What is queer theory? Put briefly,
it is a set of ideas which asserts (i) that the world is predominantly
heterosexist (i.e., power structures and people's socially conditioned
ways of thinking are built upon the premise that heterosexuality
- and not homosexuality - is good and normal), and (ii) that this
is an undesirable condition which necessitates some type of (intellectual
and/or practical) rebellion. As is obvious from this description,
there is a truly theoretical basis for the queer world-view, which
explains its attractiveness amongst some gay and lesbian academics
(note that I am using a predominantly essentialist language, for
reasons outlined in my essay "Is Social Constructionism an Appealing Construction?"
which, I hope, will not make queer constructionists too rebellious
against me). But there is also a strong practical element present,
since the theoretical analysis claims to elucidate a system of
oppression, which needs to be undermined. Hence we have the often
rather militant queer activists.
In this short essay, I will explain why
I remain critical of the mind-set and methodology used by queer
activists, and I will outline what elements of the queer-theoretical
analysis which I think deserve to be retained. Overall, I think
gays would be well advised to disregard queer theory or, at least,
to make use of it with careful selectivity.
Let me commence with the shortcomings of
the queer approach, and I shall discuss three of them.
1. The main problem arises, in my opinion,
in the area of politics, and it has to do with the methodology
used and advocated by queer activists. The basic mind-set is one
of anger and insurrection, and it is believed that in order to
make real political progress, compliance and assimilation are
doomed to fail as strategies. This justifies, in the view of these
activists, a crude and provocative language (often very dramatic,
often using terms like "fuck", "hate", "death",
etc.), not to mention crude and provocative deeds. A popular method
is to interrupt meetings held by groups disliked by the activists
(the self-named activist Luke Sissyfag, who interrupted President
Clinton a while ago, comes to mind), and among the latest actions
the pouring of beer over former Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson
in a bar and the throwing of manure on a California AIDS official
can be cited. Another method used sometimes is outing,
i.e., the revelation that someone is gay to the public without
asking for permission to do so. An unofficial program manifesto
for queers is an apt illustration of what I have just described.
Furthermore, it is not quite clear what
the political goal of queer people is. Presumably, it is the abandonment
of heterosexism (especially the dethroning of the white, middle-class,
heterosexual male), but what should come in its stead is seldom
made clear. Is it a libertarian
society that is envisaged, where everyone is permitted to do almost
anything in the private sphere, or is it some kind of anarchism
that is envisioned, without any state at all? Or is it a heavily
activist state that is wanted, that shall oversee the citizens
and counter any oppression it can spot in their private dealings?
Or does queer theory hold that its goal, the disappearance of
heterosexism, is compatible with any political system? If not,
how does the reasoning go? For instance, is lexicographical preference
given to the just-stated goal, or is there some principle for
the weighing of conflicting goals against each other? One is,
indeed, left wondering.
Why are these things problematic? It seems
to me essential that any political strategy-making must start
with a clarification of the goal toward which one strives. Personally,
in the realm of homosexual politics, I have such a goal, namely
a society where sexual orientation does not, first and foremost,
constitute grounds for government discrimination and, second,
a society where people do not value homosexuality and homosexuals,
per se, differently from heterosexuality and heterosexuals.
This is a vision about integration, assimilation, and respectful
and caring co-existence. What it shares with the queer approach
is a dislike for the fact that social attitudes towards homosexuality
and homosexuals are still negative, which makes it difficult for
gays to lead open, honest lives without fear of repercussions.
But it parts ways with it in mind-set and
methods. It is perhaps irritated and perhaps even angry, but it
does not hate (at least not straight people in general). It thinks
true progress can only be achieved by peaceful means, which precludes
sabotage and demeaning actions which primarily infuriate. It believes
in dialogue and in making allies in broad layers of society -
and it proposes a particular method for achieving all this: coming
out. While this term is somewhat oversimplifying, it does
entail the perhaps most courageous and bold set of acts at our
disposal: namely, honesty about who we are, based on a positive
evaluation of our homosexuality. It is, in my view, the most effective
weapon against homophobia, and the best tool for achieving political
and social success. It can accomplish what throwing manure and
using foul language most certainly cannot: understanding and acceptance.
