The concept of sexuality, what is socially accepted, what is ‘natural’, what is prescribed by religion, what is deemed deviant has been a form of social analysis, controversy, political debate and a measure of human progress.
For what was considered the least talked about issue in society, sexuality was in many ways what defined the individual, their society, culture and the legal and moral laws that presided within it. The controllers of power were white, middle class, heterosexual men. If one of the white, middle to upper class men were found to be practising homosexuality they were gaoled and deemed to be under the influence of Satan himself. Homosexuality was in many ways to the hegemonic masculinity an abdication of the throne, stepping down from the privileged class and taking the form of the lower forms of life; women and the lesser races.
Lesbianism was either thought to not exist at all or was not thought of as a problem because they were not threatening (in any substantial way) the existence of a stable, masculinized order. Oppression came in the form of the hegemonic masculinity passing laws to outlaw homosexuality and pronouncing that homosexuality was in fact a medical condition and could be treated. Yet despite the many laws passed, all the psychotherapy and electrocution the homosexual was still very much alive.
Then came the Stonewall riots, gay and lesbian and feminist movements who swept around the world, the liberation swept into the academic world and new thoughts surrounding sexuality were being produced at rapid rates.
These thoughts of sexuality are in a constant state of change, deconstructing and reinventing. Queer theory has emerged from this spiral of thought and has impacted not only on the academic world but in the form of popular culture, where it continues to challenge and in many ways further sexual liberation.
Queer Theory; It’s precursors and Theorists.
Sexual desire has been for centuries thought of as being part of our natural makeup, as if it were embedded within our very being. This idea of sexuality being a natural drive was shared by many leading figures in the academic world; Charles Darwin, anthropologist Malinowski, the philosopher Marcuse and Freud saw sexuality within human psychology.
These ideas were challenged in the form of Post-structuralism, often associated with the works of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, which dominants the structure and understanding of Queer theory.
‘[Post-structuralism] refers to a manner of interpreting selves and the social which breaks with traditional epistemologies’
Post-structuralism argues that subjects are the autonomous creators themselves or their social worlds. Subjects are embedded in a complex network of social relations. These relations thus determine which subjects can appear where, and in what capacity.
Post-structuralism contends that a focus on the individual as an autonomous agent needs to be ‘deconstructed’, contested and troubled.
It is engaged in denaturalising dominant understandings of sexual identity. In emphasising that sexuality is not an essentially personal attribute but an available cultural category.
Michel Foucault in his much acclaimed History of Sexuality, Volume I changed the way everyone thought about sexuality and challenged the idea of the natural.
‘Foucault argued that society did not repress sexuality, which simply does not exist as an entity in nature. Rather, social discourses constituted sexuality as a cultural form, in the historical transition to modernity.’
Jacques Derrida offers a somewhat different approach through his ways of thinking surrounding how meanings are established.
‘”Supplement” suggests that meanings are organised through difference, in a dynamic play of presence and absence.’
A Derridean perspective would argue that heterosexuality needs homosexuality for it’s own definition.
Feminist theory contributed greatly to many of the ideas behind Queer theory.
Feminist theorists looked at gender as a system of signs, or signifiers, assigned to sexually dimorphic bodies, which served to differentiate the social roles and meanings those bodies could have. Feminist theory thus argued that gender was a social construct, something designed and implemented and perpetuated by social organisations and structures, rather than something merely ‘true’, something innate to the ways bodies worked on a biological level. In so doing, feminist theory made two very important contributions.
The first is that feminist theory separated the social from the biological, insisting that we see a difference between what is the product of human ideas, hence something mutable and changeable, and what is the product of biology, hence something (relatively) stable and unchangeable. The second contribution is related to the first: by separating the social and the biological, the constructed and the innate, feminist theory insisted that gender was not something ‘essential’ to an individual’s identity.
As a term ‘Queer theory’ was first used by Teresa de Lauretis in her introduction to the ‘Lesbian and Gay Sexualities’ issue of differences in the summer of 1991 in which to encompass the large circulation of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual writings.
To describe ‘the conceptual and speculative work involved in discourse pro-duction, and . . . the necessary critical work of deconstructing our own discourses and their constructed silences’. The object of study in queer theory is the social articulation of same-sex eroticism and why, in recent centuries in Western-dominated cultures, this human interaction has been articulated as queer, as abject Other.
