Social Justice Usage
Source: Barnett, Joshua Trey, and Corey W. Johnson. “Queer.” Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice, Sherwood Thomson (ed.). Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 581.
As an affirming personal identity, or worldview, queer takes many forms. One form is a personal refusal to adhere to, or identify with, static, essentialist categories such as woman/man, gay/straight, feminine/masculine, and more. Rather than adopt or appropriate these labels, a person might instead identify as queer. Identifying as queer, however, does not entail or suggest other identity categories “below the surface”; instead, queer serves as a decidedly ambiguous category. As an identity, queer is fluid, malleable, and transgresses boundaries as a way of establishing agency and unity. Queer refuses to be locked into any permanent state of identification. As a term, queer has mostly been engaged to describe those who transgress sex and gender categories (Cavanagh, 2010), but many also appropriate queer as an identity for anyone who refuses normative ways of being and interacting in the world (de Lauretis, 1991; Goldman, 1996). In this way, queer-as-identity allows individuals to transcend or outright reject normative labels, or to carve out an identity that more accurately represents who they are and how they relate to others.
New Discourses Commentary
The term queer is quite plainly the central concept in the branch of the Theory of Critical Social Justice known as queer Theory (see also, applied postmodernism). The use of the term itself in this context is an act of strategic resistance, where the slur “queer” for homosexuals and other gender and sexual minorities has been appropriated as a (somewhat intentionally ironic – see also, politics of parody) term of pride and power for the purposes of activism (see also, strategic essentialism). What it refers to in Critical Social Justice is relatively straightforward and easy to understand and derives from this use while adopting a new activist commitment: queer is that which is disruptive of normativities, which is to say that which rejects both the normal and norms as a matter of principle, particularly but not entirely limited to matters of sex, gender, and sexuality.
Queer, then, doesn’t mean gay or even weird in queer Theory and Critical Social Justice. It means that which defies being normal and makes the normal seem absurd or chauvinistic. Thus, as homosexuality became decriminalized, then normalized, and especially as gay acceptance proceeded, culminating in particular with the acceptance of gay marriage, queer activism had to assert itself against these developments, which it seems superficially to work for. This is because homosexuality (LGBT, broadly) became part of the broad umbrella of that which is considered within the norm for contemporary liberal societies, and thus became, to queer Theory, useless for activism, indeed part of the dreaded status quo. (Though he certainly wasn’t a queer Theorist, Paolo Freire’s remark comes immediately to mind: that for a revolution to remain authentic, it must be perpetual, for otherwise its changes become part of the status quo and it’s no longer a revolution.)
This orientation and even hostility in activism takes on a particularly fevered pitch against “straight passing” LGBT people or others who aren’t queer activists because LGBT people who are content with the expansion of rights and acceptance are seen as something like traitors or apostates who are willing to sell out queer activism (and their former queer allies) for merely being socially accepted. It’s difficult to comprehend this as anything other than a type of narcissism turned into activism, but it follows from the belief central to queer Theory that it is normalness itself—and the allegedly hegemonic normativities it creates—that constrains people and oppresses and marginalizes those who still fall outside of the “normal” or who wish not to be considered normal (see also, gender violence, violence of categorization, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity). This happens in the usual way for the Theories of Critical Social Justice: sex, gender, and sexuality are deemed social constructions that we’re all socialized into by learning to think they’re normal, and this creates injustices. Indeed, the more formerly queer identities that become accepted, the more relatively marginal remaining queer identities would seem to become, so even the normalization and acceptance of LGBT in society would be seen as a kind of violence according to queer Theory. If one takes away the impression that this makes queer activism impossible to make happy, then one has the proper understanding of it and can rest assured that this is, in fact, intentionally made into a part of the activism.
Queer, then, mostly means being intentionally weird, often to blatant exaggeration, making that weirdness core to one’s identity, and considering having done all of this to be an effective form of activism against anything being allowed to be normal, ever, anywhere in society. (One might notice that this is inherently self-defeating, which would be seen as a “charm,” asset, or virtue of queerness by queer Theory.) This is particularly relevant but not limited to anything having to do with sex, gender, and sexuality, or anything that can be associated with these, including especially modes of dress and behavior. It is especially opposed to the idea that there would be any binaries, like a sex binary, gender binary, or binaries of sexuality (see also, Derridean), but also binaries like normal/abnormal and true/false (see also, Foucauldian). Thus, “queer” can be understood to be that which is offered outside of and thus in “strategic” opposition to binaries of any kind. Put otherwise, “queer” is the identity category that is put up in opposition to anything normative (see also, deconstruction).
This is because “queer” is the only authentic identity understood by queer Theory, which, like all of the applied postmodern and Critical Social Justice Theories, operates in an identity-first way for the purposes of doing radical, if not revolutionary, identity politics. Recall the identity-first orientation of critical race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s and bell hooks’ “I am Black” means something more and more important than “I am a person who happens to be black.” In queer Theory, this would render “I am queer” means something more and more important than “I am a person who happens to be LGBTQ.” In fact, in this case, the difference is stark, as a wide majority of LGBT and even many Q people are certainly not queer (according to queer Theory) and are openly hostile to the idea that they should have to be queer to be considered legitimately LGBT(Q). Queer is an inherently disruptive, subversive, frequently ironic, and obnoxious identity category that is meant to be a form of political activism against anything that can be considered normal as a state of being. Most people, LGBT and sometimes even Q, completely reject that demand and the demand that their life and lifestyle become a form of activism and identity politics.
