Queer theory is a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies. Heavily influenced by the work of Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 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.
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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.
Italian feminist and film theorist Teresa de Lauretis coined the term queer theory for a conference she organized at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990 and a special issue of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies she edited based on that conference.
Through the context of heterosexuality being the origin and foundation of society's heteronormative stability, the concept of queerness focuses on, "mismatches between sex, gender and desire" Queerness has been associated most prominently with bisexual, lesbian and gay subjects, but its analytic framework also includes such topics as cross-dressing, intersex bodies and identities, gender ambiguity and gender-confirmation surgery. Queer theory holds that individual sexuality is a fluid, fragmented, and dynamic collectivity of possible sexualities and it may vary at different points during one’s life. Its attempted debunking of stable (and correlated) sexes, genders, and sexualities develops out of the specifically lesbian and gay reworking of the post-structuralist figuring of identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions.
Queer theory also examines the discourses of homosexuality developed in the last century in order to place the "queer" into historical context, deconstructing contemporary arguments both for and against this latest terminology.
Queer theory is derived largely from post-structuralist theory, and deconstruction in particular. Queer theory would suggest that history be a process of recognition. Starting in the 1970s, a range of authors brought deconstructionist critical approaches to bear on issues of sexual identity, and especially on that of Heteronormativity, i.e. the normalizing practices and institutions that privilege heterosexuality as fundamental in society and in turn discriminate those outside this stem of power, and focused to a large degree on non-heteronormative sexualities and sexual practices. In "The Politics of Inside/Out" Fuss asserts that the concept of “coming out” and being visible has been normalized while simultaneously contributing to the disappearance of queerness. By declaring oneself to be visible and “out”, one declares those who are not invisible.
Queer theory's overarching goal is to be sought out as a lens or tool to deconstruct the existing monolithic ideals of social norms and taxonomies. How did these norms come into being and why. The view is that these notions and norms are rigid organizing categories that do not sufficiently explain different attitudes, behaviors, or conditions of individual experiences, analyzing the correlation between power distribution and identification while understanding the multiple facets of oppression and privilege. Feminist and queer theory are seen as applicable concepts that provide a framework to explore these issues rather than as an identity to those in the community. Queer is an umbrella term for those not only deemed sexually deviant, but also those who feel marginalized as a result of standard social practices.<(Giffney, 2004).
The term queer theory was introduced in 1990, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and Diana Fuss (all largely following the work of Michel Foucault) among its foundational proponents.
Annamarie Jagose wrote Queer Theory: An Introduction in 1996. Queer used to be a slang word for homosexuals and was used for homophobic abuse. Recently, this term has been used as an umbrella term for a coalition of sexual identities that are culturally marginalized, and at other times, to create discourse surrounding the budding theoretical model that primarily arose through more traditional lesbian and gay studies. According to Jagose (1996), "Queer focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire. For most, queer has been prominently associated with those who identify as lesbian and gay. Unknown to many, queer is in association with more than just gay and lesbian, but also cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery."
In addition, it is important to understand that queer theory is not predominantly about analyzing the binary of the homosexual and heterosexual. There is an abundance of identities in which queer theory not only recognizes but also breaks down in relation to other contributing factors like race, class, religion, etc.
"Queer is a product of specific cultural and theoretical pressures which increasingly structured debates (both within and outside the academy) about questions of lesbian and gay identity," but now, with the evolution of language, it is important to understand that the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are static, Eurocentric labels that fail to be universal when looking at a transnational scale. It is merely reductive to view queer theory as a byname for Gay and Lesbian studies when the two fields have stark differences.
The future of queer theory is rooted in the aspiration of the term being utilized to reference and question all deviations from normative, as well as serve as a foundation of interrogation of the normative. The desires that queer theory is centered in do not reference sexuality, however because the foundation of queer theory lies in the assessment and analysis of what is deemed normative and non-normative, sexuality intersects with the components that maintain the fundamentals of queer theory.
Queer theorist Michael Warner attempts to provide a solid definition of a concept that typically circumvents categorical definitions: "Social reflection carried out in such a manner tends to be creative, fragmentary, and defensive, and leaves us perpetually at a disadvantage. And it is easy to be misled by the utopian claims advanced in support of particular tactics. But the range and seriousness of the problems that are continually raised by queer practice indicate how much work remains to be done. Because the logic of the sexual order is so deeply embedded by now in an indescribably wide range of social institutions, and is embedded in the most standard accounts of the world, queer struggles aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions and accounts. Similarly, queer theorist Cathy Cohen highlights the limitations of a queer politics that attempts integration into “dominant institutions and normative social relationships” in order to centralize LGBTQ identity, and rather that it is necessary to affect the societal values and legislations that result in these oppressive institutions and relationships of power. The dawning realization that themes of homophobia and heterosexism may be read in almost any document of our culture means that we are only beginning to have an idea of how widespread those institutions and accounts are".
