Gender and Sexuality in World History
Queerness as Hope: Moving from Identity to Ideality
Given the current popular and political discourse regarding homosexuality, transsexuality, gender confusion, gender blurring, and queerness, one might be surprised to read James Penney’s claim that “queer discourse has run its course, its project made obsolete by the full elaboration of its own logic” (1). Penney’s claim is based on the idea that queer theory has run its course because the hegemonic assumptions upon which it is premised cannot be reunited with an ideal of emancipatory politics (1). In other words, queer theory strangles those whom it wanted to free—people who fall outside the heteronormative narrative that has determined the basic social structure in the West for centuries. This essay argues that the concept of queerness still has immense emancipatory powers and that queer theory has not run its course. In fact, it is in the concept of queerness that one finds hope for a world in which the disputes over rights and the fight against oppression no longer exist. However, the emancipatory possibilities of the concept of queerness lie in conceptualizing queerness as an ideality rather than strictly as an identity.
In this essay, I argue that using the concept of queerness as an ideality has the potential to positively shape our political dialogue regarding important issues such as gender, sexuality, homosexuality, and even feminism. To do this, this paper seeks to explore the ways in which the concept of queerness has been used during the latter part of the 20th century. I argue that the concept of queerness actually came to be used more widely at a time when the heterosexual community continued to push back against the LGBT community during the 1960s, but heavy use of the term started after the Stonewall riots in 1969. Queerness has helped to reorient the discussion of sexuality so that it would not be seen merely as a division of gay versus straight.
Likewise, one can go back through American history, as Michael Bronski does, and “queer” our shared history. One finds that queerness has always been there, it has just been excluded from the dominant narrative.
One can appreciate how rethinking queerness as an ideality could be helpful when one considers some of the historical debates that have centered over gender. Most of the opponents who are against the political uses of queerness argue that to promote anything beyond the traditional concepts of gender and heterosexual relations is morally suspect and damaging to the moral fabric that fixes society. However, there are numerous opponents of queer theory who seek the same sort of emancipation for the historically marginalized that queer theory does. For example, those labelled as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys, argue that the queerness found in transsexuality and transgenderism actually contributes to heteronormative dual gender roles that have been so repressive to women throughout history (Burman 19-21). Thinkers such as Jeffreys see the history and trajectory of feminism and queerness as occupying different spaces in the public discourse regarding gender, sexuality, and rights. For example, these thinkers base their position on the fact that transwomen cannot fully appreciate the experience of being female because their cisgender assignment was male at birth, which means that they would have experienced, at least to some degree, male privilege that women never get to experience (Burman 22).
Thinkers on the other side of this divide argue that transgendered people actually disrupt the dual view of sex, gender, and sexuality, which is positive (Morgenroth and Ryan 2). Judith Butler writes that “contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism” (viii). This is to say that some of the most important theoretical and practical work done on behalf of the marginalized relies on the binary system that is responsible for the oppression experienced by women, in Butler’s estimation. Butler argues that the correct move is to simply let go of the historical artifact known as gender and move to a broader understanding of what is meant by gender. Butler asks, “What is best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality?” (viii). Butler’s answer to this question is a path toward troubling gender, a path where gender is not an essential quality that follows from biological sex. It is a path that leads to a horizon that has not yet been imagined. For Butler, gender is a performance that reinforces and is reinforced by various social norms and expectations that create the illusion of dual sex (7-15). To many outside of the academic culture, Butler’s position is simply another radical criticism that can be dismissed.
However, there are still many feminist writers, for example, who “define sex as biological and gender as cultural” (Morgenroth and Ryan 2). It is Butler’s position that this distinction is problematic. Butler writes that “perhaps this construct called sex is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender with the consequence that the difference between sex and gender turns out to be no difference at all” (9). If Butler is correct, and I think she is, then there are many consequences to not performing one’s gender, as commonly interpreted, correctly. People are expected to act according to their gender and when they do not do so they suffer a variety problems such as being disliked and marginalized. Unfortunately, there are many who even experience violence because of their performative “errors.”
