Introduction to Queer Theory and Criticism

I recently authored a textbook chapter covering the basics of queer theory and criticism as philosophy and method relate to rhetorical criticism. The chapter includes an overview of LGBTQ history and theory and 4 specific ways of deploying queer criticism, including critiquing heteronormativity, queering a text, challenging homonationalism, and using queer futurity as an interpretive lens. The end of the chapter contains a student exemplar authored by former MA student Katie Bruns. Bruns queers the movie Frozen, which should prove to be fun reading for undergrads. I’ve also included my queer take on the Westboro Baptist Church as the published exemplar. Introduction to Queer Criticism. Here’s text of the chapter, sans exemplars:

Introduction to Queer Criticism

Written by Dr. Ragan Fox

         What does a person mean when they ask, “What is your identity?” Many people adopt an essentialist worldview that assumes identity is fixed, stable, and biologically determined. Think of the common expression, “Boys will be boys.” The phrase assumes that boys are biologically impulsive and predisposed to behave aggressively but ignores key environmental factors that shape young men, like peer groups, family relationships, media messages, individual psychology, and nutrition. Queer critics believe that identity is what we do, rather than who we are. Religious texts, literature, televiscion shows, movies, and social groups provide scripts that teach us how to perform race, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, and social class. In other words, boys are boys because cultural discourses socialize them into masculine communication patterns.

A similar process constrains and enables our understanding of sexuality. Magazines, TV programs, literature, and other modes of communication teach us the “appropriate” ways to perform desire. Consider the delayed consummation trope prevalent on U.S. sitcoms.  Workplace situation comedies often revolve around the flirtation and eventual intimate pairing of a lead male and female character. Jim and Pam on The Office, Ross and Rachel on Friends, Sam and Diane on Cheers, and Niles and Daphne on Frasier are all embedded in a will-they-or-won’t-they romantic storyline.

On the other hand, television programs depict sexual minorities as symbolically impotent, or unable to display physical and emotional affection. The titular gay character of NBC’s Will & Grace, for instance, engages in more sexual behavior with Grace than any of the men he dates on the show. Bravo’s short-lived reality program Boy Meets Boy also exemplifies the symbolic impotence of gay characters. Producers intended Boy Meets Boy to be a gay version of ABC’s popular dating show The Bachelor. The Bachelor regularly features heterosexual couples on sexually charged overnight dates. Unlike The Bachelor, viewers were hard-pressed to locate displays of intimacy on Boy Meets Boy. Boy Meets Boy participants signed a contract that prohibited the men from sexual contact. Lesbian TV characters do not fare better than their gay male counterparts. After disclosing and acting upon their same-sex attraction, women on TV often fall victim to what TV critic Islay Bell-Webb describes as “lesbian death syndrome,” or a tendency for producers to quickly and randomly kill lesbian characters after they confirm their sexual orientation.[i] Television’s repeated message is that 1) same-sex attraction is somehow more salacious than heterosexual affection, 2) heterosexual people will naturally and inevitably end up in sexual relationships, and 3) sexual minorities should keep their sexual inclinations private or suffer dire consequences. Television viewers then perform, or mimic, these romantic scripts and internalize them as the natural way to do sexuality.

Queer critics examine television shows, films, music videos, public speeches and other cultural discourses that normalize traditional gender performance and marginalize and often vilify alternate models of gender and sexuality. In this chapter, we review the historical and philosophical underpinnings of queer theory and criticism, consider artifacts and research questions consistent with queer critique, and outline some of the key terms queer critics use to examine the rhetorical construction of gender and sexuality.

Background and History

Homosexual, gay, and queer are not synonyms, although people often use the words interchangeably. Coined by 19th century sexologists, the term homosexual suggests that, regardless of sexual inclination, feminine men and masculine women, or “gender inverts,” are mentally ill and require medical correction. At the turn of the century, same-sex attraction merely added a layer of deviance to men and women who failed to enact traditional gender norms. No gender-related infraction proved too small to capture the attention of sexologists. A woman wearing pants in the early half of the 20th century was fit for prison or an asylum. The perceived transgression of a woman in “men’s clothing” was in fact so great that, “A person in pants would have been assumed to be male, and only the most suspicious would have scrutinized facial features or body movements to discern a woman beneath the external appearance.”[ii]

Similarly, 19th-century sexologists initially created the term “heterosexual” to characterize men and women who were attracted to members of the so-called opposite sex but diverged from procreative norms, meaning they had sex for pleasure, not children.[iii] Chronic masturbators, promiscuous men and women, fetishists, and other sexual “deviants” caught the scrutinizing gaze of sexologists. Labeling a patient homo- or heterosexual implied the person was ill and required medical intervention. So-called cures for homosexuality and “perverse” heterosexuality included and in some states still include castration, electro-shock therapy, lobotomy, reparative therapy, and the use of nausea-inducing drugs in aversion treatment. Decades passed before heterosexuality lost its connotation of sexual perversion and medical professionals agreed that heterosexuality would be the “master sex from which all others deviated.”[iv] In sum, homosexual is a negatively connoted, psychiatrically deployed medical condition that assumes sexual minorities and gender outliers are mentally ill.

