Literary Criticism 101: Queer Theory

Women's studies started in the 1970s and were not limited to literature. The field is strongly multidisciplinary with the predominance of cultural studies over literary material. Feminist writing does not need to be written by women and is not directly linked to a female readership. Likewise, gay writers do not necessarily write gay criticism.    What is the purpose of lesbian and gay criticism? Lesbian/Gay studies contribute to sex and sexuality approximately what feminism contributes to gender. They establish a centrality of gender as a fundamental category of historical analysis and understanding. For lesbians and gays, it is about sexuality. For Feminists, it is about gender. However, gender is a social construct that defines you as male, female, masculine, or feminine. Sexuality is about "yourself." It is about sexual orientation and how one chooses to express it. Lesbian and gay criticism have social and political dimensions, an oppositional design upon society. What is informed is it being resistance to homophobia and resistance to heterosexism as being the norm. It is a resistance to the ideological and institutional practices of heterosexual privilege. Lesbian and gay theories are not the same. 

Lesbian Feminists during a march in the United States, circa 1960s

"Lesbian Feminism" emerged from third-wave feminism. It was an annex to feminist criticism before becoming separate. Feminism has become so successful and institutionalized that lesbian studies occupy the radical ground dictated by feminism. Feminism found it difficult to accommodate sexual, cultural, or racial differences. It intended to universalize the experience of white, urban, middle-class, heterosexual women. Academic feminism reproduced the patriarchal inequality by excluding the voices and experiences of other types of women. Lesbian critics argued that feminism assumed that there existed an essential female identity that all women had in common irrelevant to differences such as race, class, or sexual orientation. To them, feminism essentializes women. In pioneering feminist writers, the perceptual screen of heterosexism hindered any examination of lesbian concerns. Classic feminism marginalized lesbianism. Lesbianism should be viewed as feminism's most comprehensive manifestation. The lesbian feminist position identified in this discourse makes lesbianism central to feminism since lesbianism turns away from various forms of collusion with patriarchal exploitation.  It consists of relationships among women, which constitute resistance and a radical recognition of existing forms of social relations. The conflict between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists began, and Lesbian criticism became separated from feminism.


Two women kiss as they take part in the Ljubljana Pride Parade in Ljubljana, Slovenia on June 17, 2017.

In the 90s, a less essentialist notion of lesbianism emerged within the sphere of what is known as queer theory. Paulina Palmer, a lesbian critic, expresses that lesbians make allegiances with gay men. They ally themselves with gay men. This "gave birth" to queer theory. Queer theory rather than being woman-centered rejects female centrism and instead sees an identity of political and social interests with gay men. The main question for anyone choosing between these two possible alliances is whether it is gender (lesbian feminism) or sexuality (queer theory) - which is the more fundamental in personal identity. How does queer theory differ from lesbian feminism? Queer theory studies have drawn a lot from the post-structuralism of the 1980s. One of the main points of post-structuralism is to deconstruct binary oppositions, following that the distinction is not absolute. Also, it's possible to reverse the hierarchy. Binary: heterosexuality - homosexuality. You cannot define one without the other. One is linked to the other. The opposition between this pair (homosexuality-heterosexuality) is seen as inherently unstable. Diana Fuss says that the binary is unstable. On the other hand, Judith Butler argues that oppressive structures normalize what will serve their ends. Identity categories like gay and straight tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes whether as normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying point for liberatory contestations of that very oppression. Even where people support gay culture, this term is also regulatory in its philosophy. The concept of homosexuality is itself homophobic. The term homosexual preceded heterosexual by 11 years. In this sense, heterosexuality comes because of homosexuality. Identity becomes a site of contest and revision. Heterosexism is the term used to describe systemic discrimination against homosexuality, as well as the privileging of heterosexuality. A heterosexist culture, for example, imposes obligatory heterosexuality, a phrase used by Adrienne Rich to characterize the pressure placed on young people to be heterosexual by their surroundings and media. Heterocentrism, a more subtle form of prejudice against gay men and lesbians, is the assumption, often unconscious, that heterosexuality is the universal norm by which everyone's experience can be understood. Heterocentrism renders lesbian and gay experiences invisible, making it possible in decades past, for example, for fans of Walt Whitman to be blind to the homoerotic dimension of his poetry.

Los Angeles Gay Pride Resist March, June 11, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.

