A Personal Queer Theory Retrospective

Those of you who’ve been reading my various blog incarnations for a while will be aware that, until last year, I was pursuing an academic career.  When it became apparent that there were few diamonds in that mine (for me at least), I decided to rethink and stopped blogging while I sorted out my life. 

We will draw a veil over that period, but it took me until last month to finally get rid of all the files associated with the academic part of my life and I thought it would be interesting to look at the small pile of scribbled on photocopied essays that I’ve decided to keep from the files labelled ‘Queer Theory’.  

These days, I’m a lot more critical of queer theory than I once was.  Queer theory has been dominated by white, middle-class people and, at its worst, can be elitist, impenetrable, alarmingly divorced from peoples’ real lived experiences, as well as having a tendency to erase the specificity of lesbian experience.

Having said that, some essays still have enough importance for me to be prepared to carry them around with the rest of my belongings as I move from place to place.  In roughly chronological order of publication:  

Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’ (1984)

I think this is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand where both queer theory and sex positive feminism came from.  It’s a tough-minded analysis of the ways in which society sets up an oppositition between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexual behaviours and identities.

Leo Bersani, ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’ (1988)

This is an old pre-queer theory essay, but it still packs one heck of a punch.  Bersani considers the misogynistic aversion to sex that  underlies homophobia and argues that pastoralizing sex and making redemptive claims about it are as oppressive as pornography (if not worse).

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘The Beast in the Closet’, from her book Epistemology of the Closet (1990)

I like this essay best out her famous book because it deals with the ninteenth-century Gothic.  Plus it has a great title.  There’s not much else to say really.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Queer and Now’, from her book Tendencies (1993)

If you’re interested in queer theory I would recommend reading the entire book.  I mean to buy it myself one of these days.

Judith Butler, ‘Critically Queer’ (1993)

One of her clearer and more readable works.

Susan Stryker, ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage’ (1994)

This could probably be criticised on a few levels now, but it blew my mind when I first read it and changed the way I thought about gender.

David M. Halperin, ‘Deviant Teaching’ (1995)

A really excellent essay about the culturally loaded relationship between male homosexuality and teaching.  Quite revelatory.

Janet R. Jakobsen, ‘Queer Is? Queer Does? Normativity and the Problem of Resistance’, (1998)

We talk a lot about ‘norms’, ‘normativity’ and ‘heteronormativity’, but what do these terms mean? And what do we mean by ‘resistance’?

Carolyn Dinshaw, ‘Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, Foucault’ (1999)

Well, this is about as much fun as you can have with a queer theory essay – Pulp fiction, sodomy, Arthurian Romance and more.

Geraldine Friedman, ‘Pseudonimity, Passing and Queer Biography: The Case of Mary Diana Dods’ (2000)

This essay recounts Mary Shelley’s involvement in the transvestite marriage of two of her friends.  After the marriage, Mary Diana Dods took on the identity of Walter Sholto Douglas and lived as a man.  It makes you think about how trans people found ways to survive in the past.

Steven Bruhm, ‘Picture This: Stephen King’s Queer Gothic’ (2000)

An entertaining queer reading of Stephen’s King’s novel, The Shining, and the Kubrick film adaptation, both of which I enjoyed.

Richard Zeikowitz, ‘Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes’ (2002)

I have a fondness for the queer medievalists.  They get to have a lot of fun because they’re working with a period before modern (post seventeenth century) concepts of gender and sexuality coalesced.

Karen Kopelson, ‘Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer Binary: “Reconstructed Identity Politic” for a Performative Pedagogy’ (2002)

What an incredibly pretentious title! The essay is actually pretty readable, though, and very useful for understanding the theory of performativity.

Amy E Winans, ‘Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom: Engaging with the Places where thinking stops’ (2006)

It’s not a world-changing essay, but I suppose I’ve kept it to remind me to be aware of the places where my own thinking tends to stop.

I’m not sure what these essays have in common, except perhaps, that they all exemplify queer theory in action and shifted my own thinking.

5 thoughts on “A Personal Queer Theory Retrospective

  1. “Queer theory has been dominated by white, middle-class people and, at its worst, can be elitist, impenetrable, alarmingly divorced from peoples’ real lived experiences, as well as having a tendency to erase the specificity of lesbian experience.”

    Hell, yes. I’m starting to see better practice in “queered” fields of other discipline (notably, anthropology), where the theory is much more grounded in ethnography. But I still often see far too much White/Western centrism.


  2. Taking copious notes from this list, since I now want to read half of them! Thank you for putting this together.

    • I would highly recommend the essays by Rubin, Stryker, Dinshaw and Bruhm as very readable and entertaining.

  3. Oooh.

    I think I shall come back to this list when I am in a more intellectual frame of mind. At the moment I’m avoiding anything which requires any effort to read.

  4. Pingback: Some nerve! « ] Outside The Lines [

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