Queer theory

Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue skies and the sun.

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. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorization of 'queerness' itself.[clarify] Heavily influenced by the work of Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam,[1] 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.

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"[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Queer theory would suggest that history be a process of recognition.[5] 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,[6] 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.[7]

The theory was also influenced by Anglo-American cultures in the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s and contemporary feminism in the early 1990s.[5]

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.[8] 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).[9]

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.[2] 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,"[2] 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.

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. It is an identity without an essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.[10]

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.[9]

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.[6] 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".[11]

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.