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A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality

Author(s): Steven Epstein


Source: Sociological Theory, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jul., 1994), pp. 188-202
Published by: American Sociological Association
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A Queer Encounter. Sociology and the Study of Sexuality*


STEVEN EPSTEIN

University of California, San Diego


The term queer has recently come into wide use to designate distinctive emphases in
the politics and the intellectualstudy of sexuality. This article explores the unfortunate
irony that most work falling under the rubric of queer theory has been undertaken
largely at some removefrom the discipline of sociology, despite the pioneering role
that an earlier generation of sociologists played in formulating influentialconceptions
of the social construction of sexuality. The article suggests important continuities
between the earlier sociological theories and recent queer theory, but also analyzes
the new challenges that queer theorists have posed by insisting on the indispensability
of questions of sexual "marginality"to the larger understandingof social and cultural
organization. The article concludes by suggesting how sociologists might engage with
such a project.

In just the past few years in much of the English-speakingworld, the term queerformerlya word that nice people didn't use-has escaped the bounds of quotationmarks.
Its growing currencyreflects three roughly congruent,yet uneasily related, developments:
the emergence of new repertoiresof political mobilizationin groupssuch as QueerNation,
ACT UP, and (in England) Outrage;the foothold gained by new programsof lesbian and
gay studies within the academy;and-partially in response to both of the above-the rise
of an intellectualenterpriseexplicitly calling itself queer theory.
Queer theory and sociological theory confront one anotherwith some suspicion, and
more profoundly with misrecognition. No doubt to many sociological theorists, queer
theory suggests this month's trendiness,just the latestprogenyspawnedby the Faucauldian
Revolution and adopted by overeager literary critics and proponentsof cultural studies.
To practitionersof queer theory, sociology perhaps is often seen as irrelevantor, at the
very least, a bit stuffy. My point is not to call for some warm and fuzzy rapprochement,
but to emphasize the queerness (in the so-called "original sense of the word") of this
particularimpasse.
In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists (along with anthropologistsand others)contributed
significantly to a fundamentalshift in the theorizationof sexuality and homosexuality.
Against naturalizedconceptionsof sexuality as a biological given, againstFreudianmodels
of the sexual drive, and against the Kinseyan obsession with the tabulationof behavior,
sociologists assertedthat sexual meanings, identities, and categorieswere intersubjectively
negotiated social and historical products-that sexuality was, in a word, constructed.
Though sexuality never became institutionalizedas a formal subfieldof sociological study,
the "social constructionist"perspectiveon sexuality drew much of its theoreticalfirepower
from importantcurrentswithin sociology at the time, particularlysymbolic interactionism
and labeling theory. Without seeking to minimize the importanceof other disciplines, I
* I am particularlygrateful to Chris Waters for extensive comments on an earlier draft, to Steven Seidman
for his editorial suggestions and encouragement,and to the editors of Sociological Theory.I would also like to
thank Pedros Bustos, H6ctor Carillo, Jeff Escoffier, Josh Gamson, Laura Miller, Kevin Mumford, Leslie
Salzinger, Arlene Stein, Jeff Weintraub,and Andrea Williams for helpful comments on an earlier draft and on
related work. Address correspondenceto Steven Epstein, Departmentof Sociology, 0102, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0102.
Sociological Theory 12:2 July 1994
? American Sociological Association. 1722 N Street NW, Washington,DC 20036

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would suggest that neither queer theory nor lesbian and gay studies in general could be
imagined in their present forms without the contributionsof sociological theory.1Yet to
some recent students of sexuality working outside sociology, the concept of social constructionis assumed to have sprung, like Athena, fully formed from the head of Michel
Foucault;meanwhile the analyses presented by queer theorists, expressed in their own
particular,often postmodern, vocabulary,confront sociologists as an alien power, unrecognizable as anythingrelated in any way to the productof their own labor.
Exactly how this pattern of relationshipsbetween intellectual fields (Bourdieu 1988)
took shape-and how its contours relate to developments in politics and elsewherewould be a worthwhile topic for an extended study in the sociology of knowledge. My
objectivesin this articleare more modest:I will explore the continuitiesand discontinuities
in the theoreticalunderstandingsof sexuality offered by contemporaryqueer theory and
by an earliergenerationof sociology. First, I describe how a durableconceptualizationof
the social constructionof sexuality was developed on the basis of mainstreamtheoretical
currentswithin the discipline, and how this frameworkthen fueled early work in lesbian
and gay studies. Next, I analyze the emergence of "queerness"as both a political and an
intellectualcurrent. With reference to some contemporaryexemplars and manifestos of
queer theory, I argue that there are fundamentalsimilarities with the sociological approachesbecause of the reliance on the guiding principleof social construction.Yet I also
analyze the break with earlier work that queer theory seeks to make by asserting, in
paradoxicalfashion, the centrality of marginality to the study of society and culture,
broadly conceived. I conclude by suggesting potential ways in which sociology could
usefully complement, contributeto, and challenge such a project.2
THE CRITIQUEOF THE NATURAL
In the eyes of sociologists who turnedto the study of sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s,
sex was both an obvious domain of investigation and the last great frontierresistant to
the sociological enterprise. "At no point is the belief in the naturaland universal human
more entrenchedthan in the study of sexuality," wrote John Gagnon and William Simon
(1973:3-4) in Sexual Conduct. Sexuality was "naturalized"in two senses: first, in the
dominantassumptionthat human sexuality should be understoodas a biological function
rooted in evolutionaryimperativeswhich are then translatedstraightforwardlyinto social
institutions and cultural norms; second, in the acceptance of the corollary that certain
expressions of sexuality are "natural,"while others are therefore"unnatural."With few
exceptions, sexuality had not been seen as an importanttopic for sociological theorization.3
Yet even a moment's reflection suggested that the domain of sexuality-a domain of
elaborate and nuanced behavior, potent and highly charged belief systems, and thickly
woven connections with other arenas of social life-was deeply embeddedin systems of
meaning and was shaped by social institutions. The primaryobstacle to a sociological
1 One can also
trace a parallel, and equally influential, lineage in anthropology,beginning perhapswith the
culturalrelativist perspective of MargaretMead (1935) and proceeding throughmore recent work on the "sex/
gender system" (Rubin 1975) and on the cultural constructionof gender (Ortnerand Whitehead 1981) and
sexuality (Blackwood 1986; Caplan 1987; Lancaster1988; Newton 1988; R. Parker1991).
"Originsstories" are always problematic.My point here is neither to say that "it all startedwith sociology"
nor to argue that sociology's early role entitles it to special respect. Rather,I seek to highlight the curious case
of a discipline whose contributionshave been forgotten, both within and without.
2 I will
confine my analysis almost exclusively to intellectualand political currentsin the United States.
3 In Parsons's
work, for example, questions of sexuality tended to be subsumedwithin the study of sex roles
and the institutionof the family.

