Capitalisms and Gay Identities
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Capitalisms and Gay Identities

Stephen Valocchi

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📖 eBook - ePub

Capitalisms and Gay Identities

Stephen Valocchi

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In this important text, Stephen Valocchi brings capitalism back into the study of the gay and lesbian movement. He argues that to understand the collective identity, structure, strategies and goals of the movement, we need to understand the role that capitalism and the state have played.

While capitalism and the state have figured centrally in earlier analyses of social movements, these important institutions and their social processes are no longer central concerns of the theory and research of social movements in the United States. Capitalisms and Gay Identities examines how the class-based inequalities and changing class structures of capitalism interact with and indeed help shape the dynamics of other types of inequalities, such as gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity. These inequalities and structures, in turn, shape the specific grievances of, and affect the nature of, stigma levied against individuals with sexual and gender nonconformity. Valocchi shows that capitalism is a dynamic system, and as it changes, the nature of the movement and the collective identity created by the movement also changes.

A vital text for undergraduate and postgraduate students of sociology, social movements, LGBTQ politics and American studies, Capitalisms and Gay Identities challenges our understanding of many aspects of the gay and lesbian movement when viewed through the lens of capitalism, particularly its ability to advance the cause of sexual freedom and gender justice.

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Attempts to describe the social landscape of the United States for those of us interested in sexual and gender liberation and social justice frequently and frustratingly get summarized by trite truisms: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “The more things change, the more they stay the same”; “Three steps forward, two steps backward.” I start with these trite truisms (and only as starting points), however, because they capture the ambiguity, incongruity and even contradiction of our current era.
Since the national elections of 2016 in the United States that swept nationalist billionaire Donald Trump and a conservative Republican Congress into power, signaling abrupt shifts in national politics on many issues, the above admittedly cautious optimism now seems somewhat misguided and premature. On a whole range of issues from climate change, global trade, environmental regulations, tax and benefit policies to health care, women’s reproductive health and workers’ rights (just to name a few), the “arc of the moral universe” no longer “bends toward justice.” This progressive backsliding characterizes the areas of gender and sexuality as well with the Trump administration’s attacks on transgender individuals in the military and schools, and its insistence that organizations and businesses can refuse to abide by sex and gender nondiscrimination laws in the name of religious freedom. To date, however, the several gains of the first two decades of the twenty-first century have not yet been summarily dismantled. And the attempts to dismantle have been immediately contested in the courts. I say that, however, fully aware that our changed political discourse has unleashed renewed attacks on LGBT or queer peoples, regardless of whether particular policies have been upheld or reversed.
The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw the rapid march to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, the end to sodomy laws, and the continued cultural visibility of LGBT people in almost every sort of media. Yet at the same time, these “successes” are tempered by several other sobering realities within queer communities. Marriage politics consumed the movement and pushed out many other issues of concern to LGBT people. Issues of national civil rights protections for LGBT people, and especially for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals – access to health care, housing and public safety for trans people, and poor and working class queer people; and attention to the continued increase in HIV and AIDS in minority communities – got sidelined by the laser-like attention to same-sex marriage by our well-resourced national organizations (DeFilippis et al. 2018). As a consequence, the mainstream movement’s focus on marriage distanced it even further from other progressive organizations seeking broad-based social changes, not only for queer people but other marginalized individuals: the “best of times” for some; the “worst of times” for others.
During this time, the mainstream media continued to generate palatable images of lesbians, gays and most recently transgender people, which, while departing somewhat from the pathological or comedic representations of an earlier era, did not depart too far from the normalization agenda of the mainstream movement. No longer can we turn on the television, watch a movie, read the paper or participate in and consume social media without encountering images of LGBT people. And, although far from perfect, these images are more diverse, complicated and positive than they ever were. Mainstream Hollywood movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name, popular and award-winning network TV shows like Modern Family and RuPaul’s Drag Race; groundbreaking cable shows like The L Word, Queer as Folk and Transparent; and now digital venues like Netflix with Orange Is the New Black and Schitt’s Creek all broke new ground in introducing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, themes and culture to more people than ever before in ways that made money, attracted mainstream audiences and won awards for studios, networks and streaming services. Same-sex attractions and relationships are now portrayed as “normal,” even as these representations get wrapped in larger narratives of romantic love, domesticity and gender normativity. Visibility for some comes at the expense of invisibility for others. This proliferation of “gay,” “queer” and trans representations in mainstream media is now rivaled by a similar proliferation in social media and the many digital streaming services that now compete for audience attention and dollars.
Now, as if to anoint this new era of success and visibility, some scholars and journalists have been heralding the arrival of a “post-gay” collective identity (Collard 1998; Ghaziani 2011; Scheide 2002). Although there is no consensus on the causes or the implications of the new era, they all agree that assimilation-with-a-difference or “with a twist” seems to rule the day. According to these commentators, we are moving to a society that has blurred the boundaries between gay and straight, where there is more acceptance of sexual and gender diversity and less need for the “closet” as either a survival mechanism in a homophobic world or a psychic state from which to be released. As recently as March 2019, “out” Broadway star Ben Platt told “out” daytime talk host Ellen DeGeneres that coming out “has not been a big deal”… was “encouragingly innocuous” and fans have been “wonderfully supportive.”
Some accounts of our “post-gay” world sound similar to accounts of the once-maligned white-ethnic immigrants of southern and eastern Europe from the early decades of the twentieth century in the United States whose descendants now find themselves with economic success, intermarriage and social mobility. These “integrations” make an oppositional identity unnecessary and instead encourage a symbolic identity (or symbolic ethnicity) with little reference to real inequality (Steinberg 2001). LGBT identity becomes more of a taste than an entrenched mode of being, what one sociologist calls an “ambient identity”: an identity triggered in memory, ritual and personal relationships that gives us a little “flavor” in an otherwise well-assimilated melting pot world (Brown-Saracino 2011). Of course, these overly sanguine descriptions fail to acknowledge the full spectrum of gender and sexual nonnormativity and the still-strong individual bigotries as well as institutional homophobia and transphobia directed toward individuals who embody these nonnormativities.

