Presentation of Critical Alternatives Offered by Queer Theory

Having presented what we see as the limited uptake of queer theory in a sample of mainstream social psychology journals, we now turn to outline an understanding of queer theory. In his discussion of queer theory in the context of the discipline of psychology, Minton (1997) suggests that:

Resisting the discourse of homophobia, by assuming a de-essentialized identity that is purely positional, constitutes a queer rather than a gay identity. Unlike a gay identity, which is grounded in an affirmative choice of homosexuality, a queer identity has meaning only in terms of its oppositional relation to what is normative and dominant. (p. 338)

At its simplest, then, queer theory is understood as oppositional, as we suggested in the introduction to this chapter. The question this begs, then, is opposition to what? A simplistic interpretation would be opposition to normative gender binaries, or an opposition to heterosexual hegemony, or an opposition to White patriarchy (or indeed all of these things together). A more complex account, however, would emphasise oppositionality to the very idea of any truth claimed to be the product of inclusive representationality (e.g., trying to define a comprehensive ‘list’ of sexualities). In other words, queer theory stands in opposition to any claim that what we think we know stands outside of the ways in which this knowing is produced. As Warner (2004) suggests with regard to sex and gender, the relationship between these two descriptors is the product of a claim to an ontological difference between two presumed categories (male and female, man and woman), one that trades upon the belief that they are universal and consistent, rather than culturally produced and contingent. This production of difference, Warner argues, functions to create modes of intelligibility through which bodies are produced as either intelligible (i.e., those that approximate particular social norms) or unintelligible. The latter category thus becomes the site of deviance, of social control, and of social marginalisation and exclusion. Importantly, as Butler (1990) argues, subjectivity properly (i.e., normatively) constituted is only possible within matrices of intelligibility—outside of these, intelligibility is denied. Moreover, as Warner suggests, these matrices of intelligibility are only partially constituted through the ‘facts’ of any given person’s approximation to social norms. There ‘facts’ are perhaps more properly, Warner argues, constituted through the assumption of approximation and the ways in which this is regulated:

Consider this: of all the men you interact with on a daily basis, how many of their penises have you ever really inspected for biological authenticity? Do we not usually just presume their existence and move on from there? In practice, judgements of gender identity are based on public performances, not private parts. (p. 324)

As is oft-repeated in summaries of queer theory, however, these ‘performances’ are not merely those of actors on a stage. Butler (1993) was at pains to demonstrate that the performativity of gender is not akin to drag, although drag is a genre that both questions and reproduces gender. Rather, performativity is a performance so fundamental to subjectivity as to appear naturalised. As Butler (1993) put it:

performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act’, but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names. (p. xii)

The description of queer theory that we have provided above may seem entirely negative, so much so that some early proponents of queer theory famously disengaged with the label ‘queer theory’ soon after it rose to popularity in the early 1990s (see Jagose, 1996). If intelligibility polices possibility (Butler,

1993), then what hope is there for anything but normative performances of socially condoned modes of subjectivity? The response to this, from the position of queer theory, is that to be ‘queer’ is to highlight the ways in which social norms are naturalised: How they are reliant upon sets of binary categories that are culturally contingent. This does not mean that queer theory speaks from a position outside of norms of intelligibility. As a prime example, Warner’s (2004) above quote about men and penises makes recourse to cultural knowledge to make a queer theoretical comment on gender from within norms of intelligibility.

In terms of a critical social psychology, Hegarty and Massey (2006) suggest that queer theory might be useful for the fact that it both critically interrogates social norms and finds ways to productively live through them from marginal locations. Commenting specifically on mainstream social psychological attitudinal research and HIV/AIDS, they suggest that:

Queer theory might suggest how social psychologists could have their attitude technologies and deconstruct them, too. In the context of HIV/AIDS from which queer theory largely emerged, it became necessary to critically read the biomedical discourse through which ‘facts’ about AIDS were being produced and to develop strategies for living with the virus. (p. 61)

For Hegarty and Massey (2006), then, queer theory offers both modes of reading and modes of living. Such an approach, we would argue, is central to any critical social psychological project that seeks not only to describe people’s lives but perhaps more importantly to explore the ways in which their lives are both proscribed and prescribed and from there, to make a truly ‘social’ contribution by rendering intelligible alternate ways of being. In the following section, we take these points about description, proscription, and being and apply them to some of our own research.

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