Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


Research: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, and the third post about the project’s origins. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this month’s post, the author addresses the processes of researching Salvation with a Smile.

The discipline of history defines the primary investigative lens of Salvation with a Smile. Published and unpublished primary source material formed the documentary foundation of my work, while I also conducted oral history interviews and recorded field notes from participant observation in various congregational activities at Lakewood Church. While I am not formally trained as an ethnographer or sociologist, the work of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as the work of historian Randall Balmer—particularly his quip about being a “shade-tree sociologist” for the research he conducted on evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—methodologically informed parts of my qualitative research on Lakewood. In Salvation with a Smile, my historical and cultural assessments of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church focus on context and change over time.

First and foremost, the rich scholarship on American religious history provided a robust historiographical tradition upon which to base my book. The excellent work of David Edwin Harrell on neopentecostalism, for example, helped me to frame Lakewood’s early years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Books on the history of the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler and Gerardo Marti assisted me in making sense of John and Joel Osteen’s teachings. Publications on Pentecostal healing and prayer by scholars such as Joseph Williams, Candy Gunther Brown, and T. M. Luhrmann, along with publications on evangelical biblicism by James S. Bielo and Brian Malley, offered a way to understand religious experience at Lakewood Church. And the list goes on and on. My book’s endnotes and Bibliography demonstrate the breath of scholarship to which my work is indebted.

With respect to primary sources, the publications of John Osteen and Joel Osteen, along with works by Dodie Osteen (Joel Osteen’s mother), Victoria Osteen (Joel Osteen’s wife), Lisa Osteen Comes (Joel Osteen’s sister), and Paul Osteen (Joel Osteen’s brother), as well as the books of former Spanish Lakewood pastor Marcos Witt, provided clear windows into the religious perspectives and ideas with which these individuals understand the world. When I started the research for Salvation with a Smile, John Osteen’s books were difficult to obtain, so in addition to, I found a number of his books on eBay. As I discuss below, interlibrary loan also came in handy, as did archival research.

In addition to printed materials, my book also utilizes audio and video sources, including a number of Joel Osteen’s early cassette sermons, along with his messages on VHS between 2001 and 2004. Around 2003, most of Joel’s materials became available on CD and DVD. I purchased over a dozen of the cassette packages, along with CDs and DVDs on eBay. In a stroke good fortune, several current and former Lakewood members I interviewed for the book kindly loaned me over 50 of John Osteen’s VHS messages from the 1980s and 1990s. This vintage material, some of which has become available on YouTube in the last 2 years or so, proved vital for my research. I used the videos for primary source materials of John’s teachings. In addition, since Joel Osteen produced the VHS sermon videos (he was Lakewood’s media producer during the 1980s and 1990s), the episodes also offer a literal view into Joel’s production strategies, which I interpret in light of televangelism’s recent history.

Participant observation also forms part of the evidentiary basis of my analysis of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. I first began attending services and congregational activities at Lakewood in 2005. As I indicated in an earlier post, some of this initial ethnographic work and research appeared in Holy Mavericks. For Salvation with a Smile, I continued to attend worship services and visit Sunday school classes, scribbling notes and thoughts down along the way. I also attended a number of “Night of Hope” events, as well as stadium and arena meetings Joel Osteen holds around the country. I attended two events held in Texas (one in Killeen, the other in Corpus Christi), and obtained a DVD of another— Joel’s very first arena event at Madison Square Garden. Thus, about a decade of participant observation informs the parts of my book that deal with Lakewood’s congregational life, primarily contained in a chapter on religious identity titled “The Redemptive Self”—a concept I borrow from narrative psychologist Dan McAdams.

Oral history interviews with current and former Lakewood members, as well as with journalists and scholars, allowed me to develop an understanding of Joel Osteen and the congregation’s broader history. I conducted about 25 interviews—including several follow-up interviews—over a four-year period. The stories I heard from members and attendees were intriguing and fascinating. They provided unique perspectives on Lakewood’s history, as well as the religious experiences that took place within the context of congregational worship services.

