SOLUTION: California State University Long Beach Race Gender and Class Questions

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Q U ALITAT IVE STU D IES IN ED UCATIO N , 1999, V OL. 12, N O . 5, 457± 472
Queer theory : under construction
U niversity of California at Irvine, CA 92697-5500, U SA
This article ou tlines how the con cepts of queer an d queer theory have been app lied to qualitative
studies. The m ultiple de® nition s of queer are exam ined, to foster an u nderstanding of th e p osition s
from which theorists have utilized the concept to exam ine a number of disciplines. The
ad van cement of th e tenets of queer theory is outlined chron ologica lly, to display the evolu tion of th e
theory throu gh in trad isciplinary ap plication s. The bod y of q ualitative works utilizing qu eer
theory is categorized (lan guage, literatu re, and arts ; history ; life histories} life storie s ; an d qu eer
theory as praxis) an d juxtap osed. In addition , e Œorts to de® n e an d enact a ` ` queer pedagogy ’ ’ are
an alyzed. Sugge stion s for further application of queer theory in education , ethnograp hy, an d
qualitative studies conclu de the artic le.
I anticipate that ou t of the man y questions a reader of this issue migh t have, the three
most com mon are : W hat is queer theory ? For that matter, what’ s queer ? And do I have
to be queer to practice queer theory ? In this essay, I attempt to answer those question s,
althou gh I am certain the an swers will be neither as de® nite as som e migh t wan t, nor
as simple or clear as I wish they would be. The state of queer and queer theory, ever the
post-postmod ern concepts, is as elusive to nail dow n as mercury. L ike that element, we
can contain queer theory, an d it will ® ll ± even over¯ ow ± our container ; we can use it
as a gauge (or guide) to the climate of lives an d experiences.
I oŒer this article as a thermom eter for the body of queer research, a road map for
the new queer state. To begin , I brie¯ y review de® nition s an d uses of the concept of
queer, an d follow that with a length ier review of what queer theory is, is not, an d still
might be. Next, I ou tline queer theory as it has been utilized in qualitative research.
M ost of this research has been outside the dom ain s of education, in the humanities,
althou gh several of the philosop hical works might make it into an od d education course
or two. In that section , I also brie¯ y examine queer theory as praxis, an d note its
con nection s to oth er emancipatory an d liberationist theories. I then conclude with ideas
for future applications of queer theory and research.
W hat is queer ?
The ¯ exibility of the E nglish langu age, com pounded by acad emics’ transformation of
gen eral words into jargon , necessitates a few de® nitions. Q ueer can be an ad jective, a
nou n, or a verb. In gen eral use, it is most com mon ly an adjective, meaning ` ` not
norm al, ’ ’ or, more speci® cally, not heterosexual. The word has a negative con notation ,
particularly in school settings (D ’ Augelli, 1989a, 1989b ; D’ Augelli an d R ose, 1990 ;
Herdt an d Boxer, 1993 ; Rhoad s, 1994 ; Chandler, 1995 ; Due, 1995 ; O’ Connor, 1995).
Queer, as op erationally de® ned by Doty (1993), ` ` is a quality related to an y expression
that can be marked as contra-, non -, or an ti-straight ’ ’ (p. xv), which serves not to
identify people as much as form s of com munication , and the positions that inform that
exp ression. W ithin the past decad e, how ever, the adjective has been used in increasing
frequency as a substitute for gay and lesbian, an d to include others whose sexuality an d } or
International J ournal of Qualitativ e Studies in E ducation ISSN 0951-8398 print} ISSN 1366-5898 online ’
1999 Taylor & Francis L td
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patrick dilley
gen der places them ou tside of society’ s idea of ` ` norm al : ’ ’ bisexuals an d transgendered
people (W arner, 1993 ; Rhoad s, 1994 ; Penn, 1995).
But queer has developed a meaning beyon d its use as inclusive categorization ; as a
nou n, the word can be used to refer to on e included in the margin alized group : a queer.
Often there is a political ideology or intent when this word is used, based in part on a
decision to confron t what is experienced as discrimination and to com mit to a collective
identity based on being margin alized because of one’ s sexuality, rather than simply
identi® cation becau se of on e’ s gender an d the object of one’ s aŒection (R hoad s, 1994,
1997 ; Jogose, 1996). In a sense, such a de® nition of queer is not ab ou t a lack of
som ething (a lack of heterosexuality) (Hocq uengh em, 1978), but a presence of
som ething : a desire for sam e-sex exp eriences, a position ou tside of the norm al trop e of
daily life that aŒord s perspectives ap art from the norm . It is a term that by its very use
question s ` ` con vention al understandings of sexual identity by deconstructing the
categories, opposition s and equation s that sustain them ’ ’ ( Jagose , 1996, p. 97). As
Honeychurch (1996) summarizes, ` ` It is perhaps in the more exp an sive term ’ queer’
that the most possibilities emerge for denom inatin g and declaring a range of diŒerences
and position s arising from the gam ut of sexual diversities’ ’ (p. 341).
Ettinger (1992) views these transform ation s as ` ` discursive strategies that reject an d
transform the categories produced by a hostile and hegemonic heterosexual discou rse ’ ’
(p. 53). Indeed, Abelove’ s (1995) description s of his queer students show the eŒects,
intention al or not, of postmodern re¯ ection upon positionality and the pow er of nam ing
by man y of today’ s non -heterosexual students: ` [Q]ueer students think that there is not
and cannot be such a thing as authenticity, an d that there certainly is not and can not
be such a thing as an ` ` au thentic lesbian sexuality ’ ’ ’ (Abelove, 1995, p. 52).
Furthermore, over the past two decades students not identifying as straight have
exp erienced lives that diŒer in varyin g degrees from those of their predecessors, and the
result is that while not being straight might not be a terri® c experience for many of them,
such lives and experiences are no longer con sidered entirely abnorm al, or without
precedence. W hether the result of better research and writing abou t grow ing up nonheterosexu al or a solipsism of Generation X, tod ay’ s non -heterosexual students have
found the transform ation of queer from adjective to noun empow ering (Esco er an d
Berube, 1991).
[Queer undergrads] do not typ ically exp erience their ow n subjectivity as
marginal, even at those mom ents when they feel most op pressed by hom ophob ic
and heterosexist discourses and institutions. M argin alization isn’ t their preferred
trope. It doesn’ t seem to them to be cogent as a narrative device for organ izing the
telling of their ow n lives, or, for that matter, of their history. W hat these queers
prefer to say and believe or try to believe instead is that they are both present an d
at the center. (Abelove, 1995, p. 48)
Such a transition from the margin s of con cept and study to the center creates a queered
position for re¯ ection, exp ression, an d action . From that position, analysts chan ge queer
into a verb. In academic circles, to queer som ething is to analyze a situation or a text
to determine the relationship between sexuality, pow er, gen der, and con ceptions of
norm al an d devian t, insider an d ou tsider. As Honeychurch (1996) observes :
A queered position requires an on tological shift comprehensively resistant in its
exceptions to dom inant norm ativity. A queering of stan dpoin t in social research
is a vigoro us challen ge to that which has constrained what may be know n, who
may be the know er, and how kn ow ledge has com e to be generated an d circulated,
queer theory : under construct ion
[an d] queers participate in position ing themselves throu gh both authorin g an d
authorizing experience. (p. 342)
These an alysts in queered positions developed queer theory.
W hat is queer theory ?
To understand} imagin e queer theory, on e must make distinction s between queer as a
quality (essentialism) and queer as an attribute (constructionism). The form er posits
sexual orientation (not necessarily identity) as immutable and unchanged across time
and culture : peop le did ± an d do ± desire and have sexu al relations with others of the
sam e gender. The latter de® nes ` ` sexuality as a prod uct of social relations and thereby
suggests the history of sexuality to be ’ the history of the subject whose meaning an d
con tent are in a continual process of change’ ’ ’ (Penn, 1995, p. 26). The construction of
those meanings and contents, along with the pow er and concurrent identi® cation of an d
with them, is at the heart of queer theory (Britzman, 1995, 1997 ; Seidman, 1995 ; Slagle,
The most conspicuous strain of queer theory draws heavily on French poststructural
theory an d the critical method of decon struction (Seidman, 1995 ; Slagle, 1995).
D econstruction , simply stated, is a social analysis of who, why, and what prod uced a
text ; an analysis of what is said ± an d unsaid ± through the lan guage, form , structure,
and style of a text (a written work, a ® lm, art). Queer theory enlarges that de® nition of
text to include any form (s) of com munication utilized to con vey an understanding of
one’ s world ; it cou ld be a book or a ® lm, ob viously, but a text could also be a
con versation , a life story, a memory, sexual activity, history, a gath ering place, or a
social trend.
Queer theory supposes a position if not within the margin alized then at least outside
of the margin s of ` ` norm ality ’ ’ (Britzman , 1995). This new position creates new ways of
lookin g, new parad igm s of analyzing, an d new method s of representing queer data.
