Laurel Westbrook‎ > ‎

Recent Publications

Westbrook, Laurel and Aliya Saperstein. 2015. “New Categories Are Not Enough: Rethinking the Measurement of Sex and Gender in Social Surveys.” Gender & Society 29(4): 534-60.

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 Abstract: Recently, scholars and activists have turned their attention toward improving the measurement of sex and gender in survey research. The focus of this effort has been on including answer options beyond “male” and “female” to questions about the respondent’s gender. This is an important step toward both reflecting the diversity of gendered lives and better aligning survey measurement practice with contemporary gender theory. However, our systematic examination of questionnaires, manuals, and other technical materials from four of the largest and longest-running surveys in the United States indicates that there are a number of other issues with how gender is conceptualized and measured in social surveys that also deserve attention, including essentialist practices that treat sex and gender as synonymous, easily determined by others, obvious, and unchanging over the life course. We find that these understandings extend well beyond direct questions about the respondent’s gender, permeating the surveys. A hyper-gendered world of “males” and “females,” “brothers” and “sisters,” and “husbands” and “wives” shapes what we can see in survey data. If not altered, surveys will continue to reproduce statistical representations that erase important dimensions of variation and likely limit understanding of the processes that perpetuate social inequality.

Schilt, Kristen and Laurel Westbrook. 2015. “Bathroom Battlegrounds and Penis Panics.” Contexts 14(3).

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Westbrook, Laurel and Kristen Schilt. “Penis Panics: Innate Maleness, Social Masculinity, and the Matrix of Perceived Sexual Threat.” Pgs. 382-393 in Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change, edited by CJ Pascoe and Tristan Bridges. Oxford University Press.

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Westbrook, Laurel and Kristen Schilt. 2014. “Doing Gender, Determining Gender Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System.” Gender & Society 28(1):32–57.

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 Abstract: This article explores “determining gender,” the umbrella term for social practices of placing others in gender categories. We draw on three case studies showcasing moments of conflict over who counts as a man and who counts as a woman: public debates over the expansion of transgender employment rights, policies determining eligibility of transgender people for competitive sports, and proposals to remove the genital surgery requirement for a change of sex marker on birth certificates. We show that criteria for determining gender differ across social spaces. Gender-integrated spaces are more likely to use identity-based criteria, while gender-segregated spaces, like the sexual spaces we have previously examined (Schilt and Westbrook 2009), are more likely to use biology-based criteria. In addition, because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable and men are dangerous, “men’s” and “women’s” spaces are not policed equally—making access to women’s spaces central to debates over transgender rights.

“Becoming Knowably Gendered: The Production of Transgender Possibilities and Constraints in the Mass and Alternative Press from 1990-2005 in the United States.” In Transgender Identities: Towards a Social Analysis of Gender Diversity, pgs 43-63. Eds. Dr. Sally Hines and Dr. Tam Sanger. London, Routledge: 2010.

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 Abstract: The advent and rise of the term ‘transgender’ as both an identity category separate from ‘transsexual’ and ‘transvestite,’ and as an umbrella category representing a wide variety of non-normative gender practices, has been well documented. In the early 1990s in the United States, trans people began using the term as a way to fight the medical monopoly on classification of trans practices and identities, as well as to unify a diverse population of people whose non-normative gender practices were unaccepted by many members of both straight and gay). What has not yet been examined is the content of the term ‘transgender’ as its meaning has moved into popular discourse, as well as some of the unintended consequences of the methods used to institutionalise the term both within and outside of trans communities. In this chapter I examine what I call ‘teaching transgender articles’—articles which explicitly try to teach the term ‘transgender’ to readers—that appeared in trans community publications and the mainstream news media in the United States between 1990 and 2005. I analyse these articles in order to explore what possible ways of being gendered the deployment of the term ‘transgender’ produced as well as foreclosed. I argue that these teaching transgender articles produced transgender as a knowable category of personhood and I examine how this production impacted understandings of gender in the United States.
“Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: Gender Normals, Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality.” Gender & Society, 23(4): 440-464, 2009. Co-authored with Kristen Schilt.

