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social sciences

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While information about sexual diversity from many cultures around the world continued to be cataloged in the Human Relations Area Files, compiled in Clellan Ford and Frank Beach's Patterns of Sexual Behavior (1951), it was rarely subjected to any sustained anthropological analysis, other than intermittent reports on berdache, which were a recurrent item in professional journals such as American Anthropologist.

With scientific inquiries into homosexuality from other disciplines mounting in the mid-twentieth century, spurred both by U. S. research on the occupational fitness of its military troops and civil servants, as well as Nazi research on the reproductive fitness of its imagined German citizenry, research into homosexuality became the domain of the biological sciences as well as psychology.

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Homosexuality was seen as a problem of the constitutional or psychic makeup of individuals who stood at odds with their societies as a result. It was believed that this "problem" could be corrected through improved breeding or through therapy, although few interventions of this kind could claim successful outcomes.

Countering this general trend in research was a handful of psychologists and sociologists who employed ethnographic methods developed by anthropologists to investigate the lives of homosexuals outside of a clinical setting. Alfred Kinsey and associates' groundbreaking (and yet to be paralleled) research into human sexuality that culminated in the publication of two best-selling volumes (in 1948 and 1953) asserted that while there were relatively few persons who were exclusively homosexual in their behavior, a vast number of both men and women demonstrated at least some homosexual response over their lifetimes.

The situational nature of homosexual behavior for many men in American society was corroborated by Albert Reiss's 1961 study of teenage male prostitutes in Nashville, as well as by Laud Humphreys's 1970 study of clandestine sex between men in public toilets in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, Evelyn Hooker's work with openly gay men she befriended in Los Angeles demonstrated that they were socially well-adjusted by any available measure.

Nascent political organizations, which were just beginning to mobilize in order to achieve social equality for gay men and women in this period, quickly enlisted experts such as these and the scholarly evidence they offered in support of their cause. Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay even lectured on the political value to the movement of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture, as well as Ford and Beach's more recent work, in an address at the ONE Institute in 1957.

Lesbian and Gay Anthropology

The late 1960s saw the increasing radicalization of many areas of the civil rights movement in the United States, including the movement for lesbian and gay rights. Gay liberation's repudiation of psychology as the ultimate arbiter of the social status of its political constituency coincided with a revival of studies of homosexuality in other social science disciplines.

The increasing importance of feminist studies in anthropology was already demonstrating that the analysis of gender and sex roles was key to an understanding of social structures such as kinship and economic exchange. Gay and lesbian politics provided an additional impetus for this kind of study.

Anthropology as a discipline, too, was changing and radicalizing. The Vietnam War had made American anthropologists aware of their colleagues' complicity in the war effort by providing intelligence to the United States government; this in turn prompted a critical reflection on anthropology's tacit support of past colonial and genocidal regimes.

Anthropologists also began to challenge hitherto unquestioned assumptions about their field methods, including the social identity of the anthropologist while in the field, as well the taboo topic of sexual relations with one's informants.

It was during this self-critical but expansive period in the discipline's history that a lesbian and gay anthropology--typically the study of apparently homosexual people that did not seek to reduce their behavior to a question of social pathology, conducted by anthropologists who were usually themselves lesbian or gay--began to take shape.

The Anthropology Research Group on Homosexuality (ARGOH), a professional organization, was formed in the early 1970s and had its first official meeting in 1978. The 1972 publication of Esther Newton's Mother Camp, a study of professional drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City based on research conducted in the mid-1960s, marked the first book-length study of gay people by an anthropologist and spurred much additional work in the area by the end of the decade.

During the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological research on homosexuality tended to cluster around a handful of topics. Primary among these, in defiance of the New Right's emphasis on "family values" and continual attempts to deny civil rights to lesbian and gay people, were studies that focused on lesbian and gay family life in the United States. These included studies of "chosen families" of friends, lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies, and children of lesbian and gay parents.

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