- Queer theory
Queer theory is a field of
Gender Studiesthat emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of gay and lesbianstudies and feminist studies. Heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, queer theory builds both upon feministchallenges to the idea that genderis part of the essential self and upon gay/lesbian studies' close examination of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Whereas gay/lesbian studies focused its inquiries into "natural" and "unnatural" behavior with respect to homosexual behavior, queer theory expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviantcategories.
"In the late 1960s, closets opened, and gay and lesbian scholars who had up till then remained silent regarding their sexuality or the presence of homosexual themes in literature began to speak." [Ryan, M., 1999. Literary Theory: a practical introduction. Oxford. Blackwell. P. 115]
Although many people believe that queer theory is only about homosexual representations in literature, it also explores the categories of gender, as well as
sexual orientation. Some argue that queer theory is a by-product of third-wave feminism, while others claim that it is a result of the valuation of postmodern minoritizing, that is, the idea that the smallest constituent must have a voice and identity equivalent to all others.
Queer theory's main project is exploring the contestations of the categorization of gender and sexuality. Theorists claim that identities are not fixed – they cannot be categorized and labeled – because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorize by one characteristic is wrong. For example, a woman can be a woman without being labelled a lesbian or feminist, and she may have a different race from the dominant culture. She should, queer theorists argue, be classed as possessing an individual identity and not put in the collective basket of feminists or of colour or the like.
Queer theorists analyze texts to expose underlying meanings within and to challenge the notions of "straight" ideology, and in this way owes much of its drive to the tenets of post-structuralist theory, and deconstruction in particular. Queer theory should not be confused with queer
activism, which developed as a response to the AIDScrisis of the 1980s. Although there is overlap, queer theory became occupied, in part, with what effects necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing.
Queer theory, unlike some feminist theories and studies, includes a wide array of previously considered non-normative sexualities and sexual practices in its list of identities. Because queer theory is grounded in gender and sexuality, there is debate as to whether
sexual orientationis natural or essential, or if it is merely a construction and subject to change. The focus of theorists is the problem of classifying every individual by gender; therefore queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.
The term "queer theory" was introduced in 1990, with
Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Diana Fuss(all largely following the work of Michel Foucault) being among its foundational proponents. The existence of queer language and terms is believed to have evolved from the imposing of structures and labels from an external mainstream culture and created by the 'queer society' as a means of communication.
Teresa de Lauretisis the person credited with coining the phrase "Queer Theory". It was at a working conference on theorizing lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990 that de Lauretis first made mention of the phrase. [David Halperin. "The Normalizing of Queer Theory." Journal of Homosexuality v.45, pp. 339-343] Barely three years later, she abandoned the phrase on the grounds that it had been taken over by mainstream forces and institutions it was originally coined to resist. [Jagose, A 1996, "Queer Theory".] Judith Butler's " Gender Trouble", Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's " Epistemology of the Closet", and David Halperin's " One Hundred Years of Homosexuality" inspired countless others' work.
In many respects, Queer theory is grounded in gender and sexuality. Due to this association, a debate emerges as to whether sexual orientation is natural or essential to the person, as an essentialist believes, or if sexuality is merely a
social constructionand subject to change. [Barry, P 2002, "Lesbian/gay criticism", in P Barry (eds), Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp139-155.]
The essentialist theory was introduced to Queer Criticism as a by-product of feminism when the criticism was known by most as Lesbian/Gay Criticism. The essentialist feminists believed that both genders "have an essential nature (e.g. nurturing and caring versus being aggressive and selfish), as opposed to differing by a variety of accidental or contingent features brought about by social forces".Blackburn, S 1996, “essentialism”, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford Reference Online).] Due to this belief in the essential nature of a person, it is also natural to assume that a person's sexual preference would be natural and essential to a person’s personality, who they are.
The Constructivists counter that there is no natural identity, that all meaning is constructed through discourse and there is no subject other than the creation of meaning for social theory. In a Constructivist perspective, it is not proper to take gay or lesbian as subjects with objective reality; but rather they must be understood in terms of their social context, in how genealogy creates these terms through history.
For example, as Foucault explains in "The History of Sexuality", two hundred years ago there was no linguistic category for
gaymale. Instead, the term applied to sex between two men was sodomy. Over time, the homosexualwas created through the discourses of medicine and especially psychiatry. What is conventionally understood to be the same practice was gradually transformed from a sinful lifestyle into an issue of sexual orientation. Foucault argues that prior to this discursive creation there was no such thing as a person who could think of himself as essentially gay.
