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Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of 'queerness' itself. Heavily influenced by the work of Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, David Halperin, José Esteban Muñoz, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, queer theory builds both upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is part of the essential self and upon gay/lesbian studies' close examination of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Whereas gay/lesbian studies focused its inquiries into natural and unnatural behaviour with respect to homosexual behaviour, queer theory expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviant categories. Italian feminist and film theorist Teresa de Lauretis coined the term "queer theory" for a conference she organized at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990 and a special issue of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies she edited based on that conference.
Queer theory "focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire." Queer has been associated most prominently with bisexual, lesbian and gay subjects, but its analytic framework also includes such topics as cross-dressing, intersex, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery. Queer theory's attempted debunking of stable (and correlated) sexes, genders, and sexualities develops out of the specifically lesbian and gay reworking of the post-structuralist figuring of identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions. Queer theory examines the constitutive discourses of homosexuality developed in the last century in order to place "queer" in its historical context, and surveys contemporary arguments both for and against this latest terminology.
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Queer theory is derived largely from post-structuralist theory, and deconstruction in particular. Starting in the 1970s, a range of authors brought deconstructionist critical approaches to bear on issues of sexual identity, and especially on the construction of a normative "straight" ideology. Queer theorists challenged the validity and consistency of heteronormative discourse, and focused to a large degree on non-heteronormative sexualities and sexual practices.
The term queer theory was introduced in 1990, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and Diana Fuss (all largely following the work of Michel Foucault) being among its foundational proponents.
Annamarie Jagose wrote Queer Theory: An Introduction in 1997. Queer is slang for homosexual and worse, used for homophobic abuse. Recently, this term has been used as an umbrella term for both cultural-sexual identifications and other times as a model for more traditional lesbian and gay studies. According to Jagose (1996), "Queer focuses on mismatches between sex, gender and desire. For most, queer has prominently been associated with simply those who identify as lesbian and gay. Unknown to many, queer is in association with more than just gay and lesbian, but also cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery." In Karl Ulrich's model, homosexuality is understood to be an intermediate condition, a 'third sex' that combines physiological aspects of both masculinity and femininity.
"Queer is a product of specific cultural and theoretical pressures which increasingly structured debates (both within and outside the academy) about questions of lesbian and gay identity"
Queer theorist Michael Warner attempts to provide a solid definition of a concept that typically circumvents categorical definitions: "Social reflection carried out in such a manner tends to be creative, fragmentary, and defensive, and leaves us perpetually at a disadvantage. And it is easy to be misled by the utopian claims advanced in support of particular tactics. But the range and seriousness of the problems that are continually raised by queer practice indicate how much work remains to be done. Because the logic of the sexual order is so deeply embedded by now in an indescribably wide range of social institutions, and is embedded in the most standard accounts of the world, queer struggles aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions and accounts. The dawning realisation that themes of homophobia and heterosexism may be read in almost any document of our culture means that we are only beginning to have an idea of how widespread those institutions and accounts are".
Queer theory explores and contests the categorisation of gender and sexuality. If identities are not fixed, they cannot be categorised and labeled, because identities consist of many varied components, so categorisation by one characteristic is incomplete, and there is an interval between what a subject "does" (role-taking) and what a subject "is" (the self). This opposition destabilises identity categories, which are designed to identify the "sexed subject" and place individuals within a single restrictive sexual orientation.
The term "gay" normalized homosexuality. "Queer" marks both a continuity and a break with the notion of gayness emerging from gay liberationist and lesbian feminist models, such as Adrienne Rich's Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. "Gay" vs. "queer" fueled debates (both within and outside of academia) about LGBT identity.
There has been a long history of critical and anarchistic thinking about sexual and gender relations across many cultures. Most recently, in the late 1970s and 1980s, social constructionists conceived of the sexual subject as a culturally dependent, historically specific product. Before the phrase "queer theory" was born, the term "Queer Nation" appeared on the cover of the short-lived lesbian/gay quarterly Outlook in the winter 1991 issues. Writers Allan Berube and Jeffrey Escoffier drove home the point that Queer Nation strove to embrace paradoxes in its political activism, and that the activism was taking new form and revolving around the issue of identity. Soon enough Outlook and Queer Nation stopped being published, however, there was a mini-gay renaissance going on during the 1980s and early 1990s. There were a number of significant outbursts of lesbian/gay political/cultural activity. Out of this emerged queer theory. Their work however did not arise out of the blue. Teresa de Lauretis is credited with coining the phrase "queer theory". It was at a working conference on lesbian and gay sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990 that de Lauretis first made mention of the phrase. She later introduced the phrase in a 1991 special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, entitled "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities." Similar to the description Berube and Escoffier used for Queer Nation, de Lauretis asserted that, "queer unsettles and questions the genderedness of sexuality." Barely three years later, she abandoned the phrase on the grounds that it had been taken over by mainstream forces and institutions it was originally coined to resist. Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, and David Halperin's One Hundred Years of Homosexuality inspired other works. Teresa de Lauretis, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick arranged much of the conceptual base for the emerging field in the 1990s. Along with other queer theorists, these three outlined a political hermeneutics, which emphasized representation. These scholars questioned whether people of varying sexual orientations had the same political goals, and whether those in the sexual minority felt that they could be represented along with others of different sexualities and orientations. "While some critics insist that queer theory is apolitical word-smithery, de Lauretis, Butler, and Sedgwick take seriously the role that signs and symbols play in shaping the meanings and possibilities of our culture at the most basic level, including politics conventionally defined."
Queer theory is grounded in gender and sexuality. Due to this association, a debate emerges as to whether sexual orientation is natural or essential to the person, as an essentialist believes, or if sexuality is a social construction and subject to change.
The essentialist feminists believed that genders "have an essential nature (e.g. nurturing and caring versus being aggressive and selfish), as opposed to differing by a variety of accidental or contingent features brought about by social forces". Due to this belief in the essential nature of a person, it is also natural to assume that a person's sexual preference would be natural and essential to a person’s personality.
Queer theory was originally associated with radical gay politics of ACT UP, OutRage! and other groups which embraced "queer" as an identity label that pointed to a separatist, non-assimilationist politics. Queer theory developed out of an examination of perceived limitations in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. In particular, queer theorists identified processes of consolidation or stabilization around some other identity labels (e.g. gay and lesbian); and construed queerness so as to resist this. Queer theory attempts to maintain a critique more than define a specific identity.
Acknowledging the inevitable violence of identity politics, and having no stake in its own ideology, queer is less an identity than a critique of identity. However, it is in no position to imagine itself outside the circuit of problems energized by identity politics. Instead of defending itself against those criticisms that its operations attract, queer allows those criticisms to shape its – for now unimaginable – future directions. "The term," writes Butler, "will be revised, dispelled, rendered obsolete to the extent that it yields to the demands which resist the term precisely because of the exclusions by which it is mobilized." The mobilization of queer foregrounds the conditions of political representation, its intentions and effects, its resistance to and recovery by the existing networks of power.
The studies of Fuss anticipate queer theory.
Eng, Halberstam and Esteban Munoz offer one of its latest incarnations in the aptly titled "What is Queer about Queer studies now?". Using Butler's critique of sexual identity categories as a starting point, they work around a "queer epistemology" that explicitly opposes the sexual categories of Lesbian and Gay studies and lesbian and gay identity politics. They insist that the field of normalization is not limited to sexuality; social classifications such as gender, race and nationality constituted by a "governing logic" require an epistemological intervention through queer theory" (Green 2007). "So, the evolution of the queer begins with the problematization of sexual identity categories in Fuss (1996) and extends outward to a more general deconstruction of social ontology in contemporary queer theory" (Green 2007).