Queer theory explores and contests the categorization of gender and sexuality. If identities are not fixed, they cannot be categorized and labeled, because identities consist of many varied components, so categorization by one characteristic is incomplete, and there is an interval between what a subject "does" (role-taking) and what a subject "is" (the self). This opposition destabilizes identity categories, which are designed to identify the "sexed subject" and place individuals within a single restrictive sexual orientation.
Rosemary Hennessy cites calls for "a critique of heterosexuality" in the 1970s from lesbian feminists including the activist Charlotte Bunch and the theorist Monique Wittig as precursors to queer theory. However, "queer" marks both a continuity and a break with the notion of gayness emerging from gay liberationist and lesbian feminist models, such as Adrienne Rich's Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. "Gay" vs. "queer" fueled debates (both within and outside of academia) about LGBT identity. The independence of "queer" from "gay" came from the alignment of gay ideals with assimilationism and conservatism, while queer coincided with a radical approach. Assimilationists saw nothing wrong with society; queer radicalism aspires to achieve nothing in reference to the status quo because societal acceptance is not essential because society is unacceptable.
There has been a long history of critical and anarchistic thinking about sexual and gender relations across many cultures. Josiah Flynt became one of the first sociologists to study homosexuality. Most recently, in the late 1970s and 1980s, social constructionists conceived of the sexual subject as a culturally dependent, historically specific product. Before the phrase "queer theory" was born, the term "Queer Nation" appeared on the cover of the short-lived lesbian/gay quarterly Outlook in the winter 1991 issues. Writers Allan Berube and Jeffrey Escoffier drove home the point that Queer Nation strove to embrace paradoxes in its political activism, and that the activism was taking new form and revolving around the issue of identity. Soon enough Outlook and Queer Nation stopped being published, however, there was a mini-gay renaissance going on during the 1980s and early 1990s. There were a number of significant outbursts of lesbian/gay political/cultural activity. Out of this emerged queer theory. Their work however did not arise out of the blue. Teresa de Lauretis is credited with coining the phrase "queer theory". It was at a working conference on 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. She later introduced the phrase in a 1991 special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, entitled "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities." Similar to the description Berube and Escoffier used for Queer Nation, de Lauretis asserted that, "queer unsettles and questions the genderedness of sexuality." Barely three years later, she abandoned the phrase on the grounds that it had been taken over by those mainstream forces and institutions it was 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 other works. Teresa de Lauretis, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick arranged much of the conceptual base for the emerging field in the 1990s. Along with other queer theorists, these three outlined a political hermeneutics, which emphasized representation. These scholars questioned whether people of varying sexual orientations had the same political goals, and whether those in the sexual minority felt that they could be represented along with others of different sexualities and orientations. "While some critics insist that queer theory is apolitical word-smithery, de Lauretis, Butler, and Sedgwick take seriously the role that signs and symbols play in shaping the meanings and possibilities of our culture at the most basic level, including politics conventionally defined."
Queer theory has increasingly been applied not just to contemporary sexualities and identities but also to practices and identities in earlier time periods. Examination of Renaissance culture and literature, for example, has generated significant scholarship in the past 20 years.
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 a social construction and subject to change.
The essentialist feminists believed that 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.
Social constructivism is a concept that proposes the realities we produce and the meanings we create are a result of social interaction; communicating and existing in a cultural context that conveys meaning to us. Our world is a product of continuous “claims making, labelling and other constitutive definitional processes”.
Furthermore, queer theorists have offered the argument that there is no essential self at all, and that people exist not just as subjects but also as objects of the social world. In this way, an identity is not born but rather constructed through repeated performative actions that are in turn informed by existing social constructions of gender. By thus analyzing and understanding the ways in which gender is shared and historically constituted, the production of gender can occur differently and beyond a socially constructed binary upon which heterosexuality depends.
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 an examination of perceived limitations in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. In particular, queer theorists identified processes of consolidation or stabilization around some other identity labels (e.g. gay and lesbian); and construed queerness so as to resist this. Queer theory attempts to maintain a critique more than define a specific identity. These critiques are expressed through a whole range of notions in subfields such as ecotechnics within technology studies.
