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How the Homosexual Came To Be: A Journey Through Freud

by Akhil Katyal
24 Jul 2009 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Commons

From all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there that changed the pattern
of my actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing-
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.[1]

One of my teachers in Delhi, Udaya Kumar, used to explain the concept of the Freudian unconscious with an image. He used to draw a horizontal white line on the blackboard which was an analogue for the ground. Then making a slight gash in the line, he talked of a burial; burial of things, memories, objects, kingdoms etc., which were all marked by a chalk smudge a little below the line, proverbially to be understood as six feet under. Then, a little unpredictably at first, he rubbed the gash and made the horizontal line continuous as before. In a fairly simple move the unconscious was explained as that which was buried and that whose burial was subsequently forgotten; the chaste continuity of the dividing line reappearing. The unconscious is, as it were, at a remove from us by a burial and a consequent forgetting of that burial, forgetting that such a thing ever took place. The unconscious was, moreover, placed within a vertically arranged spatial schema with an apparent above and a hidden under.

This burial/forgetting-of-burial schema is necessary for the imaginative constitution of the unconscious. The unconscious is in some sense imagined into being through this story of its making. The story is akin to a genesis myth that talks of beginnings which serve to explain what follows. The unconscious is also interiorized by this story; always inside, below, under, it is allocated a specific place within what is undeniably a spatial schema. Spatially inflected language of repression of desires or of wishes being driven underground or behind is frequent in Freud. There is the architectural metaphor of the building: ‘A prominent piece of the dream is to be seen in the phantasy of revenge against her father, which stands out like a facade in front of the rest.’ or that of spatial obstruction of view, ’screened by these thoughts of revenge…’[2]  The example of pearls in oyster shells is not unknown in Freud. The unconscious thereby assumes the role of the vast reservoir, said to contain hidden intentions, repressed memories, unspoken desires. Access to this reservoir is now only accidental or occasional; dreams are explained as an experience of an interface with this something inside us, as an intermittent access to this reservoir. Slips of the tongue give us a clue to the secrets stored inside this space. What could have been difficult to explain as acts of manifest intention now find an explanation from the inside, as it were. Invisible to us and yet internal to us, always controlling our actions and giving a clue of what we might be really thinking, the concept of the unconscious has a seductive explanatory power.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, Freudian psychoanalysis ‘bases its own dictatorial power upon the dictatorial conception of the unconscious’.[3] The unconscious, they argue, is ingeniously located within an ‘arborescent system’ that is a vertically arranged ‘hierarchical system…with centres of significance and subjectification’.[4] An interiorized unconscious placed in an arborescent structure, Deleuze and Guattari explain, becomes the basis of human subject formation in Freud. Primarily to disrupt Freud’s spatial schema for imagining its human subject, Deleuze and Guattari devise the image of the ‘rhizome’, which is a root with tentacles moving unpredictably in all directions. With the ‘rhizome’ they counter the arborescent image of standing trees in Freud, where roots move towards a singularly imagined below. ‘We’re tired of trees … [w]e should stop believing in trees, roots and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much’.[5]

Discursive psychology, in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s observations in Anti-Oedipus[6] and A Thousand Plateaus, ‘argues that phenomena, which traditional psychological theories have treated as “inner processes”, are, in fact, constituted through social, discursive activity. Accordingly, discursive psychologists argue that psychology should be based on the study of this acentered outward activity rather than upon hypothetical, and essentially unobservable, inner states’.[7] Freud, however, built an entire system of thought on these unobservable, inner states. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) he elaborates on the diphasic model of the development of the normal hetero-sexual subject who has to pass through the stages of the Oedipus complex and the castration complex to attain this normal sexual maturity.[8] Freud built an elaborate developmental Oedipal plot of sexual identifications and withdrawals which the growing subject has to undergo vis-à-vis his/her mother and father; this growing human subject is caught in, and his/her sexuality is determined by, this limited Oedipal triad of ‘daddy, mommy and me’.[9] Freud was, however, using traditional sexological categories like heterosexual and homosexual, used by sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing in the preceding century, and providing naturalized developmental plots – Oedipus complex and Castration complex – only for attaining one of these: heterosexuality at the expense of the other. The heterosexual subject was the outcome of this Freudian plot of human subject formation with its imagined oedipal drives. The homosexual subject could only appear as a ’sexual aberration’ within this naturalizing schema, this story that Freud picked up from Sophocles. He or she was the result of the oedipal plot misfiring, or due to a ‘psychic bisexuality’, originary germs of which, Freud muses, could be primordially present inside each one of us and have to be progressively shed to attain normal sexual life. The condition of being homosexual was thus referred back to an inner state of drives, germs, innateness which, we have seen, informs the language and the space of the unconscious.

