“LGB Studies” Is Gender Studies

4 min read

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) research topics have been the subject of papers and books since the nineteenth century. These topics cohered into the subject of classes by the 1970s, and eventually became an area of academic study by the 1990s when degrees in LGB studies began to be offered at universities. The earliest research on LGB topics focused on the pathology of same-gender sexual attractions and was thus the domain of the field of psychiatry; however, as LGB identities became more accepted and normalized in academia, LGB topics expanded into other domains such as history, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities.

In the absence of a department of LGB Studies — very few universities have one — a degree in LGB studies such as a minor or a certificate would have to be housed in an academic department. LGB studies could be at home in many places. For example, psychology would have been a perfectly reasonable academic home given research relevant to LGB studies concerning psychological topics such as identity, mental health, prejudice, etc. But where LGB studies has typically ended up, and where it truly belongs, is in gender studies departments.

In a paper recently published with my coauthor Russell Steiger, we found evidence that LGB studies is housed in gender studies in a number of different ways. First, over 20% of articles published in gender studies journals contain LGB content, far higher than any other discipline since the 1960s. Second, the vast majority (over 75%) of current LGB studies degrees are housed in gender studies or women’s studies programs, far more than any other program that is not already an independent LGBTQ+ studies program. Finally, simple Google searches under a university’s name plus “LGBT studies” often result in first hits that direct the searcher to gender studies programming, even in universities that offer no LGBT studies classes.

Why is it the case that LGB studies content is overwhelmingly folded into gender studies programs? Steiger and I predicted this outcome based on the theory that sexual orientation is fundamentally gendered in the eyes of the everyday perceiver. That is, people’s views of sexual orientation are intertwined with their views of how they expect men and women to behave. People who prefer women to be feminine also prefer them to pair sexually with men; people who prefer men to be masculine also prefer them to pair sexually with women. Steiger and I have argued that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals become distasteful to certain people not so much because of their sexual behaviors, but because they disrupt and challenge traditional meanings of what it means to be a man or woman.

One mission of gender studies programs, and more generally of feminist approaches to understanding our political and social world, is to analyze and challenge such traditional ideas about gender. For example, the first sentence of the description of the gender studies program at my home institution, New York University, is “At its core, the undergraduate program encourages students to question the meanings of ‘male’ and ‘female.’” Few social groups question these meanings more than LGB populations (transgender and non-binary people do so by definition). The study of LGB populations belongs in gender studies programs, and is an area of feminist concern, because of how these populations challenge traditional gender systems.

So if LGB studies is in your future — if you are someone who is seeking to learn more about lesbians, gays, and bisexuals and are seeking to improve social conditions for members of these groups — more than being a psychologist, a sociologist, a biologist, an anthropologist or historian, you will be, fundamentally, a feminist.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours