In LGBTQ history and the history of sexuality, we often talk about “theory.” In this week’s Discussion Boards, we’re going to explore exactly what we mean when we explore “theory” by looking, once again, at the work of Jeffrey Weeks as well as the ways in which theory is applied in our readings for Weeks 3 and 4 (Cleves, D’Emilio, Somerville, and Freedman).
So, what is “theory”? In its simplest terms, “theory” refers to the ways in which historians explain the causes of events or trends when we don’t have as much information as we need to define immediate or direct causes. In fact, in almost every case, historians either don’t have enough information, conflicting information, or conflicting interpretations of information that make it impossible to do without theory. In the case of LGBTQ history and the history of sexuality, theory helps us to answer questions about an aspect of people’s lives that is often concealed, unspoken or kept “private”—sexual desire and sexual practices. We also don’t have definitive information that tells us why specifically “lesbian,” “gay,” “bi,” “trans,” and “queer” identities emerged as features of the society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when we know that in the past—in virtually all times and places, though with different levels of permission and punishment—people have experienced gender transitions, and have had and expressed same-gender desire without using these terms.
Jeffrey Weeks puts forth several theories of how and why sexuality is “constructed,” or best explained by the way it is shaped by cultural and social forces rather than a simple fact of biology. One of those theories, “social and economic organization,” focuses on the ways in which labor systems and consumption shape sexuality, which is an idea we also see reflected in the essay by John D’Emilio on “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” In addition, Weeks argues that “social regulation”—regulation by educational, medical, and legal institutions and organizations, and even peer pressure and popular culture—plays a fundamental role in labeling certain sexual or gender expressions “deviant” or “normal.”
How can we apply Jeffrey Weeks’ theories about “social and economic organization” and “social regulation” to the readings in weeks three and four (Cleves, D’Emilio, Somerville, Freedman, Zane, and Woolner)? How did the social and economic organization of sexuality shape the emergence of LGBTQ communities? How did “social regulation” shape the ideas people had about themselves (their identities) as well as their experiences of stigma and shame or finding community and forging relationships?