[This article appeared in the Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 24, Numbers 3/4 (1993). It is a talk I delivered at an international conference — Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality — which was held in December 1987 at the Free University in Amsterdam.]

Political-Economic Construction
of Gay Male Identities

by John Lauritsen

John Lauritsen, A.B. Harvard 1963, is a survey research analyst. His books include Poison By Prescription: The AZT Story (New York 1990) The AIDS War (New York 1993) and (co-author) The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (New York 1974). e-mail: john_lauritsen at post.harvard.edu

Social Construction is an ill-defined approach, lacking in specificity and poorly suited for solving problems of the real world. A concrete analysis of negative aspects of the Gay Clone Lifestyle, with a particular focus upon the premier gay clone drug, “poppers” (or nitrite inhalants), is contrasted to the desultory verbalizing characteristic of most social constructionist writing. The central point: Many features of the gay clone lifestyle were not created by or in the interests of gay men at all, but rather were economically constructed. The gay subculture largely evolved according to the profit-logic of an expanding sex industry.

    Over a dozen years ago, the sidewalks of my neighborhood, New York City's Lower East Side, were spray painted with the slogan, “CLONES GO HOME!”. This was not an act of antigay bigotry. Gay men themselves had done the spray painting. Living in the Lower East Side — New York's traditional “melting pot” — these men had a way of life they wished to preserve from the encroachment of the “Gay Clone” lifestyle. [1]
    Gay Lower East Siders considered themselves part of a diverse and vital community. They looked upon the newly emerging Gay Clone lifestyle as the product of a ghettoized mentality, an embodiment of commercialism, conformism, and vacuity. Living in a tough neighborhood, they were not impressed by leather queans with expensive wardrobes, nor by ersatz cowboys, nor by make-believe lumberjacks. They despised disco as an uninteresting species of sub-music, referring to it as “Mafia Muzak”.
    Nevertheless, the clone lifestyle came to prevail all over the world, so that an entire generation of gay men defined their own identities in terms of adherence to clonism: little mustaches; very short haircuts; plaid flannel shirts, boots, denim or leather jackets; a particular repertoire of movements, sounds, facial expressions, drug taking, and sexual practices. By the mid-70s there was a phrase in Frankfurt, “ein falscher Amerikaner” (“a fake American”), to describe a German gay man who had adopted the lifestyle of the American clone.
    At present, the clone lifestyle seems to be on the way out, though no doubt there are those who will carry it with them, as their identity, to the very end.
    The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of social construction theory for understanding the clone episode in gay male history. I am particularly interested in the issues of continuity and specificity.

 My Approach: An Interdisciplinary Focus on Male Love
    From my own academic training I favor an interdisciplinary approach, and regard intellectual compartmentalization, or an excessive attachment to any particular schema or dichotomy, as a sign of provincialism. Every gay scholar has the right and the obligation to define the scope of his or her inquiries, and my choice has been to focus upon all-male relationships. Benedict Friedlaender (1904) asserted that love, sex and friendship were different aspects of one and the same phenomenon, for which he used such terms as “Uranian Eros”, “Platonic Love” and “male-male love”. I agree. My preferred term is “male love”, whose linguistic heritage goes back to classical antiquity.

Basics of Social Construction
    Social constructionists have devoted much analysis to conceptual changes that occurred in the latter part of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1870s, medical thinkers grouped both all-male relationships and all-female relationships under a single rubric: “homosexuality”. [2]  This new term denoted a presumably abnormal condition of being attracted to one's own sex, not being attracted to the opposite sex, or both. Sometimes this was confounded by additional psychological or physiological issues (“masculinity”, etc.). Corresponding substantives such as “the homosexual”, “a homosexual”, “homosexuals” referred to individuals who were defined by their homosexuality, who were set apart as “different from others”. Social constructionists correctly criticize these 19th century notions for assuming that “homosexuals” in the medically-constructed sense had always existed, that these labels reflected universal truths about human sexuality.
    In historical perspective, these 19th century medical views were based upon false premises. It is a pity that social constructionists seldom go back much further than the 19th century, for historical evidence is still the most powerful refutation of medical constructionist (or essentialist) fallacies. On the one hand, the great civilizations of classical antiquity had no categorical condemnation of same-sex eroticism. Male love occupied a place of honor in ancient Greece. On the other hand, the condemnation of sex between males is “theologically constructed”. Roughly 2500 years ago, the Levites, the priestly class in Judea, formulated a taboo on all-male sex, as part of their Holiness Code. This taboo, carried forward by Jew and Christian alike, evolved into the concepts of sin, crime (sodomy), sickness, and deviance.
    The above argument is not new. John Addington Symonds a century ago rebutted 19th century medical views by asserting the antiquity and nobility of “masculine love” and placing the blame for unhappiness upon the circumstances surrounding the “type of passion” in modern times:

What has to be faced is that a certain type of passion flourished under the light of day and bore good fruits for society in Hellas; that the same type of passion flourishes in the shade and is the source of misery and shame in Europe. The passion has not altered; but the way of regarding it morally and legally is changed. (Symonds 1983) 

    Criticisms of the use of the word “homosexual” as a substantive — a noun describing a type of person, rather than an adjective describing a type of activity — are not new either. Among others, such criticisms were made effectively by Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953) and by Wainwright Churchill:

Whatever convenience there may be in the habitual use of this word as a substantive is offset by the confusion and abuse to which such a habit inevitably leads. Talk about the “homosexual” encourages generalizations that usually cannot be substantiated by reality, and one is never sure to whom this substantive really refers. (Churchill 1967)

    Regrettably, the social constructionists, having perceived the fallacies inherent in the terms “homosexuality” and “homosexuals”, frequently use them without qualification as if they were oblivious to their own analyses. [3]

Problem Areas in Social Construction
    In the long run, social construction will be judged according to its accomplishments: whether it leads to the acquisition of specific historical or other information, or whether it increases our understanding of the information we already have. Compared to the formidable scholarly achievements during the first decade (1897-1907) of the homosexual rights movement in Germany (as documented in the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen), the record of the social constructionists has not been very weighty. (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1974)
    Social construction seems to languish in a bog of desultory verbalism, withdrawn from practical endeavors. It too often falls into what C. Wright Mills termed “Grand Theory” — “an elaborate and arid formalism in which the splitting of Concepts and their endless rearrangement becomes the central endeavor.”  According to Mills, both “Grand Theory” and its counterpart, “Abstracted Empiricism”, are abdications of classical social science, which lead away from the solution of concrete problems:

As practices, they may be understood as insuring that we do not learn too much about man and society —the first [Grand Theory] by formal and cloudy obscurantism, the second [Abstracted Empiricism] by formal and empty ingenuity. (Mills 1959)

    There is nothing profound in the dichotomy: “essentialism-constructionism”. “Social construction” is ill-defined, and I'm sure many of us would be grateful if the proponents of social construction could provide us with a clear and concise definition of their concept. The meaning of “essentialism” is not clear, and I cannot help expecting its opposite to be “existentialism”, the murky philosophy that was fashionable in the 1950s. In recent polemics, feminists have attacked “essentialism” in the same ways they attacked “nature” or “biology”, and I suspect they regard these words as more or less synonymous. Behind the “essentialism-constructionism” opposition I sense the ghosts of earlier dichotomies (
“heredity-environment”, “nature-nurture”, ). If this is the case, then the attack on “essentialism” is naive, for nearly all human phenomena result from an interaction of both heredity and environment.
    If the attack on essentialism means simply a rejection of transhistorical “universals”, then rejecting essentialism is simply affirming the millennia-old dictum of materialist philosophy: “The only absolute is change itself.”  However, I don't think this is what social constructionists have in mind. [4]
    The question of “continuity” is raised, with essentialism apparently implying a maximum of historical continuity, and constructionism, a minimum. This echoes the nature-nurture dichotomy. Here I would argue for specificity. If we consider male love as a phenomenon, as a type of experience, or as a “type of passion”, then it is as old as humanity. The heritage of male love, its traditions and literature, is ancient. Male love may have manifested itself differently and been received differently from one society to another, but it is real, not just a socially constructed concept. [5]  In addition, I am convinced that the erotic attraction of human males for each other is biologically inherent, and therefore, a product of evolution. But that is another topic.         One might expect social construction, with its roots in labelling theory, to be useful in understanding how individuals define themselves and are defined by others as being “gay”, and in understanding how a gay subculture develops. Here again is a need for historical specificity. Some aspects of the gay male subculture — certain words, gestures, rituals, even certain meeting places — may be centuries old. Other things, like the clone mustache or disco, are recent and presumably ephemeral.