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understanding of sexuality was the restricted emphasis on the mechanics of sex and its
link to reproduction:
Rarely do we turn from a consideration of the organs themselves to the sources of the
meanings that are attached to them, the ways in which the physical activities of sex are
learned, and the ways in which these activities are integrated into larger social scripts
and social arrangements where meaning and sexual behavior come together to create
sexual conduct (Gagnon and Simon 1973:5).
Central to this reinterpretation, as noted by Ken Plummer (1982), another of its principals, was a certain dethroning of sexuality. Sexuality should not be placed in the "realm
of the extraordinary" as something at a remove from ordinary human behavior that obeyed
a logic all its own. Instead, "in any given society, at any given moment in history, people
become sexual in the same way they become everything else. Without much reflection,
they pick up directions from their social environment" (Gagnon, quoted in Plummer
1982:226). If the domain of the erotic at times has come to appear as something "estranged"
from everyday life-symbolized
concretely by disjunctive acts, like turning off the lights,
that signal the entry into some other order of experience-this is not because of anything
inherent in sexuality. Rather, it has served certain purposes, in Western societies, to
construct "a realm in which the laws and identities governing everyday life could be
suspended and the self be organized in ways that include aspects and qualities otherwise
exiled or expressed through muted disguises and/or contrary uses" (Simon and Gagnon
1984:55).
This was a complex critique with multiple explicit targets. First, the new theorists of
sexuality took aim at Freud's (1962) "metapsychology" of drives, with its "hydraulic"
metaphors of libido as a primal force that, when dammed up, pressed inexorably for
discharge. In the Freudian (1961) view, "sexuality" and "society" stood, in a sense,
opposed: libido was an individual possession, rooted in one's biological makeup, and
social order was made possible only through the restriction of direct sexual expression
and the sublimation of sexual energy into work.4 By contrast, sociologists assumed that
human sexuality was "always already" social in its organization and manifestations.5
Rather than speaking of drives or instincts, Gagnon and Simon offered the metaphor of
"sexual scripts" as a conceptual tool for understanding the drama of sexual conduct,
thereby placing emphasis on the dimensions of learning, performance, and revision.6
Freudian drive theory, however, was not the only object of critique. For sociologists
who believed that (to cite a recent commonplace) the most important sexual organ is the
one between the ears, an equally important target was sexological research in the empiricist
tradition of Kinsey.7 Kinsey's (1948, 1953) famous studies of male and female sexuality4 To be sure, the formalFreudian"metapsychology"was never followed widely outside psychoanalyticcircles.
Yet in watered-downform, the notion of sex as an overwhelmingdrive demandingrelease (a notion that owes
much to Freud, even if it preceded him) has permeatedpopularculture in many Western societies. It has also
found expression in radical social theory, such as Marcuse(1966).
5 In this sense, the constructionistsociology of sexuality would be far more compatiblewith some particular
post-Freudianstrandsof psychoanalytictheory. Elsewhere I explore the unappreciatedcongruencesbetween the
sociology of sexuality and the "object relations"strandof psychoanalytictheory (Epstein 1991a).
6 In a useful update to their scripting theory, Simon and Gagnon (1984:53) have proposed that scripting
proceeds along three interconnectedlevels: cultural scenarios, "the instructionalguides that exist at the level of
collective life"; interpersonal scripts, which the actor must invent and elaborate when there is a "lack of
congruence between the abstract scenario and the concrete situation";and intrapsychicscripts, the "internal
rehearsals"that become necessary whenever interpersonalscripting becomes so complex that actors become
cognizant of, and focused upon, their own script writing in dealing with others and others' script writing in
dealing with them.
7 Gagnon and Simon themselves had both been researchersat the Kinsey Institute.

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with his claim that homosexuality and heterosexualitylay on a continuum rather than
being discrete categories, and with the noteworthyfinding that 37 percent of the men in
his sample reportedhaving had at least one homosexual encounterleading to orgasm in
their lifetimes-had done much to challenge conventional notions of normality and pathology in sexuality. Yet the exclusive focus on bodies, organs, and acts lost sight of the
crucial question: What do these behaviors mean to their participants?How are such
meanings generated and negotiated? (Gagnon and Simon 1973:6). Indeed, as Plummer
has noted, withoutattentionto the subjectiveattributionof meaning, it becomes impossible
even to tell what is "sexual"and what is not:
When a child plays with its genitals, is this "sexual"?When a personexcretes, is this
sexual?When a couple are nakedtogether,is this sexual?Whena girl takesher clothes
off in public, is this sexual? . . . Sexual meaningsare not universalabsolutes,but
ambiguousand problematiccategories(Plummer1982:231).
The emphasis on meaning as an emergent product of social interactionmarked the
relianceof these authorsupon the core concepts of symbolic interactionism(Blumer 1969):
the social constructionof sexuality was simply an insuranceof the more general "social
constructionof reality" (Berger and Luckmann1967). Related currentsof Meadian sociology, such as labeling theory, were equally importantin the developmentof the constructionist perspective. Indeed, the article often cited as the foundationstone of contemporary
lesbian and gay studies, Mary McIntosh's (1968) "The Homosexual Role," explicitly
applied labeling theory to the understandingof sexual categorization.
McIntosh rejected the notion that homosexuality was a "condition"which one either
had or didn't have-that it was invariantin expressionacross societies and over time, that
it could be diagnosed by the appropriateprofessional, and that its etiology could, in
principle, be excavated by science. Just as anthropologistsemphasizedculturalvariability
in sexuality by examining different societies, McIntosh turnedto historical examples to
arguethat modem Westernconceptions of sexual identitywere a recentdevelopmenteven
in those countries.8In her view, the search for the "causes"of homosexualityreflected a
categorymistake;"one might as well try to tracethe aetiology of 'committeechairmanship'
or 'Seventh Day Adventism' as of 'homosexuality"'(1968:261). InsteadMcIntoshclaimed
that "the homosexual" has come to occupy a specific social role in modem societies.
Because homosexualpractices are widespreadbut socially threatening,McIntoshargued,
a special, stigmatizedcategory of individualsis created so as to keep the rest of society
pure. By this means, a "clear-cut,publicized and recognizablethresholdbetween permissible and impermissible behaviour" (1968:261) is constructed;anyone who begins to
approach that threshold is immediately threatened with being deemed a full-fledged
deviant.
A homosexualidentity, in this view, is creatednot so much throughhomosexualactivity
per se (what labeling theorists [Lemert 1975] would call "primarydeviance")as through
the individual's reactions to being so labeled, and through the internalizationof the
imposed categorization("secondarydeviance"). Other authorswriting in the "deviance"
traditionconducted studies of the local organizationof sexuality, focusing (for example)
on boy prostitutesand their customers (Reiss 1978) or on the practitionersof anonymous
sex in public restrooms (Humphreys 1978). Goffman's work on stigma (1963), with its
fine-tuned analysis of how potentially "discreditable"individuals sought to manage the
8 McIntosh's importantinvocation of historical evidence set her apartfrom most other labeling or deviance
theorists (thanksto Kevin Mumfordfor pointing this out to me).

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disclosureof informationaboutthemselves, or sought to "pass"as normal, also influenced


