The Mainstreaming of Lesbian and Gay Studies?

Peter M Nardi. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Lesbian and gay studies, as well as its more recent variations in queer studies with its emphasis on theorizing and textual analyses, presents a relief from the invisibility of gays and lesbians in a variety of academic disciplines. However, this chapter argues that only a small portion of the research is evident in the core sociology textbooks and research literature. And when it is, the topics, issues, and underlying perspectives tend to focus on gays and lesbians in a fairly conventional way, one often absent of any threat that the social, political, sexual, or moral order will become transformed. While it is important to discuss the everyday lives of gay men and lesbians in order to counteract the stereotypes that exist in many societies today, the tendency to do so results in depictions that often normalize and minimize the complexities of living as gay or lesbian in heterosexually-oriented social worlds. This kind of mainstreaming of gay and lesbian issues involves decontextualizing experiences, that is, failing to provide an analysis of the larger cultural contexts that perpetuate the inequalities that gays and lesbian face. It also occurs through a process of desexualization in which topics about sexuality are usually avoided or discussed only in the most general of terms.

Most theory books continue to overlook queer theory, many social movement books ignore the gay liberation history, the interpersonal relationship literature typically forgets to include gay and lesbian relationships, and discussions of urban growth give scant attention to gay neighborhoods and communities. We are not typically part of the larger sociological landscape; we are off in our own worlds as if we existed on a separate plane, unrelated to the social contexts that affect everyday life. And when gay and lesbian topics do appear in the sociological literature, they rarely include issues related directly to sexuality, unless it is about AIDS. The topics show up here and there, desexualized, and scattered throughout a few chapters of the ‘introductory sociology’ textbook, making a token appearance, without any sense of how gay and lesbian lives contest and potentially transform the social order.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Some time ago Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer (1994: 178) made the case that gay and lesbian issues ‘inhabit the margins of the discipline’; they called on sociologists to rethink social issues (for example, stratification) and to reread the sociological classics in light of what is known from lesbian and gay studies about heterosexism, homophobia, and the construction of sexuality. Several years later, Plummer (1998b: 609) did not see much progress and succinctly observed that the tension between lesbian and gay studies and sociology remains a weak one; there exists ‘a sociological community that marginalizes lesbian and gay concerns; a lesbian and gay community that militates against the constructionism of most sociological analyses; a generationally based “queer studies” that favors cultural studies over sociological studies,’ as well as a bias toward a more white male perspective.

However, change has occurred and gay and lesbian topics have been achieving more attention in the field in the past several years since these essays were first written. Yet there is a price for greater incorporation. Like the gay and lesbian characters who get added to today’s television dramas and situation comedies, there is a co-optation. What changes have occurred in the media are little more than assimilationist forms of incorporation in which the dominant culture accommodates the radical perspective into its view and robs ‘the radical of its voice and thus of its means of expressing its opposition’ (Fiske, 1987: 38). As a form of media, sociology textbooks, for example, exhibit an assimilationist tone when dealing, if they do at all, with gay and lesbian topics. Gays and lesbians become decontextualized and often desexualized not only in the entertainment media but also in the sociological literature.

This may sound overly critical of the work that has been done in the field, (and slighting the most recent research, including what is in this book) but that is not my intention. Like the struggle for civil rights for gay and lesbian people, mainstream strategies are adopted for practical purposes and are sometimes necessary in the earliest stages of liberation, but the long-term outcomes are much more limited. Urvashi Vaid, former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrote powerfully about the mainstreaming trend she was witnessing in gay politics. Consider her sociological insights on the pull between political expediency and cultural transformation:

A mainstream civil rights strategy cannot deliver genuine freedom or full equality for one fundamental reason: the goal of winning mainstream tolerance … differs from the goal of winning liberation or changing social institutions in lasting, long-term ways … How the pursuit of fundamental change mutates (and is mutated) into the more limited goal of tolerance or mainstream integration is a story common to many historic movements that have threatened the status quo. In many ways, the triumph of mainstream civil rights over liberation is the victory of pragmatic politics over moral politics … We must supplement the limited politics of civil rights with a broader and more inclusive commitment to cultural transformation … [C]ivil rights can be won without displacing the moral and sexual hierarchy that enforces antigay stigmatization … [G]ay mainstreaming will remain partial and provisional until the underlying religious, moral, and cultural prejudices … are transformed … Our movement must strive beyond … mainstreaming ourselves into the center to transforming the mainstream. (1995: 3-4, 179, 180)

I argue that this is the challenge of academic research as well. How can gay/lesbian and queer studies transform the mainstream rather than become assimilated by it? While striving to achieve visibility within sociology, for example, we struggle to get our work read, acknowledged, and developed by those who are not already familiar with the work. Yet we need to be attentive to the myriad ways the appropriation of that work can result in its decontextualization and desexualization, resulting in minimal transformation of the discipline. Trying to become mainstreamed into the canons of sociology may be a short-term objective, but in the long term, mainstream sociology continues untouched.

For years, many activists worked to alter the images of gays and lesbians in the entertainment media, in books and newspapers, in political and legal arenas (Nardi, 1997). Some of these gay and lesbian leaders fight for respectability in the magazine articles, up-scale talk and news shows, and in the power triangle of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, by arguing for assimilation in the most mainstream of institutions – the three M’s of marriage, the military, and the media. In 2000, the court battles for equal treatment in the Boy Scouts, the Emmy Award for best comedy going to Will and Grace (a television show about two gay male characters and their two heterosexual female friends), and the fact that the gay sexual orientation of the winner of the television contest Survivor was generally ignored, all illustrate how gays and lesbians are ‘becoming ordinary,’ as Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen (2000: 82) wrote. In addition, controversial books by Michelangelo Signorile (1997), Andrew Sullivan (1996), and Gabriel Rotello (1997) push their mainstream, white, middle-class agenda of achieving places at the table through respectable tactics, traditional family values, and monogamous sex in committed relationships.

The battle lines between the so-called ‘assimilationists’ and the ‘activists’ are not newly drawn. The debates over strategies have been around since the earliest homophile movements in the 1950s with the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other organizations working to achieve equal rights for those who are different (see D’Emilio, 1983). The arguments invariably center on whether we are just like everyone else, except who we sleep with, or if we are indeed on the margins: the center versus the margin, the normative versus the deviant, the straight versus the queer, assimilation versus transformation.

If over forty years of research about homosexuality tell us anything, it is that generalizations about entire categories of people who organize their lives around various sexual orientations cannot be adequately made. Some of us lead mainstream lives; others of us lead transgressive ones, often linked to variations in race and social class. The lesson from the postmodern and queer theorists is that the variations are often the answer, not just the similarities. We are just like everyone else, and we are not like anyone else. We are centering in the mainstream, and we are contesting on the margins. There is not ahomosexuality, but homosexualities.

Uncovering this diversity without losing the power to transform critical thought and sociological insights becomes the challenge, then, of gay/lesbian studies. Queer studies has provided us with many ideas, language, and conceptualizations needed to take what has traditionally been seen as studies of gay men and lesbians into areas that go beyond the reification of binary categories of sexual orientation, as Steven Seidman (1996) has argued. If we follow this perspective, we may become less likely to simply reinforce the mainstream with problematic empirical surveys of our buying power and tastes. But we cannot always effectively control the discourse or set the agenda.

Take the issue of same-sex marriage. Starting with mainstream questions leads to investigating how same-sex marriage can work in similar ways as for heterosexual couples. As demonstrated below, this approach is exactly what many introductory sociology textbooks do. What is happening, Vaid (1995: 179) said, is that the goal to liberate ‘is now phrased as the modest right to live without discrimination based on homosexual orientation. And the feminist critique of family and gender roles, which was at the heart of gay and lesbian liberation, has turned into our wholesale reproduction of family in gay and lesbian drag.’

