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Sex to Gender, Past to Present, Race to Class, Now to Future
Many times over the last few years, I have asked the questions raised by this forum about the place of sexuality and gender at this historical moment, about the complex relationship each has to the other, and about their complicated relationship to the future of queer, sexuality, and feminist studies. I have asked these questions not as an academic but as a public intellectual and an organizer around sexuality and gender, and it is from this perspective that I write.
Since I do so much public work focused on sexuality and gender, I am in a turbulent but intriguing relation to these issues. Having cross-examined issues of sexuality and gender as a biracial, poor white trash, high femme ex-hooker, I am known through my intellectual work and my writings about class and race, gender and erotic desires, as a working-class lesbian, both queer and intellectual.
When people come to hear me speak or to work with me, they often want to do two things: to speak about their intellectual understandings and the questions they bring to these issues in the academy, but also to reveal and examine their own personal lives—lives coiled around these identities and questions in dramatic, wrenching, exquisite ways. They are often struggling to understand how their thinking is enhanced by or runs counter to the ways in which they live out these issues in their gendered bodies and queerly illuminated fantasies and desires.
They come fiercely involved in the scholarly world of ideas, framed by concepts of gender and sexuality. But, if I am lucky, they also come eager or raw or defiant in some elemental way, asking how these ideas apply to their own survival as they move through the day-to-day material world. They always find me, these tired and stretched people, full of messy identities that refuse to fit neatly into existing frameworks, categories, scholarly programs, or activist movements. That is what intrigues and compels me, and what seems the most fragile and consequential to me, as I ask where we find ourselves now and where we are going with sexuality and gender studies and activism in the coming years.
Over the last three decades we have built an intellectual universe that never existed before, a new way of thinking about sexuality and gender as the foundational construct through which to understand and examine the world. It is [End Page 261] an amazing but unfinished accomplishment. The women's movement and feminism first used these categories to try to unravel an unseen, ostensibly "natural" world that structured gender and sex oppression. That was the first moment I heard gender questioned and sexuality intellectualized, and it was at that moment that the political power of sexuality and gender initially exploded, birthing new intellectual arenas and activisms. Then sex and gender were taken up in fresh ways by queering and sexing the questions and reframing many of the directions to be examined. In that early world, ethnic and race studies also asked questions about gender and sexuality that reframed many of the issues we now address. I will not retrace more of that history.
But these questions are directly related to that history, to the mistakes, absences, and misdirections as well as to what was done brilliantly. Our future is tied as much to what we have not done (or done suitably) as to the mere existence of gender, feminist, and sexuality studies. And it is here, at this point in time, that I am trying to understand how the current issues and agendas bode for our future. What, for example, will be the impact and meaning of the trans and intersex movements for the ongoing development of sex and gender studies? Why have queer, feminist, and sexuality studies generally stayed so white and middle class, when almost everyone decries the crippling impact and...