- Editor’s Note
Recently the New York Times announced that “[a]bout 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as transgender, double a widely used previous statistic” (Hoffman 2016b). The journalist, Jan Hoffman, was reporting on a study released by researchers at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy (Flores et al. 2016).1 Just five years ago, the Williams Institute placed the number of transgender adults in the United States at 697,529, or 0.3 percent of the population (Gates 2011, 6). What happened in half a decade to account for such a jump—or to demand such a dramatic revision of the results of the previous study? Are practices of gender identification changing that rapidly? Was the category “transgender” redefined by the investigators? Or was some methodological failure at play? And why does it matter?
For one thing, the earlier study had to extrapolate from a smaller data set.2 For another, authors of the study suggest that “a perceived increase in visibility and social acceptance of transgender people may increase the number of individuals willing to identify as transgender on a government-administered survey” (Flores et al. 2016, 6). Maybe so. There are surely many other factors involved.3 But as the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has argued, “The persistent lack of data on transgender people’s lives from authoritative federal surveys is one of the greatest policy failures facing the trans movement today” (Tobin, Freedman-Gur-span, and Mottet 2015, 30). This is not to uncritically champion quantitative methods, nor to dismiss the very legitimate reasons that people have, historically and persistently, for seeking to evade various forms of government (and corporate) tracking. Disenfranchised populations may [End Page 9] be understandably suspicious of the veracity of such surveys or how they could be used. It is, however, to recognize that, for better or worse, access to illuminating data—as well as the invisibility and ignorance bolstered by its absence—is marshaled in contests over funding for social services and laws such as the disastrous Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act that took effect in North Carolina in 2016.4 “You don’t count in policy circles until someone counts you,” Gary J. Gates, an author of both studies, told the Times (Hoffman 2016b). And you don’t get counted unless someone authorized to count asks the right questions. Methods matter.
Public policy researchers are not the only ones grappling with questions of how to study LGBT populations, how to categorize us, and what to call those categories. The term “queer,” once bitter epithet but now proud sobriquet, appears at the current juncture to be flexibly broad enough for many of our purposes, but not granularly nuanced enough for others. Scholars across disciplines have long contested the applicability of established methods to study queer subjects, queer lives, and queer cultures. They called for new modes of studying sexual identities that would de-construct biologically determined categories of sex and gender. By devising social constructionist theories, researchers redefined the meanings of deviance. These seismic shifts emerged in large part in postwar sociology. Nearly a half century ago, Mary McIntosh insisted on new paradigms for thinking about sexual identity in her then-radical article “The Homosexual Role” (1968). A few years later, John Gagnon and William Simon broke similar ground in Sexual Conduct (1973), as did Ken Plummer in Sexual Stigma (1975), all just prior to publication of the first volume of philosopher Michel Foucault’s influential opus The History of Sexuality (1978).
Innovative sociological work in queer studies may have been overshadowed by parallel developments in other disciplines—primarily the queer theory turn, chiefly (but far from exclusively) in literary studies—when, in fact, the disciplines have a lot to learn from one another (Gamson and Moon 2004; Irvine 2003; Seidman 1993; Stein and Plummer 1994). Fortunately, as Matt Brim and Amin Ghaziani indicate in their introduction to this issue, a recent, remarkable boom in conferences and publications devoted to queer methods has invigorated both historical interest and interdisciplinary inquiry into how we study queerness (and sexual identity and culture broadly) across the humanities and...