Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, And Bisexual

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Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, And Bisexual








The politics of sexual diversity became a subject of scholarly interest soon after a surge in lesbian and gay activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Writers publishing in the 1970s and early 1980s on such activism or state response to sexual diversity worked at the margins of publishing and academic disciplines and often outside the academy. In the 1990s, as sexual diversity came to be more publicly recognized, there was a major opening up of publishing opportunities for social science writing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, though political science was slow to recognize their relevance.


The activism of the 1970s brought visibility to gay liberationist challenges to the gendered foundations and sexual repressiveness of European and North American societies. Gay community magazines and newspapers such as Torontos the Body Politic, Londons Gay Left, and Bostons Gay Community News provided means for nonfiction writers to focus their political visions through a new radical lens. One current of this writing reflected a belief in a clearly demarcated gay and lesbian population with distinctive social and cultural norms. Most writers, however, held that homosexuality was a social and political construct and that only in relatively modern times did it shift from labeling a form of sexual behavior to describing a distinct category of person. The British sociologist Mary McIntosh had articulated such a constructionist view in an influential article published in 1968 (The Homosexual Role).

The Australian writer Dennis Altmans Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971) was a liberationist manifesto. Altman was one of the few political scientists to publish on gay issues before the late 1980s, and many years passed before his work was considered a legitimate part of that discipline. In the decade that followed most work on lesbian and gay politics was by historians, sociologists, and independent scholars. One was Jeffrey Weekss Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1977); another was the U.S. historian John DEmilios Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 19401970 (1983), which was notable for having been published by an established academic house (University of Chicago Press). Both books pointed to radical questioning of social and political repression in earlier periods, and both adopted social construction views by linking the development of homosexual identities to advanced forms of capitalism.

Most lesbian activism was quite separate from gay male activism, and this was soon reflected in published work. Lillian Fadermans Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981) was an early example of American writing that sought to claim lesbian visibility. Writers such as Gayle Rubin, Carole Vance, and Estelle Freedman used lesbian feminism as a lens for theorizing the interplay of gender and sexual inequalities and for outlining a distinctive political agenda. At the end of the decade the political theorist Shane Phelan published Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community.


The spread of AIDS in the 1980s posed a new threat of stigma but also enhanced the visibility of sexual minorities, reradicalized activism, provoked engagement with state institutions, and created openings to mainstream political processes. It also highlighted issues of workplace discrimination and the formal recognition of the same-sex partners of those who were infected.

This increased intellectual interest in the interdisciplinary analysis of the politics of sexual difference. Altman was one who chronicled the expansion of AIDS activism and the public response to the epidemic from its early stages. A few years later David Kirp and Ronald Bayer produced books on public and bureaucratic responses using more established political science frameworks, and together they edited a collection of essays from several European and North American countries on the politics of AIDS.

It was in the late 1980s that the first comprehensive survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activism was published, The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement by Barry Adam, who like Altman had a comparative vision that extended across and beyond the American and British experiences. This work coincided with a surge of academic interest in social movements, though little of this material was by political scientists and even less of it addressed LGBT activism.

Much of the coverage of the movement in later years emphasized gender divisions or the distinct experience and political agendas of lesbians. Work by Vera Whisman and Becki Ross pointed to widespread fluidity in womens emotional and sexual experiences and to conscious, politically informed shifts away from men and toward other women. At the same time most accounts noted that wariness of bisexuality was more widespread among lesbians than among gay men, though it was common enough across the gender line to hamper the emergence of bisexual activism for years.

Some of the important analyses of the movements in Britain, Canada, and the United States came from the pens of activists, including Urvashi Vaid, formerly head of the Washington-based National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and Tom Warner, long involved in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario. Vaid, Adam, and the British sociologist Kenneth Plummer were among those students of the movement who discussed social class inequalities. Most published work on the movement extensively covered divisions within it but focused most often on gender and race or ethnicity more than class.


The early 1990s saw a dramatic growth of publishing on sexual diversity, though legitimacy within the academy was slower to develop. One of the most prominent new bodies of literature was in queer theory, taking up a traditionally derogatory term that had been proudly adopted by young Queer Nation activists at the beginning of the decade. Queer was used in many different ways but usually was intended to indicate a provocative rejection of assimilitionist politics and to reflect the wide range of sexual practices and identities rejecting heteronormativity.

Writers such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (author of the influential Epistemology of the Closet, 1990), Michael Warner, Judith Butler, and the political theorist Mark Blasius were heavily influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault and particularly by the first volume (1978) of his History of Sexuality. They saw homosexual and other sexual categories as the products of a regulatory and controlling impulse. Language itself was seen as one of the fields on which power was exercised, though also where resistance was mobilized. Queer theory, like other forms of poststructural analysis, resisted the notion of a universal narrative or a common human experience of sexual difference. Within any particular time and setting too, practices were variable and identities unstable. Not surprisingly writers in such veins often paid particular attention to sexual practices and identities that crossed gender boundaries.

A current of critical legal studies was growing at this time; among the most prolific writers were the British legal scholars Didi Herman and Carl Stychin. The frameworks and very language of law, according to this view, structured the way claims are presented and narrowed the impact of the victories gained. Alongside queer theory then, this writing raised critical questions about what was thought to be the assimilationism of mainstream lesbian and gay activism.


Queer theorys rejection of universalism dovetailed with discussions of racial and cultural inclusiveness among European and North American activists and the emerging profile of sexual diversity politics in minority communities in European and North American countries and in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (often propelled by AIDS). By the end of the 1990s more writers were taking up questions of cross-cultural and cross-national difference, though not necessarily through a queer theoretical lens. The activist Keith Boykin began writing about African American gay experience, and the political scientist Cathy Cohen then published The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999). Both explored the erasure of African Americans in mainstream chronicles of the epidemic and within African American political circles.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century two collections brought together articles on the politics of sexual diversity covering a wide range of countries, one edited by the British activist and political scientist Peter Drucker, the other by Adam and colleagues. This new literature pointed to the influence of Euro-American identity models on other regions of the globe but alongside persistent local patterns of sexual practice and self-perception. The best of this writing resisted the temptation to romanticize sexual practices and beliefs about them in precolonial non-Western societies and to homogenize the West itself.


Activist claims for equality secured major gains in the 1990s, propelled partly by the visibility of sexual minorities in an expanding range of countries and partly by the public policy prominence of the issues associated with AIDS. Openly gay candidates for public office were winning elections in the 1980s for the first time, and in the following decade their numbers grew significantly in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and other industrialized countries.

In the United States especially, gay and lesbian rights issues became much more prominent as religious conservatives and the Republican Party intensified their opposition to such rights. President Bill Clintons 1993 attempt to lift the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the military provoked a firestorm of protest (and some scholarly attention, such as in a collection edited by Craig Rimmerman). A successful court challenge to Hawaiis marriage law in that same year led to an even greater focus on homosexuality by the Religious Righta focus sustained for well over a decade. Under George W. Bushs presidency, the Republican Party was as ready as ever to use the marriage issue to attack Democrats, and a series of state constitutional amendments to bar same-sex marriage was successfully introduced on election ballots in the mid-2000s.

Nevertheless, steady gains were being made in recognizing families led by same-sex couples. As activists in North America and Europe made progress in state systems, writing on their access and impact expanded. Work that deals with legal rights received substantial attention in the United States, which is not surprising given the political importance of litigation. Writers such as David Richards, William Eskridge, Daniel Pinello, William Rubenstein, and Jason Pierceson examined the highly uneven record of U.S. courts in terms that provided at least some hope for activists. The influence of critical legal studies is more evident in writings about Canadian law by writers such as Kathleen Lahey, Miriam Smith, Bruce McDougall, Brenda Cossman, and Susan Boyd.

The spread of legal recognition of sexual diversity in Europe has received somewhat less attention but more as issues related to relationship recognition have come to the fore. Robert Wintemute, Kees Waaldijk, and Yuval Merin have chronicled the rapid spread of national regimes of same-sex relationship recognition in the late 1990s and early 2000s as well as the slow march toward equity within European Union institutions.

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s dramatic shifts toward recognizing same-sex relationships (in some cases including marriage) occurred in Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, and several other northern European countries. Most reformed regimes initially excluded or compromised parenting rights for lesbian and gay couples (Canada and Spain being notable exceptions), though greater inclusiveness on that front was slowly spreading in the 2000s.

In no other country has controversy over challenges to family regimes been as sustained as in the United States. Consequently there has been only modest scholarly attention to tracking these changes outside the United States apart from the writings of Waaldijk, Wintemute, and David Rayside.

