The term queer evolved through different historical contexts during the 20th century. Prior to the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, which marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement, queer, in the context of describing a person, was used almost exclusively as a derogatory term against homosexuals. As the gay liberation movement gained momentum, a new meaning surfaced that signified a radical act of gay pride in defiance of heteronormativity and was evidenced in slogans such as “We’re here; We’re queer; Get used to it!” Heteronormativity describes a binary gender system, in which only two sexes are recognized, where sex is equated with gender and gender with a heterosexual orientation.
At the same time, lesbian feminists were concerned with legitimizing lesbian as an identity within the general context of women’s oppression, which necessitated defining parameters. Out of this emerged separatist movements, proscriptions against butch and femme gender roles, anti-sadomasochism and/or anti-dominance/submission stances, and exclusionary taxonomies such as “women-born, women-identified women.” This process led to an identity politic that alienated and marginalized increasing numbers of women. Additionally, homonor-mative strategies (we’re just like you except for one thing) employed by lesbian and gay organizations to gain civil rights served to further marginalize individuals. Among those ostracized were transgendered persons, bisexuals, intersexed persons, and butch and femme lesbians. Others were also ostracized, irrespective of sexual orientation. These individuals, who do not fit the prevailing cultural norms of gender, include drag queens and drag kings, transsexual persons, leather fetishists, transvestites, and others who do not adhere to cultural standards of monogamous partnerships.
Similar to the gay liberation movement, these groups adopted queer as an umbrella term in a radical act of defiance and pride. However, in this case it was in defiance of lesbian and gay homonormativity in addition to heteronormativity. This meaning of queer exposes the hypocritical stance of gay liberation, in that queers can be visible only so long as they fit within the prevailing parameters of acceptability. Thus, these marginalized groups are queer even within lesbian and gay circles. In effect, they are queer queers.
All three usages of queer remain prevalent today. However, against this backdrop, queer studies emerged as an academic discipline sustained by a well-articulated theoretical framework. Queer theory proposes that sexual identities are a function of representations. It assumes that representations preexist and define, as
well as complicate and disrupt, sexual identities. Whereas the gay liberation movement fought to legitimize an acceptable homosexual identity and in the process free from oppression marginalized sexual minorities, queer theorists seek to destabilize cultural ideals of normality and foster the freedom people need to create their own sexualities.
Although same-sex dynamics have been a focal point of queer theorists, the benchmark of the coming out narrative that commonly solidifies contemporary gay and lesbian identities is not used to evaluate these dynamics. Queer theory rejects teleological views of sexuality and identity, tending more toward coalition politics. It is skeptical of viewing some identities as authentic and others as lacking, inauthentic, or deviant. Instead, queer theory concentrates on what individuals want and do.
See Also: Femininity, Gender, Gender role, Hermaphroditism, Homosexuality, Intersexuality, Lesbian, Masculinity, Transgenderism, Transsexuality
- Jagose, A. (1997). Queer theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.
- Spargo, T. (1999). Foucault and queer theory. Kallista, Australia: Totem Books.
- Turner, W. B. (2000). A genealogy of queer theory (American Subjects Series). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.