Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology

By Sharrow, Gregory | Western Folklore, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology


Sharrow, Gregory, Western Folklore


Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology. Edited by Ellen Lewin and William L. Leap. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pp. χ + 329, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. $44.95 cloth, $19.95 paper)

As a gay folklorist, I was eager to review Out in Theory because of my knowledge of gay and lesbian worlds, not as a formal researcher but as a participant. I have long been fascinated by culturally patterned communicative behavior in gay settings-from nonverbal coding in cruising areas to verbal dueling at dinner parties-and I was curious to explore the theoretical perspectives that anthropologists would bring to bear in scrutinizing the various dimensions of gay and lesbian experience. It was a fortunate impulse. Out in Theory is rich in provocative thinking, not only about homosexual cultures and alternative gender identities, but ultimately about the study of sexuality and gender themselves.

Out in Theory contains eleven essays which variously survey the course of twentieth-century research on sexual minorities, explore competing models for the study of alternative sexualities, probe the implications of the study of sexuality and gender in the context of such anthropological subfields as linguistics and archaeology, and chart the challenges of future research. The volume is a companion to Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (1996), also edited by Lewin and Leap. Out in Theory takes the work a step farther, presenting gay and lesbian anthropology as an emerging field of specialization, identifying its scope and subject matter and laying out its defining theoretical issues.

I use the phrase "gay and lesbian" advisedly because, as the writers in this volume assert, the explanatory power of these terms is linked to a particular place, moment, and politically-located idea that elucidates some experiences and obscures others. A central theme across the essays is in fact the need to scrutinize such fundamental organizing concepts as male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, gay and lesbian, and even such seemingly unproblematic categories as gender and sex. This level of scrutiny is necessary to ensure that anthropologists' analytical tools not distort or erase the range of experiences that they endeavor to see clearly.

Euro-American culture presumes the binary opposition of biologically determined male and female bodies and an exact correspondence between sex and gender. Because this mapping of sex and gender is believed to reflect an order that is "natural" and therefore absolute, everything outside the model is marked deviant. As our writers make clear, however, this assumption is a cultural artifact without currency everywhere in the world and without consistency across time even in the Euro-American sphere. …

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