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Gender and Queer Theory

Any guide to gender simply has to contain at least a gesture towards both feminism and queer theory. Most introductory guides devote at least a chapter to each; as such, I have divided this into two parts: Gender and Feminism and Gender and Queer Theory. They should, however, be considered partner pieces. Many of the theorists referred to in these sections straddle both camps; many that do not will nevertheless work within the framework of the other.

Gender Queer TheoryLike feminism, queer approaches are a broad church that comes in two waves (although, unlike feminism, it is not described in those terms) with lesbian/gay studies coming first and queer theory with the 1990s. What links queer theory and gay/lesbian studies is that they are preoccupied with heterosexuality’s position as a central organizing principle – particularly in matters of gender – in twenty and twenty-first century (Western) culture. For queer theorists, heterosexuality is a ‘matrix’ (Butler, 97) in which we are all fixed; for lesbian and gay theorists, heterosexuality is often an oppressive force. Nevertheless, both sides of the debate challenge the heterocentrism, or heteronormativity, of societal perceptions of sexuality and gender:

The dividing up of all sexual acts – indeed all persons – under the ‘opposite’ categories of ‘homo’ and ‘hetero’ is not a natural given but a historical process, still incomplete today and ultimately impossible but characterized by potent contradictions and explosive effects. (Sedgwick, xvi)

The bias of compulsory heterosexuality [means that] lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible. (Rich, 632)

The first quotation is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick; the second, lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich. Although broad categorizations are never perfect, these two quotations do loosely encapsulate the difference between the two approaches. Both criticize heterosexuality; but where Rich prioritizes the damaging effects of heterosexuality on lesbian women, Sedgwick deconstructs the notion of there being organizing categories – ‘lesbian’, ‘heterosexuality’ – at all. It is in queer theory’s rejection of identity politics, and identity categories, that is the main ideological difference between queer and lesbian/gay studies is to be found.

Along with ‘heterosexual’, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are sexual identities – i.e. to identify as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘straight’ is to ally oneself to an identity and, by extension, say something about who you are. As Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle point out, ‘the apparently unequivocal distinction between being homosexual or being straight – the sense that you are one or the other, and the sense that who you are is defined by that distinction’, lies at the heart of identity politics (Bennett and Royle, 221). Thinking chronologically, sexual identities are certainly constructed – the start of what we understand as ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ emerge at some point in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the date of first usage of both ‘hetero-’ and ‘homosexual’ as 1892, in the English translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). According to Lillian Faderman: ‘there was no such thing as a “lesbian” as the twentieth century recognizes the term; there was only the rare woman who behaved immorally […]. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the category of the lesbian – or the female sexual invert – was formulated’ (Faderman, 2). Michel Foucault foreshadowed Faderman, famously observing that the late nineteenth century invented the figure of the homosexual: ‘The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’ (Foucault, 43). It is easy to see that such identities were invented to ostracize (just as ‘queer’ was for a long time an insult), before then being claimed back by lesbians and gay men in order to protest their existence and agitate for rights.

Identity politics obviously had ramifications for gender. The term ‘invert’ used by Faderman above is an early word for lesbian and gay people that encapsulates the ‘switch’ between sex and gender that was seen (see the entry of feminism): von Krafft-Ebing  described it as ‘the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom’ (von Krafft-Ebing, 264). The after-effects of these sorts of gendered perceptions are still felt today, most clearly in the form of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ lesbian identities and the derogatory descriptions of gay men as ‘effeminate’. Desiring one’s own sex, in other words, has serious ramifications for representations of one’s gender. Heterosexuality in this context dictates gender (and a quick look at any recent rom-com will prove this), so much so that Monique Wittig could deliberately claim that: ‘women belong to men. Thus a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, a product of society, not a product of nature’ (Wittig, 13). Wittig’s claims are clearly intended to establish that gender is an act that is entirely contextualized by one’s surrounding society: the body has nothing to do with it. Wittig’s suggestion that desire can substantially queer representation of gender implies that gender is a flexible act: a woman desiring a man will have an entirely differing gender to the one that same woman will have if her next partner is female.

In relation to the relative stability of identity politics, queer is a set of practices that can be dipped in and out of. It simply does not matter about one’s sexual identity (or any identity, for that matter): ‘queer’ is what one does, rather than what one is. One can, therefore, be ‘straight’ (sexual identity) and ‘queer’ (gendered practices) at the same time. As David Halperin puts it:

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. (Halperin, 62)

In other words, queer will be the opposite of whatever dominates. Queer is innately transgressive, challenging, and subversive. Because of this as Judith Butler acknowledges, however, to be in gender (and this is inevitable – we all have one, after all) is to be perpetually in gender ‘trouble’. There is no essence – it is not located in the body. Helperin is not alone in his refusal to define queer. As Alan Sinfield writes, ‘the key proposition of queer theory is that wanting a coherent identity is both an intellectual mistake and a timid refusal to take on board the breadth of sexual potential’ (Sinfield, 84).

Despite Halperin’s insistence that there is nothing to categorize queer, there are some things that we can refer to, however, as key to a queer reading. An analysis of heterocentrism, for example, and the attendant stable gender binaries, is almost always found. Queer readings are deconstructive, and post-structuralist: they read ‘natural’ structures as constructed, silences as speech and bodies as highly contested. Queer theorists, therefore, often prioritize the ‘collapsed’ binary in their readings, focusing particularly on the transgressive status of acting a gender in opposition to the body. Judith Butler’s definition of drag, for example, is a practice that reveals that all gender – not just those performed in drag – is a performance (like Sedgwick, Butler challenges the very idea of a sex/gender distinction: for Butler, it is all performative). Drag, transgender, same-sex desire, cross-dressing, tall women, sexually active children, women walking alone, men in a single-sex group, artificial insemination – all of these and more have the potential to be queer practices that challenge heterosexuality’s binary categories of gender.


Image ‘Rainbow’ by @Doug88888 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr