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date: 02 March 2021


  • Octavio GonzálezOctavio GonzálezWellesley College Department of English
  •  and Todd G. NordgrenTodd G. NordgrenDickinson College


The definitional limits of the term queer have been under conceptual, political, and ethical dispute since its reclamation from its pejorative meaning during the early AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reflecting activist recuperation, queer became a means to inspire and propel a coalitional politics oriented toward nonconformity and anti-normativity among diverse sexualities and across divisions of gender. Concomitantly, queer theory arose in academia as a way to expand upon and break what some scholars saw as the restrictive disciplinary boundaries of gay and lesbian studies, which were explicitly grounded in post–Stonewall identity politics. The term’s radical potential derives in part from its grammatical fluidity, as it operates as noun, adjective, and verb—combining action, identification, and effect into a single word. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, queer of color critique drew upon a different genealogy, beyond the postmodern rupture inaugurated by Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality and “biopower,” by foregrounding black and women of color feminisms, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies in order to analyze the intersections of race, nationality, coloniality, class, sex, and gender with a Foucauldian understanding of sexuality as a privileged mode of modern power– knowledge. Queer of color critique inspired and was mirrored in investigations of the analytic boundaries of the term, often defined as a binary distinction between a minoritizing and universalizing definition of queer.


Since the late 1980s, the term queer has had a starring role in the development of postmodern, anti-essentialist literary and cultural theory in the wake of the first volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. A poststructuralist French philosopher and historian of ideas, Foucault famously titled Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality as The Will to Knowledge (La Volonté de savoir). Foucault’s History of Sexuality reconceptualized the nebulous realm of “sexuality” as constituted by a vast range of discourses and practices, collectively understood as a central node of modern power. For Foucault, sexuality became a dimension of modern institutions and discourses exercising subtle and not-so-subtle extensions of “power–knowledge,” or official modes of governing behavior, regulating bodies, and controlling populations sanctioned by the state and other powerful social institutions, such as the church, the military, the medical establishment, and the educational system. Foucault published La Volonté de savoir in 1976 (first English translation in 1978) in the midst of a resurgence of sexual revolution and gay liberation in the Western world. Foucault’s intervention cast a long shadow on the liberatory potential of organized eroticism. “One must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power,” he famously warned in this polemical book. Foucault’s caution against the premise of sexual liberation seems paradoxical, if not perverse, for a gay thinker. But it was a decisive epistemological break with what he termed the “repressive hypothesis,” or the Freudian paradigm that civilization suppresses human instincts—the sexual drive chief among them—to contain the dangerous excesses of primal human desires and behaviors. Rather than a monstrous “id” controlled by the social “superego,” as Freud saw it, Foucault saw administratively mediated socialization as the very process of producing (and governing) sexuality as a consistent “experience” in the modern Western consciousness.

Foucault thus shattered a radical sixties cultural logic, premised on the value of sexual liberalization, including the expansion of the modern gay liberation movement (ushered in by the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion) and the broader sexual revolution (ushered in by the legal sanction of the birth control pill in 1960). Both cultural developments were premised on the personal and political value of saying “yes” to sex, and subtended by social breakthroughs such as the mass availability of the birth control pill and the de-psychopathologizing of homosexuality. Foucault’s intervention thus upends the logic of sexual liberation, arguing that increased attention to sexuality in the form of categorization, representation, and recognition derives from the operations of power on sexual subjects. His influence has been vast, even beyond the realm of queer critique.

As critical attention to the study of sexuality developed from these myriad sources, both inside and outside the academy, so too has feminist theory and activism from a range of traditions also articulated questions of sexual knowledge that extend beyond critiques of patriarchy. Radical lesbians and black feminists alike have theorized the power of the erotic, which Audre Lourde describes as a source of “power” and “deep . . . nonrational knowledge” in her 1978 “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”1 Likewise, queer theory does not simply consider gender, sex, and sexuality neatly fused together, taking seriously Gayle Rubin’s call in her vastly influential 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” that “the time has come to think about sex.”2 Advocating for the distinction from feminist studies of a critical theorizing of sexuality, Rubin’s work predates the development of queer theory but advanced new conceptions of sexuality that would refocus studies of subjectivity through the lens of sexuality. But it took two major books by feminist thinkers (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) and a special issue of Differences in 1991, which saw Teresa de Lauretis coin the term “queer theory” in her introduction, to activate the complex range of critical, scholarly, and activist interventions grouped under the umbrella of Queer Theory and Queer Studies.3 As de Lauretis explained, if the term queer can represent both a rejection of community and identity as well as its opposite, it holds a potential to be “another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual.”4

Of course, before queer was a critical term and theoretical concept, it was a slur. The militant activist organization Queer Nation enacted a reclamation of the word self-consciously, reforging the term’s destiny. Founded in 1990, Queer Nation was inspired by the radical direct-action protest collective ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The term’s remarkable political rehabilitation warrants its inclusion in this Encyclopedia: by contrast, you will not find any other homophobic epithets (such as the F-word). As such, queer was recuperated intentionally. As Susan Stryker writes, “A signal accomplishment of [Queer Nation] was to reclaim a set of positive associations for an old epithet.”5 The Queer Nation manifesto, entitled “Queers Read This!/I Hate Straights!,” makes clear this investment in recognizing the traumatic resonances of the term, out of which could be forged a new politics: “Queer can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe's hands and use against him,” causing “trouble” while also remaining “strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious.”6

Stryker highlights the universalizing scope of the label: “‘queer’ became an important concept both socially and intellectually, helping to broaden what had been primarily a gay and lesbian social movement into one that was more inclusive of bisexual and transgender people. Rather than denote a particular genre of sexual identity, “‘queer’ came to represent any number of positions arrayed in opposition to oppressive social and cultural norms and policies related to sexuality and gender.”7 As Michael Warner explained in his introduction to the 1993 Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, this new conception of queer denotes both “an aggressive impulse of generalization” and “thorough resistance to regimes of the normal,” the latter of which produced a line of critique against “heteronormativity.”8 Even after the demise of Queer Nation—it lasted only two years—queer has retained a critical edge and a generalizing scope, a handy and capacious rhetorical umbrella covering the ever-expanding alphabet soup of nonbinary gender and minoritized sexual identities. It is this ambidextrous capacity, and the oppositional edge of its activist origin, that has helped queer remain a key critical term for the burgeoning academic field that arose at the same time as, and was doubtless inspired by, Queer Nation: queer theory. The evolution of queer from epithet to activist concept to theoretical paradigm is the focus of this article. But, given the rapidly expanding archive of all things queer, this article outlines the scholarly circulation of this signifier of postmodern sexual and gender nonconformity.

Butler casts analytical doubt on the very “aggressive impulse of generalization” Warner had celebrated. By eliding the unwieldy and ever-extending initialism (LGBTQIAA+), queer invokes an abstract collective subject, unmarked by salient social differences such as race, class, gender, generation, and, indeed, nationality.9 Butler cautions that, “[a]s expansive as the term ‘queer’ is meant to be, it is used in ways that enforce a set of overlapping divisions.”10 To avoid the term’s deployment such that it ignores the intersectional realities shared by myriad gender and sexual minorities, the term must be deployed strategically, intentionally, thereby answering to these elisions.

Indeed, to reach its utopian radical potential, queer functions as a performative utterance rather than a merely constative form of reference. The term’s unique potential lies in its complex genealogy and conceptual non-specificity. So, queer acts more than as a noun; it is a verb: to queer means to gesture toward a social horizon of possibility that includes the alphabet soup—but also includes the letter of every other identity or category. Queer denotes more ways and forms of social dissidence than those most clearly yoked to sexuality and gender. Accepting the radically general, oppositional, and utopian definition of queer promises that the term will remain usable for manifold subjects and collectivities yet conceived; as Butler proposes, “The term 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.”11 Furthermore, as queer retains this aggressively general impulse, as well as its critical edge, it also remains mired in its past uses, including its deployment as rhetorical injury, from which the term arose. As Sedgwick writes, “given the historical and contemporary force of the prohibitions against every same-sex sexual expression, for anyone to disavow those meanings [of the term queer] or to displace them from the term’s definitional center, would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself.”12 Sedgwick then suggests, paradoxically, that queer must not be reified as other “objective, empirical categories” such as gay and lesbian.13 Sedgwick thus argues paradoxically for a general but non-universal description of queer, due to its linguistic status as a performative utterance rather than a constative signifier. She claims that queer “seems to hinge much more radically and explicitly on a person’s undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation.”14 Indeed, she adds, “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person,” with the corollary that “what it takes—all it takes—to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person.”15 In other words, those who hurl the slur retain its power to hurt; those who identify with the term deploy it performatively, to index a particular, self-grounding “experiment” in “self-perception and filiation.”

Annamarie Jagose describes, in her 1996 Queer Theory: An Introduction, that queer functions both as “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications” and as a term attached to theories that “developed out of more traditional lesbian and gay studies.”16 This balance between the additive model of identities and a definition that operates to undermine the concept of identity itself reflects ongoing efforts to reconcile the way queer theory combines the legacies of particular subject positions and impulses to disrupt and deconstruct subjectivity. These impulses extend to other markers of identity, revealing how sexuality shapes and is shaped by the categories of race, class, gender, nationality, and other aspects of the social order. And, although not central to their essays, both “Queer and Now” and “Critically Queer” foreshadow the (re-)turn to intersectionality that arose in the late 1990s under the rubric of queer of color critique.

Queer of Color Critique

Queer of color critique arose from two overlapping contexts. On one hand, the 1990s was a period of reactionary oppressions that brought increased criminalization of racial, national, and ethnic minorities. Queer of color critique also grew out of efforts to articulate a diverse range of responses to the limitations of the use of the term queer inside and outside the academy in order to imagine new methods of queer critique that account for intersections of sex, gender, and sexuality with race, ethnicity, and class. Queer of color critique has its aesthetic, representational, and political origins in women of color feminisms and anti-racist theory, drawing upon knowledges of non-white and non-Western queer subjects in the United States and abroad. Embracing the Combahee River Collective Statement’s investment in the “development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” queer of color critique both resists provincializing of categories of identity and actively produces what is known as “intersectional” analysis.17 As Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Morraga describe in This Bridge Called My Back, claims to universalizing categories such as “woman” erase the lived experience of those who are not white women. Queer of color critique developed from this history of lesbian, women of color, transgender, and Third World feminism.

In its most direct articulation, queer of color critique makes apparent the biases inherent to the political and aesthetic definitions, conceptualizations, and representations of queer subjects and experience prior to, during, and after the 1990s. Anzaldúa explains that “queer” has long been presumed to define a white and Western subject position and “is used as a false unifying umbrella which all ‘queers’ of all races, ethnicities, and classes are shored under,” eradicating distinctions of difference along the lines of race, ethnicity, and class in order to promote differences of sexuality, gender, and sex.”18 Anzaldúa recognizes the potential power of such a unifying term for a coalitional politics—“at times we need this umbrella to solidify our ranks against outsiders”—but finds that hegemonic structures continue to infiltrate and undermine that potential, warning that “even when we seek shelter under [the term queer], we might not forget that it homogenizes, erases our differences.”19

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of color’s critique of a then nascent queer theoretical focus on sexuality to the detriment of critiques of racism, sexism, and classism became the grounds for the articulation of a new definition of queer that centers on “interlocking” and overlapping systemic oppressions in the United States. Building on this earlier black feminist and queer of color critique, Cathy Cohen endeavors in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” to transform her frustration with the failure of queer theory’s radical potential through its reproduction of normative ideology into a politics that finds commonalities among the non-normative position of minorities across race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. She, “like other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered activists of color, find[s] the label ‘queer’ fraught with unspoken assumptions which inhibit the radical political potential of this category,” primarily expressed as pervasive racism, misogyny, and classism.20 Unlike other early articulations of queer theory by Sedgwick, Butler, and Warner, Cohen does not advocate for the “deconstruction or abandonment of identity categories,” but rather hopes to “destabiliz[e]” them while also recognizing that particular subject positions cannot be homogenized under the single sign of queer.