Gay’s association with same-sex sexuality, on the other hand, emerged from within 20th-century gay and lesbian subculture. Homophile activist Frank Kameny’s notion that “Gay is Good” signaled an ontological shift from medically objectified homosexuals to proud and self-described gays and lesbians. By mid-century, gay became increasingly identified with the emergence of gay neighborhoods in urban areas and social movements that aimed to ease anti-gay oppression and animus. Gay bars became some of the country’s first “explicitly gay institutions,” representing both a place of affirmation for sexual minorities and a primary site of “anti-gay crackdowns and panic.”[v] Police officers raided bars, like the Black Cat Tavern in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles and the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. Sometimes posing as homosexuals, cops elicited sexual advances from patrons and then arrested them for lewd conduct. Public shaming added to state-sanctioned persecution. Reporters and law enforcement agents photographed raids and released snapshots to the public, thereby “outing” gay and lesbian clientele. Tabloids like the Examiner published names, professions, and addresses of gay culprits. The media’s disclosure tactics often resulted in broken families and lost jobs.[vi]

The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement of the late 1960s responded to systemic harassment of sexual minorities by police officers, media outlets, employers, doctors, and businesses. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people initiated a countercultural rebellion, including a spontaneous public disturbance at Cooper’s Donuts, where, in May 1959, a group of largely Latino and Black hustlers and drag queens threw donuts at and fought with Los Angeles police officers; San Francisco’s 1966 Compton Cafeteria riot, in which drag queens and transgender women “beat police with their heavy purses and kicked them with their high-heel shoes”;[vii] and New York’s 1969 Stonewall Inn riot, where LGBTQ people pelted NYPD officers with pennies, bottles, and fists.

Communication has played a central role in Gay Liberation and the medical community’s formal recognition that sexual minorities and gender “outlaws” suffer from homophobia and transphobia, rather than a mental illness that results in non-normative sexual attraction and gender identification. The American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders aided LGBTQ activists’ quest to secure fair treatment in housing and employment and helped them challenge misrepresentative portrayals of gays and lesbians in the media.[viii]

Perhaps no recent controversy better illustrates communication’s function in sexual ideology and the rhetorical construction of madness than the American Family Association’s (AFA) refusal to describe gay people as gay. Members of the organization prefer the term “homosexual” because it grounds same-sex desire in a history of mental illness and sexual perversion. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the AFA as an anti-gay hate group. The American Family Association uses its website One News Now to spread false information about LGBTQ people and perpetuate the myth that sexual minorities are subhuman, crazed, and diseased. One News Now is a digital portal that collects and reposts news from the Associated Press, Reuters, and other media outlets. The website raised eyebrows in 2012 after it published a story about Olympian Tyson Gay. The AFA’s version of the narrative read, “Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has. ‘It means a lot to me,’ the 25-year-old Homosexual said.”[ix] By a simple act of anti-gay automation, the AFA sent a heterosexual “Homosexual” to the Beijing Olympics. Later that year, One News Now trumpeted the accomplishments of Memphis Grizzlies basketball player Rudy Homosexual. The AFA’s use of digital technology to replace “gay” with “homosexual,” regardless of context, demonstrates the connotative and historical differences between negatively connoted, identity-denying homosexual and positively connoted, identity-affirming gay.

So how does queer fit into all of this? For most of the 20th century, people used “queer” as an anti-gay epithet. Gender theorists and AIDS activists re-appropriated the term in the late 1980s. Members of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP and LGBTQ activist organization Queer Nation reclaimed queer to distinguish between the assimilationist and gender-conforming strategies of early homophile movements and the politics of difference celebrated by queer activists. Like liberal feminists, gay and lesbian liberationists emphasize the ways in which they are like their heterosexual counterparts. Gay liberationists’ call for equality is premised on the idea that sexual minorities should enjoy the same rights as heterosexual people because “gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are essentially no different from heterosexuals.”[x] Like radical feminist, queer theorists argue that queers are fundamentally “different from the mainstream and these differences should be celebrated, not silenced.”[xi]

Moreover, gay subjectivity is often predicated on essentialist notions of identity that assume sexuality is biologically determined, fixed, and stable. Gender and sexual essentialists, in other words, contend that people are born gay or straight and their primary sexual inclinations do not change over time. Queer theory challenges essentialist notions of gender and sexuality. Queer criticism is predicated on the belief that identity is not who we are, identity is what we do. Queer theorists situate gender and sexuality as performances, meaning humans are exposed to repetitive, interlocking scripts that teach us how to behave.

