Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory[1][2][3] that emerged in the early 1990s out of queer studies (formerly often known as gay and lesbian studies) and women's studies.[4]

The term "queer theory" is broadly associated with the study and theorization of gender and sexual practices that exist outside of heterosexuality, and which challenge the notion that heterosexuality is normal.[5] Following social constructivist developments in sociology, queer theorists are often critical of what they consider essentialist views of sexuality and gender. Instead, they study those concepts as social and cultural phenomena, often through an analysis of the categories, binaries, and language in which they are said to be portrayed.


Main article: Epistemology of the Closet

Informal use of the term "queer theory" began with Gloria Anzaldúa and other scholars in the 1990s, themselves influenced by the work of French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault,[6] who viewed sexuality as socially constructed and rejected identity politics.[7] Teresa de Lauretis organized the first queer theory conference in 1990. David Halperin, an early queer theorist, writes in his article "The Normalization of Queer Theory" that de Lauretis' usage was somewhat controversial at first, as she chose to combine the word "queer" which was just starting to be used in a "gay-affirmative sense by activists, street kids, and members of the art world," and the word "theory" which was seen as very academically weighty.[8] In the early 1990s, the term started to become legitimized in academia.[6]

Although it is an academic discipline that gained traction within academia, queer theory's roots can also be traced back to activism, with the reclaiming of the derogatory term "queer" as an umbrella term for those who do not identify with heteronormativity in the 1980s.[9] This would continue on in the 1990s, with Queer Nation's use of "queer" in their protest chants, such as "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!"[10][9]

Other early queer theorists include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, and Adrienne Rich.[6][page needed]


The term "Queer" itself intentionally remains loosely defined in order to encompass the difficult-to-categorize spectrum of gender, sexuality and romantic attraction. Similarly, queer theory remains difficult to objectively define as academics from various disciplines have contributed varying understanding of the term[11]. At its core, queer theory relates to queer people, their lived experience and how their lived experience is culturally or politically perceived, specifically referring to the marginalization of queer people. This thinking is then applied to various fields of thinking.[12]

Queer theory and politics necessarily celebrate transgression in the form of visible difference from norms. These 'Norms' are then exposed to be norms, not natures or inevitabilities. Gender and sexual identities are seen, in much of this work, to be demonstrably defiant definitions and configurations.

— Jay Stewart[13]

In an influential essay, Michael Warner argued that queerness is defined by what he called 'heteronormativity'; those ideas, narratives and discourses which suggest that heterosexuality is the default, preferred, or normal mode of sexual orientation. Warner stated that while many thinkers had been theorising sexuality from a non-heterosexual perspective for perhaps a century, queerness represented a distinctive contribution to social theory for precisely this reason. Lauren Berlant and Warner further developed these ideas in their seminal essay, "Sex in Public".[14] Critics such as Edward Carpenter, Guy Hocquenghem and Jeffrey Weeks had emphasised what they called the 'necessity of thinking about sexuality as a field of power, as a historical mode of personality, and as the site of an often critical utopian aim'.[15] Whereas the terms 'homosexual', 'gay' or 'lesbian' which they used signified particular identities with stable referents (i.e. to a certain cultural form, historical context, or political agenda whose meanings can be analysed sociologically), the word 'queer' is instead defined in relation to a range of practices, behaviours and issues that have meaning only in their shared contrast to categories which are alleged to be 'normal'. Such a focus highlights the indebtedness of queer theory to the concept of normalisation found in the sociology of deviance, particularly through the work of Michel Foucault, who studied the normalisation of heterosexuality in his work The History of Sexuality.[16][17]

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that repressive structures in society police the discourse concerning sex and sexuality and are thus relegated in the private sphere.[17] As a result, heterosexuality is normalized while homosexuality (or queerness) is stigmatized. Foucault then points out that this imposed secrecy has led to sexuality as a phenomenon that needs to be frequently confessed and examined.[17] Foucault's work is particularly important to queer theory in that he describes sexuality as a phenomenon that "must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check" but rather "a historical construct."[17] Judith Butler extends this idea of sexuality as a social construct to gender identity in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, where they theorize that gender is not a biological reality but rather something that is performed through repeated actions.[18]

