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Jackie Susann, "Queer Theory in a Nutshell"

Anonymous Comrade submits:

"Queer Theory in a Nutshell"

Jackie Susann

Queer theory is the academic discourse that has largely
replaced what used to be called gay and lesbian studies. The
term was coined by Teresa de Lauretis for "a working
conference on theorisising gay and lesbian sexualities that was
held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990".
The word queer has since come to be pretty much synonymous
with gay and lesbian (or maybe just gay male) but at the time
one of its main advantages was seen as its inclusiveness:
queer covered gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people,
sadomasochists and a potentially endless list of others
somehow marginalised by their sexuality.

Queer theory is based largely on the work of Michel Foucault, a
French philosopher with a healthy taste for a wide range of drugs
and anonymous gay sex, especially SM, in particular his History
of Sexuality: Volume One, Introduction. Foucault's thesis (to
simplify it a lot) is that our ideas about sexuality are a fairly
modern construction (he dates them to 1870, if I remember
right). Before that there was no such thing as, say, a
homosexual. There was just sodomy, a particular kind of sin that
anyone, potentially, could partake of. But in the late 1870s, the
'homosexual' was invented, somebody whose life was defined
around the sex acts he participated in. Subsequently, this sort of
categorisation spread until everyone's life was defined by their
sexuality. The interesting thing about Foucault's account of the
invention of homosexuals is that it allows, for the first time, for a
"reverse discourse": homosexuals could begin to defend their
interests using the same categories and terminology that had
been used to marginalise them. Although the category
'homosexual' functioned to oppress those it labelled, it also let
them see themselves as a definable group with common
interests that could be fought for and defended.

Foucault himself wasn't a queer theorist per se (he once
famously claimed his work had nothing to do with gay liberation)
but his theses are pretty much axiomatic across the field. They
are picked up, for example, by probably the two most prominent
and significant queer theorists, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and
Judith Butler.

Sedgwick's reputation was made by her book Epistemology of
the Closet, which consists largely of deconstructive readings of
canonical texts to bring out the fluidity of the distinction between
homosocial and homosexual relations. She argues that this
homosocial/homosexual distinction is fundamental to Western
culture, and says that any analysis of any aspect of our society
that doesn't take this into account is fundamentally flawed.
Judith Butler is most famous for a series of books (including
Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter) in which she argues
that gender is 'performative', meaning that the sexes have no
intrinsic ("ontological") validity, that gender isn't a natural part of a
person but something they have to constantly enact. This isn't,
as some readings would have it, a simplistic claim that you can
just decide each day what gender you want to be. Her point is, as
I understand it, that all gender distinctions are false, but this
doesn't negate their historical power.

Besides Foucault, other important theoretical reference points
for queer theory are Derrida and deconstruction, Freud/Lacan
and psychoanalysis, and 'French feminism' from Kristeva to

Despite the overwhelming diversity of the material that's been
called queer theory, there are a few basic tenets common to all.
Queer theorists agree that sexuality is a historically specific
construct (note that this has nothing to do with the argument as
to whether homosexuality is natural or cultural); that our society
systematically oppresses those outside its categories of sexual
normalcy; that homophobia is a structural, rather than individual
problem, but that this doesn't excuse individual homophobics.
Beyond those basic agreements (which I'm sure would be
contested by some queer theorists), there's plenty of room for
argument and in-fighting.