The past decade in American politics has been quite a sight, something like a mix between a war, a ballgame, and a Hollywood movie. And in this series of FAQ’s, we are exploring one of the main reasons for the upheaval in American politics: the shift to “postmodern” politics and activism. In the last post, we explained postcolonial theory and American politics; in this post, we will explore queer theory and American politics.
Here is what everyone needs to know about queer theory and American politics:
What is Queer Theory?
Queer theory focuses on liberating people from traditional norms for gender and sexuality. Unlike the early gay rights movement, it views categories such as sex, gender, and sexuality as oppressive. It is skeptical that such categories are based on biological reality. Queer Theory’s forms of reasoning are also abnormal or “queer,” often valuing illogic and unintelligibility over logic and intelligibility.
When did Queer Theory emerge as a force in American politics?
Queer Theory makes one good point: during the past several decades, the way Americans view sexuality has changed profoundly. Perception of homosexuals has shifted. Whereas, the older gay rights movement, along with many or most Americans, said, “Some people are gay. It’s really none of your business. And gay people should have the same rights as straight people.” Yet, Queer Theory rejects this way of thinking because it rejects the view that “gay,” “lesbian,” or “trans” as a stable category.
Thus, Queer Theorists—such as Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—focus on convincing the public that categories like male/female or gay/straight are social constructs made by the powerful majority.
What do Queer Theorists mean when they use “queer” as a verb?
Queer theorists want to disrupt and problematize dominant ways of thinking and talking, deconstructing traditional categories and dismissing them as unhelpful or oppressive. Thus, they use the word “queer” as a noun to refer to anything that falls outside of standard binary categories: male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, etc. But they also use the word queer as a verb. To “queer” something is to deconstruct it, question its stability, question its binaries. Queering renders senseless any type of normality, toward the end of convincing society to believe that traditional ways of thinking and traditional categories constrain individuals and harm society.
Who are the Founding Foremothers of Queer Theory?
The founding mothers of queer theory were postmodern theorists Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, each of whom were significantly influenced by a Western white man, postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault.
In the 1980s, cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin argued that good sex and bad sex are socially constructed. She rejected sexual essentialism. She says we should view categories such as gay/straight as social constructs. She didn’t necessarily argue that her conclusions are true, only that her arguments made it easier to engage in political activism.
In other words, Rubin has a consequentialist ethic (In this view, a person’s action is considered “good” if the person thinks that action will bring about the greatest amount of overall good. In other words, human actions are not inherently good or bad; human actions are a means to an end.). Thus, Rubin’s view relativizes morality, undermines trust in the sciences, and makes the university more like a religious cult or political action committee.
In the 1990s, philosopher Judith Butler argued that sex and gender are unrelated, and that gender is entirely socially constructed. In her view, a sex is something we have while a gender is something we do. For her, even the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality are socially constructed. Yet, Butler argued that it is impossible for us to step outside of those social constructions, and therefore we must settle for disrupting them.
Butler challenged scholars and activists to disrupt such constructions through subversive repetition. In other words, she wanted them to continually call those categories into question. When questioning the specific category of gender, she referred to subversive repetition as genderfucking. One way Butler genderfucked was to criticize traditional feminists harshly because they viewed “female” as a stable category.
At the same time, literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began arguing that the Queer rejection of stable categories demands that they also refuse to resolve contradictions and insisted on valuing diversity-without-unity. She wanted the LGBT movement to incorporate all ideas, even if those ideas contradicted one another. In fact, a cursory glance at Sedgwick’s writing reveals that she elevated the “logical fallacy” to the level of her own literary genre.
How should Americans think about Queer Theory?
The first thing to be said is that queer theory should not be confused with gay rights. Nearly every American thinks gay citizens should have a full array of Constitutional rights. Furthermore, the gay community does have full equality under the law. But Queer Theory is saying something entirely different.
Queer Theory is concerned with disrupting the traditional view that society has, and should have, norms—especially sexual norms. It wants to problematize the ways of thinking and the categories exhibited by white Western males. Ironically, Queer theory owes an enormous debt to Western white male philosopher Michel Foucault, who—unlike the Queer Theorists—viewed himself as a “male” “homosexual.”
To compound the irony, Queer Theory’s attempt to blur traditional categories and disrupt traditional discourses renders is perplexing and increasingly irrelevant. Primarily, this is because it is manifestly evident biologically that “male” and “female” are stable categories, and universally evident historically that human beings in all times and places relate “male” to “masculine,” “female” to “male,” and marriage to “man and woman.” When Queer Theorists try to delegitimize categories that are biological and universal, they alienate most of the people they wish to persuade.
Instead of being antiscientific, dismissive, and purposely incomprehensible, they should legitimize categories such as sex, gender, and sexuality because that will cause people to be more accepting, as long as those categories are not used to marginalize.