"Edelman goes from deconstruction of the subject to a deconstructive psychoanalysis of the entire social order; the modern human fear of mortality produces defensive attempts to "suture over the hole in the Symbolic Order". According to him, constructions of "the homosexual" are pitted against constructions of "The Child" in the modern West, wherein the former symbolizes the inevitability of mortality (do not procreate) and the latter an illusory continuity of the self with the social order (survives mortality through one’s offspring). The constructs are animated by futuristic fantasy designed to evade mortality" (Green 2007).
"Fuss, Eng. et al and Edelman represent distinct moment in the development of queer theory. Whereas Fuss aims to discompose and render inert the reigning classifications of sexual identity, Eng. et al observe the extension of a deconstructive strategy to a wider field of normalization, while Edelman’s work takes not only the specter of "the homosexual", but the very notion of "society" as a manifestation of psychological distress requiring composition" (Green 2007).
Intersex and the role of biology
Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying individuals as either male or female, even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct sexes. Intersex individuals may for various biological reasons have sexual characteristics that the dominant medical discourse regards as disordered.
Scientists who have written on the conceptual significance of intersex individuals include Anne Fausto-Sterling, Katrina Karkazis, Ruth Hubbard, Carol Tavris, and Joan Roughgarden. While the medical literature focuses increasingly on genetics of intersex traits, and even their deselection, some key experts in the study of culture, such as Barbara Rogoff, argue that the traditional distinction between biology and culture as independent entities is overly simplistic, pointing to the ways in which biology and culture interact with one another.
Intersex scholars who have written on intersex include Morgan Holmes, Georgiann Davis and Iain Morland, in each case focusing on more particular realities of the intersex experience. In his essay What Can Queer Theory Do for Intersex? Morland contrasts queer "hedonic activism" with an experience of post-surgical insensate intersex bodies to claim that "queerness is characterized by the sensory interrelation of pleasure and shame".
Much of queer theory developed out of a response to the AIDS crisis, which promoted a renewal of radical activism, and the growing homophobia brought about by public responses to AIDS. Queer theory became occupied in part with what effects – put into circulation around the AIDS epidemic – necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing in "queer".
To examine the effects that HIV/AIDS has on queer theory is to look at the ways in which the status of the subject or individual is treated in the biomedical discourses that construct them.
- The shift, affected by safer sex education in emphasizing sexual practices over sexual identities
- The persistent misrecognition of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease
- Homosexuality as a kind of fatality
- The coalition politics of much HIV/AIDS activism that rethinks identity in terms of affinity rather than essence and therefore includes not only lesbians and gay men but also bisexuals, transsexuals, sex workers, people with AIDS, health workers, and parents and friends of gays; the pressing recognition that discourse is not a separate or second-order reality
- The constant emphasis on contestation in resisting dominant depictions of HIV and AIDS and representing them otherwise. The rethinking of traditional understandings of the workings of power in cross-hatched struggles over epidemiology, scientific research, public health and immigration policy
The material effects of AIDS contested many cultural assumptions about identity, justice, desire and knowledge. One scholar claimed that AIDS challenged the health and immunity of Western epistemology: "the psychic presence of AIDS signifies a collapse of identity and difference that refuses to be abjected from the systems of self-knowledge." (p. 292) Thus queer theory and AIDS become interconnected because each is articulated through a postmodernist understanding of the death of the subject and both understand identity as an ambivalent site.
Role of language
- For language use as associated with sexual identity, see Lavender linguistics.
Queer theory is likened to language because it is never static, but is ever-evolving. Richard Norton suggests that the existence of queer language is believed to have evolved from the imposing of structures and labels from an external mainstream culture.
Early discourse of queer theory involved leading theorists: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others. This discourse centered on the way that knowledge of sexuality was structured through the use of language. Michel Foucault writes in "The History of Sexuality" that from the 17th to the mid-20th century the "'repressive hypothesis"' was an illusion, rather a suppression of western society's sexuality. When in fact discourse about sexuality flourished during this time period. Foucault argues,
"Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex;that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement,intensification, reorientation and modification of desire itself. Not only were the boundaries of what one could say about sex enlarged, and men compelled to hear it said; but more important, discourse was connected to sex by a complex organization with varying effects, by a deployment that cannot be adequately explained merely by referring it to a law of prohibition.A censorship of sex? There was installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy."