The distinction between gay and queer becomes clearer when we distinguish between social locations and standpoints. Social locations refer to aspects of one’s identity that make him or her objectively but not always correctly identifiable to others. Examples of social locations include race, sex, and sexuality. Standpoints characterize how a person subjectively sees the world. Social locations influence but do not determine standpoints. Not all woman (social location), for example, are feminists (standpoint). Conversely, many men (social location) identify as feminists (standpoint). Gay is a social location, or a way one might discuss identity; queer is a standpoint, or a lens one might use to interpret communication practices. Queer criticism involves examining cultural discourses that guide our performances of gender and sexuality. In the next section, we consider specific concepts queer theorists use to critique rhetoric that molds our sense of gender and sexuality.

Queer Theory’s Sensitizing Concepts

Queer criticism is the product of social movements that have challenged the normative organization of gender and sexuality. Binary thinking structures our core assumptions about gender and sexuality. Many fallaciously assume one is either born male or female, despite a statistically significant number of people born intersex, or with ambiguous genitalia. Similarly, the hetero-/homosexual dyad manufactures the illusion that sexual desire and expression are determined at birth and fixed throughout life. These epistemological and ontological themes are not the exclusive purview of philosophy. Fashion designers, politicians, and pop singers use clothes, public speeches, and music to theorize the nature of sex, desire, and sexual activity. In her pro-gay anthem “Born This Way,” for instance, Lady GaGa asserts that gender and sexuality are determined by DNA. She sings, “There ain’t no other way/Baby I was born this way.” The irony is that GaGa spends most of the “Born This Way” music video wearing horns affixed to her forehead and cheeks, an assortment of over-the-top wigs, and dramatic makeup. GaGa’s vibrant imagery runs in sharp contrast to the song’s lyrical celebration of essentialism. The artist’s notoriety is largely due to her ability to expose gender as a monstrous performance constantly in flux.

In their graphic history of queer theory, Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele argue that, “Queer theory is all about breaking down binaries, which oversimplify the world into everything being either this or that. Queer theory is also all about questioning identity, so it would challenge any kind of fixed identity categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, etc., including queer if it’s used in that way.”[xii] Working from a queer perspective, one might identify and contest Lady GaGa’s advocacy of gender, racial, and sexual essentialism in “Born This Way.” A queer critic might also explore the abovementioned irony when comparing the song’s lyrics to the anti-essentialist images in the “Born This Way” video. Exploring GaGa’s irony is especially queer because it enables a scholar to discuss how a text, like a person, defies singular interpretation and can be read multiple ways.

Many of the methods covered in a rhetorical criticism class offer straightforward and consistent manners of application. A neo-Aristotelian researcher, for instance, focuses on how a public speaker’s delivery, arrangement, invention, memory, and style affect his or her audience. A critic utilizing Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad notes how a storyteller defines a narrative’s scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose. Queer critique resists neo-Aristotelianism’s and dramatism’s uniformity. Ways of deploying queer criticism are bound only by a critic’s imagination. Scholars have used the theory to queer public memory of Abraham Lincoln,[xiii] investigate the heteronormativity of public school architecture,[xiv] and challenge Facebook’s “real” names policy that once prohibited drag queens and some transgender individuals from maintaining profiles on the social media site.[xv]

Although quite versatile, queer criticism usually takes one of four forms: 1) queer critics often focus on the ways in which a communication artifact perpetuates heteronormativity, or the myth that heterosexuality is the only viable option; 2) one might queer, or locate the LGBTQ potential of, a text; 3) queer rhetoricians sometimes investigate how politicians use LGBTQ themes to substantiate U.S. exceptionalism, dehumanize “enemies” of the state, and rationalize war; and 4) queer writers conceptualize non-normative ideas of what the future may bring. The rest of the chapter will cover these four modes of deploying queer criticism.

