SYP 3000, 5923 - Society & the Individual

What's Queer?
by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

What's "queer"? Here's one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season--isn't it?--is that it's the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans' "holiday mood." The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question--Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families' Christmas? And meanwhile the pairing "families/Christmas" becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of "the" family.

The thing hasn't, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all--religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy--line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren't the ones where everything means the same thing? Think of that entity "the family," an impacted social space in which all of the following are meant to line up perfectly with each other:

a surname

a sexual dyad

a legal unit based on state-regulated marriage

a circuit of blood relationships

a system of companionship and succor

a building

a proscenium between "private" and "public"

an economic unit of earning and taxation

the prime site of economic consumption

the prime site of cultural consumption

a mechanism to produce, care for, and acculturate children

a mechanism for accumulating material goods over several generations

a daily routine

a unit in a community of worship

a site of patriotic formation

and of course the list could go on. Looking at my own life, I see that--probably like most people--I have valued and pursued these various elements of family identity to quite differing degrees (e.g. no use at all for worship, much need of companionship). But what's been consistent in this particular life is an interest in not letting very many of these dimensions line up directly with each other at one time. I see it's been a ruling intuition for me that the most productive strategy (intellectually, emotionally) might be, whenever possible, to disarticulate them one from another, to disengage them--the bonds of blood, of law, of habitation, of privacy, of companionship and succor--from the lockstep of their unanimity in the system called "family."

Or think of all the elements that are condensed in the notion of sexual identity, something that the commonsense of our time presents as a unitary category. Yet, exerting any pressure at all on "sexual identity," you see that its elements include

your biological (e.g. chromosomal) sex, male or female;

your self-perceived gender assignment, male or female (supposed to be the same as your biological sex);

the preponderance of your traits of personality and appearance, masculine or feminine (supposed to correspond to your sex and gender);

the biological sex of your preferred partner;

the gender assignment of your preferred partner (supposed to be the same as her/his biological sex);

the masculinity or femininity of your preferred partner (supposed to be the opposite(1) of your own);

your self-perception as gay or straight (supposed to correspond to whether your preferred partner is your sex or the opposite);

your preferred partner's self-perception as gay or straight (supposed to be the same as yours);

your procreative choice (supposed to be yes if straight, no if gay);

your preferred sexual act(s) (supposed to be insertive if you are male or masculine, receptive if you are female or feminine);

your most eroticized sexual organs (supposed to correspond to the procreative capabilities of your sex, and to your insertive/receptive assignment);

your sexual fantasies (supposed to be highly congruent with your sexual practice, but stronger in intensity);

your main locus of emotional bonds (supposed to reside in your preferred sexual partner);

your enjoyment of power in sexual relations (supposed to be low if you are female or feminine, high if male or masculine);

the people from whom you learn about your own gender and sex (supposed to correspond to yourself in both respects);

your community of cultural and political identification (supposed to correspond to your own identity);

and--again--many more. Even this list is remarkable for the silent presumptions it has to make about a given person's sexuality, presumptions that are true only to varying degrees, and for many people not true at all: that everyone "has a sexuality," for instance, and that it is implicated with each person's sense of overall identity in similar ways; that each person's most characteristic erotic expression will be oriented toward another person and not autoerotic; that if it is alloerotic, it will be oriented toward a single partner or kind of partner at a time; that its orientation will not change over time.(2) Normatively, as the parenthetical prescriptions in the list above suggest, it should be possible to deduce anybody's entire set of specs from the initial datum of biological sex alone--if one adds only the normative assumption that "biological sex of preferred partner" will be the opposite of one's own. With or without that heterosexist assumption, though, what's striking is the number and difference of the dimensions that "sexual identity" is supposed to organize into a seamless and univocal whole.

And if it doesn't?

That's one of the things that "queer" can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically. The experimental linguistic, epistemological, representational, political adventures attaching to the very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves as (among many other possibilities) pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, leatherfolk, ladies in tuxedoes, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transsexuals, aunties, wannabes, lesbian-identified men or lesbians who sleep with men, or . . . people able to relish, learn from, or identify with such.

Again, "queer" can mean something different: a lot of the way I have used it so far in this dossier is to denote, almost simply, same-sex sexual object choice, lesbian or gay, whether or not it is organized around multiple criss-crossings of definitional lines. And given the historical and contemporary force of the prohibitions against every same-sex sexual expression, for anyone to disavow those meanings, or to displace them from the term's definitional center, would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself.

Granted this, however, a lot of the most exciting recent work around 'queer' spins the term outward along dimensions that can't be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all: the ways that race, ethnicity, post-colonial nationality criss-cross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses, for example. Intellectuals and artists of color whose sexual self-definition includes 'queer'--I think of an Isaac Julien, a Gloria Anzaldua, a Richard Fung--are using the leverage of "queer" to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state. Thereby, the gravity (I mean the gravitas, the meaning, but also the center of gravity) of the term "queer" itself deepens and shifts, as well.

Another telling representational effect. A word so fraught as "queer" is--fraught with so many social and personal histories of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement--never can only denote; nor even can it only connote; a part of its experimental force as a speech act is the way it dramatizes locutionary position itself. Anyone's use of "queer" about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else. This is true (as it might also be true of "lesbian" or "gay") because of the violently different connotative evaluations that seem to cluster around the category. But "gay" and "lesbian" still present themselves (however delusively) as objective, empirical categories governed by empirical rules of evidence (however contested). "Queer" seems to hings much more radically and explicitly on a person's undertaking particular, performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation. A hypothesis worth making explicit: that there are important senses in which "queer" can signify only when attached to the first person. One possible corollary: that what it takes--all it takes--to make the description "queer" a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person.

(reprinted from Tendencies, p. 5-9, Duke University Press, 1993.
also online at: <>)

Return to Detailed Readings