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  • We’re Here and We’re Queer!”:An Introduction to Studies in Queer Anthropology
  • Michelle Walks, Guest Editor / Rédactrice invitée (bio)

There is no doubt that the use of the term queer will raise the hair on the back of people’s necks as well as some eyebrows. The word queer has a history of being derogatory and confrontational. Drawing on Graham (1998), Tom Boellstorff notes that, in fact, “many anthropologists and others do not like the term queer ‘because it reminds them so strongly of homophobia and oppression”’ (2007:18). Despite this history, queer has been reclaimed in an effort to bring people of non-normative genders and sexual practices and identities together. While the word has Anglo Euro-American origins, individuals and communities in a variety of countries worldwide embrace and identify with the term queer. This, of course, is not universal and the word remains problematic and still considered by many to be confrontational. In fact, the tensions and discomfort associated with the term are part of what some people appreciate in identifying with the term. That said, identities and practices change over time; it is quite likely that in the future a different term will be used to refer to the topic at the heart of this thematic issue.

Sexuality has served as an “intellectual concern of the anthropological tradition since the Age of Enlightenment” (Lyons and Lyons 2006:153; similarly noted by Boellstorff 2007:17), and yet the anthropological interest in studies of gender and sexuality have ebbed and flowed over the years. Moreover, as Kath Weston notes,

Before ethnographers could set out to remap the globe along the contours of transgendered practices and same-sex sexuality, homosexuality had to become a legitimate object of anthropological inquiry. One prerequisite was the redefinition of homosexuality from a matter of individual pathology (the medical model) to a cultural construct.

[Weston 1998:149]

The particulars of the focus on sexuality (or sexualities) and the theoretical interpretations applied to them have varied over time, in part due to the cultural changes surrounding the historical and geographic contexts of [End Page 13] the ethnographers, as well as their personal and professional interests. In addition, anthropologists have queried, defined and redefined “what counts” as same-sex relations and transgendered practices cross-culturally (Weston 1998; Boellstorff 2007; Lewin and Leap 1996).

The historical context has generally affected what has been considered sexuality, same-sex sexuality, third genders and transgendered behaviours and identities. Early anthropological studies of sexuality, up until about the mid-point of the 20th century, focused on Other cultures, which can mostly be categorized in one of two ways: either “veiled in ambiguity and as couched in [negative] judgment as were references to homosexuality in the dominant discourse” (Weston 1998:147), or as idealistic, playing into “the fictions of primitive promiscuity” (Lyons and Lyons 2006:153). This was followed by a disciplinary silence, from the 1940s through the late 1960s, with regard to studies of sexuality—possibly due to disciplinary effort to gain “scientific respectability” (Lyons and Lyons 2006:153). In turn, a reemergence occurred that saw a focus on sexuality studies both “at-home” and among Others, no doubt brought on by the sexual revolutions occurring within western societies. In each decade since the 1970s, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) anthropological research and publications have experienced exponential growth, while different topical foci have emerged.

Since the resurfacing of the anthropological study of diverse genders and sexualities, there have been three general and overlapping phases of LGBT/queer anthropological development: the late 1960s through the early 1990s, the late 1980s through the early 2000s, and the late 1990s until the present. In the first of these phases, anthropological work focused mainly on causes of homosexuality, same-sex practices among males and a few transgender/third gender practices and identities among those (western anthropologists have) deemed male. These included studies of so-called ritualized homosexuality among the Sambia of Eastern Papua New Guinea, Hijras of South Asia, Kathoeys of Thailand and Two Spirit individuals among various First Nations groups in North America (formerly referred to as berdaches). As with other anthropological research of the pre-postmodern time period...


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pp. 13-16
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