Queer Theory: A Brief Introduction

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Origination of Queer Theory

Before moving to the main body of this essay, one frequently used term that is not used in its common dictionary sense needs explication: discourse ("discursive" is the adjectival form of this noun). Michel Foucault discusses discourse at length in his theoretical work The Archaeology of Knowledge. In that work, Foucault (1972) states that he treats the term "sometimes as the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a certain number of statements" (p. 80). It is this latter usage that predominates. That discourse is regulated, that it is rules-bound, is an important feature; Foucault sees discourse as charting the limits within which a culture formulates its ideas. McHoul and Grace (1993) say that discourse both constrains and enables what we are able to know. Thus, necessarily, discourse entails exclusion of certain statements as well. Mills (2004) notes that "discourse is inextricably linked to questions of authority and legitimacy" (pp. 46-47). These aspects are intrinsic to discourse itself. Moreover, Mills (2004) points out that discourse is not fixed and stable; it is "constantly changing and their origins can be traced to certain key shifts in history" (p. 23). According to Mills, discourse is bound to the historical epoch in which it is produced. Discourses are in constant conflict with other discourses and social practices involving truth and authority. McHoul and Grace (1993) state that discourse is associated with the production of human subjects and institutions, and Mills (2004) adds that discourse is closely linked with power and knowledge. These latter features of discourse are important aspects of Foucault's contributions to queer theory, and this essay will return to them after introducing some of the basic concepts of queer theory.

The term "Queer Theory" was first used by Teresa de Lauretis, a professor in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a 1991 essay. This essay is an introduction to a special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, which includes a selection of papers presented at a 1990 working conference theorizing lesbian and gay identities. De Lauretis states that the conference was based on the idea that homosexuality should no longer be a term grounded on a definition of heterosexuality. Basic premises of the conference were that homosexuality is neither transgressive nor deviant, nor is it pathological or an optional lifestyle (1991).

Instead, male and female homosexualities in North America may be reconceptualized as social and cultural forms in their own right, albeit emergent ones and thus still fuzzily defined. ... Thus rather than marking the limits of the social space by designating an edge of culture, gay sexuality in its specific male and female cultural (or subcultural) forms acts as an agency of social process whose mode of functioning is both interactive and yet resistant, both participatory and yet distinct, claiming at once equality and difference, demanding political representation while insisting on its material and historical specificity. (de Lauretis, 1991, p. iii).

This viewpoint advocates a social constructionist perspective on queer sexuality, but it was not the first scholarly effort to do so. Foucault's work, to be discussed below, has made a substantial contribution to this perspective.

Queer Theory quite deliberately sought to distance itself from gay and lesbian studies. In further elaboration, de Lauretis (1991) states that "the term 'Queer Theory' was arrived at in order to avoid all of these fine distinctions in our discursive protocols, not to adhere to any one of the given terms, not to assume their ideological liabilities, but instead to both transgress and transcend them -- or at the very least problematize them" (p. iv). De Lauretis is invoking another of Foucault's favorite concepts: problematization. According to Foucault, to problematize a subject means to question "the ensemble of discursive and nondiscursive practices that makes something enter into the play of the true and the false and constitutes it an object of thought" (quoted in Flynn, 2003, p. 38).

According to de Lauretis (1991), the impetus motivating a new field of study was in part due to the fact that gay men seemed to be mired in the essentialism vs. constructionism debate that also had been going on in feminist theory. Moreover, Queer Theory sought to address "an equally troubling question in the burgeoning field of 'gay and lesbian studies' concern[ing] the discursive constructions and constructed silences around the relations of race to identity" (p. viii). More specifically, de Lauretis asks if queerness itself can initiate social change and create new ways of becoming racial and sexual beings. In de Lauretis' vision, Queer Theory sought a middle ground between essentialism and constructionism, as well as the incorporation of issues of race which had been absent from the previous theorizing.

Queer Theory occupies a point at the convergence of three threads, one historical and two discursive: post-structuralism and feminism. The historical thread can be sketched briefly. The term "homosexual" did not exist until it was coined in 1869 as a description of a pathological state. The pathological and medicalized approach was challenged almost immediately, but this conception remained dominant for the following century. The homophile movement began in the 1950s with the organization of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. The Mattachine Society sought to establish a collective identity among homosexuals who, while recognizing their continued marginalization, might nevertheless be energized and enabled to fight against their oppression (Jagose, 1996). The conservative goal of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis was assimilation, not liberation. Their objective was to make homosexuality appear respectable in order that they might be integrated seamlessly into society.