I’d like to share two anecdotes from my interviews that appear in the book. First, Joel Osteen routinely recites a “Bible confession” at the beginning of every service and “Night of Hope” event (read the text here, and find it performed here), a tradition that he adopted from his father. As detailed further in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, from one of my interviews I discovered the unique origin of the “Bible confession,” which began suddenly when John Osteen opened one of his services with it in the 1980s. A moment of call-and-response between John and a Lakewood member created the memorable mantra of “This is my Bible…”. Second, Joel’s own narrative about how he became Lakewood’s pastor emphasizes a divine prompting that inspired his decision to fill his father’s shoes. While I don’t dispute Joel’s interpretation of those events in the book—after all, I don’t have access to his interior life—I document that as John’s closest assistant in the 1980s and 1990s, Joel was the likely candidate to succeed his father as Lakewood’s pastor. Moreover, an interview I conducted with scholar David Edwin Harrell added additional evidence. Harrell had met John over the years while researching his books. For instance, while Harrell was researching All Things are Possible during on a Fulbright in India in 1995, he ran into John, who was there leading a revival campaign, and conducted another interview. From that conversation, Harrell remembered querying John about Lakewood’s future, during which time the aging pastor suggested that his son Joel might assume pastoral duties at the church.

While I enjoyed the challenge of understanding and interpreting content from audio and video sources, participant observation, and oral history interviews, another delightful aspect of researching Salvation with a Smile was tracking down Lakewood’s history in the archives. All told, I obtained research materials from approximately 18 different archival collections.

Fortunately, a number of collections in the greater Houston area, including materials on John Osteen from the San Jacinto Baptist Association, Central Baptist Church, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, did not require extensive travel. Documents from the San Jacinto Baptist Association and Central Baptist Church—as chapters 1 and 2 reveal—helped me to document John Osteen’s history before his start at Lakewood Church in 1959. A visit to the Pentecostal Research Collection at Regent University proved particularly fruitful in this regard as well; here I found evidence of John’s affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, along with vital material on the print culture of neopentecostalism.

Research conducted at Oral Roberts University’s Holy Spirit Research Center was probably the most important archival excursion I took. As I write in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, this archive provided rare Lakewood material from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting and puzzling discoveries included a VHS tape of a 1986 Good Friday service at Lakewood, during which an evangelist named Lucy Rael exhibited the stigmata—visible trauma on hands, feet, forehead, and back that, according to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, mimics injuries similar to those of Jesus Christ at crucifixion. I interpret the Rael event in light of neopentecostalism’s broader history, and John’s teachings on spiritual warfare. And speaking of spiritual warfare, while this particular work appeared in spring 2015, too late to include in my book, religious studies scholar Sean McCloud’s recent book American Possessions offers a keen interpretation of neopentecostalism’s notion of spiritual struggle.

Also vital to my research were a number of digitized archival collections. In the first chapter, I explore some of John Osteen’s earliest engagements with televangelism, contextualized by material on the subject in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. From the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I found material on the civil rights movement in Houston, a time, as I explain in chapter 2, that marked an important juncture in Lakewood’s history. At the very end of my research for the book, I discovered digitized copies of the Pentecostal Evangel at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a publication that covered a number of John Osteen’s early revival meetings (thanks Arlene Sánchez-Walsh!).

This post covers some of the research I conducted for Salvation with a Smile. The next post discusses areas for future research on Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. In the meantime, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Book origins: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here. For this month’s post, the author breaks down the book’s origin story.

I got interested in studying Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen about a decade ago in the summer of 2005, when the congregation moved into the Compaq Center. For nearly 50 years previous, Lakewood’s home was located in a Black and Latino/a working-class neighborhood on Houston’s northeast side. Lakewood’s new home generated national headlines, which, as a scholar of religious history, initially drew my attention.

Joel had emerged as a national figure in 2004 with the publication of his first book Your Best Life Now, which became a New York Times best-seller, and in early 2005 Washington Post writer Lois Romano dubbed him the “smiling preacher.” In addition, in June 2005 Osteen appeared on Larry King Live, where he spoke about taking over Lakewood Church from his father John Osteen, his life as a pastor, and his first book, among other topics. An exchange between King and Osteen during which King queried the smiling preacher about the exclusive claims of Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ, however, quickly became a flashpoint of controversy that further catapulted Joel into the national spotlight. Because Osteen refused to condemn religious people of faith traditions outside of Christianity—while simultaneously maintaining that he believed God was the ultimate Divine Judge—many evangelicals believed he had denied the exclusivity of Jesus Christ on national television.

