Course:ENGL211/Queer Theory

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Origins and Concept

Queer theory is a study that can be traced to multiple roots, and it is "not possible to trace a chronological history of queer theory without doing violence to its multiple origins and influences."[1] However, queer theory can be primarily linked to lesbian and gay studies, and its rapid development in the 1990s can also be heavily attributed to the discourse raised by many theories popularized by feminism. Feminism introduced the idea of identifying, examining, and reversing a cultural pattern heavily indoctrinated into everyday society, and applied this to fight against patriarchal practices. Queer theory mimicked this method of investigation and reversal and applied it to labels for sexuality such as “gay”, “lesbian”, and “bisexual”, seeing these terms as subscribing to compulsory heteronormativity and being too limiting. Although the dogma of queer theory often emulates the values of gay and lesbian studies, its focus is less on gay studies’ binary categorizations and more on the dissolution of the binaries in order to broaden societal understanding of “cultural formations of gendered and sexual identities and practices”.[2] As a result of this focus, the concepts of queer theory "aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions and accounts."[3]

Key Figures

Judith Butler

American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was a major contributor to the development of Queer Studies. She penned many works which focus on gender and sexual desire, and her most famous book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), is the one which propelled her into fame. In it, she proposes her theory that gender is a performative and human creation, rather than a natural inherent essence[4].

Born in February 24, 1956, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S, Judith Pamela Butler was raised in a Jewish household. Her first exposure with philosophy occurred in in Hebrew school, where she was taught Jewish ethics when she was 14. She herself alleges that she enjoyed the classes so much that when asked what she would like to know, she responded with: "Why was Spinoza excommunicated from the synagogue? Could German Idealism be held accountable for Nazism? And how was one to understand existential theology, including the work of Martin Buber?"[5]. She carried this interest in philosophy into her university studies as she went on to Bennington College, and afterwards Yale University, where she attained her B.A. (1978), M.A. (1982), and Ph.D. (1984) in philosophy. Her studies focussed primarily on German Idealism, phenomenology, and the work of the Frankfurt School[6]. After graduating, she taught in numerous universities, where she was awarded prestigious titles. Most notably, she was delegated the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature (1998) at the University of California, Berkley, and also given the title of Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland[7].

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Craven Nussbaum was born on May 6, 1947, in New York[8]. Her father, George Craven, was a lawyer and her mother, Betty Warren, was an interior designer[9]. In 1969, she attended New York University, and graduated with a B.A. in theatre and classics[10]. Afterwards, she studied in Harvard University, and attained an M.A. and then a Ph.D. in philosophy. Post-grad, she took the position of professor at Harvard and taught philosophy and classics for a number of years[11]. After being rejected tenure, she became a professor at Brown University, and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where she currently holds the title of Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics[12]. She became well-known in public spheres after publishing of her book in 1968: The Fragility of Goodness, which dealt with the ethics in the context of the ancient Greeks[13]. Her interests center primarily on equality and feminism, and over the course of time, she has earned 50 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities[14].

Key Terms and Definitions

Compulsory Heterosexuality

Compulsory heterosexuality: Also known as heteronormative behavior or perspective, compulsory heterosexuality is a patriarchal society’s tendency, intentional or not, to view everyone as heterosexual. It can also be defined as a pressure to fulfill the gender stereotypes of a heterosexual male or female. See naturalization of heterosexuality.

Naturalization of Heterosexuality

Parker defines the naturalization of heterosexuality as an unconscious assumption that everyone is heterosexual. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology states that naturalizing heterosexuality “limits humans to only heterosexual attraction . . . . in which power and privilege are usually dispersed unevenly in the benefit of heterosexuals.” The naturalization of heterosexuality is perpetuated especially by the media, which reinforces the set of socially established norms. See repetition.

Essentialized Gender

The concept, rooted in existentialist feminism, that genders "have an essential nature (e.g. nurturing and caring versus being aggressive and selfish), as opposed to differing by a variety of accidental or contingent features brought about by social forces".[15]

Gender Binary

The gender binary is the categorization of all sex into two distinctly opposite groups: masculine and feminine.


An acronym for "Lesbian, Gay. Bisexual, and Transgender". The term represents an umbrella label for everyone that identifies as queer.


The definition of queer is fittingly difficult to define, and its meanings have changed over time.

Presently, queer is a form of identification that can be applied but is not restricted to: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc. Sexual identifications that usually do not fall under this categorization are heterosexual, and cisgender. This can be used as a noun or adjective.

The term was originally used as a discriminatory and homophobic slur, but has since been reformed into a celebratory identification. However, it still carries negative connotations and can be considered offensive in certain situations or if used by those not under the LGBT umbrella.

