jump to navigation

Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
comments closed

Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.

Advertisements

“The Homosexuals” (CBS, 1967) 10 February 2010

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gender, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

In my book The Meaning of Gay, currently in press (sorry for the shameless plug), I briefly treated the gay male response to this documentary in a section on the media and homosexuality. I had tried several ways to find and watch the documentary in its entirety, but had never been able to find it (although since then, I discovered that the TV library at UC Berkeley has it in its archive). This is a fascinating window back in time when straight America were struggling with a relatively new kind of public homosexuality. The central argument of my book is how the move to publicity and public interaction transformed the meaning of gay and more specifically the meaning of gay-maleness. When you have 45 minutes, watch this little slice in the history of homophobia from CBS 1967. Specifically, you are watching in very stark and shameless terms, the heterosexual order asserting its power to control and contain deviant sexualities through control of the meaning of homosexuality (namely, as a disease, a sin, and a crime). h/t Joe.My.God

Demand Human Dignity 2 August 2007

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Politics.
comments closed

[From the current executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Matt Foreman. Hat tip to Joe.My.God. This is well said and important thinking about the political position of gays and lesbians in American society, and so I’m reproducing it here.]

The Democratic candidates for president, as a group and individually, express more support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues and legislative and policy initiatives to improve our lives than any prior set of presidential candidates in the history of American politics. These new standards of support for LGBT people are worthy of our applause, our appreciation and our accolades.

Still, no major Democratic candidate has made the kind of sweeping statement of inclusion as did Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992, when he declared to a huge crowd of LGBT people in Los Angeles, “I have a vision for America and you are part of it.” His words brought tears to the eyes of the audience and rang out across the United States. Even the most skeptical of us in the LGBT community knew that we heard something previously unspoken by any major political figure.

We also know and painfully remember that Clinton’s vision of America did not translate into much of anything positive for us at the federal level. We can recount our bitter disappointments during Clinton’s time in the White House: the crash and burn of the effort to rescind the Department of Defense policy of discharging gay and lesbian service members, the secret late-night signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, and an ushering in of abstinence-only sexuality education in the public schools. Clinton couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on the specifics, but at least he held us in his larger vision of a healthy society.

Since 1980, we have suffered the gross indignities of defamations and slanders from a ravenous and rapacious right-wing anti-gay movement, a veritable industry churning out anti-LGBT propaganda at every turn. We endured the AIDS epidemic and the Reagan administration’s cruel indifference while our people fell to illness and then to death. We saw the U.S. Supreme Court uphold state laws that branded us criminals for our sexuality. We have been clubbed by an onslaught of ballot questions that put our lives up to popular vote. Time and again, we’vebeen thrown under the political bus by politicians either in the White House or those who want to get there.

All of this misery has been exacerbated exponentially by the spinelessness or unwillingness of all but a few national leaders to take a stand for us and denounce the animus unleashed on us. Many of our “friends” have simply looked the other way.

We bear our scars and yet remain unbowed. But, we are still waiting for the country’s political leadership to defend our right to live and thrive as a matter of principle, not parse our dreams as a matter of misguided political calculation.

This far into the 2008 race, things don’t look all that good. People who think GOP candidates are backing away from using us to inflame and divide are simply wrong. Republican rhetoric is peppered with code that thinly disguises — and affirms — anti-LGBT sentiment with references to safeguarding the family, the sanctity of marriage, the foundation of civilization. For example, Mitt Romney said in Derry, N.H., “The source of America’s strength is the American people…family oriented American people.” And, John McCain on his official Web site: “The family represents the foundation of Western Civilization and civil society and John McCain believes the institution of marriage is a union between one man and one woman.” Let’s be clear: Romney and McCain do not include our families when they speak of “the family.” The Web sites of other Republicans, except for Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani’s, explicitly reject full and equal recognition of our relationships.

But, what of the Democrats? Sadly, mostly silence. You can find our issues explicitly referenced on only three candidates’ sites (Kucinich, Richardson and Gravel). Frontrunners Clinton, Obama and Edwards carefully parse their support of our people into specific reforms. We find no evidence that the Democratic frontrunners counter Republicans’ anti-LGBT speech with routine and positive inclusion of LGBT people in their visions for a whole and healthy society.

