On Queering Parenting and Gender-Neutrality

by: D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges

–Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design and Your Queer Prof

Becoming a parent is fascinating, but becoming a parent who studies gender and sexuality, and—for one of us—identifies as queer… well let’s just say that creates a whole different level of awareness and curiosity. Prior to becoming parents, we both had a fine-tuned appreciation of the ways that gender and sexuality structure our experiences and opportunities. Anne Fausto-Sterling draws a great metaphor comparing the onset of gender binaries to the process of water erosion. river formation diagramAt first, the erosion (read: gender) may not be visible. Small watery tributaries begin to form—the arms of future rivers that could, at this stage, easily change route. Gradually, streams emerge, slowly becoming rivers. And before long, you end up with something like the Grand Canyon. Yet, looking at the Grand Canyon disguises all of the crises that the fledgling streams navigated—a watery path whose flow, course, and geography were yet to be determined. Gender, said Fausto-Sterling, is no different. It takes time to learn to think of it as permanent and predetermined when it is actually anything but.

Just to put this in context, let us provide an example illustrating this issue as well as the sociological imagination of children at work. It involves a trip to the grocery store, a bold 3-year-old girl and her mother. At the checkout line, the girl trotted up to Tristan’s cart with her mother, pointed at Tristan’s son, and asked her mother, “Is that little baby a boy or a baby girl?” The mother looked at Tristan. He smiled, revealing nothing. “That’s… um… a boy, honey,” the mother responded, with a questioning tone (guarding, I’m assuming for the possibility of having mistaken a him for a her). “Why?” the little girl asked. Rolling her eyes at Tristan, the mother looked down and gave that classic parenting response—“Because!” she said. “Will he always be a boy?” she continued. The mother awkwardly chuckled, shrugging her shoulders, grinning and shaking her head at Tristan. “Yes, honey,” she laughed, “He’ll always be a boy.” And with that, they moved on.

The questions seemed odd to the mother, but the little girl clearly wasn’t joking. And she learned something significant in the interaction, even if her mother wasn’t actively teaching a lesson. In fact, some of the most important lessons we teach children are probably not on purpose—showing them what’s worthy of attention, what to ignore, what should be noticed but not discussed, and more. This little girl learned one of the ways that we think about gender in this culture—as a permanent state of being. To think otherwise, she learned, is laughable. This little girl seemed to understand gender as a young stream capable of becoming many different rivers. Her mother seemed equally sure that the stream had a predetermined path. And here’s where things get tricky—they’re both right. It’s likely Tristan’s son will identify as a boy (and later on, as a man). Most boys do. GenderBut treating this process as inevitable disguises the fact that… well… it’s not. This question came out of a 3-year-old because she’s actually in the process of acquiring what psychologists refer to as “gender constancy”—an understanding of gender as a permanent state of being. She’s not there yet, but interactions like the one discussed above are fast helping her along. These beliefs are institutionalized throughout our culture in ways that don’t make interactions like these completely predetermined, but make them much more likely.

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No One is Born Gay (or Straight): Here Are 5 Reasons Why

This post has been elaborated here.

1.  Just because an argument is politically strategic, does not make it true:  A couple of years ago, the Human Rights Campaign, arguably the country’s most powerful lesbian and gay organization, responded to politician Herman Cain’s assertion that being gay is a choice.  They asked their members to “Tell Herman Cain to get with the times! Being gay is not a choice!”  They reasoned that Cain’s remarks were “dangerous.”  Why?  “Because implying that homosexuality is a choice gives unwarranted credence to roundly disproven practices such as ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative’ therapy. The risks associated with attempts to consciously change one’s sexual orientation include depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.”


Cynthia Nixon (right) and wife Christine Marinoni (left)

The problem with such statements is that they infuse biological accounts with an obligatory and nearly coercive force, suggesting that anyone who describes homosexual desire as a choice or social construction is playing into the hands of the enemy.  In 2012, the extent to which gay biology had become a moral and political imperative came into full view when actress Cynthia Nixon, after commenting to a New York Times Magazine reporter that she “chose” to pursue a lesbian relationship after many years as a content heterosexual, was met with outrage by lesbian and gay activists.  As one horrified gay male writer proclaimed, “[Nixon] just fell into a right-wing trap, willingly. …Every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights.”  Under considerable pressure from lesbian and gay advocacy groups, Nixon recanted her statement a few weeks later, stating instead that she must have been born with bisexual potential.

Yes, it’s true that straight people are more tolerant when they believe that lesbian and gay people have no choice in the matter.  If homosexual desire is hardwired, then we cannot change it; we must live with this condition, and it would be unfair to judge us for that which we cannot change.  By implication, if we could choose, of course we would choose to be heterosexual.  Any sane person would choose heterosexuality (not so. see here). And when homophobic people come to the opposite conclusion—that homosexual desire is something we can choose—then they want to help us make the right choice, the heterosexual choice.  And they are willing to offer this help in the form of violent shock therapy and other “conversion” techniques.  In light of all this, I can absolutely understand why it feels much safer to believe that we are born this way, and then to circulate this idea like our lives depend on it (because, for some people, this truly is a matter of life and death).  Indeed, most progressive straight people and most gay and bi people–including Lady Gaga herself–hold the conviction that our sexual orientation is innate.  They have taken their lead from the mainstream gay and lesbian movement, which has powerfully advocated for this view.

But the fact that the “born this way” hypothesis has resulted in greater political returns for gay and lesbian people doesn’t have anything to do with whether it is true.  Maybe, as gay people, we want to get together and pretend it is true because it is politically strategic.  That would be interesting.  But still, it wouldn’t make the idea true.

Unknown2. The science is wrong (Part 1): People like to cite “the overwhelming scientific evidence” that sexual orientation is biological in nature.  But show me a study that claims to have proven this, and I will show you a flawed research design.  Let’s take one example:  In 2000, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a study in which they found that lesbians were more likely than heterosexual women to have a “masculine” hand structure.  Presumably, most men have a longer ring finger than index finger, whereas most women have the opposite (or they have index and ring fingers of the same length).  Lesbians, according to this study, are more likely than straight women to have what we might call “male-pattern hands.”  The researchers concluded that this finding supports their theory that lesbianism might be caused by a “fetal androgyn wash” in the womb—that is, when female fetuses are exposed to greater levels of a masculinizing hormone, it shows up later in the form of female masculinity:  male-pattern hands and… attraction to women.  But this study makes the same error that countless others have made: it does not properly distinguish between gender (whether one is masculine or feminine) and sexual orientation (heterosexuality or homosexuality).  Simply put, the fact that a woman is “masculine” (itself a social construction) or has been introduced to greater levels of a male hormone need not have anything to do with whether she is attracted to women.  We would only assume this if we had already accepted the heteronormative premise that masculine people (or men) are naturally attracted to femaleness and that normal (i.e., feminine) women are naturally attracted to men.  Herein lies the bias.   Many “masculine” women who are heterosexual (have you been to the rural South?) would like us to know that their gender does not line up with their sexual desire in any predictable way.  And many very feminine lesbians would like us to know this too.  The bottom line is that ideas about sexual desire are so bound up with misconceptions about gender and with the presumption that heterosexuality is nature’s default, that science has yet to approach this subject in an objective way.  For a comprehensive examination of the flaws in the most widely cited research on sexual orientation, see Rebecca Jordan-Young’s brilliant book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (Harvard University Press, 2011).