analystsof sexuality, who were writing at a time when alternativeexpressionsof sexuality
were still, for the most part, "in the closet."
As the emphasis shifted away from the question of etiology, analysts eschewed the
related concept of sexual orientation and focused increasingly on how social actors
negotiated the vicissitudes of forging a sexual identity. In these analyses, identity was
conceived as standing"in a dialectical relationshipwith society":"Societies have histories
in the course of which specific identities emerge; these histories are, however, made by
men with specific identities"(Berger and Luckmann1967:173). BarbaraPonse (1978), in
one such study, explored the manifold processes by which lesbians organized a lesbian
identity-how they drew links between their gender identity, politics, and sexuality; how
they negotiated the unsettling periods in which identity seemed to be in flux; and how
they retrospectivelyreinterpretedtheir personalbiographiesto conform with present selfunderstandingsand to achieve a consistent sense of self. The frame of identity became
increasingly salient in the study of gays and lesbians in particular.It mirroredthe ascendancy of the lesbian and gay movement as a specific instance of "identitypolitics," one
in which the personal trajectoryof "coming out" was wedded to the public construction
of a group identity and to a political strategyfor social change (Escoffier 1985).
The publicationin English of Foucault's short yet dazzling first volume of The History
of Sexuality (1980) consolidated the emergent constructionistperspective, even as it
provokednew controversiesand suggestedcritiquesof some of the sociological approaches
within that perspective (see A. Stein 1989:10). Whereas symbolic interactionismoften
risked eliding history and social structurein its emphasis on concrete social interaction,
Foucault trainedhis attentionon the big picture: sexual and erotic desire encompassed a
diverse set of practices, strategies, discourses, institutions, and knowledges that were
historicallycontingent and were played out on a dispersedfield of power.
In Foucault's account, sexual categories-homosexual, heterosexual,and the like-are
themselves products of particularconstellations of power and knowledge. The recent
historical emergence in Western societies of "the homosexual"and other sexual types,
Foucault claimed, reflected a shift in the tactics of power from an emphasis on sexual
behavior to one on sexual personhood:in place of the opposition between natural and
unnaturalacts, sexual experience would be divided into normal and abnormalidentities.
Sexuality thereforebecame a central site for the constructionof subjectivity.
One implication of this analysis that would attractgrowing attentionin coming years
was that the organizationof an oppositionalpolitics aroundthe given categoriesof identity
was a necessarily limited strategy in challenging the regime of "normalization"itself,
though perhaps it was a necessary startingpoint, and potentially productive at that (see
Weeks 1958:244). Parallel concerns about the political emphasis on identity were voiced
by writers with multiple salient identities, such as Latina and African-Americanwomen,
who perceived lesbian and gay identity politics as a politics of sameness, within which
other forms of diversity were suppressed(Moragaand Anzalduia1981; Smith 1983).
With the rise, in the early 1980s, of the lesbian and gay movement (Adam 1987)-a
prominentpolitical expression of a politics organizedaroundsexual expression and identity-the academic study of sexuality increasingly became the study of homo-sexuality.
By the early 1980s, writers in an array of academic disciplines were engaged in the
productionof a nascent lesbian and gay studies (Altman 1982; Blackwood 1986; Boswell
1980; Chauncey 1982-1983; D'Emilio 1983; Faderman 1981; Freedman et al. 1985;
Plummer 1981; Rubin 1984; Vance 1984; Weeks 1985); so were a substantialnumberof

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nonacademic "organic intellectuals," many of them affiliated (along with some of the
academics) with community-basedlesbian and gay history projects (Escoffier 1990).9 As
a rule, theory and empirical researchadopteda constructionistperspective, derived from
Meadiancurrentsin sociology,10fromparalleldevelopmentsin anthropology,fromMarxist
and feminist theory, and increasinglyfrom the work of Foucault." As a rule, such work
also repudiatedvarious traditionalapproachessummed up underthe rubricof "essentialism"-though precise definitions of these opposing terms generatedconsiderabledebate
as the decade wore on.12 Broadly speaking, whereasessentialismtook for grantedthat all
societies consist of people who are either heterosexualsor homosexuals (with perhaps
some bisexuals), constructionistsclaimed thatsuch typologies are sociohistoricalproducts,
not universally applicable, and deserve explanation in their own right. Also, whereas
essentialism treated the self-attributionof a sexual identity as unproblematic-as simply
the conscious recognition of a true, underlying "orientation"-constructionismfocused
attentionon identity as a complex developmentaloutcome, the consequence of an interactive process of social labeling and self-identification.13
In subsequentyears, with the formal establishmentof lesbian and gay studies programs
in a number of colleges and universities in the United States (Escoffier 1990), with the
organizationof annualconferences attractingmore than a thousandparticipantsto prestigious institutionssuch as Harvardand Yale, with the emergenceof new publicationssuch
as the Journal of the History of Sexuality and GLQ, with the increasing tendency for
senior faculty membersto come out of the closet and for junior faculty membersnever to
have been in, and with an outpouringof interestby undergraduateand graduatestudents,
lesbian and gay studies, in the face of considerableopposition, has received substantial
institutionallegitimacy as an academicgrowtharea.14 Yet--despite the hegemony of social
constructionism-the involvement of sociologists in the study of sexuality has diminished
9 For additional importantworks from this period, see the articles collected in Duberman, Chauncey, and
Vicinus (1989) and, more generally, the articles published in the Journal of Homosexuality.
10 For example, Weeks (1977:239) identifies the main influences on his thinking as Plummer,McIntosh, and
Gagnon and Simon; in later essays, he testifies to the importanceof Foucault. D'Emilio (1983:4) cites the same
writerswith a few additions, such as JonathanKatz and Estelle Freedman.
11 Historians, however, often criticized Foucault for what they considered to be inaccurateaccounts. They
also took issue with his nominalist overemphasison the role of professionalsand their normalizingdiscourses
in bringing sexual categories into being. Historiansargued, for example, that homosexual subculturesand even
certain forms of homosexual identity already had come into existence in large Westerncities well before the
sexological classificationof "homosexuality"was created.
Gay and lesbian history (which was particularlyimportantduringthis period) was also influencedgreatly by
Thompsoniannotions of social history, which stressed writing a "historyfrom below" (thanksto Chris Waters
for emphasizingthis point to me).
12 See, for
example, Epstein (1987) and the other articles reprintedin E. Stein (1992). The so-called "essentialist-constructionistdebate" mirroreda profound confusion both within gay and lesbian communities and in
the generalpublic about the ontological statusof homosexuality-a confusionthat seems only to have heightened
in the 1990s. It is noteworthythat of the two great debates about gays and lesbians which have been played out
recently in the mass media in the United States, one of them-the discourse on the biological or genetic roots
of homosexuality-seeks to fix and stabilize sexual categories as discrete states of being, while the other-the
brouhahaconcerning "gays in the military"-betrays intense fears of the "contagious"nature of homoerotic
desire. Thus, although Seidman (1993:105) argues that "the arcane polemics between constructionistsand
essentialists has evolved into a sterile metaphysicaldebate devoid of moral and political import,"the underlying
concerns at stake in this debate continue to sparkpassions and reveal deep-seatedsocial anxieties.
13 These
critiques of sexual essentialism paralleledconstructionistcritiquesof gender and racial essentialism;
see, for example, Chodorow (1979) and Omi and Winant (1986).
14 The recent
publicationby Routledge of a 600-page Lesbian and Gay StudiesReader (Abelove, Barale, and
Halperin 1993a) is both suggestive of the kinds of work being producedand indicativeof the furtherinstitutionalization of the projectby means of constructinga canon. On homophobicchallenges to lesbian and gay studies,
see Nussbaum (1992). On the question of the relation between lesbian and gay studies programs and the
grassrootsmovement, see Escoffier (1990) and Duggan (1992).

