USW 26 - Sex and the Citizen: Race, Gender, and Belonging in the U.S.






Ever wonder why race still matters (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. in on-line dating, even though most people claim to be “colorblind” when it comes to love? Or why and how the U.S. began conferring citizenship by “jus soli,” to people born on U.S. soil? Why did over half of the states prohibit marriage between people of (presumably) different races, and how have struggles for marriage equality changed over time?

Sex and citizenship are two concepts that are not often brought into conversation, as one is thought to be a private, deeply individual matter, while the other concerns the relationship of the individual to a system of governing structures and the wider public in which they are embedded. And yet, when we look at our contemporary world’s most divisive public debates – over reproductive rights, public health vis a vis sexually transmitted diseases, immigration, marriage equality, even our access to public restrooms – we can’t help but notice that sex (in which category we might include multiple concepts, like an individual’s classification as “male” or “female;” the practices and identities associated with “sexuality” and “sexual orientation;” “gender” as the varied performances of femininity, masculinity, and everything in-between, or neither) comprises a vital part of public discourse informing the system of regulations that often influence people’s access to the rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship. In short, we may find that sex is anything but a private matter.

And if we look back in time, even before the nation’s formal establishment, we’ll see that assumptions about so-called “natural” human difference – including but not limited to categories of sex and race – have helped justify regimes of exclusion and control by which some people enjoy full citizenship while others stand outside the boundaries of belonging. For example, we will investigate how and why leaders and governmental apparatuses have sought to control the sexual behavior of citizens. Sometimes this means prohibiting people of supposedly different races or of the same sex from legally marrying, or curtailing / discouraging the reproduction of certain groups of people while encouraging others to have more children in the interest of national health. Studying these and other episodes of state control over seemingly “private” matters will provide insight into how dominant assumptions about race difference are supported by, and often made possible through, taken-for-granted knowledge about “natural” versus “unnatural” or even “dangerous” erotic desires.

This is also a class about the relationship of history to power. Instead of seeing history as a set of truths about what happened in the past, we will approach it as a power-infused process through which people (ourselves included!) are implicated both in the creation of evidence and the testimony that informs the historical record. Histories that we often take for granted – like well-worn family genealogies and stories of the nation’s origins – are inevitably infused with silences that have their roots in larger systems of power and inequality. Readings, lectures, and assignments are designed to help us tease out and question history-creation as a process that informs our own understandings of who counts as a full citizen, and who doesn’t. As we question how notions of national belonging have changed over time and how citizens are constituted through dominant understandings of human difference, we will seek to understand how our own knowledge about citizenship is filtered through assumptions about sex and how sexual rights remain a site of contestation and struggle in the modern United States.