The Organization of Gender & Sexuality Across Time and Place

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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Gender and sexuality are located in time and place. While the two are not just one thing, never the same thing, and should never be conflated, they remain entangled and mutually constituted. These two points organize the essays collected in Historicising Gender and Sexuality, edited by Kevin P. Murphy and Jennifer M. Spear (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). Gender and sexuality are located and entangled.

It may well be impossible to talk about gender or sexuality without talking about both at the same time. This book takes up anew the question of the intersections between gender and sexuality, and many of the authors conclude that the constructions, practices, and experiences of gender and sexuality are significantly enmeshed and interrelated. Yet, the authors argue, it is only by trying to separate them and by refusing to subordinate one under the rubric of the other that they are able to engage in these explorations across eras, spaces, territories, and periods.

The essays here consider sixteenth-century New Spain, trans* activism in modern Miami, Chinese sexology and “homosexuality” in the twentieth century, free women of color and white men in the British Caribbean, American nudist magazines and clinical practices of intersexuality in the mid-1900s, the 1975 United Nations International Women’s Year Conference, and masculinity in modern and semi-colonial Egypt.

Throughout, the chapters direct us to reconsider the singular and the plural, the proximate and the distant, and the way relations between and among parts reconstitute the parts themselves. As the editors note in the Introduction, “these chapters demonstrate the particularities not just of specific formulations of gender and sexuality in different historical contexts, but also of the very nature of the relationship between the categories themselves.”

Xing. Sex and Human Nature: An emblem of the transnational flow of ideas about gender and sexuality in the twentieth century and historical specificities and contestation of cultural exchange within modern regimes of globalization.

Addressing intimacy, fertility, race, access and consent, systems of gender and sexuality, arrangements of globalization/localization/indigenization, contingency and transformation, translation and linguistic borrowing, science and medicine, regimes of patriarchy/heteronormativity/homonormativity, sex work, productivity, population control, and colonial and anti-colonial movements, the essays reach a consensus regarding the function of gender and sexuality in relation to other networks of power in a range of sites and contexts.

Gender and sexuality are dynamic systems for organizing embodiment. In examining the complex relation among gender expression, sexual presentation, sexual desire, how categories get mapped onto historical actors, how historical actors see themselves, what social meanings are available in different socio-historical contexts, the range of sexual object choice, and the variables in sexual act or role, the chapters articulate the specific collaborations that produce knowledge about the function of sexuality and gender in societies.

Most often, in the modern period especially, authorized conceptions of sexuality and gender are linked to the production of a healthy body politic, a regiment of healthy citizens, through medicalization and scientific justification. Most often, these conceptions link nationalism and patriotism to health and the ultimate goal of the heterosexual reproductive family. Even in earlier historical periods, conceptions of gender and sexuality circulated around images of fertility, productivity, and kinship in relation to community membership. Censorship, pathology, legalization, acceptance, and tolerance direct the flows of bodies toward conditioned citizenry and away from expressions of sexual or gender non-conformity and transgressive social arrangements, especially non-reproductive ones.

A White Heterosexual Reproductive Family: The healthy citizens of a healthy body politic.

What remains fascinating about this trans-historical, trans-cultural phenomenon is its reliance on the particular, the singular. At each stage, regimes adopt and adapt specific elements—not always the same elements and not always in the same ways—in order to instill reproductive normalcy. The foreign (from another time or place) serves to buffer (not batter) the domestic. Elements of failed traditions or exiled practices are imported again, repeatedly, to heal the ills of society.

In regard to this lesson from Historicising Gender and Sexuality, we might want to keep asking after the function of legalization and decriminalization and how they bring more bodies in line. How do new categories of intimacy, alternative kinship arrangements, and public participation in a society produce trans-historical and trans-cultural systems for the further organization of gender and sexuality across time and place? And, how do these new systems, ever dynamic, every respondent, commit us to practices of productive control and consumptive desire?

How to Tame Your Dragon (2010), a film of counter-narratives, counter-sexual practices, and crip chresis brought under control by two kisses and the promise of a (re)productive future.

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