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over the past decade, as has the visibility of explicitly sociological perspectives within
lesbian and gay studies.s1
Accounting for such a shift is beyond the scope of this article, and I can only hint at
possible explanations. The relative decline in prominenceof the largertheoreticalcurrents
that had given birth to the sociology of sexuality, such as symbolic interactionismand
labeling theory, certainly may have made it less likely that the work of people such as
Gagnon and Simon, Plummer,and McIntoshwould be carriedon by a younger generation
of sociologists. Meanwhilenew scholars, particularlyin the humanities,often came to the
study of sexuality directly from the work of Foucault, bypassing the social sciences
entirely. Finally, as gays and lesbians underwenta dramaticconversion in status from a
"deviantsubculture"to a "minoritygroup," a "community,"and a "movement"(Altman
1982), the "nuts and sluts" approachof the sociology of deviance increasingly seemed
misplaced, if not offensive, even to those who understoodthat"deviance"was not intended
as a pejorative term. As Connell has noted, deviance studies tended routinely to group
homosexuals alongside "alcoholics, mentally disordered persons, . . . and systematic

check forgers" (1992:737). Yet by the 1980s, with the rise of a quasi-ethnicself-understanding within well-defined and institutionallyelaborate lesbian and gay communities,
the most relevant sociological metaphorswere no longer that of deviance but of ethnic
group formation and social movement mobilization (Altman 1982; Epstein 1987).16Applied to lesbians and gay men, the sociology of deviance was the sociology of the closet.
The emergence of an affirmativepolitics organized aroundsexual identity simply eluded
its grasp, no matterwhat epicycles the deviance scholars tacked onto their theories.17

DECIPHERINGQUEERNESS
The late 1980s marked the adoption, in various circles, of the word queer as a new
characterizationof "lesbian and gay" politics and, indeed, as a potential replacementfor
the very terms lesbian and gay (Berube and Escoffier 1991; Duggan 1992; A. Stein 1992).
The term was explicitly associated with the activist group Queer Nation, which sprangup
15 There
are, of course, any numberof noteworthyindividualexceptions; see, for example, Connell (1993),
Greenberg(1988), Seidman (1988, 1992), A. Stein (1992), and Taylor and Whittier (1992). A glance at the
programsof the annual Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Studies conferences, however, would easily demonstratethe
overwhelming predominanceof scholars in the humanities and the relative paucity of contributionsfrom the
social sciences.
AIDS prevention is one area where sociological (and anthropological)constructionismhas gained a certain
niche, both as a theoreticalcritique of behavioristor narrowlyinterpersonalmodels of safe sex education and
as the groundingfor the developmentof concrete health educationstrategiesthat acknowledgethe problematic,
variable, and culturally specific relations between behavior and identity (Connell, Davis, and Dowsett 1993;
Davies et al. 1992; Parker,Herdt, and Carballo 1991).
For a (now outdated) review of sociological contributionsto the study of homosexuality, see Risman and
Schwartz(1988).
16 At least some
segments of the profession continue to miss the point, as demonstratedby the American
Sociological Review in its publishingof this very articleby Connell in 1992. Thoughhis article(on the dynamics
of genderformationamong Australiangay men) owed little to the sociology of deviancebeyond his brief critique
of it, the journal's cover advertised "Three Studies of Deviant Careers"and listed Connell's article, an article
on criminals, and an article on misconductby lawyers.
Similarly, a 1989 sociology textbook (Preston and Smith) was blasted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation(GLAAD 1992:3), a media watchdoggroup, for "[placing]its informationon homosexuality
between 'prostitution'and 'alcoholism' underthe heading of 'Deviance."' "Sociology textbooks need to present
a more comprehensive and balanced picture of researchon homosexuality,"the organizationadvised. (On the
treatmentof homosexualityand the "hegemonyof heterosexuality"in introductorysociology textbooks, also see
Phillips 1991.)
17 I have in mind Kitsuse's
(1980:9) attempt to broaden the scope of deviance studies so as to encompass
identity politics. Kitsuse conceptualized "tertiarydeviance" as "the deviant's confrontation, assessment, and
rejection of the negative identity imbedded in secondary deviation, and the transformationof that identity into
a positive and viable self-conception."