Exceeding and destabilizing many of the hegemonic and dominant binaries that define sexuality and gender—heterosexual–homosexual, closeted–out, male–female, masculine–feminine, white–non-white, and culture–nature—queer of color critique also attends to their historical and material specificity. Cohen argues that since, “in many instances, instead of destabilizing the assumed categories and binaries of sexual identity, queer politics has served to reinforce simple dichotomies between heterosexual and everything ‘queer’,” in order to activate queer’s radical potential as a political project requires attention to lived experience of those at the margins of social order.21 Recognizing the difference between marginalized positions also attends to the way in which different sites and techniques of oppression are linked. Cohen, like other people of color in the 1990s, does not use the reclaimed term queer to label herself or her politics, but she does argue that queer holds the radical potential to bring together a coalition that would include her title’s “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens,” reimagining the transformative potential of queer politics that addresses the oppression of working-class men and women of color.

Queer of color critique celebrates this ability to form coalitions and community across minoritarian positions in order to address the various strategies and structures of dominant culture. In Aberrations in Black, Roderick A. Ferguson argues that “queer of color analysis must examine how culture as a site of identification produces such odd bedfellows and how it—as the location of antagonisms—fosters unimagined alliances.”22 Where Cohen looked to open up sexuality studies to the legacies of black feminist intersectional analyses, Ferguson reverses her critical perspective to propose that queer of color critique also can bring the analysis of sexuality and gender to bear on critiques of racial exclusion. Since black people’s marginal position in the United States is also framed as a failure of normative heterosexuality, Ferguson argues that the logic of racial exclusion often mimics that of sexuality, and vice versa. José Esteban Muñoz’s 1999 Disidentifications attends to how minorities negotiate their identity in relationship to majoritarian efforts to oppress them. Since minority subjects fall outside normativity, “disidentification” describes a “mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominate ideology.”23 As a “survival strategy” that “works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously,” disidentification allows queer people of color to work themselves into the cultural mainstream, accepting the codes of the dominant culture while simultaneously subverting them.24 For Muñoz, disidentifying subjects can use this strategy to form queer counter publics resistant to the dominant culture.25

When leveraging queer of color critique to refuse the label queer as an organizing term for its political, representational, or aesthetic project, some thinkers instead extrapolate new terminology, methods, and objects of analysis from their own histories of meaning making. In their Black Queer Studies, E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson collected works from the 2000 Black Queer Studies in the Millennium Conference at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to highlight the range of work committed to “interanimat[ing] both black studies and queer studies.”26 For Johnson and Henderson, the work of black queer studies is specifically framed as “border crossing” that thinks not only across disciplines but also transnationally as it expands queer of color critique beyond the bounds of the United States.27 At once an incitement to bring issues of sexuality, gender, and class to the center of black studies and race to analyses of the categories of sexuality, gender, and sex, black queer studies also extends the intersectional analysis of queer by rejecting the dominance of the term itself.

Johnson’s own essay in Black Queer Studies proposes the term quare as a governing term for “a strategy for reading racial and ethnic sexuality,” drawing on his grandmother’s vernacular pronunciation as a southern black woman to capture both “something or someone who is odd, irregular, or slightly off-kilter” and “something excessive.”28 In adopting the term quare for his queer of color critique, Johnson is unambiguous in his intention to carve out a non-white space for the study sexuality in relation to race, writing that “quare studies is a theory of and for gays and lesbians of color.”29 Where early articulations of queer theory articulated arguments that saw the body, sexuality, gender, and sex as socially produced, “quare studies” understands “the body” not as a vessel onto which sexuality, race, or gender are discursively mapped, but as “the site of trauma” for black people who are racially sexualized in queer’s homogenizing effects.30 Figured as a “pot of gumbo” that brings together “different flavors that make it spicy, hot, unique, and sumptuously brown,” quare resists homogenizing difference while allowing for the construction of communal bonds across racial categories.31 Arguing that early queer theory reproduced dominant ideologies of racism in its conception, Johnson’s quare reimagines a community that aligns along lines of sexuality without doing so to the determent of their racial experience.32