On the other hand, some "lesbian and gay thinkers" contend that, while homosexual people are a politically persecuted minority in America, everyone has the capacity for same-sex attraction or sexual behavior. Homosexuality and heterosexuality, according to this viewpoint, are the result of societal pressures rather than biological ones. Minoritizing viewpoints are ways of analyzing gay and lesbian experiences, which then emphasize their "minority status." Universalizing ideas are ways of conceptualizing gay and lesbian experiences that emphasize everyone's homosexual potential. Finally, two often used terms for same-sex relationships are homoerotic and homosocial. Homoerotic refers to erotic (though not always openly sexual) portrayals that indicate same-sex attraction or might appeal sexually to a same-sex reader. In all areas of art, media, and literature, such portrayals can be found. The term homosocial refers to female- or male-bonding behaviors that involve same-sex interaction.


Activists' slogans from the New Delhi 5th Queer Pride March

Adrienne Rich uses this idea to argue for a concept she calls a lesbian continuum. Rich defines a lesbian continuum as: "a variety of woman-identified experiences throughout each woman's life and across history, not merely the fact that a woman has had or actively wants a genital sexual encounter with another woman." In other words, patriarchy and heterosexuality are connected from this perspective. To be capable of resisting the former, one must also be able to resist the latter. As a result, some lesbians consider themselves separatists. They distance themselves from all males, including homosexual men, as well as heterosexual women. They also disassociate themselves from lesbians who do not share their views.


Judith Butler casts doubt on the notion that some gender behaviors are inherent, demonstrating that gender behavior is a learned act, a performance forced on us by conventional heterosexuality. You act according to gender identity. Gender is not based on physical characteristics but is based on a social construct that is subjected to change. Butler pushes her arguments even further by challenging the gender and sex distinctions themselves. In the past, feminists regularly made a distinction between biological sex and gender, and such feminists accepted that anatomical differences do exist between men and women, however, they pointed out how most of the conventions that determine the behaviors of men and women are social genders construction that has nothing to do with our biological sex. Gender is a performance; it's what you do rather than who you are. Butler states that cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold, but it doesn't have to be that way. Butler advocates mobilization and the diversification of genders, hence identity. Butler claims that depending on our performance, we may try to change gender norms and the binary conception of masculinity and femininity. One of the main topics of queer theory is the concept of free-floating identity. Our identities are the dynamic consequences of our acts, not our inner self. Gender is a social construction open to change and contestation.


A non binary activist. NYC Pride: Transgender Day Of Action, 2017.  |  Erik McGregor/SIPA USA/PA Images

Finally, Eve Sedgwick, considers that you will not have the privilege of heterosexuality had there not been invented the term homosexuality. She believes sexuality is fluid. The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one's identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out of the closet is not a one-step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. Even if one considers themselves to be out, there is always someone unaware of one's sexuality owing to its allegedly undetected nature and there are instances when staying in the closet appears to be a more realistic and safer alternative.


What do lesbian and gay critics do?


To summarize, lesbian and gay critics identify and establish a canon of "classic" lesbian/gay writers whose work constitutes a distinct tradition. They highlight lesbian/gay events in mainstream works and examine them. They provide a metaphorical, broader definition of "lesbian/gay," connoting a time when a border is crossed, or a collection of categories is blurred. All of these "liminal" moments reflect the act of self-identification as a lesbian or homosexual person, which is inherently an intentional act of defiance of existing norms and restrictions. Furthermore, they expose the "homophobia" of mainstream literature and criticism, in ignoring or denigrating the homosexual aspects of the work of major canonical figures. Additionally, they foreground homosexual aspects of mainstream literature which have previously been glossed over, for example, the strongly homo-erotic tenderness seen in "First World War" poetry. Finally, lesbian and gay critics focused on literary genres, previously neglected, which significantly influenced ideals of masculinity or femininity.



References


Weed, E., & Schor, N. (Eds.). (1997). Feminism meets queer theory (Vol. 2). Indiana University Press.


Jagose, A., & Genschel, C. (1996). Queer theory (p. 47). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.


Turner, W. B., Turner, W. B., & William Turner, S. (2000). A genealogy of queer theory (Vol. 12). Temple University Press.


Spargo, T. (1999). Foucault and queer theory. Cambridge: Icon books.


Seidman, S. (1995). Deconstructing queer theory or the under-theorization of the social and the ethical. Social postmodernism: Beyond identity politics, 116-141.


Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. nyu Press.


Turner, W. B., Turner, W. B., & William Turner, S. (2000). A genealogy of queer theory (Vol. 12). Temple University Press.


Barry, P. (2020). Queer theory. In Beginning theory (fourth edition) (pp. 141-158). Manchester University Press.


Rudy, K. (2000). Queer theory and feminism. Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(2), 195-216.

Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn