Queer is often used as an umbrella term by and for persons who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and/or transgender, or by and for individuals who use the term as an alternative to LGBTI (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual-intersex) labels. Some individuals, depending upon their race, class, personal experience, and also their generation, find the term derogatory. Recently, heterosexuals whose gender or sexuality does not conform to popular expectations have used the term queer to define themselves. Thus, queer theory is a framework of ideas that suggests identities are not stable or deterministic, particularly regarding an individual’s gender, sex, and/or sexuality. Queer theory focuses on critiquing and problematizing previous ways of theorizing identity. While heteronormativity assumes that heterosexuality and the relations of the binary masculine and feminine genders expected within it are secure and constant, queer theory is a discourse model that destabilizes the assumptions and privileges of secure heteronormative models of study and everyday life and politicizes and acknowledges the fluidity and instability of identities.
Queer theory is a part of the field of queer studies whose roots can be found in women’s studies, feminist theory, and gay and lesbian studies, as well as in postmodern and post-structuralist theories. In 1991, Teresa de Lauretis used the words queer theory to describe a way of thinking that did not use heterosexuality or binary gender constructs as its starting point but instead argued for a more fluid concept of identity. Most researchers consider the works of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as the founding texts of queer theory. Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick are also major early writers in defining queer theory.
Proponents of queer theory argue that it prompts the acceptance and understanding of the complex reality in which we live. Queer theory provides scholars, activists, and others with ways of thinking and talking about identity beyond simple binaries, especially in fighting homophobia and transphobia (unreasoned fear and hatred toward homosexuals and homosexuality, and transsexuals, transsexuality, and transgender people, respectively). Examples include doctors performing surgery on intersex infants to select their gender and LGBTI people as the targets of violence. Queer theory often serves as a framework to study transvestitism, drag performance, the disparity between desire and gender, hermaphroditism, and gender identity disorder and gender corrective surgery. However, queer theory can also extend beyond the realm of gender of sexuality; in particular, when studying the politics of racial, ethnic, or class identities, scholars may wish to “queer the subject” by writing about these identities as fluid rather than as rigid or binary subjects.
- Butler, Judith.  2006. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
- de Lauretis, Teresa. 1991. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2):iii-xviii.
- Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
- Jagose, Annamarie. 1997. Queer Theory. Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne Press.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2008. Epistemology of the Closet. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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