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.
The studies of Fuss anticipate queer theory. Fuss analyzes queer theory while surpassing the concept of identity politics to assert the nature in how to distinguish people who were not heterosexual from people who are without asserting the positionally of the two from the lens of a binary.
Eng, Halberstam and Esteban Munoz offer one of its latest incarnations in the aptly titled "What is Queer about Queer studies now?". Using Judith Butler's critique of sexual identity categories as a starting point, they work around a "queer epistemology" that explicitly opposes the sexual categories of Lesbian and Gay studies and lesbian and gay identity politics. They insist that the field of normalization is not limited to sexuality; social classifications such as gender, race and nationality constituted by a "governing logic" require an epistemological intervention through queer theory." "So, the evolution of the queer begins with the problematization of sexual identity categories in Fuss (1996) and extends outward to a more general deconstruction of social ontology in contemporary queer theory."
"Edelman goes from deconstruction of the subject to a deconstructive psychoanalysis of the entire social order; the modern human fear of mortality produces defensive attempts to "suture over the hole in the Symbolic Order." According to him, constructions of "the homosexual" are pitted against constructions of "The Child" in the modern West, wherein the former symbolizes the inevitability of mortality (do not procreate) and the latter an illusory continuity of the self with the social order (survives mortality through one's offspring). The constructs are animated by futuristic fantasy designed to evade mortality."
"Fuss, Eng. et al and Edelman represent a distinct moment in the development of queer theory. Whereas Fuss aims to discompose and render inert the reigning classifications of sexual identity, Eng. et al observe the extension of a deconstructive strategy to a wider field of normalization, while Edelman’s work takes not only the specter of "the homosexual", but the very notion of "society" as a manifestation of psychological distress requiring composition."
Intersex and the role of biology
Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying individuals 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 syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct sexes. Intersex individuals may for various biological reasons have sexual characteristics that the dominant medical discourse regards as disordered.
Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersex individuals include Anne Fausto-Sterling, Katrina Karkazis, Rebecca Jordan-Young, and Joan Roughgarden. While the medical literature focuses increasingly on genetics of intersex traits, and even their deselection, some scholars on the study of culture, such as Barbara Rogoff, argue that the traditional distinction between biology and culture as independent entities is overly simplistic, pointing to the ways in which biology and culture interact with one another.
Intersex scholars and scientists who have written on intersex include Morgan Holmes, Georgiann Davis, Iain Morland and Janik Bastien-Charlebois, in each case focusing on more particular realities of the intersex experience. In his essay What Can Queer Theory Do for Intersex? Morland contrasts queer "hedonic activism" with an experience of post-surgical insensate intersex bodies to claim that "queerness is characterized by the sensory interrelation of pleasure and shame".
Disability Theory and queer theory
In Robert McRuer's Crip Theory, he mentions the intersection between disability theory and queer theory and how they are aided by their own association with each other and what is normal; for instance, the connection between upholding an able-bodied identity and heterosexuality. He argues that an able-bodied identity functions as more of a subconscious mentality of normality than heterosexuality. McRuer argues that there is a system that is established to distinguish those who are able-bodied from those who have disabilities; that distinction that was instituted the disability concept. Following that same dynamic, the subjection of homosexuality in relation to heterosexuality founded the basis of homosexuality. McRuer emphasizes how the intersecting of queer theory and disability theory would cultivate, “critically disabled spaces overlapping with the critically queer spaces that activists and scholars have shaped during recent decades, in which we can identify and challenge the ongoing consolidation of heterosexual, able-bodied hegemony.” The creation of Crip Theory by McRuer was not only built on neoliberism but also critically engages with the fundamentality of the term “disability” and the manner that it paradoxically operates. McRuer asserts the nature of which that queer theory and disability theory benefit each other. The functions of the concept of able-bodiedness is utilized as an additional tool to strengthen and maintain the concept of heterosexuality and heteronormativy.
HIV/AIDS and queer theory
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".
- The shift, affected by safer 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. One scholar claimed that AIDS challenged the health and immunity of Western epistemology: "the psychic presence of AIDS signifies a collapse of identity and difference that refuses to be abjected from the systems of self-knowledge." (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.
Role of language
- For language use as associated with sexual identity, see Lavender linguistics.
