by Scott Barclay, Mary Bernstein, and Anna-Maria Marshall (eds.). New York: New York University Press, 2009. 448pp. Cloth. $89.00. ISBN: 9780814791301. Paper. $28.00. ISBN: 9780814791318.

Reviewed by Matthew Dean Hindman, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Email: hindm006 [at] umn.edu.


QUEER MOBILIZATIONS: LGBT ACTIVISTS CONFRONT THE LAW is an edited volume that reflects the burgeoning voice and growing favorability of the LGBT movement within the world’s court systems. Demonstrating that legal battles have far-reaching social effects despite being largely hidden from the public eye, the book’s contributors critically examine how the LGBT movement and the law interact to shape discourses pertaining to sexual justice, political rights, and political identity. This collection of essays offers a welcome interdisciplinary supplement to those areas of LGBT scholarship most closely connected to the LGBT movement – namely, queer theory, queer history, and gender studies. Additionally, QUEER MOBILIZATIONS scrutinizes both the theory and empirics driving LGBT political and legal struggles worldwide by exploring how legal structures simultaneously promote and hamper changes to our sexualized social structures, adding much-needed perspective to the sometimes polemic debates within various social movements between proponents and critics of legal action.

As the editors of this volume, Scott Barclay, Mary Bernstein, and Anna-Maria Marshall endeavor to fulfill a tall order – that is, to examine “how the LGBT movement’s engagement with the law configures and reconfigures the very meanings of sexuality, sex, gender, privacy, discrimination, and family in law and society more generally” (p.1). In their introductory chapter, they discuss debates that, though perhaps most pronounced in the LGBT movement, affect a number of historically marginalized groups. Specifically, this volume engages – and, it claims, moves beyond – decades-old questions regarding whether the legal system offers the most appropriate channel for initiating widespread social change, and whether the inherited wisdom of devoting substantial financial resources to pursuing legal change continues to be a prudent plan of action. After all, as Barclay, Bernstein, and Marshall confess, an intense focus on legal action (and the rights discourse that accompanies it) necessitates a dependence on the state that may position the LGBT community as a supplicant to governmental authority rather than an agent of emancipation. Nevertheless, political rights and the force of law tend to normalize lifestyles, solidify gender binaries, and define family structures in ways that, whether beneficial or menacing to LGBT peoples, social scientists sometimes fail to recognize or comprehend adequately. Rejecting a “simplistic approach to understanding law’s structural power,” [*23] Barclay, Bernstein, and Marshall assure readers that the law is neither a cure-all for the world’s oppressed nor, conversely, a guarantor of conservative supremacy (p.17). Rather, the law’s symbolic power provides a mixed normative bag by simultaneously enabling and constraining possibilities for liberation.

QUEER MOBILIZATIONS is divided into three parts. Part I, titled “Social Movement Strategies and the Law,” highlights “the peculiar power of law to construct, define, limit, and empower social life” (p.12). Chapters include a discussion of a Namibian social movement organization’s decision to avoid pursuing legal tactics due to fear of state repression, an advancement of a “queer continuum” approach to legal argumentation and analysis, a content analysis exploring the use of collective action frames in the watershed LAWRENCE v. TEXAS sodomy case, and a general discussion of interest groups’ amicus curiae briefs before the Court in the United States’ only five Supreme Court cases centering upon LGBT rights. Tenuously held together under the general theme of “strategy,” this section’s most valuable contributions come from Darren Rosenblum and Nicolas Pedriana. Both authors illuminate the power of frames and signifiers that activists use before the courts, and argue that the courts’ chosen frames employed to endorse or deny their efforts – whether mirroring the legal arguments of activists or not – matter highly as well. The shape of the LGBT movement and the identities it represents, then, are in part products of this interaction between strategic litigants and the juridical order in which they operate.

Part II proceeds under the broad banner of “Activism, Discourse, and Legal Change” which, like Part I, presents a hodgepodge of topics ranging from worldwide trends in the reform of sodomy laws to localized efforts to advance transgender rights. In this section, readers may find work on the courts’ approaches to transgender issues most fascinating and valuable. Amy L. Stone’s chapter “Like Sexual Orientation? Like Gender?” presents a compelling case that local policy elites rely heavily upon social movement activists for information about lesser known or publicly understood identities. As a result, she argues, local activists largely shape the types of successes that the movement incurs by interpreting and explaining transgender issues as, on one hand, “like sexual orientation” or, on the other, as “like gender.” The manner in which these understandings are incorporated and codified into the law, then, largely structures the types of legal protections – i.e., whether sexual orientation or gender-based rights – offered to transgendered individuals.

