Welcome to Social (in)Queery!

Have you ever wished there was a more publicly accessible queer social science? Well, now there is! Social (in)Queery is a collaborative project that seeks to expand the range of solid, empirically informed intellectual discourse on issues relevant to contemporary LGBTQI life. In the coming months, we plan to offer a range of commentary from some of the leading university-based researchers in the social sciences. So, sit back and relax (or get riled up, if that’s your thing). And to all our colleagues out there with burning social issues or questions you’d like to explore, be sure to drop us a line and tell us you’d like to contribute! We’d love to have you join in the conversation!

Tey Meadow, CJ Pascoe and Jane Ward

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It turns out men’s sexuality is just as fluid as women’s

If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?

Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.

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When Madonna and Britney Spears kissed during the 2003 Video Music Awards, no one suggested they were closeted lesbians. Win McNamee/Reuters

The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.

Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.

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Close quarters: sexual encounters between men and ‘fairies’ were commonplace in the dense neighborhoods of working class Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jacob Riis

With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.

The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.

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Deep kissing was an expression of brotherhood among Hells Angels gang members. thisisthewhat

Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”

Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants. As I document in my new book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.

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Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.

One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.

Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.

But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.

It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.

[Republished from The Conversation, February 2, 2015]

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Gay marriage: check. Queer liberation: ?

*Originally posted at From the Square the NYU Press Blog

Even a feminist/queer critic of marriage (me, alas) can’t help but be moved by today’s decision by the Supreme Court that finally makes marriage equality the law of the land. And coming as this does the day after the Supremes ruled for the Affordable Care Act, putting to rest the Republican obsession with denying Americans health care coverage, all people of good faith (or even simple common sense) should be celebrating. But after the champagne corks are popped and the tears of victory dry, it may be time (long overdue, in my estimation) for the LGBT movement to pivot and recalibrate. The push for marriage rights as signifying all things gay and all things “equal” has taken up too much bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.

So now that the battle is won, how can the movement (or movements more accurately, since the idea of some monolithic “gay movement” is already a problem) re-imagine and re-invent itself? Some moves are already being made, as LGBT activists and organizations have increasingly engaged with broader social justice movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” and other interventions against police brutality and mass incarceration. Surely this work needs to deepen and continue. And the always-frustrating inability for the gay movement to double down on its commitments to core feminist concerns such as sexual freedom, gender violence, and reproductive rights needs to be reckoned with head on. Indeed, as gay marriage triumphed in state after state (and now the Supreme Court), anti-abortion laws and restrictions also barreled ahead, a point Katha Pollitt (http://www.thenation.com/article/205049/theres-reason-gay-marriage-winning-while-abortion-rights-are-losing) detailed painfully in a recent piece in The Nation.

There is a danger that this pivot won’t happen, that gay rights organizations and the money that backs them will pat themselves on the back and declare victory over the ills of homophobia, as if one basic right signifies full inclusion and the end of anti-gay animus. But there is also a danger that the ideology that undergirded much of the marriage movement (that the couple is sacrosanct and “special,” and the only way to raise healthy children; that gays are “born this way” and sexual identity and desire are hardwired so we just can’t help ourselves; that same-sex marriages and parenting as “no different” from heterosexual ones and pose no challenge to heterosexual business as usual) will mitigate against a recalibration that requires a more complex understanding of discrimination and hatred and a more robust vision of inclusion and freedom. In other words, this recalibration must entail a hard look at the problematic arguments (about biology, about family, about gender, about tolerance) that became the common-sense ideology of the marriage movement and, more generally, came to stand in for how “gay rights” have been thought about these past ten years or so.

Celebrate we should – but let us now look back to our more radical liberationist past (a past linked closely with broader concerns over social justice and gender equity) and look forward to a utopian future in which marriage is a basic right, not the brass ring of equality, and the queering of the world does more to rattle the cages than knock discreetly at the chapel door.

Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press 2014). Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and Editor-in-Chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society

 

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Rachel Dolezal is Really Queer: Transracial Politics and Queer Futurity

by Angela Jones, PhD

51nab3h01HL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ 51Q1JMERK5LI have learned three things this week: there are a lot of clinical psychologists on socialmedia, biological determinism has made a comeback, and people are really scared of a queer planet.

