Study Guide

Queer Theory Timeline

How It All Went Down

1895: The Trials of Oscar Wilde

Though the term homosexual was coined before 1895, late Victorian Brits were the ones to flesh out the definition. They painted a picture of what the stereotypical homosexual looked like by honing in on a homosexual poster boy: Mr. Oscar Wilde. So, according to those Brits, the homosexual is: nonchalant, witty, intellectual, fancily dressed, and long-haired. And gee, does he know how to sashay. By demonizing Wilde, the new ruling class gave citizens a way to keep themselves and their kids protected from the evil homosexual; all they had to do was avoid the trappings of the former aristocracy. Many of the gay stereotypes so vividly described during the Oscar Wilde trials remain are still bandied about today. Now that’s staying power.

1905: Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality 

If you were one of those uptight, Victorian types, you certainly wouldn’t have taken kindly to the notion that everyone is a bit bisexual. Sigmund Freud was not shy about being controversial, however. He also wanted you to know that: children think about sex, moms think about sex, (obviously men think about sex), and sex basically structures our entire lives from toddlerhood to adulthood. Freudian psychology centered on the idea that the expression or suppression of sexual activity can affect your whole life. Not a pleasant idea, really. But at least Freud forced people to start talking about sex again.

1950: The Mattachine Society

We’re here, we’re queer, and we’ve got a society to prove it. This service and welfare group, founded in Los Angeles, was dedicated to the “protection and improvement” of society’s “gay minority.” They met in members’ homes and were pretty low-key about their activism; no pride parades or Will and Grace here. But this organization created a space for gay men and women to meet with each other in safety, and begin to discuss their futures. So even though this society was still kind of “closeted,” at least it allowed queer people to hang out in that closet together.

1955: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

The Beat Generation had an enormous impact on literary (and non-literary) thought throughout the world. And this poem, “Howl,” was the match that lit the (Beat) fire. The work boldly reveals that most of modern society actually falls outside of the image of the traditional family; if we continue to view heteronormative lifestyles as “the standard,” we’ll squelch some of the world’s most brilliant voices, Ginsberg says. This poem unleashes the voice of one radical queer man. Soon, other Beat poets followed suit. Then came the artists, musicians, and politicians of the '60s. Not to be corny, guys, but this poem kind of changed the course of history. So go read a book or something and then get back to us.

1969: The Stonewall Riots 

What’s intimidating about some drag queens with whistles and roller skates? A lot, thought people in the '60s, if the Stonewall Inn is any indication. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Manhattan that was often raided by the police while the straight bars around it were left alone. So, one night, when the police came by to rough some patrons up, the patrons decided to fight back. It took over a week for everyone to calm down, but this rebellion made a difference. Just six months after the Stonewall Riots, there were already gay newspapers and pride parades happening all over the city. Stonewall was, in many ways, the beginning of the modern-day LGBT movement.

1973: The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders 

One day in 1973 the definition of normal changed: gay men and lesbians were no longer categorized as “sick.” Can you believe that homosexuality was still on the books as a mental disorder as recently as the early 1970s? We can’t. But anyway, after the APA made this announcement and there was some queer partying down, new questions arose. If queer people aren’t sick and they don’t need straight people’s help, what part do they have to play in society? It seems like many activist groups are still divided on that issue.

1976: Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality 

Don’t you love a good Debbie Downer? In France, Michel Foucault took on people’s newfound optimism surrounding modern conversations about sexuality. He argued that though the gay community had won some new freedoms, talk about sex and sexuality was still controlled by the dominant culture—by old, rich, straight white men. He called these people the “new Victorians.” (We just can’t get rid of that era, can we?) His work, The History of Sexuality, examines how the ways we do and don’t talk about sex actually restrict our sexual activities. He proposes that definitions of sexuality needed to be re-examined by people outside the dominant culture if we want to unleash our truly unfettered sexiness.

1980s: The AIDS Epidemic

Just as it was lookin’ like the queer conversation was on a seriously positive roll, a horrible event took place. HIV/AIDS emerged on the scene, and this serious medical crisis stopped everyone in their tracks. The concern of the gay community was no longer about developing intellectual theories. It was about survival. Thousands of people were dying, and very little was being done to prevent those deaths. A strong political culture arose to challenge the conservative political order of the Reagan administration.

1990: Queer Nation/ACT UP 

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it! A lot of people were losing their best friends, their brothers and sisters, and their moms and dads to AIDS in the '80s and '90s. People were angry. People were sad. People were confused. ACT UP, a gay activist organization, staged protests, blocked traffic, and organized “Queer Nights Out” to draw attention to the international HIV/AIDS crisis. Gay men and women gathered in public places, in straight establishments, outside gay bars, and wore provocative t-shirts. They yelled loudly. They even played spin the bottle and displayed a lot of public affection to draw attention to their cause. These activists also took the term queer away from homophobic people and turned it into a fierce symbol of resistance. Queer Nation was the first, highly visible publication to use that term, and it had a powerful impact in both political and academic circles.

1990: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble 

Now let’s cause s’more trouble, shall we, Shmoopers? In the same year Queer Nation was first published, Judith Butler published her groundbreaking work, Gender Trouble. A queer woman, intellectual, activist, humanitarian, and all around awesome person, Butler forever changed the way we talk about gender and sexuality. Masculine and feminine, straight and gay— most every category we use to talk about people is socially constructed, she said. We’ve made it all up. And if gender is merely a performance, then why can’t people be allowed to perform whatever gender roles they feel most comfortable with?

1990: Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet 

Epistemology is just a fancy word for “how we learn to think.” Eve Sedgwick, a straight woman, expanded the notions Butler put forth to include all sexualities. Her work reveals that the homo/hetero divide influences most all aspects of society, both gay and straight. Queer theory, Sedgwick wrote, is about talking about what people have often kept hidden. By refusing to keep secrets anymore, we can shift the culture away from old, harmful ways of thinking that silence minority voices. Sedgwick reveals queerness to be a theory that is able to challenge all ways of thinking, and help us change the way we analyze the world around us. Thanks, Eve. You rock.