A passionate exhortation to expand the ways we talk about human sex, sexuality, and gender.
Twenty-five years ago, Mark D. Jordan published his landmark book on the invention and early history of the category “sodomy,” one that helped to decriminalize certain sexual acts in the United States and to remove the word sodomy from the updated version of a standard English translation of the Christian Bible. In Queer Callings, Jordan extends the same kind of illuminating critical analysis to present uses of “identity” with regard to sexual difference. While the stakes might not seem as high, he acknowledges, his newest history of sexuality is just as vital to a better present and future.
Shaking up current conversations that focus on “identity language,” this essential new book seeks to restore queer languages of desire by inviting readers to consider how understandings of “sexual identity” have shifted—and continue to shift—over time. Queer Callings re-reads texts in various genres—literary and political, religious and autobiographical—that have been preoccupied with naming sex/gender diversity beyond a scheme of LGBTQ+ identities. Engaging a wide range of literary and critical works concerned with sex/gender self-understanding in relation to “spirituality,” Jordan takes up the writings of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Djuna Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Audre Lorde, Geoff Mains, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maggie Nelson, and others.
Before it’s possible to perceive sexual identities differently, Jordan argues, current habits for classifying them have to be disrupted. In this way, Queer Callings asks us to reach beyond identity language and invites us to re-perform a selection of alternate languages—some from before the invention of phrases like “sexual identity,” others more recent. Tracing a partial genealogy for “sexual identity” and allied phrases, Jordan reveals that the terms are newer than we might imagine. Many queer folk now counted as literary or political ancestors didn’t claim a sexual or gender identity: They didn’t know they were supposed to have one. Finally, Queer Callings joins the writers it has evoked to resist any remaining confidence that it’s possible to give neatly contained accounts of human desire. Reaching into the past to open our eyes to extraordinary opportunities in our present and future, Queer Callings is a generatively destabilizing and essential read.
Mark Jordan is R. R. Niebuhr Research Professor at Harvard Divinity School. His recent books include Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality and Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault. He is also author of the groundbreaking work The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology.
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