Early discourse of queer theory involved leading theorists: Michel 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. Michel Foucault writes in "The History of Sexuality", critiquing the idea of the “repressive hypothesis” that supposes from the 17th to the mid-20th century, sex was a private matter limited within a marriage between a husband and wife, and discourses of sex have been otherwise prohibited and repressed. As a result of this repression, people sought outlets to release sexual feelings, building their own discourses of sex and thus liberating themselves from the confines of a sexually repressive society. Foucault argues that the “repressive hypothesis” is a limiting attempt to connect open discourses of sex to personal liberation. This sort of narrative which views discourses of sex as revolutionary progress against a repressive system is dependent on the assumption that people of the past were sexually repressed; however, Foucault states that from the 17th to the mid-20th century the "'repressive hypothesis"' was an illusion, rather a suppression of western society's sexuality. In fact, discourse about sexuality flourished during this time period. Foucault argues,
"Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex;that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement,intensification, reorientation and modification of desire itself. Not only were the boundaries of what one could say about sex enlarged, and men compelled to hear it said; but more important, discourse was connected to sex by a complex organization with varying effects, by a deployment that cannot be adequately explained merely by referring it to a law of prohibition. A censorship of sex? There was installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy."
Foucault says at this time there was a political, economic and technical excitement to talk about sex. Sex became a call for management procedures. It became a policing matter.
Heteronormativity was the main focus of discourse, where heterosexuality was viewed as normal and any deviations, such as homosexuality, as abnormal or "queer". Even before the founding of "queer theory" the Modern Language Association (MLA) came together for a convention in 1973 for the first formal gay-studies seminar due to the rise of lesbian and gay writers and issues of gay and lesbian textuality. The convention was entitled "Gay Literature: Teaching and Research." In 1981, the MLA established the Division of Gay Studies in Language and Literature.
Media and other creative works
Many queer theorists have produced creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example, science fiction authors such as Samuel R. 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. Nuria Perpinya, a Catalan literary theorist, wrote A good mistake, a novel about the awkward homosexuality in a London genetic engineering lab, between a young white man and a black scientist.
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 a sort of campy cultural appropriation. Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, for example, narrates a steamy affair between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, the mutually devoted heroes of Jane Austen's much-adapted novel. 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.
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.
Within the LGBTQ community, there lies a distinguishing marker between those who just identify as LGBTQ and those who identify with both an oppressed race alongside being LGBTQ. In "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens", Cathy Cohen critiques modern day queer politics, arguing that lack of recognition of LGBTQ people who face other forms of oppression results in many queers not being supported or acknowledged by queer politics. Cohen states: "how do queer activists understand and relate politically to those whose same-sex sexual identities position them within the category of queer, but who hold other identities based on class, race and/or gender categories". This pinpoints the idea she is attempting to make in that the politics of Queer do not encompass all of the Queer community but only those with the most privilege within the group: primarily upper class, white cisgender men. Since this is the case, how then, can a Person of Color who is also LGBTQ-identifying feel welcomed, supported, and represented if they are being cast aside? Cohen attempts to explain this by stating: "'Unlike the early lesbian and gay movement, which had both ideological and practical links to the left, black activism and feminism, today's 'queer' politicos seem to operate in a historical and ideological vacuum. 'Queer' activists focus on 'queer' issues, and racism, sexual oppression and economic exploitation do not qualify, despite the fact that the majority of 'queers' are people of color, female or working class..." This lack of recognition is leaving a hefty portion of the LGBTQ community unsupported in all of their endeavors, and it primarily gives aid to those who are LGBTQ and identify as white.
The concept was created out of the mentality that queerness equals deviance. It strives to display the error in assuming that everyone experiences one sole monolithic existence, which establishes the gay white male experience to be central to all other experiences, and that all other experiences derives from the gay white male experience. By institutions establishing and reinforcing the concept that there is a uniform experience that all people from one race endure, it maintains an environment centered on white discourse within the queer community that establishes a “false intimacy.” That false intimacy fails to provide queer youth of color with the support that is necessary to recognize and analyze the intersectionality of their being.
As a response to this oppression, many scholars and queer theorists use queer of color critique as a practice in both their academic work and personal activism. Queer of color critique seeks to recognize the intersectionality of oppressions and links different identity categories together as a way to disidentify with "racialized heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy".
Racialization of the body
Racism has long been embedded within queer theory since the creation of the homosexual body and identity. Siobhan Somerville's "Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body" discusses the invention of homosexuality among the scientific community as coming at about the same time as the reformulation of racial theories. According to Somerville, when there were aggressive attempts to separate and classify bodies as black or white, there was also the classification of bodies as heterosexual or homosexual.
