Developing a critical knowledge base: queer and post-queer contributions

Tracing the development of social works’ knowledge base on issues of sexuality and gender could consider a range of theoretical influences and social work approaches (Brown and Cocker, 2011; Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016). While the previous paragraph has already pointed out some critical aspects of the failure to address LGBT issues in social work education and scholarly debates, this section highlights the most recent developments in pushing forward a critical knowledge base of sexuality and gender in social work.

As pointed out, both coverage and approaches to LGBT issues continue to show some critical aspects. Besides stating that LGBT people are often still “among the missing”, a more nuanced debate on how approaching theoretically issues of sexuality and gender in social work seems to be needed in order to better respond to several shortcomings of the debate. Shortcomings relate to the limits of the equal rights agenda and its coalition with the liberal global gay template (Duggan, 2003; Altman and Symons, 2016). Further critical aspects concern the idea of making LGBT people better visible as identifiable groups with special welfare needs while giving at the same time little attention to intersectionalities with other social categorisations and to the different social positions of LGBT people (Jeyasingham, 2008; O’Neill; Swan and Mule, 2015). Furthermore, as the critique of anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive approaches has pointed out, social work should analyse more critically its own categorisations and challenge its systems of knowledge that produce meanings and frame moral and political hierarchies in relation to sexuality and gender.

In this regard, the most promising contributions to the social work debate come from authors who adopt a queer and a post-queer perspective (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016). Queer theorists challenge normative expectations in connection to sexuality and gender, question heterosexuality as the norm taken for granted and show the socially constructed and normative nature of sexual and gender identities (Jagose, 1996; Warner, 1993). In this sense, a queer approach questions the binary and hierarchically structured conceptualisations as well as the causal connections of sex, gender and desire, which results in the paradigm of heteronormativity (Berlant and Warner, 1998). Challenging essentialist notions of sexuality and gender and the representation of sexual identities as their natural and innate variations, a queer perspective is critical towards perspectives that focus on the legitimation and normalisation of homosexuality, even in the context of gay and lesbian studies (Rinaldi, 2016; Mule, 2015). The argument from a queer perspective is that studies make use of what Foucault (1990) has called reverse discourses. In spite of being sites of resistance, these discourses have only precarious power and remain automatically marginalised. By using the same vocabulary and the same categories of dominant and marginalising discourses, the power of reverse discourses is necessarily marginalised while fundamental power relations remain untouched (Foucault, 1990).

Hicks and Jeyasingham (2016) present an insightful genealogy of social work approaches to sexuality, in which they point to the key tenets of queer theory as well as post-queer developments and analyse social work’s engagement with these approaches. In highlighting queer theory’s key arguments, the authors build on de Lauretis’ (1991) critique that gay and lesbian studies have been largely silent on issues of race, gender and other differences of age, class, culture and geographical and socio-political location. In this sense, queer theory opens up new perspectives of enquiry while questioning the limitations of liberal rights politics, which privilege conventional and accepted ways of living over others (Duggan, 2003).

Furthermore, Hicks and Jeyasingham (2016) underline queer theory’s concern with language, knowledge and performativity. Building on Foucault’s (1990) ideas of knowledge and discourse, queer theory’ focuses on discourses and knowledge systems of sexuality as powerful producers of meaning and subjectivities and as markers of moral and political hierarchies. The concern with knowledge is central also in Sedgwick’s (1990) argument of the binary distinction of homosexuality and heterosexuality as a structural and morally loaded feature that shaped in a powerful way the systems of knowing and unknowing in modern Western culture. In this sense, a queer perspective is questioning knowledge about gender and sexuality and challenging accepted identity categories as a basis for enquiry and politics. Accordingly, queer theory also particularly draws on Judith Butler’s (1999) critique of identity as relying on essentialist notions and her argument that sexuality and gender categories are actually contingent on performative regimes that produce their illusory nature.

Based on these ideas, queer theory points to the crucial aspect of sexual and gender normativity. Taking up ideas that underline the hierarchical appraisal of sexual acts and beings (Rubin, 1984) and the “straight mind” (Wittig, 1992: 31) as a powerful means of maintaining sexually and gender related hierarchies and upholding oppressive social relations, queer theorists have further developed these perspectives by coining the notion of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is defined as “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practice orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent — that is organised as a sexuality — but also privileged” (Berlant and Warner, 1998: 548). With the concept of heteronormativity, a queer perspective moves “beyond a focus only on the experiences of sexual minorities, in order to examine the systems that afford status to certain sexual forms and identities over others, since all kinds of things, not just sexual, are understood as indicating heterosexuality and so become endowed with moral value and status” (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016: 2361).