How We Got Here: Questioning the Narrative

As with most generalizations and evidenced by the sudden reversals of fortune with the 2016 US elections, these understandings of the present moment in LGBT America simplify and distort what are multifaceted, partial and complex processes. For example, there are many questions we could ask about these grand narratives emerging about gay identity in the twenty-first century. For whom is same-sex marriage considered a victory? What do we gain and lose by the narrow pursuit of this policy? What kind of visibility does the dominant culture afford sexual and gender minorities? Who is represented and who continues to get left out, marginalized and stigmatized? To what extent does the “closet” continue to be a necessary act of protection and resistance for those outside of certain urban spaces and geographical regions? Is the metaphor of “the closet,” not to mention the notion of “beyond the closet,” even a useful way of representing the changing nature of homophobia? Finally, does the concept of “post-gay” hide more than it reveals? In other words, does it signal a tentative tolerance of a certain kind of gay identity and by so doing divert our attention from a whole host of nonnormative gender and sexual subjectivities that cannot be neatly contained by the available categories of gay or post-gay? Clearly, gay identity is changing, as do all identities, but these gross characterizations capture a piece of that change and neglect other pieces. If those pieces are left out of the narrative, then there is no need to account for them in any kind of analytical way. I want to bring those pieces back in. But they can only be brought back in by first figuring out how we got here. “Gay” history – in its broadest definition – is crucial in this process, but as I will argue below, “capitalist history” – also broadly conceived – is also vitally important. Very rarely are these two “histories” brought together.

Understanding the Present by Unraveling the Gay Past

In order to fully account for this complex gay present, especially to assess whether these latest developments in gay identity represent moves toward greater equality, freedom and access for all sexually marginalized individuals, it is necessary to unravel the gay past and the struggles of previous generations of sexual minorities in their quest for self-determination. Thus, I want to contextualize these understandings by historicizing the nature of gay identity and the lesbian and gay movement that shaped that identity. The book will ask: what large-scale processes helped create the idea of gay identity and the hetero/homo binary that goes along with it, and how did these processes change the meaning of gay identity over the past century? It will also ask: how did these “large” processes shape the lesbian and gay movement and how did the movement in turn “encourage” a specific definition of gay collective identity and the interests, voices and subjectivities included in that definition? To truly understand this newest iteration of gay identity, one that has been characterized as assimilationist, “beyond the closet” and “post gay,” we need to examine how it got to look that way and the forces that have moved it to this point. Only then will we be able to assess the implications of this more complicated collective gay identity.
To anticipate, and to cite an example from our contemporary period, the historical analysis will train our gaze on contemporary processes of neoliberalism, the rise of a more flexible capitalism, the declining role of the state in protecting vulnerable populations, the growing insecurities among the professional middle class and the increasing professionalization and centralization of the lesbian and gay movement. I will argue that these large-scale processes – not typically referenced in discussions of sexuality – enabled the creation of this supposedly post-gay identity. Identifying the specific ways in which these processes operate on the class system in general and on the lesbian and gay movement in particular can help us understand what and who are included and left out of these glowing narratives of gay identity.

