1 July 2014



So what is queer theory? As outlined in my first post, my goal is to queer museums.  But, what does ‘queering’ even mean? 

In order to provide a general understanding of queer theory that will contextualize my future posts, I decided to dedicate a post to defining this field.  Like any attempt at briefly defining a major body of knowledge, I struggle to be brief and concise while not over simplifying. Therefore, please note that there are major gaps, oversights, and simplifications below, as well as a clear emphasis on the academic development of ‘queer theory’ rather than a history of the term ‘queer’ and queer identities/communities/activism.

Epistemology of the Closet Book Cover, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Queer theory emerged in the 1990s in the USA after the AIDS crisis, an event that greatly affected the feminist and gay communities and its politics.  Teresa de Lauretis is credited with first using ‘queer theory’ at a conference at UCSC in 1990.  The term, which has historically been used as slander, was, at that point, being reclaimed and adopted by a burgeoning body of academics and activists.  Most famously, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) are credited as the founding queer theory texts.  On the most basic level, these two texts interrogate the binary structure of heterosexuality and homosexuality and the culturally constructed performance of gender, respectively.  Sedgwick and Butler marked a move into questioning the social, cultural, and political structures and systems that both create and perpetuate those identities and activities seen as ‘non-normative’, and thus an interrogation of the ‘normative’.

Meme of Judith Butler
Meme of Judith Butler
In the last twenty-five years, the field has grown vastly.  Queer theory has been utilized as a lens in almost all disciplines from the humanities and social sciences to engineering and medicine. In order to provide a taste of the diverse definitions of ‘queer theory’, here are some brief quotes by several of the ‘big’ queer theorists.  There is also, by no means, an agreement as to what ‘queer’ means, what queer theory seeks, and what queer world-making entails.

In a Queer Time & Place book cover by Judith Halberstam

“…queer refers to nonnormative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time” (6).

José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)

“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (1).

No Future book cover by Lee Edelman

“…queer must insist on disturbing, on queering, social organizations as such – on disturbing, therefore, and on queering ourselves and our investment in such organization.  For queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one.  And so, when I argue, as I am to do here, that the burden of queerness is to be located less in the assertion of an oppositional political identity than in opposition to politics as the governing fantasy realizing, in an always indefinite future…” (17). 

And what about ‘queer’ in our society today?  Generally, I would say that we think of the Q in the LGBTQ acronym, or the extended one of LGBTTIQQ2SA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, 2-spirited, and asexuality).  Queer is a growing ‘non-identity’ adopted by those not partaking in ‘normative’ labels or values or activities, such as genderqueer, pansexuality, or non-goal-oriented sexual practices. 

Thus, ‘queer’ has been taken up in both academic and community environments to a variety of ends.  Furthermore, I would like to note that I have not truly touched on various complexities of the relationship of queer theory with feminism, with queer activism, and more.

However, I will leave it at that – I recommend checking out this humorous article entitled “What the F@#$ is Queer Theory?”.  Hopefully, we can flush out some of these brief points and any further curiousities or comments about ‘queer’ in the comments, as well as elucidate my use of queer theory for my thesis in future posts!


  1. I am glad you are taking on this very difficult challenge and question. I remember that someone asked you after your presentation at CMA how do you think museums or conferences can be queered. There is, as you nicely state, not only one way or one recipe for doing such thing but you are at a good time to explore the possibilities of such a challenge! Plus, there are many more questions to answer before you can queer a museum :)

  2. I like that you highlight particular linguistic descriptors within the field of queer theory. I think it really helped provide, as you say, contextualization to particular social and political questions surrounding sexual identity to come in your future posts.

    How does one balance between non-normative from the non-identity linguistic practices? Especially when you need to find a balance between using "descriptors/labels" versus "not partaking in the use of labels"? What kind of exhibitions related troubles do you foresee, as a emerging museum professional, issues surrounded by linguistics that have such deep socio-political identity markers?

    Having read your post picked my interest in reading a particular article from Xtra Daily (http://dailyxtra.com/vancouver/news/gay-queer-xtra-hosts-town-hall-the-words-use): How strong a role does the use of language plays in queer theory? Is it because of its relationship to the 'personal'? I like the concept of the non-identity.... and think, visually, reveals itself in abbreviations such as "LGBTTIQQ2SA..." (And any other infinite number of possible permutations and combinations of identifiable alnd alternative sub-class categories) :D "Infinity"

  3. ps. (sorry long-rambling-post but I think I can see a parallel between your research interests and mine now... I've always avoided research into feminist art practices in the 70s due to their concentration on "the personal".... instead I found my mirroring critique within the arts institution as the "normative cultural structure" ... perhaps we can work together to find ways (as alluded at the CMA conference by Irina) "Queering the museum space".

    1. Good questions, Kristen! I actually used the term ‘non-identity’ on a whim while writing this post, rather than actually coming across it within my exposure to queer theory, etc. I’m not really sure if there is a history to it, but I think a lot of the non-normative identities could be labeled, or at least argued, as not actual identities that are recognized or given space in our society. Thus, rendering them as a non-identity and being outside of the norm. Furthermore, when faced with an attempt to balance the use or rejection of these labels/descriptors, you are touching on a key, persistent debate within queer theory – the question of ‘opting out’. Is this the only choice, and is it a viable or necessary one? For instance, to identify as ‘genderqueer’ is to opt out of gender identity, particularly the binary opposition of gender and cisnormativity. Therefore, because it is not in fact recognized by ‘society’, does that render it a ‘non-identity’? A common, demonstrative example of this is on government or medical forms that request gender identity.

      As for the troubles with the museum profession and linguistic practices, I think these have often been raised in the cataloguing process for collecting institutions. There is extensive literature about the cataloguing of trans* materials or the sexual orientation of historic figures, etc. This is something I don’t particularly want to engage with here on this comment – it is quite messy and a discussion all on its own. But, for exhibitions, I’m not really sure what to say other than exhibitions tend to, by their medium, provide a glimpse into a specific topic or connection between subjects and therefore potentially essentializing or limiting…is there a specific aspect of exhibitions that you were thinking of?

      I’m not 100% sure what you mean by ‘the personal’ in relation to queer theory. But I do think that the growing LGBTQ acronym is demonstrative of this desire to not only recognize ‘everyone’ but also make space for them…but then again, why are we so reliant on classification in our society? (Obviously, that is an extremely broad question, but something that always bothers me and provokes various answers)

      Yes, the classic focus on the ‘personal’ of the ‘2nd wave’ feminist movement did turn some people away for sure. I would argue though that there is a more nuanced 1970s art history to be told though! However, I think we are both completely thinking along the same lines – I am more intrigued by the space, the structure, the system, that houses, frames, presents that which constitutes ‘art and culture’. Though, of course, they are quite intertwined to be sure. I would love to work together and ponder the potentialities of arts and cultural space!! Yay for collaboration!