Queer Theory

I use Queer Theory a lot when approaching my case studies (art work of focus), but its concepts also come up day-to-day when I am critical of news or engaging with social media, etc!

Where Did It Come From?

The term “Queer Theory” was first used by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990. It builds largely on the theories of Michel Foucault, and his book “The History of Sexuality,” which was published in 1978. It also draws heavily on Feminist Theory.

What Is It?

Queer Theory, just like “queer,” has a fluid meaning that can be hard to pin down. Some of the basic (overlapping) branches are:

  • Understanding gender and sexuality as socially constructed
    • Foucault takes this to extremes and writes that the very existence of sexuality is enabled by the social structures operating in specific times and places
  • Seeing objects or reading texts with a queer lens
    • This can be talked about as “queering” and it is the act of looking or reading with a queer perspective
    • Often it destabilizes normative categories (like heterosexuality) and presumptions (like assuming everyone in history was white, straight, cis, male, and young or middle-aged)
  • Queer content
    • Queer Theory can also be talking about something inherently “queer” (a figure in the queer community, an image of two women having sex, a text written by a transgender author about their experience as a transgender person, etc.)
  • Queer Theory can also refer to the discussion about what ” Queer Theory” and “queer” mean (and around and around we go!)

How Do I Use It?

  • I ask how lesbian identity was realized and understood in specific times and places
  • I look at objects with a queer lens
    • When I am looking at premodern images I seek lesbian possibilities
    • I am actively queering by presuming the existence of lesbian subjects
  • My queering is based on inherently queer historical realities
    • People were writing about intimacy between women — lesbian behaviour was, beyond actually happening, also being talked about in premodern society!

Recommended Sources:

  1. Butler, Judith, 1956. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  2. Foucault, Michel, 1926-1984. The History of Sexuality: Histoire De La Sexualité. English. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
  3. Ruberg, Bonnie, Jason Boyd, and James Howe. “Toward a Queer Digital Humanities,” in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jaqueline Wernimont. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2018) 108-130.
  4. Whittington, Karl. “Queer.” Studies in Iconography 33 (2012): 157-168 (most accessible/short!)