Havelock Ellis, an English physician, writer, progressive intellectual and social reformer, suggested that homosexuality is not a crime, but a congenital physiological abnormality; he believed that the "invert" was visually distinguishable from the "normal" body through anatomical markers (like the difference between male and female bodies).
This was the same as the ideas about the difference between racialized bodies. There was the idea that black and white women's bodies held major differences. Black women were often referred to as the "Bushman race": having strongly muscled posteriors, highly textured hair and other physical characteristics that were considered outside the boundaries of 'normal' female bodies (based on white beauty standards). W.H. Flower and James Murie constructed a site of racial difference by marking the sexual and reproductive anatomy of the African woman as "peculiar." The characteristics of African American women were consistent with the medical characterizations of lesbians; such as having an "unusually large clitoris." These supposed distinguishing characteristics further separated not only heterosexual people from queer people, but also white from black, and white homosexual bodies from queer people of color.
Racialization of space
Racism also exists within queer spaces. In "Out There: The Topography of Race and Desire in the Global City" Martin Manalansan focuses on the gay community in New York City, most specifically in Manhattan. According to Manalansan, New York City is known to be a gay Mecca. However, this portrayal, in focusing on Manhattan, centers white, middle/upper class men. The gay community in New York is known to be held exclusively in Manhattan, as this is the area that most people who are not from New York City know. People who are outside of the heart of Manhattan and the gay community there are, literally, "out there". Those who are of different races, gender, or class occupy different spaces and communities which seldom overlap.
Manalansan gives a detailed description of the topography of New York City in order to show the actual physical and cultural barriers that exists between the different boroughs and the gay communities that exist there. Outside of Manhattan, the gay communities are divided by cultural and racial barriers; the Latin, Asian, and Black gay communities do not overlap and are also physically distanced from each other. Space is inherently racialized. The racialized gay communities and spaces in New York City only further alienate queer people of color and make them less valued and validated in gay culture.
Carly Thompsen's article "In Plain(s) Sight: Rural LGBTQ Women and the Politics of Visibility" also sheds light on racial issues within visibility politics. In this piece, Thomsen analyzes the estrangement between strategies and discourses of national lesbian and gay rights organizations and the strategies and discourses of LGBTQ women in the rural Midwest. She argues that it is crucial for rural queer studies to critique contemporary visibility politics. Due to the overemphasis of an essentially urban ethos, rural LBGTQ politics are usually overshadowed and ignored. This undermining of rural identities in LGBTQ politics is problematic for rural LGBTQ progress. She concludes that rural queer studies must be weary of right-seeking approaches to visibility politics because they indirectly allow the abjection of the rural. From this, Thompsen reflects on how LBGTQ visibility politics as a whole aid to the existence of, and even strengthen metronormativity by showing the dominance of urban communities over rural communities in gaining prominence in LGBTQ movements.
Just as Thomsen argues against metronormative ideals of the global city as always the most progressive, comfortable and inclusive space for queer people. Emily Skidmore pushes back on metronormative assumption in her article "Ralph Kerwineo's Queer Body: Narrating the Scales of Social Membership in the Early 20th Century". Her work outlines the life of Ralph Kerwineo, a person born as a black woman, who moves from Chicago to early 20th century Milwaukee and passed as a Hispanic man in the then small town experiencing large influxes of immigrants. Skidmore analyzed newspaper stories of Kerwineo when his ex-girlfriend publicly accused him of being a woman. She found that articles from local papers in Milwaukee were more accepting of Kerwineo's gender identity regardless of his racial identity (throughout the media outburst he variably identified as white, Latin, black and Native American) whereas national papers immediately jumped to accusations of Kerwineo's perversion and guilt. While Milwaukee papers empathized with him, emphasizing that he was always an upstanding member of society, and creating stories of women of color just trying to survive in a difficult situation, national news sources pathologized Kerwineo, linking racial, sexual, and gender deviance to paint a picture of incontestable guilt. Skidmore uses this example to show that queer people have found acceptance and community in places other than global cities, showing that the specific social and racial dynamics of Milwaukee at that time provided a safer environment for Kerwineo. Thus, despite metronormative assumptions of national, or larger urban, spaces as queer utopias, their discourses around queer bodies can in fact be more intolerant of people with non-normative gender, sexual, and racial identities than other places.
