Since the early 1990s, the term queer has been strategically taken up to signify a wide-ranging and unmethodical resistance to normative models of sex, gender, and sexuality. Although this use of queer marks a process of resignification as new meanings and values are associated with what was once a term of homophobic abuse, there is always an important sense in which queer maintains, even in changed illocutionary circumstances, its original charge of shame. Despite such a short history, the accelerated rise of queer as a critical term demonstrates the significant impact it has had on understandings of the cultural formations of gendered and sexual identities and practices, both in activist and academic circles.
The term queer is necessarily indeterminate, taking on different—and sometimes contradictory—meanings in different articulations. Sometimes queer is synonymous with lesbian and gay, for which it becomes a convenient shorthand. At other times, it refers to a generational or even fashion-led distinction between old-style lesbians and gays and new-style sexual outlaws. Yet again, it can signify a coalition of nonnormative sexual identities—most often conceptually rather than materially realized—which might include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In other deployments, queer denotes not an identity as such but the taking of a critical distance from the identity-based categories of modern sexuality—in particular a distance from the identity politics central to traditional understandings of the lesbian and gay communities: "instead of theorizing queer in terms of its opposition to identity politics, it is more accurate to represent it as ceaselessly interrogating both the preconditions of identity and its effects" (Jagose, pp. 131–132). This last sense is taken up by queer studies, which uses the term to draw attention to various incoherencies in the supposedly stable and causal relations between sex, gender, and sexual desire.
Origins of Queer Theory
Perhaps the most prominent—certainly the most respectable-sounding—use of queer can be seen in its frequent coupling with theory. Teresa de Lauretis, an academic and critical theorist, has been credited with coining the phrase queer theory. In 1991 she edited a special issue of the feminist cultural studies journal differences entitled "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities." In explaining her use of the term, de Lauretis indicates that she means it to indicate at least three interrelated critical projects: a refusal of heterosexuality as the benchmark for all sexual formations; an attentiveness to gender capable of interrogating the frequent assumption that lesbian and gay studies is a single, homogeneous object; and an insistence on the multiple ways in which race crucially shapes sexual subjectivities. De Lauretis suggests that the threefold critique she imagines might be drawn together under the rubric of queer theory makes it possible "to recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual" (de Lauretis, p. iv).
It is important to remember the speculative framing of de Lauretis's coining of the term, since the rapid institutionalization of queer theory has tended to conceal the fact that—insofar as it espouses no systematic set of principles, has no foundational logic or consistent character—queer theory is not really a theory at all. While it might seem paradoxical in a dictionary entry to insist on this resistance to definition, queer theory's refusal to specify itself has been widely recognized as one of its tactical strengths. Resisting defining itself in relation to any specific material content, queer theory might be thought of less as a thing than a definitional field or network, "a zone of possibilities in which the embodiment of the subject might be experienced otherwise" (Edelman, p. 114). Since queer's opposition to the normative is its one consistent characteristic, it has the potential to invent itself endlessly, reformulating whatever knowledges currently constitute prescribed understandings of sexuality.
It is not possible to trace a chronological history of queer theory without doing violence to its multiple origins and influences. Single, linearly organized narratives have difficulty capturing a sense of the sometimes inchoate energies of the various orders of political and scholarly work that made the rise of queer theory possible, necessary, perhaps even inevitable. The risk of telling the story of queer theory as if it were the latest critical turn in sexuality studies is that vital contributing forces to queer theory are written off as superceded, anachronistic, or irrelevant. It remains important to narrate the emergence of queer theory in terms of various critical and cultural contexts, including feminism, radical movements of color, the lesbian and gay movements, various sexual subcultural practices such as sadomasochism and butch-femme stylings, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, and AIDS activism.
AIDS and Queer Theory
For instance, strategies devised in relation to AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s reformulated many axiomatic understandings of sexuality in ways that were significant for the parallel development of queer theory. In the face of homophobic governmental responses to the health crisis (particularly in North America), activists worked to contest dominant representations of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease and to develop and deliver safer-sex education programs to a dispersed population with no common sexual identity. In the context of AIDS activism, many commonsense understandings of knowledge, power, identity, and community were radically reworked in ways that coincided with queer theory's denaturalization of sexuality. Advances in safer-sex education initiated a shift from thinking about risk populations to risk practices, reconceiving sexuality less in terms of sexual identities than sexual acts and allowing for meaningful discrepancies between sexual being and sexual doing. Likewise the ad hoc, direct-action, and decentralized character of much AIDS activism was marked by a coalitional rather than a separatist politics that enabled a consideration of identity in terms of affinity rather than essence. So, too, the urgent negotiations over epidemiology, public health, and scientific research implicit in contesting dominant representations of AIDS demonstrated that sexuality is an important nodal point in networks of power and its resistance.
Limits of Identity
Another way in which political activism has historically informed queer theory can be seen in the influential critiques of the identity politics that customarily underpin traditional leftist social movements. In this respect, the queer critique of lesbian and gay identity politics takes place in a wider frame that also includes, for example, postcolonial problematizations of "race" and problematizations of "gender" as feminism's foundational category. One of the most substantial criticisms leveled at lesbian and gay politics relates to its insistence on sexual orientation as the most important index of personal identity and its consequent inability to register sexuality's contextualization within a network of power relations productive of manifold and conflicted identity effects. Radical men and women of color, for example, pointed out that the identity politics model of the lesbian and gay movements ensured that any analysis of race and ethnicity in relation to sexuality would remain a secondary consideration. Exposing covert and overt racism in the mainstream lesbian and gay communities, they argued for the importance of thinking about the inextricable ways in which race inflects sexuality and vice versa, a perspective that continues to both inform and challenge queer theorizing in important ways.
Insofar as it assumed that sexuality was determined principally or solely by the gender of one's sexual object choice, lesbian and gay identitarian politics naturalized the dominant system of sexual classification and its unexamined reliance on the reified categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This model was challenged in different ways from the perspective of various nonnormative sexual identities or practices that had been further pathologized by the legitimation of lesbian and gay paradigms. In arguing for the validity and significance of various marginalized sexual identities and practices, articulated around such things as bisexuality, transvestism, transsexuality, pornography, and sadomasochism, such critiques pushed for recognition of what Gayle Rubin describes as "a pluralistic sexual ethics" organized around "a concept of benign sexual variation" (Rubin, p. 15).
From the perspectives of racially marked and sexually non-normative subjects, it can be seen that the very processes of stabilization, consolidation, and mass recognition that enabled lesbians and gays to represent themselves as a relatively coherent and unified community generated disaffection among other populations newly disenfranchised from the struggle for sexual rights. The limitations or even failures of identity much debated across the 1980s largely hinge on the inevitable inadequacy of any single descriptive rubric to articulate the complex affective structures that constitute identity. Frequently enough, the initial demand for recognition of marginalized or plural identity categories was rearticulated as dissatisfaction with the categories of identification themselves. This questioning of the efficacy of identity categories for political intervention was a major inspiration for queer theory.
The self-evidence of identity has also been profoundly questioned in poststructural thought with its decentering of the Cartesian subject, the rational and autonomous individual, its emphasis on the plurality of interpretation, and its insistence that there is no outside to the discursive structures that produce cultural meaning. Destabilizing the commonsense assumption that identity is a natural and self-evident characteristic of any human subject, poststructuralism is a significant intellectual context for queer theory's anti-identitarian critiques.
Given his interest in the history of sexuality and his radical denaturalization of dominant understandings of sexual identity, Michel Foucault is a key poststructuralist influence on the development of queer theory. Foucault's understanding that sexuality is a discursive production, rather than an essential human attribute, is part of his larger conceptualization of power as less repressive and negative than productive and generative. That is, rather than characterize power's operation as suppressing our free sexual expression—this misrecognition of power's operation is so widespread that Foucault refers to it as "the repressive hypothesis" (p. 15)—Foucault instead argues that power operates through discourse to produce sexuality as a hidden truth that must be rooted out and specified in all its manifestations:
The society that emerged in the nineteenth century—bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will—did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex. (p. 69)
Identifying this conflation of sex and truth as key to the modern invention of sexuality, Foucault refuses the idea that sexuality can be authoritatively defined, focusing instead on the discursive production of sexuality within regimes of power and knowledge: what is said about it, what relations it generates, how it is experienced, what function it has historically played.
In arguing, first, that sexuality is not an essentially personal attribute but an available cultural category and, second, that it is the effect of power rather than its preexisting object, Foucault's work has been key to the development of queer theory, particularly its capacity to understand itself as a mode of analysis without a defined object.
Foucault's constructivist understanding that sexuality is an effect of the discursive operations of power underwrites Gayle Rubin's important essay "Thinking Sex." Often identified as one of queer theory's foundational texts, Rubin's essay follows Foucault's rejection of libidinal or biological explanations of sexuality in order to think about the way in which sexual identities and behaviors are hierarchically organized through systems of sexual stratification. Calling for the recognition of "the political dimensions of erotic life," Rubin demonstrates the way in which certain forms of sexual expression are valorized over others, licensing the persecution of those who fall outside the narrow frame of what constitutes sexual legitimacy (p. 35). As part of her project of specifying the regulation and stratification of sexuality, Rubin argues against the feminist assumption that "sexuality is a derivation of gender" (p. 33). While she acknowledges that gender relations have been an important context for the articulation of the sexual system, she argues that sex and gender are not synonymous, and hence the rubric of gender cannot account for sexuality in its entirety. Rubin's critical interest in sexual variation that exceeds any hetero-homo differentiation demands "an autonomous theory and politics specific to sexuality" (p. 34).
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Rubin's call for an analytic distinction to be made between gender and sexuality proved productive for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose groundbreaking Epistemology of the Closet combined feminist with antihomophobic methodologies: "In twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, but nonetheless usefully" (1990, p. 30).
Arguing for the absolute centrality of sexuality to understandings of modern culture—"an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition" (1990, p. 1)—Sedgwick demonstrates that the homo-hetero distinction at the heart of modern sexual definition is fundamentally incoherent for two reasons. On the one hand, there is the persistent contradiction inherent in representing homosexuality as the property of a distinct minority population (Sedgwick refers to this as "a minoritizing view") and a sexual desire that potentially marks everyone, including ostensibly heterosexual subjects (Sedgwick refers to this as "a universalizing view"). On the other hand, there is the abiding contradiction in thinking about the gendering of homosexual desire in both transitive and separatist terms, where a transitive understanding locates that desire as originating in some threshold space between gender categories while a separatist understanding takes it as the purest expression of either masculinity or femininity.
Just as Foucault understands sexuality not as "a kind of natural given" but "a historical construct" (p. 105), so too Sedgwick understands that the critical task at hand is not to decide which of these contradictory modelings accurately describes homosexuality but to analyze instead the knowledge effects such contradiction puts into circulation. Assuming that "the most potent effects of modern homo/hetero sexual definition tend to spring precisely from the inexplicitness or denial of the gaps between long-coexisting minoritizing and universalizing, or gender-transitive and gender-intransitive, understandings of same-sex relations" (1990, p. 47), Sedgwick's attention to the irresolvable inconsistencies of available models for thinking about homosexuality enables her to denaturalize current complacencies about what it is "to render less destructively presumable 'homosexuality as we know it today'" (1990, pp. 47–48).
As part of her denaturalizing project, Sedgwick points up the historically circumstantial and conceptually unnuanced way in which modern definitions of sexuality depend fairly exclusively on the gender of object choice, assuming that one's gender and the gender of those one is sexually attracted to mark the most significant facet of human sexuality. Noting that "sexuality extends along so many dimensions that aren't well described in terms of the gender of object-choice at all" (1990, p. 35), Sedgwick argues for a closer attention to "the multiple, unstable ways in which people may be like or different from each other" (1990, p. 23). Rather than assume the monolithic differentiation effected by the homo/hetero distinction, Sedgwick focuses on the myriad of everyday differences that distinguish between people sexually but are not considered epistemologically significant:
For some people, the preference for a certain sexual object, act, role, zone, or scenario is so immemorial and durable that it can only be experienced as innate; for others, it appears to come late or to feel aleatory or discretionary.
