The term “queer theory” itself came from Teresa de Lauretis’ 1991 work in the feminist cultural studies journal differences titled “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.” She explains her term to signify that there are at least three interrelated projects at play within this theory: refusing heterosexuality as the benchmark for sexual formations, a challenge to the belief that lesbian and gay studies is one single entity, and a strong focus on the multiple ways that race shapes sexual bias. De Lauretis proposes that queer theory could represent all of these critiques together and make it possible to rethink everything about sexuality.
Some of the core theorists in the development of queer theory include Michael Foucault, Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Judith Butler. Michael Foucault’s work on sexuality said that it was a discursive production rather than an essential part of a human, which came from his larger idea of power not being repressive and negative as productive and generative. In other words, power acts to make sexuality seem like a hidden truth that must be dug out and be made specific. Foucault refuses to accept that sexuality can be clearly defined, and instead focuses on the expansive production of sexuality within governments of power and knowledge.
Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex” is often identified as one of the fundamental texts, and it continues Foucault’s rejection of biological explanations of sexuality by thinking about the way that sexual identities as well as behaviors are hierarchically organized through systems of sexual classifications. She demonstrates in her essay the way that certain sexual expressions are made more valuable than others, and by doing that, allowing those who are outside of these parameters to be oppressed. Rubin also argued against the feminist belief that through gender, sexuality was obtained or the belief that gender and sexuality are the same.
Eve Kosofsky Sedwick
Rubin laying the groundwork to start discussion about making a distinction between gender and sexuality led the way for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s pioneering book Epistemology of the Closet. In this book, she argues that the homo-hetero difference in the modern sexual definition is vitally disjointed for two reasons: that homosexuality is thought to be part of a minority group, and how homosexuality is gendered to be either masculine or feminine. She points out that the definitions of sexuality depend a lot on the gender of the romantic partner one makes, making the assumption that the gender one has and the gender of the person one is attracted to make up the most important element of sexuality. Sedgwick’s examples of sexual variations that cannot be put into the discrete locations created by the binary set between heterosexuality and homosexuality give room to further analyze the way sex-gender identities are shaped and thought about.
The theorist most commonly identified with studying the prevailing understandings of gender and sex is Judith Butler, who draws much from Foucault’s ideas but with a focus on gender. She argues in her book Gender Trouble that gender, like sexuality, is not an essential truth obtained from one’s body but something that is acted out and portrayed as “reality”. She argues that the strict belief that the there is a “truth” of sex makes heterosexuality as the only proper outcome because of the coherent binary created of “feminine” and “masculine” and thus creating the only logical outcome of either being a “male” or “female.” Butler makes the case that genderperformativity could be a strategy of resistance with examples such as drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual nonrealistic depiction of butch and femme identities that poke fun at the laid out gender norms in society. In her later book, Undoing Gender, Butler makes it clear that performativity is not the same as performance. She explains that gender performativity is a repeated process that ultimately creates the subject as a subject. Butler’s work brings to light the creation of gender contesting the rigidity of the hierarchical binaries that exist and is what makes her work invaluable in queer theory.