A Guide to Understanding the Queer Theory

The queer theory was introduced by writers and activists in the early 1990s as the result of studies of women discrimination and treatment in the literature and the issues of queer sexuality. This theory explores the issues like sexuality, marginalization of women and other population, and power inequality in the society as well as the culture.

Since the 1970s, different authors have approached the deconstructionist criticism in order to identify the issues of sexual identity. This is in context specifically considering the Heteronormativity in an effort to change the deeply rooted belief and norm that provides the privileges to heterosexuality as a natural rule in the society. It also tries to consider the non-heteronormative sexuality as a natural phenomenon.

The goal of this theory is to change the monolithic thoughts, taxonomies and social norms about the sexuality including the exploration of the root cause of the creation and development of those norms in the society. On the other hand, it is very clear in the context of academic studies, but it lacks the clarity when it comes to usage in the real life.

What is queer term

Queer is used as an umbrella term for sexual minorities. These minorities are not heterosexual, so this term was originally used to show them as abnormal or strange. It was used to show the negativity and a social discomfort towards those who have sexual relationships with the same gender. Its use started in the late 1900s.

Definition of queer

Some queer theorists point out the meaning of queer as something that does not match with the norms crosses the boundaries and fails to fall within the categories defined by the majority in the society. So, the theorists disagree with the politics and rules used to reinforce the lines, define classes and introduce the new set of norms.

Queer sexuality is relatively new and is used when a behaviour can’t be described or included within the categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Since it is a new term and some people tend to call their own orientation as queer, the use of Q representing queerness or queer identity was started since 1996. Basically, it was introduced as an addition to LGBT due to the people questioning a sexual identity when they don’t want to identify it as any of the four categories already in use.

History and usage of queer as a term

The scholars and activists started using this word to unite the community and have a distinct identity in the late 1980s. People not willing to accept the gender identity established by the society started describing themselves as queer as a significantly large and ambiguous label as an option to the label LGBT.

However, it is also noted by the queer theorists that the term can’t be used fully in accordance with the definition. So, they agree and accept that, though the term queer is being used to denote the individual identity as the result of psychological processes interacting with cultural forms, the queer theory may not be understood in its full meaning.

According to the introduction to “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities” by De Lauretis, term “queer” enjoys an advantage over term “gay” while implying minority gender and sexual identity. But at the same time, it also avoids the assumption of “gay” as an associated term with “white male”.

For some people from the bisexual and transgender groups, queer gender seems more promising as an identity compared to the categories “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” which failed to identify their problems like isolation and alienation when considered the norms of sexuality and gender.

Major statements and works on queer

Epistemology of the Closet, published by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in 1990, effectively worked as a short attempt of explaining the queer theory. This and other major statements appeared in the 1990s that gave an insight into how queer theory would emerge and function for the minority groups of sexuality and gender in the society.

Though Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has not used the word “queer” in her book, she has given a great view of how it would develop. To support this, she presented the arguments that the major interpretative key that can help understand the culture in the western world is the way of the management of identities of LGBT people which is the logic behind disclosure and concealment.

Opposite to the belief prevailing in the society, it’s a queer claim that LGBT identities have an important use for everyone rather than just an identity for the LGBT community as such identities have a significant effect and role in defining the system of cultural meanings to a great extent.

Queer fails to fall within the categories used for LGBT

Sedgwick published Tendencies in 1993 in which she has included an article “Queer and Now”. According to an argument in this article, queer is a type of failure of being fit with various identity elements and practices of gender and sexuality that are followed naturally based on the person’s own sexual anatomy that is inevitable.

According to one more argument given by her, queer is a performative term that depends on the choice of an individual that can be considered as a correct indication of queerness. This argument reflects the thought of gender identity as a performative term defined by Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble published in 1990.

As per Sedgwick, queer crosses the boundary and fails to fit in the categories established in context with sexuality or any other virtually accepted category of identity, and can’t be considered as a synonymous of gay and lesbian terms.

Ambiguity and inter-dependency between the identity, queer as a term and the system

A contradicting fact faced by the queer theorists is the explanation of how a person resist the system’s oppression when his/her own identity itself is an outcome of the functioning of an oppressive system.

In the western liberalism, identity is what one has as a result of a social, political and cultural process rather than a starting point from where one can establish the ground for intellectual performance and political actions. These processes, being very important in order to define queer as a term, significantly depend on the concepts of categories like race, class, gender and sexuality, where such categories also originate from the idea of dominant power relations reflecting the nature and are taken in the political context.

