Language, Acts, and Identity in LGBT History
Historians of sexuality have long distinguished between those who engaged in same-sex sexual “acts” and those who embraced a gay “identity.” This distinction has various roots, from Foucaultian temporalities to queer of color critiques of the privileging of sexual behaviors over other aspects of life such as race, culture, or ethnicity. The field of transgender studies has generated yet another rupture in this dichotomy, as scholars wrestle to situate a group long ago categorized as “passing women” within a modern lexicon of gender identity and expression. For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, determining the correlation between “act” and “identity” can be nearly impossible, opening the door for vastly differing interpretations. The very language scholars use in crafting such histories simultaneously reveals and constitutes an epistemology of the LGBTQ past, making the subject of this essay one of the most contentious and longstanding debates in the field.