Foucault says at this time there was a political,economic and technical excitement to talk about sex. Sex became a call for management procedures. It became a policing matter.
Heteronormativity was the main focus of discourse, where heterosexuality was viewed as normal and any deviations, such as homosexuality, as abnormal or "queer". Even before the founding of "queer theory" the Modern Language Association (MLA) came together for a convention in 1973 for the first formal gay-studies seminar due to the rise of lesbian and gay writers and issues of gay and lesbian textuality. The convention was entitled "Gay Literature: Teaching and Research." In 1981, the MLA established the Division of Gay Studies in Language and Literature.
Media and other creative works
Many queer theorists have produced creative works that reflect theoretical perspectives in a wide variety of media. For example, science fiction authors such as Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler feature many values and themes from queer theory in their work. Patrick Califia's published fiction also draws heavily on concepts and ideas from queer theory. Some lesbian feminist novels written in the years immediately following Stonewall, such as Lover by Bertha Harris or Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, can be said to anticipate the terms of later queer theory. Nuria Perpinya, a Catalan literary theorist, wrote A good mistake, a novel about the awkward homosexuality in a London genetic engineering lab, between a young man and a black scientist.
In film, the genre christened by B. Ruby Rich as New Queer Cinema in 1992 continues, as Queer Cinema, to draw heavily on the prevailing critical climate of queer theory; a good early example of this is the Jean Genet-inspired movie Poison by the director Todd Haynes. In fan fiction, the genre known as slash fiction rewrites straight or nonsexual relationships to be gay, bisexual, and queer in a sort of campy cultural appropriation. Ann Herendeen's Pride/Prejudice, for example, narrates a steamy affair between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, the mutually devoted heroes of Jane Austen's much-adapted novel. And in music, some Queercore groups and zines could be said to reflect the values of queer theory.
Queer theorists analyze texts and challenge the cultural notions of "straight" ideology; that is, does "straight" imply heterosexuality as normal or is everyone potentially gay? As Ryan states: "It is only the laborious imprinting of heterosexual norms that cuts away those potentials and manufactures heterosexuality as the dominant sexual format." For example, Hollywood pursues the "straight" theme as being the dominant theme to outline what masculine is. This is particularly noticeable in gangster films, action films and westerns, which never have "weak" (read: homosexual) men playing the heroes, with the recent exception of the film Brokeback Mountain. Queer theory looks at destabilizing and shifting the boundaries of these cultural constructions.
New Media artists have a long history of queer theory inspired works, including cyberfeminism works, porn films like I.K.U. which feature transgender cyborg hunters and "Sharing is Sexy", an "open source porn laboratory", using social software, creative commons licensing and netporn to explore queer sexualities beyond the male/female binary.
Social media and queer in the digital age
With the coming of digital age, social media is a new platform for the queer individuals to present and express themselves. The advent of social media is meaningful not only for the whole development of queer theory, but also significant for empowering queer people and helping them become the dominant role from a passive status.
First, social media offers people a platform to tell their own stories. From that perspective, using social media encourages the queer equality, because everyone has the equal right to tell the personal stories sharing it with others if they want to.
Second, social media creates a concept of "queer community"; for example, Facebook literally puts a human face on the LGBT civil rights movement. When another user shares photos of that and their friends "likes" those posts, the sharer’s entire network of friends now knows that someone who is supporting the LGBT and potentially a queer person. This network effect breaks down barriers between queer people and those who might be enlisted as allies, or at the very least, as friends. As the number of queer people who are active online is increasing, they have built the "queer community" on the Internet and keep in touch through social media. In the "queer community", people share information and talk about policies relevant to their lives.
Third, social media enables queer people to handle the dominant rights of advocacy and propaganda. "Social media encourages people to create their own editorial, which then allows others in their network to participate in this dynamic conversation. The more that you talk about an issue like same-sex marriage, the more that it’s in the public domain and discourse, and the more that people outside of your own social circles will be exposed to opinions different from their own."
Fourth, social media is also an important factor to promote the civil rights movement, because it offers a diversity of channels to mobilize the society. "Well-coordinated social media campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing diverse groups of LGBT supporters. Equality California, for example, uses different social media channels to engage different audiences. The organization uses Twitter for live updates from events such as bill hearings or marches. Facebook acts as more of a community hub where supporters can engage with Equality California directly, and allows the organization to target specific information to specific geographic regions. YouTube is often underutilized by nonprofits and is frequently viewed solely as a repository for videos about the organization. But Equality California has also found that YouTube can be a great way to tell personal stories of people affected by the work the organization does."
Fifth, social media is not only meaningful for the queer development in the moment, but also effecting on generations, in other words, having impacts on the future. Most people arrive at this position from their personal experiences with others around them. Therefore, what the hallmarks of a society could give to children is a determination to what the future’s ideology could be.
Sixth, social media serves as a more accessible platform to people outside of academia. Information is reiterated in simpler language and/or theories are supplemented by real-world applications and personal anecdotes.
Typically, critics of queer theory are concerned that the approach obscures or glosses altogether the material conditions that underpin discourse. Tim Edwards argues that queer theory extrapolates too broadly from textual analysis in undertaking an examination of the social. Adam Green argues that queer theory ignores the social and institutional conditions within which lesbians and gays live. For example, queer theory dismantles social contingency in some cases (homosexual subject positions) while recuperating social contingency in others (racialized subject positions). Thus, not all queer theoretical work is as faithful to its deconstructionist roots. Reflecting on this issue, Timothy Laurie suggests that "the desire to resist norms in some contemporary queer scholarship can never be entirely reconciled with an equally important challenge, that of producing both adequate and dynamic descriptions of ordinary events".
Queer theory's commitment to deconstruction makes it nearly impossible to speak of a "lesbian" or "gay" subject, since all social categories are denaturalized and reduced to discourse. Thus, queer theory cannot be a framework for examining selves or subjectivities—including those that accrue by race and class—but rather, must restrict its analytic focus to discourse. Hence, sociology and queer theory are regarded as methodologically and epistemologically incommensurable frameworks by critics such as Adam Isaiah Green. Thus Green writes that, in an introductory section, Michael Warner (1990s) draws out the possibility of queer theory as a kind of critical intervention in social theory (radical deconstructionism); despite this, he weaves back and forth between the reification and deconstruction of sexual identity. Green argues that Warner begins the volume by invoking an ethnic identity politics, solidified around a specific social cleavage and a discussion of the importance of deconstructing notions of lesbian and gay identities; but, despite its radical deconstructionism, it constructs the queer subject or self in largely conventional terms: as lesbian and gay people bound by homophobic institutions and practices.
So, one of the leading volumes of queer theory engages the subject via conventional sociological epistemologies that conceive of subject positions constituted through systems of stratification and organized around shared experience and identity.
