Gay and Lesbian Movement Essay

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Since the 1980s sociologists who have studied the gay and lesbian movement have focused on five sets of issues. The first set involves research on the structural conditions that led to the emergence of an organized movement. This research has stressed the importance of the rise of industrial capitalism, changes in the nature of the family accompanying capitalism, the impact of bureaucracy on intimacy among men, and the rise of medical science.

A second set of issues involves research on the goals of the movement. The initial impulse of the movement had been the desire to change the way the culture views homosexuality: the movement emerged in a society that saw homosexuality as sin, sickness, or crime. Later, the movement shifted to working for civil rights through the state and other social institutions. This dual emphasis on changing culture and changing laws and policies allows an analysis of issues of reform versus structural change, assimilation versus transformation.

The third set of research issues involves the ways that the movement constructs collective identity. Collective identity refers to the shared definition of a group that derives from members’ common interests, experiences and solidarity” (Taylor & Whittier 1992: 172). A unique feature of the gay and lesbian movement is its concern with defining who is the we” that the movement represents and who gets to decide the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.

Related to this set of issues is a fourth focus on framing. Framing refers to an interpretive schemata that distills the message or messages of the movement for several purposes: to recruit a constituency, create a collective identity, craft strategy, and gain outside support. For the gay and lesbian movement framing is challenging for several reasons: it is both a political and cultural movement, the fractious nature of the collective identity, and the strength of the countermovement.

A fifth focus is the impact of queer theory on the study of the movement. Queer theory has called attention to the instability of sex and gender categories and stresses the performative and provisional nature of identities. Queer theory asserts that the identity-based strategies of the movement deny the fluidity inherent in sexuality and invalidate the experiences of others with non-normative sexuality who may not easily fit the class and race or western inflected definition of the identity. In addition, identity-based strategies reinforce the boundaries between gay and straight, man and woman, and thus reproduce the hierarchical relationship between the dominant and the subordinate terms of the sex/gender system.


  1. D’Emilio, J. (1983) Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940—1970. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Taylor, V. & Whittier, N. E. (1992) Collective identity in social movement communities: lesbian feminist mobilization. In: Morris A. D. & McClurg Mueller, C. (eds.), Frontiers in Social Movement Theory. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, and London, pp. 104-29.

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