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‘Queer theory’ is a notoriously unstable phrase, and one much in contention. As a new theoretical movement with equally new political counterparts, it is in constant ﬂux and development, and is characterized more by what it challenges and contests than by what it oﬀers in the shape of a uniﬁed social theory. Drawing on the work of theorists such as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, queer theory ‘describes those gestures or analytical models which dramatise incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire (Jagose 1996). In this sense, queer theory is a challenge to the ‘obvious categories (man, woman, latina, jew, butch, femme), oppositions (man vs. woman, heterosexual vs. homosexual), or equations (gender sex) upon which conventional notions of sexuality and identity rely’ (Hennessy 1993). Queer theory argues instead that sexual desire and sexual practices are not reducible or explicable solely in terms of identity categories, such as gender, race, class, or sexual orientation. It is radically anti-essentialist, in that it challenges a notion of homosexuality as intrinsic, ﬁxed, innate, and universally present across time and space.
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Queer theorists reject any mode of thought that relies on a conception of identity as uniﬁed and self-evident (e.g., I have sex with people of the opposite sex, therefore I must be heterosexual), and instead demonstrate that desires, sexual practices, and gendered identities are performances and enactments, rather than expressions of ‘true’ subjectivity. Heterosexuality is therefore challenged by queer theory not simply as a ‘hegemonic’ mode of identity, but as a false claim to unity and coherence that is constantly undermined by the incoherencies of sex and gender, incoherencies that the queer analytic hopes to expose and celebrate.
1. Intellectual Origins
In the broadest sense, queer theory emerged in what might be called the postmodern moment, when intellectual unease with unitary and cohesive frameworks of knowing reached a fever pitch. While impossible to summarize here, queer theory’s allegiance to postmodern and/or post-structural modes of thought can be traced in its challenge to the notion of unitary identity (as in ‘gay’ or ‘straight’), its refusal to understand sexuality through a singular and uniﬁed lens (homosexual desire, feminist theory, gender), a rejection of binary models (gay/straight, man/woman, biological/social, real/constructed), and a more generic critique of identity-based theories and politics that, according to poststructuralist accounts, invariably reproduce the very conditions of repression they desire to challenge. For example, the term ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ might be critiqued as a (ﬁctional) category that shores up the binary opposition between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ that is itself part of the repressive logic of identity. To claim ‘gayness’ is therefore not simply or solely an act of self-revelation but is also a way of corralling sexuality within the framework of a category that only appears coherent but that, when opened up, reveals its instability (e.g., Am I still gay if I sleep with a person of the opposite sex? Or if I sleep with those of the same sex but only in certain conditions and in certain ways? Or if my self-understanding is of myself as ‘straight?’). Queer theory, in that sense, has developed within and through the deconstructive impulse of post-structuralism, challenging assertions of unitary identity and necessary linkages (between, say, sexual desire and gender orientation) and arguing instead for a more provisional, contingent, and ﬂuid conception of the ‘queer’ in contemporary culture.
While queer theory emerges as coterminous with postmodern impulses, it also traces its intellectual origins in lesbian/gay studies and feminist theory even as it challenges those very paradigms. While for some the term queer theory is simply a synonym for ‘lesbian and gay studies’ or even ‘feminist theory,’ for many it signiﬁes a real shift away from what is understood to be the ‘essentialist’ underpinnings of those more traditionally deﬁned ﬁelds. In that sense, queer theory positions itself as a theoretical framework that rejects the typical binarisms (man/woman, gay/straight) in favor of a more universalist and overarching critique of the whole ediﬁce of ‘normalization,’ a set of rules, regulations, and normative commands that create the rubric of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ sexualities. Queer theory takes issue with the ways in which feminist theory has tended to analyze sexuality within the framework of gender, and contests the ways in which ‘gay’ assumes a lining up of identity with acts, behavior with being. Drawing on the pioneering work of postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, as well as hard-working historians such as Jonathan Ned Katz, queer theory joins in the disarticulating of sexual identities, sexual practices, and gender that characterizes contemporary postmodern theorizing. Indeed, queer theory takes all the mainstreaming, normalizing impulses to task—be it the scientistic move of disciplines or the ethnic minority model of mainstream gay organizations. In general, then, queer theory can be understood as part of the larger intellectual ferment of the late twentieth century that has challenged the very core concepts of Western humanism: identity, science, truth, and authenticity.