It’s déjà vu all over again — the GOP often slyly and sometimes audaciously whips us for political gain. The Democrats include us — sorta — but only in response to a direct question and typically in the language of careful legislative reform.
This must change, starting now, because at this moment in history, reforms are both important and insufficient.

We deserve and we must demand from the Democratic 2008 presidential candidates the simple and straightforward statement that our humanity requires full respect and fair treatment by all and, further, an equally simple and straightforward condemnation of those who seek to use our lives for political gain. This needs to be said in front of all audiences — not just in front of us.

We need leadership. We need strength of vision. And we need to know that the promises of reform come from the candidates’ understanding of LGBT people as inseparable from the national community in which we live. There can be no more equivocating or silence about the goodness of our personhood, our families, our relationships. Period.

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.
comments closed

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.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Review) 6 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Law/Courts, Queer Theory, Reviews.
comments closed

[Note: This is actually less a review than me trying to get Yoshino’s arguments straight as I think about their implications.]

As the United States becomes more and more diverse culturally, the questions raised by multiculturalism in the past 50 years become all the more pressing, as we try to rethink what a pluralistic democracy could and should mean for a population of people so widely different from each other. Europe is facing similar dynamics, but their history of immigration and cohesion is so much longer and so much more recent that their experiences are and will continue to be different. But on both sides of the pond, we’re trying to grapple with protecting people’s rights to “be” their cultural identity, while at the same time balancing that with the rights of others. As a gay man, I’m often confronted with these kinds of dilemmas, as I feel the erosion of gay cultural spaces and practices by the encroachment of the dominant culture into gay neighborhoods (for example). For all minorities, the tensions between assimilating (in it’s most basic sense of becoming more like the majority, or mainstream, culture) and remaining or reaffirming one’s difference can be vexing, to say the least.

Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, locates the problem in a new kind of cultural pressure, where individuals are protecting in being different, but not in acting different. Borrowing the term from the important American social-psychologist Irving Goffman, Yoshino argues that minorities are required to cover their cultural differences in order to maintain their position in the public sphere, keep their jobs, avoid violence, gain social acceptance, or avoid conflict in day-to-day activities. Yoshino uses the gay experience in the 20th century of working toward civil rights as a kind of prototype of the experience of other kinds of minorities who move through the kinds of assimilation required in different phases of acceptance: conversion, passing, and finally covering. Here, the history of gay rights reflects the individual’s process of moving from trying to be something he is not (conversion), to trying to pass (knowing he is gay, but trying to avoid acting in anyway that would give away his hidden status), to covering (being openly gay, but trying to act in ways required by the dominant culture to avoid offending).

Yoshino deftly interweaves history with personal experience with legal decisions and analysis to demonstrate what is problematic in the dominant culture’s attempts to force minorities to assimilate, to become like the “mainstream.” On a personal note, I have to say that Yoshino’s experiences of his sexuality were so parallel to mine as to literally in some places take my breath away. Conversion is basically the idea that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and that gay individuals should (must) convert into heterosexuals (Yoshino rehearses the long and vexing debates in American psychiatry and psychology in this regard; and then completely botches a critique of the biological/medical evidence of homosexuality’s origins). In contemporary America, Yoshino sees the vestiges of conversion in the “no-promo-homo” laws around the country, where you are allowed to be gay in public, but you are not allowed to act gay (whatever that may mean). This distinction has been continually held up by the courts for the past 30 years or so, especially in the work place. Yoshino argues that the revolution of the Gay LIbbers in the early 1970s was to argue that “gay is good,” to argue for the validity of homosexuality per se, rather than to argue for the immutability (the naturalness) of homosexuality, which is where the law resides. Yoshino is basically wrong in the history (ONE magazine was arguing that gay is good in the mid-1950s, and the San Francisco gay community was making similar public arguments 8 years before Stone wall), but that doesn’t detract from the salience of the argument. Regardless, the problem is the continued efforts in the public sphere to force gay men and women to change their behavior to conform to social ‘norms.’

