to Tori Amos, or
go to Lilith Fair, or wear Cargo pants (thanks Tascha). They are all essentially (gays too) people who like
members of the same sex, but they are put into socially constructed titles inwhich they all do not operate. This is
why I don't fully understand where the argument lies. Both theorists are supporting different things.

In my opinion of course.

Last updated 3-18-99,  by, Laura Herrada , Copyright by UC Regents