On the morning of Friday June 12th I logged onto Facebook and my news
feed was filled with stories about Rachel Dolezal, the black Spokane NAACP leader who had been “outed” as white (by her own parents). In the days that followed, I read everything I could about the case, and the more that I read the more frustrated I became. I understood the negative reactions; I too, was put off by the idea that she allegedly concocted stories about discrimination and even faked her own death threats, that she disowned her parents for their whiteness, made offensive comments about her fictitious Native American background, and so on. However, something is still missing from the accounts I have read; all of the moralizing about Dolezal’s story has obfuscated our ability to read and see the potential for queer futurity in this case. Her life seems like testimony to the potentiality of queer world making—that is—that people can and do craft subjectivities that bring them joy, and that disrupt hegemonic discourses in the process. I began wondering if there was another way to read this case. What if Dolezal was assigned white at birth but has become a black woman?

Much of what has been written about Rachel Dolezal has focused on speculation about her motivations for “passing” as a black woman. I will not make any comments about Rachel Dolezal’s mental health, because unlike the thousands of people on social media who have rushed to diagnose her with a range of mental disorders, I do not have a degree in clinical psychology, and have not had an opportunity to meet her. Moreover, given the long well documented history of medicalizing and pathologizing non-normative behavior, I see this particular discussion as particularly worrisome and unfruitful.

To my mind, her identification with blackness is not some type of white liberal savior politics gone overboard. I don’t read her behavior as some farce or scam so that she can sit with the cool black kids in the lunch room. I also don’t see this as the appropriation of black culture as usual. Dolezal is not Madonna appropriating Vogue from queer men of color. Dolezal is not celebrity X [fill in the blank] who on Halloween thinks it is hysterical to put on blackface. To be clear, I find the examples above incredibly offensive. However, I think reducing Dolezal’s identity to blackface is a mistake, and indicates a clear misreading of the history of minstrelsy and blackface in the US. Instead, what if Dolezal is claiming blackness not as a ruse to capitalize on “black culture”(whatever that is), but as her “truth?” By making a queer intervention into the current debate, I hope to open up a dialogue about how Dolezal’s queering of race demonstrates potentiality for queer futurity.

Queer Theory 101

Disclaimer: I cannot discuss queer theory in any meaningful way in a short paragraph, but here is my best effort to summarize its main contributions, and how those ideas will be used here. Queer theory has emphasized that categorical thinking—specifically, the binary construction of sex, gender, and sexuality are limited and not useful for understanding human beings because these systems ignore sexual variation (e.g. intersexuality), and the fluidity of gender identity and sexual desire (e.g. queer identified people). Moreover, the creation and use of such systems only erases, marginalizes, stigmatizes, and punishes those who do not neatly fit into those boxes. Genealogies of gender and sexuality conducted by social historians have shown us the ways in which these categories have been discursively produced and once institutionalized coercively regulate behavior and bodies. These poststructuralist genealogies of knowledge production have been important because they assist in the denaturalization of behavior. Finally, queer theory has challenged essentialism—that is—there is no biological, authentic, right, inherent, and/or normal way to be anything. All our ideas about appropriate behavior are socially constructed and are constantly in flux, and vary across time, culture, and space.

A queer analysis reveals that people’s reactions to the Dolezal case have been problematic in three main ways. First, the dominant response has reified and essentialized racial categories. In most news and social media accounts, people have said Dolezal is “pretending” to be black. This very notion essentializes blackness, and implies that there is an authentic way to be black, and that because she is white (an immutable fact) that she cannot be black. According to this popular response, Dolezal is merely a white woman in blackface with a bad perm and weaves. However, this response only reifies inaccurate biologically deterministic ideas about race. Crucially, this dominant reaction to Dolezal is actually antithetical to the goals of the black liberation movement. You cannot simultaneously challenge institutional racism, while reifying notions of racial purity.

