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Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer  
page: 1  2  3  4  

Arguing that desire is an unbroken and polyvocal phenomenon, Homosexual Desire suggests that the establishment of exclusive homosexuality is a way of isolating and expelling those segments of desire that do not imitate the productive and reproductive goals of capitalism. Sexuality, therefore, is not a "natural" phenomenon but is the effect of the economic relations of a given culture.

Hocquenghem's tract shares much with the social constructionists, but by stressing a divide between desire and identity, it also presages the concerns that have constellated around the relatively new practices of queer theory.

Queer Theory

Unlike gay and lesbian theory, which focus on the intersections of desire and identity, queer theory typically disembodies desire and examines how and heteroeroticism function, intermingling and mutually confusing modes of expression within the constructions of cultures and identities.

The text that has been most responsible for initiating the tenets of queer theory is Eve Kosofsky's Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Sedgwick eschews an analysis of homosexuality and heterosexuality in favor of an examination of homosexuality and "."

Homosociality represents the various bonds between men that are necessary to maintain a society, especially those that involve the transmission of status and property through women--marriage, birth, and so on. These bonds between men through women are posited by Western cultures as being antithetical to pure homosexual bonds, which do not need to process women as mediating figures, but Sedgwick proceeds to demonstrate how the two antithetical terms continually collapse into each other in practice and in literature. Hence Sedgwick finds the origin and reflection of homoeroticism within heteroerotic practices themselves.

Sedgwick's analysis bears a striking similarity to that of Hocquenghem and also to Luce Irigiray's conception of "hom(m)o-sexuality" in the important essay "Women on the Market" (1978). Yet more than any other single work, Sedgwick's analysis has focused an awareness that desire and identity are neither coterminous nor congruous; hence the analysis of desire becomes a potent means of destabilizing the assumptions that underpin the construction of both gay and straight identities.

As this description implies, queer theory is a plural and diffuse set of practices, not a unified field of theory. A brief description of two important texts can begin to suggest the polymorphousness of the topic.

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) begins by reading a number of contemporary theorists, including Jacques Lacan, Foucault, Wittig, Julia Kristeva, and Irigiray, in order to demonstrate how gender functions as both a solidifying and unintentionally destabilizing assumption within their arguments. Her own theory then proposes that a number of subversive "performative" strategies, including parody and drag, can be used to "overplay" the codes of gender and thereby foreground identity in its most subversive and denaturalized forms.

Jonathan Dollimore's Sexual Dissidence (1991) begins by contrasting the homosexual writings of André Gide and Oscar Wilde. Gide symbolizes for Dollimore a sort of acceptance of identity troubled or altered by sexual difference, whereas Wilde symbolizes a full embrace of difference that, in its extremity, calls into question the very possibility of identity. These two positions become theoretical polarities that Dollimore traces through both the Renaissance and contemporary culture.

What should be apparent from these unavoidably reductive summaries is that though gay and lesbian theory attempt to examine different identities, queer theory examines differences in order to undermine the very notion of identity.

Although the representative authors mentioned here can be seen as exemplifying certain key ideas in the formation of gay, lesbian, and queer theoretical practices, it is also true that a multitude of other theorists could have as easily been invoked; moreover, the practices that have crystalized around the terms gay, lesbian, and queer have a history, and a thorough examination of this history would have to include Sappho and Plato, Radclyffe Hall and Havelock Ellis, Lady Mary Wroth and William Shakespeare, and many others.

The problematic inevitably involved in summarizing gay, lesbian, and queer theory is that the common but misplaced notion that "theory" is solely a postmodern phenomenon forces a disengagement of the history that has enabled the very articulation of the words gay, lesbian, and queer themselves.

Moreover, any survey such as this is happily destined to become quickly antiquated, for gay, lesbian, and queer theory are at such a tremendous level of production and accomplishment that all three fields are being continuously rewritten and redefined.

Yet the form sketched here--the inevitable tension involved in writing with and against concepts of identity--is one that will likely remain central to all three fields for some time to come; thus, though the content of this survey may change, the general tensions it maps out may serve as a helpful and reliable outline for readers approaching these theoretical fields for the first time.