Judith Butler in her widely cited book Gender Trouble contributes to gender and ideas of sexuality. How gender operates as a regulatory construct that privileges heterosexuality and how the deconstruction of normative models of gender legitimates lesbian and gay subject positions.
Queer Theory; Gender, Identity, ‘We’re Queer! and We’re Here!’
Queer theory and Queer politics is often hard to comprehend, and harder to define since part of it’s basis is intentionally having no set definition. Queer theory is surrounded by contradictions, difficulties, opposing thoughts and political debate.
Queer theorists have different ideas on what is ‘Queer’ and what is not ‘Queer’ and some Queer theorists believe there is no set doctrine in which to be ‘Queer’ because that would adhere to the ‘norm’s’ of heteronormativity. Examining different ‘Queer’ thoughts can help aid our own formulation of what is ‘Queer’ and what ‘Queer theory’ is to the individual and how it can help develop understandings around sexuality, gender, history, societies, cultures and heteronormativity.
Queer Theory assumes that sexual identities are a function of representations. It assumes that representations pre-exist and define, as well as complicate and disrupt sexual identities. That people discover their identities by working with (and against) the identities the culture represents as possibilities.
Queer theory drawing very much from the theory of performativity, where sexual identity is marked on the body and is in a constant process of embodiment.
Where selfhood is a constructed idea, something not ‘naturally’ produced by bodies or by birth. Selfhood, in poststructuralist theory, becomes ‘subject
hood’ or ‘subjectivity’. The switch in terms is a recognition that, first of all, human identity is shaped by language, by becoming a subject in language. The shift from ‘self’ to ‘subject’ also marks the idea that subjects are the product of signs, or signifiers, which make up our ideas of identity. Selves are stable and essential; subjects are constructed, hence provisional, shifting, changing, always able to be redefined or reconstructed. Selves, in this sense, are like signifiers within a rigid system, whose meanings are fixed; subjects, by contrast, are like signifiers in a system with more play, more multiplicity of meaning.
Queer theory takes on this idea and opts for ‘denaturalisation’, where the individual can
‘challenge the familiar distinction between normal and pathological, straight and gay, masculine men and feminine women.’
Queer theory surrounds itself with ideas about sexuality as an innate or essentialist category and the opening to reformulation and the bending of the idea of gender roles as essential, and as determined by sex (males are masculine, females are feminine) through their unique combinations of what used to be called masculine and feminine styles.
Queer theory allows us to examine Western culture and problematize it’s approach to attributing everyone to not only certain behaviour’s but identity’s and it’s tendency to label, box and categorise.
As said by Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet;
‘A society which insists that each individual, just as he or she possesses a gender also must necessarily occupy one or the other category of sexual orientation.’
Queer theorists seek to break down traditional dichotomies surrounding gender and as novelist Saul Bellow observes, ‘The idea is to clobber everything that used to be accepted as given, fixed, irremediable.’
For the new radical theorists, the enemy is no longer a ruling class, a hegemonic race, or even a dominant gender. Instead it is the sexual order of nature itself. Oppression lies in the very idea of the ‘normal’, the order that divides humanity into two sexes. Instead of a classless society as the redemptive future, queer theorists envisage a gender-free world.
Queer theory results in an effort to speak from and to the differences and silences that have been suppressed by the homo-hetero binary, an effort to unpack the monolithic identities ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ including the intricate ways lesbian and gay sexualities are inflected by heterosexuality, race, gender and ethnicity.’
Queer theory also seeks to not only break down gender roles, sexual order and dichotomies but break down the very thoughts around sexuality in regard to biology and reproduction. Much of out culture tends to define sexuality in terms of animal instincts, sexual responses are almost purely biological: we respond sexually to what is coded in our genes and hormones, and this is almost always defined in terms of reproductive behaviour.
Queer theorists problematize this by pointing out that human sexuality differs immensely from that of the animals and that females do not enter a period in which they are in ‘heat’ and males are not solely programmed to seek out those females who are in ‘heat’. Humans also have an enormous repertoire of sexual behaviours and activities, only some of which are linked to reproduction.
