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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On State-Sponsored Homophobia in Russia

Guest post by Russian sociologist, Asya Tsaturyan.

Can a homophobic government create a homophobic populace?

In June 2013 the Russian Parliament (Duma) passed, and President Vladimir Putin signed into law, a bill that prohibits ‘homosexual propaganda’ directed at minors. Putin also signed legislation that forbids adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal. During the current legislative session the parliament was going to vote on a bill that would empower the state to remove children from parents known to be or suspected of being homosexual, but moved to spring based on a technicality (See story here). In July 2013, Levada-Center, the country’s only independent public opinion research organization, conducted a survey focused on Russians attitudes toward LGBT issues that revealed 76% of those polled support the law prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’. The government has been citing these figures to justify an agenda of even more aggressive and comprehensive anti-gay legislation (See story here).

But did Russians always espouse such homophobic sentiment? While Russian conservatism is well documented, as is widespread apprehension about the influence of Western culture in Russia, is suppression of LGBT rights a pressing, general public issue that the government is responding to? Has a pro-gay agenda been “imposed” from outside, influenced by progressive developments in the West? As it turns out, gay rights have never been a populist concern. They appear as orchestrated state initiative to challenge minority rights. These laws have been deployed as a tactic to reinforce a social “order,” in support of an authoritarian regime. What follows is an analysis of how “mobilization” operated in Soviet Russia, an examination of current statistics on homophobia, and discussion explaining the State’s new homophobic agenda and its relationship to the grassroots protest movement.

In his theory of Homo Soveticus, Soviet-Russian sociologist Yuri Levada postulated that Russian public opinion is mainly a reflection of the normative position imposed by the government. Unity of mindset, he argued, can result from political mobilization carried out by the government that focuses on a never-ending struggle with external and internal enemies of the Soviet regime. As in the past, today, such measures are invoked to reinforce support for and the stability of Putin’s administration. A psychologically aggressive social atmosphere results and in turn impacts, a decrease in the diversity of public opinion and decrease in the value of any individual position. Following this theorem it is not surprising, as data confirms, Russians by large have not actively thought about LGBT rights. Their image of the “homosexual lifestyle” issignificantly influenced by state-controlled TV (88% of the population use federal TV channels as their primary source of information (See this). Russian homophobia seems not stem from a deep fear, suspicion or hatred of gays, but instead, as a manifestation of passive alignment with the government. Looking at the data, we can see, that before the homophobic policy has appeared, LGBT theme was not a matter of awareness nor concern for the majority of Russians. Almost 80% of respondents reported that they are not acquainted with any gay, lesbian or bisexual person (See this), suggesting that for the majority of the population, LGBT issues are remote and an abstract concept.

For almost 20 years the Levada Center has been asking Russians, “Which of the problems in our society concern you the most?” This is a partially categorized question that is posed twice a year to a representative sample of the urban and rural population in Russia of 1600 people aged 18 years and older in 130 localities in 45 different regions of the country. The margin of error in these studies does not exceed 3.4%. During this period, the rights of gays and lesbians has never been among the top 20 concerns for Russians. The last time the question was asked was in August 2013. Apprehensiveness about homosexual rights failed to make the list of 20 top fears, despite that this poll was conducted almost a year into the government’s anti-gay legislative campaign. Russians remain mostly anxious about high prices for goods and services, corruption and criminal activity, in line with polls from prior years. It also worth noting that Russians have virtually no fear of “contamination.” The question that was asked in the survey in May 2013 “Do you think your sexual orientation could change under the influence of homosexual propaganda?” 85% of respondents said no. In other words, the vast majority of Russians believe they do not know any gay or lesbian people and believe that they personally cannot be affected by “homosexual propaganda.” Evidently, the anti-gay legislation is also a kind of abstraction: the perpetrators of the crime of “homosexual propaganda” are imaginary, as are its victims.

Oddly, counter-intuitively, support for the anti-gay propaganda law is high, while support for the government as a whole, is at an all-time low. Indices of support for the government show a 20% decrease since 2008, and support for Vladimir Putin dropped from 78% in September 2008 to an all-time low of 27% in December 2012 and has stayed low since (The indices are constructed as the difference between positive and negative answers to the question: “Do you support Vladimir Putin”?), suggesting that the  Homo Soveticus type of thinking may be stronger than the discontent aimed at the government. This may sound paradoxical, but what follows may explain this effect.

