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Queer theory is a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of queer studies (often, formerly, gay and lesbian studies) and women's studies. The term can have various meanings depending upon its usage, but has broadly been associated with the study and theorisation of gender and sexual practices that exist outside of heterosexuality, and which challenge the notion that heterosexual desire is ‘normal’. Following social constructivist developments in sociology, queer theorists are often critical of essentialist views of sexuality and gender. Instead, they study those concepts as social and cultural phenomena, often through an analysis of the categories, binaries, and languages in which they are portrayed.
Informal use of the term "queer theory" began with Gloria Anzaldúa and other scholars in the 1980s, themselves influenced by the work of French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, who viewed sexuality as socially constructed and rejected identity politics. Teresa de Lauretis organized the first queer theory conference in 1990; in the early 1990s, the term started to become legitimized in academia. Early queer theorists include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich, and David Halperin.
According to Jay Stewart, "Queer theory and politics necessarily celebrate transgression in the form of visible difference from norms. These 'Norms' are then exposed to be norms, not natures or inevitabilities. Gender and sexual identities are seen, in much of this work, to be demonstrably defiant definitions and configurations."
In an influential essay, Michael Warner argued that queerness is defined by what he called ‘heteronormativity'; those ideas, narratives and discourses which suggest that heterosexuality is the default, preferred, or normal mode of sexual orientation. Warner pointed out that whilst many thinkers had been theorising sexuality from a non-heterosexual perspective for perhaps a century, queerness represented a distinctive contribution to social theory for precisely this reason. Critics as diverse as Edward Carpenter, Guy Hocquenghem and Jeffrey Weeks had emphasised the ‘necessity of thinking about sexuality as a field of power, as a historical mode of personality, and as the site of an often critical utopian aim’. But whereas the terms 'homosexual', ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ which they used signified particular identities with stable referents (i.e to a certain cultural form, historical context, or political agenda whose meanings can be analysed sociologically), the word ‘queer’ is instead defined in relation to a range of practices, behaviours and issues that have meaning only in their shared contrast to categories which are alleged to be 'normal'. Such a focus highlights the indebtedness of queer theory to the concept of normalisation found in the sociology of deviance, particularly through the work of Michel Foucault, who studied the normalisation of heterosexuality in his seminal work The History of Sexuality.
Because this definition of queerness does not have a fixed reference point, Judith Butler has described the subject of queer theory as a site of ‘collective contestation’. She suggests that ‘queer’ as a term should never be ‘fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes’. Whilst proponents argue that this flexibility allows for the constant readjustment of queer theory to accommodate the experiences of people who face marginalisation and discrimination on account of their sexuality and gender, critics allege that such a 'subjectless critique', as it is often called, runs the risk of abstracting cultural forms from their social structure, political organization, and historical context, reducing social theory to a mere 'textual idealism'. Nevertheless, queer theory is a highly diverse and interdisciplinary enterprise, and has been usefully deployed in a range of contexts including literary theory, sociology, history, philosophy, theology and film theory.
Queer theory is the lens used to explore and challenge how scholars, activists, artistic texts, and the media perpetrate gender- and sex-based binaries, and its goal is to undo hierarchies and fight against social inequalities. Due to controversy about the definition of queer, including whether the word should even be defined at all or should be left deliberately open-ended, there are many disagreements and often contradictions within queer theory. In fact, some queer theorists, like Warner and Butler, have warned that defining it or conceptualizing it as an academic field might only lead to its inevitable misinterpretation or destruction, since its entire purpose is to critique academia rather than become a formal academic domain itself.
Fundamentally, queer theory does not construct or defend any particular identity, but instead, grounded in post-structuralism and deconstruction, it works to actively critique heteronormativity, exposing and breaking down traditional assumptions that sexual and gender identities are presumed to be heterosexual or cisgender.
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