Homosexuality and the Social Sciences

“AT THE FRONTIER,” a two-day conference on “Homosexuality and the Social Sciences” took place in the The Graduate Center, CUNY Auditorium on December 2nd and 3rd. It occurred two years after the conference on

Homosexuality and the Brain” and a year after the conference on “Crossing Identifications.” These three conferences together demonstrate CLAGS’s commitment to the discussion of theoretical issues in the study of homosexual behavior from the various perspectives of biology, culture, and the social sciences, and are intended to complement two previous CLAGS programs on homosexuality in the arts.

“At the Frontier” — organized by CLAGS Board member, Randolph Trumbach and funded by a generous grant from The New York Council for the Humanities — was organized into four panels with 22 participants. The two panels on the first day were organized around the theme of the worldwide differences between age-structured and gender-structured homosexual behavior. The panels on the second day dealt with law and psychology in contemporary American society. Together the panels sought to give the first comprehensive summary of the effect of lesbian and gay scholarship on the content and theory of the social sciences.

After welcoming remarks from Tomas Ybarra-Frausto of The Rockefeller Foundation on the impact of these studies on lesbian and gay consciousness and on gender studies, and a brief overview of the conference by Randolph Trumbach, the first night began with the panel on age-structured homosexual behavior in the ancient Mediterranean world, chaired by Sarah Pomeroy (Hunter, CUNY). Robert Koehl (Hunter, CUNY) dealt with the archaeological evidence from ancient Crete for a system of initatory homosexual behavior.

Keith DeVries (U. of Penn.) reconsidered the evidence from classical Athenian vase painting as to the affective nature of the relations between men and boys, stressing the presence of romance and mutual sexual pleasure. Craig Williams (Brooklyn College, CUNY) dealt with the quite different Roman world and its overriding concern with adult dominance, contrasting Greek and Roman practices. David Halperin (MIT) who served as commentator, was skeptical about both the survival of initiatory homosexuality and the presence of romance in Athens. During the discussion, Pomeroy pointed out that the visual and written evidence were sometimes at variance and raised the question as to whether differences in kinship might explain Greek and Roman variations.

The second panel, chaired by John Gagnon (Stony Brook, SUNY), asked whether third genders existed and what their relationship was to homosexual behavior. Will Roscoe (an independent scholar affiliated with Stanford) considered the Native North American berdache, arguing for multidimensional inventories of traits. Serena Nanda (John Jay, CUNY) pointed out that the Indian hijra was defined in his own culture as a third sex, not a third gender, and wondered how this was related to the contemporary Western category of the homosexual.


Randolph Trumbach (Baruch, CUNY) argued that modern Western lesbian women and gay men fulfilled a role quite similar to that of the berdache and the hijra and that the role was a result of a transition around 1700 from age-structured to gender-structured behavior. Gilbert Herdt (U. of Chicago), as commentator, stressed the analytical worth of distinguishing third sexes from third genders. The papers from this panel are scheduled to appear with six others in March 1994 in a volume edited by Herdt, Third Sex. Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History (Zone Books).

The second day began with a screening of the Academy Award nominated film, “Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker,” directed by Richard Schmiechen and produced by James B. Harrison. The film describes Hooker’s studies and how they forced the re• evaluation of gay men as psychologically “healthy.”

The third panel on law and social justice, chaired by Arthur Leonard (New York Law School), followed with three different approaches to the construction of constitutional rights for lesbians and gay men and an appraisal of the treatment of lesbians in the criminal justice system. David Chang (New York Law School) and Anne B. Goldstein (Western New England School of Law) presented complementary approaches to making a constitutional case on the basis of gender discrimination. David A.J. Richards (NYU Law School), in contrast, proposed a case be made by analogy with freedom of religion and the integrity of the individual. Ruthann Robson (CUNY Law School) dealt with the disproportionate number of lesbians among women criminals.

The final panel, chaired by James B. Harrison (Black Mountain Center), was on the new paradigm in psychology that Hooker’s studies helped to establish. Heino F. L. Meyer-Bah Iburg (College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia) summarized the psychobiological research in the two years since CLAGS’s conference on “The Brain and Homosexuality,” stressing the limited results and the appearance of models that sought to incorporate a social dimenion. Gregory M. Herek (U. of California,Davis) reported that a national American survey showed that contact with known gay men and lesbians marked changed levels of heterosexual acceptance and suggested possible political strategies that flowed from this finding.

Bianca Cody Murphy (Wheaton College) discussed the differences and similarities between lesbian and gay male couples, and between homosexual and heterosexual ones. Beverly Green (St. John’s) discussed the psychological dynamics of African American lesbians and gay men. Charles Silverstein (private practice, NYC) concluded the panel with an overview of the success and failure of the gay psychotherapy movement since 1971, stressing the need for a deeper theoretical perspective and celebrating the achievements of a movement affirming the psychological health of gay men and lesbians.

The entire conference was taped, and an edited version, when completed, will be made available. (Details in the next newsletter).