LGBTQ Studies

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer studies is a broad, diverse, diffuse, and contentious field, with significant contributions generated through activist politics as well as within academic institutions. Defined as the study of LGBTQ populations—in history, culture, and politics—the field in the United States began in the twentieth century, with the first emergence of these populations into public visibility. But defined as the study of normative and nonnormative human bodies and minds—including their gender, race, class, and sexual characteristics—the field in the United States appeared as a branch of European sexology during the mid-nineteenth century.

Early History of Sexology

The figure most identified with the field of sexology from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century is Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose Psychopathia Sexualis appeared in twelve German editions between 1886 and 1903. During his career as an insane-asylum physician, a neurologist in private practice, a university professor of psychiatry, and a director of an exclusive private clinic, Krafft-Ebing collected case histories of the sexual "perversions" of interest to forensic psychiatrists, lawyers, and other medical professionals. But the text circulated well beyond this audience, which expanded further with each edition.

During the mid-nineteenth century and subsequently, the categories deployed to classify sexual variation have shifted; they have always been open to conflict, debate, and change in basic definitions. In presenting his overall classificatory system for the major sexual "perversions," Krafft-Ebing defined sadism, masochism, fetishism, and antipathetic sexuality, which he also called contrary sexual instinct, and drew on the work of prominent theorists of hereditary biological "degeneration." He accepted a distinction between "primitive" races and the "lower" orders of European populations, among whom perverted behavior might be characteristic of the entire group, and "civilized" or privileged Europeans, among whom perverted behavior indicated individual pathological degeneration or arrested development. The result was a hazy, unstable distinction between vice or immoral perversity, most characteristic of those on the lower end of the "development" of race and class hierarchies, and the condition of perversion, which might be found without hint of vice at the higher end of these hierarchies. Krafft-Ebing then equivocated about whether the conditions of perversion among the "higher" types might be considered diseases to be treated or natural anomalies to be understood and tolerated.

The ambivalence lodged within Krafft-Ebing's texts characterizes the biological and psychological study of LGBTQ populations to this day. Controversies continue over whether sexual difference from an assumed heterosexual norm is pathological or benign, fixed or variable, nature or nurture, vice or virtue. Since the mid-nineteenth century, homophile as well as homophobic attitudes have permeated the study of human sexuality, mixed up in contradiction-ridden texts, as well as the fields of biology and psychology in general. Many texts in these fields also generally replicate the invidious racial, class, and gender hierarchies, distinctions, and exclusions that mark Krafft-Ebing's studies.

Krafft-Ebing's ambivalence toward the condition of "civilized" sexual perversion drew on, for its positive valence, the pioneering theories of Karl Ulrichs and the extensive research and polemics of Magnus Hirschfeld. Ulrichs's writings, published between 1865 and 1879, described a variety of man-manly love and defined its practitioners as Urnings, or members of a third, intermediate sex characterized by male bodies with female psyches. Urnings, including Ulrichs himself, represented nonpathological anomalies of nature whose sexual feelings were not immoral, but often spiritual and noble. Ulrichs, and later John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, as well as Hirschfeld, resisted the pathologizing evolutionary accounts of sexual deviance as arrested or degenerative, but they mounted their defenses primarily on behalf of privileged Anglo-European men. All of these writers retained the primitive/civilized distinction to some degree, however, and based their defenses of Urnings, or intermediate types, on the alleged fine qualities, high achievements, and sensitive natures of "civilized" men.

The place of women in both the pathologizing and the naturalizing frameworks for the "perversions" was profoundly vexed. The development of civilized femininity was considered a marker of evolutionary progress, and the term "women" tended to reference privileged Anglo-European groups (those considered lower on the evolutionary scale were more likely to be called "females"). But even the most prosperous "civilized" women were believed to be less evolved than men of their nation, class, race, and ethnicity. So when women appeared in sexology texts, their positioning was especially contradictory. For a woman's physiology, psyche, or behavior to be described as in any way "like" a man's raised a conundrum: Was she like a man of her class and therefore a "higher" type than other women? Or was she like a man of a lower position and therefore a degraded female? Or was she a freak of nature, an anomaly, or a benign quirk, like an Urning?

