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:  

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Homophobic Bullying

Disturbing article in the Guardian about homophobic bullying.

The victims’ stories are appalling and, apparently, the problem is on the increase. In 1988 more than 80% of schools were aware of such bullying taking place. Now, researchers reckon that 1 in 3 LGB kids experiences bullying, but only 6% of schools have anti-homophobic bullying policies in place. There is a perception that gay people in Britain are now more visible, more socially acceptable and better protected by the law.

But, Rivers says, “None of these messages has got through at a school level […] Homophobic bullying carries a particular menace because rarely does any young person want to admit to the nature of their abuse. Children who are victimized might not even be gay, or know they are, or have come out. They are unlikely to raise such a subject with teachers or parents. So they suffer in silence. And because it is so hidden, this type of bullying can have horrifying consequences. Something To Tell You, a study of lesbian and gay teenagers, showed that one in five had attempted suicide at least once (emphasis mine).

Schools will often claim that they can’t deal with the problem because the parents go berzerk if the school is seen to be soft on homosexuality. But Sue Sanders from the campaign group Schools Out argues “There is a massive myth that parents would be uncomfortable if we did this work to combat homophobic bullying, but it just isn’t the case,” she says. Most parents just want their children to be taught in a safe environment – and heterosexual kids are also prey to homophobic bullying.”

I’m not so convinced that parents in general would be comfortable with giving homosexuality the OK. Moreover, all these little homophobes are picking up a sense of tolerance for homophobia somewhere, and I don’t get the impression that very many families are having sit down talks with their kids about homosexuality and explaining why it’s wrong to attack people perceived to be gay.

Most of the campaigners interviewed recommend more educational programmes in schools. That’s great, but getting into schools to do anti-homophobic work is no easy matter and, furthermore, no one’s sure what can be done about the UK’s 7,000 faith based schools where homophobia is rather likely to be written into the school ethos. While I agree that more education is a good idea, personally, I don’t think we’re going to be able to fully tackle homophobic bullying until we acknowledge and talk about the very real social function which homophobia serves in our culture. Homphobia is not arbitrary, not some bizarre anomaly that comes from nowhere; the kids who bully are symptomatic of a society which has long depended on homophobia. Sanders hits the nail on the head when she notes that heterosexual kids are also subject to such bullying. Yes, of course they are, because for homophobia to work properly, it’s crucial that everyone feel at risk of becoming a victim.

In the words of the queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, homophobia is ‘a mechanism for regulating the behaviour of the many by the specific oppression of the few’ (Between Men, 88). Until we accept that homophobia is a weapon used to keep everyone sexually in line, we will not be able to deal with it adequately, not even with all the educational programmes in the world. It’s going to be incredibly hard to get people to lay down this particular weapon. Since admitting that homosexuality is not wrong means giving up enormous heterosexual privilege, we can’t expect society at large to let it go without a fight.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Axiom 1: ‘People are different from one another’

Even identical sexual acts mean very different things to different people

Sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others

Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts they don’t do, or even don’t want to do

For some people, it is important that sex be embedded in contexts resonant with meaning, narrative, and connectedness with other aspects of their life; for other people, it is important that they not be; to others it doesn’t occur that they might be

For some people, the possibility of bad sex is aversive enough that their lives are strongly marked by its avoidance; for others, it isn’t

For some people, sexuality provides a needed space of heightened discovery and cognitive hyper stimulation. For others, sexuality provides a needed space of routinized habituation and cognitive hiatus

Some people like spontaneous sexual scenes, others like highly scripted ones, others like spontaneous-sounding ones that are nonetheless totally predictable

Some people’s sexual orientation is intensely marked by autoerotic [masturbatory] pleasures […] sometimes more so than by any aspect of alloerotic [or heteroerotic] object choice. For others the autoerotic possibility seems secondary or fragile, if it exists at all

Some people, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meaning and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, p. 325.