Based on this, Freud could contend that ‘[t]he sexual life of each one of us extends to a slight degree – now in this direction, now in that – beyond the narrow lines imposed as the standard of normality’[10] but only on the basis of attributing aberrant ‘perversions’ to ‘a development of germs all of which are contained in the undifferentiated sexual disposition of the child, and which by being suppressed or by being diverted…’ could become sources of creative energies for a ‘great number of our cultural achievements’.[11] ‘When, therefore, anyone has become a gross and manifest pervert, it would be more correct to say that he has remained one, for he exhibits a certain stage of inhibited development.’[12] The homosexual subject is here irrevocably interiorized. Whereas the emerging heterosexual subject follows the correct route of development and attains normalcy, the homosexual subject is unable to do so and remains what he primitively was.[13] There are additional instances in Freud which prove that homosexual desire comes to occupy the deepest rung in his spatial model of the unconscious. It is the innermost secret behind a series of screens and facades. Finishing his analysis of Dora’s second dream, Freud’s footnote remarks on her love for Frau K. after having spoken about her phantasy of revenge against her father, of her revenge against Herr K. and thirdly, of her love for him: ‘Finally, we can see the action of the fourth and the most deeply buried group of thoughts – those relating to her love for Frau. K…’[14] or ‘I failed to discover in time and to inform the patient that her homosexual (gynaecophilic) love for Frau K. was the strongest unconscious current in her mental life…I had learnt of the importance of the homosexual current of feeling in psychoneurotics…’.[15] These are the Freudian tales that make possible an interiorized and distinct homosexual subject. In fact the homosexual subject was seen as closer to his own inner, primeval state. Homosexuality (and thereby heterosexuality) became irrevocably a matter of definition of an individual self.

This process would in turn become the primary basis of sexuality-rights movements which would use this distinct psychologised status of the homosexual as grounds for an independent minority identity. Michael Warner notes the implication of gay and lesbian movements in a psychoanalytic vocabulary:

the most rigorous and sophisticated language about sexuality is that of psychoanalysis, queer critics from the heady days of gay liberation onward have developed varieties of psychoanalytic radicalism. They have traced the demands of lesbian and gay liberation to fundamental psychic structures: the preoedipal, innate bisexuality, the exchange of women, reverse oedipalization, the instability of identification.[16]

Within this psychoanalytically inflected idiom, sexuality becomes irrefutably a matter of the self; a way of accessing and defining this self. More specifically, homosexuality poses as the substance of this tiered self par excellence because, as we learned in the case of Dora, it is imagined as its deepest content. ‘Sexuality’, rights activists can now easily contend is about identity, about self respect. This version of sexuality can be easily articulated in a crude and necessary legalese – sexual minorities – the only language the courts seem to understand; sexuality now at once legally articulable and statistically constitutable. Talking about the usage of the concept of sexual orientation within the emergent sexuality-rights movement in late twentieth century/early twenty-first century India, and simultaneously historicizing the conceptual inheritances of this indigenous movement, Akshay Khanna notes that sexual orientation postures as a condition of the person which makes him desire people of a particular sex, a condition ‘that is somehow within the person, that is repressed by society and that needs to be expressed. The idea of “sexuality” has come to be naturalised, that is, the relationship between the idea and “reality” has been placed beyond question’.[17] We carry with us Freud’s baggage of the interiorized homosexual subject, with a definite sexual orientation.

It should not be surprising that much of activist literature on matters ’sexual’, particularly the language of sexuality-based rights, deals with sexuality and sexual orientation as pivotal frontline concepts, appearing in banners, slogans and pamphlets, rather than with intimacy, desire, fear, temporality, touch, love, friendship or sex. This is the result, undeniably, and among other things, of the interiorization of the concept of sexual orientation, of acclimatizing it as a distinct content of the self, and then a subsequent forgetting of this interiorization. The Freudian myth of the unconscious is at the root of the matter. The personal is political, indeed. In this article, we have seen one of the predominant ways in which that ‘personal’ came to be constituted.


1. Cavafy, Constantine. P., ‘Hidden Things’,, April, 2009. [↑]

2. Freud, Sigmund, 1905[1901] Eng tr. Alix and James Strachey 1925, ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’ in Angela Richards (ed.) Case Histories I: ‘Dora’ and ‘Little Hans’, Middlesex: Penguin Books, pp. 29-164, 152, emphasis mine. [↑]

3. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, 1987, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 18 [↑]

4. Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 16 [↑]

5. Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 17 [↑]

6. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, 1984, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley et. al., London: Athlone Press. [↑]

7. Billig quoted in Kulick, Don, 2000, ‘Gay and Lesbian Language’, in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 29, pp. 243-285, 274 [↑]

8. for a comprehensive discussion of these, see Bristow, Joseph, 2007, Sexuality, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 62-83 [↑]

9. Deleuze and Guattari, 1984, 101 [↑]

10. Freud, 84 [↑]

11. Freud, 84, emphasis mine [↑]

12. Freud, 84, emphasis mine [↑]

13. This developmental model which hierarchizes ‘heterosexuality’ over ‘homosexuality’ has proven strangely persistent. Vinay Chandran and Arvind Narrain quote a sexologist from present day Bangalore: ‘In another case, a patient told me that he was standing in a bus and another man with his erect penis poked him. I told him that he should not feel guilty that he had enjoyed. I instead told him that he was going to have better and better enjoyment once he got more and more involved with girls. If you are riding a cycle you are happy just riding it. But once you know that a scooter is better than cycle you would prefer to ride it’ (quoted in Chandran, Vinay and Narrain, Arvind, 2005, ‘It’s not my job to tell you that it’s okay to be gay: Medicalization of Homosexuality: A Queer Critique’, in Bhan, Gautam and Narrain, Arvind (eds) Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, New Delhi: Yoda Press, pp. 49-69, 60). The Freudian homosexual is a secondary and more primitive creature than the fully developed and more advanced heterosexual subject, much like the relation of the cycle to the scooter. [↑]

14. Freud, 152 [↑]

15. Freud, 162 [↑]

16. Warner, Michael, 1993, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, xi-xii [↑]

17. Khanna, Akshay, 2005, ‘Beyond Sexuality (?)’, in Bhan and Narrain (eds), pp. 89-103, 93 [↑]

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Akhil Katyal is doing his PhD on 'Same-Sex Intimacies and Ideas of the Self in Modern India' at SOAS, University of London.
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