The texts of the European sexologists, as they traveled and profoundly influenced the study of sexuality in the United States, were thus expansive, contradictory, and politically ambivalent. They contained pathologizing attacks on "perverts," imagined and real, but they also contained a naturalizing if not normalizing homophile discourse right from the start. And they included some ethnographic investigation of the populations described, along with the individual clinical case studies. The American sexologists of the late nineteenth century—including especially James Kiernan and Charles Hughes—contributed little original work to this field. Their influence was overwhelmed by the impact first of British sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose Sexual Inversion (1901) displaced Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis as the most important text in the field during the early twentieth century, and then of the German founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. When Freud published "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman" in 1920, his emphasis on fantasy and desire more fully psychologized sexuality, and more fully naturalized and normalized the sexual "perversions" than had any of the sexologists' frameworks. But Freud's theories still invoked an evolutionary model, referred to the biological basis of the sexual "drives," applied almost exclusively to privileged Anglo-European populations, and depended on a fixed and hierarchical gender division.

Twentieth-Century Studies

The clinical psychological, empirical/sociological, and biological study of LGBTQ populations (under various changing historical categories, including "sexual inverts," "homosexuals," "deviants," and so on) continued through the twentieth century in a complex stew of interactions and distinct developments in each of these areas. Beginning with the early work of Magnus Hirschfeld, the sexual survey became a significant mode of investigation. From Katherine Bement Davis's study of twenty-two hundred women, among whom homosexual experience was found to be widespread (1929), to George Henry's report on one hundred "socially well adjusted men and women whose preferred form of libidinous gratification is homosexual" (1937), to Alfred Kinsey's sensational and notorious studies of male and female sexuality published during the 1950s and Shere Hite's provocative report on three thousand women (1976), sexual surveys have repeatedly both reproduced and challenged the contradictory biological and psychological conclusions of twentieth-century sexual science.

Though the sexual sciences continued to reflect the ambivalences and contradictions embedded in nineteenth-century sexology, during the twentieth century the homophile impulse grew within this field. Since the 1973 removal of homosexuality from the list of pathologies included in the psychological/psychiatric profession's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, scientific consensus settled on the treatment of homosexuality as a benign variation, rather than as a disease or aberration. But conflict and contradiction continue over whether to consider homosexuality biologically fixed or environmentally shaped. The emergence of the study of transsexual and transgendered populations in the mid-twentieth century further expanded and complicated these discussions. From the publicity during the 1950s and 1960s surrounding the "sex change" operation of Christine Jorgensen, to the controversies generated by the emerging work of researchers and physicians, including Harry Benjamin and John Money, to the important distinctions between "transsexual" and "transgender" identities, the relation of the gendered mind and body has come under renewed scrutiny and revived politicization. Debates such as those over the existence of a "gay gene" or the implications of studies of identical twins have periodically reignited the nature versus nurture controversy as well—as has the development of so-called conversion therapies (closely aligned with fundamentalist Christianity) designed to promote heterosexual behavior in repentant homosexuals. But the entire field, including its homophile as well as homophobic projects and publications, has continued to reflect many of the assumptions, hierarchies, and exclusions of nineteenth-century sexology. Within the sexual sciences, assertions of the naturalness or normality of gay or homosexual people generally focus on privileged Western white men, and distinctions are often made between involuntary, and thus defensible, "conditions" and voluntary or "situational" immorality—often attributed to racial minorities, "lower" classes, or institutionalized populations. This history and the implications of these controversies and debates are contextualized and analyzed in science studies work, including books by the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, the philosopher Edward Stein, the sociologist Janice Irvine, and the historian Jennifer Terry.

