188 What is LGBTQ+ Studies?

What is LGBTQ+ Studies?

Deborah Amory

LGBTQ+ Studies is the study of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, usually focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer people — hence the acronym, LGBTQ. In the 21st century, that collection of identities, histories and cultures has also expanded to include asexual, questioning, intersex, butch, femme, two-spirit peoples, cultures, and historieshence the “+” at the end of the acronym. The field relies on and benefits from interdisciplinary methods to arrive at new ideas and theories, and has always been closely aligned with different forms of political activism. This means that scholars in LGBTQ+ Studies might combine historical analysis with ideas from literary analysis in order to make sense of their own experience or the experiences of others with whom they have conducted fieldwork. Finally, the field is hard to categorize simply because it is always evolving, and always questioning the politics and poetics of its own practitioners. In fact, different names have marked different time periods in the field, from Gay and Lesbian Studies in the beginning, to the birth of Queer Theory in the 1990s, to what we are now calling LGBTQ+ Studies. However, it is fair to say that LGBTQ+ Studies is dedicated to the simple notion that discrimination against human sexual and gender diversity is wrong. Rather, gender and sexual diversity are to be valued and celebrated, but also critically analyzed and theorized, for everyone’s benefit.

LGBTQ+ Studies as a field of inquiry has grown out various liberation movements in the latter half of the 20th century in the United States, the U.K., and Canada. Indeed there is a long history of interdisciplinary academic fields emerging in response to activist movements and the accompanying demands to understand and legitimate the histories, literatures, and cultures of oppressed peoples. For example, in the U.S. the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s gave rise to Black Studies, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to Women’s Studies, or Gender Studies as it is now often known. As Solomon and Currah argue, “LGTBQ studies has its origins in the gay activism that marks its symbolic birth with the Stonewall uprising of 1969” (2003, p. 3). Key leaders in what was initially called Gay and Lesbian Studies were also active in lesbian, feminist, gay and trans liberation movements in the U.S. and U.K., including Esther Newton, Jeffrey Weeks, Larry Kramer, Jonathan Ned Katz (founder of Gay Academic Union), Leslie Feinberg, and others (Medhurst & Munt, xv; Weeks 2006; Solomon and Currah 2003; Stryker 2017).

At a very basic level, what was originally called the “gay liberation movement” gave birth to a new fieldGay and Lesbian Studies.  In this field, scholars developed new analyses and research methodologies to challenge the silences and erasure of lesbian and gay lives from history, art, politics, and public policy.  Activists and scholars sought to build new institutions, and transform old ones. Gay interest groups within academic professional organizations were founded, and archives such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives (1974) were established to safeguard histories, memorabilia, and literature that would documented lesbian experience.  Community centers were founded to provide social, psychological and material support for community members, and cultural institutions were established to ensure the creation and production of literature, music, and art. Olivia Records (1973) was founded by radical lesbian feminist members of the Washington D.C. collective the Furies and the Radicalesbians, and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was founded in 1976.

Another key component of our definition of LGBTQ+ Studies is a form of analysis which is called intersectional feminism, which emerged in the early 1980s as black lesbians critiqued racism within the white Women’s movement and sexism and homophobia in Black Studies. Radical women of color set about creating their own institutions and articulating their own critiques, including the Combahee River Collective in Boston and the Kitchen Table Press (1980).  The Combahee River Collective Statement is an important, early statement of intersectional feminism.  Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, as part of her work in Critical Race Theory.  The importance of this analysis has not diminished, as evidenced by Crenshaw’s 2016 Ted Talk, “The Urgency of Intersectionality”.

By the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS pandemic had started to decimate gay communities, creating a sense of fury and desperation among gays and lesbians and a growing mainstream backlash as well. Lesbian and gay activism took on increasingly radical approaches, perhaps best exemplified by ACT-UPthe AIDS Coalition to Unleash Powerand Queer Nation. These groups articulated a radical critique of straight culture, and revolutionary tactics to disrupt business as usual and to push the U.S. medical establishment to attend to the ravages of the disease. Within academic contexts, Queer Theory was born, perhaps most closely identified with the work of theorists like Michel Foucault, Judy Butler, and Eve Sedgwick (see Chapter 2, “Thirty Years of Queer Theory”). At the same time, in a synergistic relationship between activist movements, the academy, and new identities emerged, including trans* and queer. And somewhere along the way, the meanings of gender and sexuality became much more complicated.

While the story of LGBTQ Studies is a complicated and ongoing one, what is important to understand is that LGBTQ+ Studies emerged in relationship to historical and political forces hard at work in the late 20th century.  Moreover, we would like to emphasize that our definition of LGBTQ+ Studies is a broad and inclusive one. We rely on an intersectional feminist analysis to remind us that discrimination and oppression are not simple, unilinear forces. Rather, multiple interlocking systems of discriminationincluding racism, sexism, homophobia, and moreimpact all our lives in different and complex ways. Additionally, our goal in this textbook is to embrace the original impulse of queer theory to challenge and disrupt the conventions of straight, white, middle class America.  And we heed the call of trans* theory to think against the grain, and across traditional definitions of sexuality and gender. Finally, in the new millennium of the 21st century, we embrace and seek to empower the new non-binary gender identities and thinking, from genderqueer to genderfluid, agender, demigender.

From LGBTQ+ Studies: An Open Textbook by Deborah Amory. LicenseCC BY: Attribution



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