However, after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, new movements emerged which sought to go beyond the assimilationist objectives of the homophile movement, and move towards a position of sexual pride and liberation. These new movements argued for homosexuality as a quasi-minority, deserving of the same legal protections sought by the civil rights movement with respect to racial and ethnic groups. "No longer content to solicit tolerance and acceptance, more radical groups began to model themselves on New Left social movements and to critique the structures and values of heterosexual dominance" (Jagose, 1996, p. 31). The lesbian and gay liberation movement advanced an essentialist notion of homosexuality. Unlike the homophile movemet, the gay liberationists insisted on a distinctive identity and pride in that identity. In distinguishing the two perspectives, Epstein (1987) states: "As against the essentialist notion that sexuality is a biological force seeking expression in ways that are preordained, constructionists treat sexuality as a blank slate, capable of bearing whatever meanings are generated by the society in question" (p. 244).

Post-structuralism, as articulated by Foucault, promoted a social constructionist notion of identity, a position which undermines the essentialist foundation of gay liberation movements. A David Halperin (1995) writes:

Ultimately, the importance of Foucault's work for queer politics does not consist in any improved or more edifying definition of homosexuality but, on the contrary, in the attempt to empty homosexuality of its positive content, of its material and psychic determinations, in order to make it available to us as a site for the continuing construction and renewal of continually changing identities. (p. 122).

Foucault's book, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, is considered a seminal text of Queer Theory. Foucault (1978) flatly declares that sexuality is nothing more than the name of a historical construct. By this, Foucault means that sexuality varies according to history and culture, its meaning fluid and destabilized. He denies the existence of universal moral standards (Turner, 2000).

If de Lauretis is viewed as the midwife of Queer Theory, and Foucault its father, then Judith Butler is the mother of Queer Theory. She successfully brought the threads of history, post-structuralism and feminism together in a series of books beginning with Gender Trouble. "Gender, she says, is the performative effect of reiterative acts, that is, acts that can be and are repeated" (Sullivan, 2003, p. 82). According to Butler (1999), these acts "congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance of a natural sort of being" (p. 33). Butler's theory will be discussed more thoroughly below


One of the key assumptions of Queer Theory is that queerness is socially constructed. This notion is contrasted with an essentialist view of homosexuality, rejected by Queer Theory, which holds that there are intrinsic, objective, culture-independent facts about what determines a person's sexual orientation (Stein, 1992b). In other words, essentialism maintains that "contemporary sexual categories are universal, static and permanent" (Padgug, 1992, p. 50). Foucault exemplifies the social constructionist perspective which he sets forth in The History of Sexuality, Volume I. As Foucault (1978) states, it was the "discursive explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (p. 38) that caused "these figures, scarcely noticed in the past, to step forward and speak, to make the difficult confession of what they were" (p. 39).

According to Foucault (1978), the homosexual did not exist until the term was defined by a physician in 1869. Interestingly, however, "[t]he machinery of power that focused on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible and permanent reality: it was implanted in bodies, slipped in beneath modes of conduct, made into a principle of classification and intelligibility" (p. 99). The homosexual was the product of a particular history and culture. As Mary McIntosh (1992) puts it, the term "refers not only to a cultural conception or set of ideas but also to a complex of institutional arrangements which depend upon and reinforce these ideas" (p. 36). Robert Padgug (1992) points out that in different historical periods and cultures, "[t]he forms, content and context of all sexuality differ. ... It becomes apparent that the general distinguishing mark of human sexuality, as of all social reality, is the unique role played in the construction by language, consciousness, symbolism, and labor" (p. 54). Consequently, sexuality is provided ultimately by human social relations, human productive activities, and human consciousness. Sex, of itself, does not do anything, combine with anything, nor appear anywhere. Only people acting within certain relationships create sexuality (Padgug, 1992).

