Study Guide

Queer Theory Basics

  • Beginnings

    I’m Coming Out

    Sex freaks us out. Why? Sex has been around for a long time, but the way we talk about sex changes with every generation. First of all, there’s the use of the word “sex” to refer to whether a person has the primary and secondary sex characteristics of a man or a woman.

    This word, partially at the urging of queer theorists, has been separated from “gender”—the term that’s used to talk about what the societal expectations are for men and women in a a given culture, from having long hair (read: I’m a pretty girl) to gettin’ in bar brawls (read: I’m a tough guy). See our “Buzzwords” section for more on the differences between sex and gender.

    Now that our “fun with English” lesson is out of the way, we can get down to the nitty gritty about queer theory’s contributions to a theory of human sexuality. (Ooh, ahh.) See, the way the Victorians talked about sex set in place categories of “normal” sexual behavior that persist even today, despite our courageous queer theorists’ best efforts.

    The Victorians are the ones who invented the term homosexual, and this word came to mean a person who is abnormal and sick-in-the-head. He did what with the milkman? was always the implication behind that word-as-attack. And before long, sexual orientation became a topic of public discussion.

    Fops and Other Fancy Boys

    With the very public trials of Oscar Wilde—a wildly popular playwright, novelist and socialite—all of late Victorian England got to see what a real homosexual looks and acts like. As Oscar Wilde was witty, educated, theatrical, defiant, manicured, upper class, the public came to believe that these were essential traits of “homosexuals.”

    At that time, these same traits were associated with the aristocracy that was quickly falling out of fashion. The newly powerful working class of the Victorian Era associated old aristocracies with lazy, fancy, men of leisure. So these manly men-of-the-people wanted to make an example of Mr. Wilde.

    And why wouldn’t the jury oblige them? It was so easy to charge Oscar Wilde with the crime of having sex with men (it was a serious crime). The implication was: Real men don’t wear nice clothes and kiss boys; real men shovel coal into steam engines and fight with bare knuckles.

    Are you starting to see how forcing people into categories like manly men and feminine women can go hand-in-hand with oppressive discourses on sexuality? Say “yes.”

    We’re here to tell you that two World Wars didn’t help break down what it meant to be a manly man in England, the U.S., or elsewhere—which included both killing people and sleeping with as many women as possible, of course. In war, men are required to be more macho.

    Of course, we needed a few good men to fight a few nasty Germans. Guys who read poetry and wore clean socks weren’t wanted in the army’s rough-and-tumble ranks. Cracks in this dominant paradigm of gender, sex, and sexuality start to become visible in the late fifties with the Beat Poetry Movement.

    Just Beat It, Traditional Sex Categories

    Allen Ginsberg, a self-proclaimed queer man, shocked post-war America with his (in)famous Beat poem, “Howl.” This work publically mentions homosexuality, and generally attempts to describe the oppressive conditions of the “boys will be boys,” “Keeping up with the Joneses” culture of World War II.

    And gee, did that poem ruffle a lot of feathers. But it sure made him a lot of cool friends, too.

    Then came the 1960s or, if you like, the nineteen sexties. We were sick of war. Men wanted to be peaceful and put flowers in their long hair and express themselves sexually if they so pleased. And women wanted the same basic rights.

    Authority of any kind was in question at that time. Feminists questioned why their bodies were being defined, dressed, and regulated by men. Bras got burned, and the Pill came into widespread use, thereby busting sex once again out of the bedroom and into public view.

    Then in 1976, the American Psychiatric Association changed its view on homosexuality; they decided it would no longer be deemed a mental illness. Time to party, Shmoopsters.

    Until the '80s, that is. HIV/AIDS stopped the celebration cold, and as the '80s turned into the early '90s, political struggle once again became the name of the game. In our humble opinions, that’s when the modern “queer” was born.

    Queer Nation, an activist magazine, and ACT UP, an activist group, took the term “queer” and turned it into a political weapon. That’s when the LGBT community formed really powerful political and social alliances that continue to this day. From within this newly acquired space of influence, Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble, and queer theory proper was born.

    Butler used Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality as one of her inspirations. It was time to put the Victorians on trial. The rest of us were tired of being oppressed, yo.

  • Big Players

    All queer roads lead back to Michel Foucault. His History of Sexuality examines not just sex itself, but how sex acts are discussed and categorized. Many of his ideas center around power and the social constructions of control that grow up around these centers of power.

    Why should one well-connected, white male—cough cough Sigmund Freud cough cough—get to tell the rest of us that sexual attraction between members of the same sex is abnormal?

    Judith Butler, as part of third-wave feminism, applies Foucault’s ideas to the categories of gender and sexual orientation. She asks some really awesome questions, like:

    Are there really masculine and feminine traits that come exclusively with the genes that make us male and female? Why do we care? Is anything really “abnormal”? Isn’t every behavior just a performance, meant to please someone or something? We’re all actors and all the world’s a stage, right?

    Right. Like we said, gender seems to be about living up to (or not living up to) a society’s expectations of what men and women should do and should be… not what’s between your legs. So if that’s true, what’s the biggest performance of all?

    Coming out of the closet, of course. Eve Sedgwick’s book The Epistemology of the Closet is the other important work that shows how hiding and revealing secrets influences most all of human behavior.

    And if you still think there are just two gender categories—guys and dolls—think again. There are so many thoughts, behaviors and desires that just don’t fit neatly into the categories of masculine and feminine. All of us have secrets we are unable to talk about. So all of us come in and out of closets all of the time, when you think about it.

    This choosing to share, or to not share, crucial elements of our selves heavily influences the way we view the world. Not to mention that all this acting can be exhausting. Seriously. Isn’t it nice to leave the house without putting makeup on or even brushing your hair?

    Butler and Sedwick really shook things up, to say the least. But after they bring queer theory onto the scene, the whole school of thought kind of explodes, with different thinkers moving off in myriad directions. And beware—nobody’s way of thinking is safe from critique with this next generation of theorists.

    Enter Michael Warner and his colleague, Lauren Berlant. These two introduce and critique the concept of the heteronormative. This idea basically states that dominant sexual practices—i.e. there’s a Mom + a Dad and they = a Baby or eight—structure everything from how businesses are run to what food we eat to how movies are made.

    Yikes. Our lives seem pretty out of our own control sometimes, don’t they?

    At the much more provocative and edgy end of the queer spectrum is Lee Edelman. This guy views the queer as a champion of the “death drive”; he wants us to reassess why we make such a big deal out of having kids. Because, we’re like, breeding new little people who will ensure the survival of our species, right?

    Well, people like Edelman believe that way of thinking is so outdated that it practically belongs on the prehistoric era. So why don’t we just live our lives how we want before we die?

    Judith Jack Halberstam is partly in Edelman’s camp. (He builds the fires that he warms himself by, so to speak.) Halberstam examines failure as a queer ethic. What does that mean? He wants us to look for, and embrace, alternatives conventional understandings of success in our heteronormative, capitalist society.

    So if “success” is defined by white, middle class, hetero men, then Judith Jack Halberstam wants us to go ahead and fail. That’s right, kiddos. Now, he’s not talking about getting an “F” in your English class. He’s talking about rejecting schools of thought that seem to exist only to support the current cultural order, with rich white dudes at the top and the rest of us at the bottom.

    Jose Muñoz complicates the queer picture by discussing the place of racial/ethnic minorities in queer theory. Since even queer theory was primarily founded by white people, he questions whether existing notions of queerness should be destabilized.

    He’d prefer to think of being queer as less of a static quality and more of a state of mind that is always open to change. For Muñoz, queer theory is kind of like that wacky aunt that always has some crazy new hair-do at family gatherings—you never know what she’s going to say next.

  • Key Debates

    Michel Foucault vs. The Victorians

    Should sexy talk and sexy acts always be hidden behind closed doors? In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that a society’s rules for discussing “taboo” topics shed light on how we are controlled by the capitalist patriarchy. If only those in power are given a voice, then “non-normative” ways of being are silenced. Erased. Kaput. Dunzo.

    Sex wasn’t such a big deal to folks in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (Think Ben Franklin and the French courtesans.) But then the European monarchies lost their power, and the decadent ways that came with that power.

    And when that happened, the upper middle class—a.k.a. the Victorian bourgeoisie—became the new Big (Wo)Men on Campus. Wanting to distinguish themselves from the previous generation of rulers, these dudes and dudettes distanced themselves from all the trappings of the old aristocracy.

    So while the then-Old Fogies were fine with going to Funkytown, the Victorians covered up from head to toe. They decided the “in” thing would be to prude it up. They locked their bedroom doors and stopped talking about sex.

    Well, not completely.

    Foucault points out that in the jails, mental institutions, and the halls of science you could still talk about sex. Aha: this is how the abnormal was born. See, any sexual behavior other than man + woman + locked bedroom = baby now supposedly belonged in brothels, jails, research hospitals, or insane asylums.

    What was to be done? How would we save millions from being relegated to the category of “abnormal”, and thereby denied the basic rights of other humans? It’s Sigmund Freud to the rescue, y’all. Sort of.

    Foucault tells us that Freud was the guy who finally got people talking about sex. So, he effectively threw open the door to our Victorian imprisonment. Dramatic, no?

    But if we read Foucault carefully, we know that to talk about something (especially in the very public manner that Freud did) is to make a grab for social power. To control the conversation about something is to control the thing itself, Mr. Foucault would say.

