Queer Culture

The term ‘queer’ has often puzzled outsiders.Why call yourself that? This too has its story. For a long time ‘queer’was, of course, a derogatory term for male homosexuals. That began to change when it began to be widely used in a new, affirmative sense among activist organisations that confronted politicians and the media in relation to the AIDS epidemic. In particular, it emerged in the USA out of ACT UP, which was established in 1987 to respond to the safe-sex movement.The safe-sex movement had attempted to close down on sodomy as an unsafe practice, in a strategy that risked echoing old-fashioned homophobia. ACT UP argued that the HIV virus should not be confused with the sex that spread it (‘Fight AIDS, not sex’) and that the solution to the epidemic was a medical one, which need not in any way encourage gay-bashing.Driven by this programme, it came to distinguish itself from the discourses and objectives of the gay and lesbian liberation movement that had appeared in the seventies dedicated to strengthening and winning acceptance for gay and lesbian identities (see Berlant and Freeman 1993). ACT UP quickly internationalised itself, and formed the institutional nucleus for what became queer politics and a collectivity sometimes then known as ‘queer nation’.While it would be wrong to think of queer politics as globalised (it has made little or no headway in Africa or in nations with Islamic traditions, which have remained severely homophobic), queer movements have appeared in parts of Asia, Latin America and the old Soviet bloc (see Patton and Sánchez-Eppler 2000).

It is important to distinguish queer culture from the various sexual liberation movements that preceded it, and which have now developed into the GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bi and Transgender community) – of which the gay liberation movement was the first, and has had the widest cultural impact. Along with the feminist movement, one of the most stunning transformations in late twentieth-century culture has been the emergence of gay and lesbian public cultures – or, to put this another way, the prising open of the closet. Homophobic prejudice and persecution did not cease but for the first time in modern Western history, the lifestyles that clustered around same-sex desires could be lived publicly. News-stands sold newspapers for gays and lesbians. Celebrities came out. Gay clubs, dance parties, holiday resorts, bars, whole neighbourhoods became part of the ‘normalised’ social fabric. Gay voting blocks emerged in certain cities (first of all San Francisco, where reputedly about a quarter of all voters are gay); and along with them openly gay politicians. Marketing and advertising agencies recognised the ‘pink dollar’ as a distinct market segment. Festivals such as Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which celebrated gay and lesbian culture, attracted wide public, even governmental, support. By the late nineties, gay characters were appearing neutrally, even affirmatively, in mainstream films and TV sitcoms.

History and Theory

This movement is often (if rather mythically) traced back to a particular moment. On 27 June 1969 the New York City Police raided the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay hang-out. Such a raid was by no means unusual, but this time, to everyone’s surprise, the clientele, which included gays, lesbians and transsexuals, fought back, starting what came to be known as the ‘Stonewall Riots’.These were followed by the first ‘Gay Power’ rally the following month and by the establishment of a more militant group, consciously based on feminist radical activism, which dubbed itself the Gay Liberation Front.A number of similar organisations were formed across the developed world with various time lags. Thus, for instance, almost twenty years later, in 1990, another group, Outrage!,was established in London as a response to the queer-bashing of the actor Michael Boothe and the lack of police response to this. Outrage! upped the ante on the more sedate British gay liberation movement by embarking on a programme of outing famous gays, organising public ‘kiss-ins’ and ‘queer weddings’ to highlight discriminatory legislation.

The gay movement’s political programme turned around two main demands, the repeal of laws criminalising same-sex acts and the admission of full civil rights to selfidentified gays. These demands (and especially the first) were not new, although the openness and confidence with which they were pursued was.What was new, however, was the formation of a new public culture around gayness, underpinned by a new theoretical understanding of homosexuality. (Even here the term ‘new’ needs to be qualified since groups such as the Los Angeles-based ONE Institute had theorised ‘homosexual culture’ in sociological terms during the fifties.)

The new culture embraced gayness as an identity that became not a more or less shameful and mutated internalisation of negative images of homosexual identity beamed in from the straight world, but self-generated and proud markers of who you were. Until now, in mainstream society but not only in mainstream society, male homosexuality had been associated with feminised masculinity: stereotypes of limp wrists, aestheticism, a predilection for the colour pink, and so on. After Stonewall, in the seventies a new style of gayness came to public attention: an assertively macho style, with cowboy hats, pencil moustaches and blue Levis. It was a style that simultaneously sent up and joyfully embraced conventional Marlboro man masculinity as well as defiantly overturning old stereotypes. Post-seventies gayness has opened itself up to a plethora of styles.