Other authors continue to resist the use of queer to homogenize difference, critiquing its enduring white and Eurocentric conception and explicitly articulating how the neoliberal uptake of homosexuality and the language of pride has erased questions of race, nationality, and ethnicity from visions of what counts as queer. Gayatri Gopinath, David L. Eng, and Fatima El-Tayeb, among others, have articulated new ways of conceiving connection, collectivity, and solidarity that queer the terms of kinship and diaspora. For Gopinath, the defining terms of the diaspora that rely on bloodline, kin, and even race effect a double exile on the queer subject, while “queer diasporic cultural forms work against the violent effacements that produce the fictions of purity that lie at the heart of dominant nationalist and diasporic ideologies.”33 As queer of color critique continues to resist flattening narratives that would turn kind into kin under the guise of the “politics of colorblindness,”34 decades after the first articulations of intersectional analysis by black lesbian feminists, it provides a reminder that race, nationality, class, ethnicity, and gender jostle in different and myriad ways against, within, and in coordination with sexuality.

Minoritizing versus Universalizing Paradigms

As queer of color critique contested the limits of queer analysis as practiced and its reproduction of the exclusionary logics of racism, misogyny, and classism, scholars also were testing the boundaries of queer as a category rooted in particular sexual orientations. From its conception as a discursive field of academic inquiry in the 1990s, ongoing debates around the political, representational, historical, and ontological limits of queer mirrored queer of color critiques of the efficacy, both symbolic and political, of the term queer. Although it does not contain the word queer, Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is understood to be one of the founding texts of queer theory, and it registered a primary concern about the inclusionary or exclusionary boundaries of queer’s definition. Structured, as it is, by its attention to the power of the “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition” in white men, Epistemology of the Closet advances an argument central to the adoption of queer as a unifying term for gay, lesbian, and transgender studies in the academy: the coterminous existence of a “minoritizing view” of homosexuality that views deviant sexuality as residing in “a small, distinct, and relatively fixed homosexual minority” and a “universalizing” view that views homosexuality in relation to a wide range of non-normative subject positions.35

Sedgwick folds this intersection of possibilities into her deployment of the term queer in the opening essay of Tendencies, in which she advances her famous formulation that “queer” denotes “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”36 For Sedgwick, this includes a range of historical and contemporary figures:

pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, leatherfolk, ladies in tuxedos, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transsexuals, aunties, wannabes, lesbian-identified men or lesbians who sleep with men, or . . . people able to relish, learn from, or identify with such.37

Here, Sedgwick’s language mirrors the coalitional potential that Cohen herself would later ascribe to the term queer. While the range of identities, orientations, and subject positions suggest the specificity of the minoritizing view that describes a limited universe of categorizable deviants, Sedgwick’s expansive conclusion to her list represents a sweeping universalist gesture. Furthermore, Sedgwick makes clear that scholars advancing a queer of color critique inspired her definition, and her theorization of the non-/anti-normative as the non-/anti-monolithic embraces intersectional analyses that understand queer “along dimensions that can’t be subsumed under gender or sexuality at all: the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with these and other identity-constituting, identity fracturing discourses.”38 Sedgwick thus also posits that the definition of queer is an ever-expanding horizon that resists categorization in the hands of theorists and activists.39 Here, in particular, Sedgwick’s articulation combines a poststructuralist deconstruction of binaries and feminist standpoint theory’s emphasis on multifaceted perspective in order to expand queer’s definition to new horizons when considering particular individuals. In some ways, however, Sedgwick’s focus on the personal articulation troubles efforts of cultural critics to read historical objects and people as queer, particularly when deviant sexualities were oppressed, illegal, and heavily censored.

