I was about to say that lots of people ask me questions when they hear that I have studied queer theory, but it’s not quite true. Some people do. Other people just look at me for a minute and then change the subject.
People who do ask questions often begin with something like, “do they really call it that?” Well, yes, it’s genuinely in the title of courses and indeed my degree. It is a provocative name, and I know many people are uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘queer’. The thinking behind its use here has, I think, two main strands. Firstly, using an insult to refer to yourself takes the sting out of it; this process is called ‘reclaiming’. Pagans, especially women, who call themselves witches are doing some of this; religious groups, such as Quakers or Methodists, who take on originally offensive or sarcastic nicknames are also doing this. It turns the power of the word to your advantage – with the disadvantage that a lot of people are going to raise their eyebrows and say things like, “do they [whoever they are!] really call it that?”
The second strand is the need for a clear but not too specific term. ‘Gay’, although sometimes used for all homosexuals or even everyone who experiences same-sex attraction, is more often associated with men – as ‘lesbian’ is with women. Terms like ‘homosexual’ don’t make sense when you’ve noticed the existence of people outside the gender binary – what’s ‘same-sex’ if you’re intersex or third-gendered? Abbreviations – LGBTQIA… – build up into long lists and can never include everyone. ‘Queer’ – people whose sexualities are oppressed under the use of offensive terms like ‘queer’ – can include, as someone memorably put it in questioning me about my course, “gays and stuff”, with a very wide scope on ‘stuff’. Polyamory, kink, BDSM, asexuality, heteroqueer, and a whole array of gender identities can be included under the suggestive-but-not-definitive term ‘queer’.
What does queer theory do, then? Two main things: it theorises queerness and it offers queer readings. Queerness – whatever that is – has often been medicalised and sexuality and gender treated reductively (I refer you to whatever debate about ‘gay genes’ or the existence of ‘female sexual dysfunction’ is happening at the moment). Working from a perspective which takes the experiences of queer people seriously, queer theory can open up new ways of looking at these questions.
Similarly, queer readings of texts – literary works, TV shows, archaeological evidence, whatever – offers insights from contemporary and historical queer experience. Again, this can open up new perspectives on all kinds of questions: the relationships between characters in a novel, the burial of a body with ambiguous gender markers, the ways that gay marriage is depicted in advertising.
Lots of people ask me whether queer theory is really called that, and what it’s about. Sadly, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me why I’d want to study queer theory or what makes it a useful subject – things I do get asked about theology and philosophy in particular. That’s sad because I’d have a lot to say about how enriching I found it as a discipline.