Critics roared with disapproval. A series of online, print, and television campaigns (which continue to the present) by the likes of evangelicals R. Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Michael S. Horton, and Hank Hanegraaff castigated Osteen’s supposed uninformed theology, slim reasoning, and shallow dogma. Such dismissals, many of which emanated out of the New Calvinist movement, shaped opinion about Osteen, and even prompted a minister named Adam Key to picket and preach outside of Lakewood Church with a poster of his book Your Best Lie Now on display. (I recount this larger moment of religious controversy in chapter 8 of Salvation with a Smile, and explain its historical and cultural significance.) The summer of 2005 was thus a signature moment in the history of Osteen and Lakewood Church, and represents the origins of what became Salvation with a Smile.

At the time of Osteen’s ascendance in 2005, I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. coursework in the University of Houston’s history department, and looking for an independent study to round out my fall schedule. I had been reading Andrew Chesnut’s writings on religious economy—then at the University of Houston, now at Virginia Commonwealth—and approached him about using religious economy to analyze Lakewood’s congregation. The following fall, I conducted extensive participant-observation at Lakewood, and read widely about religious economy. I began to consider Lakewood’s historical origins, and think about why and how the congregation became America’s largest megachurch. The paper I wrote for the independent study with Professor Chesnut, it turned out, formed the basis for the chapter on Joel Osteen in my book Holy Mavericks, which appeared in 2009.

Yet the Holy Mavericks chapter could hardly tell the fuller story of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Much of the research I compiled for the chapter pointed to a much larger account of the congregation’s history and Osteen’s cultural significance, so I began to consider what that larger story might look like. By 2009, Joel Osteen had become a household name, and had published three New York Times best-selling books. He was, as Mara Einstein has observed, a powerful religious brand in American Christianity. The story was growing. In 2010, I assembled a book proposal and in March of 2011, with a book contract in hand, I continued to write and research Salvation with a Smile for NYU Press.

Having grown up in Houston in the 1980s, I’d heard of Lakewood and remember seeing the church’s founder John Osteen on local television. Another memory was “Lakewood Church: Oasis of Love” bumper stickers on cars around town. The origins of studying Lakewood in 2005, as I look back now, was also a way to conduct research on local history, and learn more about Houston’s past. Long story short, the research I compiled for the graduate paper, and later the Holy Mavericks chapter, proved too much to fit into those limited spaces. I had to write the larger story, which you can find here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).

The moment of maybe

—Joshua Gamson

rainbow-flagIn the days since Obergefell v. Hodges and its rainbow celebration, I spent way too much time on Facebook reading through the voluminous posts and commentaries about how wonderful, awful, incomplete, conservative, progressive, lame, and historic is the Supreme Court’s decision.

Setting aside the more strident, ungenerous, overstated, patronizing, and self-serving of these—frankly, that eliminates a lot of them—these stocktaking discussions highlight several important, basic points. First, marriage equality symbolically and legally marks the end of outsider status for many within gay movements, and that is both an uneasy and vexed transition. Second, there’s a whole lot more work to be done, both in terms of completing the equalization of rights and the broader work of social justice and institutional change; beware of what Michelangelo Signorile has called “victory blindness.” Third, the fact that the Supreme Court ruled favorably towards marriage equality, and that public opinion, pop culture, and big business have shifted so favorably towards gay rights in recent years, stands in stark, telling juxtaposition to the heightened attacks on black Americans and the rollback of reproductive rights.

Clearly, the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision marks a turning point for the LGBT movement—or rather, for the diverse, messy array of efforts and organizations that fall under that rubric. The question now is what that movement will do in this moment of possibility. A lot of smart people have been thinking, writing, talking, and acting on that question, and the best I can do is to cull from them the intertwined principles that might guide the next stages in this vibrant, ass-kicking movement.

Formal equality is not enough. Activists such as Urvashi Vaid have for decades been pointing to the limits of pursuing a “state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to LGBT people but would not transform the institutions of society that repress sexual, racial, and gender difference.” If you needed a devastating reminder of legal equality’s insufficiency, you could get that by flipping from the breathless SCOTUS celebrations to Rev. Pinckney’s dead body being carried past the Confederate flag. Now that gay and lesbian virtual equality is now well within reach—legal scholar Nan Hunter predicts that the LGBT-rights movement “will seem banal in 20 years if not sooner”—LGBT movements can return to a more ambitious social justice agenda.