2. A possible second problem is about internal
tensions within the disparate queer-theory camp: both a logical
tension and a tension between various branches of queers. The
logical tension derives from the basic thesis of the queer approach,
viz., to oppose anything dominant. What about the day when queers
have conquered the world (which I think will never happen, but
nevertheless, it needs to be thought about as a theoretical possibility)?
Then queer theory itself becomes the enemy, and so on, in an infinite
regress. This problem stems from the fact that queer theory is
really about being against something instead of for something
and from the fact that what one is against is the dominance of
any particular paradigm.
The other tension form of tension is rooted
in the "inclusiveness" and "diversity" of
the queer movement. That is, it is not very difficult to imagine
the basic attitude of anger and opposition bringing about internal
strife and conflict. This is exemplified in the dissolution of
the queer U.S. groups, ACT UP and Queer Nation, which have withered
due to irreconcilable positions on goals and methods.
3. A third problem derives from the oddity
of queers. Even though one may think it spiffing with a capacity
for full self-realisation - where every type of minority or ostensibly
oppressed group of people is included in the project - there is
an inherent problem of identification for "ordinary"
gay people. For someone who actually likes to be part of a traditional
(not necessarily heterosexual, but traditional in other ways)
lifestyle, queerness hasn't all that much to offer. Most gay people
are not radical activists or fringe academics but rather quite
regular, except for their same-sex attraction, and they need a
"regular" set of homosexuals with whom to identify and
socialise. So while a queer movement may be more inclusive than
the more traditional gay movement in terms of the number of groups
it welcomes, it is hardly more inclusive in terms of the number
of people who identify with it.
And here enters a related problem, namely,
a tendency among queers to collectivise oppression and
rebellion. First, by including all gays in a "queer nation",
where each member has some diffuse responsibility toward "sisters
and brothers" and where conformity in being rebellious is
treasured. Second, by tending to view collective phenomena - "society
oppresses" - instead of analysing events from the perspective
of methodological individualism. This causes vagueness and, I
posit, an ineffectiveness in targeting the real problems (see
my essay on constructionism for more on this point).
There are a few things I like about queer
theory. I like pluralism, and hence, I value challenges to old
ways of thinking (even if the challenging ideas are sometimes
bizarre). In this particular instance, I think it is important
to make clear, both for straight and gay people, that social structures
are still quite homophobic: here, I see an educational mission
which queers have taken upon themselves, and for which I commend
them. And also, on the level of individual behaviour, I always
welcome views which yearn for greater freedom for people to do
what they please, within the confines of an ethical minimum. Here,
many people's conservative attitudes, probably shaped both by
religion and evolutionary psychology, disturb me, and I am sympathetic
instead to the queer attitude of questioning. Lastly, I consider
the self-confidence of queers attractive. The self-loathing of
many homosexuals is tragic, and an absolutely necessary requirement
for true emancipation is the ability to love oneself as one is.
This message cannot be stated often enough, especially considering
the high rates of suicides and suicide attempts among gay youths.
To conclude, homosexuality introduces one
feature in some people (a capacity for same-sex love) which most
people lack. This feature is politically relevant to the extent
that those in power base unfavourable treatment on it. Hence,
all homosexuals probably share a desire for a society in which
there is no dislike or discrimination on the basis of one's sexual
orientation. So far I think that the majority of gays are in agreement
with queers. But the best way to get there, in my opinion, is
by being open and honest, about arguing and discussing, about
behaving decently and confidently, and about tirelessly promulgating
the thesis: We happen to be gay: as citizens, we expect the same
rights as everybody else; as friends and neighbours, we expect
the same treatment as everybody else. Nothing more, nothing less.
(Not quite in the spirit of "We're here, we're queer, get
used to it!", is it?)
Recommended further reading:
Bruce Bawer (1993). A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. New York: Poseidon Press.
Bruce Bawer (ed.) (1996). Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy. New York: Free Press.
Niclas Berggren (1996). "Homosexualitetens natur" ["The Nature of Homosexuality"]. Smedjan, No. 4, November.
Queer!, a presentation of what being queer is all about, mostly in Swedish.
Andrew Sullivan (1995). Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. London: Picador. Esp. ch. 2.