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Queer Theory

Limits Of Identity

Another way in which political activism has historically informed queer theory can be seen in the influential critiques of the identity politics that customarily underpin traditional leftist social movements. In this respect, the queer critique of lesbian and gay identity politics takes place in a wider frame that also includes, for example, postcolonial problematizations of "race" and problematizations of "gender" as feminism's foundational category. One of the most substantial criticisms leveled at lesbian and gay politics relates to its insistence on sexual orientation as the most important index of personal identity and its consequent inability to register sexuality's contextualization within a network of power relations productive of manifold and conflicted identity effects. Radical men and women of color, for example, pointed out that the identity politics model of the lesbian and gay movements ensured that any analysis of race and ethnicity in relation to sexuality would remain a secondary consideration. Exposing covert and overt racism in the mainstream lesbian and gay communities, they argued for the importance of thinking about the inextricable ways in which race inflects sexuality and vice versa, a perspective that continues to both inform and challenge queer theorizing in important ways.

Insofar as it assumed that sexuality was determined principally or solely by the gender of one's sexual object choice, lesbian and gay identitarian politics naturalized the dominant system of sexual classification and its unexamined reliance on the reified categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This model was challenged in different ways from the perspective of various nonnormative sexual identities or practices that had been further pathologized by the legitimation of lesbian and gay paradigms. In arguing for the validity and significance of various marginalized sexual identities and practices, articulated around such things as bisexuality, transvestism, transsexuality, pornography, and sadomasochism, such critiques pushed for recognition of what Gayle Rubin describes as "a pluralistic sexual ethics" organized around "a concept of benign sexual variation" (Rubin, p. 15).

From the perspectives of racially marked and sexually non-normative subjects, it can be seen that the very processes of stabilization, consolidation, and mass recognition that enabled lesbians and gays to represent themselves as a relatively coherent and unified community generated disaffection among other populations newly disenfranchised from the struggle for sexual rights. The limitations or even failures of identity much debated across the 1980s largely hinge on the inevitable inadequacy of any single descriptive rubric to articulate the complex affective structures that constitute identity. Frequently enough, the initial demand for recognition of marginalized or plural identity categories was rearticulated as dissatisfaction with the categories of identification themselves. This questioning of the efficacy of identity categories for political intervention was a major inspiration for queer theory.

The self-evidence of identity has also been profoundly questioned in poststructural thought with its decentering of the Cartesian subject, the rational and autonomous individual, its emphasis on the plurality of interpretation, and its insistence that there is no outside to the discursive structures that produce cultural meaning. Destabilizing the commonsense assumption that identity is a natural and self-evident characteristic of any human subject, poststructuralism is a significant intellectual context for queer theory's anti-identitarian critiques.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningQueer Theory - Origins Of Queer Theory, Aids And Queer Theory, Limits Of Identity, Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin