Lessons from Queer Theory

The word ‘queer’ is a complicated one. Often used to negatively describe abnormal things, it was – and is – used as an insult towards people who challenge heterosexual, cisgender norms. However, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, some LGBT people began to reclaim queer as both an identity and a politic. Today, the word ‘queer’ is seen by some as unifying, and by others divisive. Some Canadian cities have embraced queer as an umbrella term, others have barred it from their lexicon (1).

Queer theory was a term coined by Teresa de Lauretis at a conference in 1990 (Giffney, 2011). Yet, the ideas we now group together as queer theory undoubtedly were influenced by the activism and analysis of activist groups such as ACT UP (Nunokawa, 2011). In Canada, queer activism emerged in the post-AIDS era of the early 1990s.

In its earliest recorded conceptions, queer activism challenged the concept of identity-based organizing within existing gay/lesbian movements. Instead, queer activism objects to ongoing and ever present domination and exclusion, specifically related to heterosexuality. Queer activism – like feminist activism beforehand – takes queer people’s personal experiences as fodder for analysis and response. The analysis presented by queer activism and queer theory highlights the ways institutions (e.g. national governments) use policies and programs to regulate sex, gender, and family units. For example, queer analysis illuminates the regulatory outcomes of policy decisions to have sex recorded on birth certificates, which thereby ties a person’s sex to their legal identities, which are used to access health care, education, and some forms of transportation.

Queer Theory

Queer activism and politics emerged in tandem with queer theory, which is often expressed in strongly theoretical language. Drawing from post-modern theory, post-structuralist theories, and feminism, queer theory critiques taken-for-granted ideas and language about what is normal. In its academic and activist uses, the word queer resists binary categories of queer and not queer people, and instead “defin[es] itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual” (Warner in Smith, 2010, p. 44).

In its analysis of systems, queer theory examines how power operates to privilege, create, or require normalcy beyond the categories of sexuality and gender. Focusing on systemic issues also holds promise for many people who felt marginalized within traditional single-identity-based politics (Cohen, 1997; Smith, 2010). Many scholars have drawn connections between queer theory and intersectionality: queer theory highlights heterogeneity within identity-based groups often taken up within intersectionality. For example, it is not uncommon that religious people are often assumed to be anti-gay or anti-trans. Yet, intersectionality suggests some people are both queer and religious, thereby disrupting the binary of ‘queer people vs. religious people’. Queer theory approaches the problem from a different position which removes identity from the equation: “the problem is not with blacks or queers; it is with people who hold certain normative visions of the world, whether queers, blacks, both, or neither” (Duong, 2012). Duong’s analysis is one example as to how queer theory resists identity-based politics.

If queer theory is about one thing, it is challenging commonly accepted ideas about the “normal”. It contests the ideas of “normal” relationships, sexual acts, identities, and beliefs about natural ways of being. For queer theorists, sexuality allows an opportunity to discuss “what it means to care” for people in our social and familial lives outside of the institutionally-regulated units of marriage (between committed spouses) and family (an adult couple, children, and perhaps extended family members) (Berlant in Seitz, 2013). Queer theory uses sexuality as an entry point to examine the regulation of sexual acts and possible outcomes, such as child-rearing, transmission of property, and the division of public and private responsibilities, through state policies and programs (Marcus, 2005).

Queering Gay Men’s Health

Despite the academic language of queer theory, it provides insight into gay men’s health research and practice by challenging those of us within the field to identify assumptions that underpin our work. One area that queer theory highlights for discussion is the creation and enforcement of norms and categories, such as being a ‘good gay man’; that is, following socially sanctioned ways of expressing one’s sexuality, and adhering to public health advice to sanctioned forms of sex (Odets, 1997).

For example, Numer & Gahagan (2009) challenge current health promotion efforts to respond to the diversity of gay men’s masculinities. They argue that gay men are affected by hegemonic conceptions of masculinity associated with risk-taking, and that this association may drive resistance to condom-based health promotion efforts.

Numer & Gahagan (2009) note the earliest HIV-related health promotion campaigns may have had the unintended effect of “othering” gay men in mainstream society” by stigmatizing HIV/AIDS and sex between men, as well as reinforcing the idea that gay men are diseased (p. 162). Queer theory also offers a challenge to health promotion efforts that reinforce binaries, such as the HIV-negative/HIV-positive binary among gay men assumed in many health promotion efforts. Furthermore, there is often a binary between sanctioned sexual acts (e.g. sex with a condom) and unsanctioned ones (e.g. bareback sex).

In the provocatively titled paper, “Does Gay Sex Need Queer Theory?”, Rifkin (2012) emphasizes the importance of including bareback sex and sex pigs within representations of gay men’s sexualities. Rifkin’s interest in recognizing and celebrating sexual acts often considered deviant is also shared by writer Francisco Ibañez-Carrasco, whose writing emphasizes the knowledge that emerges from within these sexual subcultures. The project of celebrating so-called sexual outlaws fits within queer theory’s work to interrupt assumptions about ‘normal’ sexual acts and relationships.

In another example, Trinity Western – a Christian university in British Columbia – recently sought approval to offer a law school. However, people of many sexualities and gender identities opposed Trinity Western’s proposal. Trinity Western requires all students to sign a code of conduct, which includes the clause that prohibits “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman” (2). In effect, this policy excludes many people from the school itself. This code of conduct is an example of a policy that privileges and normalizes certain forms of sexual activity. Many people have spoken against this issue – and Canada’s professional bodies have hotly debated whether or not to allow Trinity Western to have a law school – but it has largely been framed in a rights discourse: Trinity Western cannot discriminate against people (especially LGBT people) based on the sex they have. Queer theory critiques Trinity Western’s policy, but frames the issue as a challenge to the institutional power of the school to create and enforce norms among its staff, students and faculty. Rather than an identity-based framing which casts the issue as one of sexual and gender identities excluded from this definition of marriage, queer theory frames the issue as one of Trinity Western’s regulatory power.

Queer theory is undoubtedly challenging. Yet, its organizing principles – a rejection of systemic domination, regulation and articulation of norms – have been used to advance social critique, and has been adopted within other bodies of scholarship, including Native studies and intersectionality. Limited gay men’s health scholarship has explicitly adopted queer theory in its analysis, yet gay men have benefitted from queer theory’s analysis of hetero-patriarchy, and stand to benefit from continued questioning of the ideas that often are taken-for-granted.

For more reading

(1) Use of ‘queer’ varies across Canada http://dailyxtra.com/vancouver/news/use-%E2%80%98queer%E2%80%99-varies-across-canada

(2) Trinity Western law school approved in B.C. despite gay-rights dispute http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/trinity-western-law...

Cathy Cohen, 1997 - Punks, bulldaggers and welfare queens: The radical potential of queer politics?

Matthew Numer & Jacqueline Gahagan, 2009 - The Sexual Health of Gay Men in the Post-AIDS Era: Feminist, Post-Structuralist and Queer Theory Perspectives

Andrea Smith, 2010 – Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism

T Warner, 2002 – AIDS Radicalization, Queer Nation and Identity Politics in Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada


About CBRC

Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) promotes the health of people of diverse sexualities and genders through research and intervention development.
Lessons from Queer Theory
Lessons from Queer Theory
Check out Community-Based Research Centre. I just joined.