The enactment of rights measures at the state and regional government levels has received some attention in the United States, where local and state authorities have greater jurisdictional reach in areas related to sexual diversity than in almost any other system. Bob Bailey, Kenneth Wald, Barbara Rienzo, James Button, Steven Haeberle, and Donald Haider-Markel are among the contributors to this field exploring what factors explain rights advances.

Family policy began receiving analytical attention in the United States following the emergence of same-sex marriage as a front-burner political issue during the 1990s and the early 2000s. Writers such as Eskridge and Richards argued for the importance of the issue; others such as Valerie Lehr are more skeptical of the normalizing dangers of seeking entry to the traditionally inequitable institution of marriage.

The prioritization of gay-related issues by the U.S. Religious Right eventually produced an analytical literature on that opposition, including work by Wald, Herman, and Clyde Wilcox. As struggles over public recognition intensified, greater analytical attention was paid to public attitudes (for example, by Sherrill). The prominence of the marriage issue in the United States led to a proliferation of analytical treatment on that issue in particular by such writers as Daniel Pinello, William Eskridge, Martin Dupuis, Jonathon Goldberg Hiller, and Andrew Sullivan. Many other issues, such as those related to schooling, policing, and parenting, should have received substantial academic attention but did not.

Transgender politics gets little space in these strands of literature on rights politics. The theorist Paisley Currah is among the few social scientists and is possibly the only political scientist who has written in a sustained way on this topic. Empirical treatments of activist movements or public policy engagement with transgenderism and bisexuality are exceedingly rare, despite the spread of a rhetorical commitment to inclusion.


In general the legitimacy of academic attention to the politics of sexual diversity has not kept pace with the readiness of publishers to produce works in the area. To be sure, the surge of work during the 1990s was matched by a growth in academic profile. The American Political Science Association (APSA) recognized a Committee on the Status of Lesbians and Gays in the Profession in the early 1990s, following the earlier formation of an LGBT caucus. This produced more equitable policies, studies of scholarly inclusiveness (by the APSA in 1993-1995), and increased room for specialists in LGBT issues to present their work. The 1990s and 2000s also saw the creation and growth of academic programs and research centers focusing on sexual diversity, the largest and most successful being the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York.

Well into the 2000s, however, sexuality was still viewed as a marginal area, much as gender had been in previous decades. Undergraduate texts in political science in all countries only rarely referred to LGBT issues. Social science literature on these questions has routinely been pigeonholed with other gay-related material and seldom seen as contributing to more general understanding of public policy, social movements, voting behavior, or legislative politics.

SEE ALSO American Political Science Association; Civil Rights; Gender; Gender, Alternatives to Binary; Human Rights; Liberation Movements; Marriage, Same-Sex; Politics; Politics, Gender; Politics, Identity; Queer Studies; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Sexuality


Adam, Barry. 1995. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne.

Adam, Barry D., Jan Willem Duyvenkad, and André Krouwel, eds. 1999. The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics: National Imprints of a Worldwide Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Altman, Dennis. 1971. Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. New York: Outerbridge and Dientsfry.

Boykin, Keith. 2005. Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. New York: Carroll and Graf.

Cohen, Cathy. 1999. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, Timothy E. 1999. The Empirical Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Politics: Assessing the First Wave of Research. American Political Science Review 93 (September): 679692.

Currah, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, eds. 2006. Transgender Rights. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

DEmilio, John. 1983. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Peter, ed. 2000. Different Rainbows. London: Gay Mens Press.

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. New York: Random House.

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Herman, Didi, and Carl Stychin, eds. 1995. Legal Inversions: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kirp, David L., and Ronald Bayer, eds. 1992. AIDS in the Industrialized Democracies: Passions, Politics, and Policies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

McIntosh, Mary. 1968. The Homosexual Role. Social Problems 16, no. 2 (Fall): 182-192.

Phelan, Shane. 1989. Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rayside, David. 1998. On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rimmerman, Craig A., Kenneth D. Wald, and Clyde Wilcox, eds. 2000. The Politics of Gay Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ross, Becki L. 1995. The House that Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Seidman, Steven, ed. 1996. Queer Theory/Sociology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Smith, Miriam. 1999. Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stychin, Carl F. 1998. A Nation by Rights: National Cultures, Sexual Identity Politics, and the Discourse of Rights. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Weeks, Jeffrey. 1977. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet.

Whisman, Vera. 1996. Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Wintemute, Robert, and Mads Andenaes, eds. 2001. Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Partnerships: A Study of National, European, and International Law. Oxford: Hart.

David Rayside

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Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, And Bisexual

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Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, And Bisexual