Queer Theory: a short introduction

An adaptation of Thoughts on Developing Anarchist Queer Theory by Dot

Unlike most identity-based studies, and even in contrast to some queer studies, queer theory specifically seeks to question the idea of identity itself. While some of the concepts of queer theory have trickled into radical queer thought, it should be expanded to be accessible to those outside of the academia.

Queer theory
In the past two decades, queer theory has developed as an academic pursuit and gained considerable acceptance within the realm of higher education. Queer theory is one of the latest currents of critical theory to gain widespread academic acceptance. It developed from the field of Gay and Lesbian Studies. However, queer theory takes a radically different approach to identity than other theories about identity.

One concept that is central to the project of queer theory is the essentialism vs. social construction debate. The essentialist perspective relies on the argument that identities are inherent and fixed. For example, an essentialist position would argue that the binary of man/woman is legitimate, that those identities are natural and that the differences between them are likewise natural. Social construction, on the other hand, argues that identity has no basis in nature and is constructed entirely by social forces and discourse. Essentialism takes as its starting point a fixed identity and then analyzes how society as a whole impacts and is impacted by people with that identity. Social construction on the other hand argues against the fixed identity, claiming instead that identity is continually constructed and reconstructed by social forces.

Perhaps the best-known queer theorist is Judith Butler, a professor at Berkeley.  One of her major contributions is the idea of gender performativity. For Butler, gender is a collective fiction that consists of the aggregated performances of individuals. People act according to this fiction to perform their gender. Individuals are punished for acting contrary to this fiction, either by law or by social norms. Butler also counters the traditional understanding of sex as biological and gender as social by arguing that outside of gender, sex has no meaning and is thus equally socially constructed.

Identity and Identity Politics
Queer theory is critical of traditional notions of identity and seeks to deconstruct the processes by which identity is constructed. The conflict of anti-assimilationist queer thought against assimilationist LGBT politics is a shining example of the relevance of queer theory. The anti-assimilationist critique of the LGBT movement begins with the difference in terminology. The term LGBT is fundamentally about establishing a fixed identity for representational purposes. This is evident even in its historical progression from lesbian and gay, then adding bisexuality, and finally adding trans to the acronym. Each of these additions was met with resistance by the gay establishment, demonstrating the exclusionary nature of the term. Queer theory consciously rejects the idea of fixed identities, with queer itself being a term that deliberately provides no stable identity. Thus, queer liberation has little to do with the LGBT movement’s goal of assimilation and their narrow identity politics.

Assimilationism, in a queer context, is represented by the campaigns of mainstream, reformist organizations. Issues such as gay marriage are at the top of the LGBT agenda. This, along with cultural assimilation in the form of for example corporate-sponsored Pride parades, demonstrates a commitment to embracing the statist logic of citizenship and rights, as well as the capitalist commodification of culture. Assimilationism, then, seeks integration into capitalism and state power in exchange for being loyal subjects. The LGBT movement is thus, on the whole, an assimilationist effort.

The Future
Queer theory can be seen as a deconstruction of identity itself, specifically in the case of sex and gender but with broader implications. However, these broader implications are often lost because of the degree to which queer theory is an academic pursuit, with all the disadvantages that come with this status. Developments such as the upcoming Queeristan, an autonomous festival on radical queer politics, are actively helping queer theory break out of the academy and become a part of general discourse. Indeed, even in the limited ways that it has already reached anti-authoritarian thought, it has proven liberating and useful.

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