Second, in addition to essentializing race, the dominant responses to Dolezal have also reductively essentialized ideas about privilege. People have asserted that because she was born white and middle class in Montana that Dolezal’s previous white middle class privilege thwarts her ability to “really” understand black experience. This logic assumes that whiteness=privilege and blackness=underprivileged. Privilege does not work like this; it is contextual, situational, and multifaceted. For example, I am middle class, black, polyqueer, aggressive femme, and Jewish. No doubt—my life has consisted of complex and multifaceted experiences of privilege and discrimination. People have both advantages and disadvantages due to their positions in multiple systems. Our intersectional identities are complex and tricky; an individual could receive privilege from their position in one system (e.g. race), but be disadvantaged because of their position in another overlapping system (e.g. gender). Then to muddy the water further, there are status systems and social hierarchies within each of these systems (e.g. colorism). Thus, in these mainstream stories about Dolezal, race and privilege are discussed in narrow, reductive, and essentializing ways.

Finally, the dominant reaction to Dolezal has also made assumptions about her motivations for passing. Some folks seem to have a problem with Dolezal because she has “co-opted” blackness, and has attempted to pass as black in order to gain access to political power in the black public sphere. Ostensibly, her deception has allowed her to illegitimately acquire a scholarship to Howard University, gain access to a position of leadership in the NAACP, and become an educator of Africana Studies. These awards and positions should have gone to “real” black people. However, this reading of Dolezal’s passing suggests her motivations were nefarious. Given her privileged background, her passing was not grounded in economic, political, and/or social necessity (as it was historically for black folk who engaged in passing). So, in this dominant reading Dolezal’s passing was calculated and used only to acquire institutional rewards and privileges that she did not deserve nor had any right to.

Passing has generally been treated as a survival tacit that is deployed by marginalized people to gain access to resources they need to survive, and to protect themselves from violence. Instead, I’d like to theorize around passing as a mechanism through which people realize self-actualization. Again, what if she is not pretending? She is not co-opting black culture, and black institutions, if she see hers self as a part of these institutions, and sees herself as black. To flippantly reduce her identification as black to mere delusion is a mistake. What if she is trying to find a subjectivity that is real to her? For her, maybe the only livable life is a black one.

Transracial, Transgender: A Note about Terminology

In the past week, the word transracial has been thrown around in news articles and hashtags. Its current use marks an important shift in the terms’ etymology. Previously this term has been used to refer to interracial families; specifically it has been used to describe transracial adoption. For example, Dolezal comes from a transracial family. Her adopted siblings are black, and her parents are white. Dolezal has two black sons. Interestingly, we have seen a shift in the way in which the word transracial is being used; so in addition to the terms use to describe interracial families, it is now also being defined as an umbrella term that encompasses many identities in which a persons’ assigned race at birth does not match their racial identity.

Second, in the past week we have also seen people conflating transgender and transracial identities. So, to be clear, I am not positing that transracial and transgender experiences are the same. To reductively conflate the terms transgender and transracial is both transphobic and racist. Yes, on some broad level people can share common experiences of oppression: exploitation, powerlessness, marginalization, cultural imperialism, and violence. And in the interest of praxis and political mobilization, we often form alliances, despite the complex differences we experience within these systems of oppression. However, gendered oppression and racial oppression are often manifested in very different ways, and experienced by people in very different ways. So, no, Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are not the same; folks, they are not even distant cousins, but the language and frameworks that we use to understand gender can be useful to analyze this high profile case of an individual who has become or now enacts a racial identity different from the one assigned to them at birth.

While transgender and transracial experiences are incredibly different, the logic that is being offered up to explain why transracial identities are not possible or are wrong, is the very same hateful language and logic used by some feminists to talk about transwomen. Janice Raymond wrote,

…the transesexually constructed lesbian-feminist is a man, and not a woman encumbered by the scars of patriarchy that are unique to a woman’s personal and social history that he can play our parts so convincingly and apparently better than we can play ourselves. However, in the final analysis, he can only play the part, although the part may at times seem as, or more, plausible than the real woman.

So, in the Dolezal case, unfortunately Raymond’s arguments have resurfaced. Dolezal cannot be a real black woman because she was born white. She can only pretend or play the part of a black woman. And because she was once a white privileged woman, she cannot transition into the racial identity that she may feel aligns with her soul. Isn’t it oppressive to deny people the right to become who they feel themselves to be?

Raymond famously and offensively compared transwomen to rapists,

…rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he is transsexual and he just does not happen too mention it…Because transsexuals have lost their physical “members” does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s minds, women’s space, women’s sexuality.

Alas, is this not the same logic we see cropping up in the Dolezal case? Dolezal is not a real black woman. She previously lived a life a racial and class privilege; she did not grow up living an “authentic” black life. According to this logic, Dolezal is deceptively passing as black to rape the black community.