In other way, for Ian Barnard, any consideration of sexuality must include inextricability with racialized subjectivities. Adam Green argues that Barnard implicitly rejects the queer theoretical conceptions of sexuality on the grounds that such work fails to account for particularity of racialized sexualities. He reasons that the failure arises because queer theorists are themselves white, and therefore operate from the particularity of a white racial standpoint. Barnard aspires to recuperate an analysis of race in queer theory, proposing that the deconstructionist epistemology of queer theory can be used to decompose a white queerness (first) in order to recover a racialized queerness (second). Thus, Adam Green argues that Barnard’s attempt to bring social contingency into queer theory violates the core epistemological premise of queer theory; in fact, by proposing that queer theory capture racialized subject positions, Barnard reinstates what it means to be a person of colour. His critique of the white subject position of queer theorists is itself a testimony to the stability of the social order and the power of social categories to mark a particular kind of experience, of subjectivity and, in turn, of queer author. He backs down the road of a decidedly sociological analysis of subject position and the self. Finally, Jagose Green observes that Jagose aims toward an analysis of social cleavages, including those accruing by race and ethnicity. Thus, on the one, Jagose underscores the strong deconstructionist epistemological premise of the term queer and queer theory more generally. Yet, she goes on to analyze identities and sexualities "inflected by heterosexuality, race, gender and ethnicity". Thus Adam Green states that by advocating the incorporation of social contingency in this way, Jagose offers neither the critical edge of queer theory nor the clarity of standpoint theory. However, on the topic of race, Jagose asserted that for a black lesbian, the thing of utmost importance is her lesbianism, rather than her race. Many gays and lesbians of color attacked this approach, accusing it of re-inscribing an essentially white identity into the heart of gay or lesbian identity (Jagose, 1996).
The criticism of queer theory can be divided in three main ideas:
- It has a failing itineration, the "subjectless critique" of queer studies
- The unsustainable analysis of this failing self
- The methodological implication that scholars of sexuality end up reiterating and consolidating social categories
Foucault's account of the modern construction of the homosexual, a starting point for much work in queer theory, is itself challenged by Rictor Norton, using the Molly House as one counter-example of a distinctly homosexual subculture before 1836. He critiques the idea that people distinctly identifying in ways now associated with being gay did not exist before the medical construction of homosexual pathology in his book The Myth of the Modern Homosexual.
Queer theory underestimates the Foucauldian insight that power produces not just constraint, but also, pleasure, according to Barry Adam (2000) and Adam Isaiah Green (2010). Adam suggests that sexual identity categories, such as "gay", can have the effect of expanding the horizon of what is imaginable in a same-sex relationship, including a richer sense of the possibilities of same-sex love and dyadic commitment. And Green argues that queer is itself an identity category that some self-identified "queer theorists" and "queer activists" use to consolidate a subject-position outside of the normalizing regimes of gender and sexuality. These examples call into question the degree to which identity categories need be thought of as negative, in the evaluative sense of that term, as they underscore the self-determining potentials of the care of the self – an idea advanced first by Foucault in Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality.
The role of queer theory, and specifically its replacement of historical and sociological scholarship on lesbian and gay people's lives with the theorising of lesbian and gay issues, and the displacement of gay and lesbian studies by gender and queer studies, has been criticised by activist and writer Larry Kramer. Kramer reports on a retrograde book by Richard Godbeer, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Miami, called The Overflowing of Friendship. Kramer criticizes Godbeer’s account of 18th century Colonial times. Kramer writes, "Godbeer is hell-bent on convincing us that two men in Colonial America could have exceedingly obsessive and passionate relationships (he called them, variously, 'sentimental,' 'loving,' 'romantic') . . . [men would] spend many a night in bed together talking their hearts out, without the issue of sex arising in any way." Kramer does not agree with this theory and believes that the notion the same-sex sexual relationships and experiences existed.
Another criticism is that queer theory, in part because it typically has recourse to a very technical jargon, is written by a narrow elite for that narrow elite. It is therefore class biased and also, in practice, only really known and referenced at universities and colleges (Malinowitz, 1993).
An initial criticism on queer theory is that precisely "queer" does not refer to any specific sexual status or gender object choice. For example, Halperin (1995) allows that straight persons may be "queer," which some believe, robs gays and lesbians of the distinctiveness of what causes them to be marginalized. It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity (Jagose, 1996).
Humanities scholar Camille Paglia—while not objecting to the study of homosexuality, bisexuality, or other queer subjects per se—has been harshly critical of queer theory's post-structuralist roots, which she regards as generally unscholarly. She has described prominent queer theorists as "flimflamming freeloaders."
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