For some people, the possibility of bad sex is aversive enough that their lives are strongly marked by its avoidance; for others, it isn't.
For some people, sexuality provides a needed space of heightened discovery and cognitive hyperstimulation. For others, sexuality provides a needed space of routinized habituation and cognitive hiatus. (1990, p. 25)
Sedwick's insistence on the incoherence of current definitions of sexuality coupled with her fine-grained description of sexual variations that cannot be subsumed by the major axes of cultural differentiation (such as sex, class, and race) have been taken up in queer theoretical projects that work against the normalizing discourses of heterosexuality and homosexuality not only to consider sexual formations that fall outside this binary but also to emphasize the heterogeneous, unsystematizable elements of particular sex-gender identities.
The theorist most prominently associated with analyzing the normative effects of dominant understandings of sex and gender is Judith Butler. Drawing explicitly on Foucault but with an attention to the workings of gender almost entirely absent from his work, Butler argues that gender, like sexuality, is not an essential truth derived from the body's materiality but rather a regulatory fiction: "Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being" (1990, p. 33). Focusing on the discursive production of gender, Butler analyzes what cultural work is secured by the representation of gender as the natural expression of the sexed body, arguing ultimately that the status of heterosexuality as the default setting for sexuality generally depends on the intelligibility of gender:
The notion that there might a "truth" of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms. The heterosexualization of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between "feminine" and "masculine," where these are understood as expressive attributes of "male" and "female." (1990, p. 17)
As a performative effect of reiterative acts, the discursive production of gender naturalizes heterosexuality, insofar as heterosexuality is the proper outcome of normative relations between sex, gender, and sexual desire.
Following Foucault's understanding that there is no utopian outside to power and consequently that resistance is possible only within the same discursive circuits through which power operates, Butler takes up the possibility of gender performativity as a strategy of resistance, citing as examples the parodic repetition of gender norms evident in the "cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities" (1990, p. 137). For Butler, such practices contest the current conditions of cultural intelligibility for sexed-gendered subjects through a demonstration of "the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original" (1990, p. 31). In a later book, Bodies That Matter, Butler is careful to emphasize that performativity is not synonymous with performance. Far from being a playful or voluntarist enterprise, gender performativity is a reiterative process that constitutes the subject as a subject. "In this respect, performativity is the precondition of the subject" (Jagose, p. 86). Drawing attention to "new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms" (1990, p. 145), Butler's work has been taken up, both enthusiastically and critically, in queer theoretical investigations of non-heteronormative subject positions.
Queer Theory and Difference
Although queer theory is prominently organized around sexuality, its critical pursuit of nonnormativity means that it is potentially attentive to any order of difference that participates in the regimes of sexual normalization and deviance. Rather than separating sexuality from other axes of social difference—race, ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, and so on—queer theory has increasingly structured inquiry into the ways in which various categories of difference inflect and transform each other, an approach that considers "all the disparate factors comprised in the registration of various social identities and in their adjudication against the standard of social normativity" (Harper, p. 24). A vital strand of this discussion is concerned with the capacity of queer theoretical models to address substantive questions of race and ethnicity in the constitution of the queer subject.
Race-based critiques and activisms have long been part of the feminist and lesbian-gay contexts crucial to the evolution of queer theory, particularly in their persistent challenge to the reification of allegedly foundational identities such as women or homosexuals. Recent work on the formation of sexuality alongside race, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, and diasporic identities challenges queer theory not only to consider the significant ways in which sexual and racial identities are inextricable but also to abandon its self-representation as "the neutral ground on which the identities, cultures, and social movements of people are 'explained'" (Quiroga, p. 135). Reciprocally, queer theoretical models have sometimes effected significant transformations in the traditional formations of academic fields organized by the rubric of racial or ethnic identities. Noting this mutually transformative relation, Jasbir K. Puar writes: "Envisioning and expanding on queer diasporas as a political and academic intervention not only speaks directly to the gaps around sexuality in ethnic studies, Asian American studies, and forms of postcolonial studies; it also points gay and lesbian studies, queer studies, and even women's studies … toward the need to disrupt the disciplinary regimes that continually reinvent bodies of theory cohered by singular, modernist subjects" (pp. 405–406).
