Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology (long blog post #2)

Boellstorff, Tom. 2007. “Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol.36,pp.17-35.

On the Importance of a Name/ Intersectionality, Inclusion, and Difference

Work on the anthropology of sexuality is now often used in forms of queer politics the same was anthropology of women was used in forms of feminist politics years ago. There is no harder or better starting point for this discussion than the impossibility of naming the very subject of study this review addresses. The terms gay and lesbian are often used but many now feel the phrase omits the important categories of identity. This problem hits at the heart of intersectionality, inclusion, and difference and is not easily resolved by adding additional identities. For example in LGBTQIA:  Adding the “B” for bisexual only highlights the need for the “T” in transgendered, which leads to the importance of “I” for intersexes and so forth. The title of the article reflects the growing body of work known as Queer Studies. Many anthropologists do not like this term “because it reminds them strongly of homophobia and oppression.” Regardless of personal feelings the impact of Queer Studies on the study of gays and lesbians in anthropology is undeniable.

The question of sexuality and gender is a pivotal issue. For instance many universities have departments titles Women’s and Gender Studies. Here one particular and one general category are juxtaposed while assuming one does not favor the other. One rarely sees the department of Christian and Religious Studies or Latino and Ethic Studies. This points to the fact that there is something special about the approach to the study of gender and sexuality and an inability to fully fuse or separate the two subjects. Take for example race and gender. Scholars broadly accept that gender and race are perpetually entangled yet; there is also an understanding that it is acceptable to examine one without bringing up the other.  Anthropology could play a part in a logical and cultural untangling or fusion of gender and sexuality. For example the term Homo and Hetero are known to refer to same and different yet the terms Homosexual and Heterosexual need not necessarily refer to gender. One could imagine a cultural context in which Homosexual refers to desire of a Hindu for another Hindu regardless of gender. In the context Homosexual could refer to sexuality involving persons of the same race, age, and so on.

Anthropologies of Female Desire, Transgenderism, and Normatively

In the past most research in the terms of “Queer Anthropology” has been dominated by research on men, particularly gay men. This can be attributed to several reasons. The first the least likely is “lesbian invisibility.” The next reason is that women, world-wide, face barriers in accessing public or private spaces not controlled by men making research on female non-normative sex difficult. Lastly we must account for institutional context. Most study of female non-normative sex is conducted by females. As grad students they face pressure not to pursue this area of study because on the job market their work may be seen as “narrow.” Since 1993 there has been noticeable increase in female non-normative sexualities and transgenderism though not many transgender ethnographers. Work has begun in anthropology that asks how the notions of transgenderism and intersexuality trouble the male/female binary that remains dominant culturally and politically despite the poor biological foundation.  A critical study of normative heterosexuality has also grown out of critical sexuality studies in the form of research investigating romantic love, masculinity, and sexualized male-female relationships at home.

Globalization and Nation

In addition to self-identification and subjective meaning-making, anthropologists have started looking into the role of political and economic forces in the construction of sexuality. Unlike research of the past that discounted experiences of gays and lesbians outside of the west; new research addresses these experiences as legitimate and addresses the role of social factors like mass media and their effects of the cultural understanding of sexuality.  Since 1993 globalization has not lead to a decline of the nation-state making heterosexuality central to ideologies and practices of governance, nations now rework specific cultural contexts of sexuality to fit a foreign conception of sexuality.

Regional Studies

“When only one or two investigators have studied homosexuality or transgenderism in a particular region, it creates a situation in which the lone anthropologist becomes responsible for describing his/her people.” This provides a vantage point from which uncritical writings based on globalization and enables us to think about how gender and sexuality are experienced in particular locations.  Now Regional conferences like the 2005 AsiaPacifiQueer conference held in Thailand are more effective than “Global” conferences that usually focus on the U.S. and Europe. Some emerging regional literature comes from Southeast Asia which has examined the state of female sexuality and Latin America/Caribbean examining male-to-female transgenderism and class.

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