All people can suffer from the dual conceptualizations of gender—men who don’t perform their manliness in terms of making money and advancing in their careers suffer from the expectations associated with “being a man.”1 In other words, this dual narrative has an impact on everyone. Hence, it is important to rethink how gender performs over time and the expectations these performances have led to. I argue that queerness has played a helpful role in furthering the emancipation from gendered expectations. Thus, I argue that it is useful to continue to see the ways in which queerness might continue to loosen the difficult societal expectations from everyone. However, the concept of queerness did not suddenly appear on the scene. Queerness has a history that finds its roots in the gay liberation movement and, to some extent, feminism. It is useful to discuss the ways in which this history has shaped the concept of queerness before turning to using queerness as an ideality that can further the emancipation of many of the marginalized.
While the roots of queer theory have existed for centuries and can be found in the homosexual themes found in a great deal of literature, queer theory came into its own in the 1990s.2 Perhaps the most important initial move made in queer theory was simply its appropriation of the word “queer” to mean something that is different or strange (Butler 20-31b).
Butler writes that the term has typically been associated with degradation, and it was likely associated with degradation because it has also generally been associated with homosexuality 1 I am not arguing that men suffer or are marginalized in any way that is close to how women or minorities are oppressed. I am merely pointing out that all people are expected to perform according to their gender roles and when they do not do so there are consequences for not meeting expectations.
For example, one can look to works such as the Iliad where Achilles and Patroclus are likely lovers. Likewise, Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades shows Socrates trying to seduce Alcibiades. 18th and 19th century Gothic literature has homosexual themes. The novel Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania written in 1870 by Bayard Taylor portrays homosexuality openly. Andre Gide’s The Immoralist (1902) openly portrays homosexuality. These are but a few examples of how homosexuality has always been a part of the literary discussion. Hence, queerness, if one takes that to mean the disruption of the standard set of norms, has always been there. See Jolene Zigarovich’s TransGothic in Literature and Culture, Brian Reade’s Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850-1900, and Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States. (24b). In other words, queer was a term that was used as a signifier meant to identify a person or an idea as gay. For example, to call a man a queer at one point in our culture’s history would have been to issue a slight or an insult. Typically, queerness was associated with a man who was gay and, perhaps, overly effeminate, which is also a descriptor that is not only an insult but also continues the heteronormative conceptions of gender and gender roles (Barker and Scheele 10-11). Eventually, the idea of queerness started to be used to take on heterosexist ideas and started to be used as a transformative term (Sedgwick 24-27). This transformation from queer as merely an identity, generally used with negative proposals, to a broader description of a state of being is characterized well by Michael Warner, who writes that “heteronormativity can be overcome only by actively imagining a necessarily and desirably queer world” (xvi). I will argue later that Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia takes this theoretical step even further by arguing that queerness needs to serve as the ontological and epistemological position from which one ought to understand the world.
Of course, just because theorists like Warner supports the need to imagine a queer world does not mean that it happened. As one might expect, the heteronormative dominant culture has fought this at every turn. To trace an important strain of thought in the history of the transformation of the concept of queerness it is worth examining one of the most important thinkers for queer theory, Michel Foucault. Among the many amazing insights Foucault provided for how we conceive of sexuality, he argued that power needs to be the starting point of how relations are examined, and this included the idea of queerness. For Foucault, power is a relation (17-35). It is in political struggles, which can be characterized as the clashing of power, that some type of freedom can potentially come forth. But it is not as simple as that. Foucault astutely points out that since power is everywhere, freedom cannot operate outside of power. In short, one can never be free from power. So, political struggle for Foucault is not a matter of achieving liberation, but in executing resistance.