As Stein points out in his concluding essay, to some extent the social constructionist/essentialist debate often conflates two entirely separate and hidden debates as part of this larger debate: the nature/nurture debate with respect to sexual orientation, and the voluntarism/determinism debate as applied to sexual orientation (Stein, 1992b). Padgug, for example, explicitly states that essentialists are committed to determinism and implies that social constructionists have adopted voluntarism (Padgug, 1992). Epstein makes similar claims. Voluntarists think that people can choose their sexual orientation, while determinists do not (Epstein, 1992). Although many think that all social constructionists are voluntarists and all essentialists are determinists, these pairings are not universal (Stein, 1992b): "One could be both a social constructionist and a determinist. ... Similarly, one could be both an essentialist and a voluntarist" (pp. 327-28).

Similarly, some interpret essentialism as maintaining sexual orientation is innate, and all social constructionists hold that sexual orientation is learned. Although the argument must be stretched thin to hold such contentions, "it is a mistake to collapse the distinction between something being innate and something being learned" (Stein, 1992, p. 330). Therefore, not only is social construction a fundamental assumption of Queer Theory, this view disguises two further sets of assumptions involving nature/nurture and voluntarism/determinism.

Major Concepts

Michel Foucault's work on power, knowledge, truth, subjects, discourse and sexuality is generally regarded as the foundation of Queer Theory (Butler, 1999; Jagose, 1996; Turner, 2000; Sullivan, 2003; Wilchins, 2004). One recurring theme in Foucault's work is that who we are and what we think is determined by historical circumstances. "The goal of queer theory is to investigate the historical circumstances by which 'sexuality' -- explicitly the charge of 'homosexuality' -- can automatically render subjects the somewhat pitiable victims of determinism that 'heterosexual' subjects remain free of" (Turner, 2000, p. 38). However, Jonathan Katz (2007) has shown how the concept of "heterosexual" is just as much a historical and social construct as homosexual.

Foucault denies any such thing as human nature exists; experience and identity is determined by history and culture (Turner, 2000). For Foucault, "sexuality merited genealogical study on its own because it ... fundamentally informs subjectivity before subjects become conscious participants in politics" (Turner, 2000, p. 46). According to Foucault (1978), all desire is transformed into discourse. Discourses are then linked with power: "these discourses on sex did not multiply apart from or against power, but in the very space and as the means of its exercise" (p. 32). Moreover, the history of sexuality must be written from the viewpoint of "a history of discourse" (p. 69). In addition, "where there is desire, the power relation is already present" (p. 81). The discourse of power created the homosexual:

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history. ... Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all of his actions. ... The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (p.43).

Foucault (1978) subsequently stated that "sex was constituted as a problem of truth" (p. 56). As the final step of linking all of these concepts together, Foucault declared that Western civilizations "developed over the centuries procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power" (p. 58).

In her seminal work, using an argument very similar to Foucault's, yet expanding upon it in significant ways, Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble that gender and sexuality are neither natural nor innate, but, rather, are social constructs serving particular purposes and institutions (Sullivan, 2003). As noted above. Butler (1999) views gender and sexuality as the performative effects of repeated acts, acts which "congeal over time" (p. 33) to produce identity. In other words, rather than being an expression of an innate identity, acts and gestures learned and repeated over time create the illusion of a stable core of gender and sexuality. These acts

are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. (p. 136, emphasis in original).

Butler does not mean here that gender or sexuality is a mere performance. She borrows the concept of "performative" from J.L. Austin's speech act theory. In speech act theory, a performative statement is one that enacts the content of the statement, as, for example, when a police office says "You are under arrest." The utterance itself makes the event occur. Butler uses "performative" in this specialized manner (Turner, 2000).

Application to Generalist Social Work

Queer Theory presents the possibility of liberation at both the micro and macro levels. As Foucault (1994) asked, "But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? ... From the idea of the self as not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art" (pp. 261-62). Foucault even presents the mechanism by which such a move is possible. In his discussion of power, Foucault (1978) states "[p]ower is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere" (p. 93).

Foucault does not subscribe to a hierarchical theory of power, but, rather, one in which power is dispersed throughout the social field. This is an important conceptualization because "where there is power, there is resistance" (p. 95). The dispersal of power creates opportunities for resistance, and through resistance we are able to embark upon our own projects of self-creation. This liberatory ideal can apply to individuals who might be caught up in what they feel are bounded and determined identities. Foucault offers the hope of self-invention and self-creation, free of any societal dictates of what it means to be homosexual.

Instead of the scientia sexualis, the pathologizing discourse of medicine, Foucault (1978) opens up a vision of an ars erotica:

In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul. Moreover, this knowledge must be deflected back into the sexual practice itself, in order to to shape it as though from within and amplify its effects. (p. 57).