So, what explains this contradictory sentiment? In winter 2011-2012 the biggest protests since the 1990s took place in Moscow. Authorities felt threatened, so anti-LGBT campaign was invented as a tool of a new mobilization strategy. This mobilization policy aimed to unify the conservative part of the society by casting LGBT rights as real threat to traditional Russian values, and moreover to identify and marginalize any tolerant and progressive opinions on this topic as corrosive to the body politic. This mobilization was characterized by a complete rejection of individual opinion in the public sphere. And it appears to be a successful strategy,s nice the vast majority of Russians support these homophobic laws. Throughout the 20th century, a primary goal of the Soviet government was to achieve and reinforce the conformity Yuri Levada identified as a key characteristic of Homo Soveticus. Then, as now, evidently the populace sustains a level of inertia that is stronger than any particular discontent with specific leaders or issues, yet vulnerable to fear-mongering. The question remains: if the state can product cultural homophobia, what social forces must be in place to remedy it?

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Bro-Porn: Heterosexualizing Straight Men’s Anti-Homophobia

by Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe

Originally posted at Girl w/Pen!

Every year, since 2009, the men of WarwickEngland’s Warwick University’s Rowing Team pose nude together in a series of photos that can be purchased individually or collectively as a calendar. The sales from this calendar go toward supporting their team financially and to raise awareness about bullying and homophobia among youth. This year, however, the team received international attention (prompting the development of a twitter account, a website, and a store to sell the photos and other team paraphernalia—like their 2013 film, “Brokeback Boathouse”). At first glance it may seem surprising that (presumably) straight men would post naked with one another to raise money. But, when looking at other straight, young, white men’s stances on homophobia it becomes clear that, ironically, part of what is happening here is a shoring up of a particular form of heterosexual masculinity. Indeed the Warwick Women’s Rowing Team produced a similar calendar without the same amount of media attention (and the attention they did receive was more often condemnatory).

MacklemoreThe attention the Warwick boys received echoes that directed at Seattle-based hip-hop artist Ben Haggerty (Macklemore) upon the release of his hit song “Same Love” in 2012.  The song, a ballad of support for gay and lesbian rights, was recorded during the 2012 campaign in Washington state to legalize same-sex marriage. It reached 11 on Billboard’s “Hot 100” list in the U.S., and hit number 1 in both New Zealand and Australia.  The single cover art features Macklemore Unclean image of Ben’s uncle and his partner, Sean. Macklemore, who “outs” himself as straight in the song’s opening, claims that the song grew out of his frustration with hip-hop’s endemic homophobia.*

What do the Warwick University men’s rowing team and Macklemore have in common?  They are all young, straight, attractive, white men taking a public stance against homophobia and receiving a lot of credit for it. This development seems to contradict a great deal of theory and research on masculinity (as well as conventional wisdom) which has consistently shown homophobia to be an important way in which young men prove to themselves and others that they are truly masculine (see here, here and here for instance). Upon first glance it seems that Macklemore and the Warwick University Rowers are harbingers of change – young, straight, white men for whom homophobia is unimportant and undesirable. That is, homophobia is no longer a building block of contemporary forms of masculinity.  Indeed, such a reading may be part of the story.

There is, however, another way to read this transformation. These young men may be doing what sociologist Laura Hamilton calls, “trading on heterosexuality.” In analyzing the popular phenomenon of same-sex kissing among young women at college parties, Hamilton found that this popular practice of same-sex eroticism is, ironically, consistent with a kind of homophobia. Young women who identified as lesbian (and thus would presumably kiss other women) found these party environments to be unwelcoming and hostile. The explanation for this seeming contradiction, Hamilton argues, lay in the meaning of the act, not the act itself. When heterosexual-identified women kissed, they did so for men’s pleasure. These women “traded on heterosexuality,” strategically relying on their ability to symbolically and performatively indicate their own heterosexual identities (in spite of these same-sex practices) to garner attention, status, and better treatment than other groups of women (such as lesbian women). Other scholars argue that pornographic representations of same-sex sex between women have a similar effect – undergirding the naturalness of heterosexuality by positioning this eroticism for men’s pleasure rather than challenging its inevitability.

Could the Warwick men be doing something analogous? That is, could posing provocatively and sensually to fight homophobia work to undergird their own heterosexuality?  Their heterosexuality is so overpowering that any notion they might actually sexually desire one another is laughable. Similarly, Macklemore’s profession of his heterosexuality in “Same Love” actually bolsters his heterosexuality rather than calling it into question. C.J. Pascoe refers to this as a form of “jock insurance.” That is, young men who have (in whatever way) “proven” their (heterosexual) masculine credentials can engage in this sort of gender transgression and remain beyond reproach (see also here). These young men not only “get away” with gender transgressive behavior; their transgressions work in ways that prove exactly how heterosexual they are.