Because this definition of queerness does not have a fixed reference point, Judith Butler has described the subject of queer theory as a site of 'collective contestation'. They suggest that 'queer' as a term should never be 'fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes'.[19] While proponents argue that this flexibility allows for the constant readjustment of queer theory to accommodate the experiences of people who face marginalisation and discrimination on account of their sexuality and gender,[20] critics allege that such a 'subjectless critique', as it is often called,[21] runs the risk of abstracting cultural forms from their social structure, political organization, and historical context, reducing social theory to a mere 'textual idealism'.[22]

Analysis of same-sex partnerships

Queer theory deals with the micro level — the identity of the individual person, the meso level — the individual in their immediate groups such as family, friends, and work, and the macro level — the larger context of society, culture, politics, policies and law. Accordingly, queer theory not only examines the communities surrounding the queer people, but also the communities they form. Same-sex living communities have a significant priority in the formation of a queer theory. The standard work of Andreas Frank, Committed Sensations,[23] highlights comprehensively the life situation of coming out, homosexuality and same-sex communities to the millennium.

Queer theory and communication studies

As an interdisciplinary concept, queer theory is applied to different disciplines, including communication studies and research. It was introduced to the field of communication through Jeffrey Ringer's Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality in 1994, which offered a queer perspective to communication research findings.[9][24] Queer theory has also contributed to communication research by challenging the heteronormative society's notions of what's considered deviant and taboo—what is considered normative and non-normative.[25]

Queering family communication

Queer theory's interdisciplinarity is evident in its application in and critique of family communication. One of the criticisms regarding family communication is its focus on "mainstream" families, often focusing on heterosexual parents and children.[9]

Although more studies on family communication have started to include nontraditional families, critical rhetorical scholar Roberta Chevrette[26] argues that researchers continue to look at nontraditional families, including families with openly queer members, from a heteronormative lens.[27][9] That is, when studying LGBTQ+ families, many scholars continue to compare these families to their cis-heterosexual counterparts' norms. As Chevrette writes, "Queering family communication requires challenging ideas frequently taken for granted and thinking about sexual identities as more than check marks."[27]

Chevrette describes four ways that scholars can "queer" family communication: (1) revealing the biases and heteronormative assumptions in family communication; (2) challenging the treatment of sexuality and queerness as a personal and sensitive topic reserved for the private sphere rather than the public; (3) interpreting identity as a socially constructed phenomenon and sexuality as being fluid in order to expose the ways gender roles and stereotypes are reinforced by notions of identity and sexuality as being fixed; and (4) emphasizing intersectionality and the importance of studying different identity markers in connection with each other.[27]

Queer theory in philosophy

In the field of philosophy, Queer Theory falls under an adjacent category to Critical Disability Theory and Feminist theory for their similar approaches in defending communities discriminated against by questioning a societal status quo. Although all three are distinct fields of study, they all work towards a common activist goal of inclusion.[28]

Critical Disability Theory is a comprehensive term that is used to observe, discuss and question how people marginalized due to a difference in their social context (such as physical or mental disability as well as any other difference that would cause them to be othered in society) are treated in society.[28]

Lens for power

Queer theory is the lens used to explore and challenge how scholars, activists, artistic texts, and the media perpetrate gender- and sex-based binaries, and its goal is to undo hierarchies and fight against social inequalities.[29] Due to controversy about the definition of queer, including whether the word should even be defined at all or should be left deliberately open-ended, there are many disagreements and often contradictions within queer theory.[29] In fact, some queer theorists, like Berlant and Warner[30] and Butler, have warned that defining it or conceptualizing it as an academic field might only lead to its inevitable misinterpretation or destruction, since its entire purpose is to critique academia rather than become a formal academic domain itself.[31]

Fundamentally, queer theory does not construct or defend any particular identity, but instead, grounded in post-structuralism and deconstruction, it works to actively critique heteronormativity, exposing and breaking down traditional assumptions that sexual and gender identities are presumed to be heterosexual or cisgender.[6][31]

Intersectionality and queer theory

The concept of queer theory has emerged from multiple avenues that challenge the definition of normality. However, institutions often tend to prioritize one marginalized group over others, resulting in limited social change. As activist Charlene A. Carruthers describes in her book Unapologetic, it is important to imagine "alternative economics, alternative family structures, or something else entirely" from an imagination of cross-sectional communities – such as her stance as a Black queer feminist.[32] Imagination is a crucial aspect of queer theory. It is a tool for creating new worlds that are currently not viable for underrepresented or oppressed communities, prompting a transformative stance to current norms.[33] An intersectional approach decentralizes queer theory and thus shifts power to a more radical set of narratives, aligning with the definition of Queerness itself: challenging prominent, white, and heterosexual discourses.[34]

