Homosexual Panic: Unlivable Lives and the Temporality of Sexuality in Literature, Psychiatry and the Law

  • Matthew Helmers

Student thesis: Phd


Previous discussions of the category of homosexual panic have tended to dismiss it as anachronistic or homophobic. In contrast to these approaches, this thesis takes the term more seriously, arguing for its structural necessity to particular instances of literature, psychiatry and law in the United States. This interdisciplinary endeavor tracks the histories of the term, examining the impact of homosexual panic on contemporary understandings of sexuality, time and personhood. Adopting a Foucauldian framework, the chapters avoid offering a singular definition of homosexual panic in order to articulate the forces that historically make sense of the category. Divided into three sections, each organized around one of the areas in which homosexual panic occurs (literature, psychiatry and law), the thesis returns to the primary texts on homosexual panic, reading them against their source texts and in the context of current approaches to homosexual panic within the field of sexuality studies. In the literature section, I focus on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's appropriation of the term in Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, reading this against her sources (both literary and critical) including Henry James' "The Beast in the Jungle," Gayle Rubin's "The Traffic In Women," James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner and contemporary uses of Sedgwick's concept in P.J. Smith's Lesbian Panic. The chapters explore the imploded time of homosexual panic to expand upon theorizations of temporality by queer scholars, including Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam and Elizabeth Freeman. Secondly, the psychiatry section reads the origin of homosexual panic in Edward Kempf's 1920's text Psychopathology in context with its dismissal in 1980's psychiatric articles. Here, the mythologization of Kempf is read as establishing the American Psychiatric Association as coherent. Developing a theory of myth from psychoanalytic theorist, Shoshana Felman, the section creates alternate possible histories of homosexual panic through close readings of parallel concepts like Freud's derealization and Roger Caillois' dark space. Thirdly, the legal section offers close readings of Cynthia Lee's "The Homosexual Panic Defense" and two court cases, the murder of Matthew Shepard and the trail of John Stephan Parisie, to articulate the components of the Homosexual Panic Defense (HPD). The chapters suggest that arguments against the HPD work by upholding panic-structures of revelation, outing and latency, while failing to address how homosexual panic is prefigured in certain versions of the U.S. Law. These readings show how homosexual panic has become an example of, and strategy for, people living moments 'beside' their literary, psychiatric and legal selves. I call these moments 'paratime', which, I argue, enables new queer theorizations of concepts constituting these fields. By showing how homosexual panic structures queer time in literature, mythology in psychiatry and truth in law, the thesis demonstrates the influence of homosexual panic on the terms placed at the center of each field. The conclusion argues that homosexual panic troubles the centrality of these concepts and, invoking Judith Butler, proposes alternate modes of theorization that enable us to recognize how particular lives continue to be made unlivable.
Date of Award31 Dec 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJacqueline Stacey (Supervisor)


  • Homosexual Panic, Queer Time, Queer Theory, Sexuality, the Body in U.S. Law

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