Passing is much more common than conversion now, as we’ve left behind increasingly the notions that an individual can and should try to change into a heterosexual. Passing is like wearing the ‘albatross’ of truth around our gay necks, Yoshino says, a weight that presses against you as you try to move through your life without revealing your secret. Again making basic historical mistakes, but nonetheless making a valid point about passing, Yoshino argues that the internalization of the imperative to be straight causes gay people to despise what they see in the mirror and to try to appear “normal” at all costs. One of my pet peeves about gay history, especially in the popular imagination, is the reliance on Stonewall as a marker. But Yoshino explains, interestingly, that Stonewall is our communal coming out story, the marker of our refusal to convert.

It’s really in Chapter Three that Yoshino hits his stride. Here we see a gay community divided by the issue of covering, where status within the community and vis-a-vis the dominant culture are measured in the ability or desire to cover one’s sexuality. The “normals” (e.g., Andrew Sullivan) are the ‘pro-covering’ crowd, those who want to downplay or eliminate gay cultural difference; and the “queers” (e.g., Michael Warner), those who want to emphasize their differences. Both sides are openly gay, but have a different orientation to assimilation. I appreciated Yoshino’s openness to both arguments as valid decisions within American culture (a stance I myself take in analyzing 1960s gay male culture in my upcoming book on that topic); Yoshino argues ultimately that what matters isn’t an individual gay person’s personal choice regarding covering, but rather the context of their making that decision. Covering becomes bad when it is coerced and not chosen, when it is imposed rather than a personal decision of preference for cultural style.

The problem comes from the structural coercion toward covering. Moving to race and gender covering, Yoshino points to a series of court cases wherein cultural differences are seen as something you “do” and not something you “are”, and because the civil rights tradition in the U.S. has focused on protecting what is immutable in the individual, the courts rule almost always against what you “do”. So a woman who wears cornrows to work (race), or another woman who has a baby (sex), can legally be discriminated against because these are “choices” not immutable qualities of the individual. Yoshino criticizes these court decisions, arguing that the standard is actually wrong: the employer (or state) should have to demonstrate a reasonable explanation of why the individual should cover. In other words, the question isn’t whether or not a person can cover, but whether or not a person should cover in a given context. Again demonstrating his flexibility, Yoshino argues that there may indeed be compelling reasons to require covering (one example he gives is of a muslim woman being required to unveil for government identification photographs), but that often the cases that actually go to court don’t amount to compelling reasons for covering (e.g., why *should* an African American woman be required to take her hair out of cornrows for work? why should a female bartender be required to wear makeup?). With sexual covering, Yoshino also demonstrates an interesting contradiction: Women are required to ‘reverse-cover’, as they are often required to act out the feminine role rather than cover it up; indeed, women in the workplace are often required both to cover their femininity and to enact femininity at the same time, creating a kind of cultural double-bind they cannot escape.

In both the race and the gender chapters, I couldn’t help but recall the arguments I’d recently read by Michael Benn Walters about race and gender inequality. And I also couldn’t help but be horrified by Yoshino’s facile use of ‘race’ as a gloss for something that is unitary and consistent, especially with things like cornrows: He treats such cultural practices as immutable, even as he criticizes the court for requiring immutability for protection. Ultimately, he pulls himself out of those problems by making his argument: That the burden should be on the state to demonstrate a compelling reason to foreclose a cultural practice, rather than on the individual to demonstrate that their practice is immutably part of their identity.

In the last section of the book, Yoshino’s argument becomes the most compelling, as he moves from a problematic analysis of religious freedom (again, I couldn’t help but scream to myself, “But religions are truth claims that must be debated in the public sphere!”) to an analysis of how we might go about protecting against covering demands. In a nutshell, Yoshino argues that we move from a Civil Rights model (which focuses on protection of groups) to a Human Rights model, which universalizes our needs and desires as people living together in American democracy. Interestingly, Yoshino suggests that the more diverse we become in America, the more exhausted we grow of multiculturalism and the more evident our shared humanity. The recent Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws is a prime example: The rationale for the court decision was not that gay men should be protected in their practices as a group, but rather that all individual adults in America should have an expectation of privacy regarding their consensual intimate sexual acts and choices. He also sites Tennessee v. Lane, wherein a wheelchair-bound woman sued the state of Tennessee because she couldn’t get into court buildings and perform her job. The court ruled that all americans have a reasonable expectation of the ability to enter into public buildings, especially courts, and ruled in her favor. This is a universalization of the rights argument, where when an issue of covering or passing comes before the court, the court rules based on human rights of the individual rather than on protected group status.