2. Social Context
If queer theory develops out of the intellectual movements of poststructuralism, feminist theory, and lesbian and gay studies, it also emerged in the context of recent political alliances and strategies. As the gay community faced AIDS, and governmental reluctance to address this disease was slow and insuﬃcient, gay activist groups developed new, ‘in your face’ strategies, exempliﬁed by the work of groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation. While not always or necessarily drawing on queer theory explicitly, these groups helped to deﬁne the terrain of the intellectual discourse by emphasizing a nonnormative, anti-assimilationist alternative to traditional identity politics and minority group formations. As Warner (1991) argues,
The insistence on ‘queer’—a term deﬁned against ‘normal’ and generated precisely in the context of terror—has the eﬀect of pointing out a wide ﬁeld of normalization, rather than simple intolerance, as the site of violence. Its brilliance as a naming strategy lies in combining resistance on the broad social terrain of the normal with more speciﬁc resistance on the terrains of phobia and queer-bashing, on one hand, or of pleasure on the other. ‘Queer,’ therefore, also suggests the diﬃculty in deﬁning the population whose interests are at stake in queer politics. And as a partial replacement for ‘lesbian and gay’ it attempts partially to separate questions of sexuality from those of gender.
Queer theory therefore has a strong aﬃnity with radical political praxis and thus brings to the academy an intellectual movement informed substantively by political crises and interventions.
3. Core Challenges
Queer theory takes as its primary theoretical and analytic focus the destabilization of ‘gay and lesbian’ and the disruption of the category of gender, particularly in terms of how gendered analysis is often understood to be the appropriate intellectual framework for the study of sexuality. Queer theory critiques the conceptualization of gender as a self-evident and uniﬁed category, and argues that this framework leads inexorably to another kind of polarizing and oppressing logic in which categories of identity become ways to ‘police’ populations whose behaviors, desires, and modes of living seem somehow discordant with the identity in question.
Because queer theory understands sexuality as ﬂuid, mobile, and plural, the concept of ‘performance’ has been a central one, insisting on the situational and provisional nature of identity. Thus, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or even ‘woman’ are not understood as self-evident and essential categories, but rather are understood to be enactments of subjectivity. In this queer reading of identity, gender is understood as process, acquisition, enactment, creation. Thus, queer theorists often take as their analytic site the spaces where these performances occur and are highlighted—cross-dressing and drag, for example. Rather than assert a universal humanism (gays are essentially the same as heterosexuals, women are ‘as good as’ men), queer theory embraces the viliﬁed, denigrated, ostracized identities (much as it embraces the epithet ‘queer’) and sees in these hybrid spaces (the transsexual, the drag queen) possibilities for a more thorough-going critique of normative culture and its repressive apparatuses.
Therefore, for queer theorists, the problem is not primarily one of bigotry, or lack of tolerance, or even homophobia per se, but rather the ediﬁce of categorization and normalization that forces even those considered ‘deviant’ to tie behaviors and identities to narrow lines of power, lines that always imply repression and limitation. Queer theory celebrates sexual ‘otherness’ outside of identity categories (even outside those putatively radical categories such as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’) because it believes fervently that the power of domination is to be found primarily in the production and enforcement of identity itself. Identities, even alternative ones, carry with them normative assumptions about correct and incorrect ways of living and loving. And while identities give meaning to our lives, they also curtail possibilities by promoting a false sense of unity (this is what a homosexual is) to a human life that is invariably riven with contradictions and inconsistencies. Thus queer theorists search for and celebrate moments of sexual subjectivity that appear outside of, or resistant to, ﬁrm categories of uniﬁed identity.
4. Queer Theory And The Academy
Queer theory cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be located in any singular ﬁeld or characterized by any uniﬁed methodology. While it is undoubtedly true that queer theory has found a more hospitable home in the humanities (particularly in departments of comparative literature and English), increasing numbers of social scientists (particularly those working within the broad framework of cultural studies) are engaging with queer theory and adapting it to their own research agendas. However, part of the uniqueness of queer theory comes in its deployment of multiple strategies to analyze a myriad of social and cultural phenomenon. In that sense, queer theory itself becomes a model of a new sort of trans- or even antidisciplinarity in the academic world. That is why most of the interventions in queer theory emerge from speciﬁc and located microstudies, rather than from large-scale, grand theoretical ventures. In that way, queer theory evinces much similarity with the growing ‘ﬁeld’ of cultural studies, itself marked by a traversing of typical academic and disciplinary boundaries. And, given its emphasis on performativity and on nonnormativity, queer theory presents a challenge to academic discourses that seek assimilation within mainstream intellectual life. It is precisely that mainstreaming, that incorporation, that queer theory sets its sights on.
