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.
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.