Gregory W. Bredbeck

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social sciences >> Overview:  Compulsory Heterosexuality

Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that women and men are innately attracted to each other emotionally and sexually and that heterosexuality is universal, a view that leads to an institutional inequality of power that privileges heterosexual males and denigrates women, especially lesbians.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Studies

The field of cultural studies has significance for glbtq people because of its concern with social and sexual politics, its focus on subcultural production and consumption, and its commitment to progressive social change.

literature >> Overview:  Feminist Literary Theory

Feminist literary theory is a complex, dynamic area of study that draws from a wide range of critical theories.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Studies

Gay, lesbian, and queer studies are separate but related fields of cultural inquiry that attempt to establish the centrality of gender and sexuality within a particular area of investigation.

literature >> Overview:  Gender

The theory that gender relations are socially constructed categories of meaning has opened up a number of new areas in lesbian, gay, and queer studies.

literature >> Overview:  Identity

Although the question of homosexual identity is a complex one, it has polarized activists, theorists, and literary critics into two primary camps, essentialists and constructionists, both of which can contribute usefully to an understanding of the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

social sciences >> Overview:  Women's Studies

Women's studies, an interdisciplinary academic field that was inaugurated at major universities around 1970, is now offered at every conceivable type of academic institution throughout the world.

social sciences >> Altman, Dennis

Australian political scientist and self-described "international activist-academic" Dennis Altman has studied both the glbtq political movement and the globalization of sexual identities.

literature >> Cixous, Hélène

French feminist theorist and novelist Hélène Cixous celebrates female homoeroticism and feminist solidarity.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

literature >> Foucault, Michel

One of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, Foucault has had an enormous influence on our understanding of the lesbian and gay literary heritage and the cultural forces surrounding it.

literature >> Genet, Jean

Jean Genet's work has left a powerful legacy to post-modernity and remains a provocation to questions of gay identity.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Hocquenghem, Guy

Leftist Guy Hocquenghem produced a considerable canon of queer theory and experimental fiction, much of it still unknown outside France.

literature >> Lawrence, D. H.

For his time, D. H. Lawrence was a maverick in his open and adventurous discussion of all sexual issues and especially homosexuality, both male and female.

literature >> Millett, Kate

Bisexual feminist literary and social critic Kate Millett is best known for her pioneering critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature, Sexual Politics (1970).

literature >> Pastre, Geneviève

One of France's leading lesbian theorists and political activists, Geneviève Pastre is a writer and publisher who has made lesbian feminism the root of her political and literary work.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Wittig, Monique

The controversial lesbian author and theorist Monique Wittig has produced some of the most challenging fictional and theoretical work of second-wave feminism.

social sciences >> Woman-Identified Woman

A cornerstone of lesbian activism in the 1970s, the concept of the woman-identified woman expressed the need for women to define themselves without reference to male-dominated societal structures.


Abelove, Henry, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds. The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Altman, Dennis. The Homosexualization of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa," in The Signs Reader: Women, Gender and Scholarship. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. 279-297.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

_____. "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Sue-Ellen Case, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. 17-39.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. The History Of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I, New York: Random House, 1978.

Fuss, Diana. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hocquenghem, Guy. Homosexual Desire. Trans. Danielle Dangoor. London: Allison and Busby, 1978.

Irigaray, Luce. "Women on the Market," in This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. 170-191.

McIntosh, Mary. "The Homosexual Role," in The Making of the Modern Homosexual. Kenneth Plummer, ed. London: Hutchinson, 1981. 30-44.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. 14-26.

Plummer, Kenneth, ed. The Making of the Modern Homosexual. London: Hutchinson, 1981.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in Women, Sex and Sexuality. Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. 62-91.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Showalter, Elaine. "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Elaine Showalter, ed. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 243-270.

_____. "Toward a Feminist Poetic," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Elaine Showalter, ed. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 125-143.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800. London: Longman, 1981.

_____. Sexuality and Its Discontents. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bredbeck, Gregory W.  
    Entry Title: Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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