With regard to its main charges, queer Theory views all gendered or “normative” behavior as performative (see also, gender performativity), and accordingly, much of queer activism very much looks like a form of performance that we are compelled to accept as authentic to the performers’ identities, except when it intentionally isn’t (see also, pastiche, genderfucking, genderqueer, and politics of parody). Some of these identity statuses are less performative and politically maintained than others, of course, or maybe none at all except in virtue of making them sites of activism, and include transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and genderfluidity, among other stranger ones, such as “otherkin” and embracing diagnosable mental illness (frequently self-diagnosed) and other health issues as identity statuses (see also, disability studies and fat studies).
Of course, despite the special kind of vitriol reserved only for traitors directed at “passing” and content LGBT, the primary target of queer activism is heterosexuality and being cisgender. These are Theorized as being particularly oppressive, dangerous, and violent against queer identities because they have so much societal weight behind them because, in a purely descriptive sense, they are normal for human beings (see also, compulsory heterosexuality). These oppressive systems and their features are described by terms that include heterocentrism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, cissexism, homophobia, and transphobia, most particularly. The general normality and widespread acceptance of the normality of heterosexuality, in particular, is said to “erase queer identities,” which is taken as being tantamount to a kind of genocide or “denying their very existence.”
This puts a particular form of activism, queer heterosexuality, in an awkward spot of being both a form of queer activism and a problematic one because it still upholds heteronormativity. Queer heterosexuality is heterosexual couples in which the partners involved somehow defy gender norms, for instance, an intentionally very masculine woman (see also, womxn) with an intentionally very effeminate man. The contradiction this produces will generate infighting among the queer activist community, lead to a great deal of useless scholarship by queer Theorists, and will ultimately be itself considered a useful part of queer activism (as embracing contradictions is inherently considered queer).
Notice how queer activism and queer Theory are therefore inherently anti-liberal, as the liberal approach to queerness, LGBT, or whatever else to do with gender, sex, and sexuality amounts to “some people do things their own way; get over it.” Queer activism and queer Theory resent such a view because it justifies the existence of normativities and, ultimately, doesn’t render them extra and especially special. It does not appear particularly useful for LGBT activism and acceptance and, like pretty much everything in Critical Social Justice, seems to get the relevant issues exactly backwards.
Note: Consistent with this understanding of “queer” in Critical Social Justice, the word is also used as a verb – see “queer (v.).” To understand how queerness is Theorized in Critical Social Justice, see queer Theory.
Ally/Allyship; Applied postmodernism; Authentic; Binary; Cisgender; Cisnormativity; Cissexism; Compulsory heterosexuality; Critical; Critical race Theory; Deconstruction; Derridean; Disability studies; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Erasure; Fat studies; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender (v.); Gender non-conforming; Gender performativity; Gender violence; Genderfluid; Genderfucking; Genderqueer; Genocide; Hegemony; Heterocentrism; Heteronormativity; Heterosexism; Identity; Identity-first; Identity politics; Injustice; Liberalism; Man; Marginalize; Non-binary; Norm; Normal; Normativity; Oppression; Pastiche; Performativity; Politics of parody; Queer (v.); Queer heterosexuality; Queer Theory; Revolution; Sex; Sexuality; Social construction; Social Justice; Socialization; Strategic essentialism; Strategic resistance; Status quo; Straight passing; Subvert; Systemic power; Theory; Transgender; Transphobia; Truth; Violence; Violence of categorization; Woman; Womxn
Source: Barnett, Joshua Trey, and Corey W. Johnson. “Queer.” Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice, Sherwood Thomson (ed.). Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp. 580–581.
Queer is decidedly promiscuous. In its pejorative heyday, in the years before the late 1980s, queer served to denigrate perverts and men who fancied other men (Beemyn & Eliason, 1996; Eaklor, 2008; Marinucci, 2010). In the time that has passed, queer has traveled a varied and harried terrain, finding at times contempt, and at others, a warm reception. At every turn, queer evades definition (Jagose, 1996). The first inkling of queer’s reclamation came in the early 1990s, when AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) members formed Queer Nation, a direct-action organization aimed at abolishing homophobia and creating new visions of queers in America (Levy & Johnson, 2012). Concurrent with Queer Nation’s creation, feminist scholars began developing the foundations for queer theory, anacademic framework for unhinging heteronorma- tive notions of sexual and gender identities from within, and beyond, the academy (Butler, 1990; de Lauretis, 1991). Efforts on both activist and schol- arly fronts have similarly imagined queer as another way to think of, through, and against identity. A queer subjectivity might constitute a “blurring” of identities (Goldman, 1996), or, as Michael Warner put it, being queer is being “at odds with straight culture” (2000, p. 38).
But what is queer? Queer can be an identity, theory, or practice. In the most general sense, queer can be thought of as heteronormativity’s antith- esis, a defiantly non-normative notion of human social relations that rejects sex and gender binaries, obfuscates essentialist identities, and celebrates the unwieldy and remarkable ways in which sex means much more than reproduction. In this entry, we briefly tour queer in its concomitant social domains, beginning at the level of the individual and ending in the midst of contemporary social relations.
Revision date: 4/6/20