3.  The science is wrong (Part II): An even greater problem with the science of sexual orientation is that it seeks to find the genetic causes of gayness, as if we all agree about what gayness is.  To say that “being gay” is genetic is to engage in science that hinges on a very historically recent and specifically European-American understanding of what being gay means.  In Ancient Greece, sex between elite men and adolescent boys was a common and normative cultural practice. According to historians Michel Foucault and Jonathan Ned Katz, these relationships were considered the most praise-worthy, substantive and Godly forms of love (whereas sex between a man and a woman was, for all intents and purposes, sex between a man and his slave).  If men having frequent and sincere sex with one another is what we mean by “gay,” then do we really believe that something so fundamentally different was happening in the Ancient Athenian gene pool?  Did some evolutionary occurrence enable Plato’s ancestors to get rid of all of those heterosexual genes?  And what about native cultures in which all boys engage in homosexual rites of passage?  Do we imagine that we could identify some genetic evidence of propensity to ingest sperm as part of a cultural initiation into manhood?  What about all of the cultures around the globe in which male homosexual sex does not signal gayness except for under certain specific circumstances (e.g., you are only gay if you are the receptive sexual partner, or if you are feminine)?  And while I am on this subject, what about the fact the United States is precisely one of those cultures?  When young college women lick each other’s boobs at frat parties, or when young college men stick their fingers in each other’s butts while being hazed by their frat brothers, we don’t call this gay—we call this “girls gone wild” or “hazing.”  My point here is that a lot of people engage in homosexual behavior, but somehow we talk about the genetic origins of homosexuality as if we are clear about who is gay and who is not, and as if it’s also clear that “gay genes” are possessed only by people who are culturally and politically gay (you know, the people who are seriously gay).  This is a bit arbitrary, don’t you think?

Just 150 years ago, scientists went searching for the physiological evidence that women were hysterical.  Hysteria, by Victorian medical definition, meant that a woman’s uterus had become dislodged from its proper location and was floating around her body causing all sorts of trouble—like feminism, and other matters of grave concern.  And guess what, they found the evidence, and they published books and articles to prove it.  They also looked for and found the evidence that all people of African and Asian ancestry were intellectually and morally inferior to people of European Ancestry.  Many books were published dedicated to establishing these obviously absurd and violent beliefs as legitimate and indisputable scientific facts.  Similarly, the science of sexual orientation has a long and disturbing history.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was believed that homosexuals had beady eyes, particularly angular facial structures, and “bad blood.”  Today, we apparently have gender variant fingers and gay brains.

Is it possible that people who identify themselves as “gay” in the United States (again, keep in mind that “gay” is a culturally and historically specific concept), share some common physiology?  Perhaps.  But even if this is so, do we really know why?  Indeed, we may find (as Simon LeVay did) that men who identify as gay share a certain trait—a larger VIP SCN nucleus of the hypothalamus, for instance.  But how do we know that this “enlargement” is a symptom or cause of their homosexuality, and not, say, a symptom or cause of their general propensity for bravery, creativity, or rebellion?  In a homophobic culture, you need some bravery (and other awesome traits) to be queer.  Perhaps these personality traits are what are actually being observed under the microscope.

And, of course, there is the time-eternal question: why aren’t scientists looking for the genetic causes of heterosexuality?  Or masturbation?  Or interest in oral sex?  The reason is that none of these sex acts currently violate social norms, at least not strongly enough to be perceived as sexual aberrations.  But this was not always true.  In the 19th century, scientists were interested in the biological origins of the “masturbation perversion.”  They were interested because they believed it was pathological, and because they wanted to know whether it could be repaired.

At the end of the day, what we can count on is that the science of sexual orientation will produce data that simply mirror the most crass and sexist gender binarisms circulating in the popular imagination.  This research will report that women are innately more sexually fluid than men, capable of being turned-on by almost anything and everything (hmmm…. other than in Lisa Diamond’s research, where have I seen that idea before?  Ah yes, heterosexual pornography.)   It will report that men are sexually rigid, their desires impermeable.  It will tell us that straight men simply cannot be aroused by men and that gay men are virtually hardwired to be repulsed by the thought of sex with women.  Regardless of what else we might say about the soundness of these studies, what is evident to me is that they have been used to authorize many a straight man’s homophobia, and many a gay man’s misogyny.

4.  Just because you have had homosexual or heterosexual feelings for as long as you can remember, does not mean you were born a homosexual or heterosexual.   There are many things I have felt or done for as long as I can remember.  I have always liked to argue.  I have always loved drawing feet and shoes.  I have always craved cheddar cheese.  I have always felt a strong connection with happy, trashy pop music.  These have been aspects of myself for as long as I can remember, and each represents a very strong impulse in me.  But was I born with a desire to eat cheddar cheese or make drawings of feet?  Are these desires that can be identified somewhere in my body, like on one of my genes?  It would be hard to make these claims, because I could have been born and raised in China, let’s say, where cheddar cheese is basically non-existent and would not have been part of my life.  And while I may have been born with some general artistic potential, surely our genetic material is not so specific as to determine that I would love to draw platform shoes.  The point here is that what we desire in childhood is far more complex and multifaceted than the biological sciences can account for, and this goes for our sexual desires as well.  Some basic raw material is in place (like a general potential for creativity), but the details—well, those are ours to discover.

5.  Secretly, you already know that people’s sexual desires are shaped by their social and cultural context.  Lots of adults worry that if we allow little boys to wear princess dresses and paint their nails with polish, they might later be more inclined to be gay.  Even some liberal parents (including gay and lesbian parents) worry that if they introduce their child to “too much” in the way of queer material, this could be a way of “pushing” homosexuality on them.  Similarly, many people worry that if young women are introduced to feminism in college, and if they become too angry or independent, they may just decide to be lesbians.  But if we all really believed that sexual orientation was congenital—or present at birth—then no one would ever worry that social influences could have an effect on our sexual orientation.  But I think that in reality, we all know that sexual desire is deeply subject to social, cultural, and historical forces.  We know that if the world today were a different place, a place where homosexuality was culturally normative (like, say, Ancient Greece), we would see far more people embracing their homosexual desires.  And if this were the case, it would have nothing to do with genetics.

The concept of “sexual orientation” is itself less than 150 years old, and almost equally recent is the notion that people should partner based on romantic attraction.  Most of what feels so natural and unchangeable about our desires—including the bodies and personalities we are attracted to—is conditioned by our respective cultures.  The majority of straight American men, for instance, will tell you that they have a strong, visceral aversion to women with bushy armpit hair.  But this aversion, no matter how deep it may now run in men’s psyches and no matter how nonnegotiable it may feel, is hardly genetic.  Up until the last century, the entire world’s female population had armpit hair, and somehow, heterosexual sex survived.

People like to use the failure of “gay conversion” therapies as evidence that homosexuality is innate.  First of all, these conversions do not always fail; if you make someone feel disgusted enough by their desires, you can change their desires.  Call it a tragedy of repression, or call it a religious awakening—regardless, the point is that we can and do change.  For instance, in high school and early in college, my sexual desires were deeply bound up with sexism.  I wanted to be a hot girl, and I wanted powerful men to desire me.  I was as authentically heterosexual as any woman I knew.  But later, several years into my exploration of feminist politics, what I once found desirable (heterosexuality and sexism) became utterly unappealing.  I became critical of homophobia and sexism in ways that allowed these forces far less power to determine the shape of my desires.  If this had not happened, no doubt I’d be married to a man.  And if he wasn’t a complete asshole, I’d probably be happy enough.  But instead, I was drawn to queerness for various political and emotional reasons, and from my vantage point today, I believe it to be one of the best desires I ever cultivated. [Does this mean that your daughter may decide to be a lesbian if she takes some women’s studies courses? Yes. Whatcha gonna do now?!]

Perhaps most importantly, the fact that we might cultivate or “choose” something doesn’t mean that it is a trivial, temporary, or less a vital part of who we are.  For instance, is religion a choice?  Certainly it is if we define “choice” as anything that isn’t an immutable part of our physiology.  But many religious people would feel profoundly misunderstood and offended if I suggested that their religious beliefs were a phase, an experiment, or a less significant part of who they are then, say, their hair color.  Choices are complex. Choices run deep.  And yes, choices are both constrained and fluid–just like our bodies.

