How to “Queer Theory”
If ever a term defied definition, it is “queer theory.”
This is largely because queer theory is a theoretical world perspective so fundamentally different from the one in which we live that it is difficult to conceptualize, much less describe. Those who make an attempt to communicate it to the world, like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, or Iris Marion Young, are often dismissed as long-winded and overly complex. They are not to blame, however: the concepts behind queer theory are almost impossible to explain in a language imbedded in heterosexism and patriarchy -- we simply do not have the words yet. The best way to begin defining queer theory, then, is by describing what it isn’t.
What It Isn’t
In Western culture today, there is a very distinct idea of how men and women should live their lives, and these ideas are imbedded in every single aspect of society. Those who conform to these expectations – performing traditional “masculine” or “feminine” gender roles like participating in athletics or shaving their legs – are rewarded by their society with privileges and respect. This is heteronormativity – adherence to the socially prescribed gender roles.
It is obvious that people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or some combination do not fit into their heteronormative slots; but queer theory points out that they are not the only ones. In fact, very few people truly live up to the standard of the aggressive, successful, protective male or the submissive, domestic, nurturing female. By this line of logic, we are all a little bit queer (not just in sexual terms, but in race, class, and social structure); how strange, then, that we should view our world through such a heteronormative lens. Perhaps that should change.
What It Is
Enter queer theory, the attempt to make theory queer, not just have a theory about queer (Stein, in-class lecture 2013). In terms of politics, the furthest we have progressed so far is to propose equal rights for queer people. But equal to what? Why, to the rights of straight people, of course. This is considered fairly progressive thinking, but its basic foundation still lies in the assumption that to be straight is to be “normal,” and to be queer is to be “different.” This “us versus them” mentality casts queers in the role of a minority to be patiently tolerated and grudgingly allowed into the infrastructure governed by heteronormativity.
But that is not enough.
Finding the current heterosexist system of social institutions quite inadequate, “queer struggles aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions” (Warner, xiii). Queer theory preaches that it is not smart or fair to force a society into a preconceived system, dismissing those who simply don’t fit as “unnatural” or “freakish.” There is no reason, queer theory argues, for a system to exclude some of its own members; instead, we should adopt a new system that desires multiplicity and variation (not “difference” – that implies a “normal”), rather than merely tolerating it.
Duggan, Lisa. “Making It Perfectly Queer.” An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., New York, NY; 2006.
Stein, Sarah. In-class lecture for English 264b: Topics of Gender and Literature. 9 Januray 2013.
Warner, Michael. “Introduction.” Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN; 1993.