Other variants of the minoritizing versus universalizing dichotomy appear under different terms, and charting them reveals inflections of anxieties about the historical particularities of queer inside and outside of the academy. One such node of these tensions is what Joshua Gamson calls the “queer dilemma,” which, “by constructing gays and lesbians as a single community (united by fixed erotic fates), simplif[ies] complex internal differences and complex sexual identities.”40 For Gamson, a conceptual conflict arises between “boundary-strippers,” who leverage queer to break down the barriers between categories, such as lesbian and gay, as well as to break down the convention of siloed identity positions, and “boundary-defenders,” who argue for the political efficacy of identity categories while recognizing important differences arising from sexuality’s intersections with gender. A similar critique focuses on how queer places emphasis on sexuality, which elides concerns of gender central to transgender experience. Scholars in the 2000s and 2010s have argued that the alignment of queer with performativity and the deconstruction of identity in Sedgwick and Judith Butler’s earliest articulations of queer theory led to a devaluing of transgender experience. Some queer theorists position trans* as the assimilationist counterpart to queer’s deconstructive play, arguing that trans* identities rely on essentialist understandings of the body, gender, and sex. In a retrospective essay in 2004, Susan Stryker claimed that queer theory increasingly cast transgender studies as “its evil twin,” a process that reduces “all gender trouble” into transgender disruption and maintains queer into a “code word for ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian.’”41 Turning away from a narrow view of sexuality and gender as discursively constructed social structures, a perspective inherited through the legacy of Foucault, transgender studies also brings queer back to theories of the body, embodiment, and affect, asserting that, as Gayle Salamon puts it, “genders beyond the binary of male and female are neither fictive nor futural, but are presently embodied and lived.”42 The boundary between separate transgender studies and queer theory has been alternately permeable and rigid, shaped by their shared and diverging histories across the 20th- and 21st centuries and by the ever-present “hinge . . . [of] confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation.”43

Efforts to overcome the queer dilemma make recourse to the potential power found in the universalizing perspective, following Warner’s rejection of “a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal.”44 In a similar effort to repudiate the reduction of queer theory into programmatic discourse, Lauren Berlant and Warner propose that queer remains “more a matter of aspiration than it is the expression of an identity or history.”45 In Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar argues that “there is no exact recipe for a queer endeavor, nor a priori system that taxonomizes the linkages, disruptions, and contradictions into a tidy vessel.”46 Refusing a priori assumptions about what will count as queer, queer theory since the 1980s extends queer of color critique to investigate the variant relationships that non-normative sexualities and gender identities have to dominant culture.

Queer Political Horizons

In the years following the reclamation of queer for radical action during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the latent or explicit political and cultural potential of the term have remained in contention. While most scholars and activist agreed that queer analysis promised a transformational politics, the orientation of these politics were drawn to opposite poles vis-à-vis the social order. On one hand, queer carries the potential for world-making—in the shape of coalitional politics, broadly construed community, and queer counter publics—while, on the other hand, queer also resists dominant social order in world-breaking methods—the disruption of social categories, the critique of dominant ideologies, and the destruction of systemic oppression. Rosemary Hennessy argues that capturing the power of a reclaimed epithet continues to lend queer an “anti-assimilationist and anti-separatist” orientation that “denaturalizes” constitutive components of subjectivity.47 Queer theorists understand that queer remains attached to and shaped by representations and concepts from its past as much as it imagines the potential for an aspirational future.

One queer horizon shaping research from the 1990s to the 2010s recognizes the lingering effects of past representations of queer in the present. This orientation, often called the “negative” or “antisocial” thesis of queer theory, originates in Leo Bersani’s analysis of the yoking together of queerness and the death drive, first articulated in his 1987 essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” and later expanded in his book Homos, an argument that Lee Edelman advances in his rejection of the politics of futurity in No Future (2004). For Bersani, “the degeneration of the sexual into a relationship . . . condemns sexuality to becoming a struggle for power,” signifying that queer relationality is doomed to recreate the most violent dynamics of heterosexuality.48 As such, Edelman rejects utopian politics, as he argues utopianism necessarily reinforces the “fantasies” of “a new politics, a better society, a brighter tomorrow” by simply “reproduce[ing] the past, through displacement, in the form of the future.”49 For Edelman, a progressive politics actually replicates the stability of the heterosexual social order ad infinitum by relying on the figure of “the Child” for whom a better future must be secured.50 Thus, he defines all future-oriented politics as constituted by an ideology of “reproductive futurism” that both underpins hegemonic heteronormativity and rejects the threats to reproduction represented by queerness. Edelman posits that since queer remains yoked in popular culture to its historical associations with vice, disease, and death, “those queered by the social order that projects its death drive onto them” should recognize how their abject position underwrites and structures “the logic of social order as such” and the “negativity opposed to every form of social viability” found in these lingering figurations of queer death.51

