Queer Numbers: Social Science as Cultural Heterosexism

This is the text of a talk presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, on a panel entitled “When the Professional Becomes Political: Responding to the New Family Structures Survey,” on August 12, 2013. It was offered at the close of the session, after commentary by Andrew Perrin, Brian Powell and Megan Carroll on the empirical limitations and public response to a 2012 article by Mark Regnerus entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Survey.” (You can read about the controversy surrounding the study here, here and here.) Or, you can just watch a video of the presentation here.

In this brief set of comments, I’d like to offer some reflections about the frame of the conversation we are having today, and specifically, about the ways distinct cultures of social science research exist and often go unnoticed or uninterrogated.

My colleagues have done a terrific job arguing that the core methodology underlying the NFSS and the policy arguments it informs are both irreparably flawed. The study, it is clear, was designed to promote a single policy argument: that children raised in so-called gay households are less psychologically healthy than peers in nuclear marital families, and that gay and lesbian families should thus be excluded from legal marriage. In the writing itself, the study implies an aim on the part of its author to improve the lives of individual children; what it was designed to do, in its publication and more importantly, in Regnerus’ role as signatory on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court marriage cases, was to scaffold legal and political efforts to restrict the legal recognition of gay and lesbian families.

I want to step back and pose a simple and often overlooked question: What does it mean to ask the empirical question “how different” is one group from another? In particular, what cultural work is done by a social science that takes a dominant group, one with institutional and political support, as the comparison point against which to measure the lives and well-being of members of subordinated classes? In answer to this question, I hope to make three main points: First, the categories we use in social science research don’t just reflect, but also construct social reality. Second, the idea of difference intrinsically implies a value judgment. And third, that questions about difference become political imperatives. So, if we decide there is some sort of difference, what response is demanded as a result of that?

It’s old news, at this point, to say that social scientists actually have the power to produce certain forms of inequality through the construction of the very categories we use. As Dorothy Smith (here) argued two decades ago, SNAF (the standard north American family) is as much an ideological code as it is a descriptive term. By that she meant that the idea that there is a dominant, stable, heterodyadic family unit works much like a genetic code, reproducing its characteristic forms and order across discursive sites, from the media, to government bureaucracies to scientific practices. The Regnerus analysis is a perfect example of how this works; it installs the heterosexual marital family as the gold standard for all comparison, even as he himself admits it is far from statistically dominant. Further it is clear that the category for gay parents he constructs neither accurately corresponds to, nor helps elucidate, the practices, motivations, or interests or experienced of those he purports to study. The implication, even before the analysis begins, is that there is a singular gold standard for human relationship against which all others are to be measured. That standard makes deviations a moral choice, one seemingly divorced from the social, cultural and institutional pressures that might frame the same-sex behavior of survey participants. When we look for ways a subordinated group is different from the dominant group, particularly when those differences we plan to measure have to do with psychological health, we automatically position that group as deficient. We also risk masking the structural and cultural disadvantage they face with some purportedly value-neutral concept of inherent personal or relational characteristics.

This “difference versus no difference” debate is, in and of itself a conservative political ploy, aimed at a mass media landscape. It’s not a value-neutral empirical question. By posing that very question political conservatives frame the issue as one of social desireability rather than basic human rights. As Judith Stacey argued (here), ““The discursive regime of virtual social science imposes conservative epistemological frameworks on sociological speech that invisibly undermine even overtly critical messages.” C. Wright Mills’ democratic social sphere, she says, is now a soundbite sphere. As a consequence for progressives, even the participation in dominant discourses of progressive social scientists risks reinforcing structures of thought and value antithetical to a critical sociological stance and to issues of social justice. So, what Regnerus does is throw down the gauntlet and circumscribe the kind of conversation social scientists are having about what it actually means that gay families exist. The question already draws boundaries around what this debate has to look like; and we, as queers and allies rise to the call and respond, but we respond within these terms that we never set out or agreed to in the first place.

