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What about queer?

Updated on June 4, 2015

Queer is much more than LGBT

It seems to me that the word "queer" has become more evident nowadays. It's being widely used by people both in popular and academic contexts, in different perspectives and with different meanings.

Unfortunately, even within academic discourse, "queer" is usually explained as a short-handed word for LGBT, as only another way to call LGBT people in general. Sometimes, this meaning is stated by people who are only too lazy to explain how can "queer" be perceived as a disruptive term, or who simply presume the general public won't understand the complexity that surrounds the contemporary use of this word anyway.

After sending a proposal to an event on diversity, organized by the local university, aiming to offer a lecture on Queer Studies and the word "queer" itself, I was surprised by the fact that, among the students who showed up, there were post-graduates and people who already were developing studies in the field, looking for some clarification.

In fact, what attracts me in Queer Studies is exactly its lack of a precise definition for the object it claims to study. "Queer" is such a polysemic word it allows us to put inumerous discourses into question, without limiting us to issues regarding gender and sexuality - although those are the major focus of those studies.

As a descendant from Portuguese, Italian, African, and "only-God-knows-what-other-ethnicity" born in Brazil, genderqueer, and polysexual individual with a slight tendency to be seen as a freak (with my tattoos, scarifications, and stretchers), I believe my "queerness" comes from intersecting aspects of my identity.

Thus, for me, "queer" is a self-description I use in order to avoid the need of multiple labels given to me by other people. Because I'm somehow "strange" to society as a subject in different aspects, I believe the term suits me well.

Multiple definitions

In a single book one can find multiple definitions of what is "queer" and what can be considered as "Queer Theory", all of them open to interpretation. Nikki Sullivan, in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003) argues on how it is a result on a growing "emphasis on difference that seemed to pervade sexual, gender, rance and/or class politics in the 1980s, and the cocomitant turning away from grand-scale utopian visions".

Brazilian academic Guacira Lopes Louro considers queer a form of "post-identity"; a deconstruction of a fixed and universal homosexual identity coined by mainstream LGBT movements which have actually failed in giving visibility to minorities such as bisexuals and transgendered people.

In June 1990, an anonymous manifesto distributed during the NYC Pride, with the title "Queers Read This!" exposed frustration and indignation concerning the escalation of gay bashing and homophobia in cities. The authorship of the manifesto was later claimed by a movement called Queer Nation, which became known by its direct actions, using civil disobedience as political strategy. Here is how they explained their use of the word "queer":


Ah, do we really have to use that word? It's trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious. That's okay; we like that. But some gay girls and boys don't. They think they're more normal than strange. And for others "queer" conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Queer. It's forcibly bittersweet and quaint at best - weakening and painful at worst. Couldn't we just use "gay" instead? It's a much brighter word. And isn't it synonymous with "happy"? When will you militants grow up and get over the novelty of being different?

Why Queer ...

Well, yes, "gay" is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using "queer" is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It's a way of telling ourselves we don't have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike gay, doesn't mean male.

For Queer Nation, like other movements at the time, it was outrageous that queer people should force themselves to be "discrete" in order to live their lives, avoiding to call attention to their queerness to escape violence.

According to Annamarie Jagose, queer effects a rupture, being meaningful in the context of its historical development, embodying ambivalence and discontinuities, and avoiding precise definitions and assimilation. What is more, similarly to the third-wave feminist idea of reclaiming negative/pejorative terms associated with women - like "bitch", "cunt", etc. -, the choice to use "queer" is based on reclaiming a negative term and subverting its usage.

Queer Nation Houston
Queer Nation Houston

What about theory?

In the academy, post-structuralist thought is Queer Theory's major influence, particularly regarding theories of subjectivity and discourse. The subject is, then, fragmented and multiple - instead of unified and self-knowing. Identity is not static nor self-evident; rather it is an effect of discursive elements within a culture.

This view of the subject is evident within post-modernism, composed by various identities, some of then showing contradictions and tensions in comparisson to one another. Its transience admits fluidity and multiplicity, becoming unstable and, therefore, questioning meanings such as essence, being natural, genuine, and original. Thus, individuals who transgress boundaries of gender and sexuality might be seen as symptomatic of the post-modern view of the subject, expressing the constructed, cultural, and unstable character of sexual identities as a whole.

Those transgressive individuals put into question the homossexual model defended by most activist movements. During the end of the 1970s, the consolidation of a mainstream homosexual movement was responsible for repeating the very same centralization and marginalization processes which led to the own homosexuals' social exclusion before. In fact, in the beginning of the 1980s there were already some academic authors recognizing that the meaning and the experience of homosexuality are based in a sociocultural logic rather than in universal elements shared by every homosexual person.

Two of the most important post-structuralist theorists for the development of Queer Theory are Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. The first was responsible for, among other things, a genealogical account of how sexuality has been produced by discourse, in historically and culturally specific ways, so that some specific sexual behaviours became traits of determined identities (such as the homosexual identity). The latter argued on the performative nature of gender, claiming that what we understand and naturalize as gender is a result of repetition of acts that acquire the impression of being real.

In this sense, there's a heterosexual matrix guiding society in terms of sex/gender/sexuality; it works around binary oppositions of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual in what is called heteronormativity. This heteronormative axis represents a set of values besides the view of hetero as the default sexuality, including the Christian model of marriage, the traditional notion of family, monogamy, etc.

Queer Theory problematizes all those institutionalized notions, contesting dominant knowledges and social hierarchies, as well as criticizing all kinds of norms. That's why we often characterize queer as anti-assimilationist.


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