Queer is what queer does? What is queering theory, part 1: some sources

Throughout the fall semester (which lasts until December), I will be posting reading notes for my queering theory class here. I will also be posting these entries on the blog for Queering Theory (found here).

For the next three sessions, our class will be discussing “What is queering theory?”. Today, we will begin with part 1 and readings by Cherry Smith, Elizabeth Freeman/Lauren Berlant, and Lisa Duggan (with Nikki Sullivan for some background). I have entitled this entry, “Queer is what queer does?” because all of the articles, in different ways, challenge the idea of queer as something that one is and develop (albeit tentative) definitions of queer and queering through queer practices of resistance and rebellion and queer approaches to politics/theorizing/living. In other words, these readings point to the possibilities for defining what queer is through what queer does.

Incidentally, I am struck by my title here and my choice to write “what queer does” instead of “what queers do”.  My title is no accident; it points to the troubling tendency within certain forms of queer theory to privilege “queer/queering” as Practices (of deconstruction, resistance, destabilizing) over situated practices that are done by persons who may or may not identify as queer. Ah ha! Here it is again: the tension between Queer/ing as a concept and queer/ing as specific practices done by actual people. How might it shift our perspective on and our engagement with queering theory if we moved from “queer is what queer does” to “queer is what queers do”?

1535386“What is This Thing Called Queer?”
by Cherry Smith

After opening her essay with a list of definitions of queer (from a range of sources), Smith outlines a queer agenda and key queer issues as articulated by queer direct action groups like OutRage. This group, formed in London, aims to assert the dignity of lesbians and gay men, fight homophobia, and affirm the rights of sexual freedom. They maintain a tenuous balance between “rejecting assimilation” and “wanting to be recognized” (278). OutRage, along with other groups, like Whores of Babylon, SISSY and PUSSY use extravagant actions that, while fueled by anger, are theatrical, fun and aimed at getting the media’s attention in playful and serious ways–like staging KISS INS or Queer Weddings.

Smith defines queer as “a strategy, an attitude, a reference to other identities and a new self-understanding” (280). As a strategy, queer is about disrupting the system. Queer activists, like those in OutRage, don’t want to work within the system and be accepted by the mainstream, they want to “‘fuck up the mainstream’ as visibly as possible” (279). As an attitude, queer “marks a growing lack of faith in the institutions of the state, in political procedures, in the press, the education system, policing the law” (280). As a new understanding, queer “articulates a radical questioning of social and cultural norms” (280).

Throughout the essay, Smith defines queer in terms of what it does and how organizations use it to resist systems of power that oppress gays/lesbians/queers. Here are some other actions that she mentions: sex-positive reclamation of words, outlandish acronyms, and promotion/visibility of queer sex practices (281).

Hmm…Smith highlights one key queer strategy of the 1990s: outing. Several of the other articles mention outing as well (especially the Duggan essay). Is this an effective strategy? What are the ethics of outing? What are some arguments for and against forcing others into visibility?

CITATION: Smith, Cherry. “What is Thing Thing Called Queer?” The Material Queer. Ed. Donald Morton. Boulder, CO: WestViewPress, 1996. 277-285.

1535386“From ‘Queer Nationality'”
by Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman

In this essay on Queer Nation and queer nationality which is also found in the anthology, The Material Queer, Berlant and Freeman describe queer as:

  • being deliberately incoherent
  • exploiting internal differences
  • refusing assimilation while asserting visibility
  • employing a wide range of tactics from identity politics, postmodernism, feminism, civil rights movement, peace movement
  • fueled with anger and rage
  • wanting to value and make visible queer sexual practices as “modes of ordinary identification and pleasure” (307)
  • reclaiming/reterritorializing public space (changing oppressive heteronormative spaces into safe queer spaces)
  • using surprise attacks and other aggressive actions to expose and “redress the more diffuse and implicit violence of sexual conventionality” (308)
  • drawing upon “embarrassment, pleasure, spectacle, longing, and accusation interarticulate to produce a public scandal” (309)

Huh? In discussing the practice of prayer and “queeritual” for Queer Nation, Berlant and Freeman write, “Queer Nation’s emphasis on public language and media, its exploitation of the tension between local embodiment and mass abstraction, forfeits the possibility of such taxonomic clarity” (307). Huh? What do they mean here?

Question: Berlant and Freeman write: “Being queer is not about a right to privacy: it is about the freedom to be public…” (306). What do queer theorists (and/or queers who do theory) think about public, private, visibility, assimilation? Does queer/ing theory allow for safe spaces? What kind of safety is possible when engaging in confrontational direct action? What kind of community/communities are created/fostered through organizations like Queer Nation that are “deliberately unsystematized” (305)?