Queer Criticism as Heteronormative Critique

Queer theorist Michael warner popularized the term heteronormativity in the introduction of his 1993 edited collection Fear of a Queer Planet, where he recognizes how social theory and most cultural assumptions about humanity are largely premised on heterosexuality.[xvi] Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the only worthwhile, “natural,” and healthy form of sexual feeling and expression. Warner writes that:

People are constantly encouraged to believe that heterosexual desire, dating, marriage, reproduction, childrearing, and home life are not only valuable to themselves, but the bedrock on which every other value in the world rests. Heterosexual desire and romance are thought to be the very core of humanity. It is the one thing celebrated in every film plot, every sitcom, every advertisement. Nonstandard sex has none of this normative richness, this built-in sense of connection to the meaningful life, the community of the human, the future of the world.[xvii]

Challenging heteronormativity is not anti-heterosexual because heterosexuality and heteronormativity are not synonyms. Heterosexuality characterizes sexual proclivities and a means of communicating desire for the opposite sex. Heteronormativity assumes heterosexuality is the solitary mode of sexual desire and expression.

Moreover, we assume heterosexuality as the default even when information about sexual preference is not provided. Alexander Doty refers to this inclination as heterocentric textual essentialism, or an audience member’s tendency to “[fill] in the missing narrative blanks about a character’s sexuality.” Doty suggests most people presume that “all characters in a film are straight unless labeled, coded, or otherwise proven to be queer.”[xviii] Consider the shockwaves author J.K. Rowling sent through the Harry Potter fan community when she announced that beloved character Dumbledore is gay. The author explains, “Recently I was in a script read-through for the sixth [Harry Potter] film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script, saying ‘I knew a girl once, whose hair–.’ I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter—‘Dumbledore is gay!’”[xix]

Rhetoric scholars have used heteronormativity as a sensitizing concept to call attention to heterosexuality’s privileged status and examine the ways in which non-normative sexuality is marginalized in media, organizational communication, and interpersonal exchanges. Take, for example, Kathleen Battles and Wendy Hilton-Morrow’s queer critique of NBC’s gay-themed sitcom Will & Grace. Battles and Hilton-Morrow note that both the programs gay characters are in heterosocial, or opposite-sex, dyads with heterosexual women. Will is paired with Grace and Jack with Karen. Will & Grace’s celebration of gay subjectivity—albeit White and affluent—is limited by its heteronormative trappings. The authors point out that, “Will and Grace share an intimacy with one another that they cannot find in a sexual partner. They routinely perform roles associated with couples, particularly married heterosexual partners. They have lived together, arguing over matters of bathroom time and other mundane issues associated with marriage.”[xx] Will & Grace premiered seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry. Dramatizing gay marriage on the program would have resulted in a different sort of queer critique that focuses on internalized homophobia in the LGBTQ community.

Many sexual minorities adopt a heteronormative worldview that assumes heterosexual rituals and behaviors are superior. Lisa Duggan uses the term homonormativity to identify LGBTQ people who enact politics and behaviors that do not “contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”[xxi] The fight for marriage equality exemplifies a homonormative approach to so-called liberation. Unlike their liberationist counterparts, queer critics question the ways in which the institution of marriage is historically built upon a foundation of racial, sexual, gender, and financial inequality.[xxii] Homonormativity can also be seen in more commonplace communication exchanges, such as when gay men describe themselves as “str8acting,” or “straight-acting,” on mobile dating applications and online dating websites.[xxiii]

Writers wanting to examine the ways in which heterosexuality structures communication practices will get a lot of scholarly mileage out of heteronormativity and homonormativity. The concepts are designed to challenge the myth that gender and sex only make sense when viewed in traditional terms and as a complementary binary. Heteronormativity also enables a critic to dispel the notion that heterosexuality is mandatory and the only legitimate sexual practice. Here are four sample research questions that use heteronormativity as an anchoring analytical term:

  • How are LGBTQ characters on the television show [Will & Grace, Big Brother, Transparent, or a program you want to analyze] narratively positioned to reflect heteronormative communication practices?
  • In what ways do pro-marriage equality [protest signs or public speeches] reflect a homonormative worldview?
  • What are the ways in which heteronormativity frames news media reports about trans and intersex athletes?
  • In the television show Sex and the City, how might Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession with shoes function as a critique of heteronormative romance?