Foucault's reconceptualization offers not only the possibilities of new ways of inventing ourselves, he also presents vistas of more intense experiences as well.

Judith Butler's work fits well with the liberatory politics advanced by Foucault. Accordingly, Queer Theory not only has the potential to operate at the micro level of the individual discussed so far, it also can be applied at the macro level as a reconstruction (or deconstruction) of homosexuality. If, as Foucault and Butler argue, sexuality is a social construct, then it can be broken down and rebuilt anew, again and again. Indeed, Halperin (1995) offers some evidence that it already has been used in just such a fashion. He claims that Foucault's History of Sexuality, Volume I served the same purpose for the ACT UP activists as Mao Zedong's little red book did for the Chinese revolutionaries.

Research Evidence

Queer Theory's weakest aspect is just that: it is no more than a theory, an intellectual construct. Its primary use to date is in literary and cultural criticism. Halperin's linkage of ACT UP and Foucault is interesting, but it seems to be a limited case. In practice, it has been little more than a form of intellectual self-indulgence. An exhaustive search of the literature revealed no attempts to apply the insights of Queer Theory to social work practice. Queer Theory is entirely lacking in research evidence supporting its principles. However, this lack may be due not to any inherent weakness in Queer Theory itself, but, rather, to the relative recency of the theory and the lack of opportunities to apply Queer Theory to social work practice. This essay has discussed the assumptions and basic principles underlying Queer Theory, but the theory definitely contains a political agenda as well.

Overall Assessment

Although it is a bare few decades old, Queer Theory already has produced an abundance of exciting ideas. It is true that Queer Theory has remained largely within the domain of academia, and lacks solid empirical research evidence to support its conjectures, but this does not detract from its potential. Perhaps Queer Theory needs to be refined in the crucible of the academic world in order to develop its full potential. In my opinion, however, a solid foundation has been laid. The prophetic proclamations of Foucault and Butler have been enriched and matured to the point that Queer Theory is now ready for more practical application. Without a doubt Queer Theory can be used to assist those struggling with their identities, those who feel constrained by what they believe are the boundaries of the possible meanings of homosexuality. I have reviewed several guides for social work with LGBT populations, and it is my impression that some of the ideas of Queer Theory -- especially its liberatory vision -- already are implicit for work with these populations. What we need now is to make the implicit explicit, and make a more deliberate effort to incorporate the insights of Queer Theory into social work practice. Queer Theory needs the sort of elaboration and specification associated with the other theoretical viewpoints studied during this semester. More importantly, once this elaboration and specification has taken place regarding social work practice, empirical study and validation of these ideas is needed. I have no doubt that Queer Theory can withstand this degree of critical scrutiny and prove to be yet another useful resource in the generalist-eclectic social worker's toolbox.


Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge.

de Lauretis, T. (1991). Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities, An Introduction. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 3(2), iii-xviii.

Epstein, S. (1992). Gay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Construction. In E. Stein (Ed.), Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy. (239-294), New York, Routledge.

Flynn, T. (2003). Foucault's Mapping of History. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault 2d ed. (29-48). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, (Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith). New York, Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1971).

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, (Trans. Robert Hurley). New York, Vintage Books. (Original work published 1976).

Foucault, M. (1994). On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress. In P. Rabinow (Ed.) Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth. New York, The New Press.

Halperin, D. (1995). Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York, Oxford University Press.

Jagose, A. (1996). Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York, New York University Press.

Katz, J. (2007). The Invention of Heterosexuality. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

McHoul, A. & Grace, W. (1993). A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject. New York, New York University Press.

McIntosh, M. (1992). The Homosexual Role. In E. Stein (Ed.), Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy (25-42). New York, Routledge.

Mills, S. (2004). Discourse. New York, Routledge.

Padgug, R. (1992). Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History. In E. Stein (Ed.), Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy (43-68). New York, Routledge.

Stein, E. (1992a). Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy. New York, Routledge

Stein, E. (1992b). Conclusion: The Essentials of Constructionism and the Construction of Essentialism. In E. Stein (Ed.), Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy (325-353). New York, Routledge.

Sullivan, N. (2003). A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York, New York University Press.

Turner, W. (2000). A Genealogy of Queer Theory. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Wilchins, R. (2004). Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Boston, Alyson Books..

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Written for Social Work Theory course at Jackson State University, December 2009. Grade: A.

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