Racialization outside the United States
Israel, in attempts to brand itself as a gay mecca, has been accused of pinkwashing. This is the main idea of the article: "Israel's Gay Propaganda War", written by Jasbir Puar, in which she highlights the hypocrisy of the Israeli state in branding itself as a gay mecca, attempting to show how progressive the state is despite its dehumanizing acts against the Palestinian people. In the midst of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Israel has been accused of many violations of human rights against the Palestinian people, and has received an international reputation for being an imperial aggressor. Their response to this was to proclaim to the international community that they are more developed and essentially say: "Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region." What this entails is Israel is essentially oppressing Palestinians further through their use of gay-friendly propaganda, which also hides its own problems as state dealing with homophobia as well. What Puar tries to argue is that Israel uses this branding as a method to further justify their treatment of the Palestinian people, and she argues further that the image being portrayed towards Palestinians de-legitimizes those who identify as Queer who are Palestinian since Israel does not support the LGBTQ groups in Palestine, nor does it acknowledge their existence.
In "Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of 'Homophobic Hate Crime' in Germany", Jin Haritaworn calls attention to the tradeoffs between the passing of Anti-Hate Crime legislation. In this piece, Haritaworn examines the problems with hate crime legislation in Germany and how racist views are still manifested in anti-hate crime laws and have racial ramifications. The move of LGBTQ activism into the judicial sphere enables police and military systems to reinvent themselves as the protector of minorities while police activity targeting racialized populations is reaching new heights. Additionally, these newly publicized and politicized subjectivities and embodiments still adhere to a specific neoliberal ideology and fantasy. Incorporating criminal justice analysis into sexual justice narratives, Haritaworn finds that internationally, LGBTQ anti-hate legislation still marginalizes and represses other minorities by forcing victim-perpetrator narratives that target certain groups.
In "Imperialism within the Margins: Queer Representation and the Politics of Culture in Southern Africa, William Spurlin speaks about the sexual politics that have emerged out of Post-Apartheid South Africa. Also, Spurlin look into textual and cutlural representation of same sex desire outside of the Euro Americans axes of queer culture and politics.
Emmanuel David researches transgender people—primarily trans women—in call centers in the Philippines. In these spaces, David finds that international corporations are integrating trans women into the workforce in a way that both requires them to perform gender labor and partake in the neoliberal capitalist system as members of the periphery. In his article "Purple-Collar Labor: Transgender Workers and Queer Value at Global Call Centers in the Philippines", David outlines how transgender filipina call center workers are expected to keep morale up by performing in fashion shows, staying happy and joking around with their team members, all for the sake of worker productivity. He shows that trans women who do not uphold these standards or who are not extroverted in their work interactions are not as accepted in their gender identity as the trans women workers who are openly flamboyant and funny. This research highlights a portion of the queer community outside of the core, upper class, white, male, US urban population and pushes back on assumptions of 'Out There' being a space of intolerance, danger and conformity, but also highlights how queer bodies can be integrated into the global capitalist system and normalized in a place many readers might not expect.
Queer and feminist theories, like other perspectives based on socially-based identities and gender, tend to overlap. Both of these theories are described as responses to the "essentializing" of gender and sexual identities, which lead to the oppression of those who do not conform to socially constructed gender norms. This highlights their similarity in the view that gender-related identity is socially constructed. There is thus an agreement that the oppression of women and sexual minority groups can be challenged by way of a self-constructive process that rejects the perceived inferiority of this group within the social order. While queer and feminist theories share several commonalities, this does not mean that they are easily commensurable, with some thinkers citing that they could even be an awkward pair.
One overlap of queer theory and feminist theory is through the recognition and influence of Judith Butler and Butler's cultivation of the relationship of gender and sexuality that has come to found the basis of queer theory concerns. The analysis of society in relation to sexuality and gender, is a display of dominance that shows the way that biology is influenced by culture and society.
A key difference between the queer and feminist theories involves their respective scope. Feminist theory is only concerned about the issues affecting women and women empowerment while the subjects of queer theory are diverse and include women, homosexuals, transsexuals, and those considered deviants. Queer theory is also distinguished from feminist theory in the sense that it asserts identity as a conceptual category, serving as "a disciplinary apparatus that that pigeonholes the fluidity of the self into a politically docile normativity." The feminist position is that 'identity politics' is a political error that occurs once a standpoint gets overemphasized or naturalized.
Typically, critics of queer theory are concerned that the approach obscures or glosses altogether the material conditions that underpin discourse. Tim Edwards argues that queer theory extrapolates too broadly from textual analysis in undertaking an examination of the social.