Post script: Ultimately, the terms set forward in the public debate about this subject–biology versus “choice”–are quite limited, mainly because “choice” is not the most useful term for describing all of the possibilities that sit apart from biology.  Several social, cultural, and structural factors can shape our embodied desires and erotic possibilities.  The fact that these factors are not physiological in origin does not mean that they aren’t coercive or subjectifying, resulting in a real or perceived condition of fixity or “no choice.”  We know that social factors also become embodied over time.  And yet, I remain somewhat committed to the concept of “choice”–or something like it–to describe the possibility of a critical and reflexive relationship to our sexual desires. Personally, the idea that I don’t have control over who or what I desire is a big turn-off to me, so I am constantly pushing back on what feel like the limits of my own desires. For instance, I went through a period of pushing myself to date femmes because I had some good reasons for being suspicious about why I had ruled them out from my dating pool. When it felt like I could never be nonmonogamous, I made it a goal to at least try. Then when I realized I only really felt attracted to alcoholic rebels, I nipped that in the bud too. Just when I thought I’d never think hairy men were hot, I allowed myself to face my attraction to Javier Bardem.  When my tastes and proclivities start to feel like they are solidifying, I get suspicious and disappointed. So, in the interests of full disclosure, I am writing from the perspective of someone who finds sexual fixity pretty uninteresting, and who believes that there are really good feminist and queer reasons to take regular, critical inventory of the parts of our sexuality that we believe we cannot or will not change.

Check out another post by Jane Ward here.

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Can Living in the City Make you Gay?

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

Screen shot 2013-03-05 at 3.20.36 PMGallup recently published results from a new question garnering a nationally representative sample of more than 120,000 Americans: “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?”  The results come out of interviews conducted in 2012 and confirm recent estimates by demographer Gary Gates on the size of the LGBT population in the U.S.  Combining data from a range of surveys, Gates suggested that approximately 3.5% of the adult population in the U.S. identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and an additional 0.3% identifies as transgendered.  Screen shot 2013-03-05 at 3.20.59 PMThe Gallup poll also found that around 3.5% of the U.S. adult population says “yes” when asked whether they “identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”

These findings are interesting and important for a number of reasons.  One issue that they bring up is simply the issue of actually measuring sexuality.*  It’s harder than you might assume.  For instance, Gallup asks how people identify themselves.  Questions about sexual identification produce some of the lowest percentage of LGBT responses on surveys.  Asking questions about  sexual desires and behaviors produces higher percentages.  Questions about same-sex attraction have found that as much as 11% of the U.S. population can be classified as LGB.  untitledSimilarly, questions concerning same-sex behaviors have produced numbers as high as 8.8% of the U.S. population.  This doesn’t mean that the Gallup findings are unimportant; it means that we need to recognize that sexuality is more dynamic that we might initially assume.

Subsequently, Gallup released a report documenting the relative prevalence of LGBT individuals throughout the U.S.  Simply put, LGBT individuals are not uniformly distributed throughout the country.  Some places have relatively high numbers, while other have lower numbers.  Gallup chose to break this down by state.  The state with the highest proportion is not actually a state at all; it’s a federal district—the District of Columbia (10%).  The state with the lowest proportion of “yes’s” to the question was North Dakota (1.7%).

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Strong Amicus Brief from the American Sociological Association

Cross-posted on Queer(ing) Law

The American Sociological Association just filed an amicus brief in the same-sex marriage cases at the Supreme Court presenting the strong social science consensus that children of same-sex couples fare just as well as children of opposite-sex couples. This brief hasn’t received much attention in the mainstream press, but it has been mentioned in at least some of the blogosphere (see herehere, and here). I’m going to summarize the main points from the brief, then I will praise the brief for focusing on family stability instead of marriage, and finally I’m going to argue that this brief exemplifies the role that the ASA should play at the Supreme Court.

Summarizing the Brief

The amicus brief has two main sections. In the first section, it presents the scholarly consensus that “children of same-sex parents fare just as well as children of opposite-sex parents.” In the second section, it specifically responds to studies claimed to undermine this consensus. In particular, the brief details the methodological flaws and limitations of the Regenerus study that the anti-same-sex marriage side has heavily cited.

The brief starts out by presenting the “numerous nationally representative, credible, and methodologically sound social science studies [that] form the basis of this consensus.” It goes into detail on how these studies reveal no differences across several important measures, including “academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.” In very accessible language, the brief highlights the methodological strengths of various studies. Implicit in this discussion is the special authority of the ASA and its members in judging the methodological soundness of sociological research. The brief emphasizes that findings on child welfare are consistent across multiple areas. It also notes that, as a legal matter, the research presented in the brief is consistent with what experts presented at the trial level and the conclusions in the lower court opinions.

In the second section, the brief directly addresses the studies that opponents of same-sex marriage cite as support for claims that children fare better with opposite-sex parents. The brief carefully illustrates how these studies do not address same-sex parents. The ASA brief also argues that opponents of same-sex marriage mischaracterize the results of the studies. In particular, the brief includes a detailed discussion of the methodological flaws and weaknesses in the study by Mark Regnerus (himself a sociologist).

As explained in the ASA brief, the Regnerus study is heavily cited for the idea that children of opposite-sex couples fare better than children of same-sex couples. The study “examines children who… had a parent who at any time had a same-sex romantic relationship.” The vast majority of these children were not raised by stable same-sex couples. Instead, most of these were children of divorced opposite-sex couples where one parent later had a same-sex relationship of any duration. In many cases, the child did not even live with the parent in a same-sex relationship. Regnerus compared this group to children raised by married opposite-sex couples. The ASA brief powerfully makes the claim that Regnerus’s results only point to the importance of family stability and have no implications for same-sex parenting: “If any conclusion can be reached from Regnerus’s study, it is that family stability is predictive of child wellbeing.”

The brief then explains how anti-same-sex marriage groups mischaracterize other research involving single parents, divorced parents, step-parents, and adoptive parents. As with the Regnerus study, this other research shows how family stability matters to child outcomes but does not have implications for same-sex parenting. In fact, as the ASA brief notes, the authors of some of this other research have rejected the ways that anti-same-sex marriage groups have tried to use it.

How the Brief Avoids Privileging Marriage

Advocates for same-sex marriage frequently argue that the children of same-sex couples are hurt by laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage becomes the only solution to promote the welfare of children of same-sex couples. In this formulation, marriage and married couples become privileged over any other family form (see Nancy Polikoff for a great discussion of the problems with privileging marriage). Scholars from various disciplines argue that this leads to a failure to consider how state and social support matters to families that do not fit the two-parent married-couple model.

I was happy to see that ASA’s brief avoided this privileging of marriage. A few sentences (in a long brief) do suggest this idea of marriage as the solution. For example: “To the extent some of the studies cited by BLAG and the Proposition 8 Proponents show that stability improves child outcomes, they confirm that marriage rights for same-sex couples and the federal recognition of such marriages are likely to improve the wellbeing of children of same-sex parents by providing enhanced family stability;” “Extending this logic to the context of same-sex couples and their children, recognition of marriage rights of such couples could improve, not impair, the wellbeing of children being raised by currently unmarried same-sex parents” (Emphasis added). Even here, the language is careful. Marriage could contribute to the well-being of same-sex children, but it is not privileged as the only solution or the necessary goal.

Outside of these few sentences, the body of the brief forcefully argues that family stability is the key concern. The brief carefully avoids privileging marriage as the source of this stability: “In sum, as the overwhelming body of social science research confirms, whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s well being. Instead, the consensus is that the key factors affecting child wellbeing are stable family environments and greater parental socioeconomic resources, neither of which is related to the sex or sexual orientation of a child’s parents.” The brief “demonstrat[es] that children of residentially stable same-sex parents are as likely to make normal progress through school as children from stable opposite-sex married parents.”

This is true even when the brief explains why studies that compare divorced or single parents to married opposite-sex parents have no bearing on same-sex parents. The brief explains that “the studies confirm that parental stability and higher parental socioeconomic resources are the key drivers of positive child outcomes.” It would be easy to treat marriage as the explanatory factor for why married opposite-sex parents fare better than single parents, using that to argue for same-sex marriage. But the brief instead explains that parental stability is the key factor. By insistently focusing on family stability instead of marriage as the predictor for positive child outcomes, the brief avoids privileging marriage.

As a scholar who has worked on the power of law to legitimize and privilege marriage above other family forms, I particularly appreciated this care in not privileging marriage.

This Brief Exemplifies the Role That ASA Should Play

While ASA does not frequently file amicus briefs at the Supreme Court, this is not the first time that it has done so. The last time (that I’m aware of) that ASA submitted an amicus brief was in 2011, in the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case. In the Dukes case, William Bielby (past president of ASA) presented expert testimony on how Wal-Mart’s managerial culture may have led to a consistent pattern of gender discrimination in employment. ASA’s amicus brief specifically did not take sides on Bielby’s substantive argument, instead defending the scientific legitimacy of his methods (Nielsen et al. 2011). The debate surrounding that brief raises useful issues to think about how ASA should be involved at the Supreme Court.

One of ASA’s key roles is defending and promoting sociology as a discipline. By filing an amicus brief at the Supreme Court, ASA puts its imprimatur on a set of scientific claims as legitimate. While different parties disagreed over how ASA’s Dukes brief presented the scholarly literature, they did agree that ASA could play a key role in certifying to the court the state of scientific knowledge in a field (Nielsen et al. 2011, see also other articles in that same special issue of Sociological Methods and Research). The same-sex marriage brief is a model for this goal of presenting the state of scientific research. The brief reflects an extensive review of the relevant literature. It includes key discussions of methodology, laying out in layman’s terms why the methods used in particular studies are important. The brief takes the time to describe the process of developing scientific consensus around how parenting impacts children. Instead of making more aggressive normative claims about how children should be raised or how same-sex parents are good for children, the brief is limited to the very modest claim that no evidence shows that children of same-sex parents fare any worse than children of opposite-sex parents.

One of the key questions that came up in debate over the ASA’s Dukes brief was over the strength of the causal claims. Opponents of the brief claimed that even if Bielby accurately described the literature on employment discrimination, he had insufficient data to determine what happened at Wal-Mart. The ASA’s brief, however, only defended the applicability of sociological methods to individual case studies, not Bielby’s specific substantive arguments. Likewise, in the marriage cases at hand, the ASA brief does not make any causal claims about Proposition 8 or DOMA. The brief is limited to presenting the scholarly consensus that children of same-sex parents fare no worse than children of opposite-sex parents. From there, many advocates jump to the argument that Proposition 8 and DOMA are harmful to children of same-sex parents. But the ASA brief is far more measured. In a couple places it offers a qualified suggestion that marriage may promote the family stability that benefits children. But the bulk of the brief specifically does not engage with what impact, if any, Prop 8 or DOMA has had on families.

Perhaps the most contentious issue in the ASA brief is the strong direct refutation of the conclusions that the supporters of Prop 8 draw from the Regnerus study. Can a professional association present a scholarly consensus when at least one of its own members argues against that consensus? There might never be complete unanimity on any scholarly point. But as Nielsen et al (2011) so eloquently explain: “What does this mean for disciplinary associations like the ASA? It could mean abstention from the public sphere; because sociologists disagree, their collective representative cannot speak to these debates. But this solution comes with a major consequence. If the ASA does not represent our discipline, someone else will.”

Judges and courts are going to use social science evidence, whether we participate in court or not. Various studies suggest that judges actually do try to apply the relevant scientific standards to evidence presented in court. Judges want to know if evidence holds up to the standards of its discipline. They look for markers of acceptance in the scholarly community. ASA (and other professional academic organizations) can play a key role in providing this evidence. ASA’s brief in this case carefully detailed the numerous studies that went into producing a scholarly consensus. The brief particularly emphasized the methodological standards involved. It carefully explained the methodological flaws in Regnerus’s study, but even then the brief only claimed that the study did not support the results claimed of it. The brief was careful to provide the justices with the tools to evaluate the scientific knowledge for themselves. The brief uses strong, clear language to “[state] our findings in ways that are relevant to the questions before the court” (Nielsen et al 2011).

Without the ASA brief in this case, the Regnerus study would have stood for the voice of sociology. Thus the choice of whether to file a brief was not made in a vacuum. The choice was to stand up for disciplinary standards and methodological rigor. The choice was to identify what criteria sociologists agree on in studying same-sex parents. The choice was to defend the role of our discipline in the public sphere. And I’m glad that ASA filed the brief that it did.


Nielsen, Laura Beth, Amy Myrick, and Jill Weinberg. 2011. “Siding with Science: In Defense of ASA’s Dukes v. Wal-Mart Amicus Brief.” Sociological Methods and Research 40(4):646-67.

Polikoff, Nancy D. 2008. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press.

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Toward a Sociology of “Grindr”

–Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

Grindr-Logo-gold-background-1024x1024Apps like Grindr have really changed the ways gay men can interact in public.  I’ve heard Grindr described in different ways, but it—and apps like it—are often talked about as “gay GPS.”  They’ll tell you, based on your current location, who in your vicinity is also on the App.  As with Myspace, Facebook and other social networking sites, Grindr became popular among a diverse group of gay, bi, and curious men, prompting some groups to remain, while others migrate to different digital spaces.  The most recent I saw marketed is Distinc.tt which is clearly being marketed as a space for those looking for a gay digital space devoid of what are framed at Distinc.tt as the less savory elements of Grindr culture.

A541245_214374312026457_1008125747_ns they put it, Distinc.tt is “prettier and less sketchy.”  Organizing themselves around more than just Grindr’s “who, specifically around me is gay” approach, Distinc.tt also tells users about where local “hot spots” are (locations with a critical mass of Distinc.tt users).  So, while Grindr’s ploy has been to market the sheer volume of users it has, Distinc.tt is framed in a way that suggests fewer users–a smaller, elite collection of the “right” kind of gay men.

Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 2.37.08 PMHow these apps are marketed (i.e., who they’re “intended to be used by,” who they’re hoping to dissuade from use, and precisely what the app states as it’s intended use) illustrates racialized, classed, and gender-Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 2.37.56 PMpresentational tensions and dynamics at work in organizing gay men’s public erotic lives.  Distinc.tt (left) doesn’t state this explicitly, but it seems intended to be used by a more economically and culturally elite group of (primarily) white, young, gay men.  Conversely, Grindr (right) is presented as more of a free-for-all of younger gay men of all different races and classes.

Adam Isaiah Green’s theorization of sexual fields and erotic capital is a great analytical tool to discuss these social spaces that occupy that fuzzy terrain between the digital and physical.  “Sexual fields” refer to spaces within which a specific set of “erotic capital” are understood to have purchase.  Green defines erotic capital in this way: “the quality and quantity of attributes that an individual possesses, which elicit an erotic response in another” (here: 29).  So, a constellation of physical, emotional, sensual, and aesthetic elements of identity are at play in this definition.  Yet, like Bourdieu’s conceptualization of cultural capital—and similar to my theorization of gender capital—how much erotic capital one has depends on the field one occupies.  Green conceptualizes sexual fields—within Bourdieu’s theoretical framing of “fields”—as “semiautonomous arenas” (here: 26).  By this he is arguing that they are the social spaces defined by the erotic capital understood to have purchase.

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Collective Memory of Police Surveillance?

While doing dissertation research, I came across an op-ed in The Advocate, criticizing the elimination of some protections against police surveillance (see here). The piece was written by a lawyer from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and argued that LGBT people should be opposed to an agreement between San Francisco police and the FBI that bypassed some of the civilian protections against police abuse in San Francisco. These protections, the op-ed pointed out, were first championed by Harvey Milk to help protect LGBT people against rampant police abuses. The FBI-police agreement might particularly harm Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people, but these communities include LGBT people. The LGBT community should remember its own history of police abuse and be vigilant against police infringement on anybody’s liberties.

This op-ed contrasted wildly with the continuing saga of events in my own neighborhood. Last summer, following some isolated violence in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, a group calling itself “Take Back Boystown” formed. This group attributed the violence to the increased presence of queer youth of color in Boystown. Many of these youth come to Boystown from the South side of Chicago and other parts of the city, because they feel safer in Boystown and local organizations in Boystown offer services to support these youth. Having no where else to go, these youth often congregate on the sidewalks and in parking lots. “Take Back Boystown” describes the youth as menacing and intimidating, claiming they do not belong in the neighborhood. This group has called for increased police patrols in Boystown, to help clear the parking lots and sidewalks and keep residents safe. Most recently, the Northalsted Business Association (a business association for businesses in Boystown) responded to this pressure by hiring private security guards, a move applauded by Take Back Boystown.

As I kept thinking about these examples, I focused on how differently they seemed to define the boundaries of the LGBT community. The poor homeless youth despised by some in Boystown are clearly drawn into the expansive understanding of community suggested in the op-ed by NCLR. To suggest that we need to “take back” Boystown excludes these youth from the community. And so I was thinking about intersectionality, asking what does this tell us about processes of secondary marginalization (Cohen 1999). And these two examples do raise a lot of important questions about how intersectionality does or does not work. But a lot of queer bloggers in Chicago have already roundly criticized much of what Take Back Boystown has done (here and here for examples). So then what I want to talk about is how these examples explicitly and implicitly mobilize very different understandings of the past.

The Stonewall Riots of June, 1969 are typically commemorated as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement (Armstrong and Crage 2006 discuss why Stonewall is commemorated instead of other, earlier events). In these riots, queer people fought back against the frequent police raids on gay bars in New York City. Activists in San Francisco similarly fought back against police harassment and bar raids, including at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 (Armstrong and Crage discuss some of these events). The work done by Harvey Milk, celebrated in the NCLR op-ed, was in response to this history of police violence. Modern Gay Pride Parades are the continuation of the early commemorations of Stonewall. But while the early marches celebrated the willingness of LGBT people to fight back against the police and the state, today’s parades are often organized in conjunction with and depend upon the police.

How did we get here? And how do our commemoration practices matter to how we think about the present-day problems facing LGBTQ people? Various scholars and activists have compared the LGBT community to ethnic minorities, suggesting that unlike ethnic minorities, LGBT people cannot count on learning about “their” past from their families (e.g., Epstein 1987 for an academic discussion, here for a recent example from the blogosphere). But it’s too easy to just say that NCLR is remembering a history that Take Back Boystown forgets. Collective memory scholars describe how we actively construct past memories and attribute meaning to them. Both groups, then, are engaged in a present-day process of constructing the past.

Eviatar Zerubavel (1997) describes how we construct a set of interpretive schemata as we make sense of past events. These schemata define different types of events and include their various characteristics. We use these schemata as we construct memories of the past. “Police violence” and “protester riots” invoke different understandings of the same events, influencing how we think about their meaning.

So then one way of thinking about this difference between the events in San Francisco and Chicago is to ask how these groups invoke different schemata and how this influences their conclusions. The development of hate crime legislation is particularly important to describing these different schemata. Hate crime laws institutionalize a way of thinking about anti-LGBT violence as located outside the state. LGBT advocates used narratives of anti-LGBT violence in arguing for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime laws (Jenness and Grattet 2004). In the process, these advocates simultaneously obscured how the police target marginalized people, including queer people (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 2011). They forgot the history of anti-LGBT police violence. While the Tack Back Boystown group did not directly describe the violence as “hate crimes,” these laws almost surely provided a model. Following the hate crimes script, Take Back emphasized how LGBT people were unsafe, how they were victimized. The violence was not directly described as based on hate, but the idea of outsiders coming into the community was emphasized.

This insight points to the importance of thinking about how we choose schemata as we construct the past. Different assumptions about the role of the police follow from the different schemata we might employ. The different schemata used by NCLR and Take Back Boystown have critical implications for how we describe the boundaries of the queer community, how we describe the problem, and how we think about solutions. Even while remembering the same set of events, by using different schemata, different groups can draw very different meaning from those events. The hate crime schemata demands clear “victims” and “aggressors,” walling the LGBT community off from others. The “police surveillance” script instead connects LGBT people to other communities targeted by police practices.

But perhaps an even more interesting insight comes when we think about the social construction of past time periods. While we may think about the past in terms of different time periods or eras, past events do not really draw these sorts of clear lines (Zerubavel 2003). Instead, we socially construct the meaning of the past, defining when one era ends and another begins (id.). We tend to assume that events in an era “belong” together. An event at the end of one era may be very close in time to an event at the beginning of the next era, but we classify them as separate.

What does this mean for how we think about LGBT history? In his book, The World Turned, historian John D’Emilio writes that in the 1990s “A group of people long considered a moral menace and an issue previously deemed unmentionable in public discourse were transformed into a matter of human rights, discussed in every institution of American society . . . During the 1990s, the world seemed finally to turn and take notice of the gay people in its midst” (2002). Hate crimes legislation was one piece of this broader change.

And so today, for many young LGBT people, the relevant history is the past decade. Sure, the state repressed LGBT people. But that was in the past. Not today. Not now. And so that past is lost as a point of comparison. It’s in a different era. Surely “Take Back” does not refer to taking back the early days of pride parades in Chicago, when very small numbers marched through present-day Boystown. When few LGBT friendly businesses existed. When LGBT people avoided contact with the police. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the iconic rainbow pillars were installed on Halsted Street, down the main through-fare of present-day Boystown. So then “Take Back” refers to a much more recent past. It uses a narrative of a past when LGBT nightlife thrived, out in the open, on the streets, carefree and celebratory. The possibility of anti-LGBT police violence does not exist in this narrative. That was then, this is now.

The NCLR op-ed refuses this periodization of the past. It says sure, things are better for some LGBT people. But we still face problems of police surveillance, of police intimidation. We still need to be vigilant. The NCLR op-ed doesn’t only draw a distant historical lesson. It describes the past as part of the same era as the present, it connects events together. The NCLR op-ed says even if police raids of gay bars and police surveillance of (some) LGBT people are not common anymore, we are not past the era where we have to be concerned with police practices in relationship to the lives and security of LGBT people.

Divergent understandings of police protection are not only about how we understand the relationship between LGBT people and the police today. They are also about how we understand the past. Both of these examples are rooted in longer histories, in longer practices of commemoration. To really understand these divergent responses, we would have to study how these groups have told different narratives of the past over time, and how they have used those narratives of the past to construct themselves in the present.


Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Suzanna M. Crage. 2006. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71(5): 724-51.

Cohen, Cathy J. 1999. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

D’Emilio, John. 2002. The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Epstein, Steven. 1987. “Gay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Constructionism.” Socialist Review 93/94:9-56.

Jenness, Valerie, and Ryken Grattet. 2004. Making Hate a Crime: From Social Movement to Law Enforcement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mogul, Joey L., Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. 2011. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1997. Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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More Jesus, Less Therapy: Changing Frames and Alliances at Exodus International

Lynne Gerber

2012 has been a big year for the ex-gay movement so far. In May, Columbia psychiatrist Robert Spitzer recanted his infamous study on therapeutic interventions into sexual orientation. Before the study Spitzer was known for his role in eliminating homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the official guidebook to recognized mental illnesses. Thirty years later he authored a highly controversial study that affirmed the possibility of changing sexual orientation through therapeutic means, a study based on participants recruited from ex-gay ministries by leaders at Exodus International. Spitzer had been wavering on his study for some time, issuing statements opposing the way in which Christian right organizations used his work to fight against gay rights legislation. But this year he renounced it altogether, issuing an apology to the gay community for the harm his work had caused. Later in May the California senate passed a bill outlawing the practice of reparative therapy—therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation—with minors, a move that enraged the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, an organization of reparative therapists and long-time Exodus International ally.

And in a June interview for The Atlantic, Exodus International president Alan Chambers said that his organization was no longer aiming to cure homosexuals of their sexual orientation. “In the past,” he said, “we’ve been aligned with organizations that believe feelings can completely change, temptations can completely go away. We now believe that’s an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that can cause a lot of damage.” The pronouncement has led many observers, including myself, to scratch their heads in wonder at what, exactly, such a statement means for Exodus itself, for ex- and anti- gay politics, and for the people that find their way to Exodus ministries.

