I recently discussed my research with a transgender activist who I respect. This activist was extremely critical of my work. This post has taken a long time to write, but it is my attempt to process and use this criticism productively. I’ll admit, I was caught off guard by this criticism. I did not expect this activist to be as enthusiastic about my work as many of the lawyers I interview, but I also did not expect this wholesale rejection.
I explained the basic outline of my project: I’m studying the history and development of the major LGBT legal organizations, paying particular attention to strategies around HIV/AIDS, same-sex marriage, and transgender discrimination. This activist asked why I was interested in talking. They only get involved in research that they see as productive. At best, my research might just document the marginalization of issues around race, poverty, and transgender identity. At worst (and more likely), my research would be a celebratory narrative of how we have achieved some fiction of legal equality.
As we continued talking, this activist explained that I should be looking at the literature on the neoliberal state and the nonprofit industrial complex. But even if I looked at this literature now, it would be too late. They worried that I might just tack on marginalization as an afterthought. If I really wanted to explain the structure of the modern mainstream movement, I needed to design a study that started from its conception in these literatures, and I needed to focus on other organizations than I am. The more interesting project, they argued, is one that examines alternative ways of organizing and using law, is a project that rejects the nonprofit industrial complex model.
To their credit, this activist was sympathetic and explained that academia drives people to de-radicalize their work. I got the sense that they would not have criticized my work if I did not seek out their involvement. And the conversation did make me realize how much my dissertation has changed: the earliest versions of my project involved focusing on a small organization in Chicago that works on gender self-determination and prison abolition. In that version, the project would have much more explicitly grappled with questions of how rejecting the mainstream legal model opens up alternate models of what it means to use the law in support of a movement.
After I got over the initial shock and anger from this interaction, I began thinking about what it means to me to do critical sociology. Maybe my research is not radical, but I also do not accept the characterization of it as lacking any critical edge. Questions of secondary marginalization have informed the research design all along. I chose to focus on three issues that will let me grapple with how organizations define both the center and margins of their work. My historical study will let me see how these processes play out over time.
Sure, I’m not only telling a story about secondary marginalization. I’m telling an important theoretical story about organizational development. And I’m telling an important piece of lgbt history that is not out there. The history of the lgbt legal organizations is largely absent from work on lgbt history. I want to tell this story the way the lawyers involved understand it. I want to capture as much of the empirical data as I can. I want to be accurate and complete.
But mine is not a clean story of moving towards a defined “victory”. It’s not a story of our collective triumph. It’s a messy story. It’s a story of where we’ve been and where we still have to go; a story of lurching, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, often sideways. It recounts the progress we have made but it also explores tensions and disagreements within the movement. My story celebrates key legal victories but also asks about the work that isn’t being done. I grapple with how lawyers approach the strategic tradeoffs inherent in their work. Mine is a research agenda that seeks to understand how real people understand the law. It seeks to understand the obstacles to building coalitions, building institutions, building organizations, winning political support and cultural acceptance.
I’m not dismissing the sort of critical theory approach that this activist pushed on me. I read, cite, and use literature from that approach. But that’s not the kind of work I want to do. A critical theory approach might offer key insights into the relationship between neoliberal politics and promotion of marriage as a goal. But a critical theory approach cannot explain how lawyers in the movement grapple with the meaning of marriage. It cannot explain why different organizations take up marriage at different times and in different ways. It cannot explain the complex ways lawyers position marriage in broader goals that sometimes support and sometimes challenge neoliberal politics. As Mary Bernstein explains, even when activists formally target the law, they might be interested in other institutions like the media or the family (37 NYU Rev. of L. and Social Change 23, 2013).
In her recent book, Urvashi Vaid writes “These essays clearly reflect my ambivalence about the movement: frustration at its blinders, coupled with a persistent confidence that the many people within the LGBT community committed to challenging race, class, and gender exclusion are critical to its future” (Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics). Vaid writes as a seasoned movement veteran who has spent years working on these goals. She recognizes the importance of formal legal equality, even while criticizing how ideas about “equality” are used to white-wash the movement. She recognizes the important funding work done by classic grant work, even while criticizing its class-blinders.
This is the inspiration for the kind of critical sociology that I want to do. It’s a critical sociology that grapples with the empirical messiness. It tells an important story of LGBT marginalization. It shows the different ways that legal organizations have used law to support a broader movement and the different relationships that they have had with a broader movement. And, yes, it even celebrates how activists use the law to challenge that marginalization. But it doesn’t simply celebrate this story. It grapples with the tensions within the story. It grapples with what work is and is not done. And it shows how the activists involved recognize and attempt to address these tensions.
So what do I take away from my interaction with this activist? I’m taking two key lessons. First, I can recognize this as one criticism I might encounter. If I encounter this criticism again, I know I’ve thought about it and can better answer it. And two, more important, I need to realize I’m not talking to an audience in critical theory. I would love if that audience can read and find value in my work, just as I read and find value in critical theory. But I’m speaking to audiences in lgbt history, in law and sexuality, and in sociology. And I’m comfortable with the contribution I’m making. I’m doing my kind of critical sociology.