Do not close the doors. A few years ago, Vaid suggested the guiding movement principle of “Leave No Queer Behind,” and it’s a crucial one at this moment. One of the risks when some beneficiaries of a movement are invited into social institutions is that they will abandon those who remain by necessity or choice on the margins. Refusing to do so—refusing to betray or abandon those who aren’t easily assimilated or who don’t want to assimilate—may involve the movement, as historian Timothy Stewart-Winter points out, in challenging the institutions that have just invited some of us in.

Intersectionality is not just a theory. That sexuality is intertwined with race, class, gender, physical ability, age, and the like is often noted but has not deeply informed much of mainstream LGBT rights organizing. It should be impossible to see the attacks on black and brown bodies, for instance, as an issue separate from LGBT concerns, if only for the obvious reason that some of us are LGBT people of color. The fight for gay rights has advanced in part by deploying economic and racial privilege, and over time, Vaid asserts, LGBT organizations have moved away from their earlier intersectional roots; the movement has been “oddly complacent in its acceptance of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing a white, middle-class conception of the ‘status queer.’” At this turning point moment, she has advocated, a “re-formed LGBT movement focused on social justice [must] commit itself to one truth: that not all LGBT people are white or well-off.”

Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions. All of these linked principles—seeing formal equality as a starting rather than end point, refusing to leave anyone behind, making intersectionality a core organizing principle—promote a renewed focus on building and strengthening coalitions. The movement itself has always been a coalition, of course, and a fragile one; this transitional moment offer an opportunity to recommit to a coalition of lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender coalition. It’s also an opportunity to imagine and enact new progressive coalitions; some are already working on these coalitions, and others have long ties that can be renewed.

Until last week, these principles seemed right but like a bit of a lost cause. As sociologist Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it, the gay marriage fight, for all its practical and symbolic value, took up a lot of “bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.” Now, at this turning point, when energy can be redirected and different voices emboldened, they seem instead like hopeful possibilities. Whether the LGBT movement manages to, as Walters says, “pivot and recalibrate,” I can’t predict, but the principles for recalibration are certainly well articulated. We are in a big moment of maybe.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him at @joshgamson.

[This article originally appeared on the Contexts blog, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]

Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Gay marriage: Check. Queer liberation: ?

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

Even a feminist/queer critic of marriage (me, alas) can’t help but be moved by today’s decision by the Supreme Court that finally makes marriage equality the law of the land. And coming as this does the day after the Supremes ruled for the Affordable Care Act, putting to rest the Republican obsession with denying Americans health care coverage, all people of good faith (or even simple common sense) should be celebrating. But after the champagne corks are popped and the tears of victory dry, it may be time (long overdue, in my estimation) for the LGBT movement to pivot and recalibrate. The push for marriage rights as signifying all things gay and all things “equal” has taken up too much bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.

So no27scotus4w that the battle is won, how can the movement (or movements more accurately, since the idea of some monolithic “gay movement” is already a problem) re-imagine and re-invent itself? Some moves are already being made, as LGBT activists and organizations have increasingly engaged with broader social justice movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” and other interventions against police brutality and mass incarceration. Surely this work needs to deepen and continue. And the always-frustrating inability for the gay movement to double down on its commitments to core feminist concerns such as sexual freedom, gender violence, and reproductive rights needs to be reckoned with head on. Indeed, as gay marriage triumphed in state after state (and now the Supreme Court), anti-abortion laws and restrictions also barreled ahead, a point Katha Pollitt detailed painfully in a recent piece in The Nation.

There is a danger that this pivot won’t happen, that gay rights organizations and the money that backs them will pat themselves on the back and declare victory over the ills of homophobia, as if one basic right signifies full inclusion and the end of anti-gay animus.