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in dozens of cities around the United States; more generally, it reflected new political
tendencies and culturalemphases, particularlyin a younger generationof migrantsto the
establishedlesbian and gay communities.It is a termrife with connotations,some of them
contradictory:
* The invocation of the "Q-word"is an act of linguistic reclamation,in which a pejorative
termis appropriatedby the stigmatizedgroupso as to negate the term's power to wound.
(This sometimes has the effect of reinforcing an insider/outsiderdivision: self-styled
queers can use the word freely, while sympatheticstraightsoften do so only nervously.)
* Queerness is frequently anti-assimilationist;it stands in opposition to the inclusionary
project of mainstreamlesbian and gay politics, with its reliance on the discourses of
civil liberties and civil rights. In this sense, queernessis often a markerof one's distance
from conventionalnorms in all facets of life, not only the sexual.
* Similarly,queernessdescribes a politics of provocation,one in which the limits of liberal
toleranceare constantlypushed. Yet while confrontationalpolitics (for example, a samesex "kiss-in" held in a bar frequented by heterosexuals) may work to affirm one's
difference, it also seeks to overturnconventional norms. This transformativeimpulse
(an "outward-looking"focus) coexists with the emphasis on anti-assimilationand selfmarginalization(an "inward-looking"focus).
* Use of the term also functions as a markerof generationaldifferencewithin gay/lesbian/
queer communities. Youngerqueers may speak with resentmentof feeling excluded by
the established"lesbianand gay" communities,while older gays and lesbians sometimes
object bitterly to the use of the term queer, which they consider the language of the
oppressor. 18

* "Queer"speaks to the ideal of a more fully "co-sexual"politics, within which men and
women participateon an equal footing. To some, the use of "queer"to describe both
men and women is preferableto "gay" (which includes women in much the same way
as "man"used to include women), or to "gay and lesbian" (which emphasizes gender
difference).
* "Queer"offers a comprehensiveway of characterizingall those whose sexuality places
them in opposition to the current"normalizingregime" (Warner1991:16). In a more
mundanesense, "queer"has become convenient shorthandas various sexual minorities
have claimed territoryin the space once known simply, if misleadingly, as "the gay
community." As stated by an editor of the defunct New York City queer magazine
Outweek(quoted in Duggan 1992:21), "Whenyou're trying to describe the community,
and you have to list gays, lesbians, bisexuals, drag queens, transsexuals(post-op and
pre), it gets unwieldy. Queer says it all."
* The rise of queerness reflects a postmodern"decentering"of identity (A. Stein 1992).
As formerly paradigmaticpatternsof identity construction(such as "the lesbian feminist") lose sway, they are replacedby a loosely relatedhodgepodgeof lifestyle choices.
Collectively these offer more individualspace for the constructionof identity, but none
provides a clear "center"for the consolidationof community.
* Queer politics are "constructionist"politics (Duggan 1992), markedby a resistance to
being labeled, a suspicion of constrainingsexual categories, and a greaterappreciation
for fluidity of sexual expression.
* At times, however, queer politics also can be "essentialist"politics: in these expressions,
the new moniker is simply reified into yet another identity category understood in
18 On the heated debates in U.S. "lesbian and
gay" communities over whether to identify as "queer,"see
Gamson (No date).

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separatist or nationalist terms, as the name Queer Nation itself can imply (Duggan
1992).
Clearly, the burdens of connotation would appearto be heavier than any single word
might be expected to bear. At present, "queer"has been appropriatedto describe a
considerablerange of political projects as well as individualand collective identities. Yet
the meaning of the term is complicated further by its simultaneous employment by
academics. Sometimes "queer"is put forward simply as the new and concise coinage:
"gay studies," or "lesbian and gay studies," or "bisexual, lesbian, and gay studies," or
"multicultural,bisexual, lesbian, and gay studies" should-for convenience, if for no
otherreason-be named"queerstudies."19Sometimes, however, the invocationof "queer"
signals importantshifts in theoreticalemphasis. In this reading, said Teresa de Lauretis,
one of the organizersof a "queertheory"conferenceat UC-SantaCruz, "queer"is intended
"to marka certaincritical distance from the ... by now establishedand often convenient,
formula"of "lesbian and gay" (1991:iv).
Although many works are emblematic of the "queerturn"(Butler 1990, 1993; Cohen
1991; de Lauretis 1991; Dollimore 1993; Edelman 1989, 1992; Goldberg 1991; Miller
1991; A. Parker 1991; Patton 1993; Sedgwick 1993; Seidman 1993; Terry 1991; Warner
1993), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemologyof the Closet (1990) is perhapsmost often
cited as a canonical text (even though the term queer theory does not appear there).
Basically a critical reinterpretationof specific works of English literature,the book opens
with a strong claim:
Epistemologyof the Closet proposes that many of the major nodes of thought and
knowledge in twentieth-centuryWesternculture as a whole are structured-indeed,
definition,indicatively
fractured-by a chronic,now endemiccrisisof homo/heterosexual
male, datingfrom the end of the nineteenthcentury(1990:1).
Furthermore(as if, perhaps, that weren't bold enough for an opening paragraph):
of virtuallyany aspect of modem Western
The book will arguethat an understanding
culturemust be, not merely incomplete,but damagedin its centralsubstanceto the
degree that it does not incorporatea critical analysis of modem homo/heterosexual
definition . . . (1).

All too often, studies of gays and lesbians, or of other "sexual minorities," have been
cast as studies of "marginal"experience. By contrast, an "epistemology of the closet"
seeks to analyze how various ways of construing sexual marginality shape the selfunderstandingof the culture as a whole. For example, Sedgwick argues, the very notion
of the "closet" (as well as the metaphorof "coming out of the closet," now somewhat
widely diffused) reflects the influence of the homosexual/heterosexualdichotomy on
broaderperceptions of public and private, or secrecy and disclosure (1990:72). In this
sense, as Michael Warnersuggests, "Sedgwick'sworkhas shown thatthereare specifically
modem forms of associationand of power thancan be seen properlyonly from the vantage
of antihomophobicinquiry"(1993:xiv).
Though Sedgwick rejects many of the termsof the so-called "essentialist-constructionist
19 This move, however, remains tentative and controversial. Indeed, the editors of The Lesbian and Gay
Studies Reader noted in their introductionto the volume (Abelove et al. 1993b:xvii):"It was difficult to decide
what to title this anthology. We have reluctantlychosen not to speak here and in our title of 'queer studies,'
despite our own attachmentto the term, because we wish to acknowledge the force of currentusage."

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debate"(1990:40-41), her work in an importantsense continuesthe traditionof the social


constructionistperspective. "Homosexuality"and "heterosexuality"do not describe transhistoricalculturalforms, despite the universalityof specific sexual practices. Rather,such
practicescome to mean very differentthings in a society which insists thateach individual,
just as he or she possesses a gender, also must necessarilyoccupy one or the othercategory
of sexual orientation."It was this new development,"which Sedgwick and other authors
(Halperin 1990) locate around the turn of the century in Western societies, "thatleft no
space in the cultureexempt from the potent incoherencesof homo/heterosexualdefinition"
(1990:2).
In constructinga genealogy of the homosexual/heterosexualdivide, Sedgwick's work
draws on Foucault. In general, the markof Foucaultis broadlyapparentin works of this
kind-in their emphasis on power and "normalization,"in their understandingof the
constitutive role of discourse in the constructionof subjectivity,in their poststructuralist
critiqueof conceptions of coherent selfhood (Butler 1990, 1993), and in their postmodern
suspicion of identity as a totalizing construct that subsumes difference (Cohen 1991).
Whereasqueerpolitics often seem divided in their approachto identity politics-at times
subvertingpopular notions of stable identities, at times fashioning a new queer identity
with their own enforcedboundaries-queer theoryis more consistenton this point. Indeed,
the terrainof queerness provides a meeting point for those who come to the critique of
identity from many different directions: those who believe that identity politics mute
internaldifferences within the group along racial, class, gender, or other lines of cleavage
(Montero 1993; Mort no date; Seidman 1991); those who believe that subjectivities are
always multiple (Ferguson 1991; Seidman 1991); and those who are simply suspicious of
categorizationas inherently constraining. The point (at least as I read it) is not to stop
studying identity formation, or even to abandonall forms of identity politics, but rather
to maintainidentity and difference in productivetension, and to rely on notions of identity
and identitypolitics for their strategicutility while remainingvigilant againstreification.20
In subjectmatter,queer studies emphasizeliteraryworks, texts, and artisticand cultural
forms; in analytical technique, deconstructionistand psychoanalytic approaches loom
large. Yet however marked these tendencies, none of them is necessarily definitive of
queer theory, whereas the assertion of the centrality of marginalityis the pivotal queer
move. Just as queer politics emphasize outsidemess as a way of constructingopposition
to the regime of normalizationas a whole, so queer theory analyzes putatively marginal
experience, but in order to expose the deeper contours of the whole society and the
mechanismsof its functioning.
In some sense, this idea is not altogether new: a presumed goal of the sociology of
deviance, for example, was to study the processes by which people become labeled
deviant, so as to reveal, by contrast, the ideological constructionof "the normal." In
practice, however, sociologists have tended to relegate the study of "sexual minorities"to
the analytical sidelines ratherthan treatingsuch study as a window onto a largerworld of
power, meaning, and social organization.The challenge that queer theory poses to sociological investigation is precisely in the strong claim that no facet of social life is fully
comprehensiblewithout an examinationof how sexual meanings intersect with it. In no
way does it disqualify such a claim to recognize it as a serving a certainstrategicfunction
within the intellectual"field"(Bourdieu 1988): queer theoristsare seeking to situate their
work as an "obligatorypassage point" (Latour1987) throughwhich other academicsmust
20 For different
approachesto the maintenanceof such a "productivetension" in identity politics, see Clarke
(1991), Gamson (No date), and Seidman (1993). For the view that "the temporarytotalizationperformedby
identity categories is a necessary error,"see Butler (1993:230).

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pass if they want to fully understandtheir own particularsubjectmatters.In this sense as


well, queer theory, like queer politics, is locating itself simultaneouslyboth on the margins
and at the center.
Perhapsthe clearest analogy, as the editors of the Lesbian and Gay StudiesReader note
(Abelove et al. 1993b: xv-xvi), is with feminist theory and women's studies programs;
they have sought to argue that gender is not a "separatesphere," but ratheris partially
constitutive of other institutions such as the economy and the state. The goal therefore
should not be to restrictconcerns with gender to a boundeddomain called "sociology of
gender," but to introduce gendered understandingsinto sociological scrutiny across the
board. The challenge for queer studies will be to demonstratethe links concretely in the
case of sexuality-to identify the precise ways in which sexual meanings, categories, and
identities are woven into the fabric of society and help give shape to diverse institutions,
practices, and beliefs.
A RETURN TO SOCIOLOGY?
It should go without saying-but unfortunatelyneeds to be said-that there is considerable
space within such an enterprisefor the perspectivesand approachesof disciplines such as
sociology, and indeed substantialneed for sociological contributions,both theoreticaland
empirical. On the one hand, by tracingtheir lineages back no furtherthan Sedgwick and
Foucault, practitionersof queer theory risk reinventingthe wheel. On the other hand, to
the extent that queer studies focus overwhelminglyon discourses and texts, crucial questions about social structure,political organization,and historicalcontext are investigated
in only partial ways. As noted by Steven Seidman (1993:132, 135), the poststructuralist
reduction of complex cultural codes into "binary signifying figures" in much of queer
theory, and the corresponding tendency to abstract discourses from their institutional
contexts, verge unhappilyon a kind of "textualidealism."
For sociologists, the potentially fruitful lines of investigationare manifold:
Sexual meanings and social categorizations. How are complex, often internallycontradictory, and ambiguoussystems of sexual meaningconstructedand challengedin different
cultures(e.g., R. Parker1991:172-73)? What is the relationbetween "macro"patternsof
social organizationand "micro"negotiations of sexual definition?Which institutionsare
central to the reproductionor contestation of sexual codes and beliefs? How do sexual
belief systems and patternsof sexual conduct and identity formationintersect with other
markersof social difference and systems of oppression, such as class, race, and gender
(e.g., Almaguer 1993; Connell 1992; Connell, Davis, and Dowsett 1993; Gutierrez1991;
Mumford 1992)?21

Social movements. That so many different and even contradictorymeanings have


consolidated around the word queer is itself suggestive of the richness of queer politics
as a case study of the dynamics of collective action within "new social movements."
Recent studies of social movements, such as the articles in Morris and Mueller (1992),
have emphasized the critical importanceof collective identity as something whose existence cannot simply be assumed by the analyst of a social movement.22Yet queer politics
raise perplexingquestions about the relationbetween identityand action. How are politics
21 Although queer theorists have emphasized the analytical irreducibilityof different forms of
oppression
(Butler 1993:18-19; Sedgwick 1990:31-35), in practicethere has been inadequateattentionto the interweavings
of race and class with sexuality, as a glance at the table of contents of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader
(Abelove et al. 1993a) would suggest.
22 On collective identity in lesbian politics, see Taylor and Whittier(1992) and A. Stein (1992). I am indebted
to Josh Gamson for discussion of the points in this paragraph.

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possible when actors insist upon the fluidity of identity and resist the very notion of
categorization(Gamson no date; Seidman 1993)? Still other questions about movements
are suggested by queer politics: How do queer politics differ from the gay rights politics
of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the gay liberationist politics of the early 1970s
(Duberman1993), and the "homophile"politics of the 1960s (D'Emilio 1983)? How do
these different models relate to the political strategiesof other groups?In what ways are
the unique rhetoricaland dramaturgicalstyles of queer activist groups influencing other
"new social movements"(Kauffman 1993)? How have AIDS activists managedso effectively to link an expressive politics of disruptive street theater (Gamson 1989) with an
institutionalpolitics of consensus building with medical experts, pharmaceuticalcompanies, and governmentofficials (Epstein 1991b, no date)?
Other social institutions. How does the state intervenein sexual politics, and how are
such politics constitutive of state institutions (e.g., Connell 1990)? How is scientific
knowledge about sexual identity constructedby experts? What is the role of the mass
media in the dissemination of sexual meanings? How do gender and sexuality structure
the shop-floorrelations between workers and management,and how do such relations in
turn affect patternsof gender and sexuality (Salzingerno date)?
Though such questions may (and should) be addressedfrom the vantage point of many
fields, they are fundamentallysociological questions, bound up with importanttheoretical
currents and ignored to the detriment of the profession. Unfortunately,as Warnerhas
noted, "it remains depressingly easy to speak of 'social theory' and have in mind whole
debates ... in which sexuality figures only peripherallyor not at all . . ." (1991:4). One
can identify occasional, recent exceptions (such as Giddens 1992), but the basic point
remains. Although sociologists will not and should not go aboutqueer studies in precisely
the same ways as others have done it, the recent and impressive flurryof activity under
that rubricstill might provide a needed wake-up call.

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