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Gender  
 
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Whereas women's studies and feminist theory generally focus on gender itself and analyze gendered social relations--as well as the ways socially imposed and regulated gender norms shape Western categories of thought by establishing a series of hierarchically ordered binarisms--lesbian, gay, and queer theory shift the focus to sexuality and use gender as an analytical tool in their explorations of modern conceptualizations of sexual identities.

Building on Foucault's work in The History of Sexuality (1978)--where he argued that sexuality is not a permanent, transhistorical human essence but rather a modern invention produced by discourse, or language systems such as religion, science, literature, and medicine--lesbian, gay, and queer theorists attempt to denaturalize the heterosexual matrix underlying Western cultures.

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The Influence of Foucault on Gender Theory

Although Foucault himself ignores gender almost entirely, his description of the shift that occurred in the late nineteenth century as sexual acts were reconceived to indicate distinct sexual identities has greatly influenced contemporary theory in several ways.

First, by positing the emergence of the homosexual and the heterosexual as distinct types of people, theorists can explore the interdependency between hetero- and homosexuality.

Second, by demonstrating that modern sexual identities are constructed through religion, science, and other discursive systems, theorists can examine the ways textual representations of gender and sexuality either reinforce or destabilize social meanings.

Third, by distinguishing between gender and sexual identity, theorists can posit a spectrum of sexualities.

Disagreements over the Relationship between Gender and Sexuality

It is, however, important to emphasize that there is little agreement concerning the relationship between gender and sexuality. Because twentieth-century Western cultures have defined sexuality according to gender, the two concepts are intricately related.

More specifically, in the popular imagination, sexuality is defined by the gender of an individual's preferred sexual partner, or sexual object-choice, so that a woman is defined as heterosexual if she is sexually attracted to men, and lesbian if her primary attraction is to women.

The Function of Gender in Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Studies

Although the diversity in post-Foucauldian gender theory makes any summary far too reductive, there are at least three general trends that could be said to indicate the primary ways gender functions in lesbian, gay, and queer studies: the use of the already existing binary gender categories to define homosexuality; intragender investigations of a spectrum of male or female sexualities; and attempts to go beyond gender entirely and define sexuality in new ways.

Whereas the first strategy equates gender with sexuality and thus reinforces the dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual identities, the second and third methods distinguish gender from sexuality and use the former to destabilize the heterosexual-homosexual binary.

Equating Sexuality with Gender

The first approach, which underscores the gendered difference between lesbians and gay men, equates sexuality with gender. In "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), for example, Adrienne Rich adopts the already existing binary gender system and locates all women along a lesbian continuum, ranging from female friendships to same-sex desire.

Although Rich's lesbian continuum served an important political purpose by dispelling the homophobia in the mainstream U.S. women's movement, it did so by desexualizing lesbianism and downplaying the many ethnic, sexual, and class differences among women.

For Joseph Bristow as well, the gendered difference between lesbians' and gay men's sexual object-choices assumes primary importance. As he asserts in his introduction to Sexual Sameness (1992), because gender is quite possibly the most important distinction imposed on lesbians and gay men, the gendered differences between them should assume greater theoretical weight.

Thus Rich, Bristow, and other theorists of gendered difference illustrate what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes as a "gender separatist" viewpoint, a bipolar model of gendered sexuality that reinforces the existing male-female binarism and heightens the differences between gay males and lesbians.

Destabilizing Gender-Specific Heterosexual Identities

Whereas this polarization of gay male and female identities inadvertently reinstates the heterosexual coupling that structures Western social systems, the second approach attempts to destabilize gender-specific heterosexual identities--and, by extension, the oppressive nonsymmetrical hetero-homo opposition--by demonstrating their interconnections with gendered homosexual identities.

Eve Sedgwick has played a major role in this undertaking. In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), she examines triangular romantic relationships between women and men to demonstrate that normative descriptions of heterosexual masculinity are shaped by homophobia and male homosexuality.

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