Marybeth Herald’s chapter, “Explaining the Difference,” demonstrates the limitations of this framework on the national stage, explaining the durability of binary understandings of sex and gender in the United States court system. In the United States, one’s sex assigned at birth largely determines the courts’ definition of one’s sex at all points in one’s life, with minimal if any flexibility even for those who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. The result is a struggle “to fit transgender persons into ill-defined and narrow concepts of male and female,” and a corresponding reliance upon “heterosexual marriage scripts” to determine whom [*24] transgendered individuals can or cannot legally marry (p.196). For this reason, Herald suggests, “a transgender person’s ability to marry becomes intertwined with the fate of same-sex marriage,” despite concerns that these two movements are not necessarily natural companions (p.203). As a result, transgenderedness becomes a matter “like sexual orientation,” whether or not activists on the national stage represent the issue in those terms. (European courts, it is worth noting, have proven themselves more flexible than their counterparts in the United States.)

Part III of the book, “Legal Symbols,” confronts how discourse and framing effects variously constrain and enable the strategies or cultural understandings used by LGBTQ social movements. The book’s final chapter, “The Gay DivorcĂ©e,” written by Ellen Ann Andersen, provides the most clear and prescient exposition of this point. According to Andersen, among the various benefits and rights linked to marriage, one issue remains off limits for LGBT advocates to use as a point of mobilization – that is, “access to the courts to determine the rights and responsibilities of each spouse after a relationship’s dissolution,” or, “[i]n a word, divorce” (p.282). This issue, Andersen points out, rarely gains consideration by the Human Rights Campaign or other groups advocating on behalf of same-sex marriage. Despite the obvious benefits of having the same legal recourse as heterosexual couples upon a relationship’s termination, it is unwise and perhaps even dangerous for advocacy organizations to highlight these benefits because of the continuing stigmatization of divorce as marriage’s failure. Though Andersen’s specific argument about divorce benefits and the LGBT movement is important in its own right, her broader point about the relationship between prevailing symbolic orders and mobilization is both compelling and underappreciated within the social movement literature. Social movements advocating for marginalized social groups are constrained in the symbolism that they undertake, as some arguments, while legally sound and of potential benefit to a movement, “diverge too radically from prevailing cultural understandings” to be of much strategic political use (p.283). To take Andersen’s argument a step further, we might also posit that LGBTQ individuals’ own understandings of their interests and identities are shaped by prevailing cultural symbols, extending the importance of her point beyond strategy. In other words, this section provides inroads to deeper considerations about how movement strategies feed into the very core of political subjectivities.

Taken as a whole, QUEER MOBILIZATIONS reads as a scholarly mishmash of work concerned with the direction of the LGBTQ movement. This edited volume will provide a useful tool for anyone wanting to stay current on the latest scholarship on the group’s struggle against and within a largely unyielding heteronormative legal order. However, despite a strong introductory chapter, the volume lacks a conclusion that summarizes the book’s conceptual additions and substantive challenges to the literatures in which these essays are situated. To be fair to Barclay, Bernstein, and Marshall, this shortcoming is not the mark of a book without a clear message, but rather of a literature without a clear set of central, [*25] canonical texts. Whereas much of the literature connecting social movements (particularly the civil rights movement) and the law cites, for example, Gerald Rosenberg’s THE HOLLOW HOPE (2008) – and indeed, several chapters in this volume do just that – and whereas queer theorists in the humanities typically cite Judith Butler’s GENDER TROUBLE (1999), empirically-minded scholars of LGBTQ politics have no similar standard-bearer to center the scholarly conversation. To this end, QUEER MOBILIZATIONS helps to identify a lacuna within the burgeoning field of LGBTQ studies. Barclay, Bernstein, and Marshall’s collection, in this regard, should not just be read as an edited volume on LGBTQ politics and the law, but as an invitation for the field’s next canonical text to emerge.

Butler, Judith. 1999. GENDER TROUBLE: FEMINISM AND THE SUBVERSION OF IDENTITY, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Rosenberg, Gerald. 2008. THE HOLLOW HOPE: CAN COURTS BRING ABOUT SOCIAL CHANGE? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LAWRENCE v. TEXAS, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Matthew Dean Hindman.