The Gay Clone Lifestyle (1974-1982)
    It may be generally agreed that the gay clone lifestyle came into being and flourished in the years following the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and that it began to wither during the troubles of the 1980s. The above dates are admittedly arbitrary. 1974 is the year that poppers and disco became common features of the gay male lifestyle; 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) formulated its first surveillance definition for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
    In his thoughtful essay, “Male dominance and the gay world” (Plummer 1981), Gregg Blachford identifies the Leitmotiv of the clone lifestyle as a “celebration of masculinity”. Sometimes Blachford gives the impression that gay men are voluntarily constructing a culture to meet their own needs and desires. At the same time, he emphasizes a dilemma in which: “The sub-culture itself, through its own actions, cannot alleviate the conditions that led to these problems.” (Plummer 1981)
    I shall argue that many features of the gay clone lifestyle were not created by or in the interests of gay men at all, but rather were economically constructed, that the gay subculture largely evolved according to the profit-logic of an expanding sex industry.
    Gay men who came out in the 1970s encountered a subculture that seemed almost too good to be true. Neophyte clones became avid consumers of “gay” clothes, grooming styles, music, and drugs. Forming their new gay identities and relating to each other largely on the basis of these things, they embraced a lifestyle of “commodity fetishism” with its inherent alienation.
    To be sure, the creation of the clone lifestyle was a complicated process and not all aspects of clonism stemmed directly from business interests. Shirt manufacturers had no vested interest in plaids versus stripes, and barbers made no more money from cutting hair short, rather than long or in-between. And most clones took care of their little mustaches all by themselves. However, a case could be made that the clone look was itself a commodity — that, for example, the dress codes, of the legendary Mine Shaft or the more fashionable discos, were essential features of what was being purveyed by these establishments.
    Sexuality itself became reified. Sex was reduced to frenetically fleeting encounters in baths or back rooms. In the latter environment, sexual partners were not even seen, let alone confronted as complete human beings. Some clones came to define their sexual identity in terms of an unseemly repertoire of acts — without learning the ABC's of making love, they became adepts at performing skin piercing, “tit jobs”. “rimming”, enemas, “golden showers” and “scat”, and other such acts which they had been taught by hard-core porn or S&M/leather publications. [6] 
    With the appearance of AIDS in the 1980s, the euphoria of the previous decade dissipated, and it became urgently necessary to determine whether the gay male lifestyle, either in whole or in part, might be toxic.

The Immunosuppressive Lifestyle
    Viewed without rose-colored spectacles, the clone subculture was in many ways an Immunosuppressive Lifestyle. With the gay bar as the primary meeting place, some men became alcoholics. Excessively loud barroom jukeboxes prevented socializing through the oldest of barroom diversions, conversation. At gay discos, regular and prolonged exposure to pain-threshold noise posed serious health hazards (stress, immunosuppression, and premature deafness). Promiscuity led to frequent infection and re-infection with a wide spectrum of venereal diseases, including syphilis, gonorrhea, amoebiasis, chlamydia, hepatitis, CMV, etc. Not only were frequent treatments with antibiotics necessary, but some men began taking them prophylactically: they would swallow a handful before going to the baths. [7]  Inadequate sleep, malnutrition; and feelings of alienation, loneliness, and low self-esteem were concomitants of the lifestyle.
    Epidemiological studies have indicated that virtually all of the gay male AIDS patients were regular and heavy users of such “recreational” drugs as the nitrite inhalants (“poppers”), marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, LSD, quaaludes, ethyl chloride, barbiturates, MDA, Eve, Ecstasy, and heroin. In one study, 58% of the gay male AIDS cases used five or more different “street drugs”. (Lauritsen 1990)  With the possible exception of marijuana, all of these drugs are known to be dangerous. [8]

