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Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer  
 
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Although gay, lesbian, and queer theory are related practices, the three terms delineate separate emphases marked by different assumptions about the relationship between gender and sexuality.

Readers, generally speaking, are familiar with a type of writing about texts that has been called literary criticism. Criticism explicates facts about texts, analyzes them, and in the broadest sense, instructs a reader in what a text means. Literary criticism has also been a practice of valuation and evaluation. Through demonstrating what a text means, literary criticism also determines whether or not what a text means is worth consideration.

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Literary theory, in contradistinction, attempts to examine how a text means. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin has been responsible for establishing the groundwork of literary theory through his formulation of heteroglossia. As Bakhtin sees it, at any given time, a number of cultural determinants allow a text, phrase, or word to have meaning. These may be social, historical, physiological, political, even personal.

But a text or word must have relevance in relation to these contextual codes in order to make a meaning. Reading a word, then, presupposes these conditions; theory, in response, attempts to delimit or expose for view these grounding assumptions that allow meaning to happen.

Gay and Lesbian Criticism

Gay and lesbian criticism has had a brief but astounding history. Works such as Bonnie Zimmerman's The Safe Sea of Women (1990), Robert K. Martin's The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979), and John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) have looked at history, either in its "true" form or in the form of texts, and have elaborated how homosexuality has been a topic or theme within it. The political importance of such work is undeniable, but gay, lesbian, and queer theory by and large eschew the assumptions that motivate it.

Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Theory

Gay, lesbian, and queer theory examine the ways in which sexuality and sexual difference play with, within, and against the very conditions of meaning that allow a word to be uttered. As such, any text, even one as "factual" and "nonsexual" as a parking ticket or a recipe for a casserole, can become the object of gay, lesbian, and queer theorization.

Although gay, lesbian, and queer theory are related practices, the three terms delineate separate emphases marked by different assumptions about the relationship between gender and sexuality.

In two germinal essays, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex" (1975) and "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality" (1975), Gayle Rubin elaborates a theory that has become central: that gender difference and sexual difference are related but are not the same.

Gender difference refers to those spectrums of meaning governed by the binary terms man/woman, whereas sexual difference refers to those governed by the binary terms heterosexual/homosexual. Typically, sexual difference is expressed through gender difference; hence the common stereotypes of the feminine gay man and the masculine lesbian, wherein a deviance in relation to sexuality is made meaningful through a deviance in gender identification.

Although sexual difference and gender difference are almost inextricable from each other in Western cultures, it should theoretically be possible to separate them and to examine the interplays between and within them. Moreover, how gender and sexual difference interact in any given text can provide clues about the ways in which power operates in the culture producing that text. Reading these clues, by and large, has been the goal of gay, lesbian, and queer theory.

Definitions

With Rubin's distinction in mind, gay, lesbian, and queer theory can be roughly defined: Gay theory examines sexual difference as it is applicable to the male gender; lesbian theory examines sexual difference as it is applicable to the female gender; queer theory attempts to examine sexual difference separate from gender altogether, or with a radical deprivileging of the status of gender in traditional discourses.

In practice, these categories seldom remain intact, and gay, lesbian, and queer theory exist as interdependent discourses that both facilitate and contest each other. Moreover, all three types of theory are eclectic and draw on other theoretical discourses such as psychoanalysis, cultural materialism, Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, and feminism.

This plurality of practices makes it difficult to trace "genealogies" for any of the three fields, but it is nonetheless possible to outline certain works and principles that have been exceptionally influential within each area.

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