Mary McIntosh recently passed, and it allowed me to reflect on the significance of her work. Her work is part of a small body of scholarship that quite literally created a sociology of sexuality. It’s hard for scholars of my generation to fully appreciate the power of Mary McIntosh’s (1968) opening sentence in the abstract of her article, “The Homosexual Role.”
The current conceptualization of homosexuality as a condition is a false one, resulting from ethnocentric bias. (McIntosh 1968: 182)
Like many of the early attempts by both gender and sexuality scholars recognizing problems with a structural-functionalist approach, McIntosh operates inside of functionalist theory. McIntosh wrote this essay during a time in which if homosexuality was taught at all in sociology courses, it appeared in courses on deviance. McIntosh’s work was a small—but pivotal—example of the kinds of work that have helped to question it’s categorization as “deviant” in the first place. Today, students are just as likely to deal with questions of same-sex desire and identity in sociology of families, courses on race and ethnicity, gender, identity, and inequalities more generally. Sexuality is a topic that appears in introductory textbooks as well.
In “The Homosexual Role,” McIntosh sociologically challenges the notion that homosexuality is best understood as a psychological or biological condition. She aptly notes that one implication of this approach was that “people either have it or do not have it” (182). In fact, McIntosh illustrates the ways that treating sexuality as an “it” in the first place is a dangerous game, obscuring important facts and questions. Thinking of homosexuality as a role, she argued, allowed us to examine precisely when and where it came into existence (along with where it didn’t). It allows us to consider the fact that sexual behaviors and identities are not always as neatly aligned as some like to assume. It enabled us to illustrate the ways that the very labeling of homosexuality was, in fact, part of the process through which “it” became understood as deviant in the first place.
McIntosh challenged the social labeling of groups of gay men and lesbians as “deviant,” and argued that this process was part of an enduring system of social control. It was part of a process through which socially acceptable behavior was prescribed. But it also helped to segregate those “deviants” from “the rest of us” as though “we” were—in some extremely important way—different from “them.”
Through her conceptualization of homosexuality as a “role” rather than a “condition” or “type of person,” McIntosh helped to forge a sociological conversation about sexuality. It was insights like this that formed the foundations upon which scholarship was able to craft a social constructivist theory of sexualities. It led us to understand sexualities as social identities and practices, which increasingly led to a search for understanding the social origins of sexual desires as well as the forms they take.
I never met Professor McIntosh, but I will add my voice to the choir in recognizing her accomplishments (see Ken Plummer’s post as well). Our lives are forever enriched for having considered her ideas and for taking on the challenges she posed to a field that did not yet exist when she started writing. It can be difficult to fully appreciate the impact of McIntosh’s work precisely because of how effective it was at producing change. As she put it, “[I]t is not until [we see] homosexuals as a social category, rather than a medical or psychiatric one, that the sociologist can begin to ask the right questions…” (192).
“social origins of sexual desires” still amazed at the insularity of certain sub-disciplines of sociology, where dogmatic adherence to ideology and theories of the past continue to shape and distort the present. Macintosh was by all accounts a wonderful person whose theories about homosexuality were a bit more enlightened than the the psychoanalysts but by denying any psychological or biological influence on sexual identity and focusing solely social forces, she was merely substituting one bad theory for another. Labeling theory denies agency and subjectivity and renders sexuality as a solely a reaction to the prejudices of others. It is also fails empirical validation when applied to individuals – desires arise extremely early in development long before stigma could be a significant factor. Biological determinism is a dirty word in some parts of sociology but social or cultural determinism is just as reductionist and lacks any empirical support.