2) called “Bitch studies” for a reason. I think there’s a problem
because queer theory finds most of its limits in concrete, material
situations. Because honestly, a lot of it is good for the books but not
so much for the streets, even less for dismantling harmful social
structures. I guess something can come out of confronting theory to
reality, but atm we pretty much get deeper and deeper in “the discourse”
which is a total mess. Idk if any of what I said made sense lol but
what do you think
Thanks for sending this! I think a lot of things and I agree in some places and disagree with others.
First, I think it is important to situate queer theory. I would argue that queer theory has a beginning and end an is pretty strongly temporally bound. I would also say that queer theory “happens” or begins during and immediately after the HIV/AIDS crisis and so that is an important background that is worth not just noting but foregrounding. Setting is important, and it properly includes time. So queer theory as a discipline arises largely as a response to the AIDS crisis imo. That is a very particular historical moment with a very particular material reality, and that reality includes massive shock waves of death making their way through LGBTQ communities. I for one don’t think it would make sense to call anyone publishing today (even someone publishing about monosexual privilege or another poorly-built framework) a queer theorist.
Secondly, I think we should try to define as much as possible the goals of queer theory. Often I think LGBTQ people who are opposed to queer theory on principle believe that it is about stripping away meaning, about removing history, etc. But those are all misconceptions and bad readings I think. Queer theory was an emancipatory project, the end goal of which was total and complete liberation. Within the body of work we now call queer theory we find a lot of truly radical writing about the particular toll capitalism takes on LGBTQ people, about the importance of the unpaid labor women perform on a daily basis, about the destruction of a socioeconomic order which is stacked in every way against us.
Thirdly, I think it is important to note that -queer theory- has influenced other fields and existed in dialogue with them. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point but the gist is this: a literary critic who is fond of queer theory will infuse it with their literary criticism in explicit and implicit ways and expose lit critics to the framework without their knowledge, and I’d argue this is one of the two ways queer theory became so distorted. The second is that the field was popularized a lot through word of mouth, and from the academy (not the birthplace of queer theory, but certainly a home for it at the time) to the street the game of telephone made what people now call queer theory something that’d probably unrecognizable to the authors themselves. This is even true within the academy itself, as ideas get watered down by spreading from one field to another (see here how “intersectionality” gets tossed about as a term for an example). In fact, the line between queer theory and third wave feminist work is really thin and that’s important. bell hooks? Feminist critic imo. Audre Lorde? I think a lot of her work falls under the umbrella of queer theory.
Fourthly, I want to sort of circle around to queer theory’s relationship to the HIV/AIDS crisis and tie these to its goals, which we can do through just examining the name of the field to start. Queer theorists were not the first to write about LGBTQ people, and many wrote about the relationship between these new studies and what had previously been called gay and lesbian studies. Not only did queer theory aim to include bisexual and transgender people, but it aimed to put into question all of its biases, all of its histories, all of its whitewashing, all of its presumptions about the way the world worked and who LGBTQ people are.
NOW, to get to what is basically my point, what queer theory sought to do, was answer the question: Who are we and what do we want? Gay and lesbian studies, a field quite welcoming to biases of all kinds from white racist lesbians to transphobic gay men, had given a fairly solid answer to the first question of who we are, but in the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis I would argue that (in the eyes of queer theorists) the definition wasn’t expansive, meaningful, or useful enough. What queer theorists were attempting to do was create an entire ontology of queerness, an entirely new way of thinking about who we were and where we came from and where we were headed. This is why so much of queer theory exists more on the page than anywhere else and transfers off of it poorly- a lot of queer theory was an ontological exercise, an exercise in trying to find frameworks which could connect that DO exist between poor black people and gay people of almost any class status.
They articulated it poorly in many cases, in my opinion. But the question was: Who are we and how did they let us die and know we were dying? How could we be so bad, so fundamentally wrong in this world, that we could be allowed to languish while those who could offer us help laughed in our faces? This is the fundamental question I think we need to keep in mind when we talk about queer theory. There is a very particular and visceral reality that queer theory came from- lists of dead friends, former lovers languishing, landlords laughing that AIDS would clear poor gays out of slums for them to gentrify- that I honestly don’t think any of us will ever be able to understand who haven’t lived through it or something similar, and that setting is intricately tied to queer theory as a field. QUEER theory was explicitly about the figure left to die, a president who turned his head and laughed at the gay disease, families disowning their outed and sick children- the queer, the useless, the absolutely unnameable disgusting monster left to rot in the street whose funeral was a few other friends who may also have been sick. QUEER theory was about how bad a people must be considered to be laughed at as they died in mass numbers. Who do you laugh at while they die? Queers. Who do you make fun of until they kill themselves? Queers. Who do you deprive of any resources? Queers. And of course if you’re asking who’s being hurt and killed, you include a lot of groups- including the poor, black heterosexuals, straight women who’ve kissed other women and feel embarrassed about it- that need to be excluded. But for the purpose of asking, who do we need to liberate immediately????, the answer is complex and broad and includes a lot of people. I’d say that is at the heart of queer theory’s use of the term “queer.” If women in the US suddenly began to die of one disease and the public did nothing about it and in fact celebrated their deaths (I know this happens with lots of things but I mean in a way closely tied to how the HIV/AIDS crisis was seen and happened) I don’t think it would be difficult for me to imagine “bitch studies” popping up to talk about the “bitch” as a hated and publicly humiliated figure.
To wrap this up (it got longer than intended) I’d like to say I’m neither 100% YO QUEER THEORY IS GREAT or 100% QUEER THEORY IS SOOOOOO AWFUL AND USELESS. I like it a lot though. A lot of it looks like nonsense because it sort of is and doesn’t have too much useful application to the everyday lives of LGBTQ people. And I don’t think it is even a little bit useful to include the people some queer theorists might have under “queer,” even as an academic exercise. But I also recognize that queer theory came out of something really horrifying and attempted to make sense of that. So do I like or even find useful José Esteban Muñoz‘s concept of queer temporality? No, and I think it’s nonsense and defeatist to be perfectly honest. BUT I also think it should be understood as trying to talk about moments in which LGBTQ people can be allowed to exist and growing those moments into something beautiful and I respect that, even if I don’t like how he articulated it. A lot of the mess we are in with queer culture is less about queer theory and more about the infusion of it with other elements that have gone unchecked in the culture: racism, lesbophobia, misogyny, transphobia, etc etc. Left unaddressed, those issues combined with something as pomo as queer theory gets very bad very quickly.
TLDR/shortened for accessibility: Queer theory is neither 100% good nor bad, and attempted to study the figure and image of the “queer” as a particularly rejected, hated, and mocked image. In doing so, it included people under the term that I think many of us now understand as inappropriate to put there. Queer theory also attempted to wrestle with the question of how the “queer” could be left to die, and just who we must have been and where we must have come from to be labelled and treated this way.