A queered position insists not only on the partiality of exclusion ary heterosexual
assertions, but also on the necessity of recognizing the admittedly equally partial
yet productive diŒerences of queered presence. (Honeychurch, 1996, p. 343)
It represents a change from how an d why the exp eriences of non -heterosexual people
are studied, a ` ` shifting theory aw ay from its present grounding in identity concepts to
a cultural or epistemological centering ’ ’ (Seidman , 1995, p. 130). E ven the very
language used to conceptualize an d to relay our though ts an d inquiries is question ed :
Queer theory migh t better remind us that we are inhab ited always by states of
desire that exceed our capacity to nam e them. Every name only gives those desires
± con¯ ictual, contradictory, incon sistent, unde® ned ± a ® ctive border ¼
(Edelman , 1995, p. 345)
It is not a question of ` ` w ho is queer, ’ ’ but ` ` how is queer ; ’ ’ now so much ` ` why are they
queer, ’ ’ but ` ` why are we saying they are queer ? ’ ’ The key to answering those question s
is through exam ining the binarism of hom osexu ality and heterosexuality, in response
` ` to the dam aged lives and suŒering engen dered by a com pulsively heterosexual
society ’ ’ (Seidman , 1995, p. 134). M uch as M arxist theorists utilize the opposition of
bou rgeois and proletariat as a master category for social analysis, and as feminists do
with masculine an d feminine, ` ` queer analysts claim for the hetero } hom o binary the
status of a master category of social analysis ’ ’ (Seidman , 1995, p. 132). In som e ways,
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queer theory is a logical extension of ontological philosophy. If modernism an d
empiricism are abou t objectively researching an d reporting what we see } know , an d
postmodernism and constructivism are abou t investigating an d reporting how the
position s between researcher, researched, and research construct what we see} kn ow ,
queer theory is about how both the know ledge (fou nd and prod uced) an d the positions
(also both found and produced) create a new body of know ledge, a delimitation of the
space between position and product, investigator an d investigation . Queer theory
inverts the notion of ou tsider givin g voice to the insider as well as the notion of insider
inform ation being untou ched by ou tsider inform ation.
Postmodern con structionism serves as the ob viou s structural fram ework of queer
theory. As the queer undergrad s in Abelove’ s courses demonstrate, sexu ality is
important, and serves as a focal poin t ; while it is not the only dimension of human
exp erience that de® ne queers, sexuality does inform all oth ers.
Sexual orientations are not a private matter that impacts on ly personal sexu al
practices, but are dimension s of subjectivity that infuse all human experience,
including higher cogn itive function s; are imbricated in that sexuality, gender,
class, etc. ; are layered an d interimplicated and therefore can not be read
monolithically ; and are viewed as identities coh erent enou gh to be recognized,
but ¯ uid enough to be interrogated. (Hon eychurch, 1996, p. 345)
N ot every study of gay lives is queer, or bene® ts from queer theory. Indeed, in many
ways, queer theory contrad icts traditional studies that do not question the very
fram ework of the investigation . The shift in viewpoin t necessitates a shift in sensibility,
style, tone, values, and commitments. Britzman (1997) argu es again st exam ination of
gay lives as overly simplistic; the questions should regard why, how , and who
determines that those lives are queer : ` ` The study of why gay rights are so di cult to
ach ieve requires not a look into the lives of gays and lesbians but into the questions an d
con ditions of why sexu ality must be regulated, outlaw ed, an d fought for ’ ’ (1997, p. 36).
D uggan posits that queer theorists critique three elements of research an d representation : (a) human ist progressive narratives of gay identities and gay liberation
again st repressive forces ; (b) empiricist method s claim ing to present ` ` reality ’ ’ through
simple an d ob jective events, dates, an d motives ; an d (c) ` ` stable, unitary, or ’ authentic’
identity categories ’ ’ (Duggan , 1995a, p. 181). Indeed, Seidman believes :
Queer theory is less a matter of explaining the repression or expression of a
hom osexu al minority than an an alysis of the hetero } hom osexual ® gure as a
pow er} know ledge regim e that shap es the ordering of desires, behaviors, and social
institution s, an d social relation s ± in a word , the constitution of the self an d societ.