In the arts, humanities, and the softer social sciences, occasional studies of lesbian and gay or homosexual life were published during the decades prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City and the growth of gay liberation and lesbian feminism during the 1970s. A few groundbreaking works appeared during these years, including Clellan Ford and Frank Beach's Patterns of Sexual Behavior (1951) and Jeannette Foster's Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956). During the 1950s and 1960s, the organized homophile movement also supported public discussions, and publications focused on issues of concern to their memberships. In addition, major figures, such as Sappho or Oscar Wilde, and controversial issues, such as sexual tensions in single-sex institutions, were addressed in college courses, biographies, essays, films, and theater. But the field of LGBTQ studies did not take visible and institutionalized form until the 1970s, when the political energies of several social movements coalesced to generate a steady stream of new studies of LGBTQ life. The gay liberation movement produced new periodicals and book-length studies, along with energetic new audiences. Some of these publications were polemical and ephemeral, but much of this work survived to influence subsequent generations, including Dennis Altman's Homosexual Oppression and Liberation (1971); the essays in Karla Jay and Allen Young's widely circulated anthologies, Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation (1972) and Lavender Culture (1979); Jonathan Ned Katz's pioneering collection of historical documents, Gay American History (1976); and Vito Russo's cult classic The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981). Early lesbian feminism and ongoing social movements for racial justice provided the context for an equivalent and related avalanche of publications during the 1970s and early 1980s, such as Gayle Rubin's widely reprinted essay "The Traffic in Women" (1976), Monique Wittig's 1981 essays "The Straight Mind" and "One Is Not Born a Woman" (translated from the French), Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), Barbara Smith's Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's prescient, field-altering anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981).

This new work of the 1970s and early 1980s was generated primarily in social movement–supported institutions, created outside of the academic professions and without the support of colleges and universities. New presses and publications, such as Kitchen Table or the Gay Community News in Boston, published work that mainstream presses would not touch. Newly founded archives and history projects, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the San Francisco History Project, collected materials that traditional libraries disregarded; collectively supported slide shows, such as Allan Bérubé's "She Even Chewed Tobacco"; and circulated research findings to excited new audiences. The determination to challenge the pathologizing theories and beliefs of homophobic sexual science, religion, cultural representation, law, and public policy infused these projects and their constituencies with energy and political passion. But not all of the new work in LGBTQ studies challenged every hierarchy and exclusion—much debate persisted over basic definitions of "gay," "lesbian," and "bisexual," as well as over inclusiveness, especially along lines of gender, race, class, and ethnicity.

Activists and Intellectuals

This social movement context also generated and supported new work within academic institutions during these decades, including anthropologist Esther Newton's now classic ethnography, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1972); Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981); Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct (1985); and John D'Emilio's authoritative history Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (1983)—an achievement influenced by the earlier work of British historical sociologists Mary McIntosh ("The Homosexual Role" [1969]) and Jeffrey Weeks (Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britian from the Nineteenth Century to the Present [1977]). These publications collectively produced a body of theory now referred to as "social constructionism"—the argument that sexuality is not primarily a biologically fixed reality, but rather is historically shaped and politically inflected. Social construction theory, influenced by both U.S. feminism and the British gay left, critically engaged the sexual sciences in an effort to reframe basic conceptions about the meanings of sexual difference.

The new academic publications in LGBTQ studies and the work published and circulated outside the universities remained in close conversation during the 1970s and 1980s. Institutions such as the Gay Academic Union, founded in 1972, and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, founded in 1986, worked to combine and integrate the work of academic scholars and activist intellectuals, who were sometimes the same people. This overlap was especially pronounced during the efflorescence of engaged research and writing generated by the AIDS crisis beginning in the early 1980s. Activists and academics collaborated extensively in producing analysis for this health emergency. Perhaps most emblematic is the work of Cindy Patton, who produced Sex and Germs (1985) while working as an HIV-prevention educator and journalist for the Gay Community News, and then wrote Inventing AIDS (1990) as she completed a Ph.D. in communications—a course of study motivated by the need to make sense of the epidemic. Other publications, by Douglas Crimp, Cathy Cohen, and David Roman, show similar deep interactions among activist and academic intellectuals in LGBTQ studies.

Academic and activist energies coalesced in the feminist/lesbian "sex wars" of the mid-1980s with a broad range of thinkers and writers assembled in the pages of anthologies, including Take Back the Night (1980), edited by Laura Lauderer; Against Sadomasochism (1982), edited by Robin Linden; and Powers of Desire (1983), edited by Ann Snitow and others (which includes the now classic essay by Cherríe Moraga and Amber Hollibaugh, "What We're Rollin' around in Bed With"); and Pleasure and Danger (1984), edited by Carole Vance (which includes Gayle Rubin's "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," an essay that shifted the ground within LGBTQ studies dramatically).