CITATION: Berlant, Lauren and Elizabeth Freeman. “From ‘Queer Nationality’.” The Material Queer. Ed. Donald Morton. Boulder, CO: WestViewPress, 1996. 305-309.

51pd9o-HSYL“Making it Perfectly Queer”
by Lisa Duggan

In the opening paragraph, Duggan suggests that queer/ing theory and queer organizations (like Queer Nation) “carry with them the promise of new meanings, new ways of thinking and acting politically” (149). She devotes much of the essay to discussing how that “promise is sometimes realized, sometimes not” (149). Her essay is organized around several scenes of gay/lesbian/queer activism and resistance.

The first scene takes place in New York City at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and is centered on Mayor David Dinkins and his experiences of and reactions to  anti-gay violence as he marches with the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization. In speaking out against this violence, Dinkins appeals to liberalism and tolerance and invokes the civil rights movement. Duggan argues that such appeals, while standing out as “movements of highly visible achievement” for gays and lesbians, are still limited in their success. The inclusion that they provide is only “negotiated on humiliating terms” and does not guarantee public civility (152).

Duggan contrasts this scene of liberalism with a second scene of militant nationalism. Taking place in New York City in spring 1991, this second scene involves posters of celebrities–most notably Jodie Foster–being outed as “absolutely Queer.” This approach, coming from “new gay militants” in ACT UP and Queer Nation, rejects tolerance and assimilation in favor of publicity, self-assertion, confrontation and direct action (153). Duggan argues that these militant tactics draw upon the ideology of nationalism and the idea of a nation of gays who share a common experience,  are easily identifiable, and are linked under a clear and united definition of gay/lesbian/queer. She writes:

Outers present their version of gay nationalism as radical but, like other nationalisms, its political implications are complex and often actually reactionary. These new nationalists define the nation and its interests as unitary; they suppress internal difference and political conflict (154).

In critiquing this position, Duggan also writes:

any gay politics based on the primacy of sexual identity defined as unitary and ‘essential,’ residing clearly, intelligibly and unalterable in the body or psyche, and fixing desire in a gendered direction, ultimately represents the view from the subject position ‘twentieth-century, Western, white, gay male’ (155).

Question: What does she mean here? According to Duggan, what are the dangers of outing?

The third scene takes place at a writer’s conference in San Francisco, again in 1991, and offers a challenge to the tension between academics and activists as they struggle over the question of essentialism-versus-social-construction (156). Here is how Duggan describes the tension:

In its most cliched formulations, this controversy is presented in one of two ways: valiant and dedicated activists working to get civil rights for gay and lesbian people are being undermined by a bunch of obscure, arcane, jargon-ridden academics bent on ‘deconstructing’ the gay community before it even comes into full visibility; or theoretically informed writers at the cutting edge of the political horizon are being bashed by anti-intellectual activists who cling naively to the discursive strategies of their oppressors (156).

Question: What is at stake with this debate? Is this the only way to think about social construction versus essentialism?

Duggan argues that the writers conference, which brought together a wide range of scholars, artists and activists constructed a queer “oxymoronic community of difference” (156)–a community that was not based on shared experiences or identities but on a similar difference from (and resistance to) the norm (157). This new vision of community challenges seemingly entrenched (within feminist and gay/lesbian politics) ideas about how community is created, the relationship between the academy and activism, and the necessity of invoking liberal and/or nationalist strategies of resistance.

Questions: What does a community like this look like? How does it function? What purposes does it serve? How does this third scene relate to the other two? What is Duggan’s purpose in offering it–is it a viable/promising alternative to liberalism and nationalism? Or, something else?

Duggan concludes her essay by reflecting on the challenges that queer theorists face as they attempt to live up to the promise of queering theory:

to engage intellectually with the political project in the best sense of ‘theory,’ while avoiding jargon and obscurantism in the worst sense of ‘academic’ (161).

to open up the possibilities for coalition across barriers of class, race, and gender, and to somehow satisfy the paradoxical necessity of recognizing differences, while producing (provisional) unity: Can we avoid the dead end of various nationalisms and separatisms, without producing a bankrupt universalism (162)?

CITATION: Duggan, Lisa. “Making it Perfectly Queer.” Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. Eds. Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter. New York: Routledge, 2006. 149-163.

Blog Assignment: An Experiment

So, the semester begins next week and I am in the process of actually crafting (as opposed to only thinking about) a blog assignment for my Queering Theory course. Since I have spent so much time this summer using the blog, I have decided to really go for it and make the blog an integral part of the course. Here is my description of the blog assignment as it appears in my syllabus:

Class Participation 20%
Blog Entries 20%
Blog Active Engagement 20%
2 Presentations (2 @ 10% each) 20%
Final Wrap-up 20%

Assignment Description
The bulk of your assignments this semester (blog entries, blog participation, 2 presentations and your final wrap-up) will be organized around the development of and participation in our class blog. Once we have worked out the details together in the first and second weeks of class, I will distribute and post on our blog a more detailed handout.

By the third week of course you will be required to pick one of the suggested topics related to queer and queering theory. These topics are listed at the end of this description. You will be responsible for tracking this term throughout the course of the semester. By tracking I mean that you will be required to pay particular attention to your topic as you are reading, discussing and thinking about queering theory. You will be required to post weekly entries in which you critically reflect on your topic and: a. how it is addressed in our readings or discussions or b. how it is relevant to current events or c. how it is represented within popular culture (television shows, movies, music, on the internet). You are encouraged to be creative in your tracking of the term. You can draw on a wide range of sources and post your blog entries in many different forms.

In addition to posting your own entries, you are required to actively read other blogs and other students’ entries. Your active engagement will come in the form of commenting on other blogs, creating links within your own entries, and incorporating comments from other entries/blogs into your in-class participation.

Each of the suggested topics is explicitly related to the readings for one class session. You are required to do one brief (roughly 10 minute) presentation on your topic on the day that we are explicitly reading about and discussing it. You are also required to do one (slightly) longer presentation on your topic/blog participation in the last week of the course. Details about your presentation (including the date of your first presentation) will be listed in the detailed handout.

Finally, you are required to submit a final wrap-up on your experiences tracking your chosen topic and on helping to develop and participate in the blog. This wrap-up can come in the form of a lengthy blog entry (or series of entries) or a separate (more formal) reflective essay. Please see me if you have other thoughts on how to organize/develop/articulate your reflective thoughts on your topic and your experience with the blog.


This trouble blog serves, at least partly, as an inspiration for the assignment. I have found tracking the term “trouble” through readings, popular culture, and current events to be extremely helpful in organizing my thoughts and enabling me to engage in critical thinking from a feminist and queer perspective. Hopefully, the students will also find it useful to track their terms throughout the semester.

I have decided to work out some of the details, like how many entries and what kind of entries, with the students in the first couple of class sessions. But, how? In the past, I have found that giving students too much of a say without guidelines or structure to be too overwhelming for them (whether they are first years just starting college or grad students who are almost finished with their course work). So, I need to give them some concrete options for how to complete the assignment (that’s something that I will be working on today).

Note about active engagement: In the third entry in my feminist pedagogy and blogging series, I raised the question of how to create assignments that assess the amount of engagement (active or silent) that students are having with the class blog and with other related blogs. I think I have come up with some tentative strategies for assessment in my syllabus description that will enable students to demonstrate their engagement in a number of different ways. Again, here is my description:

In addition to posting your own entries, you are required to actively read other blogs and other students’ entries. Your active engagement will come in the form of commenting on other blogs, creating links within your own entries, and incorporating comments from other entries/blogs into your in-class participation.

As I have mentioned in earlier entries, the usual way in which to assess (and encourage/demand) student participation in other students’ entries is to require a certain number of posts per semester. Last year in one of my courses, I required that the students do 10 blog assignments altogether, with 5 of them being comments on other students’ posts. This approach was fairly successful; it generated a lot of participation by students and helped foster a strong sense of class community. But after reading Sarah Hurlburt’s comments about the invisible/silent reader here (and which I discuss here), I began to wonder about what other possibilities might exist for encouraging students to actively participate (and really read/reflect on others’ entries) on our blog. I am excited about my above description because I think it does offer alternative ways to participate. Instead of requiring students to always comment on each other’s blog entries, they can demonstrate that they have read (and have really thought about) them by incorporating ideas/thoughts from those entries into their own entries (with proper citing, of course) or into their comments in class. Hopefully this will expand the opportunities for students to actively engage and lessen their anxiety about coming up with an insightful comment.

My own experiences writing in my blog this summer, particularly my failure to post very many comments on other blogs that I have been reading and my dismay at the shockingly poor quality of  blog comments on many blogs and news sites (especially newspapers–hey, Star Tribune, I am talking to you), prompted me to really think about the usefulness of comments. Do they create community? Well, they can but often don’t. Do they demonstrate a rich engagement with the ideas of the original entry? Sometimes, but not always. Should they be the only way to engage in a blog as a reader (as opposed to a writer)? No. At some point, I would like to write more about how comments function (and fail to function). Until then, here is an interesting take on blog/web comments and the failure of internet discussion.