Are gender roles and differences fixed, once and for, all by biology? Or is gender socially constructed and culturally variable? How does gender differ from sex?
Is queerness something that all lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people have in common? Is it a sexual identity, a political identity, both, or something else entirely?
No doubt we are all familiar with the term, but coming up with a definition for “queerness” presents quite a challenge. Sometimes “queer” is used as a slur, yet there are many people who proudly self-identify as queer.
It’s not so unusual for slur words to get re-appropriated by the group targeted by the slur, but “queer” stands out in a certain way. Not only has the term been reclaimed as an identity, but since the 90s, we’ve also had Queer Studies departments in universities, devoted to the study of queer theory. Other slur words, like “bitch” or “slut” have been reclaimed (or attempts have been made), but it would be quite remarkable to find a program called Bitch Studies in any university. Similarly, I’ve never heard of anyone making “slut art,” though we do have queer art and literature.
Queer theory developed from the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault. He claimed that sexuality and sexual categories are not determined by genetics and biology. Rather, they are socially constructed, they are products contingent on history and culture. For example, in Ancient Greece, though young men were encouraged to take an older lover—a man who could act as a kind of mentor to the youth—they did not call those relations “homosexual” or “gay.” It would be an anachronism to apply those concepts to these kinds of relationships when that is not how the ancients thought about them.
In Medieval times, some people were described as “sodomites” — but that had nothing to do with which gender they preferred to have sex with. That label was not thought of as a sexual identity at all. It did not express something deep and important about who you were. You were a sodomite only if you committed the act of sodomy, in the same way you were a thief only if you stole other people’s property. Once you stopped engaging in those acts, the label no longer applied. This is quite different from how we understand homosexuality today.
These examples illustrate the various ways in which sexual identities are a function of culture and society. They’re not natural kinds, dictated by biological facts. So, queer theory is concerned with examining the various ways in which we construct gender and sexual identity.
That’s one way the term “queer” is used. It also seems to be used as a kind of umbrella term, a short hand for LGBT. But it’s also a contested term. There are gay men and lesbians who dislike the term “queer” and would not use it to self-identify, and there are also some who prefer “queer” and dislike the “gay” and “lesbian” labels. Often, the difference is generational, with younger, urban types preferring to call themselves “queer.” Given that fact, “queer” cannot simply be an umbrella term that includes all other categories.
The choice to identify as “queer” as opposed to “gay or “lesbian” or “bi” is often a political choice. Consider the defiant chant queer activists like ACT UP began using in New York in the 90’s—“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” It’s a refusal to fit into the neat, binary categories that mainstream society tries to enforce on us, it’s a refusal to hide, to become “normal” or “respectable” or otherwise change. It is society that must change to accommodate queerness.
Speaking of not fitting into neat categories, we haven’t talked about the “T” in LGBT. While some trans people might identify as queer, there is a fundamental difference between the “LGB” and the “T.” The former say something about erotic or romantic attractions, whereas the latter does not. A trans man, for example, might be attracted to other men, or to women, or both. To describe someone as “trans” doesn’t say anything about who they are attracted to. But it does complicate ideas of sexuality in interesting ways. For example, I have had friends who identified as lesbian and had lesbian partners, then decided to transition from female to male. Their sexual preferences didn’t change, but by transitioning from female to male they transitioned from being a lesbian woman to being a heterosexual man. And what about their partners? Does their sexuality change because they are now romantically involved with a trans man, when all their previous relationships were with cisgendered women?
Perhaps this is why the word “queer” is so useful—it encompasses human sexuality in all its complicated, non-binary messiness...
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