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Queer Theory and Psychology: Gender, Sexuality, and Transgender Identities



American Psychological Association Division 44 Distinguished Book Award Winner 2023 This timely volume examines the ways in which queer and trans theory are supported by recent findings from psychological science. In it, Ella Ben Hagai and Eileen Zurbriggen explore foundational ideas from queer thought and transgender theory including the instability of gender, variation in sexualities, intersectional theory, and trans writers’ rejection of the “born in the wrong body” narrative. These key ideas are juxtaposed with innovative empirical psychological research on the fluidity of gender, the proliferation of sexual identities, and transgender affirming medical and psychological care. This book explains the history and politics of key ideas shaping the study of the psychology of gender and sexuality today. It also describes the ways that the queer and trans revolutions have changed how psychologists understand gender, sexuality, and transgender identities. It will be especially helpful for readers interested in interdisciplinary scholarship.
Queer Theory
and Psychology
Ella Ben Hagai · Eileen L. Zurbriggen
Gender, Sexuality, and Transgender
Queer Theory and Psychology
EllaBenHagai • EileenL.Zurbriggen
Queer Theory
Gender, Sexuality, andTransgender Identities
ISBN 978-3-030-84890-3 ISBN 978-3-030-84891-0 (eBook)
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California State University, Fullerton
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The inspiration and the impetus for this book is Sandra Bem’s inuential work The
Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality (Bem, 1993). In
this book, whose publication coincided with that of some of the most important
work in queer theory, Bem critically traced psychologists’ formulations of gender
and sexuality and connected them to socio-historical processes. She showed the
ways in which psychological science has been used to justify racial and gender-
based oppressions and inequalities. Furthermore, Bem used ndings from then-
emerging feminist research to denaturalize gender categories. She showed the
myriad ways in which gender roles are learned and policed in children, and dis-
cussed ways to dismantle gender policing. Lenses of Gender, published in the early
1990s, has inspired more pluralistic and open ways to raise children, asserting space
for gender exploration and subversion. The generation of children whose parents
were inuenced by feminism and the inclusion of gay politics have now come of
age and are themselves participants in psychological studies. They are changing the
ways in which psychologists ask questions about and understand gender and sexual-
ity. Inspired by Bem’s scholarship, activism, and writing, we wanted to conduct a
queer reading of contemporary research in psychology, with the goal of highlighting
the ways in which psychological thought and research practice has beneted from a
consideration of the queer and transgender projects of denaturalizing gender and
sex and can continue to be transformed.
Bem inspired each of us in particular ways. My [Eileen] connection with her
began in a personal, face-to-face encounter– I was one of her students in a small
class on feminist psychology that she taught at Cornell University in the late 1980s.
I had recently graduated from college and was immersed in the identity exploration,
introspection, and instability that are often part of emerging adulthood (Arnett,
2004), trying to make decisions about my personal and occupational trajectories. In
this class, we read draft chapters of Lenses of Gender as well as many of the original
works (from numerous disciplines) that helped shape Bem’s thinking. Each week
brought exciting new ideas to contemplate and discuss, either Bem’s own innovative
analyses or the thought-provoking work that she curated for that class. My desire to
pursue graduate work in psychology was cemented by this course and Bem’s letter
of reference (which she graciously provided, even though this was my only contact
with her) was doubtless instrumental in my acceptance to graduate school. Some
years later, her email to former Cornell colleague Jennifer Freyd (who had moved
to the University of Oregon) was also instrumental in my securing a postdoctoral
position with Freyd. So, I owe Bem a great debt, both practically and intellectually.
For me, this book (and the article that preceded it and focused more narrowly on
Bem’s work; Balzer Carr etal., 2017) is one of the ways that I honor her life and her
scholarly contributions.
The impetus for this book also sprang from a course in Women’s Studies that I
took as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the early 1990’s, taught
by Anne Herrmann and Abigail Stewart. This team-taught course was meant to
introduce feminist theory to a mixed group of humanities and social science gradu-
ate students. The course was inspired by a highly satisfying and productive summer
seminar that Herrmann and Stewart had taught, where they saw rsthand the bene-
ts of interdisciplinary conversation for mid-career faculty members’ individual
scholarship and pedagogy. Bringing this model to graduate students, however,
proved somewhat challenging and many of us in the course struggled to understand
our peers in the “other” paradigm and felt at times quite frustrated with how unintel-
ligible or reductionistic that other paradigm seemed to be. Herrmann and Stewart
(1994) speculated that for beginning graduate students, who are taking their rst
tentative steps toward learning and identifying with their discipline, it might be
especially difcult to question the assumptions of that discipline and (even more
difcult) the very notion of disciplinary paradigms. We concur that the project of
being open to multiple disciplinary and epistemological perspectives is especially
challenging when we are still learning our own discipline’s language, assumptions,
and methods. Our hope is that, by seeing specic examples of the interdisciplinary
cross-fertilization that we provide in this book, students and junior scholars in psy-
chology and related disciplines (and perhaps in critical and queer studies, as well)
will be aided in their project of disciplinary openness.
For me [Ella], Sandra Bem’s work was important because it represented a vision
of psychology that was profoundly interdisciplinary. Like many others, I rst devel-
oped my queer identity during college. Studying at UC Berkeley not only afforded
me the opportunity to enmesh myself in the thriving San Francisco queer scene of
the early 2000s, it also afforded me the opportunity to engage with some of the
foundational thinkers in queer theory. As a psychology student, I wanted not only to
understand people but also to understand the history and scholarship of queer think-
ers whose community I was becoming part of. The most intellectually stimulating
semester of my undergraduate studies was one in which I walked back and forth
between the psychology building (Tolman Hall) and one of the humanities buildings
(Dwinelle Hall) at Berkeley. During this semester, I took a class on memory, remem-
bering, and narrative with the brilliant cognitive scientist Eleanor Rosch followed
by a seminar on memory, melancholia, and the Holocaust with Judith Butler. The
intellectual excitement of thinking about narratives, memory, and trauma from both
psychological and critical feminist and queer theory perspectives was a constitutive
experience that became the blueprint of what I aimed to do as a thinker and a scholar.
I choose to do my Ph.D. in a university (and department) that encourages inter-
disciplinary entanglements, the University of California, Santa Cruz: the university
in which queer studies was born. During my time as a doctoral student at UCSC, the
great economic recession hit the San Francisco Bay area and began a new wave of
gentrication, evictions, and displacement of people of color, working-class people,
and queer people from the Bay Area. Many of the bars and community members
who are so important to my queer identities were priced out of San Francisco and
forced to leave (Ben Hagai etal., 2020). To understand the dramatic change in land-
scape of queer San Francisco, I turned to queer scholars’ writing about neoliberal-
ism, gentrication, and homonormativity (Duggan, 2002; Hobson, 2016; Schulman,
2012). Queer analyses of neoliberalism helped me understand what was happening
in my own queer community in San Francisco.
My rst faculty position was at a school deeply committed to interdisciplinary
education, Bennington College. There, I organized several speaker series that
explored questions on the intersections of queer theory and psychology. Among the
scholars I hosted and who are featured in this book are Sarah Schulman, Lisa
Duggan, Laina Bay-Cheng, and Susan Stryker. My study of their scholarship and
conversations with them on gender, sexuality, and politics allowed me to think about
the connections between queer thought and development in psychological theories.
My conversations with my students who were part of the Millennial and Generation
Z cohorts led me to reect on the need to facilitate a broader conversation on the
relationship between the proliferation of sexual (e.g., asexual, demisexual, poly-
sexual, kink) and gender (e.g., agender, genderqueer, nonbinary, gender uid) iden-
tities and the rst wave of queer and transgender thought. As more and more sexual
and gender categories emerge, a fuller understanding of their relationship to the
history of activism and scholarship that made them possible is needed. Moreover,
for psychologists to fully account for and understand the meaning of queer and
transgender identities, they need to engage with queer and transgender political
projects. In this book we offer our readers a cross disciplinary account that provides
a thicker description and understanding of how queer and transgender social catego-
ries emerged, and how they are experienced through the lens of psychological
research. We hope that the interdisciplinary entanglement we offer in this book
inspires our readers and encourages them to pursue their own cross-disciplinary
I am profoundly indebted to the queer and transgender thinkers who indulged me
in dialogue on these topics either through their scholarship, talks, or dinner conver-
sations. I am especially indebted to colleagues Cindy Cruz, Wanda Alarcón, Raúl
Coronado, Lily House-Peters, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Helga Druxes, Alexandar
Mihailovic, Zohar-Weinman Kelman, Yosefa Raz, and Shaul Setter, Esther
Rothblum, Charlotte Tate, Susan Stryker, Sara Schulman, Laina Bay-Cheng, Meg-
John Barker, Stephen Shapiro, Rachelle Annechino, and J.Stoner Blackwell, and of
course Zoey Kroll, for all the inspiring cross disciplinary conversations and teaching.
We also want to extend special appreciation to Brandon Balzer Carr, our collabo-
rator on the article in the Sex Roles double issue in honor of Sandra Bem. In that
article, we drew connections between queer theory and Bem’s work. After its
publication, the three of us took up the project of expanding that lens to look at
psychological research more broadly, and we jointly wrote the proposal for this
book. Brandon’s work took him in a different direction (and away from this project),
but we are grateful for his contributions to the current volume’s outline, as well as
for his enthusiasm about the concept. Finally, our deep gratitude goes to Springer
acquisitions editor Sharon Panulla, who rst saw the possibility for this larger con-
tribution in the seed of our Sex Roles article. Her patience as we navigated personal
and professional challenges during the global coronavirus pandemic was greatly
Fullerton, CA, USA EllaBenHagai
Santa Cruz, CA, USA EileenL.Zurbriggen
Arnett, J.J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twen-
ties. Oxford University Press.
Balzer Carr, B., Ben Hagai, E., & Zurbriggen, E.L. (2017). Queering Bem: Theoretical intersec-
tions between Sandra Bem’s scholarship and queer theory. Sex Roles, 76, 655–668. https://doi.
Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. Yale
University Press.
Ben Hagai, E., Annechino, R., Young, N., & Antin, T. (2020). Intersecting sexual identities,
oppressions, and social justice work: Comparing LGBTQ baby boomers to millennials who
came of age after the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Journal of Social Issues, 76, 971–992. https://doi.
Duggan, L. (2002). The new homonormativity: The sexual politics of neoliberalism. In
R.Castronovo & D.D. Nelson, Materializing democracy: Toward a revitalized cultural politics
(pp.175–194). Duke University Press.
Herrmann, A.C., & Stewart, A.J. (1994). Reading feminist theories: Collaborating across disci-
plines. In A.C. Hermann & A.J. Stewart (Eds.), Theorizing feminism: Parallel trends in the
humanities and social sciences (pp. xiii–xvi). Westview Press.
Hobson, E.K. (2016). Lavender and red: Liberation and solidarity in the gay and lesbian left.
University of California Press.
Schulman, S. (2012). The gentrication of the mind: Witness to a lost imagination. University of
California Press.
1 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
What Do We Mean by Queer Theory? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Benets and Epistemological Challenges of Our Approach . . . . . . . . . . 4
Plan of the Book . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
2 Historical Influences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Gay and Lesbian Liberation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Women of Color Feminism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Poststructural Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Queer Activism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Queer Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Sexuality: Non-Static, In Flux, and Socially Constructed . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Gender: Dismantling the Binary Through Proliferation . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Trans*: Against the Medical Model, Towards Gender
Self-determination . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Activism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specific,
and Contested Nature of Sexual Identities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
The Historically Constructed Nature of Sexuality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
Evidence from Critical Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Queer Rejection of the Minoritizing View of Sexuality . . . . . . . . . . . 43
The Turn Towards Fluidity in Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
Intersectionality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
Psychological Research on Intersectionality and Sexuality . . . . . . . . 48
Critiquing Hierarchies of Sexualities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
BDSM . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Polyamory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
Asexuality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
An Integrative Psychological Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
4 Instability of Gender Identity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Gender Performativity: Rejection of the Traditional Sex/Gender
Construction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
Sex/Gender Distinction in Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
Gender Performativity. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Psychology Studies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Instability of Gender/Sex Binaries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76
Psychology/Sociology Studies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Proliferation of Gender Categories: Resisting
the Heterosexual Matrix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Psychology Responds: Bem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
Empirical Studies in Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Practicalities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
An Integrative Psychological Model . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
5 The Transgender Spectrum . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
The Medicalization of Transgender Identity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
Psychoanalytic and Behaviorist Approaches to Transgender
Identity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
First Wave of Transgender Scholars’ Rejection of the Medical
Model . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103
Psychological Research on the Medical Model . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
Rejection of the Medical Model as Pathologizing
of Transgender Identity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
Counter Narrative: The Transgender Self-Determination Approach . . . 107
Intersection Between Gender Self-Determination
and the Afrmative Turn in Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107
Trans Studies Critique of the Essentialist and Binary
Approach to Gender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Towards the Polyvocality of the Transgender Experience . . . . . . . . . . . 112
Psychological Research on Gender-Expansive Identities . . . . . . . . . . 113
A Trans-Inclusive Integrated Model in Psychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
6 Conclusion: Intragroup Conflict and Solidarity Activism . . . . . . . . . 123
The Political Psychology of Identity and Solidarity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
Research in the Psychology of Conict . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133
1© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2022
E. Ben Hagai, E. L. Zurbriggen, Queer Theory and Psychology,
Chapter 1
An astonishing change has taken place in the last several years in the ways people
understand and speak about gender and sexuality in the United States and other
parts of the world. From celebrities to high school students, more and more people
are identifying outside of traditional gender and sexual binaries. Only recently,
celebrities like Demi Lovato have declared themselves gender nonbinary, and others
like Cara Delevingne have identied using new terms like pansexual. In this book,
we will make the argument that postulations from queer and transgender studies–
that sexuality is constructed, gender is nonbinary, and the economic and political
structures of the state work to regulate people’s sexual behavior to ensure heteronor-
mativity– have made their way into mainstream public discourses, and are increas-
ingly prevalent in the ways Millennials and Generation Z understand themselves
(Ben Hagai etal., 2020).
We will make the case that the proliferation of gender and sexual categories we
see today was advocated for and theorized by queer and transgender scholars in the
late 1980s and early 1990s. For instance, in a foundational queer theory text, Eve
Sedgwick wondered why, given that desire can focus on different body parts and
zones of pleasure unrelated to sex/gender differences, sexual orientation (e.g.,. het-
erosexuality or homosexuality) is determined based on the sex/gender of the people
one is attracted to (Sedgwick, 1990). In another text from the early 1990s, queer
thinker Judith Butler argued for the proliferation of gender categories in order to
make the gender binary nonsensical (Butler, 1990a, 1990b). In a foundational text
for transgender studies, Sandy Stone called for a transgender movement that allows
for a wide space of transgender identities (as opposed to a single third gender) that
can serve as an entire genre of people whose bodies and genders cannot be traced
into a conventional sex and gender linkage and will thereby disrupt it (Stone, 1992).
The postulations made by queer and transgender thinkers in foundational texts
for queer and transgender studies can be seen as prophetic given the reality we live
in today. Interestingly, whereas queer and transgender thinkers have advocated for
the proliferation of sexual and gender categories, they have also critiqued the notion
that identity categories represent a stable and authentic state unique to the individual
(Butler, 1990a, 1990b; Duggan, 2002; Duggan & Hunter, 2006; Foucault,
1976/1978). In this book, we discuss the intersections and divergences of queer
theory and transgender studies in relation to the reality of sexual and gender under-
standing we see today as depicted by psychological studies and theories.
Not only have queer and transgender ideas reshaped the way many people think
about their own genders and sexualities, they also made their way into psychologi-
cal research and theoretical models used by psychologists (e.g.,Bem, 1993; Tate
etal., 2020; Van Anders, 2015). Queer ideas are moving from the margins of psy-
chological theory to the center of contemporary psychological research. Leading
psychologists, some of them queer and transgender, are pursuing research questions
and formulating models that are very much in line with the legacy of queer theory
and transgender studies (Barker, 2016; Balzer Carr etal., 2017; Grzanka etal.,
2016; Langdridge & Barker, 2007; Tate etal., 2020; Van Anders, 2015). Our aim in
this book is to trace the connections between postulations made by queer and trans
scholars and recent empirical research and new models of gender and sexuality
emerging in psychology today.
In this book we hope to facilitate and highlight connections between queer and
transgender thought and psychological research. These connections are important
for creating a more productive dialogue between two elds that are rarely in conver-
sation. As a result, newer identities, such as nonbinary or pansexual, are often theo-
rized as ahistorical, and decontextualized from the political movements, technologies,
and socioeconomic processes that produce them. This leads psychologists to look
for essentializing explanations for gender and sexual identities. Queer and transgen-
der studies scholarship historicizes and contextualizes queer and transgender identi-
ties, allowing a different understanding of them than the essentializing narratives
common in psychological public discourses (Bornstein, 2016; Meyerowitz, 2009;
Stryker, 2008). Engaging with queer and transgender theory texts that highlight
problems with essentializing gender andsexualitymay inspire researchers in psy-
chology to generate hypotheses that account in a more expansive manner for the
socially constructed, unstable, and uid nature of gender andsexuality (Foucault,
1976/1978; Jagose, 1996; Seidman, 1996; Sullivan, 2003). For psychologists who
are part of the queer and transgender community, queer and transgender theories
provide foundations for research questions and hypotheses that are grounded in the
ethos of the community (Balzer Carr etal., 2017).
We also believe that this book can be helpful to queer and transgender scholars
situated in the humanities because it offers a window to the shifting ways people
understand their gender and sexuality. Psychological research conducted with queer
and transgender participants reveals how people within these communities under-
stand and make meaning of their gender and sexuality. We hope to inspire queer and
transgender scholars to theorize in relationship to the voices of queer and transgen-
der people depicted in psychological research. Just as the theories of Donna
Haraway (1985/2009) and Karen Barad (2003) were enriched through dialogue
with the biological and physical sciences, we believe that the next generations of
queer and transgender scholars can be enriched by a conversation with psychologi-
cal science.
1 Introduction
Our hope is that this book will help queer and trans psychologists feel more at
home in queer and transgender theory. In turn, we also hope that this book will help
scholars of queer and transgender studies feel more at home when reading psycho-
logical research conducted with transgender and queer people.
What Do WeMean by Queer Theory?
Queer theory can be used to reference a set of ideas derived from the radical queer
movement that emerged in the early 1990s (Seidman, 1996; Sullivan, 2003). This
movement of ideas was inuenced by gay liberation, as well as women of color
feminism (Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014; Feinberg, 1992; Wittman,
1970/2004). These theories reject the notion of gender as rooted in biological differ-
ences and structured by a binary (Butler, 1990a, 1990b; Feinberg, 1992). They also
examine the manner in which the heterosexual/homosexual binary functions to
exclude marginalized people with same-sex desire. Instead, queer theory sees sex-
ual categories as historically constituted, unstable, and always in ux (Rubin, 1984;
Sedgwick, 1990).
Another denition of queer theory focuses on a specialized set of writings (that
draws from post-structural theories) by theorists usually working in English and
Comparative Literature departments in elite universities (Brim, 2020). Duggan
(1992) speaks of the different streams and currents dening queer theory:
The challenge for queer theory as it emerges from the academic ghetto is to engage intel-
lectually with the political project in the best sense of “theory,” while avoiding jargon and
obscurantism in the worst sense of “academic.” … On the up side, some queer theorists
work in a way that disrupts the activist/theorist opposition, combining sophisticated think-
ing, accessible language, and an address to a broadly imagined audience. [They] offer us the
possibility of escape from the twin pitfalls of anti-intellectual posturing among some activ-
ists and the functional elitism of some would-be radical theorists (p.26, italics in original).
Whereas some denitions of queer theory focus on advancements in literary theory
derived from deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, in this book we use a
wider denition of queer theory that focuses on its relationship with the queer
movement’s goal of dismantling the gender and sexual binary that marginalizes
people who do not conform to the binaries.
In order to accomplish the enormous project of linking several elds of study
across disciplinary borders, we chose in this book to focus on the most foundational
texts in the rst wave of queer and transgender scholarship. Furthermore, we privi-
lege writing that is part of the queer and transgender political movement, writing
which does not require many years of training in specialized knowledge (e.g., of
deconstructive theory) to understand. Because our work aims to cover key aspects
of both queer thought and psychological research and theories, we cannot examine,
in extensive depth, many of the nuances and complexities of each eld. There are
numerous important foundational texts and developments in queer theory and trans-
gender studies that we admire but do not mention in this book. Furthermore, because
What Do WeMean by Queer Theory?
of the nature of this project, we do not discuss theories that do not juxtapose well
with research in psychology. For instance, some important writing in queer theory
focuses on concepts of futurity and queer utopias (Edelman, 2004; Muñoz, 2009)
which do not intersect with research in psychology; as such, we do not engage sub-
stantially with them in this book. Other topics we do not cover in this book such as
affect or transgender embodiment have been thoroughly discussed in other writing
by psychologists who are also enmeshed in queer and transgender scholarship (Liu,
2017; Nagoshi & Nagoshi, 2014). Finally, the elds of queer and transgender stud-
ies are rapidly developing and new important works are published every month.
Focusing on the foundational texts will hopefully lead to an increased appetite for,
and better understanding of, more recent theories by cutting-edge new scholars.
To make the juxtaposition of foundational texts in queer and trans scholarship
and psychological research possible for us and accessible to our audience, we focus
on the most important lines of thought in queer and trans scholarship. Within each
chapter we highlight some of the key axioms on the nature of sexuality, gender, and
transgender feelings. We then juxtapose these axioms with recent research in psy-
chology that incorporates or diverges from queer and transgender theory. For
instance, in the chapter on queer sexuality we juxtapose queer theory’s postulation
that sexuality is historically constructed by showing how psychological research has
shifted from understanding gay and lesbian identities as a pathology, to understand-
ing gay and lesbian people as born with immutable differences similar to a racial
difference (i.e., a minoritizing view; Hegarty, 2017; Morin, 1977). More recently,
because of the greater acceptance of LGBTQ people, psychologists have increas-
ingly focused on the uidity of same-sex desire (Diamond, 2007; Grzanka etal.,
2016). This juxtaposition can further inform the historical and shifting construction
of sexuality by scientists.
Benets andEpistemological Challenges ofOur Approach
One of the key obstacles in juxtaposing queer and transgender theory with psycho-
logical theory is the epistemological differences between the two elds (Balzer Carr
etal., 2017). It is important to acknowledge that these two schools of thought are
grounded in different methods and epistemological assumptions. The epistemologi-
cal disagreements are not trivial, but we believe that they need not be treated as
irreconcilable. In order to assist readers as they are introduced to the key theoretical
formulations of queer theory, we now briey describe some of the important episte-
mological and methodological differences.
Epistemology is dened as a theory of knowledge (Alcoff & Potter, 1993). It
touches on questions about the relationship between research and truth or how we
know what we know (Lincoln, 2007). Different epistemological assumptions give
birth to different methodologies. Whereas different methods are utilized across dif-
ferent elds, the ideas that arise from research in psychology and the humanities can
meet at the theoretical level (Guba & Lincoln, 1982, 1994). But before we aim to
1 Introduction
cross-pollinate the different elds it is important to discuss the differences in
assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and truth.
The discipline of psychology has its roots in positivist epistemology, which is
grounded in several propositions. The rst is that reality can be observed and stud-
ied. This is best accomplished by fragmenting reality into variables and processes.
Once independent components of reality are studied and understood, they can be
controlled and predicted. The second assumption of positivist epistemology is that
the investigator is independent from the object of investigation. The third assump-
tion is that the investigation produces factual statements that can be generalized
across different contexts and in different times. The fourth epistemological assump-
tion is that effects have causes that can be studied. Finally, the fth assumption is
that research is value-free, and the investigator can take “a godlike view” that is
objective towards the topic of investigation (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).
The method of study most aligned with the positivist epistemology is the experi-
ment. In experimental research in psychology, researchers usually begin with an
observation of a phenomenon or with previously articulated theories. A hypothesis
that focuses on variables and processes is generated. The hypothesis includes an
independent variable that is presumed to affect the dependent variable. Participants
are randomly assigned into control and experimental conditions which manipulate
the independent variable. If there are large enough differences between participants’
behavior in the experimental condition compared to the control condition the inde-
pendent variable is deemed to have inuenced the results (Wilson etal., 2010).
Critics of the positivist paradigm in psychology have noted that psychological
ndings are often inuenced by the investigators’ own assumptions. For instance,
the assumption that there are two binary genders led psychologists to focus their
investigation and ndings on differences between men and women (Bem, 1993).
The assumption that men can’t be raped or that male victims are extremely rare
could lead rape prevalence researchers to ask male participants only questions about
perpetration (and not victimization) and female participants only questions about
victimization (and not perpetration). Critics within psychology have also questioned
the generalizability of ndings within psychology across time and cultural spaces
(Hurtado, 1997). Astute thinkers have pointed out the historical specicity of nd-
ings about conformity and obedience, noting large shifts in our social understanding
of these behaviors which in turn shifts people’s psychology (Gergen, 1973).
In part because of these critiques, psychologists have increasingly moved towards
either a postpositivist or a constructivist paradigm. Both of these are aligned with
approaches used in other social science disciplines such as sociology and anthropol-
ogy (Balzer Carr et al., 2017). A postpositivist epistemology moves away from
focusing on an objective reality that can be discovered through the tools of science.
Researchers working within these paradigms reject the notion that investigators can
be perfectly objective, with their values or cultural context exerting no inuence on
their investigation. The ability to generalize results across time and context is thus
problematized in a postpositivist epistemology in psychology (Arnett, 2008).
Feminist, critical, and liberation psychologists have engaged vigorously with
these critiques, wrestling with the concepts of generalizability and the dialectical
Benets andEpistemological Challenges ofOur Approach
relationship between the observer (the researcher) and the observed (the research
“subject” or participant) (e.g., Fine, 1994; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988). This
engagement often includes an interrogation of the researcher’s own subjectivity and
how this might impact the formulation of research questions and the collection,
analysis, and interpretation of data (e.g., Langhout, 2006; White & Dotson, 2010).
Some psychologists have adopted a feminist standpoint epistemology that under-
stands reality to be constructed by the observers’ positionalities. Within this episte-
mology the investigator does not take a god-like objective viewpoint but rather
assumes that “knower and known are interactive and inseparable” (Lincoln and
Guba, 1985, p.37). In the standpoint epistemology framework, there is a deliberate
privileging of marginalized standpoints under the assumption that voices from these
positionalities will be most able to counteract possible biases and inaccuracies in
mainstream thought.
Both the positivist and the postpositivist epistemologies that inform most research
in psychology differ from the epistemology of foundational texts in queer theory
(Balzer Carr etal., 2017). These texts are usually grounded in epistemological assump-
tions rooted in critical theory and poststructuralist paradigms (Browne & Nash, 2010).
Critical theory and poststructuralist epistemology are based in the notion that reality
is constructed through social categories and discourses. Political, cultural, and eco-
nomic institutions form ideas, discourses, and social categories (Foucault, 1976/1978;
Scott, 1988; Sedgwick, 1990). People perceive, understand, and act on reality based
on these categories. For instance, historical and political processes associated with the
production of scientic discourses have produced essentialist and dichotomous racial
categorization. These discourses constructed race as a fundamental category describ-
ing people and their value. The categorization of people as part of a nonwhite racial
category justied their oppression (Bem, 1993).
Because of the power of social categories to justify social hierarchy and inequali-
ties, poststructural thinkers are committed to critical engagement with discourse
and social categories (Browne & Nash, 2010). Researchers studying race within a
poststructural paradigm are obliged to take a critical stance towards social catego-
ries, and to interrogate and critique them. The researcher’s position is not seen as
objective but rather as political. Scholarship within queer thought has a political
goal of dismantling interlocking forms of oppression including homophobia, sex-
ism, racism, and class oppressions. As such, queer thinkers deliberately situate their
scholarship not in objectivity but in a political project (Jagose, 1996; Sullivan, 2003).
The methods queer scholars use aim to trouble the static and xed view of gender
and sexual categories. To understand the processes with which people come to
understand gender and sexual categories, many queer theorists utilize a deconstruc-
tive methodology. Deconstructivist analysis focuses on language. Language is
understood as constructing a web in which different concepts are situated. The rela-
tionship between different categories and concepts within the web of relationship
produces the meaning of the concepts. The analysis of language affords an under-
standing of how social relations are conceived. Which categories are valued, and
which are put in a subordinate position? It allows for an analysis of how meanings
of categories shift across time as other concepts and categories shift their position
1 Introduction
within structures of knowledge (Scott, 1988). Analyzing historical, literary, and
semantic texts, queer thinkers trouble the stable, uniform, and dichotomous nature
of identity and social categories (Namaste, 1994). Queer scholars demonstrate the
manner in which discourses aim to structure sexual categories as stable and binary
(Sedgwick, 1990). The binary opposition of biological sex, gender, and sexuality
works to privilege heterosexuality. Nevertheless, a deconstructivist analysis shows
how heterosexuality is always constituted by its opposition homosexuality. Even
when hidden by the hegemonic position of heterosexuality, homosexuality lurks in
the background (Butler, 1990a, 1990b).
Although there are stark differences in the epistemologies of psychological sci-
ence and humanities-based queer studies, there are some prominent examples of
scholars who have bridged these differences in productive ways. Some of the most
foundational texts in queer theory have included a joining of theories grounded in
different epistemological assumptions. For instance, Judith Butler has used theories
from psychoanalysis to integrate literary and philosophical texts (Butler, 1990a,
1990b). In her groundbreaking books, foundational to queer thought, Butler used
Freud’s (1917/1963) theory of mourning and melancholia to understand how dis-
cursive production around homosexuality and the emergence of AIDS masks and
hides the existence of homosexuality, making it unmournful (Butler, 1990a, 1990b,
1995). Even though Freud understood his theories as grounded in apositivist epis-
temology, Butler productively borrowed from Freud’s theorization to understand
discursive processes.
Similarly, researchers in social science disciplines such as anthropology, sociol-
ogy, and geography use queer theory to understand social processes of gender and
sexuality formation (Browne & Nash, 2010; Seidman, 1996). One example is the
groundbreaking book by C.J. Pascoe, who used a Butlerian formulation to under-
stand how the word “fag” is used to police gender performance among high school
students. Pascoe’s ethnography and interviews with high school students are in con-
versation with queer texts that highlight the unstable, unxed, and always conten-
tious nature of social categories (Pascoe, 2007). Her research serves as an example
of how to bridge between queer postulations and empirical social science research,
and we discuss it further in Chap. 4.
Plan oftheBook
The book is organized as follows. In Chap. 2, we provide a summary of the historical
processes linked to the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s. We open with the gay
liberation and women’s liberation movements of the 1970s. We discuss the inuence
of intersectional theory on the emergence of queer theory and transgender studies in
the 1990s. We conclude by describing the political project and goals of the gay and
lesbian liberation movement and its relationship with the queer and transgender move-
ment’s political goals. We argue that these political goals are broader than the prolif-
eration of gender and sexual identities. Both the gay liberation movement and the
Plan oftheBook
queer and transgender movement aim to ght the interlocking forms of oppressions
that make up people’s queer and transgender identities. The argument within these
movements is that inorder for queer and transgender people to be liberated, the state
apparatus that privileges the family must be dismantled. Furthermore, neoliberal poli-
cies that increase inequalities and homonationalism that “pink washes” state colonial-
ization and oppression must be combated, and prisons must be abolished and replaced
with systems of rehabilitation and restorative justice. Queer and transgender people
who are faced with poverty, racism, colonialization, and state brutality cannot be lib-
erated until these interlocking forms of oppression are dismantled.
In Chap. 3, we describe several postulations made by queer theorists on the
nature of sexuality. First, we discuss queer postulations on the historically con-
structed nature of sexuality (Foucault, 1976/1978), including the minoritizing and
universalizing views of same-sex desire (Sedgwick, 1990). We juxtapose these pos-
tulations with the shifts in research on gay and lesbian individuals in psychology
over the last few decades (Diamond, 2007; Grzanka etal., 2016; Hegarty, 2017;
Herek, 2010; Morin, 1977). We show that research in psychology has increasingly
moved from a universalizing view of same sex desire found in psychoanalysis to a
minoritizing view of gays and lesbians that understands their difference as similar
to that of ethnic minorities. Once same-sex couples gained recognition, research in
psychology emerged, once again, that showed uidity in same-sex attraction not
just in women but in men.
The second postulation we engage in is that of intersectionality. A queer intersec-
tional approach to sexuality sees it as constructed by interlocking forms of oppres-
sion and privileges (Cohen, 1999; Eng etal., 2005; Ferguson, 2004; Jagose, 1996;
Sullivan, 2003). We juxtapose intersectional postulations within queer theory with
research in psychology that examines the manner in which race shapes gay and
lesbian identities (Bowleg, 2013; Ben Hagai etal., 2020). We also describe innova-
tive research in psychology that examines how increased class inequalities arising
from neoliberal ideologies and policies shape the sexuality of people situated across
class positions (Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arras, 2008; Bay-Cheng & Goodkind, 2016).
We conclude the chapter by highlighting queer theorists’ postulations that call for
accounting for the large variance in people’s sexual proclivities and rejecting the
privileging of monogamous relationships (Rubin, 1984). We juxtapose the queer
call for accounting for variance in sexualities with recent research in psychology on
kink, polyamory, and asexuality (Barker & Gill, 2012; Gressgård, 2013; Langdridge
& Barker, 2007; Rothblum, 2002;Rothblum etal., 2019). We discuss how this new
research on kink, polyamory, and asexuality diverges and converges from queer
In Chap. 4, we discuss the performative, unstable, and non-essential understand-
ing of gender. We draw largely from the work of Judith Butler (1990a, 1990b) who
formulated the concept of the “heterosexual matrix” and argued that the tangible
(and apparently “natural”) relationship between gender and biology actually
requires the ongoing repetition of acts that produce and reproduce masculine or
feminine identity (i.e., “performativity”). Through repetition, gender comes to be
seen as stable and as rooted in deterministic biological processes. To dismantle the
1 Introduction
heterosexual matrix and the gender binary, Butler argued for the proliferation of
gender categories so that the binary of male/female becomes nonsensical (Butler,
1990a, 1990b). Psychological evidence supports the idea that children must learn to
perform their gender, through reinforcement, modeling, and sanctions from their
environment. Recently, some psychologists have further complicated gender by
developing a dimensional (and non-binary) account of gender identity (Hyde etal.,
2019; Tate etal., 2020).
In Chap. 5, we examine the foundational postulations in transgender studies
(Serano, 2016; Spade, 2003; Stone, 1992; Stryker, 2008; Stryker & Whittle, 2006).
We argue that the discipline of transgender studies arose as a rejection of the medi-
cal model of transgender identity. We trace key events in the development of the
medical model of transgender identity that frames transgender people as “born in
the wrong body” and in need of medical treatment (Stryker & Whittle, 2006).
Following transgender scholars, we examine how the gender self-determination
approach at the center of transgender theory is related to the afrmative approach to
treating transgender children among psychologists (Ehrensaft, 2017; Halberstam,
2018; Hidalgo etal., 2013; Lev, 2013; Spade, 2003). We discuss how the afrmative
approach broke from other models of treatment in psychology. Nevertheless, we
argue that at times doctors and psychologists engage with transgender children from
the lens of binary genders. This privileges binary transgender children and sustains
the gender binary.
Instead, we describe transgender scholars’ understanding of trans identity as a
space, a genre, or an umbrella. For instance, Stryker (2008) highlighted the impor-
tance of the conceptual tool of the transgender umbrella. An expansive notion of
transgender identity uses “the widest imaginable range of gender variant such as
trans or trans* to convey that sense of expansiveness and breadth given that contem-
porary connotations of transgender are often more limited” (Stryker, 2008, p.38).
The transgender umbrella allows for a variety of gender nonconforming identities.
These include: tomboys, drag queens, butch dykes, effeminate men, sissies, nonbi-
nary, gender-queer, and studs (Feinberg, 1998; Rubin, 1984). The postulation of the
transgender umbrella rejects notions of a unied trans-narrative: a narrative that
assumes an essential transgender identity, grounded in biological mechanisms, that
emerges early in development and is based on gender dysphoria (Meyerowitz,
2009). We discuss the expansive notion of transgender identity in relationship to
psychological research on binary and nonbinary transgender identities, as well as
models in psychology that deconstruct the concept of gender to better account for
transgender experiences (Galupo etal., 2017, 2020; Tate etal., 2014).
In our concluding chapter, we contemplate the increased complexity of creating
coalitional political movements with the explosive increase in the number of differ-
ent sexual and gender identities. To pave the way for a continued queer and trans
coalitional movement, we discuss research on the psychological processes associ-
ated with the development of marginalized social identity. Drawing from Black psy-
chology, we juxtapose the Cross model of Black identity development with
pathbreaking work by the queer writer Sarah Schulman on the imperative for (queer)
communities to create a coalitional climate that rejects conict escalation (Cross Jr.,
Plan oftheBook
1991; Schulman, 2016). We explain social mechanisms associated with community
repair of intergroup and intragroup conict common within queer and transgender
Linking queer ideas with psychological research creates a richer understanding of
the history of these ideas. Moreover, connecting queer ideas with psychological
research affords a more expansive understanding of the lived experiences of people
with diverse sexualities and genders. We highlight the ways in which queer theoreti-
cal works contribute to an understanding of apolyvocal politics of resistance (still
undertheorized in research in political psychology and social psychology). The
linkages we make afrm a queer position by drawing on different discourses; they
also help to articulate a path to resist oppression across elds of knowledge.
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E. Ben Hagai, E. L. Zurbriggen, Queer Theory and Psychology,
Chapter 2
Historical Inuences
We opened the book with the assertion that many of the queer and transgender
movement’s goals of proliferating sexual and gender categories have been achieved.
From celebrities to high school students, people are increasingly identifying their
gender and sexuality outside of the binaries. Nevertheless, tracing the history of the
queer and transgender movement suggests a more complex narrative of queer and
transgender politics. These movements hold anti-capitalistic and anti-racist agen-
das. They aim to dismantle state structures that privilege the nuclear family, exploit
workers, and discriminate against people of color. They aim to end class oppression,
ght neoliberal politics, and defund and abolish prisons and the police (Duggan &
Hunter, 2006; Schulman, 2012, 2018; Spade, 2006; Stanley, 2014). In what follows,
we describe the theoretical ag posts leading to the emergence of queer theory and
transgender studies. The texts we depict show the radical aims of the queer and
transgender movement that not only focus on gender and sexuality but also on dis-
mantling structures that sustain economic and racial inequalities and oppressions.
In what follows, we provide a brief overview of major historical developments in
queer and transgender theories. From these, we extrapolate common ground for
queer thinking and activism since the 1970s, ideas that emphasize the constructed
nature of sexual and gender identity as well as the importance of coalitional activism.
These ideas common to different historical waves of scholarship and activism serve
as the basis for the linkages we draw between queer thinking and psychological
research. We trace queer thought as it emerged in the gay and lesbian liberation
movement (Katz, 1992; Valocchi, 2001; Wittman, 1970/2004), women of color femi-
nism (Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014), and queer and transgender theory
(Feinberg, 1992; Stone, 1992; Stryker, 2000), and we look for underlying axioms
across these different schools of thought. The historical overview we provide will
afford the reader a more expansive account of queer and transgender ideas and
expose them to radical goals to transform social structures. The focus on social struc-
tures is less apparent today in discourses around gender and sexual identity prolifera-
tion, but is important to understand for those who consider themselves queer or trans.
Gay andLesbian Liberation
Unlike the gay organizations of the 1950s, such as the Mattachine Society, which
combated intense homophobic oppression and which sought tolerance for gays and
lesbians by framing same-sex desire as a form of uncontrollable illness, the gay
liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s drew visible and proud portrayals of gay-
ness. The Gay Liberation Front was inspired by movements of New Left politics,
including the successes of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, wom-
en’s liberation, the counter-culture’s sexual liberation struggle, socialist politics,
and the Black Power movement. Activists who were part of the Gay Liberation
Front were committed to broad social justice politics (Seidman, 1996; Wittman,
1970/2004). A critique of the family was key to gay liberation thinking; in fact, the
Gay Liberation Front Manifesto (1971) framed the roots of homosexual oppression
in the family structure. The Manifesto stated:
We’ve all been brought up to believe that the family is the source of our happiness and
comfort. But look at the family more closely. Within the small family unit, in which the
dominant man and submissive woman bring up their children in their own image, all our
attitudes towards sexuality are learned at a very early age. Almost before we can talk, cer-
tainly before we can think for ourselves, we are taught that there are certain attributes that
are ‘feminine’ and other that are ‘masculine’, and that they are God-given and unchange-
able. Beliefs learned so young are very hard to change; but in fact, these are false beliefs.
What we are taught about the differences between man and woman is propaganda, not truth.
The truth is that there are no proven systematic differences between male and female, apart
from the obvious biological ones. Male and female genitals and reproductive systems are
different, and so are certain other physical characteristics, but all differences of tempera-
ment, aptitudes and so on, are the result of upbringing and social pressures. They are not
inborn. (Gay Liberation Front, 1971)
Gay liberationists highlighted the ways in which the family, as an economic produc-
tion unit, forces humans into a division of labor based on gendered roles. In addition
to their analysis of the constructed and oppressive nature of gender, gay liberation-
ists also adopted a view on sexuality that framed it as “polymorphously perverse.
The term polymorphous perversity was introduced by Sigmund Freud (Freud,
1905/2017) to describe a state in which pleasure is derived indiscriminately from
any source or body part that might provide satisfaction (polymorphous= many
forms). In Freud’s theory, this was a state experienced by very young children, from
birth to about age three. The label “perversity” was not meant to be judgmental, but
merely to indicate that these behaviors were outside the norm (for adults).
The understanding that there is a multitude of ways that sexuality can be
expressed and sexual pleasure experienced was taken up by the gay liberationists.
Inuenced by Beatniks such as Allen Ginsburg and his poem Howl, and Herbert
Marcuse’s (1955) Eros and Civilization, gay liberationists understood human sexu-
ality as not tting clearly into a particular identity or category. Social mechanisms
of control were seen as repressing people’s erotic tendencies (Escofer, 2018; Katz,
2007; Seidman, 1993). In his inuential book about gay liberation, Dennis Altman
(1972/2012) explained polymorphous perversity like this: “the non-repressed
2 Historical Inuences
person recognizes his bisexual potential; he is not some ideal person midway along
the Kinsey behavioral scale” (Altman, 1972/2012, p.94). The Gay Manifesto states
“we’ll be gay until everyone has forgotten that it’s an issue. Then we’ll begin to be
complete” (Wittman, 1970/2004, p.3). Lesbian liberationists like Judy Grahn stated
“if anyone were allowed to fall in love with anyone, the word ‘homosexual’ would
not be needed” (Jagose, 1996, p.42).
Diverging and converging with the gay liberation movement were lesbian libera-
tion groups. Groups like the Lavender Menace, DYKETACTICS!, Radicalesbians,
and others aimed to work within the women’s liberation movement to ght for les-
bian liberation (Rapp, 2015). In an important manifesto, Radicalesbians framed
their oppression as rooted in gender roles and male domination. They wrote:
It should rst be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of
behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by
male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanize women by dening us as a supportive/serving
caste in relation to the master caste of men, and emotionally cripple men by demanding that
they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/
political/military functions effectively. Homosexuality is a by-product of a particular way
of setting up roles (or approved patterns of behavior) on the basis of sex; as such it is an
inauthentic (not consonant with “reality”) category. In a society in which men do not
oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of
homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear (Radicalesbians, 1970, p.1).
As with gay liberation, the Radicalesbians saw their oppression in a social hierarchy
that produces categories of “men” and “women,” in which those categorized and
raised as men sexually exploit, violently oppress, and materially control the labor
and bodies of women. Lesbian liberationists were inuenced by a Marxist under-
standing of class in their analysis of the emergence of oppressive gender roles that
frame women as naturally caring, nurturing, and passive in relationship to men and
their children. The gender categories are the product of different relations to the
means of production. Heterosexuality, then, is the compulsory political institution
that produces “man” and “woman” (Rich, 1980). Radical feminists critiqued hetero-
sexuality, seeing it as a political institution and not as a sexual orientation.
Heterosexuality is not a natural preference, they argued, because heterosexual desire
is produced by education, propaganda, and violence (Firestone, 2003; Rich, 1980).
The oppression experienced by homosexuals (because they do not follow the het-
erosexual imperative) should not necessarily translate into a natural or essential
identity, then, but rather be seen as an illusion that is based on “othering” -- being
marked as a member of a marginalized out-group. When the gendered restrictions
on sexuality and eroticism are lifted, people will be fully complete.
Under traditional understandings of gender and sexuality, the concept of a les-
bian stands away from the gender binary because lesbians do not become women
through their relationship with men. Wittig (1981/1993) argued:
Lesbian is the onlyconcept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and
man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or
politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specic social relation to a man,
a relation that we have previously called servitude … We are escapees from our class in the
same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free
Gay andLesbian Liberation
The emergence of lesbian identity offered an alternative to womanhood that was not
produced in relationship to the category of man.
Gay liberation was not a single-issue struggle, but part of a broad socialist move-
ment (Jagose, 1996). For instance, in an addendum for the Gay Manifesto, a gay
liberationist group called the Red Buttery stated that the basis of liberation is dem-
ocratic socialism and that the proper way to judge a social and economic system is
whether it can provide social necessities:
adequate income, housing, medical care; meaningful employment and democratic civil
rights for all participants in the society…cooperation with world-wide social and economic
development and the self-determination of peoples…the ability of all social groups to resist
exploitation and to determine their own destinies (The Red Buttery, 1970a, pp.9–10).
A commitment to the liberation of all people was at the heart of a movement that
saw its inception in the energy of Black liberation and anticolonial movements
around the world (The Red Buttery, 1970b).
The gay and lesbian liberation movement faded around the middle of the1970s
as the gay liberation movement saw a shift towards an ethnic model of tolerance and
inclusion (Duggan, 1992; Hobson, 2016; Schulman, 2012). Gay activists began to
concentrate in small urban enclaves and they sought a gradual increase in their
rights as sexual minorities. Within the feminist movement, cultural feminists
increasingly essentialized women’s identity. The attempt to essentialize femininity
into a unitary identity led to schisms and inghting within the feminist community
as some cultural feminists rejected femme/butch relationships, transgender identity,
and sado-masochistic sexual relations (Duggan & Hunter, 2006; Rubin, 1984).
Women ofColor Feminism
Often, women of color feminism is seen as distinct from queer politics; neverthe-
less, we believe that women of color feminism, led by many queer and lesbian
women, had a profound and organic inuence on queer thinking, movement build-
ing, and queer and transgender theories (Eng etal., 2005; Ferguson, 2004; Stryker,
2008). Women of color feminists delivered a devastating critique of cultural femi-
nism. Publications such as the inuential statement by the Combahee River
Collective in the 1970s and This Bridge Called My Back (Moraga & Anzaldua,
1981) in the early 1980s depicted women of color subjectivity as it emerged through
different forms of oppression. In these collections of writing, women of color com-
plicated a one-axis model of oppression (one that only focused on gender).
They wrote:
we believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in black women’s lives as are
the politics of class and race. We also often nd it difcult to separate race from class from
sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We
know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor
solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of black women by white men as a weapon of politi-
cal repression (Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014, p.274).
2 Historical Inuences
Women of color can’t be satised with only a feminist struggle because several
other oppressions impinge on their lives. The multiple forms of oppression create a
complex subjectivity. This subjectivity is constructed by different histories of colo-
nialization, oppression, and feminization. Norma Alarcón claried this position:
“one becomes a woman” in ways that are much more complex than simple opposition to
men. In cultures in which asymmetric race and class relations are a central organizing prin-
ciple of society, one may also “become a woman” in opposition to other women. In other
words, the whole category of woman may also need to be problematized. (Alarcón, 1991,
The complex subjectivities for these women of color are further complicated by
their position as queer people -- they problematize constructions of “womanhood”
as implicitly white and heterosexual by simply existing.
Poststructural Theory
Women of color feminism was not the only school to destabilize uniform notions of
“men” and “women” and “heterosexual” and “homosexual”; poststructural theory
also contributed to this change in thinking. The work of poststructural thinkers
offered a way to analyze the construction of discourses that make up subjectivity
and subject formation (what psychologists might refer to as personal narratives that
help us understand our identities and that aid in forming those identities). For
instance, Michel Foucault showed that it was the increase in theprevalence of sci-
entic and medical discourses that brought forth an understanding of same-sex rela-
tions as an identity. Foucault argued that homosexual identity as we know it emerged
in the late nineteenth century. In a famous quote, Foucault (1976/1978) wrote:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a child-
hood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet
anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composi-
tion was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his
actions because it was their insidious and indenitely active principle; written immodestly
on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away (p.43).
Foucault postulated that the proliferation of public health psychoanalytic and medi-
cal discourses at the end of the nineteenth century established a eld of knowledge
that had the power to establish social categories of identity, such as homosexuality.
Although same-sex attraction and sexual relationships existed long before the nine-
teenth century, the establishment of specic labels and categories created a eld of
power/knowledge in which scientic, discourse established a “truth” that told indi-
viduals who they were. Foucault’s research and theories showed that power is not
only repressive but also productive. In other words, power creates or produces social
categories. Politics are constructed from these social categories and political agen-
das are advanced. In addition, individuals come to know themselves through these
social categories, which are not “natural” or “true” in any essential sense. They were
Poststructural Theory
constructed through social processes and discourses. All of these important ideas of
Foucault’s were foundational to the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s.
Queer Activism
The increased interest in poststructural and postmodern theory in academia occurred
against the background of the spread of the AIDS epidemic and associated govern-
mental neglect in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1980s a
disease thought of as the “gay cancer” begin spreading in urban centers.
In 1983, there were 3,064 reported AIDS cases and 2,304 known deaths; by 1985, there
were 8,094 known cases and 9,887 more deaths; in 1987, the number of cases more than
doubled to 20,428 and the cumulative deaths were 20,436. Through these periods, about
70% of the cases of AIDS were of men who had sex with men (Ben Hagai & Crosby,
2016,p. 484; HRSA, 2010; Johnson, 2009).
The spread of the disease was reinforced by governmental neglect: it was only in
1985, 4 years after the emergence of the epidemic in the U.S., that President Reagan
mentioned the disease in public (
Because the U.S. government refused to take meaningful and timely action,
gays, lesbians and their allies founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
in 1987. ACT UP and its successor Queer Nation focused on direct action: unapolo-
getic and confrontational tactics that disrupted the working of governmental ofces,
pharmaceutical companies, and other economic institutions (Berlant & Freeman,
1994; Schulman, 2018). For instance, ACT UP staged “die-ins” (similar to Civil
Rights “sit-ins”) at the National Institutes of Health, and Queer Nation brought
queer people together for kiss-ins in shopping malls (to show the ways in which
certain sexualities are allowed, while others are denied). The goal was to raise
awareness and force the government’s hand, in order to slow the spread of the dis-
ease, quicken the pace of research on treating it, and ultimately save lives
(Gould, 2009).
This mobilization against the silencing around the spread of AIDS aimed to bring
together different groups affected by the virus, including gay and transgender indi-
viduals, immigrant communities (e.g., Haitian immigrants, who were dispropor-
tionately impacted by the virus), and drug users. Because many kinds of communities
were affected by AIDS, and the U.S. government refused to acknowledge the dis-
ease and act to prevent deaths, the politics resisting the epidemic could not be
identity- based. The historian Susan Stryker wrote:
The name for this new kind of unabashedly pro-gay, non-separatist, antiassimilationist alli-
ance politics to combat AIDS, which did not organize itself around identity categories but
instead took aim at the overarching social structures that marginalized those infected by
HIV, was queer (Stryker, 2008, p.166).
2 Historical Inuences
The term “queer” emerged during the late 1980s and 1990s with the aim of creating
coalitional politics that brought together different kinds of marginalized identities.
The political reclaiming of the word queer appeared in yers from anti-AIDS orga-
nizations, with headlines such as “Queers Read This!” The point of the anti-AIDS
political movement was to show that queers could claim political power and that
queers were everywhere.
Queer Theory
Contemporaneously with the rise of anti-AIDS politics and queer resistance was the
rise of an intellectual current called queer studies or queer theory. Queer theory is
largely associated with works by literary scholars and philosophers who were also
active in political groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. Duggan and Hunter
(2006) highlighted some of the common threads that run through queer theoretical
texts. These threads include:
(1) the critique of humanist narratives which posit the progress of the self and of
history, and thus tell the story of the heroic progress of gay liberationists against
forces of repression,
(2) the critique of empiricist methods which claim directly to represent the trans-
parent “reality” of “experience,” and claim to relate, simply and objectively,
what happened, when and why, and
(3) the critique of identity categories presented as stable, unitary, or “authentic.”
Queer theory as it emerged in the 1990s highlighted the constructed nature of sexual
identity that emerges from competing discourses, including scientic, religious, and
political. It rejected the notion of a progressive scientic discovery of a true authen-
tic sexual identity that is natural and universal.
Sexuality: Non-Static, InFlux, andSocially Constructed
Eve Sedgwick’s (1990)book The Epistemology of the Closet was foundational to
the emergence of queer theory. Sedgwick’s work is similar to that of Foucault in that
it examined the construction of discourses on sexuality. She argued that the modern
construction of sexuality revolves around the heterosexual/homosexual binary.
During the twentieth century, sexual identity (e.g., heterosexual or homosexual)
became essential to people’s overall identity and sense of self. One’s sexual identity
came to express an important truth about the self. Sedgwick pointed out that
although people are different from one another in their desires, sexual appetites, and
preferences, during modernity they came to be categorized within two foreclosed
(that is, prematurely committed to) identities: heterosexual or homosexual.
She wrote:
Sexuality: Non-Static, InFlux, andSocially Constructed
Historically, the framing of Epistemology of the Closet begins with a puzzle. It is a rather
amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one
person can be differentiated from that of another (dimensions that include preference for
certain acts, certain zones or sensations, certain physical types, a certain frequency, certain
symbolic investments, certain relations of age or power, a certain species, a certain number
of participants, etc. etc. etc.), precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged from the
turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous
category of “sexual orientation” (Sedgwick, 1990, p.8).
Although there are many differences between individuals’ desires, fantasies, zones
of pleasure, and libidinal investments (and complexities within these for each per-
son), the sexual identity categories prevalent in the western world are based on a
preference towards “the same” or “the other” gender. Moreover, construction of
sexuality in a binary form of heterosexual or homosexual creates a dynamic in
which homosexuality is subordinated to heterosexuality. Using a structural or dia-
lectical logic, Sedgwick argued that these sexual categories are inherently unstable
because they depend on each other for their meaning: “heterosexual” has no mean-
ing without “homosexual” as the counterpoint, just as the binary gender term “man”
is dened in contrast to “woman.
In a signicant article for the emergence of queer theory, Thinking Sex, Gayle
Rubin (1984) analyzed the relationship between power and different sexual expres-
sions. In line with other structural and poststructural critiques, Rubin rejected sex-
ual essentialism:
One such axiom is sexual essentialism– the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior
to social life and shapes institutions. Sexual essentialism is embedded in the folk wisdoms
of Western societies, which consider sex to be eternally unchanging, asocial, and transhis-
torical. Dominated for over a century by medicine, psychiatry, and psychology, the aca-
demic study of sex has reproduced essentialism. These elds classify sex as a property of
individuals. It may reside in their hormones or their psyches. It may be construed as physi-
ological or psychological. But within these ethnoscientic categories, sexuality has no his-
tory and no signicant social determinants (pp.275–276).
Rubin noted that changes in sexual identities in the twentieth century created a hier-
archy of sexual acts. This hierarchy is based on a pyramid of sexual values:
Marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top erotic pyramid. Clamoring below
are unmarried monogamous heterosexuals in couples, followed by most other heterosexu-
als. … The most despised sexual castes currently include transsexuals, transvestites, fetish-
ists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and the lowliest of
all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries. (p.279).
The hierarchy is structured so that those sexualities at the top have access to the
most economic, state, and symbolic resources (e.g., respectability). People who
express sexualities at the top are seen as mentally healthy, and gain material benets
and institutional support. The hierarchy of sexualities shifts based on social values.
As social values and economic systems change, so does the hierarchy of sexualities.
Because of this, an ongoing analysis is needed to understand the ways in which
certain sexualities become respectable and others are marginalized within a particu-
lar historical moment and cultural environment.
2 Historical Inuences
In summary, foundational texts in queer theory that discuss sexuality argue that
sexual categories of straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual are not natural expressions of
an individual’s sexuality. Instead, sexual desires and pleasures are shaped by the
sexual categories afforded to individuals within a particular historical moment.
Moreover, sexual categories are always unstable and in ux because people’s desires
are diverse and dynamic and cannot be fully subsumed or foreclosed by the cultural
categories of sexuality.
Gender: Dismantling theBinary Through Proliferation
In addition to their analyses of sexuality, queer theorists focused their attention on
gender. Especially inuential to queer theory’s understanding of gender is Judith
Butler’s (1990) concept of gender performativity. Butler argued against the state-
ment that whereas sex (and the distinction between two binary sexes) is based in
biology, gender (and the distinction between two binary genders) is based in culture.
They pointed out that the way we understand nature, human biology, and science is
through the lens of culture. Hence, we cannot assume a biological sex that is prior
to culture. Butler wrote:
if we accept the body as a cultural situation, then the notion of a natural body and, indeed a
natural “sex” seem increasingly suspect. The limits to gender, the range of possibilities for
a lived interpretation of a sexually differentiated anatomy, seem less restricted by anatomy
than by the weight of the cultural institutions that have conventionally interpreted anatomy
(1987, p.129).
In other words, our understanding of our biological sex and the possibilities to dif-
ferentiate our anatomy is foreclosed by the existence of the cultural categories of
two binary genders.
Instead of understanding gender as a culturally imposed expression of an under-
lying sex (i.e., an individual’s biology), Butler argued that discourses of compulsory
heterosexuality and the construction of the heterosexual matrix (which the domi-
nant Western culture sustains) create the sex/gender binary. The heterosexual matrix,
according to Butler, is a set of interwoven binary oppositions. The binary of biologi-
cal sex, male/female, is linked to another binary opposition of masculine/feminine
genders. Because femininity and masculinity are seen as tied to male and female
bodies, masculinity and femininity seem “natural” and are seen as complementary
to one another. Males’ masculinity– that frames them as aggressive, agents of
desire, and dominant– appears essential to their bodies and perfectly accommodat-
ing to female’s natural tendency (written on their bodies) towards care, nurture,
passivity and being the object of men’s desire. As such, heterosexuality comes to be
seen as natural and essential to human nature.
The heterosexual matrix creates an imperative towards performativity of one’s
gender. This imperative requires repeating certain behaviors, acts, and strategies to
t coherently within a gender category. The imperative to act in a particular manner,
Gender: Dismantling theBinary Through Proliferation
over and over again, is associated with the emergence of a sense of personal gender.
Butler explained her concept of performativity: “Gender is the repeated stylization
of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal
over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler,
1990, p.33).
Note that Butler’s concept of performativity is different from the concept of per-
formance. Gender performance assumes a subject who performs particular acts.
Instead, Butler’s performativity highlights the ways in which a sense of self is con-
structed by the repetition of certain acts, a point we return to in Chap. 4.
Butler (1995) also used Freud’s theory of melancholia to illuminate the ways in
which gender becomes part of a sense of self. Butler cited Freud’s position that a
sense of self is constructed when the grieving for certain people or objects of desire
is unnished (e.g., melancholia). Sometimes the loss of a loved person or object is
too difcult to let go of, and so the self, in the condition of melancholia, incorpo-
rates the loss object into itself. Butler interprets Freud’s (1917/1963) essay On
Mourning and Melancholia, writing “if the object can no longer exist in the external
world, it will then exist internally; and that internalization will also be a way to
disavow that loss, to keep it at bay, to stay or postpone” (p. 197). While Freud
focused on the incest taboo as leading individuals to redirect their libidinal attach-
ment away from the family to their peers, Butler highlighted the ways in which a
prohibition against homosexuality functions as another taboo in Western culture. As
such, because any kind of same-sex libidinal investment is inhibited, it becomes like
a lost object of desire. Since same-sex desire is unthinkable, it is repressed into the
unconscious self. An anxiety emerges around the expression of same-sex desire that
is taboo. This anxiety produces an imperative to perform gender correctly, through
repetition, so one does not appear to be a homosexual. Butler wrote:
The fear of homosexual desire in a woman may induce a panic that she is losing her femi-
ninity; that she is not a woman, that she is no longer a proper woman; that, if she is not quite
a man, she is like one and hence monstrous in some way. Or, in a man, the terror over
homosexual desire may well lead to a terror over being construed as feminine, feminized;
of no longer being properly a man or of being a “failed” man; or of being in some sense a
gure of monstrosity or abjection. (1995, p.168)
In short, the fear of being seen as a homosexual leads people categorized as male or
female to reproduce conventional gender performances that conform to the norms
of compulsory heterosexuality.
The way Butler and other poststructural queer theorists have suggested to dis-
mantle the heterosexual matrix and binary sex/gender system is through performa-
tivity that delinks or disrupts the relationship between biological sex, cultural
gender, and sexuality. For instance, when one’s sex does not express the “correct”
gender or when gender expression is deconstructed, these show the ways in which
the “natural” link between sex, gender, and sexuality is constructed. In addition to
revealing the tangible relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality, Butler and
other queer theorists argue in support of the proliferation of identities. The prolif-
eration of gender identities can make the binary opposition between male/female,
man/woman, masculinity/femininity nonsensical. At the closing of her foundational
2 Historical Inuences
book Gender Trouble, Butler wrote “[t]he task is not whether to repeat, but how to
repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace
the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” (1990, p. 148; italics in
Trans*: Against theMedical Model, Towards Gender
The emergence of a queer political movement and queer theory also corresponded
with dramatic strides towards a transgender movement that brought forth the trans-
gender revolution we are witnessing today. In 1992, in San Francisco, a group of
transgender activists started Transgender Nation as a splinter group from Queer
Nation. According to Susan Stryker (2008) Transgender Nation emerged as a result
of transphobia within the queer movement. The story of this split began with Queer
Nation’s practice of increasing queer visibility. Members of Queer Nation would
decorate colored stickers with statements such as “We are Everywhere” and “We’re
Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It.” According to Stryker, around 1992 a member of
Queer Nation SF named Anne Ogborn saw another Queer Nation member with a
sticker “Trans Power/Bi Power/Queer Nation,” except that the words “Trans Power”
were torn off. Upon questioning the member, she said that they deliberately tore off
the trans part because trans people were not part of their queer movement. In
response, Ogborn begin organizing the group Transgender Nation. Transgender
Nation gained in popularity around the time Queer Nation began its decline
(Stryker, 2008).
In the early 1990s, the ideas, analyses, and manifestos of transgender thinkers
began to spread in activist communities, academia, and popular culture. Among the
inuential transgender thinkers was Holly Boswell, who framed the transgender
term as encompassing a wide range of identities. Leslie Feinberg, known for hir
autobiographical book Stone Butch Blues, published an inuential pamphlet titled
Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come. In this pamphlet,
Feinberg (1992) tied the liberation of transgender people to the liberation of other
oppressed minorities, as well as workers under the capitalist system, in a manner
similar to the arguments made by gay liberationists in the 1970s. Feinberg’s analysis
of the oppression of transgender people through the ages led hir to argue that in
modern times transgender oppression is based on the imperative to “pass” as a man
or woman. Feinberg argued against this passing, highlighting the diversity of trans-
gender identities and the need for transgender people to dene themselves based on
their own terms.
Another key thinker is Teresa de Lauretis, an inuential lm theorist who coined
the term “queer studies” in a conference she organized at the University of California,
Santa Cruz in the 1990s. In her work, she argued that gender categories are not only
repressive, forcing people to act in gendered ways, but also productive, allowing
Trans*: Against theMedical Model, Towards Gender Self-determination
people to understand themselves and to see themselves as a site of productive trans-
gressions (De Lauretis, 1987). These insights were similar to those of Foucault in
that, like Foucault, de Lauretis argued that categories are both oppressive and pro-
ductive. She expanded from Foucault in that she brought her analysis to the category
of gender rather than sexual identity/orientation.
Another manifesto crucial to the emergence of transgender studies in the 1990s
was written by Sandy Stone. In her manifesto, The Empire Strikes Back: A
Posttranssexual Manifesto (1992), she critiqued the imperative to engage with the
medical transgender narrative of “being born in the wrong body.” She argued that
the medicalization of transgender identity in the 1970s and 1980s was associated
with the formation of a narrative that required transgender people to tell a tale “of
being born in the wrong body” in order to receive the medical services that they
needed. In essence, the medicalization of transgender identity led to the loss of the
polyvocality (i.e., many diverse voices) of the lived experience of transgen-
der people.
Instead of obeying the medical narrative of transgender identity based in acute
body dysphoria, Stone argued that transgender identities have the power to dis-
mantle the connection between sex, gender, and sexualities enforced by the hetero-
sexual matrix. She wrote:
In the transsexual as a text we may nd the potential to map the regured body onto con-
ventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of dissonance created
by such juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unex-
pected geometries…I suggest constituting transsexual not as a class problematic “third gen-
der” but rather as a genre—a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption
of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored. (Stryker & Whittle,
2006, p.268)
As opposed to framing transgender people as another species of people who repre-
sent a minority third gender, in which all transgender people suffer the same condi-
tion of gender dysphoria, Stone called for the expression of multiplicities of
congurations of gender that express hybridities of masculinity and femininity.
Transgender gender performativity, according to Stone, will expose the constructed
nature of the sex/gender binary and the constructed nature of the heterosexual matrix.
More recent work in transgender studies continues to reject the medical narrative
of transgender identity as “being born in the wrong body.” Instead, transgender
scholars such as Jack Halberstam (2018) have moved away from using the word
“transgender” to using the word trans*, in order to more clearly indicate that trans*
invites a multiplicity of gender expressions that transgress heteronormative linkages
between sex, gender, and sexuality. Susan Stryker and her colleagues continued
queer theorists’ rejection of stable and static understanding of gender as they invited
readers to “understand genders as potentially porous and permeable spatial territo-
ries (arguably numbering more than two), each capable of supporting rich and rap-
idly proliferating ecologies of embodied difference” (Stryker etal., 2008, p. 12).
Moreover, transgender theorists frame bodies and identities as never static, but
always under construction, always changing and developing. This understanding of
2 Historical Inuences
bodies, identities, and self as never achieved but always in transition is another
important axiom in contemporary trans theory (Halberstam, 2018; Preciado,
An intersectional and coalitional understanding of politics is shared by scholars in
both queer and transgender studies. In general, queer and transgender thinkers reject
a minoritizing and ethnic model of identity politics that seeks liberal tolerance and
acceptance. Instead, queer and transgender politics aims to change the ways in
which state and economic apparatuses force individuals into heteronormativity, a
binary gender system, and the nuclear family. Moreover, transgender and queer
politics, such as gay liberation politics, frame homophobia and transphobia as
oppressions that are interlocking with other oppressions such as racism, sexism, and
class oppressions (Cohen, 1997; Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014; Eng etal.,
2005). In order to create freedom for sexual and gender minorities and enable lives
that are actually livable, oppressions based in white supremacy, state violence, eco-
nomic inequalities, and colonialization need to be combated.
The premise and promise of queer politics in the 1990s was to move away from
a gay politics that saw gay people as (sexual) minorities; in other words that fol-
lowed a “minoritizing” model that was based on an ethnic model of identity.
However, queer politics often fell back on a binary construction of identity of “queer
versus straight.” Cathy Cohen’s (1997) analysis showed that when queer politics
focused only on sexual oppression, it became relevant only to an elite white LGB
minority. In order to avoid recoiling into queer/straight binary oppositional think-
ing, Cohen illuminated the oppression of Black women who do not conform to the
sexual norms of the white middle class family. The “culture of poverty” narrative,
that privileges the nuclear family as the psychological structure most healthy for
raising children, marginalizes those who raise children out of wedlock and in non-
nuclear matrilineal kinship systems. The privileging of the nuclear family is espe-
cially damaging to working class and poor African American families who do not
adhere to this form. Cohen wrote:
As we stand on the verge of watching those in power dismantle the welfare system through
a process of demonizing poor and young, primarily poor and young women of color --many
of whom have existed for their entire lives outside the white middle-class, heterosexual
norm -- we have to ask if these women do not t into society’s categories of marginal, devi-
ant, and “queer”. As we watch the explosion of prison construction and the disproportionate
incarceration rates of young men and women of color, often as part of the economic
development of poor white rural communities, we have to ask if these individuals do not t
society’s denition of “queer” and expendable (1997,p. 458).
Cohen contends that the radical potential of queer politics is in refusing a return to
a one-axis form of identity politics. Her framing of those heterosexuals who deviate
from heteronormativity through their family structures or their racial and economic
marginality as “queer” highlights the importance of creating coalitions across sex-
ual identities. The queer politics movement she is envisioning is based on a “shared
marginal relationship to dominant power which normalizes, legitimizes, and privi-
leges” (p.458).
Queer and trans politics in the early years of the millennium have focused on
critiquing the neoliberal state and engaging in activism against it. Neoliberalism is
dened as the push to reduce government’s role so it only sustains services essential
to the free market (Harvey, 2005). The neoliberal state assures the functioning of
free markets, and for these purposes reduces regulations and shrinks public ser-
vices. Moreover, it expands institutions that protect private property and trade, such
as the military, police, and prisons. Neoliberal economic policies have important
implications for cultural politics (Duggan, 2002). Neoliberal ideology frames the
individual as an entrepreneurial entity responsible for branding itself, leaning in to
manage risk and maximize its gain. In neoliberal ideology there is no society, only
the individual. Neoliberal ideology sees itself as post-feminist, post-racist, and post-
homophobic. In a neoliberal environment, any person who is willing to maximize
their economic potential, take risks, and engage in commercial innovations should
become successful regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. To promote its values,
neoliberal ideology now embraces those with gay identities.
To illuminate the ways in which neoliberalism incorporates LGBT identity,
Duggan (2002) popularized the term homonormativity. She used the term “homo-
normative” to argue that social processes of acceptance, as well as processes of
privatization and marketization of politics, are associated with the emergence of a
new normativity within the queer community. She argued that neoliberal policies
that reduce the size of government and bring market principles into every sphere of
public life are associated with the rise of homonormative politics in gay and lesbian
life. Duggan (2002) dened homonormative politics as “a politics that does not
contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and
sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency
and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consump-
tion” (2002, p.179).
Gay and lesbian politics that are focused on the legalization of same-sex mar-
riage are an example of homonormative politics. The investment of LGBT national
organizational resources to pass same-sex marriage legislation served predomi-
nantly LGB(T) economic elites, who were likely to enjoy tax breaks and social
status due to marriage rights. To unmarried, working class, and poor queers, tax
breaks and legal recognition were less important than other political issues such as
access to health care, welfare, and education. Furthermore, politics that privilege
marriage equality shrink the possibilities and the legal recognition of other kinds of
domestic partnership and conjugal possibilities (Duggan, 2002).
Another aspect of homonormative politics is associated with the rise of creative
cities and gentrication. Urban centers such as NewYork, San Francisco, Chicago,
and Los Angeles have long served as the homes for immigrants, working class, and
poor people, and have had neighborhoods that nurtured strong ethnic and racial
minority communities. White ight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s further
2 Historical Inuences
entrenched those cities as diverse spaces for communities of color. The diversity and
anonymity of urban life also served as a fertile ground for thriving gender and sex-
ual minority communities. However, with the rise of neoliberalism and its “creative
class,” urban centers became a desirable home for technological workers and other
workers proting from neoliberal economies. This has been one factor causing an
emerging housing and affordability crisis that is displacing working-class and poor
people away from their homes in urban centers. One of the indexes that determines
if a city will become a hub for the “creative class” of workers enjoying neoliberal
economies is the “Gay Index,” assessing the density of a gay population in a city.
Research on gentrication indicates that the presence of a large gay, and sometimes
lesbian, community in a city serves as a bellwether for the coming of creative and
high-tech skilled workers that are central to a neoliberal economy. The inux of
these high-paid workers typically drives up rents and makes it difcult for the gay
community to remain.
Hand in hand with processes that increase property values, rents, and evictions,
is an increase in policing. Policing and state surveillance focus on poor people and
people of color. Hanhardt (2008) described the ways in which the 1970s gay “safe
street” patrols such as the Buttery Brigade (an offshoot of Bay Area Gay Liberation)
began with an attempt to serve the community in neighborhoods that the police
neglected. Over time, the impetus among neighborhood patrols toward inclusive
gay liberation politics changed toward more safety-focused tactics that increasingly
worked against communities of color and working-class communities near gay
hubs. For instance, in the 1970s the Buttery Brigade campaigned for police
accountability, writing in their pamphlets:
We understand the police all too well—BY THEIR DEEDS! From the racist Zebra dragnet
to the Chinatown payoffs to the failure to investigate widespread reports of brutality against
Chicanos and Latinos in the Mission to police inltration of progressive organizations to
the ‘clean up’ of pornography and prostitution on the Tenderloin to the crackdown on gays
and shakedown of gay businesses—BEHAVIOR, NOT WORDS, TELLS THE STORY!
(Hanhardt, 2008, p.65).
This kind of intersectional queer agenda shifted out of prominence as gay neighbor-
hoods became increasingly ghettoized. Gay patrols became focused on security and
protection of gay men. “Culture of poverty” discourses and psychological dis-
courses that homosexuality “threatened” potentially violent masculinity among
poor men framed populations of color as the main risk for urban gays. The “homo-
normative turn” (as Duggan would describe it) in gay community organizing aimed
to sustain the high property values and business success of gay ghettos such as the
Castro in San Francisco and Chelsea in NewYork.
Current queer responses to gay ghettoization and homonormativity are offered
by organizations like Gay Shame. Gay Shame works against police presence in gay
spaces and in Pride protests. Moreover, radical organizations such as FIERCE!
(Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment) in
New York reject the exclusionary tendency of the gay community. Hanhardt
describes the organization’s vision for a dream city:
an urban planning model in which the after-hours club is connected to the post ofce, the
theater district adjoins welfare and Section 8 ofces, the airport is next to the bathhouse, and
the ninety-nine – cent store is out in front of the LGBTST center. This dream city is not
founded on a model of territory, even as it respects claims to place. In doing so, it makes dis-
tinctive gay spaces more inclusive and, in fact, imagines spaces everywhere as potentially
queer, both by loosening the status of gayness as a unique—and exclusive—commodity (as
Gay Index proponents would have it) and by making numerous peoples and places marginal-
ized by heteronormativity central to broad queer political imaginations (Hanhardt, 2008,p. 76).
Instead of promoting the entrance of the “creative class” of tech workers and entre-
preneurs that increase property values and rents and decrease affordability, coali-
tional queer politics aims to redesign cities so they provide access and services to
diverse populations of people.
Another example of contemporary queer critique and activism against state
expansions of military apparatuses and settler-colonialism is based in the emer-
gence of the concept of homonationalism. The success of LGBT politics in legal
inclusion and the (uneven) social-cultural embrace of LGBT people have led queer
scholars to analyze the ways that LGBT inclusion becomes incorporated by state
powers. Puar (2013) dened homonationalism as the use of “‘acceptance’ and ‘tol-
erance’ for gay and lesbian subjects. . . [as] a barometer by which the right to and
capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated” (p.336). Homonationalism critiques
the ways that a narrative of progress (in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgen-
der people are increasingly more tolerated) is associated with the justication of
giving some people more cultural and legal privileges within a state compared to
others. For instance, the Israeli state has used Tel Aviv’s thriving LGBT community
and large Pride celebration to depict itself as a safe haven for democracy and liberal-
ism in a “brutal” and “backward” Muslim Middle East. As such, it “pinkwashes” the
Israeli state’s occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian population. In response
to homonationalism and pinkwashing, political coalitions of Palestinian feminists,
anti-colonial and Black Lives Matter organizations, and African American and
queer international organizations have come to support Boycott, Divestment and
Sanctions (BDS) of Israeli institutions. These coalitional assemblages are not meant
to increase inclusion for Palestinian LGBT people, but rather aim to dismantle
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians.
Another political project led by transgender scholars and activists is the push
towards gender self-determination. Transgender scholars have argued that gender is
a private and subjective identity. The state should not have the power to determine
people’s gender based on expert opinions (e.g., those of doctors). Instead people
should have the agency to determine their gender and the state apparatus should
afford categorizations not based on gender assigned at birth. Dean Spade (2006)wrote:
If we want to end oppression on the basis of gender identity and expression for all people,
we need to examine how the rigid regulation of binary gender is a core element of participa-
tion in our capitalist economy, how the hyperregulation of poor people’s gender and sexual-
ity has propped up that system, and how this has resulted in disproportionate poverty and
incarceration for poor, gender-transgressive people (p.232).
Gender self-determination has been especially central to transgender scholarship
because of the lack of trans-afrming health care. Many transgender people are
2 Historical Inuences
pushed into the underground economy because employers discriminate against peo-
ple who do not t into the gender binary. With lack of family support, many trans-
gender people combat homelessness and must work in the underground economy.
As a result of this, transgender people are highly surveilled by the police and are
incarcerated at higher rates than their share in the population. To combat this pro-
cess of exclusion transgender scholars have adopted intersectionality, joining a
growing political movement to defund the police and abolish prisons. As part of the
prison abolition movement, transgender scholars have joined forces with Black
feminists and poor people who also suffer the consequences of hyper police surveil-
lance of their lives.
This overview of the historical moments and theoretical contributions inuencing
queer and transgender scholarship suggests a very expansive political agenda and
highlights a shift in our understanding of gender and sexuality. Whereas gay and
lesbian liberationists of the 1970s tended to reject gender and sexual identities as
limiting people’s full potential (D’Emilio, 1986; Katz, 1992; Valocchi, 2005;
Wittman, 1970/2004), queer and transgender scholars called for their proliferations
(Bem, 1995; Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1984). Gay and lesbian liberationists aimed to
make gender categories of men and women, and sexual categories of straight and
gay, absolute. In contrast, queer and transgender scholars recognized the productive
nature of these gender and sexual categories that serve as an important component
of people’s identities. As such they aimed to proliferate these categories making the
gender binary of man/woman, male/female, gay/straight, nonsensical (Bem, 1995).
Although queer and transgender scholars diverge in their analysis of the pro-
cesses that will lead to dismantling gender and sexual oppressions, they converge on
the political goals of social justice across social identities. Inuenced by New Left
movements, Marxism, and intersectional theory, writers who are part of the queer
and transgender movement seek a political movement that is coalitional (Cohen,
2005; Duggan, 1992; Schulman, 2012). The queer and transgender thinkers we
focus on in this book are committed to the political aim of dismantling the structure
of the state that privileges the nuclear family and oppresses economically and
racially marginalized minorities. The theories of queer and transgender scholars we
center in this book focus on coalitional solidarity that combat the unequal distribu-
tion of resources, neoliberalism, settler colonialism, and the prison industrial com-
plex. We believe that a more expansive understanding of the queer and transgender
political project will inspire scholars working today in psychology to focus on the
interlocking forms of oppressions and privileges that constitute gender and sexual
identities. Liberation of people who do not fall within the gender and sexual binaries
can not be accomplished unless we also eliminate the continued oppression of peo-
ple of color, poor people, and colonized populations.
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2 Historical Inuences
35© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2022
E. Ben Hagai, E. L. Zurbriggen, Queer Theory and Psychology,
Chapter 3
The Historically Contingent, Culturally
Specic, andContested Nature ofSexual
One of the key players in the emergence of queer theory is Eve Sedgwick. In her
book, The Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick (1990) asked an essential question
that served as the ground from which queer thought on sexuality has sprung. She
explained the question like this:
It is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity
of one person can be differentiated from that of another (dimensions that include preference
for certain acts, certain zones or sensations, certain physical types, a certain frequency,
certain symbolic investments, certain relations of age or power, a certain species, a certain
number of participants, etc. etc. etc.) precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged
from the turn of the century, and has remained, as the dimension denoted by the now ubiq-
uitous category of “sexual orientation.” (Sedgwick, 1990, p.8, italics in original).
Sedgwick puzzled as to why the incredible diversity in people’s sexual preferences
was foreclosed into a narrow and static notion of attraction and desire. She also
wondered why, in spite of the fact that people’s desire can focus on different body
parts and zones of pleasure unrelated to sex/gender differences, sexuality is deter-
mined based on the sex of the people one is attracted to. Categorizing people’s sexu-
ality based on the gender of the object of desire forecloses the multiplicity, uidity,
and complexity of sexual attraction. Sedgwick further argued that the exclusive
focus on the gender of the object of desire produced the scientic construct of “sex-
ual orientation.” This constructed category is then used by people to dene who they
are and to understand sexuality more generally. In other words, scientic discourses
become powerful tools that shape how people understand themselves and the prac-
tices they engage in. In this chapter we will argue that Sedgwick’s foundational text,
which posed the question “why do we see sexuality as determined by a person’s
gender?” was prophetic, given the kinds of questions psychologists are currently
asking about sexuality and sexual orientation.
We will elaborate on three key postulations foundational to queer thinking on
sexuality. The rst postulation is that sexuality is historically constructed (Foucault,
1976/1978) and uid. The historical construction of sexuality, and same-sex desire
in particular, tends to be based on binary thinking that positions same-sex desire as
either universal (a “universalizing” view of same-sex sexuality) or as a disposition
common to a minority of the population (a “minoritizing” view) (Sedgwick, 1990).
We will juxtapose this postulation with research in critical psychology analyzing
historical shifts in the understanding of sexuality among psychologists (Morin,
1977; Watters, 1986). We will show that the minoritizing view took hold of psycho-
logical research contemporaneously with the push in the larger society towards an
increased acceptance of gays and lesbians.
The second postulation is grounded in a critique proposed by queer theorists of
color who argued that sexual identity is shaped by intersectional positions inu-
enced by processes of colonialism, racism, sexism, and class oppression (Cohen,
1999; Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014; Eng etal., 2005; Sullivan, 2003).
The intersections of interlocking forms of oppression congure sexual identities
and desires in unique manners. Intersectional research in psychology plays an
important role in dismantling a unitary notion of gay and lesbian identity (Ben
Hagai etal., 2020; Bowleg et al., 2013). It also provides an insightful analysis of
how political and economic processes under neoliberal governance shape women’s
sexuality (Bay-Cheng & Eliseo-Arras, 2008).
The third postulation made by queer theorists is the call for the proliferation of
sexual categories (Rubin, 1984). Such proliferation can dismantle the hierarchy in
which heterosexuality is deemed to be the only normal, healthy, and natural form of
sexuality. We will discuss some of the recent research in psychology that illumi-
nates an understanding of a proliferation of sexualities.
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
The rst postulation of queer theory is that sexuality is historically constructed
(Seidman, 1996; Sullivan, 2003). Across cultures and histories, different ways of
understanding human sexuality have emerged. The current moment– which focuses
on the gender of the object of desire and attributes that desire to an essential and
stable sexual orientation – is the result of socio-political processes specic to
Western culture following the nineteenth century. As articulated by Michel Foucault
(1976/1978), discursive regimes (or paradigms) of knowledge about sexuality shift
across time. For Foucault, discursive regimes are formed through social practices,
scientic knowledge, and institutions that produce certain ways of interpreting
experience, while hiding other possible interpretations. Foucault’s analysis suggests
a shift in discursive regimes used to understand sexuality that occurred at the time
of the Enlightenment.
In his classic book the History of Sexuality, Foucault (1976/1978) traced the
historical discourses that constituted the emergence of the categories “homosexual”
and “heterosexual.” Foucault’s thesis was that although we tend to think of the
Victorian Age as a time of intensive sexual repression, this impetus to repress sexu-
ality led to an explosion of discourses on sexuality. In other words, in their
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
intentions to repress sexuality, Victorians were constantly producing new discourses
(medical, psychological, political) on sexuality. Scientic and psychoanalytic
research on sexuality led to a paradigm shift in the understanding of same-sex sexu-
ality. In these discourses, same-sex behavior was no longer seen as a crime against
nature, but now was seen as grounded in personal dispositions which are inherent to
individuals. Foucault wrote:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a child-
hood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology with an indiscreet
anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composi-
tion was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him at the root of all his
actions because it was their insidious and indenitely active principle; written immodestly
on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstan-
tial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. (1976/1978,p. 43)
Foucault’s analysis highlighted the historically constructed nature of sexuality. In
different historical moments people have framed and understood sexuality differ-
ently. In the late nineteenth century, with the emergence of sexology and medical,
psychological, and psychoanalytical research on sexuality, sexual orientation
became a fundamental component of individual identity. Same-sex sexual relation-
ships which were seen before as sinful, criminal, or anti-social acts came instead to
be associated with an innate identity rooted in life history and morphology. These
discourses about sexuality became a tool that individuals used to understand them-
selves. Institutional control of people did not come (solely) through oppression,
then, but through providing people with explanations and categories which con-
strain them into particular identities (Foucault, 1976/1978).
Following Foucault (1976/1978), Sedgwick argued that the construction of sexu-
ality, especially same-sex attraction, tends to be grounded in binary thinking. This
binary conceptualizes same sex sexuality either as universal to all people or as
encompassing only a minority of the population (Sedgwick, 1990). The minoritiz-
ing view frames gay and lesbian people as a minority group (approximately ten
percent of the population) with a sexual orientation towards the same sex. These ten
percent minority groups “really are” gay (Sedgwick, 1990, p.85). On the other
hand, the universalizing view on sexuality sees sexuality as a major issue implicat-
ing everybody in society. Within the universalizing view, same-sex desire is hypoth-
esized to be present in every human, and desire itself is an unpredictable force that
marks and shapes heterosexuality, points that we return to later in this chapter.
Evidence fromCritical Psychology
Scientic research in psychology exemplies the historical construction of sexual-
ity. Examining studies on gay and lesbian people across the decades reveals a shift
in how same-sex attraction has been constructed by scientic psychological research
(Hegarty, 2017; Morin, 1977). Critical analysis of psychological research suggests
that the discipline of psychology has shifted from understanding same-sex
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
attraction as a psychological pathology to understanding same-sex sexuality as a
kind of innate disposition similar to an ethnic or racial difference (Herek, 2010).
Over time, psychological science moved away from a universalist view of same-
sex desire as an unconscious tendency common to all humans, to an understanding
of same-sex sexuality as a pathology (Morin & Rothblum, 1991). Nevertheless, as
the social climate became more tolerant towards gays and lesbians, research studies
increasingly focused on demonstrating that gay and lesbian people were psycho-
logically well-adjusted. The acceptance of same-sex desire translated into an under-
standing of same-sex sexual orientation as an identity trait similar to other identity
components such as ethnicity (Hegarty, 2017). Psychological researchers then used
their scientic tools to understand the sources of public hate and stigma against gays
and lesbians and biological researchers further focused their efforts on establishing
biological differences between gays and lesbians on the one hand and straight peo-
ple on the other.
These historical shifts have been explored in content analyses of journal articles.
In one of the rst such analyses, Stephen Morin (1977) conducted a survey of psy-
chological studies published between the years 1967 to 1974 on lesbian women and
gay men. He focused on the questions researchers asked in order to assess the
frameworks these researchers used and the intellectual zeitgeist they were embed-
ded in. Morin found that 16% of the studies published in this period focused on how
to “diagnose” homosexuality, including a method whereby a man’s penile volume
was measured while he viewed pictures of women and men. An even larger propor-
tion of the studies (30%), focused on the causes of homosexuality; these studies
largely were framed as efforts to assess whether homosexuality can be prevented.
Morin (1977) cited a report by the National Institute of Mental Health Task Force
on Homosexuality that stated “for most workers in the eld, the prevention of a
homosexual orientation in an individual child or adolescent is seen as one of the
most important goals” (Morin, 1977, p.634). In other words, in the late 60s and
early 70s, researchers studied the origins and causes of same-sex sexual attraction
largely for the purpose of preventing this type of attraction.
One framework that exemplies the pathologizing of same-sex desire was
grounded in the psychodynamic paradigm in the United States. Although Freud
himself did not understand homosexuality as a pathology and tended to see same
sex attraction in universal terms (i.e., as existing unconsciously among all humans;
Freud, 1905/2017; Friedman & Downey, 1998), by the 1940s a consensus had
emerged in the psychoanalytic eld that homosexuality was rooted in arrested
development. Friedman and Downey (1998) summarized the two main psychoana-
lytic views on homosexuality:
Derailment from a “normal” developmental track was most serious when it occurred during
early childhood years, prior to age 5 or so. Such derailment, due to traumatic experiences
of various types, not only produced what Socarides termed “obligatory” homosexuality but
also led to global impairment in personality functioning. Two types of such impairments
were stressed: In one, patients experienced severe anxiety, irritability, identity disturbances,
and were prone to impulsive-compulsive activities and poor judgment. Patients in this
group would be called borderline today. In the other category of pathology, patients were
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
dominated by the pursuit of pleasure, had impaired frustration tolerance, and poor self-
esteem regulation. Patients in this group would be called narcissistic today. (p.251)
Children’s early trauma thus was understood to produce not only obligatory homo-
sexuality but also a set of personality disorders: either borderline personality disor-
der or a narcissistic personality. According to this view, intense emotional ties to the
mother and an inaccessible father played important roles in producing overt homo-
sexuality (Socarides, 1968). The boy child’s inability to separate and individuate
from the mother led him to search for masculinity not in himself but in his sexual
partners. The framing of homosexuality as pathology brought forth the development
of treatments (therapeutic, hormonal, and behavioral) to heal people from homo-
sexuality (Herek, 2010).
According to Morin’s (1977) research, about 27% of the studies published on
same-sex desire in the late 60s and early 70s focused on the psychological adjust-
ment of gays and lesbians. These studies were inuenced by the trailblazing work
of sexologist Alfred Kinsey as well as that of psychologist Evelyn Hooker. In her
ground-breaking research, Hooker (1957) demonstrated that experts did not detect
more psychological pathology in homosexual men compared to heterosexual men.
In these studies, Hooker matched 30 homosexual and 30 heterosexual men by age,
IQ, and education. The men took a battery of projective tests including the Thematic
Apperception Test (TAT), the Rorschach Test and the Make a Picture Story (MAPS)
test. Hooker had three expert clinicians analyze a summary of each participant’s
projections, while being unaware of whether the person was homosexual or hetero-
sexual. The experts’ analyses showed little difference between the groups (Hooker,
1957). This nding suggested that homosexual men were not any more likely to
express psychological pathology than heterosexual men were. This was surprising
to many researchers of the time, who unquestioningly assumed that homosexuality
was related to psychological pathology. Hooker’s study was incredibly important
because it provided rigorous empirical data that clearly refuted that assumption.
Both the Kinsey studies and Hooker’s research contributed to the American
Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a widely used guide for
categorizing and diagnosing mental illness (Hegarty, 2017). In 1975, the American
Psychological Association voted to oppose discrimination against homosexuality
and published an ofcial statement declaring “Homosexuality, per se, implies no
impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capa-
bilities” (Conger, 1975, p.633).
Morin (1977) further found that between 1967 and 1974 about 8% of studies
examined the sources and causes of people’s prejudice against gays and lesbians.
Morin predicted a future increase in studies that look at the cause of homosexuality,
not as an illness, but to establish homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle common
among a small minority of the population. Morin further predicted an increase in
research that focused not on understanding homosexuality as a problem that needs
xing, but instead focused on understanding why some heterosexuals see homo-
sexuality as a problem. In other words, heterosexuals who stigmatized same-sex
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
attraction would become the population to investigate (Morin, 1977). A later study
(Watters, 1986) examining psychological research on homosexuality found that
Morin’s predictions were correct. Analysis of research from the years 1979 to 1983
found a large decrease in research on the causes of homosexuality, and an increase
in research on the causes of homophobic attitudes and the processes that lead people
to stigmatize gays and lesbians.
This change in research agendas was associated with a fortication of the under-
standing of sexual minorities as similar to ethnic minorities. As psychologists
moved away from a paradigm of illness to an afrmative paradigm in the 1980 and
90s, a conceptualization of sexuality as a “natural” difference between people
developed. Just as segments of the population were differentiated into ethnic and
racial categories (some of which were in the “majority” and some in the “minor-
ity”), sexuality emerged as another category differentiating people.
Psychologists working within the afrmative paradigm came to dene same-sex
sexual orientation based on a minoritizing view. Because sexual minorities were seen
as another kind of minority group, theories that were utilized to reduce prejudice
against racial or ethnic minorities were used to understand prejudice towards sexual
minorities. For instance, contact theory (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006),
which normally was associated with explaining a reduction in prejudice towards
racialized groups, was now used to understand a reduction in prejudice towards sexual
minorities. Contact theory proposes that, under appropriate conditions, if majority
group members have personal contact with minority group members, themajority
group members’ levels of prejudice and discrimination will decrease. In alignment
with the predictions of contact theory, Herek and Glunt (1993) demonstrated, using a
large probability sample, that people who had a friend who was gay were less likely
to hold negative views against gays and lesbians. In another classic study, Herek and
Capitanio (1996) found that the more intimate and close people were with a friend
who was gay or lesbian, the more likely they were to hold positive attitudes towards
lesbian and gay people. A meta-analysis of 41 different studies supported the early
ndings that contact between straight people and gays and lesbians decreased straight
people’s stigma against sexual minorities (Smith etal., 2009).
In addition to contact theory, a wave of psychological research published in the
1990s and the 2000s focused on the relationship between how people frame the
origin of same-sex attraction and their attitudes towards gay and lesbian people.
This line of research tested whether people who believe that same-sex attraction is
grounded in an innate and immutable disposition have more favorable attitudes
towards gays and lesbians. These studies were rooted in another important theory in
psychology, attribution theory (Frias-Navarro etal., 2015; Haider-Markel & Joslyn,
2008; Swank & Raiz, 2010). Attribution theory argues that people use causal theo-
ries to explain the world around them. Sometimes people’s causal theories explain
behavior based on contextual attributes, whereas at other times these causal theories
are based on internal attributes. For example, a person’s shouts and angry facial
expression could be explained by the situational context (someone ran into them
with a shopping cart) or by the person’s personality and internal disposition (they
are generally an angry person).
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
Weiner (1985) described an additional dimension that classies behavior in
terms of its controllability. Some responses to getting hit with a shopping cart are
less controllable (e.g., stumbling or crying out in pain) while others are more con-
trollable (e.g., hitting back with one’s own shopping cart, accusing the person of
deliberate hostility, or smilingly accepting an apology). In general, a causal attribu-
tion that an action was uncontrollable results in more acceptance and less anger
about that action (Hegarty & Golden, 2008) and a causal attribution that one’s iden-
tity is uncontrollable results in more acceptance towards people with that identity
(Haider-Markel & Joslyn, 2008). This holds true for sexual minorities as well. For
example, people who see sexual orientation as based in internal and uncontrollable
mechanisms hold more favorable views about sexual minorities (Haider- Markel &
Joslyn, 2005). When sexual minorities are seen as similar to ethnic minorities, in the
sense that their difference is believed to be grounded in internal and uncontrollable
traits (similar to skin color), they are more likely to be accepted by heterosexuals
(Aguero etal., 1984; Schneider & Lewis, 1984).
Framing same-sex attraction in terms of innate and immutable traits was impor-
tant not only because this framing reduced stigma against gays and lesbians but also
because it inuenced research agendas. Motivated by scientic curiosity as well as
the hope of helping the public better understand thorny issues of sexual orientation,
scientists working within the minoritizing paradigm searched for heritable, hor-
monal, or genetic sources of same-sex sexual orientation. Michael Bailey and
Richard Pillard were two of the leading researchers working on these issues. They
published an op-ed in the NewYork Times explaining their ndings and the impli-
cations for public debates about sexual orientation. They wrote:
Science is rapidly converging on the conclusion that sexual orientation is innate. It has found
that homosexuals often act differently from heterosexuals in early childhood, before they have
even heard of sex… If true, a biological explanation is good news for homosexuals and their
advocates. Our own research has shown that male sexual orientation is substantially genetic.
Over the last two years, we have studied the rates of homosexuality in identical and non-
identical twin brothers of gay men, as well as adoptive brothers of gay men. Fifty-two percent
of the identical twin brothers were gay, as against 22 percent of non- identical twins and 11
percent of the adoptive, genetically unrelated brothers. In contrast, research on social factors
has been fruitless… Cultures tolerant of homosexuals do not appear to raise more of them
than do less permissive societies. (Bailey & Pillard, 1991a, p.21)
Research on the innate and heritable origin of same-sex desire gained momentum
with the increasingly vigorous debates over gay and lesbian rights in the 1990s.
These debates were propelled by the “continuing tension between those who view
homosexuality as an illness or a sign of moral weakness and those who see it simply
as an alternative phenotype, without moral or pathological implications” (Bailey &
Pillard, 1991b, p.1089).
Following Bailey and Pillard’s focus on the minoritizing view of same-sex sex-
ual orientation, biological psychologists studying the origin of same-sex attraction
sought genes, hormones, and parenting practices that cause homosexuality. Much of
the investigation was focused on gender nonconformity as related to same-sex sex-
ual orientation. Researchers working in the area argued that because most women
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
are sexually attracted to men (androphilia), men who are attracted to men are similar
to heterosexual women. In turn, because most men are sexually attracted to women
(gynephilia), women who are attracted to women are similar to heterosexual men.
Based on this logic, scientists embarked on research projects that aimed to identify
feminine biological traits in gay men, and masculine biological traits in lesbian
women (Bailey etal., 2016).
One inuential line of research examined the role of hormones in the develop-
ment of ovaries or testes in the prenatal critical period. The working hypothesis of
this research held that during a sensitive period the brains of some prenatal boys
develop to be more feminine because of lower levels of testosterone, whereas the
brains of some girls become more masculinized because of higher levels of testos-
terone. Researchers hypothesized that the presence of low levels of testosterone and
other androgens is associated with having feminine characteristics, including being
sexually attracted to men. In further support of this hypothesis, studies of adult
women with a genetic endocrine disorder (congenital adrenal hyperplasia) that
exposed them to high levels of testosterone in the uterus found higher levels of
same-sex sexual attraction as compared to women without this disorder. However,
it’s important to note that most of the women who were exposed to high levels of
testosterone prenatally reported a heterosexual sexual orientation (Meyer-Bahlburg
etal., 2008).
Other scientists focused on organs that are different in size among women and
men. For instance, Simon LeVay (1991, 2016) studied a specic area of the brain
(the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus; INAH-3) that is sexually
dimorphic (that is, that differs in average size for men as compared to women). In
this case, the INAH-3 region is larger in men and boys than in women and girls.
When comparing 19 presumed homosexual and 17 presumed heterosexual men,
LeVay found a strong statistical difference in the size of the INAH-3 region, with a
smaller size in the gay men. This nding must be approached with caution because
other research labs were unable to replicate it; however, it supports the minoritizing
view by locating the difference between gay and straight men (at least partially) in
an innate aspect of anatomy (LeVay, 2016; LeVay & Hamer, 1994).
To summarize, historical analyses of psychological research on homosexuality
show that as certain sexual categories become more acceptable, research moves
towards demonstrating that members of these populations are well adjusted. Once
members of a minority population are generally deemed to be well-adjusted,
research turns toward understanding why members of these groups are stigmatized
and oppressed (Morin, 1977; Hegarty, 2017). The increased tolerance towards gays
and lesbians is also associated with an increased focus on demonstrating that gays
and lesbians are similar to (a popular understanding of) ethnic and racial minorities,
in that all these different groups are seen as biologically different from one another.
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
Queer Rejection oftheMinoritizing View ofSexuality
Although the minoritizing view of same-sex sexual orientation has been useful in
furthering the civil rights of same-sex couples, especially among people with a lib-
eral ideology, queer thinkers have nevertheless questioned the minoritizing approach
(Duggan, 2002; Sedgwick, 1990). The minoritizing view on same-sex attraction
diverges from a queer understanding of sexuality on several grounds. Gayle Rubin
articulated one of the limitations of an innate and immutable view of same-sex
desire from a queer perspective. She wrote:
… human sexuality is not comprehensible in purely biological terms. Human organisms
with human brains are necessary for human cultures, but no examination of the body or its
parts can explain the nature and variety of human social systems. The belly’s hunger gives
no clues as to the complexities of cuisine. The body, the brain, the genitalia, and the capac-
ity for language are all necessary for human sexuality. But they do not determine its content,
its experiences, or its institutional forms. (Rubin, 1984, p.276)
Queer thinkers contend that whereas biological processes produce drives and plea-
sures, how people experience desire is culturally and historically constituted.
Because of cultural inuence on desire, what people are attracted to and wish for
will change in different eras and across communities.
Queer theorists’ rejection of a minoritizing view of sexuality is also political.
Queer theorists argue that the minoritizing view may bring forth an increase in
rights for gays and lesbians, but it will also fortify the normality of heterosexuality.
Lisa Duggan(2002) referred to politics such as this, that serve to fortify heterosex-
ual institutions through allowing the limited inclusion of same-sex desire under a
tolerance rubric, as “homonormative.” She dened homonormativity as a “politics
that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but
upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay
culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan 2002, p. 179). The
minoritizing of same-sex desire to certain minority bodies of gay and lesbian people
serves to depoliticize same-sex desire. This depoliticizing is contrary to the legacy
of the radical feminist and queer movements, which sought to expand alternative
forms of family, care, and community that are not based on the nuclear heterosexual
family model endorsed (and enforced) by the state.
A nal reason why queer thinkers have rejected a minoritizing view of same-sex
orientation is because it does not t many queer people’s interpretation of their own
experiences. The narrative of gay and lesbian identity as something that is felt at a
young age, explored through sexual experimentation, and then articulated through
the coming out ritual, is a narrative that is not shared by all people with same-sex
attraction. Shannon Weber (2012) sees the emergence of “born this way” and “com-
ing out” narratives as hegemonic narratives that silence queer understandings of
sexuality. Weber explains:
I assert that biological determinism becomes a hegemonic discourse of exclusion within
pro-queer communities. I offer the term ‘biological homonormativity’ as a way of under-
standing this trend of exclusion. Focusing on biology, I argue, constricts the voices of queer
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
people who do not identify in biologically determined ways; whose sexual identities have
not been continuous through life or determined at a very early age; and/or who focus more
on concepts of choice or agency (Weber, 2012, p.680, italics in original).
From this queer perspective, sexuality is always in ux. People’s attraction and
desire may change as their life context changes. The coming out process is not nec-
essarily a moment of personal liberation, because when someone comes out, their
sexuality is once again foreclosed within a label that can’t hold the multiplicity and
complexity of desire. The social categories of gay, lesbian, and bisexual are also
restrictive and mask the complexity of attraction. These sexual orientation catego-
ries foreclose the exible and dynamic possibilities of attraction and desire.
The Turn Towards Fluidity inPsychology
Psychology’s search for the origins of same-sex desire in genetic and hormonal
processes ultimately led to the recognition of the complexity of sexual orientation.
Increasingly, sexuality researchers began differentiating between sexual identity,
sexual arousal or attraction, and sexual behaviors. More complex conceptualiza-
tions of sexual orientation include additional components. For instance, the Klein
Sexual Orientation Grid (KSOG) has seven dimensions: sexual attraction, sexual
behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-
identication, and heterosexual/homosexual lifestyle (Klein etal., 1985).
As tolerance for gay men and lesbians has increased, some psychologists have
published research that moves away from an essentialist, xed, and immutable
understanding of sexuality to a more uid, person-specic, and context-dependent
understanding of sexuality. Especially important to this turn towards uidity is Lisa
Diamond’s program of research on women’s sexuality. Unlike previous research
that framed same-sex attraction in a minoritizing way, Diamond framed her research
as an attempt to understand women’s sexuality in general, even though her initial
research participants were sexual minority women. Thus, she rejected a minoritiz-
ing framing and moved toward a more universalist understanding of women’s sexu-
ality, one in which same-sex attraction is assumed to be relevant to women more
In a much-discussed longitudinal study, Diamond followed 79 women from their
college years to their late twenties and early thirties (Diamond, 2008). The women
in Diamond’s study identied as lesbian, bisexual, and nonlabelled. One of her cen-
tral ndings was that about half of the women changed their sexual identity or pat-
terns of sexual behaviors over the course of the study. For instance, over time many
lesbian-identied participants reported an increasingly bisexual pattern of attraction
and behavior. This suggests that “coming out of the closet” is not a nal stage in the
emergence of a lesbian identity. It further supports the proposition that, at least for
some people, sexual orientation is uid and may change over time.
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
In addition to her own studies, Diamond (2016) also analyzed a large number of
probability sample studies. This analysis suggested that among people who do not
identify as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual, but rather as mostly hetero-
sexual, as bisexual, or as mostly homosexual, changes in sexual identity were preva-
lent as time passed (e.g., 6years later). Diamond (2018) explained uidity in sexual
orientation by arguing that people can be attracted to others as part of two different
evolutionarily-derived systems: a reproductive system and an attachment-based sys-
tem. Some forms of attraction and desire are grounded in the promotion of sexual
reproduction; this system is associated with feelings of lust. The other system asso-
ciated with attraction and desire is based in attachment and pair-bonding behavior.
The infant-caregiver attachment system is the primary attachment system, and it
develops later in life into an adult attachment system that serves as the basis for
romantic love (Hazan & Zeifman, 1999). Because bonds based in the infant-
caregiver attachment system are not dependent on the gender of the caregiver or the
infant, this system of attachment appears to be gender neutral. Diamond (2018)
wrote “the truth is that individuals can form romantic attachment to just about any-
one, regardless of the other person’s gender or sexual desirability” (p. 275).
Ultimately, people’s sexual orientation may be focused on different genders in terms
of their sexual attraction as compared to their romantic attraction, because two dif-
ferent underlying psychological systems are in play.
Other researchers have also addressed the uid and exible nature of sexuality.
In a cross disciplinary (sociology and psychology) special issue published online
just 2 years after the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in
the United States (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), scholars discussed empirical
research on the “mostly straight” identity, heteroexibility, and uid sexuality
(McCormack, 2018). The emerging sexual identity category of “mostly straight”
has been found to be a distinct category separated from bisexual and heterosexual
identities (Savin-Williams, 2017; Thompson & Morgan, 2008). Men and women
who identify as mostly straight tended to have more same-sex sexual fantasies,
attraction, and sexual experiences with people of the same-sex compared to hetero-
sexuals but fewer than bisexual identied people (Morgan & Thompson, 2011;
Savin-Williams & Vrangalova, 2013; Thompson & Morgan, 2008).
It appears that the decline in stigma against sexual minorities and the shift in
gender norms have marked sexuality as a place to be explored and empirical research
on the development of sexual identity supports this (Worthington, Savoy, Dillion &
Vernaglia, 2002). Sexual exploration has become an important phase in the forma-
tion of sexual identity within U.S. society in this particular historical moment.
Unlike measures of same-sex behaviors, the sexual exploration status reects pur-
poseful goals of experimentation as well as judgment of experimental practices as
important. Sexual exploration may involve same-sex behaviors and fantasies as well
as heterosexual experiences (Worthington, Dillion, & Becker-Schutte, 2005).
Finally, psychological research in the wake of the 2015U.S. Supreme Court
decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationally (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015)
has examined how having a constructionist understanding of sexuality, not only an
understanding of sexuality as immutable and innate, can be associated with support
The Historically Constructed Nature ofSexuality
for gay and lesbian rights. This new wave of research studies indicates that the
belief that gay and lesbian people were “born this way” is not the sole pathway to
encourage support for their civil rights. For instance, an experimental study that had
members of the public read essays that attribute same-sex desire to innate and
immutable biogenetic processes yielded the same level of support for LGBTQ
rights compared to people who read an essay that suggested that sexual orientation
is socially constructed. Arguments that rejected the notion that sexual orientation
was discrete, similar across gay and lesbian identities, and informative in predicting
people’s sexual orientation were the most effective in gaining support for gay and
lesbian rights regardless of whether sexual orientation was framed as determined by
biology or culture (Grzanka & Miles, 2016).
The queer notion that sexuality is historically constructed, always in ux, context-
dependent, and uid is in line with intersectional approaches to sexuality.
Intersectional theory, grounded in Black feminist thought, focuses on the ways in
which people’s social positions are impacted by intersectional forms of oppressions
that include racism, colonialism, sexism, and class oppression (Cohen, 1997;
Combahee River Collective, 1978/2014). These oppressions inuence people’s
rights, activism, and identities. Intersectional theory is rooted in feminist theories
developed by women of color who argued against second wave feminism’s search
for universals in women’s experiences and oppression. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who
coined the term intersectionality, explained it this way:
The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics
charge, but rather the opposite- that it frequently conates or ignores intragroup differ-
ences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic,
fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other
dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. (Crenshaw, 2006, p.8)
From an intersectional perspective, gender oppression (such as violence against
women or the control of women’s sexuality) is not experienced in the same way by
all women, but rather is shaped by other axes of domination such as racism and class
oppression. The experience of a Black woman who is subjected to domestic vio-
lence will be different than that of a white woman. Accounting for these differences
is essential in combating and challenging women’s oppression.
Queer theory is often considered to be a white discipline focused on elite white
gay and lesbian thought, and has been criticized for this narrow viewpoint (Brim,
2020; Cohen, 1999). Nevertheless, many contemporary queer thinkers grapple
intensively with intersectional theory’s contribution to the understanding of sexual-
ity. For example, Roderick Ferguson wrote: “the argument that race and sexuality
are mutually constitutive is quickly becoming an axioma” in queer studies (Ferguson,
2004, p.109). Nikki Sullivan (2003) described the impact of intersectional theory
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
on queer theorists’ study of sexuality in this way: “the lived experience of sexuality,
for example, is, in each case, signicantly different since race, class, sexuality, and
so on, inect and/or infuse one another” (p.72). As Sullivan puts it, sexuality is
“always already” racialized, and race is “always already” sexualized. She wrote:
“Thus, race and sexuality are not two separate axes of identity that cross and overlay
in particular subject positions, but rather, ways to circumscribe systems of meaning
and understanding that formatively and inherently dene each other” (Sullivan,
2003, p.72).
Interlocking forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, and classism shape
how people understand their sexuality. Furthermore, intersectional theory rejects an
additive model of identity in which the effects of different identities are simply
added together. Such a model would say that we can understand Black women’s
experience by “adding together” the sexism experienced by white women and the
racism experienced by Black men. Intersectional theory points out that this ignores
the fact that the sexism directed towards Black women is often racialized and the
racism directed towards them is often sexualized, leading to a unique experience
that is not captured by an additive model (Bowleg, 2008). For example, stereotypes
about Black women’s sexuality (e.g., the Jezebel or Sapphire stereotypes; Collins,
2000) do not simply combine stereotypes about white women’s sexuality and Black
men’s sexuality. They are unique, and uniquely oppressive. Intersectionality theory
rejects an understanding of identities as separate and additive, not only because that
is not how multiply marginalized people (such as Black women) experience their
lives, but also because an additive model lends itself to creating hierarchies of
oppressions “without recognizing that the implications of being positioned in one of
the above ways are signicantly different from being positioned in another”
(Sullivan, 2003, p.72).
Queer thinkers incorporating intersectionality as a foundational theoretical lens
and methodology in their research have made important contributions to under-
standing the ways in which sexuality has been shaped by processes of imperialism,
capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization, migration, and other systems that repro-
duce inequalities. For instance, Ferguson (2004) argued that global inequalities and
American imperialism caused the mass migration to the United States of popula-
tions that became the surplus labor required by the capitalist system. This migration
helped satisfy capitalism’s need for unskilled workers, and also led to increased
racial diversity and often gender/sexual diversity as well. In turn, increasing diver-
sity led to anxiety among (white, male) politicians and sociologists concerning
deviance and the violation of middle class heterosexual norms.
According to Ferguson (2004), one response to this anxiety was a process of
racialization in which the sexuality of people of color was framed as exotic. This
exotic sexualization of racialized minority groups impacted the congurations of
city geographies. Urban neighborhoods began to reect different racial demograph-
ics which carry different sexual meanings in dominant discourse. For instance,
neighborhoods in Chicago were segregated into white “family” neighborhoods and
Black neighborhoods marked by purported gender and sexual deviance and
debauchery. Ferguson (2004) wrote:
As marriage became the indicator of social organization in the industrial economy, the sta-
bility of the neighborhood was imagined in terms of the predominance of heteropatriarchal
monogamous families. In this context, black racial difference and black neighborhoods
became the signs of moral instability and alternative gender and sexual formations
(Ferguson, 2004, p.40).
Economic and racial differences intersected with gender and sexual identity to form
an understanding of African American sexuality as promiscuous. Black men were
framed as hypermasculinized while Black women were seen as uninhibited. This
construction of Black sexuality as different from white sexuality has also inuenced
the ways in which African American gay men and lesbians experience their identity
(Cohen, 1999).
Psychological Research onIntersectionality andSexuality
Psychological research that uses an intersectional lens nicely complements queer
theories that see sexuality as intersecting with race, political economy, and histori-
cal processes. Research grounded in intersectional theory within psychology often
focuses on the ways in which people’s social position, composed of both oppres-
sions and privileges, lead them to develop different kinds of sexual identities, as
opposed to assuming a uniform experience across gay identities, or assuming that
racialized people are more oppressed because they have several marginalized identi-
ties. Psychologists who utilize an intersectional framework to study sexuality have
found that people’s understanding of their gay or lesbian identity is inuenced by
the different axes of oppression and privilege in which they are enmeshed. For
instance, Lisa Bowleg found that Black gay and lesbian same-sex attraction is
shaped not only by homophobia but also by racism (Bowleg, 2008, 2012; Bowleg
etal., 2003).
The experience of homophobia in communities of color and the experience of
racism in white gay and lesbian community spaces bring forth multiple jeopardies.
Facing multiple jeopardies is related to a later age for coming out as LGBTQ among
people of color than among white people (Bowleg, 2012). Whereas many white
people in the gay and lesbian community have adopted an “out and proud” approach
to their identity, in which the coming out ritual is an important signier to one’s
liberation, this is less true for people of color. For example, research on Black les-
bian sexual identity suggests that Black lesbians subtly negotiate the complexity of
their sexual identity such that their family acknowledges their sexual minority iden-
tity but prefers not to discuss it overtly (see Bowleg etal., 2008).
In another study with diverse LGBTQ+ people living in the San Francisco Bay
Area (Ben Hagai etal., 2020), participants of color tended to reject sexual identity
terms because they felt those were rooted in a white cultural understanding of gay-
ness that was foreign to them. As one African American participant who is a long-
time resident of the San Francisco Bay area “Gay Mecca” explained.
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
I don’t need to take the world’s titles, you know, queer, gay, bisexual, what have you. It is
what it is, and that’s how I see it. I don’t care to take on these other titles that the white
people came up with. That’s who they are. That’s who they want to be identied as. But, I’m
identied as a young, Black man, as a Christian that loves another young, Black man that’s
a Christian. Boom. (Ben Hagai etal., 2020, p.61).
Other exciting lines of research in psychology inuenced by intersectional theory
focus on the ways in which political ideologies such as neoliberalism shape the
understanding of sexuality. For example, Laina Bay-Cheng (2015) argued that a
contemporary understanding of women’s sexuality is no longer dened by a slut vs.
virgin continuum. Rather, a neoliberal ideology that frames individuals as entrepre-
neurs (i.e., prot seeking) and choice-makers adds agency as a second axis, inde-
pendent of the slut-virgin continuum. In the era of neoliberalism, judgments about
women are based not only on their sexual promiscuity but also on their performance
of agency. As long as women are deemed agentic (i.e., making their own choices),
they can frame their sexuality in a positive manner, no matter where they fall in
terms of sexual activity (i.e., “virgin” or “slut”). However, women who are framed
as either virgins or sluts without performing choice or agency are deemed victims
and are seen in a negative light.
An intersectional analysis of the relationship between class position, gender, and
neoliberal ideology also suggests differences in how women of different classes
experience unwanted sexual encounters. In one study (Bay-Cheng & Bruns, 2016),
women with a higher socio-economic status (SES) tended to normalize unwanted
sex, framing it as harmless, natural, benecial, and functional. On the other hand,
lower-SES women were more likely to frame their unwanted sexual experience as
hurting their self-image and self-esteem. For example one woman (20, white) pro-
vided this assessment:
The consequences of what happened? It destroyed me for awhile. I mean I am still now
facing the consequences … I mean, I was called a slut, I was called a whore and I couldn’t
go out in public and I wouldn’t go out to eat on campus because I knew that my boyfriend’s
friends were gonna be there. (p.511)
Furthermore, lower-SES participants tended to connect unwanted sexual experi-
ences to past trauma or to nancial instability. For instance, some lower-SES women
described unwanted sexual experiences as not “so bad” because they had already
lost their virginity due to childhood sexual abuse. This research suggests that sexu-
ality intersects with class and age, with upper class women more likely to frame
experiences of unwanted sex as normative and unproblematic, and working class
women more likely to frame unwanted sexual experiences as associated with vul-
nerability and as necessitating relationship compromise.
Critiquing Hierarchies ofSexualities
An important axiom in queer theory is the notion that sexual orientations can’t be
foreclosed within a binary of heterosexual/homosexual. People’s desires, attrac-
tions, and preferences for sexual acts vary considerably and, as exemplied in
Sedgwick’s quote that opened this chapter, the gender of one’s partner is only one
such preference (Sedgwick, 1990). Queer theorists further point out that this vast
variation in sexualities has nevertheless been subsumed within a sexual hierarchy in
which sexual relationships based in monogamy and reproduction are privileged
while other forms of sexualities are marginalized.
Every society has some forms of sexuality that are accepted and others that are
considered bad or immoral. In her inuential essay “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin
articulated queer theory’s opposition to this sexual hierarchy and its defense of sex-
ual variation:
It is difcult to develop a pluralistic sexual ethics without a concept of benign sexual varia-
tion. Variation is a fundamental property of all life, from the simplest biological organisms
to the most complex human social formations. Yet sexuality is supposed to conform to a
single standard. One of the most tenacious ideas about sex is that there is one best way to
do it, and that everyone should do it that way. Most people nd it difcult to grasp that
whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that
whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere.
(Rubin, 1984, p.283).
From a queer theory perspective, if the variation in human sexuality and preferences
are taken seriously and are accounted for, then new understandings of sexual desire
and pleasure emerge (Rubin, 1984). When recognized, the proliferating forms of
sexuality dismantle the privileging of heterosexuality and its position at the top of
sexual hierarchy.
One form of marginalized sexuality that has received early and continued attention
from queer theorists is BDSM (bondage, dominance/discipline, and sado/masochism)
and kink. Discussing BDSM practices, Foucault (1984/2003) argued that playing with
new types of pleasures has the potential to recongure relationships and bonds
between people. Foucault rejected the notion that BDSM is a form of violence in an
erotic situation, and instead he framed BDSM as a strategic play of power that gives
birth to pleasure. The new kinds of pleasure experienced are not based on an innate
desire or identity but are discovered through play. Queer thinkers argue that through
erotic play, pleasures not directly associated with genital sexuality are discovered.
These new congurations of pleasure are not necessarily based on an identity. As
such, they allow for new kinds of sociability (Calia, 2000). These new relationships
and bonds create new political potentials because they give birth to, and provide moti-
vation for, new ways of relating to people (Halperin, 1995; Sedgwick, 1990).
Recently, psychologists have begun to study emerging forms of sexuality. Here,
we focus on BDSM, polyamorous/polysexual relationships, and asexuality.
Although this research has helped to legitimize new forms of sexuality, it remains to
be seen whether these new forms of sexuality will also serve to recongure social
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
relationships. In particular, whereas the studies we describe below work to legiti-
mize different identities, their focus on individual dispositions often fails to account
for the interlocking forms of oppressions that shape people’s identities. Framing
sexual identities as completely internal to individuals fails to account for the ways
in which people can fully become radical, through changing patterns in their lives
and through combatting systematic oppressions associated with other axes of identi-
ties such as gender, race, and class.
Psychological research on BDSM practitioners accommodates in interesting ways
the radical potential that Foucault and other queer theorists ascribe to BDSM
(Foucault, 1984/2003). Some research suggests that BDSM sexual practices serve
as a space in which practitioners transgress a static understanding of gender, sexual-
ity, and power (Sprott & Hadcock, 2017). For instance, Yost (2007) surveyed 126
men and 138 women involved in BDSM practices. She found that S/M role play
identity (e.g., dominant or submissive) was a better predictor than gender identity
(e.g., male or female) of the kind of sexual acts participants preferred to engage in.
Many of the BDSM practitioners reversed traditional scripts of gender by having
women take on a masculine (i.e., dominant) role and men a feminine (i.e., submis-
sive) role. It appears that during an S/M encounter, gender becomes less important
compared to the roles played out in the scene (see also Ritchie & Barker, 2005).
Similar results were found in a study that interviewed people who participated in
the dyke + BDSM communities in Western Europe and the United States (Bauer,
2007). These queer BDSM practitioners constructed the BDSM interaction as a
queer playground. In a sexual “scene” they explored multiple gender identities,
transgressing the link between sex and gender. The uidity of gender performances
and roles more generally allows people to transcend and explore new senses of self
(see also Taylor & Ussher, 2001). Furthermore, the intersubjectivity that emerges
between the different participants in an S/M scene highlights the co-construction of
pleasure not as rooted in a particular body but through shared meanings. Bauer
quoted one of the participants who exemplied the S/M scene as a playground of
gender exploration and intersubjective recognition:
A couple of people that I have been playing with the longest started out kind of like ‘I’m a
dyke, and I’m in the middle’. But when I looked at them I was like ‘I see a boy. How do you
feel about me calling you boy?’ And by this point they’re boy identied in a big way and
it’s a huge factor in how they see themselves (Bauer, 2007, p.192).
In addition to seeing the S/M scene as a place to explore and move beyond pre-
scribed gender identities, queer theorists argue that BDSM also serves as a space to
better understand power dynamics and transgress them through irony and parody.
By reenacting unequal power dynamics based in oppressive patriarchal and capital-
ist institutions, and disrupting them through parody and irony, practitioners expand
Critiquing Hierarchies ofSexualities
their understanding of these mechanisms and engage in processes that can disman-
tle them (Langdridge & Butt, 2004).
Although there is the potential for BDSM scenes to disrupt notions of identities
and power dynamics, some theorists have proposed that these scenes also have the
potential to reproduce and enforce these oppressive dynamics. For example, Meg-
John Barker and Rosalind Gill (2012) argued that whereas BDSM has the potential
for transgression of gender and power, it often reproduces and sustains inequalities
in the construction of play. Barker and Gill described the ways that, even when other
standards are being disrupted, women are typically still expected to beautify them-
selves based on male standards and are judged by their ability to induce desire and
pleasure in men. The quote from Bauer’s study (above) could also be interpreted as
a reproduction of oppressive power dynamics if the shift from a dyke-identied to a
boy-identied persona was coerced rather than authentic. This shift could also be
criticized as a reproduction of patriarchy in that a female identity was erased.
Taking an intersectional perspective, Elisabeth Sheff and Corie Hammers (2011)
argued that kink practices that encourage adopting a kink identity may inuence
white people compared to people of color differently. When white people perform a
kink identity they may be seen as cutting edge and hip, but when people of color
adopt a kink identity, stereotypes of them being less competent or professional may
be triggered, leading them to be threatened in their work place. Furthermore, the
history of enslavement and oppression of people of color loads kink play with
meaning that is more humiliating and traumatizing for people who come from these
communities. Finally, the expensive leather outts that have become standard in
kink communities sustain the exclusion of poor and economic exploited people
(Sheff & Hammers, 2011). In short, valorizing kink play as cutting edge, risky, and
hip also privileges the people who can engage with it without the burden of racism,
historical oppression, and economic exploitation. Kink and BDSM play, like most
new forms of cultural practices, is not predetermined in terms of political or per-
sonal consequences. These practices can potentially be shaped to either disrupt or
sustain oppressions and inequalities (Wilkinson, 2010).
Another emerging form of sexuality that has gained the attention of psychologists is
polyamory. Polyamory is dened as “a form of relationship where it is possible,
valid and worthwhile to maintain (usually long term) intimate and sexual relation-
ships with multiple partners simultaneously” (Haritaworn et al., 2006, p. 515).
Psychological research on this topic has tended to follow the historical patterns
documented by Morin (1977) in his survey of research on sexual orientation (Morin,
1977). Research rst focused on prevalence, then studied the healthy adjustment of
people who identify as polyamorous, and nally turned to an investigation of the
stigma experienced by polyamorous people. Research highlighting the healthy
adjustment of people engaged in polyamory has showed similar levels of
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
relationship and sexual satisfaction, trust, and closeness for individuals in polyam-
orous, open, and monogamous relationships (Séguin etal., 2017). Other studies
found a higher level of intimacy for people engaged in polyamory compared to
people in a monogamous relationship (Morrison etal.,, 2013) and reported that
children who are part of a polyamorous household seem generally well adjusted
(Goldfeder & Sheff, 2013).
As Morin also noted in his study, one of the ways in which gay and lesbian iden-
tities have been legitimized is through turning the analytical lens away from the
origins of homosexuality and toward the origins of prejudice and stigma against
lesbians and gay people. Similarly, psychological research on polyamory has inves-
tigated the processes associated with stigmatizing people who engage in polyam-
orous relationships (Brewster etal., 2017; Burleighet al., 2017; Valadez etal., 2020).
And as we saw with research on gay and lesbian identities, research on polyamory
generally denes it in terms of an essential, immutable, and innate identity. Research
on the innate aspect of polyamorous identity treats “coming out” as polyamorous as
parallel to the process of coming out as gay or lesbian (Weitzmanetal., 2010).
One area of research on polyamory that does not directly parallel research on
LGBT sexuality concerns the construction of new language. Queer psychologists
have argued that polysexual practices are associated with changes in language and
meanings. Whereas in monogamous relationships indelity is constructed as cheat-
ing and as causing jealousy, polyamorous relationships reshape these traditional
assumptions (Wosick-Correa, 2010). For instance in LondonPolyBis group, a
London UK online community for people interested in polyamorous relationships,
new words like “wibbly”(which refers to feelings of anxiety about a partner’s other
relationships) emerge that reshape feelings of insecurity about a partner’s other rela-
tionships(Ritchie & Barker, 2006). New terms for emotions reshape relationship
norms and their boundaries. Emotions seen as aversive, like jealousy, become
reconceptualized into care and need for attention (Ritchie & Barker,2005, 2006).
Whereas there is clear radical queer potential in polyamory it can also be cri-
tiqued, when framed within a neoliberal logic. For instance, Eleanor Wilkinson
(2010) argued that current discourses on polyamory frame it as a reection on an
inner authentic self that focuses on self-improvement and pleasure maximization.
As such, polyamory is constructed as the most advanced form of love. But the poli-
tics of polyamory focus on legitimizing (only) polyamory, rather than committing
to protecting other non-polyamorous people who also exist outside of the nuclear
family. Such a politics sustains the growing inequalities rather than dismantling the
social structures that privilege some over others. A more deeply queer approach to
polyamory would reject the privileging of romantic love or alliances based in sex
and seek utopian kinship systems in which human relationships and communities
are centered, not just sex (see Wilkinson, 2010).
Critiquing Hierarchies ofSexualities
Among researchers and the general public there is increasing acceptance of asexual-
ity as a distinct type of sexual orientation, and the emergence of asexuality has led
to disruptions and shifts in understandings of sexuality more broadly. Although
there is no single agreed-upon denition for asexuality, scholars frequently cite a
lack of sexual attraction, interest, or desire (Bogaert, 2006; Brotto etal., 2010;
Prause & Graham, 2007). Some experts argue that the denition should involve
other factors, such as one’s sexual behavior, number of sexual partnerships (Prause
& Graham, 2007), and self-identication as asexual (Brotto etal., 2010). Regardless
of the specic traits involved, most research afrms asexuality as a type of sexual
orientation (Brotto etal., 2010), though not an exclusive one (i.e., there are homo-
sexual, heterosexual, and bisexual asexuals).
As we have seen with research on other emerging sexualities such as BDSM and
polyamory, some research studies on asexuality aim to legitimize this form of sexu-
ality. Some of these studies focus on the prevalence of asexuality. For instance,
demographic studies estimate that 1% or more of the population meet criteria for
asexuality (Bogaert, 2004; Poston & Baumle, 2010). Other legitimizing research on
asexuality aims to de-pathologize it (Rothblum etal., 2019). In a highly sexual cul-
ture, asexuals have often been pathologized for not conforming to the sexual norms
of society (Gressgård, 2013; Rothblum, 1994). Within clinical settings and in the
media, asexuality is often viewed as being synonymous with a disorder of sexual
desire/attraction, such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder (Brotto & Yule, 2011).
Although both phenomena involve a lack of sexual attraction, many scholars have
rejected the notion that asexuality is a disorder (Bogaert, 2006; Brotto & Yule, 2017;
Gressgård, 2013). In fact, there is an abundance of literature aimed at empirically
distinguishing asexuality from disorders of sexual desire, as well as outlining theo-
retical models of sexuality that legitimize asexual orientations (Brotto & Yule, 2017).
Lori Brotto and colleagues provided valuable data differentiating asexuality
from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD; Brotto etal., 2010). Their assess-
ment revealed that asexuals generally cite less sexual desire and arousal than women
with HSDD and typically do not feel distressed by their sexual orientation. Prause
and Graham’s (2007) analysis of undergraduate college students supported the
claim that asexuals are not distressed by their lack of sexual desire. As distress is
necessary to be diagnosed with HSDD (and asexual people typically do not experi-
ence distress about their sexuality), Brotto and colleagues (2010) assert that asexual
people differ signicantly from those with HSDD.Furthermore, they claim that
individuals with HSDD do experience (some) sexual attraction, while asexuals gen-
erally do not (Brotto etal., 2010). It is important to note that for Brotto etal.’s
(2010) study, participants were recruited from an internet community designed for
asexual people. Such communities may offer support and guidance to members
regarding their sexual identication, allowing a reduction in distress (Gazzola &
Morrison, 2012). Asexuals who do not belong to communities like this may not
have access to the same resources for managing their distress, and thus Brotto etal.’s
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
ndings could underestimate how much distress asexual individuals experience
(Gazzola & Morrison, 2012).
Anthony Bogaert (2006) made further distinctions between asexuality and disor-
ders of sexual desire. He proposed that asexuality is a lifelong experience, while
HSDD often is not (Bogaert, 2006). Moreover, Bogaert (2006) argued that charac-
terizing asexuality as a disorder (such as HSDD) pathologizes asexuals’ experi-
ences and unnecessarily exposes them to stigmatization. Adding to this discourse,
CJ Chasin (2015) asserted that asexuality and HSDD differ markedly in their his-
tory and purpose. As part of a discussion comparing asexuality with a disorder of
sexual desire, Chasin stated: “asexuality was created by and for people building a
community about shared experience. Meanwhile, HSDD was constructed by clini-
cians and pharmaceutical companies working, for prot, to delineate and cure a
problem” (2015, p.173). Asexuals themselves generally reject the notion that their
lack of sexual desire is a symptom of HSDD (Brotto etal., 2010), indicating the
need to avoid false comparisons between HSDD and asexuality. Despite these
important steps toward depathologizing asexuality, “the cultural context is still
such… that new sexual orientations [such as asexuality] are classied as perver-
sions or illnesses by the medical establishment” (Cowan & LeBlanc, 2018, p.32).
Research on asexuality also aligns with past queer research on sexuality in that it
examines how the formation of this new category disrupts binaries of sex, gender,
and sexuality. More specically, research on asexuality highlights the ways in which
asexuality has existed and been constructed differently across different historical
moments. Research by Esther Rothblum and Kathleen Brehony examining the lives
of lesbians who have been part of a “Boston Marriage” (an intimate and committed
relationship between women who do not engage in genital contact) suggests the
ways in which these women may disrupt the meaning of sex (Rothblum & Brehony,
1993). Many of the women interviewed for this study rejected the notion that sex is
based on genital contact. Furthermore, they disrupted the notion that intimacy and
sexual closeness in a relationship were connected. Finally, new sexual categories
like asexuality or polysexuality work to disrupt the binary between friendship and
sexual romantic relationships. Instead, they show the complexity of desire that may
be grounded in passionate intimacy with one or more partners (Rothblum &
Brehony, 1993).
An Integrative Psychological Theory
The complexity of emerging sexual categories has led psychologists to produce new
models of sexuality. One such integrative psychological theory, that draws together
some of the themes from this chapter, is Sexual Congurations Theory (SCT),
developed by Sari van Anders (2015). Van Anders developed this theory in order to
better account for the full range of sexual diversity that is present in actual people’s
lives, to allow space for novel sexual expressions that might emerge in the future,
and to decenter heteronormative practices and narratives. The theory proposes that
An Integrative Psychological Theory
sexuality is multidimensional and that everyone has a sexual “conguration” that
describes their location along multiple different dimensions. Some aspects of the
theory echo previous work concerning sexuality. For example, SCT notes that there
is a difference between sexual orientation (one’s interests, fantasies, attractions),
sexual identity (one’s community, politics, self-chosen label) and status (the behav-
iors one actually engages in), and these do not necessarily align (e.g., a man who has
sex with men but does not identify as gay). This dimension of sexuality has some
overlap with other classication systems such as the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid
(KSOG; Klein etal., 1985).
Sexual congurations theory is more novel in other ways. First, it allows for the
existence of two different domains: partnered sexuality and solitary sexuality. Van
Anders (2015) devoted most of her attention to developing an understanding of
partnered sexuality but it is not theoretically privileged over solitary sexuality.
Second, it theorizes multiple parameters that have individually been discussed by
others but have not previously been integrated. According to SCT, partnered sexual-
ity has four parameters: gender/sex sexuality, partner number sexuality, eroticism/
nurturance, and other aspects (what van Anders terms “sexual parametern”). The
rst parameter refers to how people’s sexuality is congured in terms of the gender/
sex that one is attracted to, partners with, etc. For example one could be attracted to
men, to women, or to people whose gender does not fall within the gender binary.
The second parameter of sexual congurations theory focuses on the number of
sexual partners one prefers. This parameter includes how many partners one is inter-
ested in having (orientation) and how many one currently has (status). The third
parameter involves eroticism (lust) and nurturance (attachment, emotional close-
ness). Although the two constructs are often considered to be opposites, SCT allows
for the possibility that someone can feel high levels of both and/or that levels of
eroticism and nurturance can be contextual (different in different relationships), or
uid. The last parameter of SCT allows for the possibility that people’s sexuality
can have other organizing principles. Some features specically mentioned by van
Anders include the age of one’s preferred partners, consent, power/force, and
One of the strengths of sexual congurations theory is that it is complex enough
to match the complexity and diversity that is seen in actual people’s lives. Another
is that it attempts to move away from the judgmental hierarchy decried by Rubin
(1984) to center marginalized sexual congurations. It acknowledges the impor-
tance of an intersectional understanding and can be used to model specic identities
such as asexual, pansexual, polyamorous, or butch/femme.
Sexual congurations theory also relates to the queer theory themes that we
highlighted in this chapter. We began the chapter with a quote from Eve Sedgwick,
who pointed out that the specics of people’s sexual attractions go far beyond gen-
der or sex and further wondered why gender/sex is so privileged in our understand-
ing of sexual orientation. A similar puzzlement was one of the chief motivators of
the development of SCT, which includes gender/sex as a key (and well-analyzed)
parameter, but which adds number of partners as a specic additional parameter and
3 The Historically Contingent, Culturally Specic, and Contested Nature of Sexual…
also allows for the possibility of many additional ways in which desire and attrac-
tion could be organized.
The rst important queer theme that we discussed is that sexuality is historically
constructed and uid. We also outlined the ways in which psychological research on
sexuality has changed over time. As she described SCT, van Anders (2015) explic-
itly acknowledged the fact that sexualities are situated within a sociohistorical con-
text. One of the reasons that she included the “other” parameter in SCT was to allow
the theory to grow over time to encompass new sexual identities or organizing prin-
ciples that might develop. Fluidity is not modeled specically as a parameter, but
van Anders acknowledged the fact that one’s sexual conguration can change over
time or uidly shift depending on context.
A second important theme we discussed was intersectionality– the assertion that
multiple identities converge and cannot be fully analyzed or understood in isolation.
Again, these other identities are not specically modeled as parameters in SCT, but
they are represented graphically as a connected “cloud” of factors and van Anders
explicitly articulated the crucial importance of considering other identities simulta-
neous to our consideration of sexual identities and orientations.
Finally, we discussed the role of a proliferation of sexualities in dismantling the
existing hierarchy of sexual practices and identities. We are aware of no other psy-
chological theories that integrate such a broad and diverse set of sexualities (and
conceptual understandings of sexuality)as does SCT; in some sense, describing,
categorizing, and modeling proliferation is the very raison d’etre of SCT.Van
Anders also stated that she felt that, by explicitly naming gender/sex sexuality as a
key– but not the only– parameter that makes up one’s sexual conguration, she was
both acknowledging the importance of gender/sex as an organizing principle but
also decentering it. In most theories it is the unacknowledged sole factor in sexual
preferences and desires, thus giving it place of privilege in the hierarchy. Instead,
SCT explicitly acknowledges it as just one factor. Moreover, by including partner
number sexuality as one of the key factors in a sexual conguration, polyamory and
asexuality are especially well explained and brought to the fore.
In the rst part of the chapter we argued that bringing together analytical tools from
queer theory and critical psychology is productive in explaining historical shifts in
the construction of same-sex desire, and sexuality in particular. Using tools from
these divergent elds we showed that as the gay and lesbian political movement
made gains, research questions by psychologists shifted to examine and frame
same-sex desire as an innate and immutable disposition (Morin, 1977). The minori-
tizing view on same-sex desire was effective in gaining public support for same-sex
marriage, in part because of research on the “gay gene”, that fortied the belief that
gays and lesbians were “born this way” (Herek, 2010).
Although there was political utility in framing same-sex attraction as based in
heritable traits, queer thinkers have refused this approach for several reasons. First,
because the political focus on marriage necessarily led to the strengthening of an
institution that further legitimizes the monogamous heterosexual couple and the
nuclear family (Cohen, 1999). The focus on marriage forties the position of the
couple and their children as the center of society (Duggan,2002). The nuclear fam-
ily receives legal and nancial privileges not given to alternative forms of kinships
(Cohen, 1997). Moreover, psychological research questions and studies that high-
light the innate and immutable nature of sexual desire do not align with the experi-
ences of many queer people who understand their sexuality as uid, in ux, and
context dependent (Diamond, 2008). From a queer perspective, the essentialization
of sexual identities into sexual orientations serves to foreclose the potential uid
and context specic understanding of identities (Balzer Carr etal., 2017; Calia,
2000; Weber, 2012). Instead we offered examples from increasingly important
research agendas; ones concerning the uidity of sexuality and people’s increased
understanding of sexuality as a space to be explored. A second reason that queer
thinkers have refused to frame same-sex attraction as based in heritable traits is
related to the inuence of constructivist and uid understandings of sexuality on
people’s support for political liberation for sexual minorities (Diamond, 2008;
Grzanka & Miles, 2016). These show the potential productive convergence of prin-
ciples from queer theory and psychological research onsame-sex attraction.
In the second part of the chapter, we argued that intersectional theory serves as
the ground on which psychological research and queer theory can meet. The resur-
gence in intersectional research in psychology shows that there are ways in which
sexual agency and sexual identities can be studied in a manner that does not concep-
tualize them as internal to the individual (Ben Hagai etal., 2020; Bowleg, 2012).
Intersectional theory rooted in Black feminist thought rejects the notion that identi-
ties are internal to the person and argues instead that they are shaped by interlocking
forms of oppression and privilege (see Overstreet etal., 2020). Processes of racism,
sexism, heteronormativity, and class oppression shape people’s sexual attraction,
behavior, and identity differently (Bowleg, 2008; Bowleg et al., 2013). For instance,
white and African American gays and lesbians may understand their sexuality dif-
ferently, using different kinds of language and labels, and form different kinds of
relationships with the LGBTQ community (Ben Hagai etal., 2020). Furthermore,
under neoliberal policies that state that there is “no society only individuals” and
frame individuals as prot maximizing entrepreneurs, choice making becomes the
most important capacity of people (Bay-Cheng etal., 2015; Duggan,2002). At the
same time, the increase in class inequalities under neoliberalism is related to the
various ways in which actors of different socio-economic classes experience their
sexual agency. Upper class individuals highlight their sexual agency as a form of
cultural capital that is valued, whereas working class individuals’ sexuality, because
of class exploitations and racism, is more threa