Most disappointing in Yoshino’s book was the lack of historical depth or accuracy (but to be fair, he’s functioning off of dominant narratives) and too often sliding into a kind of racial and ethnic essentialism that makes me extremely uncomfortable. What I find most hopeful about Yoshino’s formulation is that it allows for the diversity of actual practice, for individuals to chose the cultural afflilations and practices that work for them, allowing for example, both the normals and the queers to exist in the U.S. without either being privileged in the public sphere.

Book Angst & the Role of Theory in Social Scientific Research 23 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Gay and Lesbian History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Queer Theory.
comments closed

As many of you know, I'm working over the summer to complete revisions on the manuscript of my first book. Since I started revising a couple weeks ago, my tension level has been gradually increasing, as evidenced by the nightmare that woke me up this morning at about 4:30 a.m. The rewards system in academia is certainly not money; at best it's the recognition of peers that your research means something and advances knowledge of the field in some important way. But this morning I find myself irritated that I care so much about what my peers think of my work. On one hand, instrumentally, advancement in my career depends on the book reviews that will follow publication. On the other hand, I've really tried to do something different in the area of gay history in my book, and I feel a bit defiant about it, especially given the peer-reviewer's comments.

Academic monographs like mine go through a peer-review process, where other academics in the field look at your work, verify the soundness of the research, and comment on the book's worth in the field. My peer reviewer was quite complimentary in many regards, but made the incongruous statement that it needed "major revisions" before publication. I've been a peer-reviewer before on articles, and "major revisions" is usually code for "not ready for publication." Yet the peer-reviewer highly recommended the manuscript for publication and the substance of his/her comments was really pretty light revisions in the grand scheme of things. There were two major points: first, that I don't "use" theory enough, either my primary methodological lens (John Dewey) or contemporary queer theorists in the text itself; and second, that the manuscript needed serious organizational work. On the second point, I wholeheartedly agree, and frankly, much of my angst is coming from the fact that I'm finding it difficult to hold an entire book in my head and the rearrange the pieces into an order and progression that will make sense to readers.

But on the first point, I find myself resisting. Part of the problem I have with so much of the research done in gay and lesbian issues is that they are driven by theory, which has often ossified into an ideological position. In cultural sociology, especially queer sociology, theory is often normative rather than descriptive. There is a time and place for normative theory, but normative theory should arise out of the conclusions or consequences produced in the methodologically sound inquiry into actual conditions and interactions out of which emerge “culture.” When cultural theory is treated as normative before inquiry begins, it risks being treated as a generalization through which to evaluate all cultural phenomena, a dogma to be followed, which then has the effect of warping the research to meet the ends of the theory. Put more simply, cultural theory treated this way becomes an end-in-itself. That's what I love about John Dewey's philosophy cum social theory: it offers a meta-theory of theory based in his naturalistic reformulation of the origins of human knowledge, his instrumentalism, which gives a very loose framework for understanding the human process of meaning formation, rather than an a priori heuristic for interpreting those meanings, which is what most queer theory is. As an anti-foundationalist, some of Dewey’s conclusions are obvious to us 80 years later. Yet his analysis of the mis-use of theory offers some powerful suggetions for the direction of cultural sociology. My problem is that the peer-reviewer has the expectation that I would/should "use" theory in the way that has become current and expected in the social sciences and humanities over the past 25 years or so.

But in doing historical-empirical research, I feel that using theory in that way can only serve to distort my subjects, the gay men of 1960s San Francisco, by sifting them through the sieve of some theoretical expectations. To further complicate matters, because my project is to demonstrate the origins of late 20th century gay male culture, the most prominent queer theory out there, Michel Foucault, becomes itself an object of study, as it was a theory that emerged out of this very period!

Gayness and Meaning, Part 1 5 April 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

Religious and ethnic communities raise their own children and pass on communal meanings, knowledge, and practices to their offspring. Gay men and women come from all of these communities, and emerge with the cultures of their parents. Their sexual desires and potential relationships are necessarily refracted through the perceptions of homosexuality they receive from their parent's communities and from the dominant culture (hidden ethnicity) of the society at large.

Pic 1: A 1952 meeting of the Mattachine Society (Harry Hay, the founder, is to the far left); this was right before the organization was taken over by conservative men who, in the context of McCarthyist America, were afraid of the backlash of society against such a "homophile" organization.

