Queer Theory Essay

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Queer theory functions as a mode of analysis, and it challenges normative ideologies, that is, taken-for granted assumptions pertaining to sexuality and identity. It contends that identities are elastic and do not determine who people are because identity is not connected to fixed ideas or essences. Queer theory assumes that sexual identities are a result of representations; more than a marker of who people are, identity is a result of what they do—in effect, a performance. Queer theory is important in education because it questions received (predominant) notions of academic disciplinary knowledge, textual and cultural production and interpretation, identity, and difference, but it does not limit its focus to sexual issues.

Identity is a critical and persistent question. Individuals discover their identity by sampling from those that society/culture presents as possibilities. Identity politics, which hinges on marginalized or racialized groups, stresses definition and essentialism even though this can create further marginalization. Queer theory engages in a critique of received identity and suggests that any identity can be potentially redefined or reinvented by its owner.

For example, the norms that govern gender identification are established on a male/female dichotomy because, in general, humans tend to be one sex or the other and express their gender within strict parameters. That is why individuals who do not appear to conform to established gender norms may suffer discrimination at work and outright prejudice in social settings. Heterosexuality is accepted as the received causal connection of chromosomal sex, gender, and sexuality (or sexual desire). However, queer theory argues that heterosexuality is an effect of this continuum and not its source. It is the behavior that gives rise to the identity, not the biology.

Queer Pedagogy

Queer is a variable concept. It can mean odd, funny, curious, unexpected, or remarkable. Thus, queer theory aligns to any academic discipline or discourse and is not limited to sexuality and gender issues, although it legitimizes gender and sexuality as subjects of study. The curriculum becomes queer when it attempts to understand sexuality, gender, identity, and knowing as relational rather than as objects. Queer theory ruptures with essentialism and allies itself with critical pedagogy.

Queer theory critically questions the heterogeneity of identity formation in texts. It gives depth and focus to gay/lesbian scholarship and cultural theory. It also informs disability studies by redefining disability outside the hegemonic ableist discourse, the normative able/disabled, normal/abnormal dichotomies constructed through social contexts. In disability studies, queer theory supports self-definition and challenges the effects of passing or having an invisible disability.

Philosophical/Theoretical Antecedents

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Walter Benjamin (1895–1940), and Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), founding members of the Frankfurt School, promulgate the concept that theory needs to be connected to action. Critical theory does not merely explain social phenomena; it aims to change social institutions. Poststructuralism, rather than a school, represents a group of approaches, theoretical positions, and thinkers, most notably Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). Poststructuralism posits that intellectual faculties are not determined by biological essentialism but are the result of socialization. The subject is decentralized and occupies various sites determined by culture and physical practices.

Queer theory continues the project of the Frankfurt School, poststructuralism, and borrows from 1980s “high” theory, which focuses on decentering subjectivity and undoing identity categories to inform and give direction to social, philosophical, and cultural questions.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984), influenced by the ideas of the Frankfurt School, developed several important concepts that serve as the intellectual foundation of queer theory. In The History of Sexuality, Volume One: The Will to Knowledge (1976) and other works, Foucault describes genealogical critique as the process that shows the consequences of denoting as cause or origin the identity categories that are themselves a result of institutions, received practices, and discourses. A discourse, in turn, constructs a topic with the language of institutions; it is a medium that produces, defines, and legitimizes power relations with the objects of our knowledge. Power, to Foucault, is a process, a technique or action (not strength per se); power is not so much owned but employed. Furthermore, an “identity” is not a fixed component inside a person. Rather, it is a temporary construction that changes with the situation. Interactions with others communicate people’s identities.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) is one of the pioneer texts of queer theory. Building on the work of Foucault, Butler asserts that feminists mistakenly describe “women” as a monolithic group with shared characteristics. She challenges the “heterosexual matrix” that establishes a causal relationship among sex, gender, and sexuality (i.e., that chromosomal sex determines gender and gender defines behavior). The heterosexual matrix is a binary cultural framework. This model separates humans into men and women with an inherent bias toward compulsory heterosexuality and pathologizes any deviation from this norm.

Even though feminists resist the notion that biology determines identity, the underlying discourse posits that feminine and masculine genders would be expressed on male and female bodies. Butler suggests that gender is not a fixed characteristic but a flexible variable that changes with context and time. Gender, Butler suggests, is not something one is but something one does. Sex and gender do not cause sexuality. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an important contributor to queer studies, clarifies this assertion by stating that adhering to historical social constructions of the hetero/homo duality are insufficient to account for all dimensions of sexuality.

Teresa de Lauretis is generally credited with first using the term queer theory. She later abandons the term because, to her, it has been co-opted to represent the very things it opposes. Because of its flexibility, queer theory is a useful tool in many areas of study. Important thinkers in queer theory come from fields as diverse as religion, literature, anthropology, communication, philosophy, and sociology. Judith Halberstam, David Halperin, John Boswell (1947–1994), Michael Warner, Kate Bornstein, Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004)—these are just a few of the thinkers who have contributed and continue to challenge queer theory with their writing.