The current policing of Dolezal’s body bears a striking resemblance to how some feminists policed transwomen’s bodies. So similarly, Dolezal is not a real black woman and should be shunned from black political circles; but why, for living stealth? If Dolezal finds hurt and pain in her white past, why is she morally obligated to discuss that past? News accounts suggest that her past may have been one of trauma and abuse inflicted by her white conservative parents. Why is it a surprise that she would not want to discuss such a past or even lie about it? If she understands herself to be a black woman, why would she discuss her assigned race? If she identifies as black because it fills her soul with joy, and helps her achieve self-actualization, and has also used her position as a black political figure to fight racial injustice, why the backlash? The backlash is because people are afraid of a queer planet. Subjectivities are ours to craft, and while it is arduous to escape the hegemonic discursive power regimes that imprison our bodies, it is an exercise of agency, empowerment, and queerness to challenge such discursive power regimes. Her choice to fulfill her own racial destiny is her choice, not ours.

Bringing in the Body

In my gender theory course, my students and I always discuss Transmorgfication (a la Nikki Sullivan and Victoria Pitts-Taylor among others). One of things I love most about these discussions is how my students are quick to debate the socially constructed systems we craft to evaluate the ways in which people craft subjectivities using transmorgfication. Nikki Sullivan defines transmogrification as,

strange or grotesque transformation: transformation that is characterized by distortion, exaggeration, extravagance, and as the Short Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘unnatural combinations.’…I will raise the question of what such bodies do, how they function, what effects they produce, what connections they make with other bodies and with particular bodies of knowledge, why, and to what ends.

It is this line of queer reasoning that I would like to explore as well. Dolezal’s aesthetic choices are part of an individualized attempt to transmogrify her body into one that will allow her to be recognized and read as black. Now, instead of seeing this as a nefarious plot to co-opt black politics and black culture, what if her transmorgofication is performed as part of a highly complex ongoing process of self-actualization?

People’s reactions to Dolezals’ body are buttressed by what Victoria Pitts-Taylor has called mutilation discourse. Dolezal has mutilated her body and defied the natural creation of her body. Dolezal’s case is certainly not the only example of people trying to alter their race and being met with scathing critique for mutilating their natural skin. There is a small yet amazing body of literature on skin lightening in Jamaica. For example, Christopher Charles and Donna Hope have both written that while many people are quick to argue that skin lightening is a reflection of self-hate, and internalized white supremacy—this culturally specific form of transmorgfication is not this simple. Moreover, it is imperative to acknowledge that experimentation with transracial transmorgifcation is not one-sided. While Dolezal has worked to accomplish blackness, there is also a historical record of black people working toward achieving whiteness. However, because people hold biological notions of race, most people will react to tampering with phenotype, particularly skin tone as grotesque pathological behavior.

Dolezal has created a body that people find grotesque, not so much because of her body’s aesthetic value, but because her body disrupts the perceived biological certainty of race. Her body is transgressive, because she has disrupted biologically essentialist ideas about race, and thrown into chaos people’s ideas of racial authenticity.

Rachel Dolezal’s body is queer. Her identity shows us quite clearly that race is complex and much like gender and sexuality—it is messy, and it is fluid. Instead of running from that reality, I hope to see more dialogue about how her life and her choices queer our understating of race.

The Queer Potentiality of Transracial Identities

This article was not meant as a defense of Rachel Dolezal, and was not meant to weigh in on her personal choices—we have enough moralistic diatribes about this. Instead I see this high profile case an opportunity to open up a dialogue about queering race, much in the same way we have about gender. I think a queer reading of this case and not an evaluation of Dolezal herself is the way we must move forward.

In trying to queer the Dolezal debate, I’d like to pose the following questions, and hope that these questions can help shape the debates currently unfolding:

1) Is it possible that Dolezal was assigned white at birth, and has over the past decade become a black woman?

2) Can a person transition to another race?

3) If a person transitions their race, should their decision to remain stealth be evaluated and rendered deceptive?

4) What are transracial identities, and in what ways do transracial identities contribute to queer politics and queer futurity?

If we relinquish our fetters to biological determinism, the answers to these questions are no longer so simple, but are certainly worthy of discussion, particularly for those of us fatiguing from the liberal mainstream response to Dolezal.

