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Meaning of Gay—My Research 2 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gender, Queer Theory, Race & Ethnicity, Sexuality, Social Sciences.
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Several people have emailed asking me about my upcoming book, and C.L.’s comment in the History thread below prompted this brief explanation of some of the conclusions I have drawn from my research about 1960s gay male culture:

One of the overarching conflicts among gay men (and women) is definitely between assimilation (or integration) and separatism, and that is definitely a common dynamic among all minority groups. This is one of the tensions I explore in my book, but as an overarching or meta-conflict. I only talk about activist strategies in one chapter. I explore instead on arguments within the community about particular practices such as cruising for sex in the park, drag performances, dating, anal sex, etc.

Gays and lesbians have a different relationship to these integration-vs.-separation dynamics:

1) racial and ethnic minorities are, by definition, socially created groups of people who can and do over generations integrate into the dominant culture. The dynamics are about ‘cultural preservation’ of something that is purely historical. Cultures of race and nostalgia for race among the minorities themselves are as much at play as the racism of the majority. Likewise ethnocentrism. When we talk about race and ethnicity, we’re not actually talking about a biological or essential part of a person, but rather, our cultural understandings of ourselves and others, and the beliefs, practices, and objects we use to create our lives.

2) women aren’t really a minority at all, and as long as they are intimately connected to men and children, they are already part of their respective culture. So women’s issues become about the internal structuring of gender. Unlike race and ethnicity, there are actual physical differences between men and women; but when we are talking about gender in society, we’re almost never talking about those actual physical differences, but rather about what those differences mean socially.

3) homosexuals come from all genders and ethnicities (and religions, classes, etc.) and are always a tiny minority (around 4-6%). Unlike “blackness” (a cultural idea), “homosexual” denotes same-sex desire (although not necessarily behavior). It is the thing itself. But like gender, the arguments about what that desire means socially are what we’re actually arguing about (although some anti-gay activists do strive for erasure of the desire itself, as in the ex-gay movement for example). Some societies create positive, productive roles for them; others create negative, scapegoat roles for them.

I see the primary dynamic of the past 200 years as LGBTs finding each other and congregating and forming mass cultures that allow communication with each other; however these interactions don’t erase all the other kinds of stratifications. Other kinds of meaning (racial, ethnic, religious, national, class, etc.) play a more central role in community and identity formation at the idnividual level, so any kind of queer community is necessarily fragile and tenuous at best.

In my research of the 1960s, where a gay male culture developed that was public and community-driven (a key combination), I found a proliferation of conflicts over the meanings of “gay”. That is, the 1960s represent a sort of apogee among gay men in their struggles to understand who they are in American society. By going public with those debates and by self-consciously seeking to form communities that were publicly visible and open, they changed the social relations wherein they could have the debates about what their gayness might mean. (It is important to note here that lesbians played a key role here and underwent a similar transition, but for lesbians, they had the added pressures and problems arising out of sexism, which made their particular battles, problems, and arguments substantially different from those of gay men, even though they were having these arguments side by side with gay men.)

The primary problem or issue is one of freedom for me, and this is really where my book ends up, is that despite the impossibility of queer community, the ongoing effort to create one and to identify with other queers across cultural boundaries is precisely what has enabled queers to define their own lives, rather than having meanings of queerness imposed from the outside (be they socially positive or negative). For that reason, I’m in favor of the continued existence and interaction of the debating factions within queer community, because it creates the social spaces necesssary for individuals to define their queerness for themselves. This is true even if they decide to withdraw and integrate; this is true even if the gay community itself doesn’t seem to give the definition you want. The freedom and ability to define one’s own queerness arises ultimately out of contexts of social interaction that open up the space for the question to be asked and answered in the first place.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of my research.

Please note that these ideas are copyrighted as a completed manuscript being readied for publication (2007 Lexington Books/Rowman Littlefield). If you want to cite or use any of these ideas, please contact me and I’ll tell you how to do so before the book comes out. Thanks. I try not to be paranoid, but given the cut-throat nature of academic publishing, I’ll admit, I’m a bit paranoid.

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Comments

1. TikiHead - 3 July 2007

Well, I would say the proper term for women, in particular, is not ‘minority,’ it’s ‘subjugatory’ — there’s not even any need for proof.

2. Todd - 4 July 2007

Sure, but women often get lumped in with “minorities,” so I wanted to make that distinction. But, as i think you’re pointing out, the dynamics are quite different for women (I still think the best explanation of this is from de Beauvoir, and this despite how much I think French philosophy has led American social science astray over the past 25 years). I would also note that the relative status of women is different from culture to culture. Generally speaking, I would have a hard time calling American women “subjugated” anymore (whereas I can think off plenty of other cultures around the world where that word is appropriate). There is still sexism in American culture (in some places stronger than others (e.g., within the Mormon church)), but women also enjoy a degree of equality in the United States which I would argue puts them in a different position from women who are actually subjugated.

3. C. L. Hanson - 4 July 2007

I love it when my posts/comments inspire whole posts!!! 😉

As far as women are concerned, it’s true we’re not a minority and our situation is very different than that of ethnic or cultural minorities. Still, since women are relatively less-favored, there’s still the question of “Shall we beat them or join them?”

Gay rights are closely linked/related to womens rights for a number of reasons: challenge to standard gender roles and sexual conventions; we’re represented in families throughout the dominant population as opposed to being a separate population.

In any case, each less-favored group has to hammer out a strategy. And one thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to project their own personal needs as being the needs of their whole group. In other words, individuals don’t realize how much they assume that what’s best for them personally is what’s best for their whole group.

I’m not saying that starting from one’s own experiences is wrong. I’m just saying that typically it’s important to take one’s own biases into account, and balance the needs of others who are different from yourself when working out a strategy that benefits the group in general.


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