What is Gay and Lesbian Philosophy? (And Who’s Writing It?)

In 2008, a piece appeared in Metaphilosophy titled “What is Gay and Lesbian Philosophy?” The article was co-written by six philosophers, and addressed “recent trends and major issues related to gay and lesbian philosophy” in ethics, religion, law, scientific research on sexuality, and metaphysics. It was also commissioned by officers of the Society for Lesbian and Gay Philosophy and the APA’s committee on the status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People in the Profession.

The piece (or pieces – it’s really six articles in one) starts from the premise that gay and lesbian philosophy is not a field of philosophy, like ethics or metaphysics, but a ‘subject matter’ relevant to any number of philosophical fields. And the six short articles demonstrate this point by covering a wide range of topics: the morality of homosexuality; the ethics of coming out and outing others; the legal history of homosexuality and same-sex unions in the states; the social construction of sexual identity and orientation; homosexuality and monotheistic religions; and whether sexuality (and homosexuality) should be the subjects of scientific research. It’s a great survey piece, and a useful resource for teaching, or for convincing colleagues that LGBT issues really do ‘count’ as sufficiently philosophical.

But to anyone versed in the feminist literature, there are some startling omissions – most obviously, the complete absence of lesbian-feminist writings in both the article’s content and in its citations. Familiar names like Marilyn Frye, Ann Ferguson, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Monique Wittig, Claudia Card and Cheshire Calhoun are nowhere to be found, and neither are their insights. This is astonishing, given how much these figures have contributed to exactly the questions being asked: the social construction of gender and sexuality, the ethics of coming out or outing others, the ethics of sex and sexualities, and the legal status of same-sex unions and families. And although the papers’ authors claim that ‘gay’ should be understood as shorthand for LGBT, there is no attention to how these topics are complicated by bi and especially by trans perspectives, and equally little citation of recent trans writings. It’s hard not to connect these lacunae to some other problematic features – for example, calling same-sex marriages ‘homosexual marriages’, when not all same-sex marriages are between homosexuals but also bisexuals and other queer persons (neither are all opposite-sex marriages between heterosexuals, for that matter) – and to the fact that all the paper’s authors appear to be men.

How concerned should we be that something taking itself to be an answer to the question, “what is gay and lesbian philosophy?” pays so little attention to the debates and insights of lesbian-feminist philosophy? Can debates around homosexual identities (often, gay male identities) simply be extended to include lesbians, bisexuals and trans persons without transformation or adjustment? These are familiar, and by now, surely, old questions – a survey piece might reasonably be expected to address them. And what of the authors’ genders? The idea of doing critical philosophy, like the philosophy of sexuality, race, or disability, is presumably something more than an identity claim about the author – but if critical epistemology has taught us anything, it’s that the subject-position of the author is never entirely irrelevant, either. What gay and lesbian philosophy is may well depend on who is (seen to be) writing it.

3 thoughts on “What is Gay and Lesbian Philosophy? (And Who’s Writing It?)

  1. Thanks for this clear picture of that issue of the magazine.

    One would think gay men would be particularly sensitive to issues about inclusion, particularly when there’s the bit hint in the title of the piece! Is this another instance of the invisibility of women in philosophy? Perhaps we don’t have enough to say much about the cause.

  2. Sounds disapointing.

    Is feminist philosophy thought of (by feminist philosophers? among philosophers generally?) as not a field of philosophy, like ethics or metaphysics, but a ‘subject matter’ relevant to any number of philosophical fields?

  3. DavidC, to answer your question, see this, for example. To some, it’s more than just a sub-category, it’s an “interest group.”

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