It’s time to stop taking the bait. It’s time to stop having these kinds of conversations about queer families. It’s time to turn our attention elsewhere and to take an agentic role in reframing the debate about the health of parents and children in diverse family forms. If we believe there is value in investigating how to help certain groups (ie children) thrive, then we must make that the focus, not assigning blame. What social scientists have proven, again and again, is that the structural conditions that scaffold family life and the cultural support of surrounding communities have tremendous effects on the well being of individuals and families alike. Abbie Goldberg and JuliAnna Z. Smith (2011) found evidence that favorability of the legal climate toward lgbt families correlated with better psychological health for both lgbt parents and their children. Lick, Tornello, Riskind, Schmidt and Patterson’s study (here) found that the social climate and perceived social  support for lgbt families also predicted the well-being of children raised by gay and lesbian adults, regardless of the sexual orientation of the child him or herself. In in-depth interviews with the children of gay and lesbian parents, Kuvlanka, Leslie and Radina (here) found that both interpersonal enactments and structural disadvantages were salient features of social life for youth, things they talked and worried about, things that affected their quality of life, who reported engaging in self-protective measures that ranged from being fearful, to openly defiant or simply detached in the face of discrimination by others. This sounds an awful lot like the kinds of outcomes Regnerus measured.

These coping mechanisms infect not only social relationships but personal health, as well. How this works for the children of queer families is unclear. Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University has demonstrated (here) that bullying and harassment experienced by students even perceived by their peers to be LGBTQ led directly to lower levels of life satisfaction and higher rates of depression in young adulthood. Might some version of the same be true for the children of lgbt parents? We don’t know, because we haven’t asked that question. In her 2009 article in the journal Pediatrics (here), she reported that young adults who experienced high levels of rejection were significantly more likely to attempt suicide and experience depression and to attempt to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs than were LGBT youth raised in supportive environments. In short, all the things adults say or do not say affect the way kids feel about themselves and what they believe their chances are for living a happy life.

So, is comparing family forms and rating some better than others really the best we can do for these children and their lgbt parents? Perhaps the next step for those of us with an interest in supporting youth should be to examine in this sort of nuanced detail the impact of cultural heterosexism on family stability and youth outcomes. If what we want is better child outcomes, and more solid and enduring connections between parents and children, our energies would be better spent studying different questions, questions like: How can we ensure that children receive the social supports they need to thrive? How can we, as a culture, or as a discipline, nurture people through difficult life transitions, like divorce, so they can keep their relationships to their children intact? How can we mitigate the forces of social intolerance on the fragile emotional lives of vulnerable youth? These are the inquiries that promise some hope of improving the lives of children.

On a personal note: I am the gay parent of a young child. Today, I want to tell you from firsthand experience that the very publication of studies like the NFSS exacts a particular form of psychic violence– on families, on families like mine, on scholars like me. As a sociologist and a gay parent, I can withstand the accusations of instability and unfitness it levies at my partner and I. I can disregard the cultural assumption that my daughter will be somehow harmed by the form of love we choose to provide her with, that some disregard my family as less valuable or worthy of support than that of other families. I can sit in rooms at professional conferences and watch my peers and colleagues dispassionately debate the legitimacy of my relationship and the fundamental right of my family to exist. The question is not whether I can withstand that, the question is whether I should have to withstand that. The question is what sort of intellectual project is sociology if it demands that of me, or of you.

A single, simple point bears repeating, one often left out of public gay family politics. The point of comparative work on the relative social desireability of certain forms of love and care is never to scaffold, protect or meaningfully enhance the life experiences of research subjects; instead, studies like this one demean and devalue the primary relationships in their subjects’ lives. By asking the questions, “Are these families and parents of survey respondents legitimate, sufficient and healthy” Regnerus and his colleagues engage in tactics of humiliation that mask themselves in the cloak of social science. It’s clear that the parents of his survey respondents were in no meaningful way “gay and lesbian parents;” and yet, with linguistic flourish, he divests queer families of their integrity, their dignity and their right to basic acknowledgement, respect and protection.