It also seems to me that the Rachel Dolezal case has made visible hypocrisy in liberal progressive politics. Many people celebrate gender and sexual subversion, but try to apply a queer logic to race, and people freak out. These poststructural cherry pickers tell us that essentializing socially constructed categories such as gender and sexuality are problematic, but when applied to race, it is somehow different—but why? I have yet to hear one logical response to this question.

Finally, people have said that Dolezal has been a distraction from the black liberation
movement, specifically from blacklivesmatter, but queering race works toward destabilizing the very discourses that maintain white supremacy. With this said, I will always personally remain committed to various forms of political action and grass roots activism, but I also see the potential for queer futurity in the Dolezal case. In the past week the Dolezal scandal has pushed discourse; we have seen an explosion of writing that has aimed to bring the idea or possibility of transracial identities to the mainstream, and if discursively pushed far enough, has the potential to legitimate such an identity. And I see this as an exercise in what José Esteban Muñoz called queer world making and signals the potentiality of queer futurity. All of the discourse that has emerged presents a unique opportunity for those invested in queer politics. We must queerly push this conversation—that is—in ways that interrogate and challenge socially constructed ideas about what it means to be real, normal, and natural. To do so, to queer our ideas about race, may just show us what could be waiting on the horizon.

As I was finishing edits on this piece, Dolezal made a public declaration saying that she did identify as black, and that her performances were certainly not blackface. And so I will end with her words, “the discussion is really about what it is to be human…and I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.” Me too, Rachel, me too!

Angela Jones is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York. Jones obtained her PhD from the New School for Social Research. Her research interests include: African American history, gender, sexuality, and social movements. Jones is the author of three books African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement (Praeger, 2011), The Modern African American Political Thought Reader: From David Walker to Barack Obama(Routledge, 2012), and A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias (Palgrave, 2013). She can be reached at jonesa@farmingdale.edu.

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Living (Partially) Outside the Law

Originally posted on Arlene Stein:

Several years ago, when my son was in middle school in a suburb close to New York City, he was required to fill out numerous forms. There were spaces for his mother’s first name, her last name, her work phone, and her home phone, and for his father’s first name, last name, work phone, and home phone. Even in that so-called enlightened town, where there’s a critical mass of children of gay and lesbian parents, the forms assumed that children have one mother and one father, and also that both parents (where divorce is prevalent) share one address.

Lewis placed Nancy’s name in the space that requested information for his “mother,” and where it asked for information about “father,” he crossed out the word “father” and wrote in “mother,” with my information next to it.

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Lack of recognition remains common, even in relatively liberal areas of the United States, where…

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Professional Football: A Queer/Masculine Paradox

6AgsandACoachAs a sociologist, I should hate football. It’s known to be a dangerous sport with long-term damaging effects to brains and bodies. In fact, here is a sociological analysis of how masculinity hurts men (and their bodies) via Football. No doubt, within football, there are many systems of inequalities operating—including but not limited to race, economics, prestige, worker’s rights, and I could go on. However, I grew up under the Friday night lights of Texas and have always lived in big football towns. As such, I also get why it can be treated as a religion.

Sociologically, the game, the business, and all of the dynamics and decision-making that surround the players and the league are fascinating. I especially like the behind the scenes coverage of football. But mostly, I like learning about the art and physics of the game—the bodies in motion and their comportment (here is one of my favorite clips on the precision of passing—which I highly recommend for use in classes during discussions of reliability and validity jic). I bring this up here particularly because overall I find football quite queer.

Football is a masculine paradox. Initially it may seem explosive, rock hard, and even violent, but in slow motion it appears graceful and fluid. The men involved are quite emotional and even moody at times—terms we wouldn’t typically associate with masculinity. But here we revere men’s passion for the game and tears at a loss, or win for that matter. In America, football is often portrayed as the epitome of masculinity. It is a hyper-masculinity that is actually quite over the top, at the same time football can also be very campy (especially when players have to be very precise and flexible with their bodies and as related to their emotions).

My favorite position is the tight end.

Based on the male-to-male touching, the language used, and the athletic bodies, many innuendos and out right claims have been made related to its homoeroticism. I am not the first to note this—just Google “homoerotic” and “football” for further evidence. It has been associated with “ritual homosexuality” and one article I ran across even referred to Football as “America’s Gayest Pastime.”

