Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and Women's studies. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of 'queerness' itself. It expands its focus to encompass any kind of sexual identity that falls into normative categories.
The emergence of queer theory within academia marked a radical shift towards positioning abject and stigmatized sexual identities as important entry points to the production of knowledge. A move to destabilize sexual and gender categories was and still is an integral part of this process. The adoption of the inclusive moniker 'queer' reflected the rejection of taxonomic sexual categories (e.g. homosexual, heterosexual, fetishist, pederast) that initially been established through sexology discourse in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Queer theory results from a particular conceptual break that has occurred unevenly in western Europe and the United States since World War II. Certainly the economic and political changes that have allowed growing numbers of women, lesbian or not, to enter colleges and universities, and the increased openness of the gay men who have always been there, have been crucial.
Queer theory has accrued multiple meanings, from a merely useful shorthand way to speak of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experiences to a theoretical sensibility that pivots on transgression or permanent rebellion. I take as central to Queer theory its challenge to what has been the dominant foundational concept of both homophobic and affirmative homosexual theory: the assumption of a unified homosexual identity.
What was called at the time “the new queer politics” began around 1990. A range of organisations and individuals were involved: the most prominent group in the US was Queer Nation, while Outrage! was established in London. Both groups had a militant style and used direct action to oppose homophobia, in contrast to the more respectable lobbying groups developing at this time, and both groups were also associated with the strategy of “outing” high-profile LGBT people who weren’t open about their sexuality.
In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler's postmodern feminist text, which is credited with introducing 'queer theory' to the world, she critiques identity-based politics as the method for female emancipation, claiming that presenting 'women' as a coherent group performs 'an unwitting regulation and reification of [binary] gender relations.' She exposes and derationalizes the social power systems that construct the norms regarding the 'natural' gender identities of men and women, the 'logic' of heterosexuality, and the idea of a pre-discursive core gender identity, through which women are subordinated, and homosexuals, cross-dressers, and those others who are located beyond the 'imaginable domain of gender,' are marginalised.
Despite promising beginnings a decade ago, sociologists of gender and sexuality are only now beginning to see queer theory as a legitimate and useful contemporary social theory. In the past, sociologists have made several kinds of critiques of queer theory. These critiques have pointed to its predominant focus on literary texts, its lack of attention to the institutional and material contexts of discursive power, and the critical deconstruction of identity or group empowerment categories.
To understand/imagine queer theory, one must make distinctions between queer as a quality (essentialism) and queer as an attribute (constructionism). The former posits sexual orientation (not necessarily identity) as immutable and unchanged across time and culture : people did – and do – desire and have sexual relations with others of the same gender. The latter defines "sexuality as a product of social relations and thereby suggests the history of sexuality to be 'the history of the subject whose meaning and content are in a continual process of change.' "
In her introduction to the "Queer Theory" issue of differences, de Lauretis insists on the double project of queer theory, suggesting that it "conveys a double emphasis – on the conceptual and speculative work of deconstructing our own discourses and their constructed silences." In other words, de Lauretis emphasizes both the production of sexuality and the construction of silences that have made, for example, race and class differences difficult to see. She separates the dual impulses – toward a critique of categories and toward consideration of the material experience of those categories – without setting them in opposition.
Although many theorists welcome queer as 'another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual' , others question its efficacy. The most commonly voiced anxieties are provoked by such issues as whether a generic masculinity may be reinstalled at the heart of the ostensibly gender-neutral queer; whether queer's transcendent disregard for dominant systems of gender fails to consider the material conditions of the west in the late twentieth century; whether queer simply replicates, with a kind of historical amnesia, the stances and demands of an earlier gay liberation; and whether, because its constituency is almost unlimited, queer includes identificatory categories whose politics are less progressive than those of the lesbian and gay populations with which they are aligned.
Queer theory focuses on the "deviant" cases, or the anatomies, genders, sexual practices, and identities that do not neatly fit into either category of the binaries or that violate the normative alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality. It also pays attention to how the dominant taxonomies fail to capture the complexity of individual gender and sexual subjectivities and practices even among those who may define themselves in terms of those dominant taxonomies. While the dominant classification scheme encourages us, for example, to view gender and sexuality as separate and independent dimensions of social and psychic life, queer analysis explores their interrelationships and their unanticipated manifestations: the ways, for example, gender is sexed and sexuality is gendered in nonnormative ways.