Eugenic Logics

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Eugenics: Queering the Color Line

Contemporary queer scholars such as Siobhan Somerville and Jennifer Terry have documented the ways in which, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sexology (the scientific study of human sexuality), and “scientific racism” (beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority rooted in the science of the day), worked in similar ways to construct modern categories of racial and sexual identities. In both cases, science attempted to demonstrate that race and sexuality were based in biology (rather than being cultural or psychological), and that “better breeding practices,” known as “eugenics,” could be used by social elites to eliminate the racial and sexual traits they found undesirable in a given population.

Members of racial minorities, as well as homosexual and gender-variant individuals, were often deemed “unfit.” They experienced profound forms of discrimination, including the criminalization of many sexual activities, harsh prison terms for sex crimes, and compulsory state-sponsored sterilization.

Representations in Indiana

Indiana passed the first compulsory sterilization law in the United States in 1907, under which that state castrated selected male prisoners in the belief that they would be rendered unable to pass along bad traits thought to be hereditary. David Starr Jordan, one of the leading advocates of eugenics, became the youngest university president in United States history when he was appointed president of Indiana University in 1885 at the age of 34. Many campus landmarks, including the Biology building (Jordan Hall), the stream that runs through Dunn Meadow in the center of campus (Jordan River), and Jordan Street, are all named after him. Based on Jordan’s prominence as a eugenicist, he was hand picked in 1891 by California railroad baron Leland Stanford, who shared Jordan’s views on eugenics, to become the first president of Stanford University.

More research is needed to document the precise ways in which homosexual and transgender people in Indiana would have been targeted by eugenic practices, but there was no place in the United States where they, as prime representatives of the “unfit,” would have been more likely to have been sifted out of the general population, incarcerated, sterilized, or subjected to other measures designed to promote social “hygiene.” Such conditions undoubtedly helped suppress potential variations from heterosexual social norms.

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