On the other hand, if we begin with the queer studies questions, we could investigate the ways lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people already in their quotidian routines contest the very boundaries of such institutions as marriage and recreate differently structured ways of organizing romantic, sexual, and friendship relationships (Nardi, 1999). In so doing, the work could contribute to the mainstream literature on ‘marriage and family’ and simultaneously challenge and transform its very premises and findings.

When gays and lesbians argue about their right to marry, it ends up reinforcing marriage as an institution and recreating a class system of the marrieds and non-marrieds (see Warner, 1999). If gays and lesbians were to argue instead about the institution itself by providing models of alternative forms of sexual, familial, romantic, and friendship relationships, could not this open up the broader culture to a potentially greater level of acceptability of diversity than trying to fit gay and lesbian relationships into some Procrustean marriage bed? 

A Sociology of Sexualities

Not only do some gay and lesbian spokes-people reinforce the mainstream in making the case for equal rights, but sociology research and writing clearly present gay and lesbian issues from a mainstream perspective as well, if they consider it all. Nearly eight years after Stein and Plummer (1994) called on sociology to rethink the field in light of heterosexism and homophobia, and after almost as many years of gay and lesbian activists, like Vaid (1995), exhorting gay and lesbian leaders to transform the mainstream, there is little evidence that gay and lesbian studies challenges the status quo or that sociology has considered the insights of gay and lesbian studies.

Consider the introductory sociology textbook. Struggling for any recognition has been a project, just as gay/lesbian groups fought to get some non-stereotypical and fair acknowledgement in the media. We remain invisible in many textbooks, while, in others, we are made to look just like anyone else in the marriage chapter, in the sexualities chapter, maybe in the gender chapter, at least no longer as an example in the deviance one along with drug addicts, murderers, and rapists. In a convenience sample of seven introductory sociology textbooks currently sitting on my office shelf (and I have no reason to believe these are in any way atypical of what was published by some of the largest publishers in 1998, 1999, and 2000), the minimal impact on sociology of over forty years of social science research about gays and lesbians is evident. And what little is presented only demonstrates the mainstreaming of the topics. Very little of what is published is used to challenge the hegemonic structures of contemporary societies.

In Rodney Stark’s (1998) seventh edition of his introductory book, not a single gay or lesbian topic is included in any chapter. The social movements chapter makes no mention of one of the most sustained and important organized series of attempts to reform public laws and policies to include equal rights for gays and lesbians. The chapters on gender, politics, religion, family, and urbanization totally ignore gay and lesbian concerns. At the other end of the continuum are textbooks by Anthony Giddens and Mitchell Duneier (2000) and Barbara Marliene Scott and Mary Ann Schwartz (2000), both of which include many examples, photos, and extended discussions on gay and lesbian issues. The former especially provides the best coverage with its many cross-cultural examples and definitions of homosexuality, a discussion of gay parenting and romantic relationships, and information about the biological and genetic debates about sexuality. The Scott and Schwartz textbook presents information on hate crimes and homophobia, social activism, gays in the military issues, and lesbian and gay families.

The remaining four texts give only token mentions of gay issues: Thio (2000), Ward and Stone (1998), and Thompson and Hickey (1999) mostly focus on gay parenting, marriage, and family topics (and two of them bringing up the ethical dilemmas of Laud Humphrey’s [1975] infamous Tearoom Trade study), and Ferrante (2000) barely discuss anything but HIV/AIDS. In almost all of these cases, the coverage is decidedly mainstream, for example, by focusing on how gay men’s and lesbians’ relationships are really not that much different from heterosexuals’ romantic and marriage alliances. Here is Thio (2000: 294) describing gay and lesbian ‘marriages’: ‘Like heterosexuals, most gay men and lesbians want to get married when they are in love. Though denied the legal right to marry, they tie the knot in about the same way as their heterosexual counterparts.’ No evidence is provided showing that ‘most’ gay men and lesbians want to get married in the ‘same way’ when in love. And almost nothing is given in this or the other textbooks about how domestic partnerships are barely recognized in most states and corporations, resulting in unequal work benefits, lack of visitation rights for the hospitalized, the absence of inheritance rights for partners, and the numerous other forms of discrimination that accrue to what the textbooks benignly call ‘gay marriage’ and blindly assume to be an almost equivalent alternative to heterosexual relationships.