Precedents In Education

Multicultural Education

Queer theory is a relatively recent phenomenon; however, it has clear precedents in the social and cultural foundations of education, particularly in multicultural education. In its most basic expression, multicultural education defines a civic curriculum that encourages a multiplicity of perspectives. Groups outside of the mainstream find a voice and representation even in the most elementary application of multicultural programs.

Although multicultural education has been in vogue in the past two decades, James Banks traces its origins to the work of late nineteenth-century Black scholars. In the early twentieth century, John Dewey (1859–1952), a noted philosopher and leader of the progressive education movement, advocated for a new type of education based on the mixed ethnic origins of the United States. Then, in the period around World War I, Horace Kallen (1882–1974), Dewey’s student and follower, introduced the term cultural pluralism into the educational discourse and suggested that nonEnglish culture should have a place in American public schools. Rachel Davis DuBois (1892–1993), an activist schoolteacher, spearheaded the 1920s intercultural education movement, which features assemblies that highlight the contributions of ethnic and “racial” groups to American culture.

The modern multicultural education movement is indebted to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and carries its imprimatur and values. Multicultural education reflects the needs and goals of society. In the 1960s and 1970s, programs focused on integration: not only of Blacks and Whites, but also of females. The 1980s saw a rise in bilingual programs, and the 1990s focused on prejudice reduction programs. Recently, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ), as well as disability, appear as categories in multicultural education programs that challenge the perceived status quo.

Ethnic Studies

Protests against the Vietnam War and the fervor of the civil rights movement propelled students and grassroots community organizers, in the late 1960s, to challenge pervading academic structures. College students demonstrated and even occupied administration offices in college campuses across the nation. These efforts yielded, in 1968, the first ethnic studies program in San Francisco State. Chicana/o or Mexican American, Africana or Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, Hispanic, American Indian—these programs reflected the student population and legitimized, at least in an academic setting, the lives and cultures of overlooked Americans.

Eventually, Woman Studies programs also became part of the academic landscape, and in time, some of these programs became departments. As with multicultural curriculum reform in grade school, these higher education programs reflected the political and social tenor of the nation, and their names changed accordingly. Thus, Africana Studies gave way to Black Studies and later to African American Studies. Hispanic Studies morphs into Latina/o Studies, and American Indian programs change to Native American Studies.

The devastation of AIDS in the 1980s and its concomitant activism introduces Gay/Lesbian Studies to sanctioned academic inquiry. City College of San Francisco is the first school to create a Department of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Studies. Just as in multicultural education programs, Disability Studies also gains credence as a field of study. Eventually, the penchant for postmodern minoritizing—that is, recognizing and giving voice to any group, no matter how small it may be—introduces programs such as Americana Studies, Irish Studies, Caribbean Studies, and Whiteness Studies to many campuses.

LGBTQ Studies

Gay/Lesbian Studies focuses on the historical definitions of sexuality and the construction of normative versus deviant sexual behavior. This discipline interrogates how societal definitions of sexuality and sexual behavior mark or reinforce that identity. Like other specialized group studies, gay and lesbian discourse focuses on shared identities and community. This is not always a good thing as it can lead to exclusion. Subsequently, Gay/Lesbian Studies has been criticized for having a White, middle-class, masculinist, Western bias. The need to include people who do not fit easily into gay/lesbian categories has expanded the title of some of these programs to include bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ). Some schools call these programs Sexual Diversity Studies or Sexuality Studies, yet others opt for the more inclusive but problematic Queer Studies.

Queer theory is one of various modes of analyses that inform queer studies. Queer Studies investigates issues of gender identity and sexual orientation in contemporary politics, literature, art, and historical figures/ works that have been overlooked in the academic canon. Queer Studies examines how gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer identities shape everyday life and connects these issues to the oppression of women, disadvantaged classes, and racialized groups. Thus, there is often a reciprocal relationship between direct action groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation and queer theory. Because queer is a protean concept, research in this area is fluid and broad.


Queer theory informs the current educational, social, and philosophical debate over the soundness of using sexuality to understand human emotions, behavior, and sexual desire. By using a poststructuralist approach and borrowing from critical theory, it sees sexuality as relational and describes identity outside of normative molds. It challenges binary opposition and mediates between normative ideologies and material practices. In education, it opens the possibilities for analysis or discourse without delimiting the choices.

Because of the very nature of this discourse, it is neither a monolithic school of thought nor a political action group. Even scholars such as Caleb Crain, who works within its scope, criticize it. Crain believes that queer theory is a utopian ideology that mixes politics with history and suggests that it is a passing fad. After its demise, he says, queer theory will not leave behind queer facts. There will still be gaps in understanding of lesbian and gay lives that are contextualized in history and represented in culture.


  1. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
  2. Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, Vol. 1: An introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Pantheon.
  3. Hall, D. E. (2003). Queer theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  4. Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.
  5. Pinar, W. F. (Ed.). (1998). Queer theory in education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  6. Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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