Draft Watch

Last week(end) was the NFL draft and in honor of all paradoxes, I thought I would share my three favorite masculine moments in the draft. They involve three players in particular—Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel, and Michael Sam. (Sociologically, Jadeveon Clowney’s 2014 NFL Draft Promo also caught my eye with him running shirtless through rain attacking football tackling dummies set to a thunderstorm and animalistic breath sounds—but that is a whole different blog in itself).

Disrupting the Backfield

Sam#1. I will begin with Sam the most mundane and also most extraordinary. Upon getting his phone call and being drafted in the last day in the 8th to last spot, he shares a kiss felt around the (football) nation with his male partner (click Sam above and scroll down to see the kiss). The kiss was on the lips and very short by all definitions and closed mouth—a first male same-sex kiss for the professional league, and perhaps for ESPN coverage. Sam is the first openly gay player to be selected in a draft and if he makes the team he will be the first out professional football player.

To ESPN’s credit, they treated Sam in that moment like they did any and all other athletes. Since Sam is gay, this is actually a huge deal. Sam became by far the most visible 7th rounder pick and controversial in the league and has since received a great deal of coverage due to his sexual orientation and sadly backlash from the kiss. Media is still discussing this topic one week later. Much of the concern stemming from the backlash was for the children who might be watching and how they will be affected, in addition to what this will mean for the men in the locker room, and that there is just no place for kissing in football. The homophobic narratives and symbolic language are actually quite interesting—the idea that men that represent “true” masculinity and are the king of warrior kings within our society would be scared of one man in the locker room. However, as academics we know that “locker room” is code talked about as referring to team cohesion in narratives, but in reality means place where we are naked and vulnerable.

There have also been some great spoofs that have come to Sam’s defense or played on the for the sake of children narratives—you should check them out. Here is my favorite to which my friend and colleague Cate Taylor said it best with: “It had to be done.” This one is particularly great because it highlights how much kissing is a part of the football backdrop, and supports the traditional masculinity of the player image. I also really enjoyed the play on the concern “for the children” that twitter took on here.

Mike#2. Mike Evans is drafted. Surrounded by his family, agents, and friends at the draft he reaches for his daughter and kisses and hugs her upon registering the news. He also appears to get quite choked-up which is understandable, as he has just achieved a lifetime goal. He tries to avoid the camera with his eyes and is checked on by multiple other men as to if he is alright. I love this masculine moment. We see men showing their emotions, being nurturing, and supporting one another in ways that outside of the context of sport could be argued as quite feminine.

Here is a link to someone’s recording of this moment, however, I could not find the actual footage of this on youtube and I have been looking for it for four days now. So this is the best we have. There is footage of most of the other top players selected hearing their news and walking up. I don’t know if this means anything…although I usually find the absence of such things just as insightful.

MikeandJohnny#3 Johnny Football comforts Mike Evans. In the same clip, we see Evans and Johnny Football embrace. It is a longer and intimate embrace—one of brothers. I like this moment. It’s the embrace that is typically only seen as ok between male family members in times of grief and extreme pride…and as we know in sport. Otherwise, it might be deemed gay and thus is just not done if you are a masculine dude.

In all of the above cases, we see men showing affection and supporting one another in a way that is generally considered atypical outside of the context of sports. Outside of the context of sports and family, these moments would not go along with the traditional masculine narrative. Yet within the sports framework, and in some of the most masculine spheres, these behaviors are frequent and understandable. Not feminine, nor gay at all.

 

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Parades, Mardi Gras, and Assumptions about Southern Queer Life

Guest post by Amy L. Stone

This is not what I expected.

I’m standing on the streets of downtown Lafayette, a small city of about 120,000 people in Southern Louisiana in the heart of Acadiana, or Cajun country. I’m in the middle of a research project on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) visibility and incorporation into Mardi Gras throughout the Gulf South. I’ve intentionally avoided New Orleans and instead am looking at visibility and incorporation into Mardi Gras in smaller cities throughout the Gulf South like Mobile, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette.

