On Being Different: An Appreciation
William L. Leap
Esther Newton is one of the first anthropologists who a
disrupted the divisions between professional and personal life that
wise define the academic ‘‘closet.’’ Building an anthropological career in
terms may have limited Esther’s opportunities for career advanceme
restricted her access to professional support networks. Even so, she h
duced a series of scholarly works that have become foundation mate
today’s lesbian/gay anthropology, including Mother Camp, the essay
Mythic Mannish Lesbian,’’ and Cherry Grove, Fire Island.
Esther describes herself as different in her introduction to this volum
her research and writing have been deeply concerned with issues of
ence—particularly with how people come to distinguish themselves a
dered persons in everyday life. She shows us how drag queens and Fire
society matrons use clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewelry, posture, g
tone of voice, and other forms of self-presentation to create a sense o
lic presence, to establish claims to social space, and to maintain a se
dignity, even when surrounded by adversity and oppression. In Mother
it is through their judicious use of clothing, hairstyle, and the like tha
become female impersonators, female impersonators become drag q
and drag queens become constructions that in some ways are more o
and accessible than their intended target. Similarly, in ‘‘My Best Infor
the physicality of a visually, respiratorily, and mobility challenged eigh
year-old woman into the vibrant social doyenne of Cherry Grove, a stat
had long enjoyed in this community (and on the mainland), and a stat
was delighted to retain.
Read in terms of today’s theory making in lesbian/gay/bisexual/tra
dered studies, these claims about performative masquerade are hardly
nal. But remember that Esther Newton developed the basic form of thi
ment more than twenty-five years ago—long before it was safe for le
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