queer theory

Queer theory emerged in the 1980’s in the United States from feminist and gay theory, and was a response to reactionary moves in society prompted by the AIDS crisis. Queer theory arose from anger and pain. In essence, a post-feminism and heavily post-structuralist, queer theory is interruptive.

Queer theorists shift their focus from an exclusive preoccupation with the oppression and liberation of the homosexual subject to an analysis of the institutional practices and discourses producing sexual knowledges and the ways they organize social life, attending in particular to the way these knowledges and social practices repress differences. In this regard, Queer theory is suggesting that the study of homosexuality should not be a study of a minority – the making of the lesbian/gay/bisexual subject – but a study of those knowledges and social practices that organize “society” as a whole by sexualizing – heterosexualizing or homosexualizing – bodies, desires, acts, identities, social relations, knowledges, culture and social institutions. (Seidman, 1996: 13)

I thought that queer theory was marginal to organizing theory, at best, or incommensurable, at worst. But rather I now consider it salient, and it helps me to understand my problematics around organizing, which I now locate with the knowledges and practices which heterosexualise organizations. Texts, case studies, research, thinking and theorising are all laden with the privileging of masculist dominance and phallogocentrism.

Queer theory questions and deconstructs the notion of an essential sexed, or gendered subject identity. Thus the homosexual and heterosexual categories are seen to be constructed, and indeed are central determinants of power/knowledge in the modern social space.

From queer theory, most notably from the writings of Judith Butler(1993: , 1997: , 1999: Butler and Salih, 2004: Salih, 2002), we learn of the concept of the performance of gender. From the interpellation, and naming of sex and gender, “It’s a boy!” “It’s a girl!” through to the finer points of gender display in everyday office environments, it does seem as if there is no escape from the totalising influence of gender concepts on our lives. Queering troubles or questions these foundational concepts.

Unfortunately, queer theory within the academy has become ‘Queer Theory’, a rather grand, intellectual and now regrettably obscure backwater. It has not had a significant effect on theorising about organizing. From my own experience, I would propose that phallogocentrism has subtly undermined queer theory, by transmuting it into obscurantist academism. But perhaps Queer Theory as a collapsed hegemonic grand theory should also be considered a performance, drawing attention to academic grandstanding.

I agree that queer theory demands ‘new research styles, styles that take up the reflexive,’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000: 188). Adopted in this way queer theory gives us more possibilities for perturbation and penetration.

I seek to re-animate queer theory by maintaining a sceptical, embodied and more modest or playful approach. There is no point in engaging in academic warfare with the big guns – that too is a boy’s game.

Queer theory helps us to realize that bodies, sexualities, sexual orientations and the performances of gender have all been colonized by heterosexism, which pervades all dimensions of life in a way that oppresses all human beings. (Quero, 2004: 28)

Pervading all life means that we don’t have to get stuck in an intellectual backwater. Sedgwick cogently argued in ‘Epistemology of the Closet’ that ‘thought and knowledge are structured – indeed fractured – by a chronic, now endemic, crisis of homo/heterosexual definition’(Sedgwick, 1990: 1) which I hope to demonstrate within organizing. I know that my own…

… stigmatization is connected with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body.

Being queer means fighting about these issues all the time, locally and piecemeal but always with consequences. (Warner and Social Text Collective., 1993: xiii)