All About Queer Theory

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Haley Baird Riemer57
During June pride month, there has been a lot of discourse about what pride celebrations mean, who should attend (or sponsor) and if we really need pride anymore, anyway (hint: we do).
Celebrating is great, and visibility is vital, but keeping in mind the reason for the party is of utmost importance. Whether you're a member of the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, it's important to remember that pride is also — and arguably foremost ‚ a protest, and we should be conscious of the ideas and issues behind the occasion. This Pride, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in NYC, during which trans women of color led an attempt to fight back against a raid of the gay bar by NYC police officers, effectively catalyzing the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights, then known as the gay liberation movement. 
Within this movement are many diverse opinions, theories, standpoints, and bodies of work informing and surrounding the issues we're fighting for. Behind the actions of activists who take radical action to change systems of thought and policy are ideas and thinkers dedicated to challenging the way we think about identity and equality.

What is queer theory?

Since before Stonewall, and in higher concentration in the last 50 years, prominent activists and leaders within the LGBTQ+ movement have been engaging with ideas questioning the history and composition of sexuality, especially those that fall outside of what is considered normative. In other words, they have been critiquing how we think about gender, sexuality and sexual orientation; and how heterosexism has become ingrained in the world around us, our laws and our culture. The body of work that these thinkers has produced has catalyzed and accompanied the LBGTQ+ movement, grounding it in a theoretical framework. Just as feminist theory supports and influences the feminist movement, queer theory provides explanations, explorations, and discourse about expressions of sexuality, gender and identity from a critical lens.
Queer theory builds primarily upon the feminist idea that gender is socially constructed, and challenges throughout queer history to the connection of sexuality with self-identity. Queer theory aims to look at gender and sexuality, and how these interact with other kinds of difference, from a place outside of the way we understand these concepts, questioning the very foundations of how we think about them.

History of queer theory and the term “queer”

Though people have been writing about sexuality, gender, and issues specific to LGBTQ+ people for many decades, the term 'queer theory' is fairly new. Coined officially in the 90s by feminist theorist Teresa DiLaurentis to 'unsettle and question the genderedness of sexuality', it originally referred to a perspective that subverted the mainstream discourse and the establishment of heteropatriarchy. 
The definition of queer theory is actually two-pronged: it refers both to ideology concerning queerness (homosexuality and expressions of sexuality outside of heterosexuality) and to 'queer' readings of texts through a critical lens on sexuality. For example, queer feminism critiques sexuality from a feminist perspective that questions the very foundation of gendered systems of power and sexuality. 
Now an umbrella term for all expressions of sexuality outside of heterosexual, encompassing every letter in the LGBTQ+ acronym, the definition of 'queer' has morphed throughout the movement. Not linked exclusively to homosexuality at the inception of queer theory (though its widespread use started as a slur used against gay men) the term 'queer' was reclaimed in the 90s. It was used to signify a kind of anarchy and qualify a counterculture that challenges the truths we accept about structures of power. A distinction was made, then, between 'gay' and 'queer' to acknowledge the possibility of a gay rights movement that did not challenge the construction and normative definition of sexuality but merely advocated for gay people to be assimilated into (heteronormative) culture. The 'born this way' argument and the 'we're just like you' approach characterize this faction of gay activists, who not only excluded members of the LGBTQ+ movement from their liberation but stopped short of calling into question the systems that caused the need for liberation in the first place. 'Queer' signified a more radical approach that rejected these systems entirely – an approach that would yield true liberation for all. 

Who are the major queer theorists?

The queer theory conceived in the 90s saw several influential theorists rise to shape the movement at its inception. These early queer theorists were integral in laying the foundations of this work, but they were mostly of one demographic – cisgender, white intellectuals in higher education. Since the 90's, the body of work has expanded to include many theorists of color, trans and nonbinary authors, and people from different countries, all of which have made enormous strides and contributions to queering race theory and combatting the historic lack of intersectionality in queer theory. 
Here's a brief summary of some of the queer theorists considered the founders and major contributors to queer theory. 

Eve Kosofky Sedgwick

Known as one of the originators of modern queer theory, Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick was a poet and professor, integral to expanding the women's studies program at Boston University. As a theorist, she is best known for writing "The Epistymology of the Closet," widely considered one of the founding texts of queer theory. In it, she goes beyond exploring the duality of homosexuality and heterosexuality, instead questioning how and why we organize the world into these categories. This text, as well as most of her other work (including a piece titled "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay") was highly controversial. It not only legitimized different expressions of sexuality but also feminist and queer studies as worthwhile fields of study. 