At the moment, I’m mainly freezing, waiting outside in the March cold for a night parade to start. Along the barricades set up in downtown Lafayette are families with kids, senior citizens, young men and women. I’m standing between an older white couple and three drunk men with matted hair and flannel shirts. The parade begins late and includes a series of high school marching bands and parade floats organized by krewes, or private Mardi Gras societies. The parade floats are all double-decker floats with krewe members throwing beads, stuffed animals, and toys out to people along the route. At the end of the twenty-two floats comes the Mystick Krewe of Apollo de Lafayette, a racially inclusive gay men’s krewe that has run an annual Mardi Gras masque ball in Lafayette since 1976.

At first when I found out that Apollo was going to be at the end of the parade, I wondered if it signaled their marginalization within the parade, relegated to the back of the bus. InsteadCaptain Apollo, as they turn the corner, I realize they are the grand finale. The crowd around me goes wild, the kids screaming and jumping up and down when they hear the music pounding off of Apollo’s float. Overview ShotRainbow FlagsApollo floats include two floodlights searching the skies, and the head of the first float is Captain Apollo, the krewe ball captain decked out in LED-lit costuming from head to foot. The king and queen of Apollo are dressed in royal garb, sashes, and tiaras, with the queen done up in elegant drag. The krewe members on the float throw out beads of all colors, including specially colored rainbow beads. The last float of the parade has four distinct Pride flags, including one modeled after the American flag, draped off the end of it.

My first thought was “it’s a gay bar on a float.”

My second thought was “how is this happening in Lafayette?”

Earlier this week I had been reading about the ongoing issues with queer visibility in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, particularly concerns over explicitly queer symbols like Pride flags. Indeed, there’s a long history of animosity over queer inclusion in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and New York City. Yet here I am in Lafayette, where gay men’s visibility in the parade, including Pride flags and drag, seems to be relatively unproblematic. In fact, Apollo seems to have a more developed gay parading tradition than krewes in New Orleans, where no openly queer krewe parades. Throughout the Gulf South, krewes like Apollo are incorporated into Mardi Gras traditions and often celebrated as producing the best masque balls in town. At these balls, queer relationships, cross-dressing, creativity, and social relations are on display for thousands of ball attendees.

I become acutely aware that my puzzlement over why this parade is happening has a lot to do with my own assumptions about queer progress and geography. I assumed that clearly queer visibility in a city like Lafayette would be significantly less than in Boston or New York City, based on the lack of LGBT political rights in the city and understandings of Southern queer repression.

However, spending my sabbatical studying Mardi Gras in the Gulf South made me acutely aware of the assumptions that many scholars bring to research outside of the queer center. I think of the queer center as queer life in major cities like New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles or well-known queer havens like Key West. These cities are often studied as if there is something generalizable about queer life in them. I wonder if most LGBT scholars study the queer center because of their personal comfort level or because of assumptions that cities like Lafayette will some day in the distant future have the same LGBT tolerance, visibility, cultural forms, activism, legal rights, or public opinions that currently exist in, say, Chicago.

I sense a modernist teleological assumption in discussions about queer life in the South. I’ve had multiple people describe cities like Lafayette or Mobile as being “twenty years behind” the rest of the country, an understanding that is echoed in media reports on the South. This presumes that there’s some trajectory of queer acceptance that happens everywhere in the same way. It reminds me of a modernist division of countries into undeveloped, developing and developed nations, which assumes that developing nations will, of course, eventually become properly and fully developed.

These assumptions are corrected by the complex research on the queer South and on rural queer life. I’ve been thinking a lot about work by scholars like John Howard, E. Patrick Johnson, and Brock Thompson on gay and lesbian life in the South. In his book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, Johnson argues that queer life in the South is often “hidden in plain sight”, as unusual public spaces may be created for same-sex desire and culture. Scholars like Mary Gray and Emily Kazyak studying rural queer life also emphasize that rural cultural spaces are different. In her Gender &Society article on rural lesbians in the Midwest, Kazyak argues that rural spaces may be conducive to lesbian culture, particularly female masculinity.

I wonder if our analysis of queer visibility and acceptance needs to be refined even further to consider these smaller public spaces, the way queer visibility seems to be easily incorporated into a Mardi Gras parade in Lafayette yet is difficult to reconcile with the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston. That rather than a clear notion of queer progress, we understand the contingent, relational, and specific nature of queer visibility.

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Masculinity, Gender (Non)Conformity, and Queer Visibility

By: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Originally posted at Girl w/Pen!

