Seidman (1995) believes that the discourse of what it means to be gay or lesbian has changed, particularly since the 1970’s. Up until that point it was common for intellectuals, and the gay community, to position homosexuality as condition that was both universal and natural; hence the convenience of the term “the gay brain”. However, intellectual argument has since progressed to an understanding of homosexuality that is grounded in a social and historical perspective.
For many in the gay community, this position is problematic. Whereas “essentialism” allows for the creation of politics around the unifying categorisation of “homosexual”, the growing “constructionist” movement brought into question the binary nature of the friend versus foe of the homosexual movement. As this binary broke down so to did the “solidarity” of the gay and lesbian community with a corresponding loss of clarity in the gay community voice.
Queer theory, he contends, is a way to counter the normative effects of both mainstream gay and hetero politics. Whilst the radical position it holds can tend toward the creation of a politics of anarchy, the author notes that it can also create a radical pluralistic democratic position.
Sediman outlines how he sees the historical development of queer theory from the late 1960’s through to the early 1990’s including the development of a “liberationist” movement that argued against the narrow constraints of a “genital-centered” notion of what it was to be gay or lesbian. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s Seidman claims, the gay and lesbian movement matured in terms of its position as an action movement through to the development of an established and influential political apparatus which, in turn lead to the increasing popularity of prominent gay and lesbian cultural figures who were instrumental in supporting the development of mainstream gay culture. At the same time, claims Seidman, research into what it meant to be homosexual became common-place in the academic community, and it was this research that unearthed the discovery that the idea that homosexuality and identity were inextricably linked – a concept conveniently popularised by the mainstream gay community – was found to be something of a recent, “Western historical event, not a universal condition.” These academics soon found favour with mainstream media outlets and publishing houses providing an outlet for their research with access to a wider community audience. Finally, Seidman claims, queer theory, the product of a new form of intellectual elite who reference “French poststructural theory and the critical method of deconstuction” and who share a common language and culture, is becoming ever more influential in “gay intellectual culture and politics”.
Whilst gains have been made in terms of equality for gay-identified groups and individuals, Seidman argues that the very factor that helped unify the gay community – a politics of identity based around a homosexual subject – has successfully been argued away by the new academic leaders in the queer theorists.
Seidman believes that literary texts are predicated on “foundational symbolic figures” by which he refers to all those binary categories of social organisation with which we have become so familiar such as male/female and hetero/homosexual. It is the goal of literary criticism to deconstruct and destabilise these binaries through exposing their arbitrary nature and thus remove their power and influence in society. It is for this reason, he says, that queer theory has become so influential and important theory.
In the same way as differences continue to emerge, and prejudices develop, while ever individuals are seen as black or white, seeing people as essentially gay serves to further entrench existing power structures. Seidman suggests that normalising and legitimating gayness and homosexuality, whether that be by way of essentialist or cultural methods, simply serves to entrench the power structures that are reinforced through the maintenance of the homo/hetro binary. It is this structure, he argues, that continues to maintain a politics of control, discipline, and domination over a minority; and this he sees as being unhealthy.
Seidman goes on to add that this binary view of identity that is caused by a homo/hetro conception of identity, excludes other forms of legitimate sexual preference that does not neatly fall into one or the other categories; and it would be expected that people choosing to avail themselves of these other forms of sexual orientation may well feel disenfranchised by the problems created by the homo/hetero binary – rather like a person without a national identity.
Seidman, relying on the works of Fuss (1991), suggests that identity is created as a way of affirming that which we are not; the other – that which we are not – is an ever present shadow though, becoming evident at the limits and outer edge of our self-identity. In this manner, he argues, the specter of a gay other is present in all hetero identifying individuals and vice versa. Put simply, the creation of an individuals identity through the agency of sexual orientation is simply a means by which we create our boundaries with which to keep the other out. It is these boundaries he claims that are the ones in urgent need of review in order to break down the politics of identity brought about through the politics of the binary hetero/homo world view.
Seeing parallels between queer theory and the works of Marx and feminist theorists, Seidman contends that queer theory is an important addition to the thinking about politics and culture. Again referring to Fuss, Seidman suggests that the goal of queer theory is to destabilise the hold which gay theory, and the hetero/homo binary, has produced as a means of discipline and control in society. Seidman questions though the benefits that may be gained from such a destabilsation. How might such a project play out in the real world? He notes that another prominent queer theorist, Eve Sedgwick, is aware of the limitations and problems with the deconstructionist ideals of the queer theory movement. Whilst the method may have internal validity, it resides in a deep and complex web of social entanglements that involve numerous binaries which are hardly likely to be untangled overnight.
Seidman goes on to opine that essentially, queer theory and gay theory amount to attempting to achieve similar ends through different means. In the case of queer theory a politics of difference is encouraged through a radically pluralistic vision of democracy where diversity is sought without limits. However, he notes, the political aspirations of queer theorists have not yet been fully articulated and furthermore, they have failed to explain how their radical view of identity and sexual behaviour might be played out in the real world.
Fuss, D. (1991). Inside/out: lesbian theories, gay theories. New York: Routledge.
Seidman, S. (1995). Deconstructing queer theory, or the under-theorization of the social and ethical In , Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics (pp. 116-141). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.