Rubin's essay was a response to the challenges of the "sex wars" debates over pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism, and lesbian femme/butch roles, and to the growing influence of the English translation of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Foucault's poststructuralist arguments, which echoed social construction theory in some respects, profoundly influenced LGBTQ studies beginning in the mid-1980s. The first publications in the category designated "queer theory" clearly demonstrated this influence: Eve Sedgwick's Between Men (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990), David Halperin's One Hundered Years of Homosexuality (1990), Judith Butler's field-altering Gender Trouble (1990), and Michael Warner's edited anthology Fear of a Queer Planet (1993). This new work in queer theory, also profoundly influenced by a new queer activist politics, shifted the terrain of inquiry from documenting the lives of LGBT populations to critiquing the structures of sexual normativity pervasively embedded in the institutions and languages of everyday life. But like other work in lesbian and gay studies, queer theory did not always challenge the embedded exclusions of race, gender, and class that have been a legacy of nineteenth-century sexology. Much of the new work also assumed a white, Western, and often male "queer" subject.

The new work in queer theory exceeded the boundaries of the academic disciplines and often offered incisive critiques of disciplinary knowledges. But within the university, this work achieved its influence primarily within the literary humanities. In history, anthropology, and sociology much new work proceeded within the boundaries of lesbian and gay studies and worked to expand the disciplines from within. An expanding bibliography of new work was generated by historians, including George Chauncey, Martin Duberman, Leila Rupp, Marc Stein, and Estelle Freedman, as well as by the sociologists Steven Epstein, Arlene Stein, Joshua Gamson, and Suzanna Walters; the anthropologists and ethnographers Esther Newton, Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Kath Weston, Walter Williams, Sue-Ellen Jacobs, and Wesley Thomas and Richard Parker; the political and legal scholars Cathy Cohen, Jacqueline Stevens, Mark Blasius, Joan Tronto, and Ruthann Robson; and by numerous others in a spectrum of interdisciplinary locations, such as the film theorist Richard Dyer, the visual arts critic Richard Meyer, the religious studies scholars Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and the performance studies analysts Jill Dolan and Sue-Ellen Case.

Since the mid-1990s, critiques of lesbian and gay identity politics have fomented productive change in activism and scholarship. Bisexual, pansexual, polymorphous, and transgender writers and organizers, such as Susan Stryker, Brett Beemyn, and Leslie Feinberg, interacted with queer as well as lesbian and gay intellectuals to produce a second generation of queer-inflected advocacy, research, and scholarship across the disciplines and in nonacademic public arenas beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s. Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998), John Howard's Men Like That (1999), and Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval (1999) challenged both lesbian and gay studies and queer theory to move beyond the history/theory, social science/humanities splits that shaped so much of the field of LGBTQ studies since the 1980s. But perhaps the deepest challenge to the field, and the most promising new direction within it, is the new scholarship now appearing from within the overlapping fields of transnational and postcolonial studies, feminist and race theory, and LGBTQ studies. Building on the pioneering work of established scholars such as Jacqueline Alexander, recent publications by younger scholars are expanding the horizon of LGBTQ studies in the United States to include the global context, and are serving to connect work across disciplines with significant global economic and political issues. José Muñoz's Disidentifications (1999), David Eng's Racial Castration (1999), Martin Manalansan's Global Divas (2003), Juana Rodriguez's Queer Latinidad (2003), and the essays collected in Manalansan and Arnaldo Cruz's Queer Globalizations (2002), are charting expansive, ambitious new directions for LGBTQ studies in the twenty-first century. These new approaches within the field of LGBTQ studies presage the development of a more comprehensive challenge to the embedded assumptions of nineteenth-century sexology—its reflection of the hierarchies of global imperialism; its primitive/civilized binary; its gender, race, and class distinctions and exclusions; its erasure of the impact of political economy—than the field of LGBTQ studies has yet produced.


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Lisa Duggan

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