Poppers: The Premier Gay Drug
    The poppers industry represents an extreme case in which the gay male subculture was constructed according to profit-logic, rather than the needs of gay men. (Lauritsen and Wilson 1986)
    Almost all gay men, but few other people, know what poppers are: little bottles containing a liquid mixture of isobutyl nitrite and other chemicals. When inhaled just before orgasm, poppers seem to enhance and prolong the sensation. When used by the passive partner in anal intercourse, poppers facilitate things by relaxing the smooth muscle of the rectum and the sphincter muscle, deadening the sense of pain. With regular use poppers become a sexual crutch. Some gay men are unable to have sex, even with themselves, without the aid of poppers.
    The original poppers were little glass ampules enclosed in mesh, which were “popped” under the nose and inhaled. They contained amyl nitrite manufactured by a pharmaceutical company and were intended for emergency relief of angina pectoris, a heart condition afflicting mostly elderly people. Amyl nitrite was a controlled substance until 1960 when the prescription requirement was eliminated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). From 1961 to 1969 some gay men, especially those who were into S&M, began using amyl nitrite as a “recreational” drug. At the request of the pharmaceutical industry, the prescription requirement was reinstated by the FDA in 1969.
    In 1970 a new industry stepped into the breach, marketing commercial brands of butyl and isobutyl nitrite. By 1974 the poppers craze was in full swing and by 1977 poppers were in every corner of gay life.
    At its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest money-maker in the gay business world, grossing upwards of $50 million per year. Gay publications were delighted to run full-page, four-color ads for the various brands of poppers, with revenues running into many tens of thousands of dollars. One poppers manufacturer boasted he was the “largest advertiser in the Gay press”.
    Every time a gay man picked up a gay publication he was confronted with vivid ads persuading him that the act of inhaling noxious chemical fumes was butch and sexy, an essential ingredient in the “celebration of masculinity”. [9]  One brand, Rush, had a brilliant red and yellow label which was so distinctive that a successful gay political candidate in San Francisco used the color scheme on his campaign posters as a subliminal reinforcement.
    Accessories were marketed: for leather queans there were little metal inhalers on leather thongs, a proper part of an evening's wardrobe. One magazine had a comic strip entitled “Poppers”: its hero, Billy, is a child-like but sexy blond who just simply loves sex and poppers.
    In 1981 Hank Wilson, a gay activist in San Francisco, noticed that many of his popper-using friends were developing swollen lymph nodes. After reading medical literature on the nitrite inhalants, which was extensive even then, he founded the Committee to Monitor Poppers.
    In 1983, after reviewing the literature on AIDS, I realized that environmental factors necessarily had to be responsible for the syndrome's being compartmentalized and that poppers were high on the list of suspects. I contacted Hank Wilson and we started collaborating. Since we have written a book on poppers (Lauritsen and Wilson 1986) I will give only the barest summary here:
    Poppers are hazardous to the health in many different ways. They are immunosuppressive, reduce the ability of blood to carry oxygen, cause anemia (Heinz body hemolytic anemia and methemoglobinemia), cause cellular changes, are mutagenic (i.e., damage chromosomes), and have the potential to cause cancer by producing deadly N-nitroso compounds.    
    There are strong epidemiological links between the use of poppers and the development of AIDS, especially Kaposi's sarcoma. Obviously poppers are not the cause of AIDS. But, in light of their toxic effects, they are likely to be a major co-factor.

Whose Gay Community? Cui Bono? 
    Often we speak of the “gay community”, the “gay press”, etc., as though it were self-evident that it is to us, gay people, that these things belong. But maybe not. I have talked to gay men who were incredulous when I described the known toxicity of poppers. They were sure that if poppers were really harmful they would have read about it in the gay press. How naive they were!  Beginning in 1981 Hank Wilson regularly sent out packets of medical reports to the gay press. These were ignored. In 1982 a research scientist sent a letter to The Advocate. She urged the editor to publish it so gay men would know that “persons using nitrite inhalants may be at risk for development of AIDS.”  She was informed, “We're not interested.”  In 1983, at the request of a poppers manufacturer, The Advocate ran a series of advertisements (“Blueprint For Health”) which falsely claimed that government studies had exonerated poppers from any connection to AIDS. (Lauritsen and Wilson 1986)  For some of the gay press advertising dollars were more important than the lives of gay men.
    Although poppers are now illegal in the U.S. they are easily obtained on the black market. Articles claiming that the ban on poppers is a denial of civil liberties, and that the drug is really innocuous, have recently appeared in the gay press.
    More could be said about poppers, but the point is made: to a large extent the “gay community” is constructed around profits, not the welfare of gay men.

Political Construction
    One might also analyze how the gay male subculture is politically constructed. On one level politics and economics are intertwined. Politics is money and the poppers industry knows how to use its political “influence”. The FDA and other government agencies have accepted the ridiculous claim that poppers are a “room odorizer” rather than a drug. The poppers industry, which has a full-time lobbyist in Washington, has demonstrated in practice that it can “influence” academics, gay leaders, gay doctors, state representatives, and even a U.S. senator.
    On another level, it is noteworthy that, during the present health crisis nearly all of the gay press and AIDS groups in the U.S. have followed the government's lead. No critical thinker would believe what the U.S. government says about Southeast Asia, South America, Grenada, or the Middle East. Yet the gay press, with the notable exception of the New York Native, have endorsed the Public Health Service's untenable etiological hypotheses, [10] its statistical prevarications, its incompetent epidemiological research, its hysteria-mongering, and now its unconscionable promotion of AZT, a toxic drug which causes cancer and destroys bone marrow, whose alleged benefits derive from incompetent and/or dishonest research, and whose speedy approval resulted from improper and illegal collusion between its manufacturer and branches of the U.S. Public Health Service. (Lauritsen 1990)

Summing Up
    The best intellectual approach at this point is one that will enable us to buckle down to the tasks at hand, for there is a lot to be done. We are living in a time of crisis, fighting a war on many fronts against unrecognized enemies. The outcome is uncertain. If we survive, we shall have to do a ruthlessly honest reappraisal of our environment, our identities, and the ways that we live.

    #    #    #


1. Two groups were responsible for the spray painting: Faggots Against Gays (FAG) and Faggots Against Facial Hair (FAFH).

2. In historical perspective, the forced grouping together of gay men and lesbians is questionable, a consequence of the “social construction of the homosexual”. As men, gay men have more in common with all men, gay or straight, than with women, lesbian or otherwise. At any rate, the concept “straight man” is extremely problematical and deserving of close analytical scrutiny.
     Further, a case could be made that gay men have more in common with women who love men, as they do, than with women who do not. Gay men must fight to reclaim the right to be fathers of families, as well as to experience and practise male love — to be full male human beings, as the men of ancient Greece were. Their need is for women who will love them and bear their children, not women who reject them.

3. Observe, for example, the wildly indiscriminate uses of these words in the social constructionist bible, Making of the Modern Homosexual (Plummer 1981)

4. It is not essentialism, but rather constructionism (obsessed with nebulous concepts of consciousness, identities, lifestyles, etc.) that tends to the idealist end of the philosophical spectrum. In contrast, a materialist approach would concentrate upon more fundamental and specific phenomena: practice, the concrete circumstances in which gay men find themselves, the political and economic underpinnings of those circumstances.

5. John Boswell (1982) has provided an intelligent analysis of the essentialism-constructionism (or “realism-nominalism” debate.

6.Totalitarian tolerance seems to be a tenet of clonism. In 1983, during a meeting of the New York Safer Sex Committee at which scatology and “golden showers” were being discussed, I commented, “A civilized human being does not repudiate his childhood toilet training.”  I was immediately rebuked and told that I had no right to be judgmental towards another's lifestyle.

7. One New York City bath house (now closed) sold black market tetracycline on the second floor, along with “recreational drugs” of all kinds.

8. In New York City the main gay discos and bathhouses were, among other things, drug distribution centers.

9. Two muscular guys, leaning against gasoline pumps, are lecherously looking over a third guy, also very muscular and stripped to the waist, who is on a motorcycle. The caption says: “New from the makers of RUSH. HEAVY DUTY BOLT LIQUID INCENSE.”

10. The HIV-AIDS hypothesis has been elegantly and powerfully refuted by the eminent molecular biologist, Peter Duesberg (Duesberg 1989, 1990; Duesberg and Ellison 1990).


CHURCHILL, W. (1967), Homosexual Behavior Among Males: A Cross-Cultural and Cross-Species Investigation, New York: Hawthorne.

DUESBERG, P. (1989), “Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome: Correlation But Not Causation”, Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, Vol. 86, February 1989.

DUESBERG, P. (1990), “AIDS: Non-Infectious Deficiencies Acquired By Drug Consumption And Other Risk Factors”, Research in Immunology, Vol. 141.

DUESBERG, P. and ELLISON, B., “Is the AIDS Virus a Science Fiction?”,
Policy Review, Summer 1990. (Followed by intense and voluminous correspondence in the Fall 1990 issue.)

FRIEDLAENDER, B. (1904), Renaissance des Eros Uranios: Die physiologische Freundschaft, ein normaler Grundtrieb des Menschen und eine Frage der männlichen Gesellungsfreiheit, Schmargendorf-Berlin: Renaissance (Otto Lehmann); reprint 1975, New York: Arno.

KINSEY, A.C. et al. (1948), Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

KINSEY, A.C. et al. (1953), Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

LAURITSEN, J. (1990), Poison By Prescription: The AZT Story, New York, Pagan.

LAURITSEN, J. (1990), The AIDS War, New York, Pagan.

LAURITSEN, J. and THORSTAD, D. (1974), The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), New York, Times Change.

LAURITSEN, J. and WILSON, H. (1986), Death Rush: Poppers & AIDS, New York: Pagan.

MILLS, C.W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford.

PLUMMER, K., editor (1981), The Making of the Modern Homosexual, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble.

SYMONDS, J.A. (1983), Male Love: A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings, New York: Pagan.

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