Thinkers such as David Halpern use Foucault to argue that an essential part of the resistance of gay activists is to gain control of the discourse about being gay. For example, it was necessary to take control from medical professionals concerning the discourse about homosexuality (Halpern 27). Halpern uses the example of how the AIDS epidemic was used to smear and make character judgments about homosexuals. In discussing the need for the homosexual community to gain control of the narrative, Halpern writes that “it would be difficult to imagine a better illustration than the public response to AIDS of the mutual imbrication of power and knowledge, which manifests itself in endless relays between expert discourse and institutional authority, between medical truth and social regulation” (27). Halpern notes that the strategy used by the gay liberation movement was to move objective control from others to a subjective freedom for individual gays and lesbians.
Despite positive strides made by the homosexual community in regaining some element of subjective control over the discourse concerning their lives, it did little to quell homophobic fury (Halpern 35). Theorists such as Halpern argue that the homophobic discourse can only be reversed by understanding the marginal position in which the gay community finds itself. As we shall see when discussing Munoz’s work, taking this marginal position is tantamount to identifying with a queer ideality rather than a strictly gay identity. This because those trying to challenge the discourse of homophobia are doing so from a position on the margins rather than from an identity. This is an important move because a queer identity is different from a gay identity. A queer identity derives its meaning from what it is in opposition to and queerness is in opposition to the normative and dominant discourse. A gay identity, on the other hand, is an identity based on an affirmative choice of being gay.
However, queer theory has longed for a way to engage in transformation rather than mere opposition. For example, Morgenroth and Ryan argue that Butler has long made the call to action to find ways to overthrow the dominant culture and “end the problematic practices that they engender” (3). However, Butler’s calls have been confused in many cases because even those who see themselves on the margins, as many feminists do, actually still see gender as something that one has and not something that one performs (Morgenroth and Ryan 3). Butler writes that “for the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued” (1a). A new framework to look at the problem of how the dominant, heterosexual culture continues to reify itself needs to be found. Morgenroth and Ryan argue that “feminists should instead seek to understand how the category of ‘women’ is produced and restrained by the means through which social change is thought” (3). While queer theory has truly benefitted from the resistance that feminist theorists have put up against the dominant culture, in the same way it has benefitted greatly from the work of the gay liberation movement, it needs to produce something that moves beyond the continual reification of a binary notion of political participants seeking contrasting goals. In doing so, it will promote the emancipatory possibilities of all people, including feminists, the gay community, and so forth.
It is my debate that thinking about queer theory not as a queer identity but as an epistemological viewpoint of queerness will help to move the discourse beyond the heteronormative, dominant culture that is still oppressive to so many. Though the work of feminists and gay theorists has been extremely important in moving the dialogue toward a more expansive notion of emancipation, both still get caught up in debates that center around the strict opposition of competing sides. For example, if feminists argue that there is some essential “womanness,” as Butler suggests many of them do, that needs to seek out the interests of women, then one should expect that the response to this declaration would be to mark the territory of “maleness.” This counter-move would be a reinforcement of the dominant, patriarchal narrative which excludes and rigidly demarcates gender roles and sexuality. While women might make some gains in this dialogue, there is no guarantee that these gains will be permanent.3 The reason is because this type of dialogue is one of a zero-sum game; there are winners and losers. Instead, it seems like a more fruitful path would be to move more imaginatively towards a new and different way of conceiving social relations, gender, and sexuality.
Using queerness is a way to move toward that world. The reason why this is a potentially productive path toward something different that is, at the same time, better, is because queerness is a position on the margins that contrasts itself with the dominant position. It is capable of flexibility and movement. Starting from an essential viewpoint means that one’s position implies that there is a “correct” way to be. Instead of worrying about the correct way to be, it seems that we could construct a better world if we understood our moral obligations as a matter of relations to one another rather than adhering strictly to a political position.
One could argue that the current political dialogue that has been taking place is an example of the potential for backsliding of the gains that women have made. The current Administration seeks to revoke many of the gains that women have made over the years and many on the right have doubled-down and reinforced their position in a traditional heteronormative, gender-role based world where men and women have their particular roles that they need to pursue. Fluidity in gender, sexuality, identification, and society is something that need not be discussed because, according to the right’s position, discussing notions like fluidity is simply wrong from a moral perspective.
