Homosexual Identity and Critical Re-Readings
The articulation of different forms of homosexual identity can be traced back to historical moments in which the public expression of gay or lesbian identity was socially (and legally) proscribed and thus rendered “invisible”.
From the 1970s onwards, the new theoretical self-consciousness about sexuality and gender created wide scope for critical re-reading of the work of earlier thinkers and writers whose sexuality had previously been ignored, passed over in silence, or made the object of spectacular public prosecution. For example, The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall (1880—1943), an important early 20th-century lesbian novel, was at the centre of intense legal battles when it first appeared in 1928.
The fin de siècle also proved to be a particularly rich seam in this regard, particularly the work of Walt Whitman (1819—92), Edward Carpenter (1844—1929), Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde (who was prosecuted and imprisoned for his sexuality in 1895).
For us, it is hard to regard Wilde as other than the apogee of gay experience and expression, because that is the position we have accorded him in our cultures. For us, he is always — already queer — as that stereotype has prevailed in the 20th century.
Some of the most widely-known critical work on gender and sexuality within literary studies is the writing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950—2009) and Judith Butler (b. 1956). Sedgwick questioned the heteronormative bias in mainstream culture and the way in which this (often unconscious) bias has affected the reading of literature. She studied the patterns of homosociality and male homosexual panic in the 19th-century novel and the “paranoid Gothic” genre in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990).
Homosociality refers to same-sex relationships of a non-sexual nature (i.e. friendship or mentorship). Sedgwick pointed to ways in which male homosociality is often interrupted by homosexual panic.
The easy assumption that sexuality and heterosexuality are always exactly translatable into another is, obviously, homophobic.
Butler’s work can be seen as the height of the social constructionist view of gender theory. Her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) examines gender as a social and cultural performance, rather than an inherent aspect of human nature.
By critically engaging with the work of previous feminist thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Butler extended the critique of essentialist constructions of female identity, problematizing the identity of “woman”. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) furthered her thinking on the way gender is constituted by performative acts.
Gender is a performance, a production we enact based on gender norms learned from our environment.
Gender is not innate. It exists because of the repetition and acceptance of this performance.
Butler’s work offers a critique of stable identity categories (such as “woman” or “queer”) as a basis for emancipatory politics.
As much as it is necessary to assert political demands through recourse to identity categories, and to lay claim to the power to name oneself and determine the conditions under which that name is used, it is also impossible to sustain that kind of mastery over the trajectory of those categories within discourse.
By asserting the performative potential of gender, Butler suggests a way in which multiple non-essentialist understandings of gender roles might enable tentative coalitions to emerge, outside of the constrictive frameworks of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.