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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Queer Theory: Background

Queer Theory: A Rough Introduction

Queer theory’s origin is hard to clearly define, since it came from multiple critical and cultural contexts, including feminism, post-structuralist theoryradical movements of people of color, the gay and lesbian movements, AIDS activism, many sexual subcultural practices such as sadomasochism, and postcolonialism.

Although queer theory had its beginnings in the educational sphere, the cultural events surrounding its origin also had a huge impact. Activist groups pushed back in the 1980's against the lack of government intervention after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Gay activist groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took the lead to force attention to both the AIDS epidemic and the gay and lesbian community as a whole. These groups helped define the field with the work they did by highlighting a non-normative option to the more traditional identity politics and marginal group creations.

Queer theory as an academic tool came about in part from gender and sexuality studies that in turn had their origins from lesbians and gay studies and feminist theory. It is a much newer theory, in that it was established in the 1990s, and contests many of the set ideas of the more established fields it comes from by challenging the notion of defined and finite identity categories, as well as the norms that create a binary of good versus bad sexualities. Queer theorists contention is that there is no set normal, only changing norms that people may or may not fit into, making queer theorists’ main challenge to disrupt binaries in hopes that this will destroy difference as well as inequality. 

 As a term:

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.


Key Concept:

One of the key concepts in queer theory is the idea of “heteronormativity,” which pertains to “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—butalso privileged” (Berlant). Heteronormativity is a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the normal and/or preferred sexual orientation, and is reinforced in society through the institutions of marriage, taxes, employment, and adoption rights, among many others. Heteronormativity is a form of power and control that applies pressure to both straight and gay individuals, through institutional arrangements and accepted social norms.


Core Theorists:

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

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.

Judith Butler

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 GenderButler 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.

Implications of Queer Theory:

Analyzing with a queer perspective has the potential to undermine the base structure on which any identity relies on (although it does this without completely destroying or forsaking categories of identity), the theory has been understood to be just about questions of sexuality. This perception that queer theory is solely about sexuality has been opposed by having an intersectional approach that starts off with the hypothesis that sexuality cannot be disconnected from the other categories of social status and identity. This allows queer theory to become interdisciplinary and thus create new ways of thinking in how sexuality shapes and is shaped by other factors. 


Future of Queer Theory:

As a whole, queer theorists disagree about many things, but the one thing they do not disagree on is that if queer theory is to be understood as a way to test the established and stable categories of identity, then it should not be defined too early (or at all) because of the possibility of it becoming too limited.