In this piece I want to think about one aspect of the changes in afoot Exodus: the movement away from therapeutic language and toward re-emphasizing religious language. This shift is an interesting one given the complicated history evangelicals have had with therapeutic culture. But I focus on it here because it both reflects discursive changes in how Exodus frames the issue of homosexuality and impacts the political realignments that are happening in tandem with this reframing. Discourse and politics, of course, go hand in hand, and I’m not making an argument about causality—the evidence for it isn’t in yet. But I do want to sketch some thoughts about what a shift away from the therapeutic might mean for Exodus, the ideological frameworks its members work within, and the political alliances it has developed and is now changing.

The shift in Exodus’s discourse that has received the most attention is that mentioned above: that Exodus is no longer trying to effect whole scale change in sexual orientation in its members. But this move is embedded in a larger shift away from therapeutic language and a re-emphasis on religious language in framing of homosexuality and Exodus’s relationship to it. One example is Chambers’ statement that Exodus is “not a scientific or psychological organization” but a “discipleship ministry.” Another is his comment in the Atlantic interview that “by no means does being part of Exodus mean we don’t still struggle or feel tempted. It’s a very real part of the lives we lead. Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and present those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christianity sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.” In both cases, Chambers is refocusing the organization on its religious purposes and away from its therapeutic ones.

This shift away from therapeutic language has a number of uses for Exodus. First, if change is not what the organization is saying it’s trying to accomplish it, it need not be the measure of its success. Ex-gay ministries have certainly gotten in trouble with their over-confidence that science and psychology would vindicate their theology on homosexuality. Thus their over-reach in claiming that change – literal change in sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual – is possible. Backing off from the language, and thus the expectation, of change has the potential to give them space from critics who focus on achieving change in sexual orientation as the sole measure of the organization’s value, success, or menace. And from the frustration of members who wait for change for years.

It also reflects a growing critique of, and potential distance from, therapeutic culture that I observed when I researched Exodus in 2005-2007. Evangelical culture has been deeply influenced by the therapeutic turn in American culture and ex-gay ministries’ appropriation of reparative and other therapeutic interventions have exemplified this influence. Reparative therapy was marked by a personal search, with the assistance of a therapist or a small group, for the underlying childhood experience that would explain a person’s homosexuality. Many of the Exodus members I spoke with took great pains to explain to me how their early childhood experiences explained their sexual orientation in ways that fit into reparative therapy’s narrative frame of how homosexuality develops.

But there were always others who were frustrated in their attempt to make their life stories fit the reparative therapy models: people who remembered happy families, who weren’t sexually abused, who didn’t experience questions about their gender identities, or whose experience otherwise contradicted the reparative model. Former Exodus president Bob Davies, for example, wrote: “I’ve never really understand [sic] why I grew up to struggle with same-sex attractions. I grew up in an intact Christian family. My family attended church every Sunday. My parent’s marriage was stable and loving. I have many happy memories of my childhood.” (Exodus Impact, March 2006). People I spoke with whose stories didn’t align with the dominant therapeutic narrative felt frustrated, either by an inability to remember the “smoking gun” that might have caused their sexual orientation or by the organizational imperative to keep looking for one. Shifting the frame for understanding homosexuality away from the therapeutic will make a space for those whose stories don’t fit that frame and save many others a great deal of time and frustration in their pursuit of such causal factors.

Another critique of therapeutic culture that is part of this shift can be seen in Chambers’ statement that “I found the greatest amount of freedom when I stopped focusing on my sin and struggles and started focusing on the grace and peace found only in Christ and the man He created me to be. This life isn’t most about sin management but about living daily as the sons and daughters of God. In part, it is the peace and rest found in that identity alone that transforms us daily.” Therapeutic practices, in this view, are concerning because they lead to an over-emphasis on sin and an under-emphasis on anything else. In other words, it makes people who are “struggling” to “overcome” homosexuality focus too much on homosexuality and not enough on God.

Note the particular phrasing of “in that identity alone.” This reflects another re-emphasis that the move away from therapeutic discourse will allow. It’s been reported that Exodus leaders have been deeply influenced by Christian anthropologist Janelle Williams Paris’ book The End of Sexual Identity (Pedagogical note: This would make a fascinating contribution to a queer theory syllabus). In it, she argues (in a decidedly queerish fashion that I’ve explored elsewhere in relation to the ex-gay movement) that Christians should abandon sexual identity categories in favor of finding identity in Christ. The therapeutic over-emphasis on sin runs the risk of crystallizing sexual identity categories that Exodus, for many reasons, finds useful to disrupt. Re-focusing on the theological allows Exodus to retrain its members on the one identity they think really matters: Christian.

Finally, the move away from the therapeutic both justifies and allows increased distance between Exodus and some of its more therapeutically oriented allies. The ex-gay movement has been a tenuous coalition of different kinds of organizations that found common cause in theological conservativism, therapeutic intervention into homosexuality, and political opposition to gay rights. It seems that the changes in Exodus reflects, at least in part, the fraying of that coalition and the realignment of its constituents. The most obvious example is NARTH. The two organizations at one time had a close relationship, with NARTH board member Joseph Nicolosi speaking regularly at Exodus events and the Exodus bookstore stocked with items on reparative therapy. But that relationship has been changing since Exodus stopped working with Nicolosi and purged its bookstore. Now the NARTH website features an interview done by Nicolosi with Andy Comiskey, an outspoken critic of the changes at Exodus and leader of Desert Stream Ministries which defected from the Exodus fold.

The more significant ally that Exodus has been changing its relationship with is Focus on the Family, an organization that exemplifies the overlap of therapeutic culture, evangelical Christianity and conservative politics. Strong allies in the late 90s and aughts, Focus and Exodus have been moving apart in more recent years. This alliance and its demise is dissertation material and can’t be recounted adequately here. But moving away from Focus does allow a certain distance both from its therapeutic focus and its political imperatives.

The driving forces behind these shifts are unclear and will take some time to understand, but there are a few we can surmise. The first is the impact of the recession and the need for fundraising. Exodus has been in a financial crisis for the last few years and Ex-Gay Watch has reported that it has considered anything and everything in its quest for financial survival. The second is time and its corrosive effect on claims for change. The longer people are involved in Exodus ministries, the longer they see that change doesn’t happen and the more that discredits the organization. If the claim to scientific and therapeutic legitimacy continued to be made, the organization would be increasingly accountable to evaluation on those terms, which clearly would not be favorable to them. The third is a changing wider culture. The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in American culture  makes organizations like Exodus look like the bad guys. And, whatever else you might say about them, Exodus does not like to appear old, stodgy and reactionary. A fourth is the conversation with critics, both from the evangelical world and the gay world. These include former reparative therapists who maintain their Christian commitments but have come to question their professional practices, former Exodus members and their allies who work diligently to hold the organization accountable for its practices, and other critics who have managed to keep some thread of conversation open.


Lynne Gerber is a scholar in residence at the Beatrice Bain Research Group, University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of  Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, which looks at two Christian efforts to discipline wayward desires and tame unruly bodies: Christian weight loss programs and “ex-gay” ministries.

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J’adore les Tomboys!

This past month I finally got the chance to see Tomboy. The movie is a fictional drama that follows the story of a 10-year-old girl who is mistaken for a boy based on her attire and play. She then decides to go along with the new and “exciting” identity of being a boy. Rather than a review of the film (of which there are plenty see for a thorough one) I want to focus on a couple key questions and themes relating to identity, stereotypes, and cultural depictions of gender and sexuality. Further, I want to share how it has spurred enthusiasm and research ideas in my department.

I begin with a brief synopsis—Spoiler Alert—The story centers around “a new kid in town.” To the young children in the apartment complex this child goes by Mikael. However, at home the family uses Laure to refer to their 10-year-old daughter/sister.  Born female, Laure/Mikael behaves more like a boy. This seems to be accepted within the confines of the apartment, however this all changes once in the outside world where Laure is expected to act more lady-like. Initially, Laure is quite successful being Mikael outside of the apartment; however once it’s revealed to the neighborhood children that Mikael is biologically female disruption ensues. Overall, according to the director/writer, Céline Sciamma, the movie seeks to explore issues of identity and gender from the point of view of a child living “undercover.” This becomes particularly intriguing to me on two fronts. The first, has to do with the misalignment with social expectations of who one should be based on their born sex, and the second is the social assumption that children are too young to know who they are or what they want and that these identities are fixed.