Sociologist Pepper Schwartz argues that for heterosexuality to be successful, it needs to be applauded and celebrated by others (here). The reactions to the Warwick men’s rowing team and Macklemore illustrate a sort of “digital” applause. From twitter, to facebook, to news media, the internet was alive with celebration of good looking, talented straight men’s authentic support for GLB rights. Indeed, for the Warwick team’s and Macklemore’s anti-homophobia to be consistent with heterosexual masculine identities, they need to be interpreted in this way by others.

Public proclamations of support on the part of heterosexual men to end homophobia are significant and important in changing opinion about GLB identities. But, asking what these men are getting out of the performance complicates such an easy analysis. This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobic stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore and the Warwick Rowing Team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobic stance can’t call them into question.

While important steps forward, both Macklemore’s “Same Love” and the Warwick men’s rowing team fundraiser work to individualize a much more complex issue.  They ignore the how their performances of protest are – in some ways – produced by the same heteronormative ideals that help us make sense of their anti-homophobic heterosexual performances of masculinity.  In the end, they’re actually strategically relying on the very discourse they claim to oppose.


* This assertion that has been critiqued as a narrow and racist reading of what constitutes hip-hop.

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Some Clarifications on “No One is Born Gay”

I wrote this post a while back and had I known how many people would read it and how many excellent questions and comments I’d continue to receive, I would have addressed the subject more exhaustively.  And yet, the fact that I wrote with admittedly broad strokes about such a complex issue has prompted readers to produce an awesome archive of thoughtful, challenging, heartbreaking, and irritating responses from which we can all learn.  So that’s good news.

One particularly compelling question has come up repeatedly.  Several commenters have suggested that no one in an oppressively homophobic culture would ever engage in homosexual relationships unless they were born gay, because doing so means risking isolation, violence, and even death.  Some have testified about their personal experiences as gay men or lesbians who came out despite their homophobic context, and even despite their own wishes.  I want to take a bit of time here to dig deeper into this question.

The fact that people persist in having gay or lesbian desires and relationships, even when they are facing some horrific consequences, appears at first blush to be evidence that there must be something so powerful in their physiology that they have no other choice but to act on innate homosexual impulses.  And yet, there is another view to consider, which is that people have long risked death to fulfill desires that are rooted in the social. Girls and women have risked rape and death to attend school or to be out in public at night.  People have risked death, and have died, for the freedom to vote or express their religious beliefs.  While humans may be born with some kind of innate craving for knowledge and self-determination, we are not born with an innate craving for schools or voting, as these are historically specific social phenomena.

In the same sense, we cannot discount the possibility that in the presence of any given sexual desire—the desire to masturbate, the desire to have sex with someone of the same or opposite gender, the desire for oral sex or anal sex, etc.—the human impulse toward self-determination and sexual gratification is very powerful.  But this alone is not evidence that the particular sexual desire in question is in-born, just as religious beliefs are not in-born (no matter how deeply held or severely punished).

Then of course there is the question of how any sexual desire forms in the first place. Like many others, I have taken the position that “sexual orientations” are formed after we are born, sometimes in early childhood and sometimes later.  The possibilities for how this happens, like the possibilities that can lead people to any number of erotic tastes or distastes, are nearly endless.  Good experiences, bad experiences, unconscious experiences, willful defiance, and happy conformity are all potential parts of this story.  The fact that some people don’t have a coherent story about all of the social, cultural, and psychological factors that produced their particular complex of sexual feelings simply does not mean they were born with those feelings already intact.   To my mind, this is equivalent to assuming that George Bush’s transcendence to political power must mean that he was born with exceptional leadership skills or extraordinary personal ambition, when instead we’d do better to trace the multitude of experiences, privileges, connections, and collective influences that have produced George Bush and his life.

The fact that people (and especially women) experience and act on homosexual desire under especially homophobic and patriarchal conditions is to my mind, not a surprise.  In many cultures, acute homophobia goes hand in hand with great restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms, making heterosexual relationships—and the culture of heterosexuality more generally—both hierarchical and violent.  Show me a culture that makes life hell for queers and I will show you a culture that makes life hell for heterosexual women (and that forecloses men’s capacity for true identification and partnership with women).  While it is unpopular among gays and lesbians these days to suggest that some people might choose queerness because heterosexuality has so little to offer, I think this is precisely the experience of many women. Many women orient themselves away from heterosexuality because it has been far less satisfying than they anticipated.  This is NOT because women’s sexuality is inherently more fluid than men’s, but because heterosexual partnership, under sexism, offers women less than it offers men.