This very fact puts LGBT and allied social scientists in a precarious rhetorical and moral position. We are called upon to respond, reply, critique and engage Regnerus and his colleagues, and in so doing, to accept the terms of the debate his research sets forth. The publication of this study and the subsequent efforts to debate its mandates are instances of the ways social science itself can become a dangerous instrument of cultural heterosexism and homophobia. As Barbara Risman (here) so aptly pointed out, “It is high time that as a discipline we have an open discussion about whether the editorial policies at our major journals privilege the allegedly ‘value-free’ versions of science over versions of a social science that include value commitments to a more just world.” In this more just world that I imagine I would not be called upon to argue dispassionately for my own basic right to live, to love and to parent my family, and to assume the kind of intellectual and emotional armor we call professionalism.

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The Sad Demise, Glorious Triumph, and Mysterious Disappearance of the Gayborhood?*

 402336_306794986024857_1039065546_n  Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design  

This post is part of a series of posts I’ve written on sexuality and space, specifically addressing issues of where LGBT populations live and why.  See “Can Living in the City Make you Gay?” and “Why More Lesbians (Might) Live in Rural Communities than Gay Men” for the first two in the series.

the CastroThe gayborhood is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. While groups of gay men and lesbians have sought living spaces organized around sexual identity for a long time, neighborhoods actively recognized as “gayborhoods” by others is something arguably more recent.  Indeed, as Amin Ghaziani writes, “It’s quixotic to think that gay neighborhoods have always been around and will never change” (here).  Sociological research on gayborhoods asks a few different kinds of questions: How and why do gay neighborhoods emerge?  What kinds of factors shape their growth and endurance?  What kinds of processes and forces threaten their existence?

A variety of social forces account for the emergence of gayborhoods.  Ghaziani discusses the pivotal role that World War II played in their emergence.  As men and women came home–some after being dishonorably discharged from service (as a result of their sexuality)–they settled in port cities like San Francisco.  But, gayborhoods were also emerging prior to WWII as well.  Yet, these early, largely urban, gay enclaves were distinguished by their unpublicized nature.  They were spaces to which people with same-sex desires could go to locate one another.  Ghaziani remarks, however, that the post-WWII U.S. was marked by a shift toward the development of increasingly formalized urban gay districts in some of the larger U.S. cities.

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Banality of Evil, American Style

Arlene Stein

Margarethe von Trotta frames her new bio-pic, Hannah Arendt, around the philosopher’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt is perhaps best known for describing the “banality of evil” at the heart of Nazism, and von Trotta’s film focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, in which she argued against the popular view of Eichmann as evil genius. He was, she said, far from that: a technocrat, an everyman, a person who was simply doing his job.

Hannah Arendt the film offers a compelling account of a singular intellectual, a window into postwar intellectual life in New York, and shows how during the first decades after fascism, people were trying to make sense of how and why so many seemingly intelligent people were captivated by National Socialism during those dark decades. Bureaucratic societies, she said, were creating a kind of rationality that threatened the capacity to reason…

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The End of Normal? We’re Not There Yet

Arlene Stein

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Being normal isn’t all that its cracked up to be. In 1963, Betty Friedan exposed the dark underside of “normal” femininity in a book that helped launched the women’s movement, The Feminine Mystique. Michael Warner’s 1999 polemic, The Trouble with Normal, made an impassioned case for how queer people, unencumbered by marriage, subvert gender and sexual norms.

The collapse of normal gender and sexuality has rapidly progressed, according to some observers. As the argument goes, rising divorce rates, the growing affirmation of queer relationships, and the proliferation of singles, among other developments, are changing the way we live. The expectation that we’ll fall in love and spend our lives with one person, that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and even that there are two, and only two sexes, is fading.

Recent Hollywood rom-coms like The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers, and Knocked Up, filled with nebbishy guys and relationships gone…

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Ambivalence at the Altar

by Arlene Stein

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Cross-posted from Arlene Stein’s blog.