“So was that a trans movie?” 

This was the number one response from my colleagues and students during conversations about the movie. It was interesting to me how quickly and urgently this question came to the forefront. So much so, that I even Goggled the question which led me to an AfterEllen.com interview with the writer/director of Tomboy. The interviewer follows the movie synopsis with the following questions: “Is she transgender? Is she a lesbian? Is she simply a tomboy?” In my own conversations we have added several more questions, such as: “Are female athletes by definition tomboys?”; “When does a tomboy become a dyke or butch woman?”; and so on. All of which initially led us nowhere…since this movie was only about a snippet of time in one child’s life. The lack of self-identification on the character’s part opened the door for a great deal of ambiguity—part of what makes the film so complex and curious. A same-sex kiss and our rigid social notions that link sexual orientation with gender variance further inflamed the ambiguity. As we know, there is something especially inappropriate about assigning a label related to sexual orientation and gender identity without any knowledge of self-identification. While I do have an opinion as to who I think Laure/Mikael is, or even would become, it would in reality only be a confining assumption…and this is not the point I want to make.  Rather, I think the underlying issue is in defining “tomboy.”

Defining Tomboy

In academic writing it is extremely important to always begin with clearly defined concepts of interest. As such, I have developed a habit of often first looking at lay dictionaries (e.g. Webster), then popular culture dictionaries and encyclopedias (e.g. Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia), followed by definitions in the academic literature on said concepts of interest.  The lay and popular culture definitions of “tomboy(s)” overwhelmingly define them as girls that act in ways that are generally associated with boys—especially regarding behavior, dress, and games/sports. More rigorous definitions include notions of gender roles, while the lesser ones depend almost solely on examples and lists that include stereotypical “tomboy” behavior.  The academic literature primarily draws on applications and examples within in various contexts. For example Babe Didrikson Zaharias as the “Texas Tomboy” (Cayleff 1992) or C. Lynn Carr’s (1998) work on self-identified tomboys and how resist and conform to gender norms. Largely, it seems that the academic literature assumes that we all know what a tomboy is and that we are all on the same page regarding its definition and application. It appears that the true difficulty in defining tomboy is that the definitions are all context dependent.

So far, according to these definitions, “Tomboy” is a very fitting (if superficial) title for the movie. However, it is also easy to see how those more deeply interested in issues of gender and sexuality would be left with so many questions and concerns related to the title and the intent of the filmmaker.

Perhaps, this was what the writer/director wanted of us.

The title itself, ‘Tomboy,’ is a complex signifier.  Thought the movie was French, the title was in English—and the only thing without subtitles. Why then was this the title and what did this mean for our expectations and understandings of the movie?  Do we (Americans) have different understandings for what it means to be a tomboy compared to the French? Would the French have a different understanding of this meaning and different understandings of the surrounding questions related to sexual identity, sexual orientation, and their intersections with gender?  Perhaps we are supposed to question what it means to be a tomboy in a global sense?

A French Perspective

Upon further reflection, I realized that the movie title bothered me quite a bit. Why was this the only thing not in French? Lucky for me, I have a few French friends and colleagues.  I sought out my best French friend (a non-academic) and asked her to translate “Tomboy” to French.  She came-up with “garçon manqué” but said she Goggled it and didn’t even really remember ever using this word or its English version in France.  It wasn’t something that she had talked been about or paid attention to. Next I asked my colleague, a sociologist originally from Paris, who specializes in Race, Class, and Gender. I thought that surely, he would have an answer for me.  The good news is that he immediately came to the same translation. However, a day or so later I ran into his wife (also from Paris and an academic) who had seen the movie. She enthusiastically contextualized the translations and told me a little more regarding this definition as it specifically related to the movie. “Garçon manqué” directly translates to “miss boy.”  “Miss,” as in “to miss the target” or “to miss the train,” not as in “Miss,” what young women are referred to prior to marriage. So a tomboy in this sense was literally someone who missed the gendered mark. For this colleague, Laure/Mikael was not a “garçon manqué.”  This child wanted to be recognized as a boy and even adopted an unmistakable and common name associated with males. She further supported her argument by stating that this child was not acting like a “tomboy.” In her opinion, as a French person and an academic, the strongest evidence came from the parental response to the child and the child acting on target as a boy. She disclosed, “In France, parents would not have a problem with [children being] tomboys…The mother’s reaction is very important [in this movie]…This child was not a tomboy… The mother cares too much.”  This is how we know she is not a tomboy and that this is a “problem.” In France, enacting specific masculine or feminine gender roles in childhood is less of a problematic issue than it is in the U.S.

The social psychologist in me really enjoyed this point. After all, groups and the perspectives of others help to define who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we are viewed and treated socially. We are nested in society. Society is reflexive and it affects us just as we can affect it, although systems of gender and sex categorization in the U.S. tend to be very rigid and resistant to change. While we don’t know what came of Laure/Mikael, we are left with hope.  The movies ends with a convincing smile that this child is resilient and will be okay.

Lived Experiences

While I would have preferred a more settling, happy ending, popular culture tends to render genderqueer lives as unsafe and unlivable. Yet, our lives are lived happily everyday. Overall, this movie stirred up many questions and ideas in my own head and even more questions and conversations among some of my students. This movie has motivated me to rekindle some projects related to body and gender narratives and to start new projects related to female masculinity. It even inspired one of my students to start a new project called Tomboy Stories where she is collecting your stories about being or knowing tomboys. As an academic who is interested in gender, queer issues, identities, and pop culture, this movie brought up many questions and ideas and aside from this, the queer person in me strongly related to the character. That being said, I leave you with an excerpt from Tomboy Stories a project by E.A. Knox. Check it out and feel free to leave your story.

Everybody has a tomboy story.

“I tried not to. I waited for the day when I would begin to feel comfortable in the clothes that were given to me. When I would begin to relate fully to my sisters and the other girls and finally be able to happily join them in their fun, when I would be content painting my nails and giggling. So, in long shorts and softball jerseys, I waited. So did my parents. When that time showed no signs of approaching. My dad blamed himself. My mom and stepmom didn’t know how to fix me. My tomboyishness had become a problem and I was a little girl in need of help. Pastors and prayers and bible camps and therapists didn’t seem to initiate the profound and desired change. But I tried. I wore shorter shorts, and tighter shirts. I was 11, I still hadn’t grown into my arms, and I didn’t understand how I managed to look and feel so unnatural doing and wearing things that all of my girl friends pulled off so effortlessly…” –student E. A. Knox


Carr, C. Lynn. 1998. Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory.  Gender and Society. 12: 528-553.

Cayleff, Susan E.  1992. The “Texas Tomboy” the Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.  OAH Magazine of History. 7: 28-33.

D’Lane Compton is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of New Orleans. Her career and research interests include: social psychology, the social demography of sexual orientation, and methodology and research design including experimental. She currently teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in Social Psychology, Sexualities, Research Methods, and Social Statistics. Dr. Compton has also taught at Texas A&M University and Davidson College before coming to UNO.

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Symbolic Value of Obama’s SSM Announcement

If you just glanced at the mainstream media over the past few days, you might think all LGBTQ people are ecstatic. President Obama just announced he supports same-sex marriage. And so, the mainstream narrative goes, of course LGBTQ people are ecstatic. But we know that not everyone agrees that marriage is such a good thing. Some are entirely against marriage (e.g., Conrad 2010), while others argue against focusing on marriage as a tool for distributing government benefits (e.g., Polikoff 2008). So what does Obama’s announcement mean for someone who is more ambivalent about marriage?