But there is also a danger that the ideology that undergirded much of the marriage movement (that the couple is sacrosanct and “special,” and the only way to raise healthy children; that gays are “born this way” and sexual identity and desire are hardwired so we just can’t help ourselves; that same-sex marriages and parenting as “no different” from heterosexual ones and pose no challenge to heterosexual business as usual) will mitigate against a recalibration that requires a more complex understanding of discrimination and hatred and a more robust vision of inclusion and freedom. In other words, this recalibration must entail a hard look at the problematic arguments (about biology, about family, about gender, about tolerance) that became the common-sense ideology of the marriage movement and, more generally, came to stand in for how “gay rights” have been thought about these past ten years or so.

Celebrate we should – but let us now look back to our more radical liberationist past (a past linked closely with broader concerns over social justice and gender equity) and look forward to a utopian future in which marriage is a basic right, not the brass ring of equality, and the queering of the world does more to rattle the cages than knock discreetly at the chapel door.

Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014), is Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and Editor-in-Chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

How to be a straight man: Reflections on “No homo” and metrosexuality

—James Joseph Dean

The kaleidoscope of straight masculinities may be seen through shifts and changes in everyday language, fashion, and style. In American and British contexts, straight men’s identity practices negotiate a post-closeted culture, which I define as the presence of openly gay and lesbian individuals and representations of LGBTQ people. This post-closeted culture pressures straight men to be more tolerant of gays and to express less vitriolic forms of homophobia, while, at the same time, it conditions and supports gay-friendly straight men’s non-homophobic and anti-homophobic expressions.

straightsIt is in post-closeted cultural contexts where phrases like “no homo” emerge and gain meaning. For me, the phrase “no homo” signals less a homophobic attitude and more a way of flagging one’s straight status and claiming its privilege. “No homo” is an anxiety-driven way of saying, “What I said might come off as gay, but I’m really straight.”

On the website Urban Dictionary, for example, “no homo” is defined as a “phrase used after one inadvertently says something that sounds gay.” The example given to illustrate the definition is: “His ass is mine. No homo.” The phrase aims to indicate that the intended statement was not meant to imply a homosexual sexual desire or a gay identity.

Although the phrase “no homo” emerged out of hip hop music in the early 2000s, as language scholar Joshua Brown and journalist Jonah Weiner have explained, it continues to live on in the everyday talk of American youth. Alongside but qualitatively less homophobic than the epithet “fag,” “no homo” aims to reclaim straight status and privilege but avoid the hatefulness of the fag discourse, which as sociologist C.J. Pascoe shows is about both boys policing other boys’ masculinities and their homophobic prejudice.

At its best, “no homo” signals a non-homophobic stance that aims neither to be prejudicial nor against gay prejudicial attitudes. Rather, it is an interjectory phrase that reflects a way straight masculine culture manages its status in a post-closeted culture, where an anxiety over coming across as gay looms in a seemingly omnipresent way. At its worst, “no homo” is used as a homophobic insult along the lines of “fag,” acting as another weapon to police expressions of masculinity and sexuality.

While “no homo” is a linguistic innovation of everyday language, metrosexuality represents a style and consumption practice, where straight and gay men share and trade on the social status they receive for displaying fashionable styles and having well-groomed appearances. Coined in 1994 by journalist Mark Simpson, the term continues to circulate as an entry point into the style practices of fashionable straight men.

david-beckham-h-and-m-underwear-ad__oPtThe global icon for metrosexuality is David Beckham. No longer a soccer player, bending it like Beckham today probably means buying his underwear line from H&M. Another contender for his metrosexual fashion appeal might be Kanye West, who sports kilts in concert, is an outspoken critic of homophobia, and helped popularize “no homo” in his collaboration on Jay-Z’s song “Run this Town.” Keeping straight men like Beckham and West in mind, the term metrosexual is a loose label that refers to straight men who adopt style, beauty, and consumption practices associated with gay men and women.

In my book Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture, I interviewed a diverse group of straight men about their thoughts on metrosexuality. Did they consider themselves metrosexuals? How so? If not, what did they think of metrosexual men? For some of the straight men I talked to metrosexuality was a label that others applied to them or that they took on in jest. Due to wearing stylish clothes, having a well-groomed appearance, and exhibiting a more relaxed masculinity, the metrosexual men I interviewed enacted a more fluid gender presentation than many of the non-metrosexual men in the study.

Their metrosexual masculinity also conditioned their ease in socializing in mixed gay/straight spaces as well as predominantly gay ones. Not surprisingly, their social circles included straight women and lesbians, straight men and gay men, among others. The audiences for metrosexual men’s performances were largely supportive of their non-homophobic and gay-friendly stances, admired their confidence, and appreciated their beauty.

