What Has Queer Theory Done For You Lately?

We are standing on the side of love. (Read up at the "Standing on the Side of Love" website: here, and see previous blog entry on "Knoxville's Legacy" here.) Standing on the side of love. So simple. So…basic. The heart leads us, and the heart yearns for connection in love. That's clear, that's basic. Who needs theory? Do we not simply need love?
Smaller print above LOVE: "Standing on
the Side of".
Below: "www.StandingontheSideofLove.org"

Actually, I’m going to say the Beatles had it right: yes, "All You Need is Love." (Wikipedia entry: here. Video: here.) Let the heart be our guide. The thing is, the head is all the time cooking up one idea or another, and the ideas sometimes get in the way. Who needs theory? Sometimes we need good theory just to clear the obstructions of bad theory so we can get back to the untheorectical core: stand on the side of love.

I propose today to lead you on a journey – a quick tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – back to a trust in the heart, back to love. It is an Eliot-esque journey, for T.S. Eliot said:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We’ll look at some concepts, theory, ideas that might help knock out certain other ideas that have been getting in your way. When we come back again to no side but the side of love, perhaps, we’ll find that our journey has helped us understand our original stance a little better. Perhaps we will, in some sense, know the place for the first time.

Concept Number One: (Try to) Ignore It

Concept number one: Let’s ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. We don’t need to ask about people’s sexual orientation, and we don’t need to tell anyone about ours. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity. So let’s ignore it. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and treat all people as just people. In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind.

Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity

The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are. During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students. Once I was a visiting faculty at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I remember being at a reception and chatting with one woman who professed such colorblindness. She didn’t understand why there would be a school where 99 to 100 percent of the students were African American. What difference does race make? Let us judge people, just as Martin Luther King himself said, by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Who wants to argue with Martin Luther King? But after a few years at Fisk, that perspective had become so distant for me, that I couldn’t even think of how to explain why I didn’t share it.

In that moment, adrift on a sea of white, from the faces in the room, to the thick cover of Wisconsin snow outside, I was stymied. It wasn’t until later that I thought: hey, wait a minute. What about our gender identity? If someone were to say to that woman, "I can’t tell whether you’re a man or a woman," I don’t think she would have been re-assured. More likely, she’d have been insulted.

When my name, Meredith, preceeds me, people sometimes assume I’m a woman. That’s OK – not a problem for me. If, however, they were to continue to regard me as a woman after we had met face to face, I imagine I’d find that disconcerting. Further, if I were to enter some situation where a number of people were doing that, I’d be a bit spooked, wondering what sort of Twilight Zone I had fallen into. Many of you, too, would find it disorienting if the people around you couldn’t -- or earnestly pretended they couldn’t – tell whether you were male or female. It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with being the opposite sex – it’s just that we like to be recognized for who we are.

Similarly, for many people of color, racial identity may be important. It’s a part of who they are, and they don’t want that socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless.

Similarly, many LGBT folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are. We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We shouldn't have to hide our identity.


Indeed, color-blindness, or gender-blindness, or sexual-orientation-blindness, in its pretense that we are all the same, has the effect of projecting the majority’s norms. That’s how it plays out. Pretending that there’s no difference between black and white has the effect of pretending that we are all white. Color-blindness allows the norms and assumptions of white culture to hold unchallenged sway. In the same way, sexual-orientation-blindness amounts to projecting heteronormativity.

Can you spot the heteronormativity here?
Heteronormativity is the privileging of heterosexuality as normal and natural. When straight office workers have photos on their desks of themselves and their spouses, that’s regarded as positive or benign, while gay workers with photos of themselves and their partners are “rubbing our noses in it” – that’s heteronormativity. When a person who goes through a series of different opposite-sex partners is judged less harshly than a person who goes through an equally long series of same-sex partners – that’s heteronormativity.

If your gym offers a family membership, do you know whether or not that that perk is available to same-sex couples? If it didn’t occur to you to find out because that doesn’t affect you, then you are unthinkingly accepting heteronormative privilege.

Then we start getting into areas that are going to be for many of us a bit more challenging. You see, while many in the LGBT community have worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBT folk have unalloyed enthusiasm for the spread of acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage itself is heteronormative, they point out. Marriage takes the heterosexual model as the norm: one partner, living together and running a household together, for life – or at least starting out with the intention that it be for life. But maybe that model should be challenged rather than pursued. Some queer theorists criticize the traditional family as a deeply problematic institution that ought to challenged and called into question. (See Wikipedia, "Queer Theory" and "Heteronormativity".)

Concept Number Three: Identity (and Everything) Are Shifting Cultural Constructs

Some queer theorists also challenge the very idea of identity. Concept one was let’s ignore it. Concept two is let’s recognize identity as a way to respect who a person is. Now we get to concept three: identity is a problematic notion.

Starting with gender, let us acknowledge that the clear black-and-white categories “male” and “female” aren’t really so clear. Some people are born intersex, where the biological sex cannot be clearly classified as either male or female. The practice of forcibly resolving the ambiguity, forcing the child into one box or the other, sometimes using surgery to help resolve the ambiguity on one side or the other, has been harmful and traumatic. Let us learn to accept ambiguity. In fact, suggest some queer theorists, more gender ambiguity might be good for us all. We might all dress and style ourselves in ways designed to make it harder instead of easier for others to categorize our gender at a glance.

Cultural studies professor Nikki Sullivan writes in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003):
Sexuality…is constructed, experienced, and understood in culturally and historically specific ways. Thus, we could say that there could be no true or correct account of heterosexuality, of homosexuality, of bisexuality… Contemporary views of particular relationships and practices are not necessarily any more enlightened or any less symptomatic of the times than those held by previous generations. (Portions on Googlebooks.)
Queer theorist David Halperin describes three very different cultures in which sexual contact between older men and boys has been acceptable: the ancient Greeks, some Native American tribes, and New Guinea tribesmen. He asks: Is this the same sexuality? Such contact has some superficial similarities, including acceptability, in all three cultures, yet the social contexts and meanings of that contact was so varied, the cultural understanding of what was going on so diverse, that we can’t call it the same sexuality.

The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault (1926-1984), pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. Foucault is a founding figure for a number of kinds of study, including queer theory. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization. In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control counted as sodomy – and penalties against sodomy were severe.

Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.” It wasn’t until the later 1800s that “particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject” (Sullivan 3). Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality. (Wikipedia, "Michel Foucault" here; Foucault's "History of Sexuality" here; SparkNotes on "History of Sexuality" here.)

That hardly seems to us like progress.

Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that identity as not harming anyone else. From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed and celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression.

That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so. The field of queer theory, then, examining the vastly different ways that sexuality manifests and is understood in different cultures and times, raises for us the possibility that our cultural changes in the last 130 years might not be a matter of finally seeing the truth that has been there all along. Rather, they might be a matter of the contingent, accidental evolution of concepts – evolving in ways outside of anyone’s explicit control or intention, yet not dictated by something called "objective reality" either.

The evolution metaphor here is helpful. In species evolution, the objective environment establishes conditions in which many species will fail – will never appear or will quickly die out – yet the objective environment does not guide and direct evolution toward one true species. Rather, the objective environment is one in which increasingly diverse species emerge and find ways to be successful. By analogy, we might say that the reality of our biology establishes conditions in which many concepts of sexuality would never appear or would quickly die out – yet biological reality does not guide or direct our understanding toward the one truth. Rather, the array of possible ways of thinking about sexuality, while constrained by facts of biology, remains as infinite as the array of possible species.

OK. Where are we? This is all very heady – and unless you’ve spent a few of the last 25 years hanging out in university English departments, it might be strange and disorienting. What have we got? Let’s review.


First level: forget about labels, categories. Just love people.

Second level: it’s not so simple: people want to be recognized and respected for who they are. We have an identity as a man or a woman – or as intersex or transgender; we have an identity as a person of color, or not; and we have an identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

My identity in these areas is not relevant to my rights, not relevant to whether or not I may be oppressed or discriminated against, not relevant to my claim to equal concern and respect. My identity is relevant to my sense of who I am, and I want my society to recognize and honor and respect who I am. A "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requires me to hide who I am. (Actually, it doesn’t require straight white men like me to hide who we are because under white heteronormativity my particular identity happens to be the one that is assumed rather than hidden – which is why recognizing and respecting alternative identities matters.)

Then comes a third level: the notion of identity itself is challenged. Not only are the categories fuzzy and unreliable, with people falling along continua rather than into one neat box or another, but the continua themselves are contingent social constructs subject to deconstruction and reconstruction into something different. Sexuality is plastic, and the ways we make meaning of it are even more plastic.

Making Peace With Ambiguity

It’s confusing, it’s changing, we can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power.

Queer theory helps us let go of our assumptions and not replace them with new ones. Queer theory itself is not so much a "theory," as an understanding that no theory can be the one right theory. Therefore, theory itself is less important. Queer theory helps us resist the temptation to resolve ambiguity, for in that space of ambiguity, we come back to where we started: simply standing on the side of love.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really don’t know what category you’re in.

This is what standing on the side of love looks like: the courage to stand in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light.

Our journey through queer theory has led us back to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” What we know about this place now is just how indefinite and undefined everything is.

Our stand on the side of love is grounded neither in a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity.

Our stand on the side of love is grounded in courage: the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage to love each ambiguous person as that person is.