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Queer theory

Queer theory is an anti-essentialist theory about sex and gender within the larger field of Queer studies. It proposes that one’s sexual identity and one’s gender identity are partly or wholly socially constructed, and therefore individuals cannot really be described using broad terms like “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “man,” or “woman.” It challenges the common practice of compartmentalizing the description of a person to fit into one particular category.

In particular, it questions the use of socially assigned categories based on the division between those who share some habit or lifestyle and those who do not. Instead, queer theorists suggest complicating all identity categories and groups.

Additionally, queer theory also analyses the “queer” aspects of a humanist work (such as in literature, music, art, etc.) that are not necessarily sexual. In this regard, “queer” is used to mean “strange” or “different” in the sense that a particular work does not fit within the general rules of a particular genre or category, yet is still classified as being a part of that genre or category.


Influences on queer theory include (among others) Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Monique Wittig, Jonathan D. Katz, Ester Newton, Andy Warhol, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida, but the primary voices in the development of Queer theory are Gayle Rubin, Kaja Silverman, D.A. Miller, Sue-Ellen Case, Douglas Crimp, Lauren Berlant, John D’Emilio, Lee Edelman, Michel Foucault, Joan Scott, Simon Watney, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jonathan Dollimore, Leo Bersani, David Halperin, Michael Moon, Michael Warner, Shari Thurer.

Judith Butler in particular is a pivotal figure in early queer theory, having explicated its core concepts in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble. However, in subsequent interviews, Butler has said that she was surprised to hear that she had invented “queer theory”, as she did not know what it was.

The first known use of the term “queer theory” in print was by Sue-Ellen Case. In her 1991 essay “Tracking the Vampire,” Case saw in queer theory the chance to escape the reinscription of sexual difference that marks lesbian theory and gay male theory. In 1995, however, Case withdrew from the term “queer theory,” publishing a critique of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick for replacing “performing lesbian” with “queer performativity.”

The role of biology

Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either “male” or “female,” even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter’s syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct genders. Intersexed individuals may for many different biological reasons have ambiguous sexual characteristics. Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersexual individuals include Anne Fausto-Sterling, Ruth Hubbard and Carol Tavris.

Some critics of queer theory hold that physiological, genetic and sociological evidence show that sexual orientation and sexual classification cannot be considered to be solely social constructs. In this view, various biological characteristics (some of which are inheritable) can play an important role in shaping sexual behavior. Many critics cite the case of David Reimer who underwent ultimately unsuccessful gender reassignment at the age of twenty-two months. The debates about the role of biology still continue to rage.

Some key experts in the study of culture, such as Barbara Rogoff, believe that the traditional distinction between biology and culture is a false dichotomy since biology and culture are closely related and have a significant influence on each other.

The role of language

Some people aligned with queer theory work from a Lacanian point of view. This proposes that biological aspects are not relevant to those who view the process of construction as taking place within the confines of a language system. These critics find that language constructs an idea of self and gender/sex distinctions. For these theorists, some biological truths may exist, but our conception of them remains mediated by both culture and language. Many queer theorists, however, do not rely on Lacanian psychoanalysis or its terms at all.

The biological aspects are not as relevant to those who view the process of construction as taking place within natural language and categories it forms by frequent reinforcement in minds—pronouns, for instance, that make gender or formality distinctions. In Jacques Lacan’s model of psychology, the mirror stage (around age 18 months where a child sees themselves in a mirror and believes that image to be their “self”) and development of language occur at approximately the same time.

Indeed, it may be language that constructs the entire idea of self, and gender/sex distinctions as well. Ferdinand de Saussure’s ideas of sign-signifier relationships in language are used to demonstrate this concept as well. It is seen that although some biological truths may exist, our knowledge and conceptualization of them is always mediated by language and culture. (Compare also Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.)

Hybrid theories

Hybrid theories which combine the notions of innate characteristics and social constructs also exist. For example, one might hypothesize that social customs, expectations, and identities are shaped by certain “facts of life.” This might include innate structures ranging from the obvious (such as differences between reproductive organs) to the controversial (such as the existence of a sexual orientation which is fixed in early life with genetic, environmental, and other factors determining the outcome).

Empirical (scientific) investigation might be used to separate truth from conjecture and explain how these “facts of life” interact with social norms. The role of Queer theory would be to examine the biological notions of sexual orientation and gender in the context of culture and history.

Prostitution, pornography, and BDSM

Like those in some branches of feminism, many scholars in Queer theory view prostitution, pornography and BDSM as legitimate and valuable expressions of human sexuality. For example, Pat Califia in Feminism and Sadomasochism (ISBN 1573440965) writes about how sadomasochism encourages fluidity and questions the naturalness of binary dichotomies in society:

“The dynamic between a top and a bottom is quite different from the dynamic between men and women, blacks and whites, or upper- and working-class people. That system is unjust because it assigns privileges based on race, gender, and social class. During a S/M encounter, roles are acquired and used in very different ways. If you don’t like being a top or bottom, you switch your keys. Try doing that to your biological sex or your race or your socioeconomic status.”

This point of view places these scholars of Queer theory in conflict with some branches of feminism that view prostitution and pornography, for example, as mechanisms for the oppression of women. Other branches of feminism tend to vocally disagree with this latter interpretation and celebrate pornography as a means of adult sexual representation.

Media and other creative works

Many queer theorists have created creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example, science fiction authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler feature many values and themes from queer theory in their work. Patrick Califia’s published fiction also draws heavily on concepts and ideas from queer theory.

In film, the genre of film known as New Queer Cinema draws heavily on the prevailing critical climate of queer theory; a good example of this is the Jean Genet-inspired movie Poison by the director Todd Haynes. In fanfiction, the genre known as slash fiction rewrites straight relationships to be homosexual, bisexual, and queer in sort of a campy cultural appropriation. And in music, some Queercore groups and music could be said to reflect the values of queer theory.

See also


  • de Lauretis, Teresa (1994). “Habit Changes”, differences 6:2-3: 297.