Other scholars articulate different accounts of how the category of queer remains politically and representationally connected to its painful past, a reflection of the very reclamation project that transformed it from a violent slur. Heather Love’s Feeling Backward, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, and Ashley T. Shelden’s Unmaking Love each reject the so-called homonormative promises of gay pride that ask queer people, as Love writes, “to demand the replacement of despair with hope.”52 Drawing on queer of color critique’s understanding of the intersectional oppression of queer diaspora and the increasing acceptance of white, middle-class, gay men into the social order—a concept called “homonormativity”—Jasbir Puar maps the shifting boundary between acceptable versions of queerness that reside in Western white bodies, lives, and experiences and those that are, in turn, deemed regressive, unpatriotic, and dangerous.

For Puar, the advance of liberal politics has assimilated white queer homonormativity, combining national and sexual pride at the expense of those places and peoples who are deemed not progressive enough. As she argues, “the emergence and sanctioning of queer subjecthood is a historical shift condoned only through a parallel process of demarcation from populations targeted for segregation, disposal, or death, a reintensification of racialization through queerness.”53 Puar proposes that to reject “the management of queer life at the expense of sexually and racially perverse death in relation to the contemporary politics of securitization” requires a project of moving queer studies, and queer subjectivity, outside of the white, Western literary canon as well as the trappings of white, male, American citizenship.54 The “disciplinary queer,” whose figurative place in the realm of normativity, translates white, liberal queerness into homonormativity, which she argues is the only type of queerness that has a place in a politics of futurity.55 For Puar, representations of queer people after 2001 insist on the primacy of white queer subjects over the racial, ethnic, and national Other, foregrounding the shifting poles of what counts as social normative or not and the political efficacy of particular claims to cultural knowledge.

Other scholars map how queer subjects turn their abject and bathetic positions into utopian hopes. Where disidentification for Muñoz neither “buckl[ed] under the pressures of ideology, identification, assimilation [n]or attempt[ed] to break free of its inescapable sphere (counter-identification, utopianism),” he turns to political idealism in Cruising Utopia.56 As the expanding interest in protecting a particular kind of queer life transforms previously deviant sexual expressions into homonormativity, Muñoz returned to utopian hopes articulated in the years around Stonewall to resist the “erosion of the gay and lesbian political imagination” that makes queer politics into nothing more than “mere inclusion in a corrupt and bankrupt social order.”57 Muñoz’s position “against anti-relationality” and “anti-antiutopianism” is shaped and framed by a queer of color critique that “insist[s] on a queer futurity because the present is so poisonous and insolvent.”58 Explicitly rejecting the central claims of Edelman’s No Future, for Muñoz, queer only exists beyond the horizon of the future, figured as possibility rather than related to current or past identity formations: “queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”59

In the 2000s and 2010s, queer theorists also articulate positions that bridge the divide between myriad critical poles that pose the antisocial or negative against the communitarian or utopian. Sarah Ahmed focuses on queer positionality and queerness’s affective and phenomenological states in order to describe the effects of queer nonconformity. She explains that if “heteronormativity functions as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape,” then queerness represents the inability to find comfort in a social world never made for the people who inhabit it.60 If queers cannot find a place in the normative social order, this does not mean that queer is reduced to one mode of existence. Instead, Ahmed suggests that queer represents a range of radical positions of nonconformity, and that “queer politics needs to stay open to different ways of doing queer in order to maintain the possibility that differences are not converted into failure.”61 A queer of color critique that recognizes intersections of identity, experience, and perspective can transform an abject position into aspirational orientation toward the future. Bridging the historical trauma of oppression and the desire for a better world, Ahmed writes that “queer feelings may embrace a sense of discomfort, a lack of ease with the available scripts for living and loving, along with an excitement in the face of the uncertainty of where the discomfort may take us.”62 So too can understanding queer as a communitarian term close the divide between a painful history and a utopian imaginary. “Queer bonds,” J. Weiner and Damon Young suggest in a special issue of GLQ under that name, “are what come into view through the isometric tension between queer world-making and world-shattering.”63 In Weiner and Young’s estimation, much like Muñoz’s idealism and Ahmed’s phenomenological account, as much as queerness can be defined by its “costs” (violence, loneliness, shame, and pain), it also offers the rewards, potential and actual, of imagination that upends old practices in order to make way for new ways of being.

Discussion of the Literature

At the end of the 2010s, queer of color theorists continue to associate early paradigms of queer theory—if not the term queer itself, which remains useful—with a predominantly ungendered, un-racialized, separatist, non-assimilationist politics. But debates endure over whether to cast such queer politics as primarily utopian and oriented toward the future or as antisocial and negative. Queer of color critique has in a sense provincialized the origin of queer theory: the analytic separation of sexuality from gender, as pioneered by Rubin in “Thinking Sex.”64 Today, queer retains its radical utopian potential, as well as its retrograde genealogy of a Eurocentric paradigm that ignores imbricated racialized gender and sexuality norms and the colonial system of racial capitalism, which developed modern ontologies of race, sexual difference, and sexuality. New developments in the field include the centering of an intersectional analysis that draws on such concepts as racialized gender and the colonial sex–gender system. Thus, the field of sexuality studies has reinvented a paradigm where the historical and epistemological imbrication of race, gender, and coloniality (and post-coloniality) are taken for granted. These are all dimensions of difference “beyond sexuality” but related to sexuality in various ways, re-encountered through the methods of queer analysis. And, ironically, queer theory’s radical rupture with the intersectional approach of post-sixties feminism, and with the liberal politics of gay and lesbian identity, has been reconstituted as a rapprochement with intersectional queer critique. The early, heady days were a time when poststructuralist queer theorists proposed an exciting new epistemological paradigm, one envisioning “sexuality without genders and other queer utopias” (in the memorable words of Biddy Martin).65 Now, the return of the repressed—the entanglements of racialization, colonization, gendering, and embodiment—is the dominant paradigm in queer studies.

Some recent and related trends include the turn to the relationships between feelings, temporality, and archives—such as in Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, Ann Cvetkovitch’s An Archive of Feelings, and Heather Love’s Feeling Backward—as queer theorists investigate both the field’s and their own personal attachments to particular historical narratives, to specific objects, and to ways of conceiving of queer subjectivity. Likewise, as in feminist studies, there has been parallel and intersecting turns in queer theory to the new materialism, as in Mel Chen’s Animacies and Amber Musser’s Sensational Flesh.66 From a deracinated and potent solvent of all identity categories and resistance to all regimes of the normal, queer is now a freighted conceptual term, rarely advanced without coordination with (or subordination from) other, older dimensions of being. Similarly, the idea of biopower, which emerges in Foucault’s History of Sexuality, has generated an influential conceptual framework for understanding modernity and power relations far beyond the sexual realm. See, for instance, Giorgio Agamben’s deployment of biopower in his analysis of “bare life,” and Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics.67 In this latter development, the dimension of the biopolitical encompasses as broad a sociopolitical arena as envisioned by early queer theorists, suggesting the ongoing dialectic between universalizing and minoritizing impulses in queer epistemology. Except, now queer is minoritized—perhaps provincialized, whereas the new materialist or intersectional approaches to transgender and queer life and embodiment, involving paradigms from critical race studies, disability studies (“queer crip” studies), and, yes, feminism, universalize the insights of biopower and harmonize them with a renewed investment in liberation movements and collectivities that predate Foucault and the AIDS crisis.68 Another burgeoning area for queer studies, ironically, is all about eroticism, albeit in its biopolitical complexity.69 As when the AIDS crisis began, many queer studies scholars have started to “think about sex” again under new terms, through new lenses, in new places and spaces, and in different times.

Further Reading

  • Abelove, Henry, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 547–566.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1, no. 1 (1993): 17–32.
  • Cohen, Cathy. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, no. 4 (1997): 437–465.
  • Cvetkovitch, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • de Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.” Differences 3, no. 3 (1991): 3–18.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Durham, NC: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.
  • Halberstam, Jack (Judith). The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Hames-García, Michael, and Ernesto Javier Martínez, eds. Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Johnson, E. Patrick, and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Martínez–San Miguel, Yolanda, and Sarah Tobias, eds. Trans Studies: The Challenge to Hetero/Homo Normativities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance. London: Pandora, 1992.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now.” In Tendencies, 3–17. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Warner, Michael, ed. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.