In engaging in a sophisticated resistance to simplistic categorisation, from within specific and consciously constructed categories, queer-ness has evolved over the past century to include the ‘other’ sexualities that were hitherto either unrecognised or tabooed. In resisting rigid definitions, ‘queer’ as a category has become polymorphous, liberalised, without any definitive characteristics, and lacking a central core – except in denoting a deviance from the normative heterosexuality. Indeed, the category has become an all-embracing sphere of multiple possibilities, and the discourses emerging from this sphere in terms of arts, literatures and other discursive practices, have greatly broadened the ways and forms of ‘queer’ sexual expression.
However, while self-articulation and sexual expression have become comparatively fluid and unabashed, thereby achieving this community the much sought for dignity and ‘pride’, contemporary representations – or even the understanding of that which is ‘gay’ – are still inadequate. Indeed, in the face of exclusion/discrimination/condemnation, the ‘queer’ have had to grapple with not only homophobic attitudes, but also ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘perversion’ in socio-religious contexts while asserting a space of their own. And even while the semantic tendencies of the term, ‘queer’ – subversive as they have become in recent discourses on homosexuality – remain elastic and open to change, it becomes increasingly difficult to come to an understanding of it without bringing to mind a plethora of biases attached to ‘other loves’.
This is not to say that contemporary social realities are completely averse to queer practices; queer studies have been striving towards bringing about a worldview which would allow alternative sexualities to exist. For instance, social and psychological analyses that have attempted to justify same-sex love may have managed to percolate to contemporary and modern sensibilities. However, the inclusion of the ‘queer’ into that which is not queer, is still in its nascent stages – and, in some contexts, has not even begun yet. Indeed, the normalisation of the aberrant, the ‘queer’, has not been arrived at. In addition, even in the proliferation of queer-related visual arts and other forms of media practices which seek to assert homosexual activities as ‘natural’, there is a betrayal of the idea that the Queer are still in need of acceptance and recognition.
This paper, in aiming to understand the existing essentialist models of sexuality that ossify heterosexuality as the origin, will attempt to identify the position of the ‘queer’ along the scheme of established hierarchies of accepted sexualities. For that, it will briefly delve into debates around the constructionist nature of that which is ‘gay’, in terms of preferences that are either ‘acquired’ or ‘inborn’, and will go on to analyse the term ‘queer’ which is now used so freely to refer to the ‘specie’ of homosexuals. The identity politics that have allowed an emancipated deployment of the word ‘queer’ to deviant sexualities will thus be analysed keeping in mind the essential meaning of ‘queer’ as unnatural, and that the term was intellectually and socially annexed and subverted later. And the suitability/infelicitous nature of the term ‘queer’ in contemporary realities of sexuality, in view of the emergence of post-queer theory, shall thereby be commented upon.
The discursive strategies of tackling the ‘queer-question’ have for long been focussed on finding the suitably ‘modern’, and appropriately nuanced answers that not only address the issue directly and ‘proudly’1, but also locate it within global trends in pop culture, cyberspace and heterogeneity. However, while several attempts have been successful in doing this, the more pertinent strategy has been to first determine which the more suitable questions are. Indeed, while answers might have evolved with the latest discourses on the queer sub-culture, the centripetal questions that are still adopted for providing ‘answers’ remain somewhat stultifying. Still, it must be admitted that redundant as these questions may be, the so-called ‘essentials’ must be addressed in order to come to an effective understanding of current Queer positions.
Undoubtedly, much of the discourse on the matter, whether scientific or sociological, has concerned itself with determining the ‘essential’ nature of homosexual behaviour, in terms of whether it is “acquired” or “innate” (Mcintosh 34). While arguments relating to purity of sexual behaviours that almost always deem marginalised-sexualities as anomalous and aberrant have in the past been variously contested, there have been no long-withstanding or definitive answers as the supposed self-awareness(es) of these sections of sexualities become steadily more sophisticated – and with that, fluid and unsteady. Furthermore, hetero-normativity as a social practice has not been supplanted or dissolved to make way for the non-queering of homo-sexualised behaviours. Despite the several internal developments that occurred in the last fifty years within the homosexual spheres of discourse and practices, normalisation/de-queering, of Queer communities has not yet begun. As J.A. Loraine in Understanding Homosexuality: Its Biological and Psychological Biases has commented:
It is perhaps not too surprising although it is personally depressing that the general views of yesteryear remain somewhat similar to those of today: although many of the half-truths and myths have been dispelled, society at large has changed little in its condemnatory attitude towards homosexuality.
Furthermore, there have also been discourses around the existing labelling practices within hetero-sexual traditions, particularly around the manner in which homosexual behaviour allow/create, to an extent, a clear division between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ sexualities. There is, then, a conceptual ‘ghettoisation’ of non-hetero-sexualities that automatically brings within itself any/all ‘variety’ of deviances. And although affirmative and radical identity politics have managed to argue for the assimilation of the deviant into the normal, the prudence of this strategy has come to be debated. Indeed, much of the crucial debate is centred on and around the cogency of the category of ‘Queer’: it is problematic to determine whether to keep it a flowing one, open to differences, or to make it a rigid category that embraces certain differences. Moreover, it is debatable whether the instability and fluidity of this category is even a merit. Joshua Gamson in the essay, “Must Identity movements Self-Destruct?” has commented, “Queerness spotlights a dilemma shared by other identity movements (radical, ethnic and gender movements, for example): fixed identity categories are both the basis for oppression and the basis for political power.”
While Queer theory may wish to question the entire premise of hetero-normativity vis-à-vis the acceptable and ‘natural’ sexuality, it may do so only by understanding the social structures, dialectics and processes that shape the desires, needs and urges2 of human beings as sexual subjects. Steven Seidman in his Queer Theory and Sociology has commented:
Instead of asserting the homosexual as a natural fact made into a political minority by social prejudice, constructionists traced the social factors that produced a homosexual identity, which functioned as the foundation for homosexuals as a new ethnic minority…Discourses that sometimes circulate under the rubric of Queer theory are often impossible to differentiate from constructionist texts. These seek to shift the debate somewhat away from explaining the modern homosexual to questions of the operation of the hetero/homosexual binary, from an exclusive preoccupation with homosexuality to a focus on heterosexuality as a social and political organizing principle, and from a politics of minority interest to a politics of knowledge and difference.
Challenges to conventional ‘medical’ arguments and socially constructed/constructivist biases may have paved way for urbanised, sophisticated and subversive intellectual theorizations that operate alongside vibrant/rainbow movements3, and that fashion itself, in most cases, as vivacious and ‘gay’ in celebrating an emergence from subaltern positions. As Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer in their essay, “I Can’t Even Think Straight”, have noted, the Queer Theory that emerged in the late 80s were publicised through a series of academic institutions such as Yale and Ivy League. They argue that dualistic studies on the gay/lesbian line were inadequate to address the cause of the emerging and emergent marginal sexuality groups. Contemporary engagement with Queerness therefore focuses on the ‘intersections’ and supposed incongruities that contest homophobic attitudes. Steven Epstein in his essay “A Queer Encounter” has commented on the term ‘Queer’ as a linguistic tool for the subversive appropriation of the derogatory association made with homosexual love and desiring:
Queer offers a comprehensive way of characterizing all those whose sexuality places them in opposition to the current “normalizing regime”. In a more mundane sense, “queer” has become convenient shorthand as various sexual minorities have claimed territory in the space once known simply, if misleadingly, as “the gay community”.
Epstein points to a radical insurgent strategy that would eventually divest the word ‘Queer’ of its disparaging connotations. Of course, such ideas are not altogether new: the international movement around sexual harassment/assaults on women called ‘Slut Walk’ did similar things in terms of terminological and linguistic complexities of the name. Assumed discursive consequences, however, need to be analysed, and so one might ask: “Will the term ‘Queer’ eventually boomerang back to signifying otherness and marginality?”
It is undeniable that the theoretical implications and usages of ‘Queer’ have brought about significant paradigmatic shifts in the public perception of same-sex love(s). However, being the fluid category that it is, it has evolved and provoked further questioning that actually threatens the messianic term ‘Queer’ and relegates it as a term that has been outmoded – unless it is surveyed again in view of the changes brought about by the continued stream of theoretical improvisations and activism. Indeed, ‘Queer’ as a political stance, methodological tool and social attitude, has been increasingly interrogated in the past twenty years, and for which the space for evolvement, as also improvement, has been felt acutely. Perhaps this is what led to the arguments that David V. Rufullo posits in Post Queer Politics:
Queer has reached a political peak. Its theoretical movements have become limited by its incessant investment in identity politics and its political outlook has in many ways attained dormant status due to its narrowed interest in hetero-normativity.
What Rufullo proposes is a radical revitalisation of queer politics which he considered to be full of ‘possibilities’, and to turn it into post-queer which would be full of ‘potentialities’. He aims at a disruption between the ‘queer body’ and subjectivity so as to come to a fuller and more advanced understanding of post-queer ‘potentialities’. While Rufullo’s arguments for post-queer times working within the realm of the virtual is admirable, my argument differs from his to quite an extent. To reiterate once, the aim of this paper is to primarily delve into the suitability of the term ‘Queer’ – an otherwise ‘post-queer’ methodological practice – in times of globality, and to come to a better understanding of the term through the observations made. Most importantly, the paper acknowledges at the very outset that it is not advocating a ‘post-Queer’ theory (which would indicate a movement forward; a gradual emergence/disposal of the previous theoretical framework and organising principle) or era. Rather, it calls for a shift in perspectives regarding the employment of the term ‘Queer’ in this context.