The suspicion that normative models of identity will never be adequate to the representational work demanded of them provides the conditions of intelligibility not only for thinking about the emergence of queer theory from the identity-based models of the feminist and lesbian-gay movements but also for understanding twenty-first century and frequent announcements of the death of queer theory, most significantly from radical transgender perspectives that cast queer as complacently partisan, committed to notions of performativity that refuse cross-gender identifications in anything other than a parodic or figurative register.
Primarily through an extended reading of Butler but with reference to de Lauretis and Sedgwick among others, Jay Prosser notes that queer theory's foundational texts have figuratively relied on the concept of transgender—an identification across genders—in order to destabilize received understandings of sexual and gendered identities. Queer theory's annexation of transgender for its own critical project has, Prosser notes, tended to recuperate it "as the sign of homosexuality, homosexuality's definitive gender style" (p. 30). Even when queer is understood not as a synonym for homosexuality but as a term that denotes the performativity, nonreferentiality, and incoherence of the dominant sex-gender system, the queer theoretical valorization of transgender works against the legitimation of the specifically transsexual subject: "What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman (as opposed to the performative of effecting one)—in brief and simple the materiality of the sexed body" (p. 32). Noting that transgender negotiates its significance in delicate relation to both "transsexuality's investment in the materiality of sex and a queer refiguration of gender into sexuality," Prosser suggests that queer theory pay more attention to the lived differences of the constituencies it might be expected to represent (p. 176).
Similarly calling for a sensitivity toward the material practices of queer sex, not simply their allegorical formulation, Jacob Hale references the North American leatherdyke scene in order to argue that queer theory should complicate its own, less nuanced models of sex, gender, and sexuality by studying those elaborated within specific sexual subcultures:
Here's the lesson, in a nutshell: if, minimally, you don't understand the personals and other sexually explicit expressions of desire in queer and transgendered sex radical/leatherqueer publications (including homegrown ones), you don't understand the margins, the edges, of our dominant cultural expressions of sex, gender, and sexuality.… if you don't understand gendered life on the edge, you don't understand gendered life at the center. (p. 118)
While these recent debates about the relevance of queer theory to marginalized sex-gender identities and practices are sometimes represented as territorial disputes, queer theory's reluctance to specify its proper object means that its future directions might be productively determined by its present tense omissions or paradigmatic weaknesses.
In organizing itself around the resurrected vitality of queer, queer theory has staked its paradoxical claim on something that is at once all future and no future. For every scholar who represents the critical impulse of queer as future-directed and open-ended, there is another who represents it as washed up and already exhausted: "In the short shelf-life American marketplace of images, maybe the queer moment, if it's here today, will for that very reason be gone tomorrow"; "Queer may soon lose all affectivity as a word, a marker, or a threat (it may already have done so)"; "Queer politics may, by now, have outlived its political usefulness" (Sedgwick, 1993, p. xii; Halberstam, p. 256; Halperin, p. 112). This sense of queer theory's built-in obsolescence might be read as evidence less of queer theory's inevitable decline than its transitory and always transformational potential. Indeed suspicion about the ongoing usefulness of queer theory is a better measure of its viability than widespread institutionalization and normalization. The most valuable capacity of queer theory, after all, is not to prove that it has been right all along but to hold open non-referentiality as a political strategy for thinking about a future that will be nonterritorial, demotic, and provisional but that remains for the present unimaginable.
See also Gay Studies ; Gender ; Sexuality: Sexual Orientation ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .
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——. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
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Quiroga, Jose. "New Directions in Multiethnic, Racial, and Global Queer Studies." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10 (2003): 123–135.
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"Queer Theory." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/queer-theory
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