In his discussion of queer theory, Bertholde Schoene (2006, p. 293) contends that “no doubt the most pressing issue is whether, in terms of both its political engagement and its academic import, queer theory – as a historical offshoot of feminism—has grown into the latter’s partner or rival”.
Though I’d contend that this is probably not “the most pressing issue” with respect to queer theory in general, it is one that catches my attention as I return to feminism after having taken a course in queer theory. As my title suggests, I’m clearly not alone in this line of inquiry; parsing the relationship of queer theory to feminism is of concern to a number of people engaged in both projects.
After all, feminists—and in particular lesbian feminists—had already critiqued things like “compulsory heterosexuality” (Rich, 1994); if there was already a theoretical apparatus working to dismantle the ways that people were forced into heterosexual roles as a result of a sex/gender binary, it is to some extent a fair question why the world needed another one.
However, Rich’s article already indicates why feminism alone wasn’t particularly good at addressing the issues queer theory came to examine—though Rich is willing to extend sisterly solidarity to heterosexual women, she still positions men as the enemy controlling the whole sex/gender/sexuality system rather than recognizing that they are equally constructed by it—albeit in a privileged position
It is this sort of feminist tendency that led Sedgwick (1992, p. 27) to contend that “the study of sexuality is not coextensive with the study of gender; correspondingly, antihomopobic inquiry is not coextensive with feminist inquiry. But we can’t know in advance how they will be different.”
Through this statement, then, Sedgwick—one of the foundational thinkers of queer theory, writing one of the field’s originating texts—points to the way that queer theory has different concerns than feminism, but she also recognizes that there is overlap and that the two modes of inquiry do have points of commonality such that feminism can contribute to this allied project and vice versa.
As Rich’s non-systemic thinking and oppressor-oppressed model of power suggests, what feminism tended to miss that queer theory added was a poststructuralist lens (the existence of poststructuralist feminism troubles this divide somewhat, but I think it stands as a general statement; also, Butler is often considered the hinge between feminism and queer theory).
Indeed, Schoene (2006, p. 283) argues that “any attempt to map the political complexities of the queer movement must begin with an acknowledgement of the theoretical indebtedness” to History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 . Leaving aside his slippage here between “the queer movement,” which may or may not have been reading Foucault, and “queer theory,” which surely was, this is a statement with which I would agree.
Foucault’s (1990) model of power as productive and systemic redirects inquiry away from the sort of “us vs. them” model exemplified by Rich; instead, “what queer theory’s deconstruction of the hetero/homo binarism reveals is the fact that heterosexuality is as systematically constructed as controlled an orientation as homosexuality” (Schoene, 2006, p. 292).
That is, if structuralism uncovered the ways in which we use binaries to explain how the world works, poststructuralism’s intervention was to insist that we recognize those binaries as constructed, hierarchical, and ultimately in no way necessary, which queer theory clearly inherited. Thus, unlike much of (lesbian) feminism, “the chief opponent of ‘queer’ it has to be remembered, is after all not heterosexuality but the system of heteronormativity” (Schoene, 2006, p. 295).
However, as many have noted, queer theory, for all its improvements on feminism in some senses, has generally not drawn on women of color feminism as early, as often, or as extensively as it really should.
Schoene (2006, p. 297) rightly points out that “queer theory views all traditional forms of identity as coercive assignments that, regardless of people’s individual specificity, subject everybody to the regulatory imperatives of unequivocal cultural intelligibility,” but this misses the ways in which those identities can also be sources of belonging and solidarity, particularly when they are group memberships like those in racial and ethnic categories that allow people to band together for mutual support against a discriminatory dominant category.
Thus, though Schoene (2006, p. 287) claims that the “relativity of ‘queer’ enables declarations of solidarity and the forging of political alliances across a broad spectrum of hitherto mutually isolated, diasporic, and disempowered identities,” queer theory’s frequent demand that we all reject all identity altogether makes this sort of alliance-building difficult in the absence of a recognition of and respect for the ways in which different queers are differently positioned in culture.
Rejecting privilege, as McRuer (2006, p. 36) points out, doesn’t make it go away. More recent queer theory, such as Ferguson’s (2003) queer of color critique, takes these factors more into account, and may provide a way to resolve this lack.
Ultimately, queer theory’s greatest contribution is its unremitting opposition to normativity and normalization of all sorts, which it undertakes while remaining grounded in the study of sexuality.
That is, “the queer movement demonstrates that ‘the problem of sexuality’ resides ultimately not with itself but with mainstream society which, once deprived of an easily identifiable Other against which to assert itself, comes seriously unstuck” (Schoene, 2006, p. 290); through exposing the non-naturalness of sexual categories, that is, queer theory disrupts not only its own Othering but the norm constructed through the process of Othering.
It is for this reason that I must dissent from “Sedgwick’s generous definition of ‘queer,’” which, as Schoene (2006, p. 294) points out, “encompasses not only all gender rebels and sexual nonconformists, but also those potentially capable of becoming or fancying themselves as such, which renders ‘queer’ a universal human trait or, in other words, an utterly unremarkable noncharacteristic.”
Like (seemingly) Schoene, I diverge from the usage of the term that would identify everything nonheteronormative as queer; it is, I contend, vital that we maintain “the deformative and misappropriative power that the term currently enjoys” (Butler, 1993, p. 229). Queer, Edelman (2004, 17) says, disturbs identity; Giffney (2009, 2) contends that it resists categories and “easy categorization.”
Queers are “the people that don’t belong anywhere,” who consequently “are a threat” (Anzaldúa 1983, 209), which can’t happen if everyone and everything is queer. To maintain the term’s bite, its force as a way to build on feminism and question every category we use to make sense of the world, “queer” has to be reserved for those nonheteronormativites that actually challenge norms, not those that are deployed to reinforce them.
Anzaldúa, G. (1983). La Prieta. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (pp. 198-209). Latham, NY: Kitchen Table Press.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
Edelman, L. (2004). No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
Giffney, N. (2009). Introduction: The ‘Q’ Word. In N. Giffney & M. O’Rourke (Eds.), Ashgate Companion to Queer Theory (pp. 1-13). Farnham: Ashgate.
McRuer, R. (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: NYU Press.
Rich, A. (1994). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. In Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (pp. 23-75). New York: Norton.
Schoene, B. (2006). Queer Politics, Queer Theory, and the Future of Identity: Spiralling out of Culture. In E. Rooney (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory (1st ed., pp. 283-302). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1992). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.