Homosexuality itself was not an old concept: it was invented during the last decades of the nineteenth century from an amalgam of academic medicine and social science which has come to be known as sexology. For its first theorists, homosexuality was a form of social pathology, which was also conceived as being a form of ‘deviance’. It was in this context that Michel Foucault’s revisionary history of sexuality made such an impact in the seventies. Famously Foucault argued that what he called the ‘repressive hypothesis’ needs to be turned inside out (Foucault 1978). He contended that sexuality should not be regarded as a force of nature that our ancestors censored and distorted, and which needs to be liberated within us. Instead sexuality (like all concepts) is produced in discourse, in ‘talk about sex’ – and, he boldly argued, the increasing public attention given to sexuality across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the emergence of a science of sexuality in the late nineteenth century, in fact produces modern sexuality. In these terms there was more rather than less sexuality under the repressive Victorian regime because, for instance, masturbation, adolescent sex and commercial sex were more strenuously invigilated. And, for Foucault, there is no sexual life-force in human beings awaiting liberation from social bonds: once again there are just various ‘discursive practices’ in which the ‘truth’ about sex is formed and connected to social practices, interests and power structures. And (in a conceptual move we can recognise as post-Marxist), because the various components of sexuality – pleasures, desires, drives, objects – are so elusive,‘truth about sex’ proliferates in search of a disappearing object.

These lines of thought led to Foucault’s second main argument: from the late eighteenth-century onwards the status of sexual desire and practices between men changed. They became not bodily or psychological acts (albeit ones with relations to sin and crime) but central signifiers of identity. By around 1900, if a man preferred sex with other men to sex with women that now made him a ‘homosexual’ (and not just, for instance, someone who had sex with other men more or less often). It did so to such a degree that anything else he might be – a member of this or that nation, class, locality, profession and so on – was secondary compared to his sexual orientation in marking his identity. Foucault argued against the sexualising of identity at all: for him what was important was not public recognition, official sanction for desires and personhood, but rather the capacity to nurture and experiment with sexual styles and pleasures outside of the constraints of normalising or inspectorial pressures. And the invention of homosexuality intensified homophobia. Hatred of men who committed sodomy had long formed part of popular culture (men convicted of the crime had often been hounded by women prostitutes in particular, who saw them as competitors), but now homophobia acquired new social functions. Indeed its intensification during the last decades of the nineteenth century is linked to similar shifts in sexism and racism. All these modes of thought represent some human beings (women, people of colour, homosexuals) as less than fully human, and all emerge in their modern form alongside democracy as a way of maintaining those social hierarchies under threat by means of formally egalitarian policies and doctrines.

Foucault’s intervention (itself heavily dependent on the gay liberation movement) helped the gay movement repudiate ‘homosexuality’ as a paradigm. It helped develop the notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ through which it became clear that the total heterosexual domination of the social and cultural order was not a fact of nature or biology but of history and convention.Very similarly, Foucault’s intervention lay behind the concept of ‘heteronormativity’. This pointed to the way that, in our society, concepts of the normal and the heterosexual are almost impossible to separate. But it also indicated how heterosexuality almost invisibly supports a number of other norms – it is (or at any rate has been) the key to social acceptance, and remains one of the mainstays of family values.That is, heteronormativity as a concept makes it clear that compulsory heterosexuality is socially invisible because it has embedded itself into the culture’s sense of the normal across so many registers and formations that alternatives look like pathologies rather than viable alternatives. And it helps show how dependent the regime of compulsory heterosexuality is on its ‘other’: what normalises heterosexuality is continual differentiation of itself from, and management of, what is not ‘normal’. But this works the other way too: homosexuality, or any sexual practice or orientation, cannot be pulled out of the system within which it exists.There is an important sense, so the argument goes, in which to transgress or critique heteronormativity is to do so in terms which, in part, belong to it.This need not be regarded as limiting critique, but it does mean that notions of radical autonomy and difference, and any politics founded on them, have a phantasmal quality.

Leaving these rather recondite arguments behind, we can summarise: after Foucault, sexuality was taken out of the realm of nature and placed at the very heart of modern history, society and politics, allowing new relations between sex, society and politics to become imaginable, and with them, some claimed, new kinds of sex. In particular, after Foucault, in arguments developed by Leo Bersani, sex no longer had to be primarily conceived of as connected to love, joy and expressiveness, or even pleasure (as it is for dominant post-repressive ideology). It is just as connected to loss of control, disorder, aggression and shame (Bersani 1990). And obviously no less seductive (or obsessional) for that.

These lines of thought, however, exacerbated internal divisions within the gay and lesbian liberation movements. In their basic form these divisions repeated those that had already appeared within feminism and, in this context, can be boiled down to the question: did gays and lesbians want to be accepted as ‘normal’, to be granted the same rights and to embrace the same values and styles as any other citizen? Or did they want to maintain their difference and, specifically, their transgressive relation to heteronormativity?

The movement for difference institutionalised itself, as we have seen, around the response to the AIDS epidemic, since it was then that a conservative, normalising wing of the gay liberation movement was able to enter into negotiations with governmental agencies. On the other side, cultural studies intellectuals such as Paula Treichler, Cindy Patton and John Erni critically examined the discourses and politics of the AIDS response. In one important contribution Erni, using a methodology derived from Foucault, showed how the search for a ‘cure for AIDS’, although on the face of it a medical project,was in reality a set of discourses and power relations which continued to express traditional homophobia (Erni 1994). Taking a more utopian standpoint, drawing on Eve Sedgwick’s work, and moving towards queer theory, Cindy Patton argued that the gay body is ‘written by science’ (Patton 1990, 129) and that the official response to the HIV virus was a culmination of the scienticised gay body. Now medical science was essentialising the relationship between homosexuality and a disease, as though the first simply caused, and was expressive of, the second. Her answer? To take advantage of gaps and fissures in science’s hegemonic discourse and find new forms of identity in the spaces that remained invisible to public surveillance and outside of official sexual identities – ‘queer identities’ in other words.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

In a later intervention in the debate, Michael Warner has suggested that what differentiates the conservative and the radical movements are their relation to the state.The gay and lesbian movement is happy to present itself as an interest group representing a constituency of citizens lobbying for policies meant to improve the welfare of its constituency; the queer movement is suspicious of the politics of representation and of the state welfarism that such a politics presupposes (Warner 1999). Indeed, at least from one side of the spectrum, queer covers a wider range of sexual acts and identities than LGBT, since, in the wake of Foucault and post-structuralism, it rejects identity politics as such. It is even possible to be interested solely in sex with people of the opposite gender and queer, which is not the case for those who identify as gay or lesbian.

The queer movement has met with a great deal of resistance within the gay and lesbian movement. In the USA the anti-queer case was put most popularly by Andrew Sullivan in his book Virtually Normal (1995, but based on a 1993 New Republic essay). Sullivan argued that most gay people want to be normal like everyone else and that the linkage between sexuality and ‘cultural subversion’ has alienated not only the wider society but most gay people too. Indeed, from within the more consumerist and conformist side of the gay community there is a sense that we have already entered the ‘post-gay’ moment, which is to say the gay community has effectively been de-politicised (Warner 1999, 62–64).

At any rate, for Sullivan the gay movement should be overwhelmingly concerned with two issues in particular: gay marriages and the right to join the military. Leaving aside the fact that these are issues which raise negative passions (to the degree that they do raise passions outside of the world of formal politics and the mass media) mainly in the USA, this kind of thinking has led to a quite widespread feeling that the gay liberation movement has only a small number of goals to meet and therefore can soon be disbanded. Against that expectation, many take a queer position to argue that,were gay and lesbian marriages to be legally recognised, this would cast an invidious distinction between married and non-married couples within the same-sex community itself. Marriage legitimises sexual relations, and by the same stroke de-legitimises other – extra-marital – relations. And same-sex marriage would make increasingly precarious queer intimacies that don’t involve the kind of love which sanctifies marriage. Do queers need this? That question faces the strong liberal riposte: Even so, if we want to get married who are you to stand in our way? Or the more radical riposte: wouldn’t same-sex marriage change and widen the institution of marriage by de-coupling it from traditional gender roles? The difficult politics of this issue, which have had the effect of further radicalising the queer movement, have not, as a matter of fact, helped energise the queer cause in the USA (see Warner 1999).