 Winner of the 2010 Outstanding Article Award, granted by the Sex and Gender Section of the American Sociological Association

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 Abstract: This article brings together two case studies that examine how nontransgender people, “gender normals,” interact with transgender people to highlight the connections between doing gender and heteronormativity. By contrasting public and private interactions that range from nonsexual to sexualized to sexual, the authors show how gender and sexuality are inextricably tied together. The authors demonstrate that the criteria for membership in a gender category are significantly different in social versus (hetero)sexual circumstances. While gender is presumed to reflect biological sex in all social interactions, the importance of doing gender in a way that represents the shape of one's genitals is heightened in sexual and sexualized situations. Responses to perceived failures to fulfill gender criteria in sexual and sexualized relationships are themselves gendered; men and women select different targets for and utilize gendered tactics to accomplish the policing of supposedly natural gender boundaries and to repair breaches to heteronormativity.
"Where the Women Aren't: Gender Differences in the Use of LGBT Resources on College Campuses.” The Journal of LGBT Youth. 6:369–394, 2009.

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 Abstract: LGBT campus resources are vital for many LGBT college students’ wellbeing and academic success. In this article, I explore what factors may cause different groups under the LGBT umbrella to be included in or excluded from use of LGBT campus resources. I examine patterns of participation at two college campuses: one where women wanted access to LGBT resources, but did not use the existing ones on campus or produce their own, and another with a high level of involvement of women in the LGBT campus community. Drawing on in-depth interviews of 30 students and staff members, I show that two factors previously unexamined in the literature on LGBT college students produced the gender gaps in participation: 1) gender-blind organizing perpetuating cycles of non-attendance and low production of women leaders and 2) differential leadership development caused by a combination of patrimonialism and friendly-fire sexism. Based on these findings, I offer several strategies for reducing gender gaps in production and use of LGBT college resources
“Vulnerable Subjecthood: The Risks and Benefits of the Struggle for Hate Crime Legislation.” The Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 52: 2008.

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  Abstract: In this paper I argue that to understand and reduce violence we must study the productive moments of power, particularly the discourses that (re)produce ideas and practices of violence. I focus here on questions of labeling a violent act a “hate crime” and how identity-based activist work for hate crime legislation shapes conceptions about what it means to be a member of that identity group. I present data on anti-violence activism done by and for transgender people in the United States between 1990 and 2005. I detail how, following a precedent set by past identity groups, these activists framed violence against transgenderists as caused by hate and fought for inclusion of “gender identity” in hate crime legislation. I argue that, while this style of activism promoted recognition of transgender people as valuable humans and marked the violence they experienced as unjust, it also constructed the group as universally hated and at constant risk for horrific violence. Thus, although scholars have focused on the positive consequences of hate crime legislation, I find that the struggle for such laws can have negative symbolic consequences for identity groups, mainly the construction of a vulnerable subjecthood. I conclude with a suggestion for an alternative tactic for both constructing subjecthood and doing anti-violence activism.

“On Writing Public Sociology: Accountability Through Accessibility, Dialogue, and Relevance.” The Handbook of Public Sociology. Ed. Vincent Jefferies. Rowman & Littlefield: 2009. Co-authored with Damon Mayrl.

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  Summary: Public sociologists have frequently called for sociological writing to be accessible, generally arguing that this means writing in “plain English.” This is most definitely true, but writing in plain English is only a necessary, not a sufficient, component of accessibility. Our goal instead should be to write accountably for our chosen public. We argued that accountability is, in turn, fundamentally about engaging with a designated public through dialogue, relevance, and accessibility. The proposals we present in this paper should apply to public sociological writing irrespective of the particular approach to public sociology that one takes. Michael Burawoy’s approach is often understood as a significant departure from the more conventional approach to public sociology associated with Herbert Gans, a divide Burawoy characterizes as one of “traditional” vs. “organic” forms of public sociology (2005: 7). Despite the divergence of goals and vision of these two forms, in the practice of writing the distinctions between approaches evaporate, as both approaches require accessibility, accountability, dialogue and relevance in order to successful communicate with publics. To obtain these goals, public sociologists must reassess the purpose and the form of their writings, and cast a broader net for relevant voices with whom to engage.