Queering Texts

Queering characterizes a form of cultural spectatorship and production that locates and celebrates non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality. Queer readings of texts respond to two aforementioned phenomena: 1) a lack of LGBTQ characters in media, and 2) heterocentric textual essentialist predispositions that cause readers and viewers to assume heterosexuality as the default in characters, even when heterosexuality is not explicitly stated or acted upon. First, queer youth often must read between the lines or invent LGBTQ subjects in media. Imagine all the heterosexual romance narratives studied in secondary school English classes. Students read about the love of Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, and Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Media’s obsession with heterosexual passion forces LGBTQ youth to creatively reimagine stories as if they included gay characters. Romeo and Juliet may be queerly read as Romeo and Julian, or Romey and Juliet, two star-crossed lovers whose families keep them apart because they disapprove of the pair’s same-sex attraction.

Second, queer readings of a text often underscore a character’s queer sensibilities, or LGBTQ characteristics that fly under a heterosexual audience member’s radar. Let’s return to the example of Dumbledore from Harry Potter. Some readers say that Rowling provides textual evidence of the character’s sexual inclinations. Dumbledore’s multi-colored pet phoenix is “flaming,” a term usually reserved for over-the-top gay men. Additionally, his extravagant fashion drew “many curious glances due to the flamboyant cut suit of plum velvet.”[xxiv] Plum, or purple, symbolizes gay pride and “flamboyant” is an adjective associated with feminine gay male performativity. In the absence of explicit information about Dumbledore’s sexuality, one could reasonably assume he is gay based on Rowling’s subtle clues. Doty explains that, “Queerness is frequently expressed in ways other than by nude bodies in contact, kissing, or direct verbal indicators; the reasons for finding different means of expression are many—psychological (fear, repression), cultural (oppression), and institutional (censorship, commerce).”[xxv] Queering a film or piece of literature does not replace the mainstream reading of text. Queer readings celebrate how a single artifact may be read in multiple ways. Queer interpretations run alongside rather than replace heterocentric understandings of cultural discourse.

The student exemplar included at the end of this chapter is a queering of the Disney movie Frozen. Disney’s canon is loaded with characters that call for queering. Animators designed The Little

Mermaid’s Ursula after famed drag performer Divine (see Figure 1). In 2017, Disney produced a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, in which Le Fou is in love with Gaston. Sean Griffin, author of Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out, notes that Disney won its first Oscar for Ferdinand the Bull,” an eight-minute animated short about a bull who fails to perform hegemonic masculinity. Ferdinand did not want to fight like the other bulls. Griffin writes that, “He still liked to sit just quietly under the cork tree and smell the flowers. The bull is drawn with long eyelashes and a lot of effeminate characteristics.”[xxvi]

One may queer a movie, such as Frozen or The Wizard of Oz; a public figure, like Abraham Lincoln; grammar, like when some trans

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Figure 1. Ursula and Divine.

people use “they” as a preferred singular pronoun; and an organization, such as the anti-gay group the Westboro Baptist Church (see “Phags for Phelps”). The group Guerilla Gay Bar even queers public space. Each month, the organization takes over different businesses in major cities and transforms them into gay bars. Disney performs a function like Guerrilla Gay Bar when it becomes the site of Disney Gay Days, a four-day annual event where “an estimated 50,000 red-shirted Gay Day attendees pack Walt Disney World’s original park.”[xxvii] Queering space encourages people to consider who typically has access to and what it usually celebrated in a public place.

Here are three sample research questions that feature queering as a central concept of inquiry:

  • What textual clues does [J.K. Rowling, Disney, or an author or producer of your choice] provide in [Harry Potter, Frozen, or a text of your choice] to promote a queer reading of the [character, book, or film]?
  • How might the phrase “No Homo” both reinforce a heteronormative worldview and cause seemingly homophobic rhetors to locate the queer potential of everyday interactions?
  • How do screenwriters use mutant powers as a metaphor for queer subjectivity in the [television show Heroes, the movie X-Men, or an artifact of your choice]?

Weaponizing Gay Rights

It was not until September 2011 that gays and lesbians could openly serve in the U.S. military. Sustained and state-sanctioned persecution of sexual minorities in the United States speak to political antagonism against LGBTQ people. Our country’s history of anti-gay animus makes it hard to believe that lip service to pro-gay politics is now used to justify war. Jasbir Puar coined the term homonationalism to describe Western policy that uses pro-LGBTQ sentiment to rationalize xenophobic positions, especially against Islam.[xxviii] Homonationalism highlights how pro-war policy makers—many of whom have a history of voting against LGBTQ rights—co-opt portions of pro-gay rhetoric to justify political stances against Muslims and immigration. Puar indicates that, “‘Acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ for gay and lesbian subjects have become a barometer by which the right to and capacity for national sovereignty is evaluated.”[xxix] US policy makers appeal to homonationalism to assert U.S. exceptionalism in two ways. First, the United States references its “humane” treatment of sexual minorities to substantiate its superiority, or exceptionalism, over Eastern countries. Second, speakers who advocate homonationalism except, or exclude, the U.S. from being held accountable for the country’s past and ongoing mistreatment of queer people. Puar believes that homonational advocates manufacture “narratives of progress and modernity that  continue to accord some populations access to citizenship—cultural and legal—at the expense of the delimitation and expulsion of other populations.”[xxx]

Take, for example, President Trump using the Pulse Nightclub massacre to push for an anti-Muslim travel ban. In summer 2017, Omar Mateen killed 49 people inside Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando. Mateen was later identified as a domestic terrorist and “Islamic Soldier.” Trump quickly linked the mass shooting to immigration, suggesting that, “The only reason the killer was in America was because we allowed his family to come here.”[xxxi] Trump then claimed that attacking a gay bar is “an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want, and express their identity. It’s an attack on the right of every single American to live in peace and safety in their country.” Trump’s pro-gay rhetoric is not as revolutionary as it first appears. First, underscoring Mateen’s allegiance to radical Islam obscures the fact that “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group”[xxxii] in the United States, yet U.S. media and politicians rarely describe homegrown, White terrorists as terrorists. Second, Trump’s grandstanding on gay rights belies his political record. The same year as the Pulse shooting,

Trump’s administration instructed federal lawyers to take anti-gay sides in court cases, tried to reinstate a military ban on trans troops, rescinded Obama-era policy that argued trans people are protected by Civil Rights law, advocated that anti-gay discrimination is legal, repeatedly nominated anti-LGBTQ judges to the courts, failed to

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Figure 2. Matt Davies’ cartoon editorializing Trump’s Muslim travel ban in the wake of the Pulse shooting.

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Figure 3. Stliglich’s post-Pulse Pride flag.

acknowledge LGBTQ Pride Month, and entirely dismantled the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Political cartoons illustrate the irony of anti-gay politicians appropriating pro-LGBTQ rhetoric to marginalize perceived enemies of the state. Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Matt Davies illustrates the fragility of Trump’s homonational argumentation. In the cartoon (see Figure 2), Trump holds rainbow-colored signs, one trumpeting his Muslim travel ban and the other advocating gun rights. Three men at a candlelight vigil hold placards calling for love, peace, and solidarity. Davies’ art helps us understand how the “U.S. government uses a specific conceptualization of [pro-gay] sexuality to

legitimize counterterrorism actions against Sikhs, Muslims, and Arabs at home and abroad.”[xxxiii]

Cartoonist Tom Stiglich employs a less ironic take on homonationalism when pictorially reflecting on the Pulse shooting. In Figure 3, Stiglich reworks the gay Pride flag so that large blood spatters blemish its rainbow. The most pronounced bloodstain contains the word, “terrorism” in capital letters. Stiglich’s suggestion is that the act of one Islamic domestic terrorist is the greatest threat to LGBTQ rights in the United States. As discussed earlier in the chapter, LGBTQ Pride is borne from a long history of anti-queer violence, dehumanization, and exclusion. Mateen’s attack is one of the most significant mass murders in U.S. history but his violence should not be used to obscure ongoing, state-sanctioned human rights abuses against LGBTQ people at home and abroad, nor should the mass shooting be used to symbolically legitimize the persecution of other populations.

Sample research questions focusing on homonationalism might include:

  • What are the ways in which political cartoonist call attention to the [Trump, Obama, or a president of your choosing] administration’s homonational worldview?
  • How do notions of homonational citizenship shape congressional testimony about U.S. immigration law?
  • When hosting the [2012 Olympic games in London[xxxiv], 2018 Miss America Pageant, or an event of your choice], how did organizers rely on homonationalism to regulate and promote a specific sort of sexual citizenship?

 

 

The Future of Queer Thought

Heterosexual people have a solid sense of the future. Television shows, movies, and literature have indoctrinated most men and women into the nuclear family, where a man and woman get married and have a few kids. Production and reproduction are the foundations upon which hetero-capital notions of the future are built. Think of the so-called biological clock that symbolizes competing cultural pressures for women to produce capital and offspring. Capitalist structures also dictate the appropriate age for retirement, at which point older citizens—likely grandparents—are no longer part of the coveted 18-49-year-old consumer demographic. Even in the age of divorce, movies like Nancy Meyers Somethings Got to Give and It’s Complicated, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale provide filmic blueprints to navigate life after marriage.

