the deconstruction of gender _ an introduction in queer politics and feminism
In this essay I want to give a short introduction in the ideas of queer theory, the connections between these ideas and feminism and furthermore I will talk a bit about queer politics.
“Queer” was a spell word for gay and lesbian people – during the 1980s it was adopted by several political groups and academics and transformed into a new kind of category interwoven with a critical approach towards identity politics. (Epstein, 1996, p. 145)
2. Michel Foucault: Identity and discourse
The french philosopher Michel Foucault had a strong impact upon the development of queer theory. In his complex work the question of power is a circular topic. For him subjectivity is constructed through discourses within the regimes of power. In his work “The Will to Knowledge” (1978) he analysis sexuality as a historically formed concept and how it is regulated within discourses and bound upon structures of power. He explains how through Christian practices sexuality was formed as something that is supposed to say the truth about the identity of a person and how sexuality became connected with regimes of truth (Foucault, 1978, pp. 36-49). Within this regulation the margin and the deviant play an important role. So homosexuality is formed as opposite to heterosexuality within the 19th century. Whereas in the Greek and Roman antiquity homosexual practices between older and younger men have been something normal and acceptable, in the 19th century homosexuality was constructed as a threat (Foucault, 1978, pp. 101-102; 1984: 187-193).
The regulation of sexuality is interwoven with the structures of power, in case of the 19th century with a new form of power – biopower (Foucault, 1978, pp. 135-159). Another dimension of this process is the regulation of genders. During the 19th century rigid gender stereotypes were established. Women as emotional, irrational and weak, men as rational and strong. These gender stereotypes were interconnected with the regulation of sexuality and bound upon the bourgeois family (Foucault, 1978, pp. 120-121).
Following Foucault (1978, pp. 95-96) identity, subjectivity and also the resistance against existing regimes of power are always within the discourses. All subjects are products of the discourses. Furthermore we have to understand normalization and stigmatization as two interconnected processes. During the 19th century we not only find the “invention” of homosexuality as the opposite to heterosexuality and the creation of rigid gender stereotypes, processes of labelling as the self and the other can also be found concerning the construction of “race” (Foucault, 1978, pp. 149-150). The whole idea of post-structuralism and deconstructivism, that identity is not something natural or essential, is central for queer theory and made a new approach possible.
3. Links between feminism and queer theory
They gave important implications for the understanding of identity and identity politics. A connection between feminism and queer theory are these questions of identity and identity politics. Social movements tend to build up a collective identity with specific boundaries (Gamson, 1996, pp. 397-398). We find this phenomena also within feminism. The basis of feminism is “that there is some existing identity understood through the category women” (Butler, 1999, p. 2). Women have been the subjects of feminism.
The idea of women as a homogenous category has been questioned by several feminist and queer theorists. Queer theory was the continuation of several ideas within the feminist philosophy, these ideas connected with constructionist history, sociology and poststructuralist thoughts created a new approach toward identity (Gamson, 1996, p. 399). Queer theory denies any understanding of identities as natural or essential. From a queer point of view the category women is historically and socially constructed (Epstein, 1996, p. 151). If identities are always constructed through discourses then these identities are always part of the regimes of power and the basis for the oppression (Butler, 1999, pp. 2-3). By using the identity category women as basis for activism feminists reestablish the difference that is the basis for their oppression (Stein and Plummer, 1996, p. 134). Another point is the production of rigid borders by using an identity category as basis for activism.
Another implication of queer theory is the interconnection between different identity categories. Identities have to be understand as something complex and multi-dimensional. Our identities can’t be broken down to one category like women or men. Following queer theory multiple-belongings are forming an identity. Different categories of oppression can intersect – categories like gender, “race”, class and sexuality. (Stein and Plummer, 1996, pp. 137-138) This focus on intersection makes structures of power visible and helps to understand the complex structures of post-modern societies.
4. Judith Butler: The heteronormative matrix
The American philosopher Judith Butler had with her most famous book “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (1999), first published in 1990, a great influence on a queer understanding of identity and feminism. Her idea of the heteronormative matrix helps to understand how sex, gender and desire are linked and(re)produced. Her basis is the assumption that the system of heterosexuality is without an embodied or naturalized fixation, therefore unstable and needs to be reproduced trough performative actions all the time (Butler, 1999, pp. 185-193). Following her (1999, pp. 1-46) the heterosexual matrix produces the cultural intelligibility through which genders, desires and bodies (sexes) are naturalized and produced. Within the heteronormative matrix desire is marked as heterosexual and it requires so the oppositions between feminine and masculine. The two genders are linked to the bodies (sex) that are instituted by the cultural laws that are regulating the sexuality. The sexes are gendered categories themselves. These ideas help to understand the production of gender, sex and
5. Queer politics
Queer politics is more a loose set of political movements and mobilizations. Queer activists are acting mainly decentralized. Besides street art and non-conformist self-presentation in these days mainly in the internet, zines (underground alternative magazines) play an important role within queer politics. We can find local and anti-organizational activism in intentional dissociation from the main stream politics which marks a clear difference to the lesbian and gay rights movements. (Gamson, 1996, pp. 399-400)
Whereas a lot of the lesbian and gay movement that rose during the 1970’s and 1980’s was and is focused on the integration of lesbian and gay people in the main stream and therefore for example focused on the access to marriage and adoption rights for lesbian and gay couples queer wants to be different from the mainstream. (Roseneil, 2000; Epstein, 1996, pp. 150-152) Queer politics can be understood as the answer to the quasi ethnic-understanding that developed within the lesbian and gay communities during the 1970’s and 80’s (Epstein, 1996, p. 152). It produced large exclusions and discriminations f.e. of transgender people or bisexual people (Stein and Plummer, 1996, p. 133; Epstein, 1996, pp. 406-407). Except of this the movement was very white middle-class dominated and for example the life reality of people of colour wasn’t reflected. We can find similar problems within feminism in the 1970s which was reflected by the movement of black feminism (hooks, 1982) or during the late 1990’s by the development of a transfeminism reflecting the exclusion of trans*women from feminist activism (Koyama, 2003).
The term queer itself resists a clear and explicit definition, so also queer politics are deconstructionist politics “marked by a resistance to being labeled, a suspicion of constraining sexual categories, and a greater appreciation for the fluidity of sexual expression.” (Epstein, 1996, p. 154). Queer can be anti-assimilationist, provocative and includes various sexual minorities and includes various shades of gender expressions and identities (Epstein, 1996, pp. 152-153; Gamson, 1996, p. 396). Moreover they are intersectional – they not only deal with questions of sexuality and “sex”, it also deals with “race” and “class” as axes of power hierarchies and the fact that we all have multiple belongings within this categories (Gamson, 1996).
Queer politics are politics of provocation and sometimes intervention (Epstein, 1996, p. 153). They build up a space of possibility and transformation. The more fully co-sexual politics plan an important role within queer politics – everyone despite sex and gender should participate on an equal footing of politics and society – another connection between feminism and queer politics (Epstein, 1996, p. 153). Queer has the potential to blur the rigid borders of identity politics (Gamson, 1996, p. 396) and questions whether we need a common identity as basis for social movements.
Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.
Epstein, S. (1996) ‘A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 145-167.
Foucault, M. (1978) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1984) The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume 2. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gamson, J. (1996) ‘Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?: A Queer Dilemma’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 395-420.
hooks, b. (1982) Ain’t I a women? Black women and feminism. London: Pluto.
Koyama, E. (2003) The Transfeminist Manifesto, in Dicker, R. and Piepmeier, A. (eds.) Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the Twenty-First Century. Northeastern: University Press, pp. 244-259.
Roseneil, S. (2000) ‘Queer Frameworks and Queer Tendencies: Towards an Understanding of Postmodern Transformations of Sexuality’ in Sociological Research Online, 5 (3), Available at: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/5/3/roseneil.html (Accessed 21 February 2012).
Stein, A. and Plummer, K. (1996) ‘’I Can’t Even Think Straight’: ‘Queer’ Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 129-144.