The Political Economy of Capitalism

My allusion to neoliberalism and flexible capitalism in the present moment betrays one of the two processes that occupy most of my attention, namely, capitalism as a system of both economic and political power. I argue that capitalism created the conditions under which gay identity emerged and set the terms under which gay identity developed in the United States. It also influenced the rise and development of the lesbian and gay movement, which is the second process that affects the changing nature of gay identity. Indeed, a movement could not emerge until that identity had been named, and capitalism played a major role in naming it. And, as I argue throughout the book, the changing nature of capitalism – as capitalism responded to crises, protest and social contradictions – throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century significantly affected both the nature of the lesbian and gay movement and the collective identity promoted by that movement. This focus on the political economy of capitalism builds on the renewed interest in the role of capitalism in social movement studies, an interest that fell out of favor in mainstream American sociology in the 1980s with the waning of Marxism and the subsequent cultural turn in the field (Della Porta 2015; Hetland and Goodwin 2013).
The second process occupying my attention is how the movement itself – its structure and organization, its leadership, its concerns and priorities – reflected the large-scale processes referred to above but also how it refracted those processes in particular ways to produce (a modicum of) liberation for some and invisibility or continued stigma for others. While the lesbian and gay movement emerged as a resistance to the negative stigma and life-shattering sanctions imposed on gays and lesbians, the movement that battled this stigma and sanctions was also a product of that capitalist system of power and in that respect reproduced some of the inequalities associated with a capitalist system of power. To say that is not to deny the “good” that movements do in terms of the material benefits they deliver, the psychic consequences they have on the individuals who participate in those movements and the long-term impact they have on the culture. It is only to say, however, that this “good” is a contingent and class-inflected one, and that movements themselves can also act of agents of power: constraining, regulating and coercing. Movements shape “who we are” not only by conferring benefits and recognition on some and not others but more importantly by defining what our interests, goals and aspirations should be. In other words, movements, like other structures of power, create norms and in so doing help to bring particular social subjects or identities into existence.
In the chapters that follow, I describe how a capitalist system of power buttressed by the power of the state – you can’t have capitalism without a legal and administrative apparatus that creates, regulates and stabilizes it – shaped both the lesbian and gay movement and the nature of gay identity. The chapters distinguish different “types” of capitalist political economy that have taken shape in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and trace the influence of these capitalisms on both the movement and the gay identity produced and promoted by the movement. In some historical instances, that influence was direct, as capitalist relations of production affected the nature of the class system, which gave some men and women more resources to create a same-sex identity and construct social networks and communities around that identity and greater ability to organize to counteract the stigmas and discriminations associated with that identity. In other instances, it was indirect as capitalism influenced the kind of lesbian and gay movement created, the kinds of people who were well-positioned to lead that movement and the kinds of interests these people pursued to advance their cause.
My goal is not to develop a comprehensive theory of capitalism and gay identity. I cannot pretend to systemically connect specific features of capitalism to specific components of movement development or gay identity in ways that build predictive models or testable hypotheses. The contingent nature of history and “capitalist history” in particular does not lend itself to such an approach. Instead I seek to develop a historically informed alternative framework to the study of the lesbian and gay movement and gay identity by demonstrating empirically how the various components of the US political economy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries directly and indirectly affect the definition of sexual minority, the individuals most affected by that definition, the options those individuals have to contest that definition, the shape of the organizations those individuals use to contest that definition and how those individuals use their resources to shape a new definition. In turn, how that definition and the biases that are built into it interact with the changing nature of capitalist political economy. In these ways, the book is a theoretically guided exercise in interpretive history.

Capitalism, Gay Identity and the Lesbian and Gay Movement

Very rarely do we see capitalism discussed in the recent sociological scholarship on the lesbian and gay movement (for exceptions see Drucker 2011, 2015; Hetland and Goodwin 2013). The scholarship, described at some length below, dances around the processes associated with the political economy of capitalism with concepts like structural strain, material resources, political opportunities and social solidarities but resists rooting these processes in structures of capital accumulation: the economic components as well as the political infrastructure that support that capital accumulation. Some scholarship retreats even further away from these structures with concepts such as the social and cultural construction of both grievances and political opportunities. In the words of social movement theorist Edwards (2014: 80), these frameworks neglect “the world around them” and instead focuses on the collective identity of mobilizing or mobilized constituencies. Rather than root causes, these important concepts are best seen as correlates or consequences of mobilization.
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Citation styles for Capitalisms and Gay IdentitiesHow to cite Capitalisms and Gay Identities for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Valocchi, S. (2019). Capitalisms and Gay Identities (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Valocchi, Stephen. (2019) 2019. Capitalisms and Gay Identities. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Valocchi, S. (2019) Capitalisms and Gay Identities. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Valocchi, Stephen. Capitalisms and Gay Identities. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.