LGBTQ people lack the same sense of the future for three primary reasons. First, prior to the 1980s, mass media outlets failed to provide affirming and three-dimensional depictions of sexual minorities. Narrative renderings of gay and lesbian subjectivity focused on the “lonely life” of homosexuals, many of whom had been exiled from their families. Communication scholar Dustin Goltz reminds us that, “Queers are consistently positioned in opposition to the future. Sedimented myths of LGBT sexual predation, suicidal ideation, and misery have circulated for decades in mainstream discourses.”[xxxv] Members of early homophile movements, like The National Gay Task Force, demanded that TV networks and other media producers provide more positive portrayals of gays and lesbians. During the 1970s, these activists instituted letter-writing campaigns protesting negative stereotypes of sexual minorities. Second, AIDS ravaged nearly an entire generation of gay men in the 1980s. Many equated homosexuality with AIDS and assumed same-sex attraction between men would ultimately lead to a future of disease and death. Third, without the help of medical technology, gay sex is not reproductive. As such, gay sex acts are philosophically incommensurable with the logos, or logic, of capitalism, a worldview that is rooted in ideologies of production and reproduction.

Millennials are the first generation of U.S. sexual minorities that have the cultural mechanisms in place to collectively imagine and creatively render a queer future. Queer futurity describes one’s sense of what the future beholds and strategies for survival. José Muñoz explains that queerness is a “formation based on an economy of desire and desiring. This desire is always directed at the thing that is not yet here, objects and moments that burn with anticipation and promise.”[xxxvi] A solid and affirming sense of future is crucial for gay and lesbian youth who “contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth” and are “almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.”[xxxvii]

Futurity also aids LGBTQ adults, providing a roadmap with which they can navigate aging. Heteronormative conceptualizations of the future overwhelmingly deny the sexual desires and activities of older men and women. Cultural discourses propagate the myth that sexual appetites wane and eventually disappear once men and women pass the age of accepted procreation. Queering futurity contests heteronormativity’s assumption of sexual ambivalence once we reach a certain age. Although LGBTQ representation in media has grown exponentially since the 1980s, few TV shows and movies include sexual minority characters past the age of 40. So, what might a queer future look like? Culturual critic Drew Mackie predicts sexual minorities will use the television show Golden Girls as a narrative blueprint for how to spend their senior years.[xxxviii] The program’s emphasis on platonic co-habitation and robust sex lives in a person’s “golden” years may resonate with many people who are not convinced by the grammars of compulsory monogamy and sexless aging. Golden Girls is a fitting roadmap for LGBTQ people given its celebration of “chosen families.”

Queer futurity may prove especially complex for queers of color who must navigate intersectional and interlocking oppressions of homophobia and racism. Performance Studies author E. Patrick Johnson proposes a race and class-focused form of queer theory that calls attention to queer’s homogenizing tendencies and considers the “different standpoints found among lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered [sic] people of color—differences that are also conditioned by class and gender.”[xxxix] Johnson pays homage to his grandmother’s pronunciation of “queer,” which she articulated in a “thick, Black, southern dialect” as “quare.”[xl] Quare theory is both a critique of queer theory’s obsession with whiteness and an alternative sense of queer theory’s futurity, or a critical horizon that is more reflexive about race, ethnicity, and class. Academic considerations of homonationalism, for example, take into account how western thinkers center a particular sort of homosexuality—gay, affluent, and White—at the expense of queers of color.

Queer futurity is highlighted in the following research questions:

  • How does Dan Savage’s YouTube-based “It Gets Better” campaign romanticize notions of queer futurity?
  • In what ways does the televisual lesbian-death trope forego serious consideration of lesbian futurity?
  • How do news media reports about LGBTQ hate crimes trivialize the murder of trans women of color? Moreover, how does this marginalization shape media narratives of trans futurity?

Vocabulary Terms

  • Essentialism
  • Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement
  • Heterocentric Textual Essentialism
  • Heteronormativity
  • Homonationalism
  • Homonormativity
  • Homosexual
  • Lesbian death syndrome
  • Queer
  • Queer futurity
  • Queering
  • Quare theory
  • Social locations and standpoints

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[i] Islay Bell-Webb, “Modern TV is Still Killing Off Its Lesbians, And It’s Dead Boring,” Hornet.com, last updated March 14, 2016, accessed July 19, 2018, https://hornet.com/stories/modern-tv-still-killing-off-lesbians-dead-boring/

[ii] Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America (Ney York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 42.

[iii] James G. Kierman, “Responsibility in Sexual Perversion,” Chicago Medical Recorder 3 (1892), 185-210.

[iv] Jonathan N. Katz, “The Invention of Heterosexuality,” Socialist Review 20 (1990), 7-34.