Queer theory was originally associated with radical gay politics of ACT UP,
Outrage!and other groups which embraced "queer" as an identity label that pointed to a separatist, non-assimilationist politics. Queer theory developed out of unexamined constraints in the traditional identity politicsof recognition and self-identity. Queer identity, unlike the other categories labeled lesbian or gay, has no interest in consolidating or stabilizing itself. It maintains its critique of identity-focus by understanding the formation of its own coalition; this may result in exclusionary effects in excess of those intended.
Acknowledging the inevitable violence of identity politics, and having no stake in its own
ideology, queer is less an identity than a critique of identity. However, it is in no position to imagine itself outside the circuit of problems energized by identity politics. Instead of defending itself against those criticisms that its operations attract, queer allows those criticisms to shape its - for now unimaginable – future directions. "The term," writes Butler, "will be revised, dispelled, rendered obsolete to the extent that it yields to the demands which resist the term precisely because of the exclusions by which it is mobilized." The mobilization of queer foregrounds the conditions of political representation, its intentions and effects, its resistance to and recovery by the existing networks of power. [Brooker, P, "A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory", 1999]
Role of biology
Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either
maleor female, even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter's syndrome[XXY] ). This complicates the use of genotypeas a means to define exactly two distinct sexes. Intersexed individuals may for many different biological reasons have ambiguous sexual characteristics.
Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersexual individuals include John Money,
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ruth Hubbard, Carol Tavris, and Joan Roughgarden.
Some key experts in the study of culture, such as
Barbara Rogoff, believe that the traditional distinction between biology and culture is a false dichotomysince biology and culture are closely related and have a significant influence on each other.Fact|date=February 2007
In "Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality",
Anne Fausto-Sterlingchallenges many of the biological underpinnings surrounding how we constitute gender and sexuality. From genitalia to brain composition, "hormones and gender chemistry," "toward a theory of human sexuality." A feminist biologist, Fausto-Sterling navigates the scientific underpinnings of sex. In contrast, some queer theorists are attempting to reconcile the biological and sociological bases of sexing, incorporating both models.Fact|date=March 2008
The HIV/AIDS discourse
Much of queer theory developed out of a response to the
AIDScrisis, which promoted a renewal of radical activism, and the growing homophobiabrought about by public responses to AIDS. Queer theory became occupied in part with what effects – put into circulation around the AIDS epidemic – necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing in "queer".
To examine the effects that HIV/AIDS has on queer theory is to look at the ways in which the status of the subject or individual is treated in the biomedical discourses that construct them. [
Donna Haraway, "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies", 1989.]
# The shift, affected by same sex education in emphasizing sexual practices over sexual identities [Michael Bartos, "Meaning of Sex Between Men", 1993 and G.W. Dowsett, "Men Who Have Sex With Men", 1991.]
# The persistent misrecognition of HIV/AIDS as a "gay" disease [Richard Meyer, "Rock Hudson's Body", 1991.]
# Homosexuality as a kind of fatality [Ellis Hanson, "Unread", 1991.]
# The coalition politics of much HIV/AIDS activism that rethinks identity in terms of affinity rather than essence [Catherine Saalfield, "hocking Pink Praxis", 1991.] and therefore includes not only
lesbians and gay men but also bisexuals, transsexuals, sex workers, people with AIDS, health workers, and parents and friends of gays; the pressing recognition that discourse is not a separate or second-order "reality" [Jagose, A 1996, Queer Theory, [http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-Dec-] .]
# The constant emphasis on contestation in resisting dominant depictions of
HIVand AIDS and representing them otherwise [Edelman, L 1994, "Homographesis", [http://www/faculty/uwb/edu/mgddberg/courses/definitions/queer.html] . Accessed 19-04-2007.] . The rethinking of traditional understandings of the workings of power in cross-hatched struggles over epidemiology, scientific research, public health and immigration policy [David Halperin, "Homosexuality: A Cultural Construct", 1990.]
The material effects of AIDS contested many cultural assumptions about identity, justice, desire and knowledge, which some scholars felt challenged the entire system of Western thought, [Thomas Yingling "AIDS in America", 1991.] believing it maintained the health and immunity of epistemology: "the psychic presence of AIDS signifies a collapse of identity and difference that refuses to be abjected from the systems of self-knowledge." [
Ibid., p. 292. ] Thus queer theory and AIDS become interconnected because each is articulated through a postmodernist understanding of the death of the subject and both understand identity as an ambivalent site.
Prostitution, pornography and
S & M
Queer theory, unlike most feminist theory and lesbian and gay studies, includes a wide array of previously considered non-normative sexualities and sexual practices in its list of identities. Not all of these are non-heterosexual.
Sadism and masochism, prostitution, inversion, transgender, bisexuality, intersexualityand many other things are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for more involved investigations into class difference and racial, ethnic and regional particulars allow for a wide ranging field of investigation using non-normative analysis as a tool in reconfiguring the way we understand pleasureand desire.
The key element is that of viewing sexuality as constructed through discourse, with no list or set of constituted preexisting sexuality realities, but rather identities constructed through discursive operations. It is important to consider discourse in its broadest sense as shared meaning making, as Foucault and Queer Theory would take the term to mean. In this way sexual activity, having shared rules and symbols would be as much a discourse as a conversation, and sexual practice itself constructs its reality rather than reflecting a proper biological predefined sexuality.
This point of view places these theorists in conflict with some branches of feminism that view prostitution and pornography, for example, as mechanisms for the oppressions of women. Other branches of feminism tend to vocally disagree with this latter interpretation and celebrate pornography as a means of adult sexual representation. [ [http://www.zetetics.com/mac/xxx/index.html XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography ] ]
The role of language
Queer theory is likened to language because it is never static, but is ever-evolving. Richard Norton suggests that the existence of queer language is believed to have evolved from the imposing of structures and labels from an external mainstream culture. [Norton, R 2002, “"Queer language, A Critique of Social Construcionism and Postmodern Queer Theory" [http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/social23.htm] .]
Early discourse of queer theory involved leading theorists: Michael Foucault, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others. This discourse centered on the way that knowledge of sexuality was structured through the use of language.
Heteronormativitywas the main focus of discourse, where heterosexuality was viewed as normal and any deviations, such as homosexuality, as abnormal or "queer".
In later years there was an explosion of discourse on sexuality and sexual orientations with the coming-of-age of the Internet. Prior to this, discourse was controlled by institutional publishing, and with the growth of the internet and its popularity, the community could have its own discussion on what sexuality and sexual orientation was. Homosexual and heterosexual were no longer the main topics of discourse;
BDSM, transgenderand bisexualitybecame topics of discourse.
Although homosexuality and queer practices are nothing new, the association between queer practices and deviancy is taking on new meaning in the modern world as queer community and queer culture becomes more apparent. Queer culture is not limited to queer sex. Queer culture, from an ideological standpoint, represents the queer community and its arts, lifestyles, institutions, writings, politics, relationships and everything else encompassed in culture. Two common sects of queer culture are the "flamboyant" and "
the closet." The flamboyant side of queer culture originates in “the streets” with butch dykes, clubs, bars and drag queens. The closet side of the queer culture is more secretive with code words, separate social lives and rarely mixes with the flamboyant street culture. [Wilson, N 1997, "Our families, our values: snapshots of queer kinship", R Goss & A Adams (eds), Strongheart Haworth Press, pp 22.] Queer culture in general is intertwining with the common "normative" culture, with people being exposed to the ideas of gay prideand becoming more educated about queer studies in schools and society.
Media and other creative works
Many queer theorists have created creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example,
science fictionauthors such as Samuel Delanyand Octavia Butlerfeature many values and themes from queer theory in their work. Patrick Califia's published fiction also draws heavily on concepts and ideas from queer theory. Some lesbian feministnovels written in the years immediately following Stonewall, such as "Lover" by Bertha Harrisor " Les Guérillères" by Monique Wittig, can be said to anticipate the terms of later queer theory.
