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Queer theory is a field of Gender Studies that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of gay and lesbian studies and feminist studies. Heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, queer theory builds both upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is 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 deviant categories.
"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."
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 AIDS crisis 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 orientation is 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 Lauretis is 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. 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. 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 construction and subject to change.
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". 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 gay male. Instead, the term applied to sex between two men was sodomy. Over time, the homosexual was 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 politics of 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.
Role of biology
Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either male or 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 genotype as 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 dichotomy since biology and culture are closely related and have a significant influence on each other.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
In Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Anne Fausto-Sterling challenges 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
The HIV/AIDS discourse
Much of queer theory developed out of a response to the AIDS crisis, which promoted a renewal of radical activism, and the growing homophobia brought 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.
- The shift, affected by same sex education in emphasizing sexual practices over sexual identities
- The persistent misrecognition of HIV/AIDS as a "gay" disease
- Homosexuality as a kind of fatality
- The coalition politics of much HIV/AIDS activism that rethinks identity in terms of affinity rather than essence 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"
- The constant emphasis on contestation in resisting dominant depictions of HIV and AIDS and representing them otherwise. The rethinking of traditional understandings of the workings of power in cross-hatched struggles over epidemiology, scientific research, public health and immigration policy
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, 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." 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, intersexuality and 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 pleasure and 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.
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.
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. Heteronormativity was 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, transgender and bisexuality became 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. Queer culture in general is intertwining with the common "normative" culture, with people being exposed to the ideas of gay pride and 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 fiction authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler feature 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 feminist novels written in the years immediately following Stonewall, such as Lover by Bertha Harris or Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, can be said to anticipate the terms of later queer theory.
In film, the genre christened by B. Ruby Rich as New Queer Cinema in 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 fiction rewrites straight or nonsexual relationships to be gay, bisexual, and queer in sort of a campy cultural appropriation. And in music, some Queercore groups and zines could be said to reflect the values of queer theory.
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." 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 Media artists have a long history of queer theory inspired works, including cyberfeminism works, porn films like I.K.U. which feature transgender cyborg hunters and 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, sociology and 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.
- Gloria Anzaldua
- Leo Bersani
- Aaron Betsky
- Judith Butler
- Teresa de Lauretis
- Michel Foucault
- David Halperin
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
- Michael Warner
- David L. Eng
- Judith Halberstam
- Lauren Berlant
- Tim Dean
- Lee Edelman
- Sara Ahmed
- Elspeth Probyn
- Elizabeth Grosz
- Josephine Shaffer
- 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.
- Ryan, M., 1999. Literary Theory: a practical introduction. Oxford. Blackwell. P. 115
- David Halperin. "The Normalizing of Queer Theory." Journal of Homosexuality v.45, pp. 339-343
- Jagose, A 1996, "Queer Theory".
- 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.
- Blackburn, S 1996, “essentialism”, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford Reference Online).
- Brooker, P, A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory, 1999
- Donna Haraway, The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies, 1989.
- Michael Bartos, Meaning of Sex Between Men, 1993 and G.W. Dowsett, Men Who Have Sex With Men, 1991.
- Richard Meyer, Rock Hudson's Body, 1991.
- Ellis Hanson, Unread, 1991.
- Catherine Saalfield, hocking Pink Praxis, 1991.
- Jagose, A 1996, Queer Theory, .
- Edelman, L 1994, Homographesis, . Accessed 19-04-2007.
- David Halperin, Homosexuality: A Cultural Construct, 1990.
- Thomas Yingling AIDS in America, 1991.
- Ibid., p. 292.
- XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography
- Norton, R 2002, “Queer language, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory .
- Wilson, N 1997, Our families, our values: snapshots of queer kinship, R Goss & A Adams (eds), Strongheart Haworth Press, pp 22.
- 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)
- Ryan, M., 1999. Literary Theory: a practical introduction. Oxford. Blackwell, p.117.
Adam, B. 2000. “Love and Sex in Constructing Identity Among Men Who Have Sex With Men.” International Journal 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 Qualitative Research, 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 in Sexuality Studies,” Sociological Theory 25,1:26-45.
Queer theory journals
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