Originally I wasn’t going to blog about same-sex marriage. I’ve written a lot about marriage in the past, and my research right now is more focused on transgender and HIV/AIDS related discrimination. Some gems like STD testing + STDAware.com are out there but in general, treatment and therapy access is hard to find. But after the news of the past week, I noticed something interesting. Many of my friends are ambivalent about marriage as an institution and about its role in a broader LGBTQ social movement. Nonetheless, my friends uniformly lamented the anti same-sex marriage amendment in North Carolina. Perhaps slightly more surprising, most of my friends also were excited about Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. In this, my friends reflected the broader LGBTQ media. Some voices reiterated their hesitations about marriage as an institution (see here, here, and here), but most unabashedly celebrated.

And so this got me thinking about what it means to question marriage itself and still be excited about Obama’s announcement. Other people have written about whether this was a just a political calculation on Obama’s part (see here and here); what ramifications it might have for his reelection (see here and here); and the legal significance of the announcement (see here and here). I’m not interested in writing about any of that. I want to talk about why I’m still excited for Obama’s announcement. I want to speculate on this as a social movement outcome. And I want to consider where an LGBTQ movement should go from here.

First I want to pause to understand the mainstream response to marriage and my ambivalence about that response. This YouTube video that recently made the rounds captures the response. It tells the heart-wrenching story of a man who lost his partner in a tragic accident and then was left out of the funeral and left little control over anything else. Same-sex marriage becomes the solution. If only they could get married, this would never happen. Logically, the narrative goes, we should support same-sex marriage to protect people in cases like this.

I do believe marriage should be available as one option. And I’ve gone door-to-door in Massachusetts to help defend against attempts to amend the constitution to overturn Goodridge. But I’m also ambivalent about where marriage should fit in a broader LGBTQ movement. I don’t think marriage helps everyone. I think there are other critical issues, like youth protections, job security, and healthcare that get neglected by our focus on marriage. And I definitely don’t think marriage should be used as a vehicle for distributing rights and benefits (Polikoff 2008). What about long-term roommates, good friends, siblings, extended families, or any number of other arrangements where people commit to taking care of each other? Things like hospital visitation rights or the ability to use sick leave to care for someone should not be limited to long-term monogamous romantic partners.

Why I Still Celebrate Obama’s Announcement

Even though I’m concerned that the reaction to Obama’s announcement could continue to push us down the path of privileging marriage over any other type of family, I still think there is a lot to celebrate in it.

First, it’s worth remembering how marriage matters to couples who choose to get married. I don’t think we should privilege marriage over all other forms of family. But for many couples it is important to describe themselves as married. While many couples have used commitment ceremonies and other rituals to enact their marriages outside of the law (Hull 2006), many still describe the law as bringing powerful symbolic meaning to their relationships (Richman 2010). Obama’s announcement doesn’t make any formal change in the law, but it may carry the same symbolic value for how people understand their relationships. We can recognize this symbolic importance, even while arguing that marriage should not be the exclusive model of family life.

But more importantly, Obama’s announcement also holds important symbolic value for a broader LGBTQ movement. Especially coming right after North Carolina’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage has come to occupy a symbolic position as a battleground issue over the meaning of sexuality in our society (Kosbie 2012). Many lesbians and gays who have no intention of marrying themselves still believe same-sex couples should have equal access to marriage, and are deeply hurt by anti same-sex marriage amendments. The battle over marriage comes to have symbolic meaning that is much larger than the issue of marriage itself.

Here I think it is worth noting that Obama focused on themes of “equality” and “fairness” when he described his support for same-sex marriage. Yes, early in the interview, Obama described monogamous gay couples. But he focused more on the broad theme of equality than on the institution of marriage itself. And that’s how I want to understand this announcement, as symbolic support for LGBTQ equality. I think this sort of symbolic support is particularly important for queer youth. The law matters to how we construct our basic notions of equality (Kirkland 2008). And for queer youth, this sort of speech from the President may offer critical support.

Relation to Legal Mobilization

Sociolegal scholars have long debated whether court victories actually support social movements (Rosenberg 1991, Klarman 2004). Some scholars argue that we need to consider not only direct impacts of court decisions but also think about the broader cultural impact of the litigation process (McCann 1994). Obama’s announcement might not be directly attributable to the LGBTQ movement, but it is arguably part of this indirect impact. When LGBT lawyers challenged Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act in federal courts, they forced the Department of Justice to take a position on these laws. When the DOJ declined to continue defending DOMA in court, it put pressure on Obama’s position on same-sex marriage. As a legal matter, Obama could argue that it was not inconsistent to refuse to support DOMA but also not fully support same-sex marriage. But as a political and cultural matter, that distinction became more difficult to make.

So what does this mean for future mobilization? I think there is opportunity for those of us who are more ambivalent about marriage as an LGBTQ goal. There’s an opportunity for us to say yes, we should support equal rights to marriage for those who want to marry. But we should mobilize more broadly for LGBTQ equality. We should mobilize more broadly to support all family structures, to support queer youth, to provide job security and health care, and to support queer communities. We should use Obama’s announcement as a symbolic springboard for these broader equality goals instead of limiting ourselves to only marriage.  


Conrad, Ryan (ed.). 2010. Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage. Lewiston, ME: Against Equality.

Hull, Kathleen E. 2006. Same-Sex Marriage: The Cultural Politics of Love and Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Klarman, Michael J. 2004. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kirkland, Anna. 2008. Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood. New York: NYU Press.

Kosbie, Jeffrey. 2012 [forthcoming]. “Beyond Queer vs. LGBT: Discursive Community and Marriage Mobilization in Massachusetts.” in (Not) the Marrying Kind, edited by Mary Bernstein and Verta Taylor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCann, Michael W. 1994. Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Polikoff, Nancy D. 2008. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press.

Richman, Kimberly. 2010. “By Any Other Name: The Social and Legal Stakes of Same-Sex Marriage.” University of San Francisco Law Review 45: 357-87.

Rosenberg, Gerald N. 1991. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crossposted on Queer(ing) Law

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Glitter-Bombing: Tactical Frivolity or a Frivolous Tactic?

The first time I remember glitter being used as an educational tool, I was in elementary school.  All of the first through third graders were gathered in the auditorium.  At the front of the room, an adult shouted for everyone to be quiet.  She reached into a paper bag and pulled out a handful of gold glitter and asked for a volunteer.  My hand shot up immediately.  But she chose someone else.  Asked if we liked glitter, we all screamed “YES!” in unison, and then she said, “Well not today!”  I like to think that there was a dramatic pause here as we all gasped, but that may be how I like to remember the story.  She let the glitter sprinkle back into the bag, but her hand was still covered.  She asked the boy who volunteered to shake her hand and so he did.  Then she got all of us up and asked us to walk around the room shaking hands with people.  As you might expect, this got rowdy (as random handshaking parties are wont to do) and she stopped us all after five minutes or so.  “Raise your hand if it has glitter on it,” she said.  Almost all of us raised our hands.  Then we all sat down and she talked at length about germs and diseases and the importance of basic hygiene.  I think it was a lesson about health and hygiene generally, but I now like to think that it was sex education in disguise, and that the “handshake” was a metaphor.  Either way, I will say this: I sometimes think about the exercise when I wash my hands (and when I don’t).  If you’ve never had glitter all over you, take it from me, it doesn’t come off after the first wash.

The educational properties of glitter have been put to other uses more recently as well.  Glitter-bombing has become a phenomenon across the nation as a way of peacefully and playfully protesting political pundits and candidates that support a particular constellation of anti-gay agendas.  Glitter-bombing is  a new form of protest that’s been directed at virtually all of the GOP candidates for this presidential race.  The sentiment dates back to when the former-Miss-Oklahoma-turned-anti-gay-rights-activist, Anita Bryant, had a pie thrown in her face at a press conference.

Today, protestors throw a handful (and sometimes more) of glitter on politicians–often as they are walking to the podium to deliver a speech.  Forced to negotiate this awkward turn of events, candidates regularly attempt to address the glitter (some more successfully than others).  Glitter bombers target those with anti-gay views, candidates who oppose gay marriage, and more.

So, here’s my question: what is glitter-bombing accomplishing?  And by that, I mean what is it accomplishing aside from being absolutely hilarious and fantastic?  Is this a strategy of protest we ought to support? Continue reading

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