    So, while Sigmund Freud did us all a solid by shattering the Victorian silence around sex, he’s still a white man of means and privilege. Which means that, by “claiming” the conversation about sex, he’s still silencing a lot of other important voices.

    Like those of poor people, queer people, and people of color, to name just a few.

    Sadly, Freud’s “breakthrough” ushered in an era where the “battle of the sexes” revolved around penis power and penis envy. And a lot of white therapists telling the women (and other oppressed groups) who laid on their couches that they were crazy just because they were different.

    Le sigh.

    Judith Butler vs. Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan

    Freud’s work suggests that a man’s penis is a symbol of power, what he called the phallus. And women want men because they want that power-plaything for themselves (yep, he’s talking about penis envy here). Jacques Lacan, yet another groovy French guy, took this idea a bit further.

    He said a man can actually obtain the phallus as long as there is a woman around to be the phallus—to serve as a place-holder, where the penis goes. Um, what? Compose yourselves, please. Now, let’s try to think about this rationally.

    You might say that Lacan was arguing that a gun has no power unless it has something to hit. Until the gun fires, it’s only a symbol of power. The target is the gun’s whole reason for existing, in a way.

    So, what’s a penis if there’s no woman to put it in? Ugh. To rephrase this question in a less vulgar way, we might say: what’s oppression without the oppressed?

    But then Butler steps in with her groundbreaking work, Gender Trouble. And she’s all, Hang on fellas. You guys got issues. While she appreciates these theorists’ focus on power, she’s totally fed up with the male perspective; her work is all about casting the male (and his penis) out of the spotlight of our conversations about gender and sexuality.

    Butler believes you’d have to be crazy to define women as simply the inverse of men: as not-men, or not-masculine. That’s straight-up sexist (and heterosexist), she says. Not to mention the fact that these categories of men and women are totally made-up anyway; real gender performances are so much more fluid and complicated than that, she goes on to say.

    But there are rifts between Freud’s and Lacan’s ideas, too.

    Freud’s whole idea of the "Oedipus Complex" claims that boys feel like they are in competition with their fathers for power. As a result, they are attracted to their own darling mothers. But wait a second, says Lacan.

    Lacan believes that if the mother is the real source of the phallus—i.e., of men’s power—then aren’t all heterosexual men actually attracted to the phallus? Sounds pretty gay, right? Butler would say: yes.

    Bahaha. If you’re starting to get confused, then queer theory has worked its magic on you. It’s supposed to unsettle what you think you know about yourself and your world. This is the kind of “trouble” Butler uncovers.

    Butler believes we all have contradictions in our gender identities and hidden desires that we try to mask when we go out into the big, bad world. In her mind, we perform gender roles in order to cover up our anxieties concerning these desires.

    So really, gender’s just a mechanism for covering up the truth, a little blue pill to palliate our anxieties. But feeling boxed in by gender roles can drive anyone crazy. Catch-22 much?

    Whew, what an epic bout of intellectuals vs. intellectuals. Intermission please.

    Eve Sedgwick vs. The Closet

    Come out, come out, wherever you are… Using Foucault and Butler as guides, Eve Sedgwick argues that we all want to be tattle tales. Except the people we want to tell on are ourselves. Huh?

    Allow us to explain. Sedgwick thinks that when we reveal secrets about ourselves, we perform a coming out. And boy does it feel good to breathe that sweet, sweet air of freedom.

    See, silences are what cover over our well-kept secrets. And what we don’t talk about influences us just as much as what we do talk about. As you may have noticed, Sedgwick is another one of those queer theorists who’s obsessed with examining the Victorians and their stuffy prudishness.

    And she thinks that by coining the term homosexual, the Victorians created space for two—and only two—options for sexual expression.

    Either you do it with men or you do it with women. You are either abnormal or normal. You can fit into one and only one category. Sounds terribly restrictive, doesn’t it? So Eve Darling wants us to kick these categories to the curb in favor of talking about anything and everything all the time.

    Sedgwick also points out that the “gay” and “straight” categories were made by men, for men, to categorize men, men men men men men. Sorry, we got a little carried away there. But really: when we call someone gay, we mostly think of a gay man, right?

    A woman who likes women is called a lesbian; far fewer people use the phrase “gay woman.” Once again, then, all these categories make us feel like women, and women who are attracted to women, are only talked about with respect to men, only defined in opposition to men.

    And thatz not okay.

    In sum: hard and fast categories are not good. Neither are binaries. So, Sedgwick wants us to think of queer sexuality as a third sex. With this idea, we are also again reminded of how interconnected gender/sex and sexuality seem to be. (Why do you think that is, Shmoopers?)

    Now, back to that whole issue of the closet. The closet is a place where we hide certain aspects of ourselves while performing a pretty little act for other people. And when one decides to “come out” of the closet—i.e., to declare one’s self gay, or transsexual, or any “non-normative” thing—this is one of the biggest performances of all.

    Since society has worked so hard to shut us all up, talking about risqué topics is hard work. But Sedgwick suggests there is not such thing as stable sexual categories. We don’t just “come out” as our true selves; our “true” selves are always changing, and guess what? Saying “I’m here, I’m queer, I’m real” is just as much of an identity performance as anything else.

    Ouch. Our heads hurt. Guess there’s no easy way out of this one; us people are pretty complicated beings.

  • State of the Theory

    Being normal is a lot of work. We’d rather not.

    Today’s queer theory is all about breaking away from the power of the penis. That dog(gone phallus) has had its day. It’s time to explore the world through different eyes, kiddos. So, here’s how some queer theorists view the world, post-penis worship.

    One hot topic in today’s queer discourses is the issue of heteronormativity. Introduced by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, this idea proposes that not only is heterosexuality the preferred sexual practice, it is the preferred social practice as well. Huh?

    Okay, we’ll break it down further. Berlant and Warner argue that everything in society is designed to serve the classic hetero family unit of Mom and Dad and Baby, from government subsidies to social media, marketing campaigns, restaurants, vacation destinations, fashion, criminal justice… all of this is crafted for hetero couples who’re out to procreate. And let’s be frank, Shmoopers—that leaves a whole lot of us out in the cold.

    I fail, therefore I am.

    Judith Jack Halberstam sees the modern queer person as a site of failure. The queer person can’t live up to the gender or sexuality expectations of a heteronormative culture, but that’s okay, because he or she doesn’t want to. In other words, it’s cool to fail when success means simply being normal.

    What a drag. No, really. Think of drag queens, queer artists and musicians and authors, and gay pride parades; these are people and events that celebrate “failing to be” normal. By allowing ourselves not to feel pressured into doing what society expects of us, Halberstam thinks we can not only lead better lives, we can think better (a.k.a. more critically or objectively) as well.

    Plus, failing can fun. Just don’t try heading home from college with any “F”s on your report card; we won’t shoulder the blame for you.

    Queer theory isn’t child’s play.

    Enter Lee Edelman. This guy says: enough with the kid stuff. He believes that children have come to symbolize a shared brighter future for us all. But that overly idealized symbol is causing us to consume resources mindlessly and neglect the present.

    In short: Edelman believes we’re so focused on making more little humans that we forget how makin’ babies helps to perpetuate sexism, heterosexism, classism, and so on. So maybe we should consider stopping the baby train until we learn how to be more conscientious.

    Queer People of Color

    Jose Muñoz brings minorities into the queer picture. White folks may want to have no future, as Mr. Edelman puts it, but Latinos and other minority groups don’t have that luxury. They’re already assumed to have no future.

    So, some of us will want to procreate, he says.

    Plus, Muñoz views queerness not simply as an identity, but as a state of mind. There is always a future in the making that we can’t neatly categorize. And queerness is about living in the present moment, while leaving ourselves open to all possible futures.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature never ceases to be complex for the queer theorist, because queer theorists are as interested in what's said as what's not. Language hides more than it reveals, it's devious and sneaky, like a diaphanous veil.

    But if we carefully examine who is speaking and how they are speaking, we can find clues as to what meanings are moving between and beneath the silences. How a text performs "sexed" language, social expressions, and gender roles, shows us that every text has a hidden agenda, has a secret desire to tell us how we're supposed to live.

    To the queer theorist, literature is a game of cat and mouse. Language both reveals and conceals meaning. Are you up to this challenge, readers? En garde. 

    What is an author?

    An author is a performer, a diva, a conductor, a mad scientist, or all four. The author creates a text that is coded with issues of gender and sexual identity that it may not even be aware of. The author is never speaking with a voice that is completely masculine or feminine, because things are never so simple.

    But the author will combine the bits and pieces of language to create characters that challenge or conform to gender expectations. What should my princess wear? How bad should my villain be? Queer theorists just love analyzing these kinds of authorial choices.

    And because an author may have many deep-seated and unexplored psycho-sexual issues locked away in her "closet," how those characters are constructed may reveal the author's own secret life as well.

    What is a reader?

    The reader is at a masquerade. She is free to take on whatever identity she wishes without judgment or fear of being discovered. She may have a masculine perspective reading one chapter, and then transform and be moved to be more sensitive in the next chapter.

    The reader is free to assume many sexualities, many genders, and multiple personalities, according to the queer theorist. The reader may, in fact, be the queerest member of the whole literary experience. The reader, in these private moments with the words on a page, is able to release the strangeness it holds back in public.

    Queer theory revels this open space. It seeks to release the reader from all social expectations in order for the text to work its mysterious magic.