January 29, 2024

Gender, Sexuality, and Social Exclusion

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

Recently politicians have continued attempts to police gender and sexuality through the passage of laws that seek to exclude and punish. It is important to consider why the attention to other people’s gender and sexual practices are part of public and political discourses, and why some people are the target of social exclusion.

For context: while laws attempting to limit transgender rights have dominated the last decade, criminalizing same-sex relationships is not by any means new, although new laws have been passed around the world in the past few years. Human Rights Watch maintains a list of criminal codes outlawing same-sex relations around the world dating back to the nineteenth century. Many laws criminalizing LGBTQ people were passed in the middle of the twentieth century. Why?

The historian John D’Emilio’s classic 1983 essay, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” provides answers to help us understand the timing of attempts to legally control gender and sexuality. Published in the anthology  Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, this piece has been reprinted many times over the past four decades and continues to offer insights into the connections between gender, sex, and social exclusion.

D’Emilio’s main argument is that modern-day capitalism, where people exchange their labor for wages, altered the connection between work, family, and survival. In agrarian settings, large families were needed for basic survival. As he describes, “the home was a workplace” where families were “an interdependent unit of production” (p. 103). From the production and preparation of food, managing livestock, cleaning, caring for children, and all other tasks of survival, the family unit was the central source of people’s basic needs.

Economically, it was impossible to survive outside of this setting. This arrangement meant that “sex was harnessed to production,” according to D’Emilio, as bearing many children was advantageous for survival (p. 104). This helped uphold narrow meanings of gender and sexuality, as the economic realities served as a scaffold of sorts, keeping people tied to this model of family life, and in turn, gender and sexuality.

This would change with urbanization and the free labor market, as home and family gradually—over a century or more—transitioned into the private sphere, separate from work. Today, those living in advanced economies typically depend on income from outside sources. Simply put: we have jobs or businesses that we exchange for our time to support ourselves economically. Rather than benefitting from large families to share farm labor, having kids is expensive--recent estimates put the cost at about $300,000 total—rather than being economically beneficial.

The growth of the wage labor market, particularly in the twentieth century in the U.S. meant that more people could live outside of the gendered family arrangement where sex was tied to procreation. D’Emilio notes, “As wage labor spread and production became socialized, then, it was possible to release sexuality from the ‘imperative’ to procreate” (p.104).

Economic survival is a central mechanism of social control. When the ability to survive economically changes, social control changes as well. Enter the attempt in the mid-twentieth century, most notably, to create laws that restrict newly forming LGBT identities, communities, and political movements.

D’Emilio argues that World War II was an important catalyst that altered social control of gender and sexuality. He states that the war “severely disrupted traditional patterns of gender relations and sexuality…it plucked millions of young men and women, whose sexual identities were just forming…and dropped them into sex-segregated situations....” (p. 106). Perhaps it’s not an accident that naval port cities became home some of the earliest gay communities in the U.S.

The backlash happened almost immediately, as the postwar Red Scare especially targeted LGBTQ individuals. Known as the Lavender Scare, many people working in government positions lost their jobs as “security risks.” Presumed to be easily targets of communists due to their alleged fear of being outed, the logic here was circular: LGBT people were considered vulnerable to blackmail because they could lose their jobs if their sexual orientation was discovered. But rather than strengthen workplace protections, and thus the threat of blackmail, the opposite happened.

Other forms of mid-twentieth social control included police raids, FBI surveillance, and even the postal service tracing letters (D’Emilio, p. 108). These actions highlight the fear produced by economic social changes, often cynically used to support measures of oppression during the Cold War era.

D’Emilio’s analysis of twentieth century economic changes can help us understand attempts to control gender and sexuality today. Since the essay’s publication 40 years ago, we have seen significant changes in both the gender order and LGBTQ rights in the U.S. Human Rights Watch notes that 34 countries now have legal same-sex marriage since the Netherlands passed legislation in 2000.

Just after the publication of this essay, sociologist Kristin Luker published Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (1986), for which she interviewed activists on both sides of the issue. She concludes that at the heart of controversies about abortion lie conflicted views about sex and the changing status of women. At a time when women’s social roles were expanding beyond mothering, the debate about abortion also comes to symbolize this shift. This issue has been at the heart of attempts to reinstate social control, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022.

Just as D’Emilio argued that advanced capitalism and the rise of the wage labor market altered the economic imperative of marriage and child bearing, it perhaps destabilized the meaning of gender itself. If basic survival is not dependent on any particular type of gendered family arrangements, then not only do families look different, but so too might people’s construction of gender identity. This has created a backlash and opportunity for moral panic that we have been seeing. When those that had been excluded from mainstream acceptance see barriers breaking down, others step in hoping to put them back up again.


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