Erotic Triangle

An example of the Erotic Triangle, using the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Traditionally presented by René Girard as an "erotic rivalry"[16] between two male rivals over one female, the erotic triangle concept has been interpreted and influenced by Sedgwick as less to do with the female figure as the focal, and more to do with the homosocial relationship between between the men in pursuit. The female's role is abstracted and put under erasure in favor of the rivals' relationship. Queer theory has also re-conceptualized Girard's idea that the erotic triangle must comprise of two males and one female, or that the triangle must be erotic in nature at all.

Queer Bashing

Considered an act of hate as well as homophobic, queer bashing is the unwarranted harassment and or abuse on supposed or declared homosexuals based on their sexual orientation.

Lesbian Continuum

First introduced by Adrienne Rich in her article Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, the term 'lesbian continuum' refers to the multitude of possible "intimate relations between women, from those involving the experience of desire for genital sexuality, to mother daughter relationships and female friendships, to ties of political solidarity."[17]


Homosociality is defined as the “intense relations between people of the same sex that might not be sexual but that through their intensity can suggest a erotic charge”[18]. Historically, signs of homosociality was common in the 19th century, especially with women who were quite close to one another. Gradually over time, actions of homosociality became taboo and were eroticized due to rising homophobia.

Homosexual panic

The heterosexual worry of the public’s possible perception of one's sexual orientation as homosexual, and of being outed. Those who have already declared their homosexuality are exempt from this panic[19].


Aversion toward individuals who are homosexual. Typically, those who are homophobic believe homosexuality to be a “psychological problem” or illness. The term emphasizes and subverts the negative reaction to homosexuality by adopting the reaction in a similarly medical way as a "phobia". [20].

The Closet and Outing

To be 'in the closet' is a commonly-used term to define LGBT people who have not publicly identified themselves, whether out of personal preference or social pressure. Identifying someone as queer or 'closeted' without their explicit permission is known as 'outing'.


Repetition plays a crucial role in the creation of identity and gender stereotypes in queer theory. For Judith Butler, there is no essential identity, rather it is through “stylized repetition of acts”[21] that an idea of “gender” identity is formed. “This repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimization”[22]

Gender Parody

Gender Parodies parodies the idea that there is an original, essential identity. In queer theory, Judith Butler asserts that gender parodies reveal “the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin”[23]. In reality, “the conception of gender…[is]...a constituted social temporality.”[24].

Traffic in Women

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick introduced this idea otherwise known as “exchange of women”[25] because she saw that females are often used to establish and shape man to man relations and appearances. Examples of “traffic in women” would be the trophy wife, or a father giving his daughter away to the groom[26].

Key Ideas at Work

Dissolving Gender Binaries

The gender binary is usually touted by the mainstream heteronormative society, as well as gay and lesbian theorists. Fighting against the essentializing and heteronormative effects of the gender binary is one of queer theory's core goals. Robert Dale Parker states that "[f]or queer theory, once the heterosexual/gay or heterosexual/lesbian binary breaks, then the line between heterosexual and queer no longer looks so firm as the conventional insistence on compulsory heterosexuality can imply."[27] By blurring the line between these previously well-defined concepts of what is natural and what is considered deviant, queer theory is able to open up new possibilities for investigating sexuality and gender, as all "identities are up for discussion"[28].

Gender as Performance

A main proponent of queer theory is Judith Butler’s theory that gender is constructed and “performed rather than a static essence”[29]. She defines the term “perform” as a “variation and continuous process”[30] in the context of generating an identity, which topples the common assumption of universal characterizations of identity. Consequently, the notion of essentialized gender is a misconception, as it is actually just normalized and popularized notions of identity, which are reinforced and imposed as the one identity through repetitions and imitations over time[31]. The gender enforced is founded on “idealized and compulsory heterosexuality”[32], forming the “expressive model”[33]. In the naturalization of heterosexuality, “gender discontinuities ...within heterosexual, bisexual, and gay and lesbian contexts”[34] are suppressed and marginalized.

The gender enacted by individuals is also “performative” in the relationship between internal thought and external expressions. The physical body of an individual forms “the illusion of an interior and organizing core”[35], when in reality, there is oftentimes a disjunct between one’s thoughts and actions due to both social etiquette and the fluid nature of identity. As there is no essential identity, “the performance of identity constructs the subject”[36]. The issue which arises is the interpretation of one’s actions. There is a tendency to prescribe exterior actions through the the perspective of cultural norms, which encourages “the regulation of sexuality within the frame of reproductive heterosexuality”[37], and promotes the policing of the body.

Queer studies seeks to expose and disrupt the imposed gender norms and binaries through an exploration of identity outside of the restrictive constraints of social contexts and norms.

Queer Literary Analysis

Reading literature in the spirit of queer theory does not necessarily require the reader to out characters. In fact, the focus on queer literary analysis tends to avoid simplifying the multiple queer interpretations that a story offers into one condensed character study. Instead, queer theory seeks to identify common heteronormative behavior and themes in literature just as much as it attempts to locate homosexual undertones.

For example in Willa Cather's short story, Paul's Case, Paul, the main character, has many characteristics that label him as deviant, strange, and "wrong"[38] by his professors. This identification may influence readers to label Paul as in the closet, but when it becomes apparent that outing is only a limited method of queer criticism, one can move beyond and examine instead the influence of the heteronormative society on the individual, as with Paul’s school and neighborhood on himself. Paul represents a gender discontinuity, represented by his implied sexuality, love for theatre, and disconnect with his father’s wishes. As a result, his character is seen as strange and incomprehensible only because he is scrutinized within the construct of heteronormative coherence established by his teachers and neighbors.

In addition, Paul’s inherent reaction to his home is frequently accompanied with "a shudder of loathing”[39], and the thought of entering his house fills him with “a hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and common-ness” [40]. Parker explains that “[d]aily life. . . and literature [is] fraught with homosexual panic, with people and characters desperate to prove a stereotypically heterosexual masculinity or femininity”[41], and this concept of a ‘panic’ to prove oneself as culturally homogenous is reflected in Paul, who feels “the water close above his head” (Cather 106) whenever he walks down Cordelia Street. The reader will identify Paul's feeling of suffocation as one of homosexual panic, as he struggles to express his normality to his neighbourhood by denying any deviation from them.

Alongside "Paul's Case", Raymond Carver’s short story "Cathedral" also lends itself well to a queer theory analysis. The narrator, the husband, expresses the disfiguring effects and tensions between identity and gender binaries, specifically through his struggles with the normalization of heterosexuality and homosexual panic. Absorbing these gender norms, he attempts to impose traditional erotic triangle relations onto the other characters within the text. The linchpin of this triangle is his wife, who embodies the idea of “traffick in women”, as the significance of her existence is to enforce the rival relationship between the husband and Robert, and the ex-husband. In the first triangle, the husband posits his wife between him and the imagined ex-husband, who represents the paradigm of the masculine, with his occupation of an officer, which denotes justice, danger, and authority. This triangle illustrates the extent to which the husband endeavors to conform and assimilate to the gender binary, as well as its detrimental effects on human relationships. The marriage between the husband and wife is strained and devoid of affection. Alternatively, Robert’s acts as a queering figure who thwarts and dissolves the husband’s attempts to categorize him within social stereotypes of a blind man. He is not someone who is “led by seeing-eye dogs”[42], and is in fact well aware of social etiquette to some degree. Antithetical to the husband, those who come in contact with Robert are given an opportunity to escape the suffocating gender binaries, and truly develop the essence within themselves. The wife is appreciated not as a bridge between rival relationships, but as an individual who aids Robert in his disability, while the husband is lulled into homoerotic and homosocial interactions with Robert under the guise of help.


  1. Jagose, Annamarie. "Queer Theory." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. 9 Apr. 2016 <>.
  2. Jagose, Annamarie. "Queer Theory." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. 10 Apr. 2016 <>.
  3. Ed, Michael Warner, (1997). Fear of a queer planet queer politics and social theory (3. pr. ed.). Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816623341.
  4. Parker, Robert Dale. Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
  5. "Judith Butler and Michael Roth: A Conversation at Wesleyan University's Center for Humanities". Wesleyan University.
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  15. Blackburn, S 1996, "essentialism", Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford Reference Online).
  16. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles." Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 321-26. Print. 321.
  17. Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary & Cultural Criticism;1995, p167
  18. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. United States of America: Oxford UP, 2015. Print. 205.
  19. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. United States of America: Oxford UP, 2015. Print. 209.
  20. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. United States of America: Oxford UP, 2015. Print. 206.
  21. Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)." Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. By Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 327-38. Print. 332.
  22. Butler 331.
  23. Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)." Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. By Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 327-38. Print. 330.
  24. Butler 332.
  25. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. United States of America: Oxford UP, 2015. Print. 207.
  26. Parker 207.
  27. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. 189.
  28. Parker, 190
  29. Parker, 190.
  30. Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)." Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. By Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 327-38. Print. 327.
  31. Butler, 327.
  32. Butler, 328.
  33. Butler, 328.
  34. Butler, 328.
  35. Butler, 329.
  36. Parker, 192.
  37. Butler, 329.
  38. Cather, Willa. "Paul’s Case." 40 Short Stories. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 103. Print.
  39. Cather, 106
  40. Cather, 106
  41. Parker, 211
  42. Carver, Raymond. "Cathedral." 40 Short Stories. Ed. Beverly Lawn. 4th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2013. 355-68. Print. 355.