"Who is a Homosexual?": The Consolidation of Sexual Identities in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Immigration Law

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This essay uses court records to trace the federal government's attempts to regulate homosexuality among immigrants in the mid-twentieth century, asserting that such attempts illustrate the state's struggle to make homosexuality visible, to produce a homosexuality that could be both detected and man-aged. I focus on the process by which two competing paradigms for understanding homosexuality (status and conduct) were consolidated into a single model in which homosexual identity could be deduced from homosexual acts. Federal officials and the courts initially treated homosexuality as a form of conduct, most commonly deporting homosexual aliens for having committed crimes of moral turpitude. Later, these same government entities relied on status provisions, deporting immigrants charged with homosexuality as aliens "afflicted with psychopathic personality." While the "psychopathic personality" terminology supported the notion that the homosexual was a kind of person rather than a set of behaviors, it also depended upon psychiatrists to support the claim that homosexuals were by definition psychopathic. When many psychiatrists distanced themselves from that idea, the government refused psychiatric opinion that differentiated psychopaths from homosexuals by arguing that these terms connoted legal-political rather than medicalized identity categories. While this conception arose out of a conservative impulse by immigration officials and the courts to fix homosexuality as identity so that it could be regulated (by bureaucrats rather than psychiatrists), I argue that the emphasis on legal-political identity categories licensed a conception of the homosexual as a kind of citizen that had some emancipatory as well as repressive effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-386
Number of pages36
JournalLaw and Social Inquiry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences
  • Law


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