WarpaintCoco Layne got a haircut.  She shaved both sides of her head, but left the top at a length that falls roughly to the bottom of her face.  As a feminist fashion, art, and lifestyle blogger, she was quick to recognize the ways that she could subtly re-style her hair and dramatically alter her presentation of gender (here).   So, in classic feminist art blogger style, she produced an art project depicting her experience.  Coco’s project—“Warpaint”—comes on the heels of several other photographic projects dealing critically with gender: JJ Levine’s series of photographs—“Alone Time”—depicting one person posing as both a man and a woman in a single photograph (digitally altered to include both images); the media frenzy over Casey Legler, a woman who garnered attention, recognition and contracts modeling as a man; the Japanese lingerie company that recently went viral by using a man’s body to sell a push-up bra, just to name a few.

Along with these other photographic projects on gender, Warpaint is critical commentary on what gender is, where it comes from, how flexible it is, what this flexibility means, and what gender (non)conformity has to do with sexuality.  Coco’s work provides important lessons about how gender is produced just below the radar of most people most of the time.  These projects all point out the extensive work that goes into doing gender in a way that is recognizable by others. Indeed, recognition by others is key to doing gender “correctly.” It is what scholar Judith Butler calls performativity or the way in which people are compelled to engage in a identifiably gendered performance. When people fail to do this, Butler argues that they are abject, not culturally decipherable and thus subject to all sorts of social sanctions. Butler points out that the performance of gender itself produces a belief that something, someone, or some authentic, inalienable gendered self lies behind the performance.  These photographic projects lay bear the fiction that there is this sort of inevitably gendered self behind the performance of gender.  This is precisely why these projects produce such discussion and, for some, discomfort.  It makes (some of) us uncomfortable by challenging our investments in and folk theories surrounding certain ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Much of the commentary the Warpaint project focused on Coco’s ability to get a retail job when she displayed her body in ways depicted on the bottom row.  Indeed her experience reflects research indicates that different workplaces reward particular gender appearances and practices. Kristen Schilt’s research on transmen at work, for instance, highlights the way that performances of masculinity get translated into workplace acceptance for these men. Yet doing gender in a way that calls into question its naturalness can put people (including those who do not identify as gender queer or tans) at risk. In Jespersen v Harrah, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that female employees can be required to wear makeup as a condition of employment (in a workplace where men are not required to wear it).  While recent decisions have been more favorable to trans identified employees, most states do not have employment law or school policies protecting gender non-conforming individuals.  Simply put, most states do not have laws addressing —to use Coco’s language—gender expression.

However, for Coco, Warpaint is not just a project highlighting workplace gender bias, it was also about queer visibility.  Coco identifies as a queer femme woman.  On a typical day, she claims to fall somewhere on the third of fourth row of the set of images here. She artistically explores the ways that subtle changes in hairstyle, makeup, and clothing cause dramatic transformations in how others perceive her.  And while Coco’s more “femme” presentations helped her get a job, she also discusses the ways that those same presentations of her body worked against queer visibility.  As Coco put it: “I struggle with femme visibility and find it a little challenging to have the queer community recognize me to be ‘as queer as they are’ because of how femme I look sometimes” (here).

While gender identity and performance and sexual identity are not the same, gendered practices and presentations also signal membership in sexual communities, as Coco points out.  Often gender nonconformity is socially interpreted as a declaration of gay identity.  And, conversely, gender conformity is often “read” as straight.  So, gender conforming gay men and women and gender nonconforming straight men and women might struggle with visibility.  Mignon Moore’s research on Black lesbian communities addresses a similar set of struggles with gender expression and queer visibility.  Moore finds that the gender performances of the women she studied were strongly associated with sexual desires as her participants discussed finding gender expressions that elicited recognition and attention from desired audiences.  Moore’s research is concerned with these women’s experiences in spaces where queer recognition is desired and provides them with status and a sense of community and belonging.   However, queer visibility—as Coco addresses as well—affords a different set of consequences in different kinds of contexts.

As Coco highlights, the movement between masculinity and femininity, as well as the grey area in between, can be accomplished regardless of the sex of one’s body. The story of Warpaint is not just artistic; it is also about the way that gendered performances signify belonging to (or being excluded from) a community.

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