Queer Social Theory

Figure 1: Headline from The Washington Post on an article covering the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision in Caster Semenya’s case against the International Association of Athletics Federations

What, exactly, is “queerness?” The term is used in reference to sex, gender, sexuality, and more, but to which of these does it actually apply? Further, what does “queer” oppose? Other terms we generally think of as being related have a seemingly direct antonym. Terms like “gay” or “homosexual” oppose “straight” and “heterosexual,” respectively, but also pertain only to sexuality. Queerness is a bit broader. Theorist Michael Warner’s terming of “queerness” includes the usual understanding of sexuality—as a capacity for physical desire—but also includes gender, reproduction, family structures and any identities that do not fit within hegemony (Warner, 1993). To this end, queerness is not a term that opposes heterosexuality, but rather one that opposes the normal (Warner, 1993). But why must the two be in opposition at all?

What constitutes the normal in any culture is a function of what fits into hegemony. Anyone studying social theory and culture is, by now, familiar with Raymond Williams’ distillation of culture into three discrete categories. Williams compartmentalizes the “ideal,” in which “culture is a state or process of human perfection,” (as cited in Mills and Barlow, 2012, pp. 432); the “documentary,” in which “culture is the body of intellectual and imaginative work” through which human experience is recorded (as cited in Mills and Barlow, 2012, pp. 432); and the “social,” in which “culture is a description of a particular way of life,” (as cited in Mills and Barlow, 2012, pp. 434) that is expressed through institutions and regular behavior. These categories govern the way culture is constructed, viewed, and studied—structuring our lives and senses of self. For Williams, this is not a problem, solely an explication—that these three categories exist. What Warner proposes is not that Williams is wrong, but that what is considered as fitting in with hegemonic culture—in any of its forms—is derived from and perpetuates a heteronormative hegemony that disregards queerness.

Warner, in his 1993 work Fear of a Queer Planet, opens with the question of queer desire, not explicitly sexual, social, or economic—simply, “What do Queers want?” (Warner, 1993, pp. vii). This is a question that, according to Warner, has been ignored by social and cultural theory up to the point of his writing. He further argues that this ignorance is not necessarily an intentional one, but an inevitable one on account of who in society is charged with record-keeping, policymaking, and the designation of what is important. Our society is a heteronormative one at best and homophobic at its worst. Because our cultural elite are not queer, there are inherent problems in defining and governing queerness. Due to this difficulty, nearly all cultural institutions (science, politics, education, labor, entertainment, etc.) have a tendency to avoid or misrepresent queer issues and identities.

Though not immediately apparent, this avoidance of queer identity has not always been endemic. As Foucault explains in his “We Other Victorians,” it was not until the late 17th century that sexuality became private under a prudish Victorian regime (Foucault, 1990). Foucault’s repressive hypothesis holds that since this privatization of sexuality, it has been widely frowned upon in western society to discuss sexuality or gender in any public space (Foucault, 1990). Warner makes clear that, in line with Foucault’s repressive hypothesis, there has been little success in addressing queer wants or needs from sociological or political scholarship which has, “posited and naturalized a heterosexual society,” (Warner, 1993, pp. vii). If a heterosexual society has been created and perpetuated then public intellectuals—the “dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government” (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 214)—also must be heterosexual. Because our hegemonic structures are deeply heteronormative, problems arise not only in addressing queerness, but defining it as well.

Warner writes that “Unlike other identity movements…” which often have language of the family or multiculturalism applied to them, “queerness has always been defined centrally by discourses of morality,” (Warner, 1993, pp. xvii). When it comes to gender, seldom are arguments seen about whether a person is or is not a man, but rather how that person can best be a man. With sexuality, the debate is often about whether or not someone presents as sufficiently homosexual. With unconventional family units, the question is often raised of whether or not queer parents will make ‘good’ parents. The list goes on. The problem here is that these moral debates avoid defining the queerness and its place in society.

Precisely at the point one mind themselves asking: what does it matter how we define a thing? Warner answers: “since the way a group is defined has consequences for how it will be mobilized, represented, legislated for, and addressed,” (Warner, 1993, pp. xxv). Definition is used—primarily in legislation and legal scenarios—to decide which regulations apply to which groups, who belongs to those groups, and what rights or protections the members of those groups have. For Warner, even a single word can make a striking difference, as he writes that many people have shifted from identifying themselves as gay to queer because queer “rejects a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal,” (Warner, 1993, pp. xxvi) as compared to other terms.

Figure 2: Figure showing symbols for male, female, and intersex over bodies that present as men and women

The work of Anne Fausto-Sterling works to further support the conclusions reached by Warner. Her work considers the fundamental distinction between sex and gender. It was around 1972 that the idea “sex and gender are separate categories,” (Fausto-Sterling, 1997, pp. 3) became popular, with sex being anatomical and gender psychological. Fausto-Sterling shirks this distinction stating, “Our bodies are too complex to provide clear-cut answers about sexual difference. The more we look for a simple physical basis for ‘sex,’ the more it becomes clear that ‘sex’ is not a pure physical category,” (1997, pp. 4). She attributes this complication largely to the idea that “what bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender,” (Fausto-Sterling, 1997, pp. 4). Fausto-Sterling does not believe that sex cannot be defined in any terms, rather that it cannot be defined in a manner that fits the binarized structures of heteronormativity. Thus, hegemonic attempts at definitions of queer identities hinder society.

Figure 3: Caster Semenya

This hinderance is present in the daily lives of individuals around the world. Caster Semenya is a runner and Olympic athlete from South Africa. She won gold medals in the 800m at both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics. Semenya also naturally produces more testosterone than many other women. Following the 2018 implementation of a policy by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that female runners with high levels of testosterone must lower their hormone levels in order to compete, Semenya issued a challenge on the basis of discrimination. On May 1, 2019 the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the IAAF’s regulation. Once the regulation goes into effect, Semenya will be faced with a choice—to lower her testosterone levels or not compete with women. Caster Semenya considers herself a woman, as do many doctors, but in creating such a regulation the IAAF has placed restrictions on who can compete as—and therefore who is considered—a woman.

Another hinderance can be seen in the conversations surrounding the adoption of children by LGBT individuals and couples. Many argue against the right of same-sex couples to adopt, stating that a child is deserving of a “mother and a father” or that children would feel unloved without a “normal” family structure. While the right of same-sex couples to adopt has been guaranteed by legislation in many countries, including the United States, others, like Venezuela, Bolivia, and many Asian countries still outlaw the practice. Even in countries like the United States where the right has been guaranteed at the national level, smaller governments still challenge the practice. Oklahoma Senate Bill 1140 (SB1140), for example, would allow adoption agencies to reject applications of same-sex couples on the basis of religious beliefs. Bills like this come despite countless studies supporting the idea that queer families are just as effective as any other.  At their core, these problems arise from an inability to discuss and accept queer structures and identities in a heteronormative hegemony.

Figure 4: Map of same-sex adoption legality around the world. Purple shows legislation allowing same-sex adoption

Image attribution: Figure 1 is taken from the May 1, 2019 headline from the Washington Post article cited below. Figure 2 does not require attribution. Figure 3 is attributed to Erik van Leeuwen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)]. Figure 4 was created by WikiMedia Commons user Kwamikagami and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en), the image has not been altered.

Works Cited

Fausto-Sterling, A. (1997). How to Build a Man. In R.N. Lancaster & M. di Leonardo (Eds.), The Gender/Sexuality Reader (pp. 244-247). New York and London: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. (1990). We Other Victorians. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Gramsci, Antonio. (1971). Hegemony, Intellectuals and the State. In Q. Hoare (trans.), & G. Nowell-Smith (trans.), Selection from Prison Notebooks. (pp. 210-216). London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971.

Warner, M. (1993). Introduction. In M. Warner (Ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (pp. vii-xxxi). Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993.

Brewer, J. (2019, May 1). Caster Semenya ruling shows how far we have to go in understanding gender. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/caster-semenya-ruling-shows-how-far-we-have-to-go-in-understanding-gender/2019/05/01/

Written by Justin Nash, 2019

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