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Queer Theory

Thinking Transgender

The suspicion that normative models of identity will never be adequate to the representational work demanded of them provides the conditions of intelligibility not only for thinking about the emergence of queer theory from the identity-based models of the feminist and lesbian-gay movements but also for understanding twenty-first century and frequent announcements of the death of queer theory, most significantly from radical transgender perspectives that cast queer as complacently partisan, committed to notions of performativity that refuse cross-gender identifications in anything other than a parodic or figurative register.

Primarily through an extended reading of Butler but with reference to de Lauretis and Sedgwick among others, Jay Prosser notes that queer theory's foundational texts have figuratively relied on the concept of transgender—an identification across genders—in order to destabilize received understandings of sexual and gendered identities. Queer theory's annexation of transgender for its own critical project has, Prosser notes, tended to recuperate it "as the sign of homosexuality, homosexuality's definitive gender style" (p. 30). Even when queer is understood not as a synonym for homosexuality but as a term that denotes the performativity, nonreferentiality, and incoherence of the dominant sex-gender system, the queer theoretical valorization of transgender works against the legitimation of the specifically transsexual subject: "What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman (as opposed to the performative of effecting one)—in brief and simple the materiality of the sexed body" (p. 32). Noting that transgender negotiates its significance in delicate relation to both "transsexuality's investment in the materiality of sex and a queer refiguration of gender into sexuality," Prosser suggests that queer theory pay more attention to the lived differences of the constituencies it might be expected to represent (p. 176).

Similarly calling for a sensitivity toward the material practices of queer sex, not simply their allegorical formulation, Jacob Hale references the North American leatherdyke scene in order to argue that queer theory should complicate its own, less nuanced models of sex, gender, and sexuality by studying those elaborated within specific sexual subcultures:

Here's the lesson, in a nutshell: if, minimally, you don't understand the personals and other sexually explicit expressions of desire in queer and transgendered sex radical/leatherqueer publications (including homegrown ones), you don't understand the margins, the edges, of our dominant cultural expressions of sex, gender, and sexuality.… if you don't understand gendered life on the edge, you don't understand gendered life at the center. (p. 118)

While these recent debates about the relevance of queer theory to marginalized sex-gender identities and practices are sometimes represented as territorial disputes, queer theory's reluctance to specify its proper object means that its future directions might be productively determined by its present tense omissions or paradigmatic weaknesses.

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