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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10.2 (2004) 215-220
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The Categories Themselves
This forum seeks to consider the relationship between sexuality and gender. Still, for me, there is a question that needs to be asked before we can explore that relationship: among those human experiences in which we are interested, which count as "gendered" and which as "sexual"? Or, more simply, what exactly do we mean by "sexuality" and "gender"? Putting these terms in quotation marks highlights the fact that "gender" and "sexuality" are themselves categories that hold certain meanings. Like those of other categories, these meanings can shift, are historically produced, and are drawn on in particular social contexts.
In short, to ask about the relationship between "gender" and "sexuality" requires that we conceptualize them as distinct in the first place. In contemporary social theory, "gender" and "sexuality" are (like all categories) heuristics that generally and respectively describe the social meanings by which we figure out who is masculine and who is feminine and what those gendered bodies do with [End Page 215] one another or feel about one another in a realm we call sex. Yet it is clear that these broad understandings are complicated by the ways that "gender" is inflected by our understandings of "sexuality," and vice versa. Hence this forum.
Asking about the relationship between "gender" and "sexuality," then, presents us with a dilemma: the question requires us to understand them simultaneously as discrete categories even as we recognize the interpenetration of experiences expressed through them. To return to the concern of my opening questions: how is it that, despite this dilemma, certain meanings have cohered around "gender" and certain ones around "sexuality"?
The separation of "gender" and "sexuality" has several, interrelated roots in recent history. In How Sex Changed Joanne Meyerowitz makes a convincing argument for the role of discourses and practices in the development of transsexuality in the United States as sources of the separation of biological sex, gender, and sexuality.1 Drawing on late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century European sexologists, U.S. doctors and researchers used the concepts of gender and sexuality to mark a difference between same-sex desire in gender-normative people (what we understand as homosexuality) and the desire to transition to another gender because of a deep sense of gender identity at odds with that ascribed at birth (what we understand as transsexuality). Meyerowitz notes that this schema was strengthened at least in part by those who desired new surgical possibilities for transforming their bodies and selves by denying not only homosexual desire (i.e., desire for people with similar embodiments prior to surgery) but sexual desire in general. Asexuality was, indeed, a primary criterion by which transsexual people were allocated a place in university-based gender identity clinics for sex reassignment surgery. The desire of gender-normative homosexual men and women not to have surgery, or their insistence that their core gender identity was in accord with their ascribed gender, further elaborated this model.
In feminist scholarship, too, the distinction between "gender" and "sexuality" has had a vital place. In the context of the "sex wars" of the 1980s, the separation of "sexuality" from "gender" was an essential part of a liberalizing move to recognize that oppressions do not apply evenly through the gendered categories of "woman" and "man" and that the separation of gender and sexuality as analytic categories enabled a more nuanced (and potentially liberatory) mode for understanding sexuality as something more than simply a tool of oppression.2 Likewise, in mainstream gay and lesbian activism, the assertion of homosexual identification without the implication of gender-variant behavior has been essential to the gains of accommodationist groups seeking civil rights protections in the past thirty years. [End Page 216]
What I have outlined so far is self-evident to contemporary social analysts, as is the recognition that gender and sexuality are inflected by other kinds of social differences: race, class, national origin, and age, to mention a few. However, what I am after here is a deeper observation...