Queer theory: A contemporary approach to literature and culture that assumes sexual identities are flexible, not fixed, and that critiques gender and sexuality as they are commonly conceived in Western culture. Queer theorists, like gender critics, take the constructionist position that gender is a social artifact, that masculinity and femininity are culturally constructed and determined rather than natural or innate. They further contend that sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed, arguing that the binary opposition heterosexual / homosexual is as much a product of culture and its institutions as the opposition masculinity / femininity. Indeed, they view sexuality as performative rather than normative, as a process involving signifying acts rather than personal identity.
The term queer — long used pejoratively to refer to homosexuals, especially male homosexuals — has been reclaimed and embraced by queer theorists, who apply it to both sexual relations and critical practice. With reference to sexual relations, queer encompasses any practice or behavior that a person engages in without reproductive aims and without regard for social or economic considerations. As a critical term, queer refers to writings that question generally accepted associations and identities involving sex, gender, and sexuality. As queer theorist Annamarie Jagose wrote in her book Queer Theory (1996), “queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.” Moreover, queer theorists seek to keep the term queer flexible and resist the tendency to turn it into a “pride word” simply meaning homosexual. Seeking to avoid the normalization of queer, David Halperin asserted in Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1995) that “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.”
Queer theory is an outgrowth of gender criticism and, more specifically, of gay and lesbian criticism. In fact, the term queer theory is generally credited to gender theorist Teresa de Lauretis, who in 1992 edited a special issue of the journal differences entitled Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities. Queer theory diverges from gender criticism, however, in its emphasis on sexuality and in its broader insistence that the multifaceted and fluid character of identity negates efforts to categorize people on the basis of any one characteristic. It also diverges from gay and lesbian criticism in that its approach is more theoretically oriented than text-centered and insofar as some gay and lesbian critics advance an essentialist view of sexuality as biologically based. Moreover, unlike practitioners of gay and lesbian criticism, who tend to assume that sexual identity defines textual representations, queer theorists argue that representations define the contours of sexual identity. Like most gender, gay, and lesbian critics, however, queer theorists draw on the work of twentieth-century French philosophical historian Michel Foucault as well as that of three contemporary American theorists: poet-critic Adrienne Rich, gender critic Judith Butler, and gender critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
In his Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality) (1976), Foucault suggested that the Western conception of homosexuality was largely an invention of the nineteenth century — as was heterosexuality, its “normal” opposite. (Before that time, people spoke of “acts of sodomy” but not of homosexual persons.) By historicizing sexuality, Foucault made it possible to argue that all the categories and assumptions that operate when we think about sex, sexual difference, gender, and sexuality are the products of cultural discourses and thus social, rather than natural, artifacts.
Rich extended Foucault’s theories in an essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1983), in which she claimed that “heterosexuality [is] a beachhead of male dominance” that, “like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution.” Subsequently, Butler argued in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) that sexual difference is also culturally produced and thus indistinguishable from gender. Sedgwick, in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), adapted feminist criticism to analyze relationships between men, between male characters in literary works, and, most importantly, between gender and sexuality. Later, in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), she critiqued the gender category “sexual orientation,” stating that “it is a rather amazing fact that, of the very many dimensions along which the genital activity of one person can be differentiated from another … , precisely one, the gender of object choice, emerged … and has remained … the dimension denoted by the now ubiquitous category of ’sexual orientation.’”
Building on these insights, queer theorists have questioned the “solidarity” and “pride” aspects of homosexual liberation movements. They argue, among other things, that lesbians and gays should not be grouped together given that their separate histories are defined by gender differences. For example, lesbians, as women, have been more affected than gay men by pay discrimination issues. Moreover, queer theorists have taken the position that liberation movements that are specifically gay or specifically lesbian ultimately encourage the development of new sets of gender-based norms that divide more than they unite.
Queer theorists are wary of identity politics, believing that identity is flexible and that categorization on the basis of a single shared characteristic is inappropriate. They question, for example, whether African American lesbians really have more in common with white, upper-middle-class lesbians than they do with heterosexual African American women. Queer theorists have also argued that identity politics tend to reinforce a web of heterosexual and heterosexist “norms.” As such, some have even questioned whether it is wise to view “coming out” as the assumption of a “transformative identity.”
Queer theorists, who favor coalition politics over what they view as exclusionary identity politics, seek to destabilize popular conceptions of normality and sexuality and to undermine the heterosexual / homosexual opposition. To this end, they focus attention on those who do not easily fit into the socially constructed categories of gender and sexuality (such as bisexuals, transvestites, transgendered persons, and transsexuals) and explore from a nonjudgmental perspective behaviors and practices that are often considered deviant (such as fetishes, autoeroticism, and sadomasochism). They ultimately aim to show that representations — whether in novels, movies, ads, or other media — are culturally dependent and fallible, not some sort of received or objective truth. By “queering the text” — by revealing within cultural representations the signs of what Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality” and by showing that meaning is the relative product of prevailing discourses — queer theorists seek to show that the truly “queer” thing is how quick we are to label, categorize, and judge. Some queer theorists have even suggested that the approach lends itself to the “queering” of other socially constructed categories. As Mimi Nguyen wrote in her essay “Why Queer Theory?” (1999): “It’s impossible … to imagine that ’queer’ only skews gender and sexuality, and not race or class or nation, as if we might line up our social categories like cans in a cupboard.”
The tenets of queer theory are reflected in numerous works of literary and cultural criticism. Early examples include Thomas Yingling’s Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text (1990), Jonathan Goldberg’s Sodometries (1992), and Michael Moon’s Disseminating Whitman (1993). Other critics whose analyses are informed by queer theory include Lauren Berlant, Richard Bozorth, Joseph Bristow, Christopher Craft, Lisa Duggan, Lee Edelman, Elizabeth Freeman, Jack (Judith) Halberstam, Christopher Lane, Jeff Nunokawa, Michael Warner, and Riki Wilchins. Berlant and Freeman’s “Queer Nationality,” which appeared in Berlant’s collection The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Censorship (1997), discussed the ways in which a national network of gay and lesbian affinity groups have sought to alter America’s self-perception as a heterosexual nation. Bozorth’s book Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (2001) argued that Auden’s poetry addresses and reflects the psychological and political meanings of same-sex desire. Other contemporary examples of queer theory and its application include Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), David Fryer’s Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Ethics of Identity (2012), and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015).