Sexuality: a useful category of analysis

In the mid-eighties, historian Joan Scott came out with a plainly titled article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” It has been and is still widely cited by scholars. It’s also widely used in graduate methodology courses, because many scholars still don’t like to admit that, well, gender is a useful category of analysis (especially when it infringes on traditional fields of study). And while gender is now generally accepted by many fields in history and teaching as one of what I like to call the big three (“race, class, and gender”), sexuality is often left by the wayside. It shouldn’t be.

NPR ran a story on homelessness and LGBT youth. Most strikingly, somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of homeless individuals under 18 identity as LGBT. That should be unsettling (but I fear for many, it’s not). I won’t recap the story, but from this simple statistic, it’s clear that sexuality matters.

Sexuality as a category of analysis extends into our history as well. George Chauncey’s study Gay New York is a perfect example. He highlights a community that has been erased despite it being once quite popular, accepted (to a degree), and visible (and thus challenging our Enlightenment-driven assumptions about things “getting better” with time). Or, for example, take Kristin L. Hoganson’s book Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. While Hoganson highlights the effect of domestic anxieties at home concerning gender definitions, it become clear from her evidence that notions of hetero-normativity were wrapped up in conceptions of “manhood” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, when the term “homosexuality” first came into being, warmongers (jingoes) of the time certainly would have had anxieties about the sexuality of US society. Other examples abound.

Tall, energetic, chivalrous Uncle Sam protecting the damsel Cuba from a swarthy-looking Spain.

All of these issues highlight the interconnected nature of sexuality with the “big three” as categories of analysis. I am reminded of a friend who recently graduated from Ohio State’s geography department with a master’s degree. He recounted how many of his grad student colleagues were confused why he insisted on including sexuality into his research. It certainly doesn’t matter as much as other issues, they contended.

While it may be “common sense” to many scholars that race, class, and gender—and even sexuality—are valid and “useful categories of analysis,” it seems clear that many others—and certainly the wider public—do not.

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5 thoughts on “Sexuality: a useful category of analysis

  1. Given the prominence of the “it gets better” campaign and the common distinction between big city/small town, and the obvious existence of places like West Hollywood, the Castro district, and scores of other gay districts–actual, physical spaces in the real world–it amazes me that geographers were unable to see the pertinence of one subject to the other. Wooord.

    (Also the “t” in LGBT seems to suggest that perhaps the inclusion of “gender” hasn’t been as inclusive as it could be..)

  2. Yes, you highlight a good point. A lot of it just seems to be overlooked it seems.

    On your second note, I should also add Q to LGBT to make LGBTQ. My apologies!

  3. Hah, my second note was really just agreeing with you! The “gender” that has been incorporated in is narrowly focused on a single gender binary, so I was glad that you added the “T” despite the fact that it should have already been included under the third “big three” of gender.

    Also I suppose it’s worth noting that transgender is (as it’s always been) an awkward fit. In some ways, there’s a lot of crossover (heh) with GLB–a lot of people find it easier to be trans in big cities, for example, than small towns, so the geography idea matches up somewhat. But, trans is not a sexuality, and if a person wants to speak with much degree of specificity, that becomes important. Part of the benefit of gay districts is being immersed in a culture of one’s own, but another valuable aspect of gay districts is just being having a lot of potential romantic partners. The “culture” aspect can certainly hold up for trans people, but the romantic partners part doesn’t hold up as well.

    Anyway yeah: thanks for this, I was happy to read it!

  4. This is a great post!

    It made me think of legal questions like: what would be the consequences of including sexuality and gender under the same “sex” umbrella as a protected category? We just covered a 1998 Supreme Court case called Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. It broadened the meaning of discrimination “because of… sex” under Title VII to include same-sex harassment. Remarkably, it is Justice Scalia that wrote this opinion. But it is not exactly a paragon of gay rights: sexual orientation is still not a protected category under federal law (but it is under California law!). And the facts of this case are chilling.

    Chilling like the statistic of LGBTQ homeless youth.

    — Devin’s nerdy friend Jenn

  5. devin makes some good points. Often, when “gender” is incorporated into analysis, especially historical and sociological analysis, it’s man-woman binary. The “T” in GLBT tries to correct this. I think that “T” also connects to your point that transgender is not a sexuality. And this is one of the perhaps confusing and very important points about all of this. Gender conceptions generally have explicit assumptions (an ideology) about who that gender is expected/allowed/desired to be attracted to. It just makes sense on so many levels to incorporate sexuality as an important category.

    And Jenn raises cool legal questions. I like to hear conservative politicians blather on about how if we protect individuals based on sexuality, then what if someone likes to have sex with goats, etc. etc. (If you don’t believe that this type of rhetoric exists, Google is but a mouse click away.) Just as critical race studies has highlighted the racist nature of much of US law, I imagine there are equally fruitful strains for scholars of sexuality to examine. In terms of social and legal history, I love Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally on miscegenation law in the US.

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