(Seidman , 1995, p. 128)
Queer theory is not easily understood partly becau se it challenges basic tropes used to
organ ize ou r society and our lan guage : even words are gendered, an d through that
gen dering an elliptical view of the hierarchy of society, and presumption of what is male
and what is female, shines through. Queer theory rejects such binary distinctions as
arbitrarily determined an d de® ned by those with social pow er. As Edelman’ s earlier
quote hints, if all of these con cepts are constructed out of whole cloth, it becomes di cult
to explain what queer is if it is not in op position to straight ± or even to gay. Duggan
(1995b ) relates a funny story of a fact-checker for Rolling Stone trying to ascertain from
literary critic and queer theorist Eve Sedgw ick whether Sedgw ick is straight or gay. The
fact-checker dogs Sedgw ick with question s sch as, ` ` Are you straight ? If you ’ re not
queer theory : under construct ion
straight, you must be gay ? But if you’ re married, you ’ re straight, righ t ? ’ ’ Sedgw ick
sidesteps answering throu gh a series of Socratic responses: ` ` D id I say I was straight ?
D id I say I was gay ? Did I say I was married ? In som e ways, I might be con sidered
queer. ’ ’
The fact-checker’ s question s were based in the essentialist langu age of facts, of
cou rse, while Sedgw ick was respon ding from a very consciou sly constructed position. If
queer is so troublesom e to use as a word that mean s som ething personally an d can be
easily understood by the public, it is even more di cult to explain in plain language
what queer theory is. This problem is but on e exam ple ` ` to illustrate the di culty of
com munication across the gap between the predom inantly con struction ist language of
queer studies an d the essentialist presumptions of public discourse ’ ’ (D uggan , 1995b , p.
Queer theory, then, com es from queered perspectives of the researcher and the
researched. The sexual dimensions of a subject become the central site of investigation,
primarily in juxtaposin g the queer to the norm . This position ing represents a chan ge
both in the interests of researchers an d theorists, and in those ab out whose lives we
report. In Abelove’ s estimation, queer students desire a shift in the lens of study of nonheterosexu al lives :
[F]ocus not on the margin s, but on wh at was ` ` queer ’ ’ in the center, such as
musicals, or com edies, or ® lms by or with hom osexual (or bisexual) creators.
` ` W hat could be queerer ? ¼ All these cultural productions were central rather
than marginal. By ignorin g or neglecting them, we misconceive the past an d
unwittingly reduce our presence in and claim to the present, ’ ’ they say. (Abelove,
1995, p. 49)
Such actions and ideas go again st much of what is thought, an d believed, in both the
academic an d the lay worlds ± and in doing so call into question the very concepts of
those thoughts an d beliefs (Penn, 1995 ; Seidman , 1995 ; Honeychurch, 1996). W ho is
makin g the claim } determination of what is norm al an d what is queer ? W hat are his
agendas ? W hat are her politics? The text (broad ly de® ned, in social sciences, as
analyses, theories, identities, an d discourses) is our source of know ledge but, like that
text, know ledge is con structed by con structed peop le. In questioning such conventional
wisdom both gay an d straight, queer theory is all the queerer for its subjects and its
subjectivities. As Britzman states :
Queer Theory sign i® es improper subjects and improp er theories, even as it
question s the very grounds of identity and theory. Queer Theory occupies a
di cult space between the signi® er and the sign i® ed, where som ething queer
hap pens to the signi® ed ± to history an d to bod ies ± an d something queer hap pens
to the sign i® er ± to language and to representation . (1995, p. 153)
In man y respects, queer theory might oŒer the most qualitative of methodologies for
collecting and analyzing data. As it questions, even de® es, notion s of objectivity an d the
essentiality of fact, queer theory op ens more ` ` texts ’ ’ for study, and more bod ies of
know ledge to com pile, com pare, and evaluate. ` ` [I]t mob ilizes a rad ically wide range of
know ledge ± modes of understanding from science to gossip ± to reconstitute information abou t queerness, thus transforming the range of reference ’ queer’ has by
multiplying its speci® cations’ ’ (Berlant and Freedman, 1992, p. 153). Again , the
¯ exib ility ove r¯ ow s the delimitation s of word s to contain what queer theory could be.
Queer theory is not simply about the studying of people whose sex lives are not
patrick dilley
heterosexu al, or even the positionalities of those peop le ; at its core, it is about
question ing the presumptions, values, an d viewpoints from those positions (margin al
and central), especially those that norm ally go unquestion ed. Queer theory is in part
abou t opening and reclaiming spaces, both public an d private (Berlant an d Freeman,
1992 ; cf. Chau ncey, 1994 ; Bredbeck, 1995 ; E delman, 1995). It ` ` oŒers methods of
critiques to mark the repetitions of norm alcy as a structure an d as a pedagogy ’ ’
(Britzman , 1995, …
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