 

Last week, the man who washed my hair in a beauty parlor –he was perhaps 30– nonchalantly referred to the person he shares a home with as his “husband.” That term, along with “wife” and “fiance” are rolling off the tongues of more and more people I encounter, suggesting that “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” and “partner” or “lover,” may soon be quaint reminders of an age before gays and lesbians could marry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage–and the fact that I’m not really the marrying kind, even if long-term monogamy seems to suit me fairly well. I was domestically partnered for over 20 years, and am the nonbiological mother of a 15 year old. I’m no radical queer, at least in relation to the broad contours of my life. But neither have I harbored the belief that marriage would make me more secure, respectable, or complete.

I am, in short, ambivalent about the whole thing.

The other day, at a Mother’s Day brunch with my ex, her fiance, her fiance’s ex, my current partner, and our kids (it takes a lesbian village to raise a child!) we sipped mimosas and discussed the impending wedding of my ex and her fiance, whose ring finger is now graced by a glittering diamond.

“Do you think it’s a radical act to get married?” her fiance asked me.

“No,” I replied. “It’s a liberal act.” It doesn’t exactly strike a blow against male domination, or class inequality. It does, however, open up a powerful institution to a group of people–gays and lesbians– who have been excluded from it.

For most of us the urge to be married is not about changing the world, but about gaining access to the same rights, privileges, and social affirmation that coupled, middle class people enjoy in this country. Because of the centrality of marriage in our culture –as a route to gaining decent health care, inheritance rights, and community membership– I can’t begrudge anyone for wanting that.

Even in relatively liberal parts of the country, such as the suburban New Jersey town where I lived for many years, we’re still marginalized. Several years ago, when our son was in middle school, he was asked to fill out forms that asked him for his mother’s name, his father’s name, and their respective telephone numbers. The configuration of this form assumed that all children have a mother and a father, and also that both parents share one address. There were many, many more mundane instances of a how we went unrecognized as a family.

In a soon-to-be-published volume, I’ve contributed an article, “Who’s Your Daddy?: Intimacy, Recognition, and the Queer Family Story,” about how nonrecognition and misrecognition impacts gay and lesbian parents, particularly our children–and threatens our sense of worth.

http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415626903/

In the piece, I describe the ways many of us have improvised rituals and objects to represent our families. In my own queer family, for example, we made our son a book which tells the story of how he came to be. With the right to marry, such improvisations would no longer be necessary. It would accord many of us instant recognition, belonging and ease, furthering what some have described as the “normalization” of homosexuality.

Yet I can’t help but think about those who are left out of the wedding party– such as single people, people whose material circumstances prevent them from marrying, and couples who choose, for any number of reasons, not to do so. (I’ll write about this in future posts). That’s why, for my own part, I’ll continue to the use “girlfriend” or “partner” to describe my significant other–blurring the distinction between those who marry, and those who do not.

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Nonsexual Community in Sexual Communities

(Note: This post first appeared on Queer Metropolis)

Conferences are lonely. Two years ago, Cameron Macdonald and I flew out to the Eastern Sociology Society meeting in Philadelphia to sit on a panel with Myra Marx Ferree to discuss to the sociological implications of the Wisconsin Uprising, give an on-the-ground ethnographic perspective of the events, and solicit donations for the ongoing occupation efforts. Besides Myra and Cameron, I knew almost no one else there. However, a gay man with an iPhone is always connected to the gay community. As soon as the conference events for the day were over, I launched Grindr, changed my profile text, and began looking for friends.

From Promotional Materials

From Promotional Materials

People often talk about Grindr as a sexual field. Indeed, it is one. Tristan Bridges, here at Social (In)Queery, recently asked us to consider a sociology of Grindr. If Grindr is a sexual field, how is it different from the sexual fields of competing applications? How do the hookup rules and interaction look differently from other venues?

However, one area that I seldom see discussed when looking at Grindr is the many ways that gay men use it non-sexually. Grindr is undoubtedly a venue for people to hookup and find sexual partners. Competing applications treat it as a place only for “one-off relationships,” as Thomas McAfee, member of competing application Distinc.tt said on a comment to Bridges’s piece. “We are currently working on a redesign to focus more on community building/place discovery as we feel that being gay is about a lot more than just sex,” McAfee said.