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Consecutively, the processes are also impacted by the categories as they significantly shape the role of an individual in being active or inactive culturally, socially and politically.

At a point where the definition of gender and sexual identity particularly seem established firmly, theorists supporting queer theory are interested in exploring the combinations of bodies, acts and desires in the context of the definition of identity. Their subject of interest is to understand how they can be combined in a different way and still keeping them from being too rigid and disciplinary.

Since the respect towards the white and middle-class gay and lesbian is increased over time and number of heterosexual people, who often refuse to accept the norms of sexuality set by gender studies being part of a modern world, has been increasing, Sedgwick shows a strong possibility of lesbian or gay people being seen as such who are not queer and queer people being considered as such when they are not lesbian or gay.

Arguments against the queer as an identity

Though the members of LGBT community and others considering it more as a colloquial usage criticise the use of queer as a term. They see it as an insult to the non-radical community and perceive as a threat to the place they have in the society.

Theorists consider the usage of the term helpful in making a distance for the gay and lesbian words which fails to connect or include the terms transgender, inter-sexed and bisexual. But many gay and lesbian people often use the term queer interchangeably for the other terms. As a result, this term is gaining popularity with its broader sense containing the white, middle-class and conservative lesbian and gay people to sexually radical groups.

However, some homophobes and conservatives are still using the term queer pejoratively. As a result, many people from the LGBT community and other supporting their rights questions the usability of such a term considering that it was widely used as a means to isolate and insult LGBT people.

Sedgwick has attempted to get LGBT studies out of a stereotype mentality and societal limits and conveyed the facts that Western culture of modern times was being consistently affected by queer disruptions. The problem in the studies done within the ghetto was that it seemed to present less relevant arguments and helped only in understanding rather than identifying the issues and their solutions concerning LGBT cultures.

Definition of queer theory

According to the queer theory definition by the theorists, it is a redefined term used for the studies of non-compliance of anything with the set standards, norms, perceived and believed ways of doing things. But in the context of sexuality, the queer is used with the behaviour that is not in line with the social and political norms of the society and government and includes the population of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Thus the queer theory is a tool to study the possibilities of giving an identity to the LGBT community that was isolated or marginalized by the society and cultures for years. Queer theorists criticise the social practices and essentialists and try to integrate the oppressed people with the mainstream of the society by working in collaboration with the writers and activists to give them a recognition. Their goal is to create an environment and bring the opportunities for the queer population to help them live the way they want.

What is the purpose of queer theory?

The reason for the emergence of this theory is its ideas that are similar to homosexuality where it studies the concepts similar to those of gay and lesbian studies. The notable thing here is the age of these studies. The gay and lesbian studies are itself new and have gained the attention of authors and thinkers. The organized studies were started in the recent past, in the mid-1980s. The roots of these studies lie in the feminist theory and study of feminism.

Queer theory largely focuses on the differences between the gender, sex and desire. Basically, queerness is the term used for the bisexuality and the subject like gay and lesbian. However, it also includes the analysis of the topics like intersex bodies and identities, cross-dressing, gender ambiguity and surgery for gender correction.

The main purpose of queer theory is to discuss the sexual orientation in the context of natural development or the set rules by the society or the belief of essentialists. Queer theory was closely associated with the gay politics of radical groups like Outrage and ACT UP. Their goal was to establish the term “queer” as a label pointing to non-assimilationist.

Observation and analysis of limitations and weaknesses of the traditional identity politics of self-identity played an active role in the development of queer theory. The queer theorists found the ways to stabilize and consolidate the queer as a label around the other identity labels in the society. The queer theory maintains a critique rather just defining the specific identity and this critique can be described with the concept of ecotechnics used in the technical studies.

Social movement

The movements called Gay Liberation and Lesbian Feminist started in the late 1960s and 1970s respectively paved the way for the Lesbian/Gay movement which was started in the late 1980s. This development along with the emergence of queer as a part of sociology and term as an identity had a strong effect on the efforts of resolving the dilemma of communal identity.

The coloured people from LGBT community, white lesbians and other groups emphasised the significance of race, class, gender, sex and ethnicity as a matter to understand, organize and experience the issues of gender and sexuality.

However, the movement of the gay and lesbian community in western countries largely worked towards the liberation of white, middle-class, gay people. This was contradicting to what they claimed. The movement was claimed as a means to speak for all lesbian and gay people in the society, which in fact failed in doing so and white, middle-class, gay men acted in the same manner as their counterparts i.e. heterosexual people by being racist, classist and sexist.