Adam Green's critique is one approach to queer theory, that leans towards a sociological stance on the issue of sexuality; primarily and rather exclusively, focusing on gay or lesbian subjects. Green argues that queer theory ignores the social and institutional conditions within which lesbians and gays live. For example, queer theory dismantles social contingency in some cases (homosexual subject positions) while recuperating social contingency in others (racialized subject positions). Thus, not all queer theoretical work is as faithful to its deconstructionist roots. Reflecting on this issue, Timothy Laurie suggests that "the desire to resist norms in some contemporary queer scholarship can never be entirely reconciled with an equally important challenge, that of producing both adequate and dynamic descriptions of ordinary events".
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. Thus, 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. Hence, sociology and queer theory are regarded as methodologically and epistemologically incommensurable frameworks by critics such as Adam Isaiah Green. Thus Green writes that, in an introductory section, Michael Warner (1990s) draws out the possibility of queer theory as a kind of critical intervention in social theory (radical deconstructionism); despite this, he weaves back and forth between the reification and deconstruction of sexual identity. Green argues that Warner begins the volume by invoking an ethnic identity politics, solidified around a specific social cleavage and a discussion of the importance of deconstructing notions of lesbian and gay identities; but, despite its radical deconstructionism, it constructs the queer subject or self in largely conventional terms: as lesbian and gay people bound by homophobic institutions and practices.
So, one of the leading volumes of queer theory engages the subject via conventional sociological epistemologies that conceive of subject positions constituted through systems of stratification and organized around shared experience and identity.
In other way, for Ian Barnard, any consideration of sexuality must include inextricability with racialized subjectivities. Adam Green argues that Barnard implicitly rejects the queer theoretical conceptions of sexuality on the grounds that such work fails to account for particularity of racialized sexualities. He reasons that the failure arises because queer theorists are themselves white, and therefore operate from the particularity of a white racial standpoint. Barnard aspires to recuperate an analysis of race in queer theory, proposing that the deconstructionist epistemology of queer theory can be used to decompose a white queerness (first) in order to recover a racialized queerness (second). Thus, Adam Green argues that Barnard's attempt to bring social contingency into queer theory violates the core epistemological premise of queer theory; in fact, by proposing that queer theory capture racialized subject positions, Barnard reinstates what it means to be a person of colour. His critique of the white subject position of queer theorists is itself a testimony to the stability of the social order and the power of social categories to mark a particular kind of experience, of subjectivity and, in turn, of queer author. He backs down the road of a decidedly sociological analysis of subject position and the self. Finally, Jagose Green observes that Jagose aims toward an analysis of social cleavages, including those accruing by race and ethnicity. Thus, on the one, Jagose underscores the strong deconstructionist epistemological premise of the term queer and queer theory more generally. Yet, she goes on to analyze identities and sexualities "inflected by heterosexuality, race, gender and ethnicity". Thus Adam Green states that by advocating the incorporation of social contingency in this way, Jagose offers neither the critical edge of queer theory nor the clarity of standpoint theory. However, on the topic of race, Jagose asserted that for a black lesbian, the thing of utmost importance is her lesbianism, rather than her race. Many gays and lesbians of color attacked this approach, accusing it of re-inscribing an essentially white identity into the heart of gay or lesbian identity (Jagose, 1996).
- It has a failing itineration, the "subjectless critique" of queer studies
- The unsustainable analysis of this failing self
- The methodological implication that scholars of sexuality end up reiterating and consolidating social categories
Green's views suggest gay conservation and assimilation that derive from a more traditional perspective. His concerns regarding the potential loss of a critical edge by incorporating too much discourse on nonsexual identities is valid, however, theorists like Ruth Goldman and Cathy J. Cohen, think elsewise.
In Ruth Goldman's essay “Who Is That? Exploring Norms around Sexuality, Race, and Class in Queer Theory," she examines how rhetoric works to create a “normative discourse within queer theory” (169), and how that rhetoric serves to limit our perception of queer. In stark opposition to Green's critique, Goldman argues that in order to comply with queer theories intent to challenge the normal, it must provide a framework in which to challenge other oppressive norms that intersect with sexuality (i.e. racism, misogyny, classism, etc.). By acknowledging the intersection of multiple oppressions is to dismantle a single-issue framework, and thus, creating a platform for a more intensive analysis.