Against this background, the radical queer movement has moved into increasingly utopian politics. In one of its moves, drawing on Leo Bersani’s work mentioned above (itself dependent on Lacanian psychoanalysis), it has embraced sex as abjection. It is in these terms that Michael Warner can write: ‘In those circles where queerness has been most cultivated, the ground rule is that one doesn’t pretend to be above the indignity of sex’ (Warner 1999, 35, original emphasis). And then in response to the movement against public sex (the cleaning up of porn shops, clubs where sex takes place, cruising haunts, etc.) which has been supported by some in the normalising gay movement, it has argued for a rethinking of the public/private division. In doing so it rebukes that long Western history in which sexual acts are the most private of all. Indeed, it can be argued, in which they form the nub of privacy as such. Here is Michael Warner:

As it happens, an understanding of queerness has been developing in recent decades that is suited to just this necessity: a culture is developing in which intimate relations and the sexual body can in fact be understood as projects for transformation among strangers.(At the same time,a lesbian and gay public has been reshaped so as to ignore or refuse the counter-public character that has marked its history.) So too in youth culture, coolness both mediates a difference from dominant publics and constitutes that difference as the subjective form of stranger sociability. (Warner 2002, 122)

This is an attempt to affirm, on political grounds, casual sex between strangers (more common among same-sex partners than of heterosexual ones) by aligning it to edgy styles – here ‘cool’ – where strangers recognise themselves as alike and thereby connect. Warner hopes for a connection between the kinds of sociabilities formed around such styles and the queer movement as such. But to what degree do forms of ‘stranger sociability ’ have to be organised effectively to differ from ‘dominant publics’? And anyway (if one wants to engage in this kind of utopian political calculation), isn’t it as rebellious to be uncool as to be cool, even if the uncool don’t form any kind of social association?

In a nutshell: what queer theory teaches us is that nothing is certain about sex and sexuality and that the social categories we have to organise, use and police it are contingent (they might be different and indeed are always in the process of becoming different). And the same is true, at the level of individuals and their bodies, for the pleasures and other intensities we take from sex, which although they may be offered to us as mediated through sex’s social categories, are also open to modification by new ways of incorporating and acting out (or performing) gender as well as sexual drives.

This mode of analysis – which emphasises the contingency and performativity of gender roles and which was pioneered by Judith Butler – owes a great deal to poststructuralism and often seems more appealing as a theoretical model than useful for the analysis or enactment of actual, existing, sexual cultures and politics (Butler 1989). This means that queer theory has not been absorbed easily into cultural studies proper as we have been thinking of it here. In literary studies, queer theory has generally involved a re-reading of the heritage so as to uncover previously secreted moments of same-sex desire, sometimes, it has to be said, on a pretty flimsy basis. It has, as it were, outed the canon. Some cultural studies work has taken the same tack: thus Richard Dyer in one essay in his The Culture of Queers focuses on our uncertainty about whether certain film noir movies, which like so many American fictions involve close relations between ‘buddies’, are to be read as representing erotic flows between these buddies or not. He argues that this uncertainty is itself a generic feature of noir, one of the ways in which it unsettles and destabilises the status quo (Dyer 2002).

But the step beyond textual interpretation and theory-production has yet to be fully taken in queer cultural studies despite groundbreaking work by figures such as Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner and others.That remains a task for cultural studies’ future; but one made all the harder because it is apparent that in the ebb and flow of academic fashion, the tide is going out for queer thought and practice, however much political work remains to be done.

Source: Miller, Toby. A Companion To Cultural Studies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Print.


  • Berlant, Lauren Gail and Elizabeth Freeman. ‘Queer Nationality’. Fear of a Queer Planet. Ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1993: 193–229.
  • Dyer, Richard. White. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Erni, John Nguyet. Unstable Frontiers: Technomedicine and the Cultural Politics of ‘Curing’ AIDS. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London:Tavistock, 1972.
    –– The History of Sexuality. 1st American edn. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
  • Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York:The Free Press, 1999.
    –– Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge: Zone Books, 2002.

Further Reading

  • Abelove, Henry, Micháele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader.New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith P. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Thinking Gender. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Halperin, David M. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Jagose,Annamarie. Queer Theory:An Introduction.New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Patton, Cindy and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler. Queer Diasporas. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Gender and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
    –– Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990.

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