There is also a small body of social work scholarship that does engage with queer theory’ in a more attentive manner. These contributions refer to queer theory’s concerns with language, knowledge and performativity questioning heteronormativity and engaging with the constructed and hierarchical nature of accepted categories of sexuality and gender. These contributions also critically analyse social work’s knowledge base and role in producing such categories, pointing out that the social work itself is “deeply implicated in the construction of power relations in sexuality” (O’Brien, 1999: 151) and challenging the presumed theoretical innocence of straightforward anti-oppressive practice approaches (Featherstone and Green, 2013). These contributions suggest developing a “queer consciousness” (Martinez, 2011) and to pay attention to the constructions of those categories to empower.

Few social work scholars make critical contributions useful to queer theory and tend to assume that it often tends to be too abstract from peoples’ every' day and bodily experiences (Willis, 2007; Gregor, 2017). Mulé (2015b) refers to queer theory when he argues for a broadening of the theoretical horizons in addressing sexual and gender diversity in social work and acknowledges the potential of a queer perspective for challenging society to critically question its identity categories in relation to sexuality and gender. At the same time, however, Mulé (2015b) sees queer theory as being too academic and individualised and as being unequal to the tasks of serving social work practice. Furthermore, Mulé argues that queer’s critique of identity categories should not detract from the fact that there is distinct queer community and culture with specific and diverse needs (Mulé, 2008, 2015b).

Hicks and Jeyasingham (2016) draw attention to critical aspects of some queer writing and point to important post-queer developments in order to reinvigorate theorising sexuality in contemporary social work debates. They refer to the critique that queer theory' often tends to ignore or avoid questions of race, fails to challenge white privilege and contributes to nationalist imaginarles through processes of constructing new racial others (Johnson, 2001; Barnard, 2004). According to such positions, who is not white tends to be constructed either as the oppressed victim of imagined non-Western regimes or as the non-Western, often Muslim, immigrant homophobe. Similarly, non-Western communities and cultures are represented as being more homophobic than others (Haritaworn, 2012, 2015). 1’uar (2007: xii) suggests both queer theory and activism have been accompanied by “very narrowing parameters of white racial privilege, consumption, capabilities, gender and kinship normativity and bodily integrity”. In this context, the notions of homonormativity (Duggan, 2003) and homonationalism (Puar, 2007) become highly relevant. Coining the notion of homonormativity, Duggan (2003: 50) criticises a dominant liberal rights agenda that “does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilised gay' constituency and a privatised, depoliticised gay' culture anchored in domesticity and consumption”. With the notion of homonationalism, Puar (2007) refers to the national policing of the sexual and racial Other. Here borders and cultures are defined with an acceptable version of homosexuality produced, namely' one that is complicit with the nation state and its imperial and neoliberal project.

Other writers criticise that queer theory' has failed to engage with matters of class, economics and materialism (Hennessy, 2000). According to these critiques, queer writing has focused on the discursive and performative production of identity categories while rather neglecting the effects of the organisation of labour and the distribution of resources. This kind of critique might rely on a rather flawed understanding of discourse as simply concerned with language and not capable of dealing with structural concerns, however, Hicks and Jeyasingham acknowledge the insight that the “fluid bodies, identities and desires” depicted by' some queer writers are much in line with the “flexible, mobile and unfettered subjects” requested by neo-liberal capitalism (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016: 2366).

A further critique to queer concerns its binary' confrontation of normativity and anti-nonnativity, which is seen as simplistic and too self-assured (Wiegman and Wilson, 2015; Halberstam, 2015). In this regard, Hicks and Jeyasingham (2016) recognise a tendency of some queer stances to focus on the dictation of norms by over-determined and overly textual accounts rather than on their interactive production by' persons and institutions. However, from a critical point of view, the main achievement of queer approaches is to challenge uncritically accepted categories of sexuality and gender and to show their normative character. A queer approach is different from approaches that focus on the expansion of hetero- and “cisnormative standards” to sexual and gender diverse populations and on equal treatment at the price of fitting lifestyles and values into existing regulative and normative institutions. A queer approach rejects nonns that help maintain oppressive power systems and allow them to function. In this sense, queer and postqueer theorising can stimulate social work’s theoretical engagement with issues of sexuality and gender, contribute to a more critical knowledge base and foster a more reflexive stance towards social work’s own role when addressing LGBT people, understanding their needs and better target services.

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