5. Some Critical Notes
Queer theory has been critiqued from any number of locations, but none so persuasively as feminist theorists and theorists of color. Both the feminist and race critiques of queer focus on the ways in which queer theory often assumes implicitly a white, gay maleness as the prototype of queer subjectivity. In addition, both feminists and radical theorists of color have been suspicious of any theoretical framework that vitiates the need for an aggressive identity politics (a politics based on a notion of a uniﬁed and ‘real’ identity—gay, woman, etc.), given that identity politics have been for many the route to social change. For many feminist theorists, queer theory is seen as naive in its claim to transcend gender as a meaningful category of analysis. For them, it is seen as having eviscerated the centrality of gender to social identity, social power, sexuality and sexual, identity by dethroning gender critique as the cornerstone of the critique of both homophobia and sexism. Queer theory, it is argued, sees patriarchal sexuality and sexist culture as almost tangential to the analysis of the repression of sexualities, while feminists have long argued that, for example, homophobia emerges from the larger and more pervasive rubric of sexist and patriarchal ideology and practice.
The point that gender is not the only signiﬁcant marker of diﬀerence is an important one, and one that deserves development and reiteration. The regimes of sexuality and gender are not identical, either historically or theoretically, but many remain skeptical of their premature separation. In much of queer writing, it appears that feminism emerges as the enemy, the agent of a repressive regime of identity categorization, rather than heterosexism and patriarchal violence. Feminism is often depicted in queer theoretical writings as an outdated and essentialist relic of a humanist past, and queer theory, in its transcendence of gender, race, and class, as the postmodern mode of the future. Martin (1994) has argued that, for Sedgwick and others, race and gender often assume a ﬁxity, a stability, a ground, whereas sexuality (typically thematized as male) becomes the ‘means of crossing’ and the ﬁgure of mobility. In the process of making the female body the ‘drag’ on the (male) play of sexuality, ‘the female body appears to become its own trap, and the operations of misogyny disappear from view.’
Queer theory’s relation to the politics and theorizing of racialized identities is no less fraught with diﬃculties than its relation to feminism and feminist identities. The generalizing tendencies of queerness (queer as everything not normatively heterosexual) has the potential to evacuate the speciﬁcities of racialized identities in favor of a queer universalism that claims multiracial status without ever developing seriously a race-based critique of heteronormativity, and without ever considering seriously the ways in which heterosexual dominance depends on certain racial ideologies. Queer can ‘de-race’ the homosexual of color in much the same way ‘old-time’ gay studies often has, eﬀectively erasing the speciﬁcity of ‘raced’ gay existence under a queer rubric in which whiteness is not problematized. Dhairyam (1994) critiques the implicit whiteness of queerness while still attempting to activate the category ‘queer women of color’: ‘Queer theory comes increasingly to be reckoned with as critical discourse, but concomitantly writes a queer whiteness over raced queerness, it domesticates race in its elaboration of sexual diﬀerence.’ Anzaldua (1991) also accuses white academics of co-opting the term ‘queer’ and using it to construct ‘a false unifying umbrella which all ‘‘queers’’ of all races, ethnicities and classes are shoved under.’
Many have argued that queer theory lives in a realm of almost utopian idealism and abstraction, where the material conditions of marginalized populations are ‘performed’ away by theoretical sleights of hand, as if oppression is solely a matter of sexuality, and its representation and regulation. This inattention to material social relations (commodiﬁcation, the ﬂuctuations of international capital, shifting forms of familial life, rise in antigay activism, regressive social legislation, increasing disenfranchisement of people of color, etc.) and the academicism of much of queer writing might be problems for a lesbian gay praxis that is both class and race conscious.
6. Future Directions
Many self-deﬁned queer theorists have taken these criticisms to heart and are attempting to reframe queer theory to pay more attention to structural social conditions, bodily realities, and the lived vicissitudes of race, class, and gender violence. Hennessy’s (1994) piece is an exemplary attempt to hold on to the insights of queer theory while insisting that we pay attention to the material social conditions (such as class) that help to determine who can or cannot have access to the brave new queer world. She demands forcefully that queer theorists pay more attention to the processes of commodiﬁcation and avoid valorizing a politics of the outrageous at the expense of attending to the realities of structured social relations, relations not reducible to the discursive or cultural, although certainly not determinative of them either. Queer may hold out some possibilities for a politics and a theory that challenges the ﬁxity and clarity of identity, that speaks to the fractured (non)self of postmodern subjectivity. The queer challenge to the notion of sexual identity as monolithic, obvious, and dichotomous is a healthy corrective to our vexing inability to see beyond the limitations of the homo hetero opposition. In addition, the openness of the term ‘queer’ provides the possibility of theorizing ‘beyond the hyphen,’ beyond the additive models (race, class, gender, sexual orientation oppressed identity) that have so often seemed to set up new hierarchies, or instead retreated into an empty recitation of ‘diﬀerence.’ In this sense, queer theory can make theoretical and political space for more substantive notions of multiplicity and the intersecting and often contradictory lines of desire, identity, and sexuality.
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