Leznoff , Maurice. (1956). Interviewing homosexuals. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 62, No. 2, pp. 202-204.
This article, published over half a century ago, begins by asserting that the use of the ‘interview’ as a tool to elicit information from a group under study is a flawed tool from the very beginning—the interview’s design is frequently based upon preexisting ideas and notions about the very group it seeks to reveal more about, thus eliminating its inherent value or validity as a research tool. The author describes how he has interviewed over 60 subjects who self-identified as ‘homosexual’ and relates how he was forced, in the process, to make his preconceptions explicit and subsequently reevaluate his preexisting beliefs pertaining to homosexuals and homosexual culture. The author’s objective is to pioneer the research of “homosexual psychology,” and to establish a foundation of homosexual study through interviews that examine the social attitudes and behaviors of an “average homosexual male subject.” There is no mention of the intention to study female or lesbian subjects at any point in the research program.
The article asserts that an investigator and his subjects must have the same knowledge and be on the same playing field, so to speak, in order to communicate effectively and produce valuable data. The author’s methods of data collection are entirely qualitative, in-depth interviews. The author’s conclusions are drawn from what is said in the interviews. The author describes how the interview process, which was continually tweaked throughout the study, became much smoother, comfortable and more relaxed when sitting down with what he describes as a “covert” subject (a homosexual with a higher social status who appears more reluctant to discuss his homosexuality than an “overt” subject.) There is no mention within the article of the investigators making use of any established methods of scientific analysis. The author also discusses his method of implementing an initial stage preceding the interview. Before the actual interview begins, homosexual subjects are asked to review a list of “‘homosexual vocabulary’” with the investigator to ensure that both interviewer and interviewee would be able to speak the same language and feel more comfortable discussing a subject that, especially at the time of this work’s publication, is so taboo. The author attributes his immense difficulty in uncovering the day-to-day behaviors and activities of a large sample of homosexuals to their fears of compromising their performative “normal” identities, of giving away private information about their homosexual peers, and of destroying their social reputation. Most of the author’s initial subjects were needed to serve as sponsors to recruit more homosexual subjects. Especially in the case of “covert” homosexual subjects, previously interviewed individuals who had enjoyed their interview experience were asked to seek out and encourage other homosexuals to step forward and participate. The author reports that the “word-of-mouth” technique was very successful in recruiting additional subjects out of concealment. The author details his surprise in finding extensive diversity within a divergent community, and begins coining terms such as“overts”—homosexuals who are explicit in regards to their identity—and “coverts” to begin categorizing different “types” of homosexual subjects found on varying rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
This article offers a fascinating glimpse into the earliest days of homosexual study and psychology. It contributes to the disciplines of medical sociology, the history of psychology as well as social constructionism by tracing the lineage of psychologists’ attempts to understand and “cure” the homosexual condition. Its age is strikingly apparent: the concept of a “lesbian” is nowhere to be found; no women are mentioned as participants in the study, the author alludes to the term “homosexual” as being applicable only to males. However, the article illustrates the foundation on which the following decades of psychological research is built, and allows contemporary readers to view the earliest merging of psychology with studies and concepts of homosexuality. Readers might be interested in contrasting this as a methods piece with more recent work in feminist and queer ethnography, as the goals, ethics and politics of the research today are quite different.