In film, the genre christened by
B. Ruby Richas New Queer Cinemain 1992 continues, as Queer Cinema, to draw heavily on the prevailing critical climate of queer theory; a good early example of this is the Jean Genet-inspired movie "Poison" by the director Todd Haynes. In fan fiction, the genre known as slash fictionrewrites straight or nonsexual relationships to be gay, bisexual, and queer in sort of a campy cultural appropriation. And in music, some Queercoregroups and zinescould be said to reflect the values of queer theory. [Matias Viegener, "The only haircut that makes sense anymore," in "Queer Looks: Lesbian & Gay Experimental Media" (Routledge, New York: 1993) & "Kinky Escapades, Bedroom Techniques, Unbridled Passion, and Secret Sex Codes," in "Camp Grounds: Gay & Lesbian Style" (U Mass, Boston: 1994)]
Queer theorists analyze texts and challenge the cultural notions of "straight" ideology; that is, does "straight" imply heterosexuality as normal or is everyone potentially gay? As Ryan states: "It is only the laborious imprinting of heterosexual norms that cuts away those potentials and manufactures heterosexuality as the dominant sexual format." [Ryan, M., 1999. "Literary Theory: a practical introduction". Oxford. Blackwell, p.117.] For example, Hollywood pursues the "straight" theme as being the dominant theme to outline what masculine is. This is particularly noticeable in gangster films, action films and westerns, which never have "weak" (read: homosexual) men playing the heroes, with the recent exception of the film "
Brokeback Mountain". Queer theory looks at destabilizing and shifting the boundaries of these cultural constructions.
Queer theorists also analyze texts to expose underlying meanings in texts and investigate the discrepancies between homosocial male bonding, homophobia and homosexuality in English literature. "
King Lear" is often used as an example. New Mediaartists have a long history of queer theory inspired works, including cyberfeminismworks, porn films like " I.K.U." which feature transgender cyborg hunters and [http://sharingissexy.org Sharing is Sexy] , an "open source porn laboratory", using social software, creative commons licensing and netporn to explore queer sexualities beyond the male/female binary.
Despite the popularity of queer theory in recent years, this body of work is not without its critics. Typically, critics of queer theory are concerned that the approach obscures or glosses altogether the material conditions that underpin discourse (Edwards 1998). Edwards (1998) for instance, argues that queer theory extrapolates too broadly from textual analysis in undertaking an examination of the social. And similarly, Green (2002) argues that queer theory ignores the social and institutional conditions within which lesbians and gays live.
Moreover, some argue that queer theory's commitment to deconstruction makes it nearly impossible to speak of a "lesbian" or "gay" subject, since all social categories are denaturalized and reduced to discourse (Gamson 2000). In this vein, it is argued that queer theory cannot be a framework for examining selves or subjectivities--including those that accrue by race and class--but rather, must restrict its analytic focus to discourse (Green 2007). Hence,
sociologyand queer theory are regarded as methodologically and epistemologically incommensurable frameworks (Green 2007).
Finally, it has been argued that queer theory underestimates the Foucauldian insight that power produces not just constraint, but also, pleasure. Barry Adam (2000), for instance, suggests that sexual identity categories, such as "gay", can have the effect of expanding the horizon of what is imaginable in a same-sex relationship, including a richer sense of the possibilities of same-sex love and dyadic commitment.
Teresa de Lauretis
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
David L. Eng
List of transgender-related topics
* Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir, 1976.
* Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990.
* Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men, 1985.
* Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 1990.
* Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory, 1996.
* Lee Edelman, No Future, 2004
* Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 2005
* Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 2006
* Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies, 1995.
* Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings, 1996.
Adam, B. 2000. “Love and Sex in Constructing Identity Among Men Who Have Sex With Men.” "InternationalJournal of Sexuality and Gender Studies" 5(4):325–29.
Edwards, T. 1998. “Queer Fears: Against the Cultural Turn.” "Sexualities" 1(3):471–84.
Gamon, Josh. 2000. “Sexualities, Queer Theory, and Qualitative Research.” Pp. 347–65 in "Handbook of QualitativeResearch", 2nd ed., edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln. Sage
Green, Adam. I. 2002. “Gay But Not Queer: Toward a Post-Queer Sexuality Studies.” "Theory and Society"31:521–45.
Green, Adam Isaiah. 2007. "Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self inSexuality Studies,” "Sociological Theory" 25,1:26-45.
Queer theory journals
* [http://www.trikster.net Trikster - Nordic Queer Journal]
* [http://www.helsinki.fi/jarj/sqs/sqs1_07/sqs_contents1_07.html SQS - Journal of Queer Studies in Finland]
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