[v] Allan Bérubé, “The History of Gay Bathhouses,” Journal of Homosexuality 44 (2003): 38.

[vi] Eric Marcus, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights: 1945-1990: An Oral History (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993).

[vii] Susan Stryker, Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, 2nd Edition (New York: Seal Press, 2017), 65.

[viii] Fred Fejes and Kevin Petrich, “Invisibility, Homophobia and Heterosexism: Lesbians, Gays and the Media,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10 (1993): 396.

[ix] Mary A. Akers, “Christian Site’s Ban on “G” Word Sends Homosexual to Olympics,” The Washington Post, last modified July 1, 2008, accessed January 28, 2012, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/sleuth/2008/07/christian_sites_ban_on_g_wor d.html.

 

[x] R. Anthony Slagle, “In Defense of Queer nation: From Identity Politics to a Politics of Difference,” Western Journal of Communication 59 (1995): 86.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (London: Icon Books, 2016).

[xiii] Charles E. Morris, “My Old Kentucky Homo: Abraham Lincoln, Larry Kramer, and the Politics of Queer Public Memory,” Queering Public Address: Sexualityies in American Historical Discourse, ed. Charles E. Morris (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 93-120.

[xiv] Ragan Fox, “Tales of a Fighting Bobcat: An ‘Auto-Archaeology of Gay Identity Formation and Maintenance,” Text and Performance Quarterly 30, no. 2 (2010): 122-42.

[xv] Maggie MacAulay and Marcos D. Moldes, “Queens Don’t Compute: Reading and Casting Shade on Facebook’s Real Names Policy,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 1 (2016): 6-22.

[xvi] Michael Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), vii-xxxi.

[xvii] Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 47.

[xviii] Alexander Doty. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (New York: Routledge, 2000), 3.

[xix] Hanna Siegel, “Rolwing Lets Dumbledore Out of the Closet,” ABC News, last modified October 20, 2007, accessed July 16, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=3755544&page=1.

[xx] Kathleen Battles and Wendy Hilton-Morrow, “Gay Characters in Conventional Spaces: Will and Grace and the Situation Comedy Genre,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 1 93.

[xxi] Lisa Duggan, “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,” Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Ed. Dana D. Nelson and Russ Castronovo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 179.

[xxii] Tom Boellstorff, “When Marriage Fails: Queer Coincidences in Straight Time,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 2-3 (2007): 227-48.

[xxiii] Robert Payne, “Str8acting,” Social Semiotics 17, no. 4 (2007): 252-238.

[xxiv] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic Paperbacks, 2006).

[xxv] Doty, 5.

[xxvi] Sean P. Griffin, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 64.

[xxvii] “Disney Gay Days at Walt Disney World,” WDWinfo.com, accessed July 23, 2018, http://www.wdwinfo.com/disney-gay-days.htm.

[xxviii] Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[xxix] Jasbir K. Puar, “Rethinking Homonationalism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2013): 336.

[xxx] Jasbir K. Puar, “Rethinking Homonationalism,” 337.

[xxxi] Tessa Berenson, “Donald Trump Pushes for Muslim Ban After Orlando Shooting,” Time, last modified June 13, 2016, accessed July 23, 2018, htt.p://time.com/4366912/donald-trump-orlando-shooting-muslim-ban/

[xxxii] John Kruzel, “Are White Males Responsible for More Mass Shootings than Any Other Group?” Politifact, last modified October 6, 2017, accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2017/oct/06/newsweek/are-white-males-responsible-more-mass-shootings-an/

[xxxiii] Richard C. Mole, “Homonationalism: Resisting Nationalist Co-optation of Sexual Diversity,” Sexualities 20 (2017): 661.

[xxxiv] Phil Hubbard and Eleanor Wilkinson, “Welcoming the World? Hospitality, Homonationalism, and the London 2012 Olympics,” Antipode 47, no. 3 (2015): 598-615.

[xxxv] Dustin Goltz, “It Gets Better: Queer Futures, Critical Frustrations, and Radical Potentials,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 2 (2013): 136.

[xxxvi] José E. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 29.

[xxxvii] CDC, Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016).

[xxxviii] Drew Mackie, “Sharing the Lanai: Golden Girls is a Model for How Some Gay Men Will Spend Their Senior Years,” Hornet, last modified May 9, 2017, accessed July 26, 2018, https://hornet.com/stories/golden-girls-gay-men-lanai/.

[xxxix] E. Patrick Johnson, “‘Quare Studies or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother,” Text and Performance Quarterly 21, no. 1 (2001): 3.

[xl] Ibid., 2.