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social sciences

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Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Studies  
page: 1  2  

Queer Studies

Queer studies is an even more recent branch of theoretical inquiry, having been named as an area of study only in the early 1990s. The scholar who is usually identified as first using the phrase "queer theory" in print is Teresa de Lauretis, in her 1991 essay "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities," published in the important journal differences.

However, the texts that are considered most responsible for influencing and developing the principles of queer studies are Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality (1978) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Desire (1985).

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In his History of Sexuality, Foucault explores social constructionist models of sexuality and sexual codification through religion, politics, and economics. Foucault argues against thinking of any form of sexuality as something natural or universal.

In Between Men, Sedgwick develops the idea of "homosociality." Sedgwick argues that nineteenth-century British culture was built primarily on asexual bonds between men (such as friendship, apprenticeship, camaraderie in the workforce, and so on), which necessitated, for social and economic reasons, strong prohibitions against homosexual bonds.

Homosociality represents the range of bonds between men that are necessary to maintain a social order, including those bonds between men through women, such as marriage, birth, and so forth. These bonds are presumed to be contrary to pure homosexual bonds, especially within Western cultures, which do not necessitate women as mediating figures. Sedgwick, however, demonstrates how these two antithetical terms, homosexuality and homosociality, frequently collapsed into each other in practice.

What makes queer studies "queer," therefore, is not that it concerns homosexuality or that its practitioners are lesbians or gay men, but that it questions assumptions that are steeped, often subtly, in biases.

Whereas lesbian and gay studies attempts to use existing disciplinary lenses (for example, history, political science, literature) to look at homosexuals and sexual orientation in a more positive light than they had been previously, queer theory attempts to "queer" these disciplines, that is, to change them by weeding out the deep heterosexist biases within them.

Queer studies emerged from gay and lesbian studies' attention to the social construction of categories of normative and deviant sexualities. But while gay and lesbian studies focuses largely on questions of homosexuality, queer studies expands its realm of investigation.

Queer studies considers, and conducts a political critique of, anything that falls into normative and deviant categories, particularly sexual activities and identities. The word "queer," as it appears in the dictionary, has a primary meaning of "odd," "unconventional," or "out of the ordinary." "To queer," then, is to render "normal" sexuality as strange and unsettled, to challenge heterosexuality as a naturalized social-sexual norm, and to promote the notion of "non-straightness."

Thus, queer studies expands the scope of its analysis to all kinds of behaviors, including those that are gender-bending, as well as those that involve "queer" forms of sexuality. Queer studies insists that all sexual behaviors, all concepts linking sexual behaviors to sexual identities, and all categories of normative and deviant sexualities are social constructs, sets of signifiers that create certain types of social meaning.

For queer theorists, sexuality is a complex array of social codes and forces, forms of individual activity and institutional or political power, which interact to shape the ideas of what is normative and what is deviant at any particular moment, and then operate under the category of what is "natural" or "essential."

Essentialist notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality are challenged by queer theorists, who, instead, assert an understanding of sexuality that emphasizes shifting boundaries, ambivalences, and constructions that change depending on historical and cultural context.

Two particularly influential works in queer studies are Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Alexander Doty's Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (1993).

Butler's work rejects stable categories of sexuality altogether, and challenges standard gay, lesbian, bisexual, , and politics. In Butler's conception, these terms are rendered meaningless when stripped of the religious, political, and economic codifications that support them.

Alexander Doty's notion of "queer reception" in Making Things Perfectly Queer demonstrates another way that standard categories of sexuality are challenged. Doty separates "reception" from "identity" and stresses the way a spectator may derive "queer pleasure" from standard categories in viewing film and television. Thus, heterosexual-identified women spectators might experience "queer pleasure" at the sexual tension generated in films such as Thelma and Louise, or heterosexual-identified men might enjoy the exaggerated of certain sporting events or films such as Rambo.

Craig Kaczorowski

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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.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homosexuality

The term "homosexuality," coined in 1869, with "heterosexuality" as its opposite, has led to a binary concept that oversimplifies the complexity of human sexual behavior.

social sciences >> Overview:  Identity Politics

Not limited to activity in the traditionally conceived political sphere, identity politics refers to activism, politics, theorizing, and other similar activities based on the shared experiences of members of a specific social group, often relying on shared experiences of oppression.

literature >> Overview:  Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer

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.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sociology

As an academic field, sociology has only recently begun to examine sexuality, and members of the profession are divided over glbtq concerns.

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 >> Duberman, Martin Bauml

Historian, biographer, essayist, playwright, and academic, Martin Bauml Duberman is an astute commentator on gender and race issues and a pioneer in glbtq studies.

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.

social sciences >> Freud, Sigmund

The founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women, including especially the role of sexuality.

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.


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

Barber, Stephen M., and David L. Clark, eds. Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?" Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 10.3 (May 1995): 343-49.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993.

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

de Lauretis, Teresa. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities." difference: A Journal of Feminist Critical Studies 3:2 (1991): iii-xviii.

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

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

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

Garber, Marjorie B. Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 2000.

_____. Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Hall, Donald E. Queer Theories. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Meyers, Helene. "To Queer or Not to Queer: That Is Not the Question." College Literature 24.1 (February 1997): 171-83.

Norton, Rictor. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity. Washington: Cassell, 1997.

O'Driscoll, Sally. "Outlaw Readings: Beyond Queer Theory." Signs 22.1 (Autumn 1996): 30-32.

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

_____. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Spargo, Tamsin. Foucault and Queer Theory. New York: Totem Books, 1999.

Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Turner, William, B. A Genealogy of Queer Theory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. "From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace (or, why can't a woman be more like a fag?)" Signs 21.4 (Summer 1996): 830-69.

Warner, Michael, ed. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kaczorowski, Craig  
    Entry Title: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Studies  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated April 23, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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