Queer theorists ask that we dismiss sexuality in linkage to reproduction and more so that sexuality is a discursive effect with never ending intricacies, possibilities and pathways.
Queer theorists also challenge the ideas of sexuality in terms of moral and social judgement and how this links in with identity, that is-morality, in terms of right and wrong behaviours.
Western cultural ideas about sexuality come from lots of places; from science, from religion, from politics, and from economics. These ideas about sexuality often take the form of dichtomic moral statements about what forms of sexuality are right, or good, or moral, and which are wrong, bad, and immoral. These categories have shifted over time, which is another way of arguing that definitions of sexuality are not ‘essential’ or timeless or innate, but rather are social constructs, things that can change and be manipulated.
Queer theorists note how powerful the links are between sexual activities and notions of morality. And the link comes, in part, from defining sexuality as part of identity, rather than just as an activity which one might engage in. Hence, if you have genital sexual contact with someone of the same sex, you are not just having homosexual sex, you ARE a homosexual. And that identity then is linked to a moral judgment about both homosexual acts and homosexual identities.
Queer theorists note that while someone who engages in a homosexual act does not consider themselves homosexual but if another becomes privileged to this information then that person may inflect the term ‘homosexual’ on that person hence defining an identity for this person. Queer on the other hand ‘marks a suspension of identity as something fixed, coherent and natural.’
Queer theory: Contributions to social analysis.
Part of Queer theory is based around the recognition of the role of interpretation in understanding all aspects of human life. That is, queer theory assumes that events, attitudes, relationships, etc., are never self-evident or self-interpreting but always require some grid of interpretation or key to decode and make sense of them.
Queer theorists state that while every is subject to subjectivity, the past and how the self views and interprets the past is filled with ‘glitches’ and we decode the past through a lens that it set to examine the past through the ‘norm’, which thus distorts the past and continues and perpetuates those norms.
As Michael Warner explains it:
‘Almost everything that would be called queer theory is about ways in which texts–either literature or mass culture or language–shape sexuality’.
Queer theorists are thus devoted to rereading past events, texts, and social theories, especially those related to sexuality with the lens set to disrupt, de-straight or de-norm.
Queer theory has made interesting contributions to sociology, and though many sociologists are wary and sceptical of Queer theory some have taken Queer theory and used it constructively in social analysis. Sociology influenced by Queer theory is a move to a model of difference that provokes new insights into the continual reproduction of heteronormativity hegemony.
Sociologists have been challenged to sharpen their analytical lenses, to grow sensitised to the discursive production of sexual identities, and to be mindful of the force of heteronormativity as a fundamental organising principle throughout the social order.
The impact of queer theory can also be seen in studies of the institutional regulation and management of sexualities, and in people’s responses to that regulation by media, religion, kinship institutions, and political organisations.
Sociologists have used Queer theory in application of the globalised media, in particular in the explosion of reality television such as Big Brother and talk shows such as Ricki Lake who provide a slice of what and how sexuality and sexualities operate within society. They not only study the behaviour of the people within this media discourse but a public (church groups, politicians, psychologists) reaction to their behaviour.
Sociologists have used Queer theory in an examination of power and authority in the intersections between class and or race and sexuality. Scholars have examined how those in power use languages of sexuality to naturalise oppression based on race, class, and gender, such as in racist understandings of black women as sexually insatiable, Asian women as sexually exotic, black men as sexually predatory, and white women as sexually innocent. These assumptions, whether spoken or unspoken, have influenced policies as broad as colonisation, marriage and welfare law, healthcare and education and not to mention less institutionalised practices.
The importance of Queer theory and it’s contributions to social analysis and a general understanding how the world has and continues to function is never ending in possibilities. Queer theory can continue it’s deconstruction and reinvention over time because sexuality is always changing. A continued effort of social analysis through a Queer lens can only help expose the many intricacies of sexuality. It’s potential to escape criticisms of Eurocentric bias and utilise it’s position that it’s available to everyone can help deepen an understanding of Western understandings of race, culture, ethnicity in regard to sexuality.
Queer theory is in a constant state of change and challenge, it can only continue to broaden itself and academics into new thought-provoking realms.
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