The fact that violent religious persecution has often failed to suppress people’s desire to practice their religious traditions—even though there is nothing hardwired about particular religious beliefs—is an amazing testament to the human capacity to become deeply attached to feelings, thoughts, and cravings that are learned and developed after we are born. The fact that homophobia cannot suppress people’s desire for homosexual encounters—even when those desires are not hardwiredis not something to deny, but something to embrace with, dare I say… pride.

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How We Ask about Gender and Sexuality Matters More Than You Think

[This is part of a two-post series on a recent study assessing the reliability of existing survey data on the size of the LGBT population and the state of sexual prejudice.  This post deals primarily with the first of these two issues: the size of the LGBT population.]

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

When nationally representative surveys first started appearing that addressed issues of gender and sexual identities and practices, most people had the same question.  It was some derivation of, “How many gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans*/etc. people are there?”  And, from a sociological perspective, it’s a question often associated with a fundamental misunderstanding of how complicated a question like that actually is.

0226470202In 1994, Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels published an incredible book on one of the first nationally representative surveys of the American population concerning issues of sexuality, sexual behavior, and sexual orientation–The Social Organization of Sexuality.  In their chapter, “Homosexuality,” they begin a brief section of the book on the “dimensions of sexuality” that encompasses some of my favorite findings out of the study.  In it, they write,

To quantify or count something requires unambiguous definition of the phenomenon in question.  And we lack this in speaking of homosexuality.  When people ask how many gays there are, they assume that everyone knows exactly what is meant. (here: 290)

Measuring the size of the LGBT population is difficult for more than a few reasons.  I spend a week on the considerations of measuring sexuality in my Sociology of Sexualities course.  During that week, we deal primarily with discussing the size of the LGBT population in the U.S., how this is measured, and both how and why measurements are likely skewed.  Ritch Savin-Williams has a wonderful short analysis of how challenging it is to estimate the size of the LGB population (here) and Gary Gates’ estimates of the LGBT population are some of the most widely accepted.

Continue reading

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Weigh in on the ASA’s new Gender Categories

Guest post by Tina Fetner; cross-posted from Scatterplot.

What should the asa’s gender categories be?

The ASA is trying to respond to a request from its members to expand the options for gender on its membership form. Right now, the choices are femalemale, and prefer not to answer. There is no category that acknowledges transgender members at all, but creating a new category scheme is not as easy as it might seem. For example transsexual people and transgender people have not always appreciated being lumped into the same category. Some people reject gender categories altogether and might prefer a “none” or some other less alienating gender-non-specific category.

These gender categories are important for a number of reasons. First, by having exclusive gender schemes, the ASA is not acknowledging its trans members. Second, it is a missed opportunity to collect data on the size of the trans membership in the ASA. Third, gender categories are communicative; they tell members who may not be aware that transgender sociologists work among their ranks. Finally, it is important to get the gender categories right because they are teaching sociologists what the “appropriate” categories to use are, setting an important example for us as we design survey questions , courses, departments, etc.

The ASA staff have brought the matter to the Committee on the Status of LGBT Persons in Sociology, but there wasn’t consensus there. They propose (and are planning to implement), the following scheme: 

  • female
  • male
  • transgender-female
  • transgender-male
  • other: ___________
  • prefer not to answer

I am not an expert in trans issues, but this scheme sounds wrong to me in all kinds of ways. It conflates the transgender identity with the FtM* and MtF** identities, which is not a problem for some people, but others see transgender as quite different from the identities that indicate a “switch” of genders. The “other” category is one way to capture gender non-specific individuals, but it is not the most inclusive way to do so.

I looked for guidance from some trans activism website, but there is a lack of consensus on this issue there, too. We seem to be working from scratch here. With that in mind, I am going to propose three additional schemes as conversation starters.

First, the Elegant Gender Scheme:

  • female
  • male
  • transgender
  • _______________
  • prefer not to answer

Second, the Thorough Gender Scheme:


  • female
  • male


  • FtM
  • MtF
  • transgender
  • No gender
  • _________________

Prefer not to answer

Third, the Open Gender Scheme:

  • gender identity: ___________________________

I wonder if others have opinions on this issue. While I don’t imagine there is one right way to do this, I can see quite clearly how easy it is to get it wrong.

*FtM = Female-to-Male = a man who was born in a female body

**MtF = Male-to-Female = a woman who was born in a male body

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Video from “When the Professional becomes Political: Responding to the New Family Structures Survey” at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association

This panel grew out of the controversy following the publication of Mark Regnerus’s article “How Different are the Adult Children of Same Sex Parents? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” in the journal Social Science Research. The article’s claims about these adult children have been debated, debunked and also relied upon for a variety of claims about same sex families and GLB rights in general. This panel brought to bear a distinctly sociological perspective on this research, addressing methods, claims making, media responses to the study as well as the very nature of this type of research.


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