Judith Butler

Notoriously as complex as she is brilliant, Judith Butler is a postmodern theorist known for her work exploring the construction and, in turn, deconstruction of gender identity and sexuality as we know them. Her text, "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity," takes the concept of gender as a social construct and goes further to argue that gender — and sexed bodies, and sexuality — is not attached at all to identity or any kind of fixed aspect of a person but is instead a performance. Considered foundational to queer theory, Gender Trouble frees us from the parameters of arguing about queerness being as natural as heterosexuality, as valid, or as inherent to one's identity; instead, she provides us with a framework from which to set fire to notions about gender or sex being fixed states of identity that correspond to any kind of sexuality that rests on those identities. 

Michel Foucault

Writing in the 70s, before the inception of queer theory as we think of it, Foucault was raising questions about the pillars of sexuality and gender and their origins within society that laid the bedrock for queer and postmodernist theorists after him. A social theorist primarily, Foucault's body of work deals mostly with power and structures by which power is organized and exchanged within societies. His foray into gender and sexuality theory came in the form of the now-famous The History of Sexuality, in which he applies his analysis of power to our understanding of sexuality. Many conclusions made within this body of work – among them the ideas that sex is not about gender or orientation but about power; and sexuality is not attached to identity inherently and was not considered so until recently – laid the groundwork for contemporary queer understandings of sex and sexuality (and even that one Janelle Monae song).  

David M. Halperin

A classicist and sociologist, Halperin's main contributions to queer theory include his exploration of the history of sexuality through a lens of social classism. He draws from Foucault's ideas and generally agrees with the idea that sexuality as a fixed identity is socially imagined. Tracing back different expressions of homosexuality in ancient Greece in "One Hundred Years of Homosexuality," he is linked with the idea that homosexuality did not exist as we know it before the term was coined in the nineteenth century. Halperin also co-founded the academic journal GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 

Jack Halberstam

Best known for his work, "Female Masculinity," Jack Halberstam is a transgender theorist who explored masculinity and all its forms, how we construct it, and how we understand it differently when mapping it onto different bodies. He uses the idea that gender is performative, claiming that masculinity is a performance that we have an understanding of on a scale from right to wrong. His work concludes that the framework we have for understanding gender does not come close to accounting for the diversity of gender expression that exists. Identifying the "bathroom problem" inherent to the choice to group people of a multitude of gender expressions into just two groups of male and female, he argues for a fluidity of gender that transcends the parameters we currently have to define it by. 

Audre Lorde

Few theorists can live up to the prolific body of work Audre Lorde produced throughout her career. One of the most influential feminist theorists, she wrote about the necessity of intersectionality before the term was coined and wrote from both a lesbian and black perspective about queer identity and difference. Though less deconstructive than some queer theorists about the concept of identity, her work addresses the importance of theory to movements for change and the complexities of different, constructed identities and how to organize across them.

Works about and contributions to queer theory

Here are a few works included in the queer theory canon:
  • Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
  • "Punks, Bulldagers, and Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics" by Cathy Cohen
  • "Queering the State" by Lisa Duggan
  • Aberrations In Black: Toward A Queer Of Color Critique by Roderick Ferguson
  • The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault  
  • Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam 
  • "Is There a History of Sexuality?" by David M. Halperin 
  • One Hundred Years of Homosexuality by David M. Halperin
  • The Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky
  • "I am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities" by Audre Lorde
  • Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
  • "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality" by Gayle Rubin
  • “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism” by Andrea Smith
  • Transgender History by Susan Stryker
As always, keep in mind that this list, while a great place to start your exploration, is by no means exhaustive. For more reading, check out some longer lists on reputable sites

Impact and future of queer theory

As evident in the ever-expanding combination of letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym, queer theory has grounded and instigated a movement that continues make space for a diversity of expressions of sexuality. We have (hopefully) moved passed merely thinking about sexuality or gender in a binary. Now, thanks to prominent queer theorists, we have a nuanced understanding of sexuality as a fluid, dynamic, and changing thing, like gender. With more work produced about gender identity and transgender and nonbinary people, we are working toward a world with much more a free (and accurate) framework to understand people. The future of queer theory is intersectional, black, indigenous, and representative of all combinations of identity and experience.  
There is also much more room now to think about the ways we internalize and perpetuate patriarchy, internalized misogyny and homophobia, and heteronormative culture in our daily lives – in institutions like marriage, in our relationships, in our gender presentations. This is thanks to queer theory, the future of which continue pushing us to think from outside the system we were trained to exist within. 

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Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.