If an individual's general sexual desires fall within the norms of his/her culture of origin, s/he will enact their sexuality as a matter of course, or what I would call habitually or unconsciously. Humans learn the meanings of all the aspects of sexuality—ranging from the desire itself to sexual acts and from relationships to representations of sex in media—in interaction with their social environments and each other. If an individual's desires deviate from the norms, s/he effectively "trips" on those desires, bringing them into consciousness, such that s/he must deal with them directly. Many choices are open to the individual, depending on the context, ranging from repression to full and open expression. The individual is put in the position of having to make meaning for an experienced desire that cuts against the culture of origin. In the United States, depending on the sub-culture of origin, an individual with same-sex desires can construct meanings of homosexuality that are at worst deeply homophobic and at best probably indifferent. But once the same-sex desires are brought into consciousness and not repressed, the individual must figure out form him- or herself what that desire will mean, how they will behave, how they will express their gender, how they will form relationships, what kinds of representations of sex and gender they want to consume. Most importantly, the individual will have to re-value his or her sexuality, usually counter to their culture of origin.

Pic 2: A page from Vector magazine from the summer of 1966, when the hippies first took over Golden Gate Park; gay men in San Francisco looked toward the counter-culture as a possible model for constructing their own public sexualities.

Historically and anthropologically, nearly every society has a "homosexual role" for individuals with desires toward the same sex, usually one each for men and women (in some cultures the roles preceded the desires, and individuals would be chosen to fulfill the homosexual role, regardless of their desires). Where such roles exist, they may span from criminal and mentally ill, to gifted shaman (in many cultures, women aren't/weren't considered to even be capable of sex, so there was no "homosexual role" necessary in that context for a woman). The individual may accept the particular homosexual role of their culture, or continue to "trip," if the assigned role doesn't fit with the confluence of their desires, especially the confluence of desires for sex objects and acts, desires for kinds of relationships, desires for a certain gender expression, and a desire for social and cultural statuses within the society.

Pic 3: An illustration from Gay Sunshine, ca. 1970: "Rising Up Gay: The Struggle to Live and Love"

Americans with same-sex desires have only been working to construct egalitarian and public homosexualities since the mid-1920s. My research of 1960s San Francisco suggests that the best possible way for gay men and women to construct meaningful lives (to make sense of their desires, their sexualities, their genders, and their relationships) is in interaction with other gay men and women. Many queer scholars are fond of repeating the mantra that "homosexuality is socially constructed." Without dipping into the etiological debate (the cause of same-sex desire), I would argue that "social construction" is a material, literal process of interaction, and that the best possible situation is for gay men and women to have the social context within which to "socially construct" the meanings of their homosexualities. The beauty of the gay community is its diversity and the incredible tension within it: This is evidence of the ongoing process of individuals and groups identifying with each other and creating meaningful lives.

Pic 4: One of many Gay-Ins in Golden Gate park in the early 1970s; many gay men and women refused to confine their sexuality and relationships to private organizations, bars, and house parties, opting instead for out and public displays of their sexual selves.

A Return to 1950s Anti-Gay McCarthyism 16 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, History, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Politics.
comments closed

Salon.com's War Room reports this morning that the Bush Administration has changed the wording in the guidelines for legitimate reasons to deny security clearances. Apparently, whereas the guidelines used to say that it was unlawful to deny a security clearance based on sexual orientation, the new guidelines have added the wording "solely based on" sexual orientation. While this may not seem like that big of a change, it opens a loop-hole that will allow the administration to deny or revoke security clearances to individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. To highlight why this is problematic, consider how one might react if the guidelines read that security clearance could not be denied "solely based on" the race of the individual.

During the 1950s, thousands of gay men and women in Washington, D.C., were fired from their jobs, because of their sexuality. Police raided bars, followed men in parks, and even surveilled private homes for evidence. More commonly, the FBI blackmailed individuals by interrogating them and threatening to out them publicly and fire them unless they gave lists of people who were homosexual. The witch hunt was not unlike the current atmosphere in the military. (For an excellent history of this period, I highly recommend David K. Johnson, Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians by the Federal Government.)

And equality for sexual minorities takes yet another step backward.