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The Shaping of Queer Theory

The most important ways in which post-modern thought has shaped queer theory are
(1) in distinguishing between sex and sexuality;
(2) in describing the tension between social construction (that is, culturally produced meaning) and essentialism (that is, biological determinism) as they apply to sex and gender;
(3) in bringing to consciousness in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered communities crucial issues concerning identity and identity politics; and
(4) in exploring, in both life and the arts, modes of gender-bending and gender-performativity, understandings of gender that grow out of post-modern self-reflexivity.

The Distinction between Sex and Sexuality

David Halperin has stated most clearly the crucial distinction between sex and sexuality: "Unlike sex, sexuality is a cultural production: it represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse. Sexuality is not a somatic fact; it is a cultural effect."

Given this distinction, and the presumed essence of sex (or biology), a primary emphasis of queer theory has been an understanding and a recovery of the historical construction of sexuality. Through such a recovery, we have begun to identify and define the full range of homosexual behaviors and identities in their historical and geographical particularity.

Historians of sexuality are attempting to locate the relatively recent (probably in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Europe) emergence of homosexuality as an identity inscribed within a subculture.

As Edward Stein notes, "the categories of sexual orientation that we use in twentieth-century North America are culturally-bound categories" that we must not extend without great caution to other times or places because "in other cultures people do not see the gender or biological sex of a person's sexual object choice as revealing significant information about his or her erotic preferences."

The example most often used to demonstrate this point is that of ancient Greece, where social status rather than object choice determined appropriate sexual behavior so that a power differential was maintained between sexual partners; thus, for male citizens, appropriate partners were noncitizens, male or female slaves, and women and boys, not other male citizens.

Before the emergence, then, of homosexual identity as we know it in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, it was particular behaviors between members of the same sex--most often males--that were proscribed. It was considered sinful, or criminal, to participate in certain behaviors, but the persons so participating were not thought of as having identities coterminous with those behaviors. That is, they continued to be identified primarily as persons of a particular sex, class, race, occupation, and so on.

Though the information available for English women before the nineteenth century is more scarce than that for men, it is possible to name some of the cultural constructions that governed female-female erotic relations. Terms like "tribades," "tommies," romantic friends, and denote some of the cultural constructs antedating the more recent "lesbians."

Tensions between Social Constructionists and Essentialists

Tensions between the (post-modern) adherents of social construction and the (more traditionalist) advocates of essentialism became acute in the late 1980s and have led to an ongoing discussion of the relative influences of environment and biology in shaping homosexual identity.

This discussion is a version of the more traditional dialogue about nurture and nature, now driven by the tools and methodologies of modern historiography and by sophisticated scientific studies of genes and DNA.

The extent to which sexual identity is shaped by culture and variable from time to time and place to place and the degree to which it is biologically determined and therefore universal (or transhistorical and transcultural) continue to be central to issues of identity politics within the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered communities, as well as in gay and lesbian imaginative literature and in queer theory.

There is an increasing awareness among theorists of social construction that political essentialism--that is, the argument that there is a fixed gay or lesbian identity--has important utility in the real-world recognition of gays and lesbians as individuals in quest of equal rights and in the advancement of their status as responsible citizens of larger political communities.

The "Gay Gene"

Alternatively, the impetus to find a "gay gene" and to establish a fixed, stable gay identity has yielded with increasing frequency to a more nuanced comprehension of the convergence of environmental and biological influences.

It has become apparent that there are considerable political dangers involved in the assertion of a genetic etiology for sexual orientation insofar as groups and individuals might be encouraged to "fix" what might be regarded as a genetic malfunction.

The respective proponents of social construction and essentialism are thus more frequently coming to value the utility of each other's perspectives.

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