Theorist Cathy J. Cohen offers a complex critique in "Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics" that supports Goldman's ideology. Queerness, according to Cohen, provides conceptualizations that break the traditional binary visibility. Unlike single-identity-based frameworks—failing to serve those with multi-oppressed identities—queerness has the potential to unite these aspects of self to spark a more cohesive understanding of oppression. Yet Cohen expresses concerns surrounding the dichotomy between queer and heterosexual. This binary has created a misdirection of dialogue surrounding power dynamics. Thus an undercomplicated understanding of power has been sexually categorized: all heterosexuals are characterized as privileged and all queers are deemed as oppressed. As a result, queer politics have prioritized only one factor, sexuality as the primary lens through which they structure their action. Encouraging this method of thinking rejects others that are in or in-between the margins. Cohen states that to fully grasp the advantages of queer theory, ideals need to be further radicalized; as well as, push an intersectional lens when analyzing issues.
Green argues that queer is itself an identity category that some self-identified "queer theorists" and "queer activists" use to consolidate a subject-position outside of the normalizing regimes of gender and sexuality. These examples call into question the degree to which identity categories need be thought of as negative, in the evaluative sense of that term, as they underscore the self-determining potentials of the care of the self – an idea advanced first by Foucault in Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality.
The role of queer theory, and specifically its replacement of historical and sociological scholarship on lesbian and gay people's lives with the theorising of lesbian and gay issues, and the displacement of gay and lesbian studies by gender and queer studies, has been criticised by activist and writer Larry Kramer. Kramer reports on a book by Richard Godbeer, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Miami, called The Overflowing of Friendship. Kramer criticizes Godbeer's account of 18th century Colonial times. Kramer writes, "Godbeer is hell-bent on convincing us that two men in Colonial America could have exceedingly obsessive and passionate relationships (he called them, variously, 'sentimental,' 'loving,' 'romantic') . . . [men would] spend many a night in bed together talking their hearts out, without the issue of sex arising in any way." Kramer does not agree with this theory and believes that the notion the same-sex sexual relationships and experiences existed. Relatedly, educator and writer John D’Emilio argues that gay identity has not always existed and the emergence of gay men and lesbian was rather a later development associated with the spread of capitalism in the 19th century. A capitalist system of free labor propagated in society and the independent unit of the nuclear family no longer became a necessary economical unit. As the family in turn took on a new role as an emotional and affective unit and separated from the world of work and production, the idea of sexuality separated from that of procreation. Sexuality, no longer bound by the imperative of reproduction, experienced a change and allowed people to think differently about desire, thus creating conditions allowing for the expression of homosexual behavior and the construction of a gay identity.
Another criticism is that queer theory, in part because it typically has recourse to a very technical jargon, is written by a narrow elite for that narrow elite. It is therefore class biased and also, in practice, only really known and referenced at universities and colleges (Malinowitz, 1993). In addition, those in a position of power, have access to modes of communication where they can express their interpretation, definitions and descriptions of topics, sometimes regardless of the accuracy. This persons of power are given “privileged act of naming.” As a result, this can obscure the perception of reality for those in institutionalized settings. Academia often neglects works of theory by women or men of color. This can be attributed to the fact that institutions have imposed standards of critical evaluations for what is a work of theory and what is not. These standards have led to appropriation of work that was deemed unfit and have created a stark exclusion of people who can access the material. This turns the mass public against the idea of understanding theory; an important aspect in relation to understanding practice. The institutionalization of queer theory has imposed a threat of taming and domesticating critical energy.
An initial criticism on queer theory is that precisely "queer" does not refer to any specific sexual status or gender object choice. For example, Halperin (1995) allows that straight persons may be "queer," which some believe, robs gays and lesbians of the distinctiveness of what causes them to be marginalized. It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity (Jagose, 1996). On the other hand, Michael Warner argues that the objective of queer is to challenge normalness not heterosexuality. This ties back into Cohen's point about the power dichotomy. Straight persons can be oppressed for behaviors that are seen as sexually deviant as well. One example is the “welfare queen,” a woman of color who is marginalized for her race, sexuality and gender—all identities which intersect to create this kind of oppression.
The critique of queer theory is not limited to the US. Queer theory was repeatedly criticized by the Vatican. Pope Francis spoke about "ideological colonization" by which he meant that queer theory, and more broadly critical gender studies, threatens traditional family and fertile heterosexuality. France was one of the first countries where this claim became widespread when catholic movements marched in the streets of Paris against the bill on gay marriage and adoption. Bruno Perreau in Queer Theory: The French Response has shown that this fear has deep historical roots in France. He argues that the rejection of queer theory expresses anxieties about national identity and minority politics. Minority groups could betray the nation and prefer transnational identities. Perreau maintains that queer theory shows that being part of a group requires the ability to critique one's own belonging. This is largely unbearable to reactionary movements, Perreau argues, all the more because queer theory is ironically largely based on French theory.
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