However, many gay men use these sexual fields not only for sexual activity, but also to find community. They are also places where gay men go in order to talk with other gay men, form friendships and pen pals, and find events to attend. Distinc.tt then is coming in to fill an explicit service that gay men have already been finding through their sexualized communities. I argue that as gay bars and neighborhoods are increasingly assimilated and sexually diversified, places like Grindr that are more explicitly sexual are taking on some of the community functions that were previously fulfilled by happy hours out at the bars. Similar to the desexualizing of gay bars, applications like Distinc.tt try to tease out the nonsexual community from these sexual communities.

At ESS, I went to a local cocktail lounge nearby. This was the beginning of the craft cocktail phase, with prohibition-era drinks and secrecy to add to the allure. From the bar at the Franklin Mortgage and Investment, named for the business that served as a front for Philadelphia mobsters to distill moonshine, I talked with several locals about the best place for a young gay man to go in Philly. After about 30 minutes, I decided to meet Luis and a few of his friends for dinner. It would be a trial run for one of the many ways that I would meet participants in my future project in Boystown.

I shouldn’t overly cleanse the record though. I received my fair share of headless torsos and unsolicited pictures of strangers’ penises. However, I was in a monogamous relationship with my now ex-boyfriend Andrew at the time and turned them down politely. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it probably also helped my quick turnaround that I was a young able-bodied white guy that suddenly appeared in the area. One can hardly write about gay hookup sexual fields without discussing the sexual racism that infuses all of them in different ways.

However, I want to focus on the sense of community that Grindr enabled that night. I was a lonely guy in a new city, friendless and bored. My iPhone connected me to a local world full of people to talk to and possible new friends. Luis, his friends and I hung out until 2 in the morning, swinging between a few local bars and the tastefully decorated home of one of his friends that lived in their little gayborhood. Grindr enabled me to find a fun group of people, connecting us initially through only our shared gay identity and the happenstance of being on Grindr at the same place and same time.

Without Grindr, perhaps I would have showed up to one of the gay bars alone. Here in Chicago, that certainly worked plenty of times for meeting new people when I first moved to Boystown. Of the groups that I’ve followed regularly, I met 3 of 4 just by showing up alone at a bar and making friends with those sitting nearby.

However, Grindr enables an “augmented reality,” an overlay of the physical world with additional information and meaning derived from digital applications. With it, I can hook into the sea of gay men that are around me at any time. Out at a gay bar, it is the norm to see men alone at the bar chatting on their phone, sometimes with men only feet away. At my apartment in Boystown, a few are listed only 0 feet away, almost certainly living somewhere in my building or the next. But in rural Iowa? The nearest gay person on Grindr might be 20 miles away, but still available to chat.

A participant, Frank, wakes up every morning, shuts off his alarm, and logs onto Grindr to wish a good morning to the fleet of men he’s met around the country on his travels. To him, the community of Grindr is even more important than the hookups available. No matter where he is, there are other gay men to talk to. Standing in line at the bank or on the train, there are men a thousand miles away and men only feet away. No need for gaydar. He knows these ones are gay.

Beyond the sociology of Grindr as a sexual field, Grindr and other online applications are transforming the way that gay men form and interact with gay communities. Grindr, like so many sexual fields and institutions, interacts with the other communities, fields, and structures that pervade 21st century gay life. Let’s not take a “digital dualist” perspective on Grindr, splitting it from the trends that are influencing gay communities today. The nonsexual communities that form within the sexual fields of online applications are similar to the offline nonsexual communities that formed in the sexual fields of gay bars. The splitting of these nonsexual functions off into applications like Distinc.tt follows the wider trend of desexualizing and assimilating gay male spaces. As Bridges notes, these feed changes feed into sexual stratification by race and class. Grindr’s sexual field has unique aspects, but sits within the constellation of fields that gay men navigate to find friends and sexual partners.

Jason Orne is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on assimilation and sexual racism in gay male and queer communities. Currently, he is conducting an ethnography of Chicago’s Boystown gayborhood. He blogs about his ethnography, sexualities, and race at Queer Metropolis.

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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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