Homosexual Panic in Literature, Psychiatry, Law


A review of Homosexual Panic: Unliveable Lives and the Temporality of Sexuality in Literature, Psychiatry and the Law, by Matthew T. Helmers.

Matthew T. Helmers’ dissertation revisits the concept of homosexual panic, a term originally coined in 1920 as a psychiatric diagnosis, later deployed in gay and lesbian studies of literature, and existing today as a legal defence, primarily in the United States. This project revisits the various perceptions, critiques, and instances of homosexual panic across literature, psychiatry and law to uncover the ways in which it has been understood, and how these understandings are intertwined with particular ideas of time, sexuality, and the (in)coherent and (un)knowable self.

Importantly, this interdisciplinary approach refuses the temptation to uncover any singular meaning of homosexual panic that might apply across its chosen fields, instead allowing the concept to remain multiple and highlighting the distortions that occur when it is transported across disciplinary (and temporal) borders. Each of its three main sections draws attention to such distortions, using these confusions of meaning to indicate how definitions of homosexual panic can be contradictory and complex, even within the same discipline or era. A recurring preoccupation of the thesis is therefore to identify “how these definitions are made to make sense within our contemporary culture” (10), and ultimately, to explore how underlying structures of homosexual panic are sustained even while the concept is decried, challenged or refuted.

The thesis is most clearly grounded in the works of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, but its innovative approach borrows, expands, and complicates ideas from a varied collection of thinkers. These range across the queering of time in the works of Heather Love and Lee Edelman, the feminisms of Gayle Rubin in one section and Susan Brownmiller in another, the deployment of psychoanalytical theory by Freud and Shoshana Felman, the juxtaposition of Jacques Lacan’s mirror phase alongside Roger Caillois’s ‘dark space’, and the construction of identities in the language of the law as explored by Janet Halley and Leslie Moran. Theoretical breadth is used to draw out many of the foundational ideas upon which understandings of homosexual panic might be based, and to suggest an impossibility, or unintelligibility, inherent within the term itself.

The first section, Literary Panic, takes as its starting point Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of homosexual panic as a means of understanding literary characters, as expounded in her seminal works Between Men (1985) and The Epistemology of the Closet (1990). By considering Sedgwick’s analysis alongside two of her original texts, Henry James’s 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle” and James Hogg’s 1824 satire Confessions of a Justified Sinner, as well as P. J. Smith’s transposition of Sedgwick’s ideas to the female character in Lesbian Panic (1997), Literary Panic challenges Sedgwick’s model of homosexual panic as being at the very origins and heart of Western culture. Concerned with “the limitations of assuming that homophobia structures all lives” (23), this section uses Lesbian Panic to highlight assumptions inherent within Sedgwick’s schema and to locate gaps through which characters seem to slip in a failure to live in accordance with the boundaries laid out by Sedgwick’s reading of homosexual panic. In the provision of a close reading  of the primary texts and especially their two leading men, James’s John Marcher and Hogg’s Richard Wringhim, Literary Panic connects homosexual panic to the “chronologic” (50) and knowledge of the future self, while also suggesting possibilities for homosexual panic as a route to destabilization through queer time, providing space ‘to make livable’ that which seemed impossible (109).

Psychiatric Panic, the middle section, turns to homosexual panic as it is found in, and rejected by, psychiatry. Beginning with the origin of the medical term in Edward J. Kempf’s 1920 textbook Psychopathology, this section explores the changes that seem to have occurred around the concepts of homosexual panic and panic disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and across psychiatric texts and histories. Psychiatric Panic rereads the expulsion of homosexual panic from American psychiatry in the 1980s, critiquing a 1988 article from the Canadian Journal of Psychology entitled “Homosexual Panic: A Review of Its Concept” and translating its narrative of psychiatry’s progression from incoherence to scientific precision into a reconstruction of the concept of (homosexual) panic itself to allow elements of it to be sidelined without destabilising psychiatry . At the heart of Psychiatric Panic lies a challenge to the unity and clarity of psychiatry and of those over which it lays claim. An examination of the mythologies of Pan and Medusa as they are recalled in psychiatric texts to explain panic and to incorporate homosexuality, and an extended case study of the creative potential within today’s Delusional Misidentification Syndromes in which Freud becomes the subject of diagnosis, is used to demonstrate that the demands for coherence do not always hold. This section concludes with a final destabilising of the coherent self through Caillois’s concept of “legendary psychasthenia” (170) and Lacan’s “misrecognition” of the self (171), and their relation to the homosexual panic of an incoherent and unbounded self.

The third and final section, Legal Panic, addresses Homosexual Panic Defence (HPD) by examining legal scholar Cynthia Lee’s critiques outlined in Murder and the Reasonable Man (2003) of HPD’s presence in American law and two criminal cases involving such a defence, the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 and the trials and appeals of John Parisie between 1969 and 1983. By deconstructing the features that must  be present for HPD, here enunciated after Sedgwick as “axioms” (189), this section explores the constructions of identities and events, and of legal truth, through ideas of recognition and latency, the knowable and unknowable. Legal Panic sets the language and ideas of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, perceptions of male rape, and HPD in the courtroom to explore panic as an aspect of a conceptual and linguistic structure that creates impossible ways of being. The close reading of instances of HPD in the courtroom and reactions to it concludes by setting the problems of homosexuality, panic, and HPD in law alongside the problems found within the legal concept of res gestae, all of which circulate around “anxieties about time, truth and knowledge” (243). Legal Panic points to the importance of recognising the complex and contradictory structures of law, reliant upon a logic of panic and homosexuality that presupposes coherent truth but creates incoherence and unlivability.

This thesis examines, and in doing so proposes a challenge to, the structures across various disciplines that allow homosexual panic as a concept to persist.  Each section begins with an Overture and ends with a Coda, offering connections and further thoughts which, fittingly for a project that both creates and ruptures connections, both draw the thesis together and look outwards at alternatives. As a rare cross-pollination of the fields of queer theory, literary criticism, and histories of psychiatry and law, it is indicative of the avenues that remain unexplored and the potential for imaginative explorations of the history of ideas.  Its conclusion returns it to the dangerous realities that remain for those living queer lives, and proposes that the use of panic to expose the forces at work might open up gaps and spaces for a wider range of lived experience.

Janet Weston
Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
Birkbeck, University of London

Primary Sources 

The works of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and her literary primary sources
Pyschiatric texts: the works of Freud, Edward Kempf’s Psychopathology, the DSM I, II and III
U.S. criminal trials using HPD, and associated commentary from legal scholars

Dissertation Information

University of Manchester. 2011. 276 pp. Primary Advisor: Jackie Stacey.


Image: Panic Button. Photograph by John (star5112 on Flickr). Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like