History of Sexuality, Part Two

WHAT IS “QUEER?”

“Queer” was once an insulting term of scorn and distaste applied to homosexuals and the aggressive appropriation of this term by the homosexual community as a defiant positive identification signaled a change from the meaning of the term “identity.” “Queer” is also a Postmodern term, signifying an awareness that it is a classification that is artificial and constructed by society. “Queer” is a representation and was (and still is) used as a prerogative term, a word that was deliberately repressive, designed to designate the Other, as an act of power and control. Postmodernity understands representation or the power to represent stems from a position of social dominance and that sexuality is linked to economic power and control of the One. To say “queer” is to identify. “Queer” theory was also a reaction to the rejection of a meta-theory or meta-narrative of of sexuality, which positioned heterosexuality as the privileged state and marginalizing homosexuality as the Other.

Following the thinking of Michel Foucault that one should investigate smaller units, Queer Theory was a concept of the 1990s. The theoretical basis for “queer” was feminist theory, which was a theory of difference. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argued that gender relations–the binary between male and female—was stabilized by the immobility of women and that once “female” became unstable, the position of the male was threatened. Gender was constructed by society and then performed by the individual, with both male and female playing social roles. “Queer Theory” emerged at the same time as Butler’s arguments for gender performativity but “queer” did not necessarily mean “gay” or opposite from “straight” or “homosexual” or opposite from “heterosexual.” As Samuel Allen Chambers and Terrell Carver stated in Judith Butler and Political Theory,

Queer identity therefore must not be confused or confuted with gay identity; it rests no on the ground of a fixed desire for the same exa, but on the position of one’s marginal sexuality in relation to the norm of heterosexuality.

Thanks to theorists, such as Adrianne Rich and Monique Wittig, writing about lesbian theory, “identity” was revealed to by a mere construct. For Rich, heterosexuality was “compulsory,” forced upon all, regardless of their preferences. For Wittig, gender relations were constructed solely for the imposition and maintenance of heterosexuality, so much so, that lesbians were totally outside of that binary. Nothing was natural; all was constructed and given out to individuals by society. In Queer Theory, Annamarie Jagose stated that “Queer” marked a break and a rupture with the politics of liberation and assimilation of the sixties and seventies. Although it should be pointed out that twenty-first century gay culture strives towards assimilation and bourgeois life styles, “Queer Theory” emerged in the nineties as an acknowledgment of Michel Foucault’s insistence in Discipline and Punish that power was not concentrated in a central place but was distributed and disseminated widely, impossible to confront. Foucault noted that power was productive and produced categories, such as “queer.” These categories were used to classify people into groups where they could be marginalized and oppressed through a “discourse” or body of “knowledge” which reinforced the spread of power. For Foucault, surveillance produced knowledge of the subject under examination and that knowledge, in turn, produced more power. We have seen this process very clearly in the “creation” of the “homosexual” in the 1870s through medical discourse. By the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuals had been declared “inverts” and laws were passed to prevent homosexuality from spreading, like a disease.

Alert to the danger of categories, the new activists adopted the term “queer” which is non-specific and non-exclusionist. “Queer” can be seen as a counter discourse, an act of resistance to the existing discourse on homosexuals which actually produced “homosexuals.” Rather than having a label applied to them by the heterosexual society, homosexuals began using the word “queer” as a self-designation, chosen deliberately as a new form pf personal identification and of political organization. “Queer” was an attack on the entire concept of “identity,” and upon sexuality. Far from being “natural,” sexuality was, according to Foucualt, a cultural category, an effect of power, and something produced through discourse. The emergence of “queer theory” revealed the extent to which society and culture expended enormous efforts to shape human sexuality in certain directions: heterosexual with men dominating and women pleasing men. Following Foucault’s line of thinking, Judith Butler asserted that the whole notion of “marginalized” identities privileges the center and is complicit with regimes that maintain power through identifying who is at the “margin” and who is in the “center.”

Gender, Butler stated, was a performance and gender roles were performative. The performance of a particular gender is a kind of masquerade, a role that is played by the individual who is rarely aware that he or she is acting from a script written by a system seeking to maintain the “naturalization” of heterosexuality. The way a person dresses or walks or talks or even the hairstyle defines him or her as “male” or “female.” The apparent “unity of gender” inscribed by these ritualized and repetitive performances is achieved under constraints, such as, men cannot wear women’s clothes or, in some cultures, women cannot be unveiled. Any deviation from the standard performances is punished. Queer theory questions conventional understandings of gender; and, when one describes oneself as “queer,” the term is a self-designation and self-identification, taken by the individual. Queer theory insists that sexuality is a discursive effect and the primary goal of queer theory is to “denaturalized” gender and sexuality, revealing the artificial constructs of “male” and “female.” Monique Wittig memorably proposed that perhaps we could all simply be “people:”

Like racism, sexism is so well implanted in ruling class ideology that only a radical seizing of power can destroy it—a political takeover to represent, in our turn, our interest as being the universal interest. That is necessary for the first phase, the send goal of all seizure of power by the people being an abolition of domination in general. Our interest is that of the people. We are the people.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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