Furthermore, virtually none of these textbooks focuses on the lack of federal and state protections against job and housing discrimination that continue to exist based on sexual orientation; the rise in hate crimes against gays and lesbians; the development of gay urban communities; the power of gay, lesbian, transgendered politics and social movements; and the diversity of sexual and friendship relationships. Nothing is presented in chapters on religion, work, socialization, culture, media, race/ethnicity, and aging. Queer theory is absent from the theory sections and the only reference in the methodology sections is about the dilemmas faced by Humphreys (1975) in his thirty-year old study on sex in public places. It is as if gay men and lesbians do not exist in any cultural context but rather live in one that is far away on the margins. Gay and lesbian topics, when presented at all, are limited primarily to chapters on gender and sexuality and family.

There continues to be the need to gain entry into the core sociological literature, but to sit back and accept these minimal crumbs of mainstream recognition is too short term a reaction. The question facing gay and lesbian and queer studies is how to transform that literature as well. It will not begin to happen until we are willing to risk studying a topic that seems to be avoided at all costs, namely, sexuality. When sex is discussed in these textbooks it seems to be only in terms of Humphreys’ research, the debate on the genetic or biological origins of sexual orientation, or on the transmission of HIV. Issues about the everyday sexual lives of gay men and lesbians, including such topics as sexual partners, sexual identity, and sexual practices, remain mostly invisible.

Mainstreaming typically means studying the ways gays and lesbians are like everyone else—that is, studying everything but sexuality. This is somewhat ironic given the stereotypes of the highly sexualized gay male or portrayals as pedophiles and molesters. Although the rhetoric of those opposed to equality for gays and lesbians focuses on deviant sexuality, the research, writing, and public images created by both gay leaders and the academic world in their attempts to mainstream our lives tend to avoid any in-depth discussion of sexuality. But it is in the area of sexuality that the battle lines have been drawn. Some argue that if we study or talk mostly about the non-sexual aspects of gays’ and lesbians’ lives, we might be able to enter the academic and public mainstream. Or so the argument goes. I would instead proffer that the challenges facing gay/lesbian/queer studies in sociology revolve around how we take on the intellectual project of understanding human sexuality and using this knowledge to redirect the sociological imagination. Again Vaid (1995: 192) phrased it succinctly:

Gay and lesbian sexuality remains the biggest obstacle to our full acceptance as human beings by the dominant heterosexual culture. We are hated because of how, with whom, and how much (mythic or real) we do it. To win against the right wing, we have to fight back on the sexual battleground, not run away from it. And to do this, we have to figure out how to talk in mixed company—heterosexual as well as across gender lines—about what sex means to us, about our sexual ethics and sexual morality, about our views on sexual promiscuity, and about our sexual secrets.

Vaid argues that no legal and legislative arguments have been successful that rely on the assertion of the normality of same-sex sexuality. Behavior-based arguments fail; status-based ones (especially in terms of minority status) tend to succeed. Vaid (1995: 193) says: ‘The heterosexual norm reacts to us as if every act of homosexual sex were an act of terrorism against heterosexuality.’ And it is, she claims. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people threaten the myth of universal heterosexuality, disrupt the sexist order that women exist to give pleasure to men, liberate the powerful force of sexual desire, and expose a limit to the power of the state and church. And what better examples are there of how the sociological imagination can effectively be refocused than with such topics?

Sexuality and Gay/Lesbian Politics

This absence of discussion on sexuality in sociology is not limited to academic writing. A few years ago some activists organized to counteract what they perceived was a growing anti-sexuality movement by some more assimilationist gay men and lesbians who pushed for a new ecology of relationships by seeking acceptance in the mainstream (Warner, 1999). Let’s not air our dirty laundry in public; let’s not talk about what we actually do in bed, they say. This desexualization of gay lives is not unique to the entertainment media or sociologists.

Evidence suggests an internecine culture war, one in which some gays encourage a moving away from issues of sexuality and exhibit an increasing concern with mainstream values and lifestyles, thereby exacerbating the inequalities that exist within gay and lesbian communities. A few years ago, Paul Horne and Sam Francis, two young white gay men, decided to launch Hero, a bimonthly magazine for gay men that does not include sexually explicit stories or advertisements, and one that emphasizes a pro-monogamy and pro-family outlook. In a New York Blade news story written by journalist Wayne Hoffman (1998: 21, 27), appearing in the 14 July 1998 edition, Horne is quoted as saying: ‘We’re not political, and we’re not making a statement. We’re just gay men who are constantly bombarded with sex, and we’ve just reached a saturation point personally.’ They want a magazine that is not ‘sex-centric’ although it will have sexy photographs. Hoffman wrote:

Hero is part of what some observers say is a blossoming trend in gay media, where editors decide to forego sexually explicit content and make their PG-rated content a central selling point. Several new publications have made similar decisions, both to shift the editorial focus and to attract more mainstream advertisers.

Shawn O’Shea, the editor of the San Francisco biweekly Spectrum, was also quoted in the same article: ‘We all felt a little uncomfortable selling advertisements that we knew to be blatant prostitution, I’ve got friends who are prostitutes and I don’t put them down, but we want to be read by everybody, including children and families.’ He is moving toward eliminating the sex ads, but replied that, ‘It doesn’t mean we’re against sex. We just believe there’s a proper time and place for everything. People don’t put down Time or Newsweek for not having sexually explicit stories or advertisements.’

Rick Hyman, president of Netsurf Communications similarly wants to eliminate explicit sexual content and ‘pornography’ from a proposed gay and lesbian website, partly to attract ‘mainstream advertisers, many of whom are uptight’ and partly for editorial reasons: ‘I think there’s a silent majority of gays and lesbians who are tired of the sex, or not interested, or just want to have different experiences… For so long, we were just identified as a culture that was sex-obsessed. Gay people are now ready to say, “We want you to know who we really are’” (quoted in Hoffman 1998: 27).

Notice the implied construction of gays and lesbians as ‘the other’—people uniquely obsessed about sexuality in comparison to heterosexuals, and the emergence of another marginal or ‘other’ category—but, this time within the so-called gay/lesbian community, resulting in a stratification of those who talk about sex and those who strive for mainstream respectability. Using words and phrases like ‘silent majority,’ ‘mainstream,’ ‘a proper time and place’; invoking ‘children and family’; and comparing the gay press to middle-of-the-road news weeklies, a new wave of young editors and web programmers are desexualizing the lives of gays and lesbians and replacing sex with images and stories that don’t scare the masses. Imagine the howls of protest if the same rhetoric came from the Republican Christian right. We are, after all, just like everyone else, as if the heterosexuals were somehow asexual creatures who don’t fixate on sex in their publications, movies, advertisements, and TV shows.

Certainly a latent (if not manifest) goal is to attract the advertisers who end up dictating what can be published and who sponsor many gay and lesbian organizations and events. What needs to be asked is who is developing the objectives and creating the impetus for our social movements—the advertisers or the activists? When Absolut Vodka sponsors so many gay and lesbian film festivals, organizational benefits, and gay pride marches, one wonders what the costs of mainstreaming really are. Are the goals to effect social change by questioning the hegemonic order or to provide potential gay and lesbian consumers for the products of capitalism? The arguments over the goals of the April 2000 Millennium March in Washington, DC, who was organizing the event, and what the effects of corporate sponsorship are, illustrate the divisions within the gay and lesbian communities about mainstreaming and commercialism (Gamson, 2000).

Creating a Sexuality Research Agenda

The mainstreaming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered media images, social movements, and sociology textbook topics is a reflection of what is happening in gay and lesbian and queer studies. After all, textbook authors and television drama writers depend on the research and knowledge that come from the studies many social scientists develop. But are those engaged in gay and lesbian research also desexualizing the field and avoiding questioning the larger structural issues? Are we also asking questions only within the limitations set by our ‘sponsors,’ that is, the journals, textbook publishers, students, funding agencies, and tenure committees? Are we also running away from a focus on sexuality, afraid to tackle questions that might scare away the ‘advertisers’ and challenge the dominant order?

I see few studies that focus directly on gay and lesbian sexuality that have not been written by activists or journalists; not many of these are by sociologists. Outside of the research devoted to understanding AIDS, the number of published articles and books that delve into how gay men and lesbians think about, talk about, and ‘do’ sex is rare in sociology. Much of the interesting work on sexuality has been produced by lesbians: Pat Califia, Susie Bright, JoAnn Loulan, Gayle Rubin and Carole Vance some of whom participated in conferences as far back as 1982, such as the ‘Towards a Politics of Sexuality’ one at Barnard College in New York. Journalist Doug Sadownick and activist/scholar Eric Rofes have written about gay men’s sexuality. But many of these writers are doing so outside the umbrella of sociology.

There have, of course, been some very influential sociological studies done on same-sex sexuality. One of the first studies was Laud Humphreys’ (1975) Tearoom Trade. Focusing on impersonal and anonymous sex in public toilets, the study remains controversial, but more so for its methodology than its findings, as illustrated in the sociology textbooks. We still refuse to talk about sex, even when the study is about sex, and would rather debate how the data were collected. That study was first published thirty years ago, but other than a collection of articles organized by anthropologist William Leap (1999) how much more do we really know today about how people engage in sex, public or private, let alone who is participating in public sex? Yet debates among various gay groups about public sex proceed without the benefit of data and sociological analyses.

Some other research by sociologists over the years had same-sex sex as its central topic, such as Wayne Wooden and Jay Parker’s (1982) research on sex between men in prisons and Wendy Chapkis’ (1997) study on women who perform erotic labor. John Gagnon and William Simon’s (1973) landmark book Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality has generated important research and concepts about scripting theory and sexuality. And Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz’s (1983) work provided one of the few empirical studies of how gay men and lesbians organize their sexual and romantic lives in comparison to heterosexual couples. It sometimes seems as if the biologists, or the literary culture crowd, or journalists have colonized the research and writing on sexuality. As Seidman (1996: 5) wrote in his history of sex studies in sociology, ‘Through the mid-century, sociologists had surprisingly little to say about sexuality … [Sociologists did not deploy their empirical techniques to study human sexuality.’ His review of the indexes of the two leading sociology journals up until the early 1960s uncovered only fourteen articles in each journal under the headings of ‘sex’ or ‘sexual behavior’ and most of these did not address issues of sexuality. And it’s only since 1998 that an academic journal, Sexualities, has had the shifting cultural and social nature of human sexuality as its primary mission (Plummer, 1998a).

Sociologists write about ‘doing’ gender and a lot has been produced about our social and political lives—and much of this work has been extremely important and necessary—but relatively little seems to be about sexuality, and certainly not in the way our sexuality contests heteronormativity and its assumptions about human sexuality. How ironic. Many would say that the only difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals is what people do and with whom in bed. Yet with the exception of the recent sex survey by Laumann et al. (1994) or the survey research from AIDS studies, we do not know much empirically about how gays and lesbians organize their sexual lives today and the subjectivity of diverse people engaging in same-sex sex. We are a culture that likes to talk about sex, usually in sophomoric ways through mass media gossip, but one that doesn’t want to know about sex, let alone same-sex sex.

Many erroneously conflate gender with sex, and get away from—or do not even include—any data that discuss sexual practices, desires, or constructions. Why are we so afraid to study sex? Has our wish to present gays and lesbians as more than people who are obsessed with sex affected the way we ask questions and conduct our research? This is somewhat understandable, given how frequently we are contained, harassed, and minimized by those trying to defeat us with simplistic and erroneous sexual information. Just look at the media attention to the problematic ‘reparative therapy’ that claims to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. But these attacks should only push us toward providing the empirical answers necessary to counteract the emotional diatribes and distortions about gay and lesbian lives.

Integrating Sexuality and Sociology

I raise these concerns—and overstate them to a degree—in order to call attention to the omission of sexuality from academic and activist writings and to challenge us to think creatively about how we can generate new research in sexuality that can also be brought into the sociology canon without losing its transgressive edge. Those doing work in gay and lesbian and queer studies need to overcome the resistance to studying sex and develop research strategies that contribute in important ways to understanding all forms of sexuality. But how the profession will greet such research is a powerful concern. We need to challenge the profession of sociology to take seriously one of the most basic of human behaviors and social acts, and to embrace the study of sexuality as a core topic and not some marginal specialty, and one that could saliently transform the mainstream canon.

Where, then, is there work to be done? While some research exists here and there on the following topics, few systematic, scholarly, research projects have made these a central concern:

  • How do young gay and lesbian people learn about sexual practices?
  • What is considered a sexual act in same-sex interactions and who defines it?
  • What is a fetish and how do gays and lesbians participate in various fetish subcultures?
  • What is a ‘type’ and how do gays and lesbians become sexually attracted to various kinds of people (blondes, butch/femme, hairy, tall, interracial)?
  • How do gays and lesbians of different races, religions, social classes, and ages, conceptualize various sexual acts (such as issues about penetration)?
  • How do we tease out the differences among same-sex sexual desire, behavior, identity?
  • What is the meaning for different gays and lesbians of various sexual practices, such as masturbation, anal intercourse, oral sex, and kissing?
  • How do we understand attractions between large age differences (old for young, young for old)?
  • What do we know about same-sex rape and sexual abuse?
  • How effective is reparative therapy—what do we know about ‘ex-gays’?
  • Who chooses sexual celibacy and why?
  • What do we know sociologically about gays and lesbians with high sex drives and those with low sex drives?
  • How are multiple partners (simultaneously and sequentially) dealt with?
  • How do gay and lesbian elders deal with their sexuality as it changes with age?
  • What do we know about impotency among gays and lesbians?
  • How much do we know about sex among same-sex friends?
  • What is the role of ‘fuck buddies’ in gays’ and lesbians’ lives?
  • How frequent is sex between lesbians and gay men?
  • Who is engaging in same-sex sex in public places and doing what?
  • What is the role of pornography for gays and lesbians?
  • How is the Internet being used for same-sex sex, cybersex in chat rooms as well as making dates, and viewing pornography?
  • What do we know about the role of ‘escorts’ and ‘masseurs’ and who answers the ads?
  • How much is known about street hustlers today and other forms of male prostitution and sex tourism?

Among all the valuable research on how gay men and lesbians organize their social, political, and psychological lives, these questions rarely are addressed in any depth. Although several such studies are underway and some scholars are developing these topics, especially outside of the United States, they generally do not constitute the central focus of today’s researchers. Rather, the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian research has led us to seek answers about fitting in to the existing organizational structures and institutions of society. Thus, to study what some argue is the unique aspect of gays and lesbians, namely how we ‘do’ sex, not only challenges the place at the table, but also raises questions about the table itself.

Researching same-sex sexuality has the potential to provide intriguing ideas about the complex social dimensions of sexuality for all people, not just gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, and to raise provocative insights that take us beyond a psychologizing and biologizing of human sexuality. It is a way of making us ask questions about the mainstream without selling our souls to become a part of it.