While the applicability and performativity of Queer theory may not be uniform throughout the world and the development of queer-consciousness may still be in its nascent stages in several places – and that irrespective of the legal aspects of Queer coupling, the development of which may vary from state to state, or even country to country – discursive trends point to a maturation – a ‘peak’ as Rufullo has called it – in Queer ‘becomings’4. The questions that remain open for debate and theorization, thus, is whether there is a stage that may arrive in-between ‘Queer’ time and post-queer time. Indeed, decentred sexual politics that have managed to displace heterosexual practices from the point of origin have also achieved the immediate overturning of queer, which contained within itself a plethora of anti-homosexual attitudes. However, with cyber-networking and virtual proliferation of ideas, concepts, images in our post-modern cultures of mass connectivity, opportunities for companionships of same-sex categories have come to the forefront and made Queer as a category increasingly redundant.
It might be interesting to elaborate further on this phenomenon. The virtual domain that allows for alternative (homo) sexual/desiring engagements today are endless, and for the most, freely accessible. Several websites and web pages created solely for the purpose of providing visual and simulated pleasure vis-à-vis pornography and anonymous/semi-anonymous/traceable online flirtation and dating sites have become more popular and frequently accessed. Indeed, global cultures and the cell-phone age simplify the aforementioned ways of communicating and with the increase in the usage of internet, especially now, with telecom companies providing affordable internet packages for mobile phones, information and details on gay-related issue are readily available.
Moreover, such sites also create a sense of community amongst the people who regularly access them. What is important over here is that such sites also leave potential for real-time homosexual engagements. Commenting on the queer-related socio-cultural development in the Indian subcontinent, Sandip Roy discusses Trikone, which was the first queer south website, hosted in ’95, and talks about how the general rise in internet and PC usage has seen an increase in the possibility of more or less unabashed access to sites such as www.gay.com etc. Indeed, such activities, although occurring mostly in the privacy of homes or cubicles of cybercafés, have allowed for a sense of solidarity and oneness amongst gay/lesbian/queer folk. They has also allowed for an internal self-realisation of/about homosexual tendencies within the users who in their interactions with others like them would understand/discover themselves better. Much of the visibility of LGBT groups in the subcontinent at least can be attributed to increased amounts of cyber activity, which become starting points for more radical ways of emergence. Therefore, such sites enable a sense of primaries in the psyche of the user who forgets the real-time othering of his position, and the general hetero normative prejudices that he is confronted with otherwise, in real life. Mark Mclelleand in his essay, “Japanese Queers capes: Global/local Intersections on the Internet” has made a study of such sites in Japan and has observed that the sites provide interlinks to other similar sites thus giving the user a sense of belongingness, security and common-identity.
Coming back to the ‘Queer’ word, the word in such times of transformed subjectivity of the human bodies needs a holistic approach that takes into account the aforementioned developments. While ‘Queer’ might be useful as a term because it does not understand the restrictive gay/lesbian binary, it is still a term that may easily be substituted for something that does not remind one of the erstwhile status of the community. Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer in their essay, “I Can’t Think Straight”, have commented:
There is a dangerous tendency for the new queer theorists to ignore “real” queer life as it is materially experienced across the world, while they play with the free floating signifiers of texts…Sociology’s key concerns – inequality, modernity, institutional analysis – can bring a clearer focus to queer theory.
Therefore, in order to bring about a larger terminological change in cultural and literary studies, changes in cultural scenes as also the transformed hetero-normative attitudes in people need a simultaneous ‘ridding’ of the terms/phrases that have become specific and typical to this area studies. While post-queer theory addresses several relevant issues for the emancipation of the heterosexual communities, it still does not delve into the increasing redundancy of the queer intellectual cant and phraseology. Indeed, the major concern of contemporary queer theoreticians ought to be in the modern terminological implications of the term which has hitherto so jubilantly been employed for the purposes of subversion. Therefore, a language/semiotic process that is not reminiscent of the ignominious history of the non-heterosexual cultures needs to be striven for and the important point between Queer and post-queer seized and utilized.
1 ‘Proudly has been used in light of the contemporary international trends in ‘pride marches’ that celebrate/announce/reassert the homosexual state of people.
2 Implying that needs, desires and urges are essentially different and variously sexual and emotional in nature.
3 Refers to the aforementioned almost carnivalistic ‘pride marches’ where, generally, there is a profusion of colours in terms of masks, ribbons, sparkle, heavy make-up, vibrant clothing etc.
4 ‘Becomings’ refers to state of being of a real individuals after a process of subjectification.
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Ipshita Nath is enrolled in the second semester of the Masters degree programme of the Centre for English Studies, School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her research interests come under the rubric of Cultural Studies, though she has an abiding fondness for the textual mythologies of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and nineteenth century British and American novelists. She occasionally indulges herself in écriture poesy, enjoys the music of Kumar and Burman, is as fascinated by the persona of Marilyn Monroe as by the works of Botticelli and Michelangelo, has an enduring passion for bi-chromatic American, Bengali and Hindi cinema and would like to get hold of a time-traveller to hop in to the ‘20s and the ‘70s. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.