Your Quick Guide to Queer Theory
by Elisa Walker
During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the term queer, which had been used pejoratively since the nineteenth century, was reclaimed by activists and scholars. Much like feminism therefore, this field of study developed from political liberation movements.
The Italian theorist Teresa de Lauretis was the first to coin the expression queer theory in 1991. She used the term to describe a way of thinking that challenged binary gender constructs and heterosexist norms. Binary gender constructs disregard transgenderism and androgyny in people, for example, while heterosexism draws on expectations to procreate and to fulfil traditional gender roles. Yet de Lauretis later dropped her own term, having found that queer studies had been taken over by the mainstream institutions it was meant to resist. Definitions of queer have therefore not remained consistent and its considerable popularity has arguably turned queerness into an overused buzzword for deviations from any norm. Yet there are a few essential characteristics of this counterculture that can be pinned down and common misconceptions still to be debunked.
Much of queer critique has developed from, and overlaps with, the interests of other academic theories such as gender studies, feminist theory and gay and lesbian studies. It also originated as a reaction against them however, especially the prevalent notion in 1970s feminism that each sex comes with its own essential traits. Queer thinking proposes that all social and cultural identities are unstable and fluid rather than deterministic. Gender, sex and sexuality are in particular more complex than those bathroom signs make out and should not be conflated with each other.
Possibly the most famous concept that queer critics have brought to the table is gender performativity, which is Judith Butler’s theory that gender differences and roles are socially constructed. This is achieved through a stylised repetition of acts and a miming of the dominant conventions of your assigned gender. The majority of people are labelled female or male at birth (or even in utero!) and are expected to act in a certain way all the time, to the point these performances become unconsciously internalised. Such acts and preferences are not innate, but are repetitiously learned and acted on in brutally heteronormative and patriarchal societies.
Gender roles are important to the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality, which is the belief that heterosexuality is both the natural inclination and obligation of the human species. Queer theory looks to undermine the concept that there is a “default setting” in any way. It moreover demonstrates how these norms are volatile and can be unsettled through gender performances such as drag. This is the hyperbolic performance of a gender which aims to entertain and mock social expectations.
Queer is often used as an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities and while there is some overlay, being queer should not be conflated with belonging to the LGBT community or, in fact, any specific category of sexuality. It does not necessarily exclude individuals that identify as heterosexual or cisgender (i.e. gender assigned at birth). Non-reproductive lifestyles and interracial couplings, for instance, also subvert societal expectations and conventions.
Queer activists have even criticised the gay rights movement for prioritising access to mainstream social conventions such as gay marriage and its assimilationist agenda, rather than shaking up and critiquing the institution of marriage itself. This has led to LGBT activism being labelled, somewhat harshly, as queer theory’s ‘matronly step-sister’. While that judgement vastly oversimplifies the aims of gay rights, it is true that homonormativity, gender roles, sexism and a lack of intersectionality are still issues in this movement. Being queer is therefore far less about your sexual identity than it is about your political stance and engagement.
Queer is a deliberately ambiguous and pluralistic description that undermines identity categories which, according to Butler, can become normalising and oppressive in themselves. Yet, whilst queer theory undermines gender as a stable category, it does not altogether relinquish the concept of gender. Homosexuality depends after all on assigning a gender to yourself and the people you are sexually attracted to. What queer theory does rather is demonstrate how gender and sexual orientation can be fluid and fluctuating rather than static; it does not suggest that gender is a myth.
Queer thinking also does not exclusively focus on the politics of gender and sexuality, and instead engages with many issues that speak to difference and marginalisation, such as race and class. There is after all an extensive range of ways in which sexuality and heteronormativity can impact on other aspects of everyday life, such as belonging to an ethnic minority. These intersections are emphasised by the fact that gendered and sexualised metaphors are frequently used to convey racist and colonial domination.
Today, queer theory has been instrumental in bringing recognition to the needs and rights of genderqueer communities, such as using an individual’s chosen names and pronouns correctly. But really queer theory is relevant to anyone interested in questioning or destabilising popular cultural narratives and sexual scripts. It is thanks to queer readings that fairy tale princesses not only no longer wait passively for rich white princes, but refuse to get married at all.
Even as queerness becomes ever more “mainstream”, it still has huge subversive potential so long as these dominant social institutions and codes continue to exist. Many critics have drawn attention to the overwhelming whiteness and elitism of early queer theory and noted how such colour-blindness diminished the academic discourse’s credibility. Yet there has been a jump in contributions from black and postcolonial queer theorists more recently who have raised awareness of the particular stigma attached to ethnic minority queers both in their own communities and beyond.