According to critical theorist Daniel J. Gil De Lamadrid, intersectionality can be used to examine how queer identity is racialized as normatively white, and the intersectional stigma and resistance that comes from such racialization.[35]

Intersectionality recognizes that complex identities and social categories form from "structured multiple oppression."[36] Therefore, the personal identities of intersectional people are inherently political.[37] Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign have previously employed this understanding in formal rights advocacy for Queer legal protection. However, Queer theorists and activists like Lisa Duggan have noted that such groups prioritize the voices of some groups over others by focusing on specific identities like "gay middle-class men" rather than complex and intersectional ones.[38] They have emphasized the importance of intersectionality in Queer discourse and activism. New directions in Queer intersectionality include Jones' "euphorias" studies showing intersectional differences in diverse LGBTIQA+ peoples' experiences of happiness.[39] Specifically, Jones found that happiness was often used as a reward for performance of intersectional normativity; those who were lesbian and yet also cisgender and mothers were more likely to experience euphoric moments even in discriminatory settings. However, LGBTIQA+ people who had "other othered" identities such as disabilities were less likely to report experiencing euphoria. Jones argues being euphorically Queer should not presume typical happiness narrative arcs and should make room for negativity; Queer diverse people will need to critique society and critique critique of society but can still be euphoric about being Queer and intersectional.


According to Adam Isaiah Green, a professor at the University of Toronto, queer theory might be doing a disservice to the study of queer people for, among other reasons, unduly doing away with categories of sexuality and gender that had an explanatory role in their original context. He argues that for instance the lesbians documented in Cherry Grove, Fire Island[40] chose to identify specifically as either "Ladies", "Dykes" or "Postfeminists" for generational, ethnic and class reasons. While they have a shared sexuality, flattening their diversity of identity, culture and expression to "the lesbian community" might be undue and hide the social contigencies that queer theory purports to foreground (race, class, ethnicity, gender).[41]

According to Joshua Gamson, due to its engagement in social deconstruction, it is nearly impossible for queer theory to talk about a "lesbian" or "gay" subject, as all social categories are denaturalized and reduced to discourse.[42] Thus, according to Adam I. Green, queer theory can only examine discourses and not subjectivities.[41]

A recurring criticism of queer theory, which often employs sociological jargon, is that it is written, according to Brent Pickett, by a "small ideologically oriented elite" and possesses an evident social class bias. It is not only class biased but also, in practice, only really referred to at universities and colleges.[43]

For some feminists, queer theory undermines feminism by blurring the boundaries between gendered social classes, which it explains as personal choices rather than consequences of social structures.[44]

Bruno Perreau, the Cynthia L. Reed Professor of French Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses various facets of the French response to queer theory, from the mobilization of activists and the seminars of scholars to the emergence of queer media and translations. Perreau sheds new light on events around gay marriage in France, where opponents to the 2013 law saw queer theory as a threat to French family. Perreau questions the return of French Theory to France from the standpoint of queer theory, thereby exploring the way France conceptualizes America. By examining mutual influences across the Atlantic, he seeks to reflect on changes in the idea of national identity in France and the United States, offering insight on recent attempts to theorize the notion of "community" in the wake of Maurice Blanchot's work. Perreau offers in his book a theory of minority politics that considers an ongoing critique of norms as the foundation of citizenship, in which a feeling of belonging arises from regular reexamination of it.[45]

Queer theory in online discourse

One of the ways queer theory has made its way into online discourse is through the popularity of Adrienne Rich's 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". Rich's theory regarding compulsory heterosexuality (or comp-het)—the socio-cultural expectation that women must be attracted to men and desire a romantic heterosexual relationship[46]—inspired the creation of the "Lesbian Masterdoc", a 30-page Google Document originally written in 2018 by Anjeli Luz, a Tumblr user who was in the midst of questioning her own sexuality as a teenager.[47]

Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh's studies of online groups consisting of marginalized groups found an interesting phenomenon called "identity demarginalization" — how participation in a group consisting of people with shared marginalized identity can lead to a higher level of self-acceptance, which could lead to eventually coming out to their friends and family.[48]

Online groups and interactions also contribute to normalizing queerness and challenging heteronormativity by serving as a networked counterpublic. Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles' discourse analysis of the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs shows how trans women have used the hashtag to build community in ways that normalize being trans and offering counter-narratives to the often stereotypical and caricatured portrayal of trans people's lives in popular mainstream media.[49]

See also


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