Munoz argues that queerness is just this sort of ideality. According to Munoz, this ideality does not ignore the past, along with its associated moral gains and losses. Rather it uses the past, including the grievances one may have with this past, in order to imagine the future. Munoz writes that “queerness is a structuring and educating mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (1). It is also queerness that helps us to see beyond the current modes of thinking in order to find a world in which one can see not only oneself as happy and at peace, but one where our desires and imagination allows the same type of happiness for others. If one thinks about the problem with arguing for a set of policies based on a worldview or thought, as is typically the case in our current political narrative, there are going to be losers in this attempt. Certainly, those who are more progressive in their thinking do not mind when the opponents of the homosexual community or anti-feminists lose. However, what is quite often the result of these battles is a reignition of opposition in the form of a newly issued presentation of homophobia or an anti-woman position. In short, just because one side loses does not mean it is going to give up the fight.
Munoz’s call is to use queerness to see that there is something wrong about our approach in solving our problems so that we can move toward desiring and creating a world where injustice no longer exists. In other words, we should shoot for the utopia where queerness is the standard. He writes that “queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing” (1). He also notes that queerness is performative; it is not an identity. Therefore, we do not have to be “queer” to advocate queerness. The utopia we all seek where our desires are met is one thing we share in common. The trick is to find the position wherein all can pursue their desires without harming others.
Borrowing from Ernst Bloch’s work, Munoz argues that we need to foster the idea of the not-yet-conscious (12). This not yet conscious is a form of hope that is able to see both the struggles and the gains of the past and project them into the future, even if we cannot yet fully articulate that future. He writes that his approach “to hope as a critical methodology can best be
described as a backward glance that enacts a future vision” (4). We can use this hope to “surpass the limitation of an alienating presentness” and see a different place in time (4). While some might argue that this sounds too muddled or overly general to be useful, it should be remembered that all political theories which attempt to outline a better world are centered around a similar idea of hope, even if all the concrete steps to this vision of a better world are not yet known.
For Munoz this is done by continually imagining transformation and our relation to the future (10). In many ways, imagining transformation is what all groups who fight against the dominant narrative do. What makes Munoz’s position unique is that it urges the continual striving for the transformational. Given that queerness is an ideality and is also performative, one can expect that transformation will never cease. There will always be something that needs transformation.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Munoz’s thought is his call for queerness to be a collective enterprise. He writes that he insists “on the essential need for an understanding of queerness as collectivity” (11). Queerness lies on the horizon; it is never an end-point. Munoz also states that “if queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon” and that we must abandon ontological certitude. Ultimately, the goal, insofar as it can be articulated, has to be to move down a path that leads to a greater openness to the world.
The groups who have fought against the dominant narrative have made significant headway and have sacrificed a great deal to make these gains. However, the struggle is not over and using Munoz’s conception of queerness is a way to move the debate forward to a more reasonable and just world where all experience the emancipation that has long eluded all of us. It seems as if queerness has just begun to do its work.
- Barker, Meg-John and Scheele, Julia. Queer: A Graphic History. Amazon Digital Services, 2016
- Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2013.
- Burman, Erica. “Contemporary Feminist Contributions to Debates around Gender and Sexuality: From Identity to Performance.” Group Analysis, Vol. 38, no. 1, 2015, pp. 17-30.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.
- Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex.’ Routledge, 1993.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1.Vintage Books, 1978.
- Halpern, David. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford, 1995.
- Mondimore, Francis M. A Natural History of Homosexuality. Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
- Morgenroth, Thekla and Ryan, Michelle K. “Gender Trouble in Social Psychology: How Can Butler’s Work Inform Experimental Social Psychologists’ Conceptualization of Gender?” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 9, 2018, pp. 1-9.
- Munoz, Jose Estaban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009.
- Penney, James. After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics. Pluto Press, 2014.
- Reade, Brian. Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850-1900. Routledge, 2018.
- Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Duke UP, 1993.
- Warner, Michael. “Introduction.” Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Michael Warner. University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. vii-xxxi.
- Zigarovich, Jolene. TransGothic in Literature and Culture. Routledge, 2017.