Sociologically, metrosexuality represents a blurring of straight and gay identity practices and styles, enlarging the way men, straight and gay, may perform their masculinity in everyday life. The potential drawback of metrosexual masculinity is its recuperation into another dominant masculinity of, say, only upper class straight men, or in it becoming a masculinity that anxiously marks itself as strictly straight. As in: “Metrosexual. No homo.”

James Joseph Dean is Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and author of Straights: Heterosexuality in Post-Closeted Culture (NYU Press, 2014).

Intersex buzz: To avoid (or engage with) ‘disorder of sex development’ terminology?

—Georgiann Davis

When Shakespeare asked what’s in a name, I doubt he was thinking about intersex, disorders of sex development, or how terminology can shape lives and obstruct social change. But I’ve been thinking about these issues since 2008, when I started exploring the language used to describe intersex people, that is, people whose bodies defy arbitrary markers of sex, including genital, chromosomal, and gonadal characteristics.

As an intersex person who has conducted research in the intersex community, I’ve seen how many of us have endured medically unnecessary surgery designed to “fix” our “abnormalities” so that we can more easily fit into our culture’s rigidly binary sex system, which recognizes male, female, and nothing in between. This surgery, and the lies that surrounded it in order to allegedly protect the development of my gender identity, has physically and emotionally scarred me, and many intersex people I know.

Since the early 1990s, intersex activists have organized to change intersex medical care and eliminate such harmful interventions. They have protested at medical association meetings, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 20/20, and, have been featured in the New York Times, among other outlets.

davis-frontAs I argue in my forthcoming book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (NYU Press, 2015), this public criticism put the medical profession under fire. For a time, it seemed unlikely that doctors could continue to treat intersex as they had been.

But that all changed in 2006, when a “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders” renamed intersex “disorders of sex development,” or DSD for short. The statement was published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and today DSD terminology has replaced intersex language in virtually all corners of the medical profession.

By renaming intersex—and specifically by calling it DSD—providers used the power embedded within diagnostic terminology to linguistically reinvent intersex, and thus to thwart our public criticism of their harmful practices. Medical providers no longer fix intersex—they treat disorders of sex development. But although medically unnecessary surgery on intersex bodies has continued, so has intersex activism.

In March, four intersex activists bravely shared their experiences with harmful medical care in a BuzzFeed video, “What It’s Like to Be Intersex?,” which already has over 1.3 million views. This video was part of a recent activist media blitz, which included a segment on ABC’s Nightline titled “Intersex Children: A Journey Between Genders.”

This intersex buzz got me thinking about how intersex activists, myself included, rarely, if ever, refer to disorders of sex development when we are talking about intersex—and for good reason, because such language pathologizes our personhood. I know I consciously avoid it in my writing, like in my piece “Standing with Susie the Dachshund.”

But now I’m left wondering if we are minimizing the potential effect of this current media boom by using intersex language, rather than DSD terminology, in our public discourse? If we do not engage with DSD terminology in the media, are we letting providers off too easy? Are we making it possible for them to escape our intersex buzz? Might new parents who were positively moved by the BuzzFeed video fail to make the connection between intersex and DSD when a doctor informs them that their child has a disorder of sex development that can be surgically “treated”? Could sympathetic medical students who tweeted the video or posted it on Facebook forget about our intersex community’s all-too-common harmful medical experiences when they interact with patients diagnosed with disorders of sex development?

I don’t want to suggest that intersex activists use terminology they find offensive, but I do wonder if the power embedded in medical terminology might once again be working against us.

One possible approach to this dilemma is to be strategically flexible about terminology. We could, for example, point out in interviews and media appearances that intersex is also controversially—and problematically—referred to as a disorder of sex development. We could also reclaim the acronym DSD by replacing “disorder” with “difference.”

Whatever strategy activists enact, we need to make sure medical providers experience the critical media attention they deserve when they continue to treat people having disorders of sex development without humanity, and refuse to listen to the needs of intersex families. Our intersex buzz needs to reach all its targets.

Georgiann Davis is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (NYU Press, 2015). She is the current president of the AIS-DSD Support Group for individuals with differences of sex development.