English 789: Queer Theory and Culture

    T 6-8:45 pm, HHH 323, Spring 2006, UWEC

    Professor Bob Nowlan

    Office: HHH 425  
    Office Phone Number: (715) 836-4369
    Office Hours: MWF 12-1 pm, M 6:40-7:30 pm, T 8:50-9:30 pm,
    W 5:40-6:30 pm, and By Appointment
    E-mail:Professor Bob Nowlan
    Website: http://people.uwec.edu/ranowlan


    English 789: Queer Theory and Culture offers an advanced introduction to what 'queer' means, and has meant, over its approximate first two decades of existence, both as theory and as nexus of cultural activity (as well as to what it yet can and might mean in the foreseeable future).  We will examine 'queer' in relation to literature, film, music, theatre, art, and everyday life, among many other sites of cultural production, consumption, interaction, and exchange, as well as in relation to sexuality, gender, 'otherness', and 'strangeness' broadly conceived.   We will explore the history and politics of the emergence, development, and proliferation of queer theory and culture, as well as something of the range of disparate and contesting queer positions that have exercised, and continue to exercise, meaningful social impact.   No prior familiarity with queer studies will be assumed.  The course will proceed in a seminar fashion and students will thereby have the opportunity to pursue, prepare, and present final projects in areas of their choice–and interest.  Students of all kinds of sexual orientations and gender identifications are welcome; we will consider what 'queer theory and culture' means not just for those who identify as (or with) 'queer', but rather in relation to all of us  (and, as you will see, it won’t necessarily matter how you identify yourself along these lines anyway, as queer theory greatly complicates and problematizes conventional ways of identifying in terms of gender and sexuality).

    Undergraduate students enrolled in English 395, Section 012: Queer Theory and Culture will participate together with the graduate students enrolled in English 789, Studies in Theory and Criticism: Queer Theory and Culture to explore “queer” as theory and as nexus of cultural activity.  I will evaluate these students’ performance in this course according to standards appropriate for that of an advanced undergraduate.

COURSE EXPLANATION (An Introductory Lecture for Purposes of Study and Review)

    “Queer” emerged over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s as an increasingly widely preferred term of glbt (gay-lesbian-bisexual-and-transgender) self-identification, especially among “the young” (including the “young in spirit”) and “the radical” (whether self-proclaimed or other-identified as such).  This shift manifested itself most prominently in the United States yet also far from negligibly in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and various other advanced capitalist nations of Western Europe as well (and by this point in time, in 2006, “queer” has extended its impact into many areas of the so-called “Third World” as well).  From Queer Nation to Queer Theory to Queercore to the New Queer Cinema and beyond, a new queer movement quickly exercised a powerful impact upon, and in some locations even a predominant influence over the focus and direction of glbt politics and culture.

    And yet what does it mean, now in 2006, nearly two decades since the initial rise of this new queer movement, now to invoke the term “queer”—whether as adjective, noun, or verb— in referring to a queer form of politics and culture?  Today the most prevalent definitions are also the most commonsensical, and, in fact, seem far from all that queer in the sense that “queer” was initially conceived.  “Queer” is often invoked as simply the equivalent of “gay and lesbian” (and/or “homosexual”), referring thereby merely to all human beings who manifest a proclivity for same-sex sexual interaction.  Even more commonly, many people (whether themselves “queer-identifying” or not) use the word “queer” still more broadly and only slightly less vaguely to refer to all bisexual and transgender as well as gay and lesbian people.  

    In fact, the more popular use of “queer” as self-identification has become, the more rapidly these two, general and inclusive, definitions have taken precedence over other, particular and exclusive, definitions.  For instance, as early as the April 25, 1993 March on Washington, D.C. for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, “queer” was used most often by speakers and on banners and signs to refer to all present (even frequently including “straight but not narrow” supporters also in attendance).  A year later, by the time of the month of events in New York City commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this trend toward using “queer” loosely as a mere synonym for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people had, if anything, only increased.  By this point “queer” seemed to function primarily as a shorter, catchier, and slightly more hip, chic, and outré way of saying, or writing, “gay + lesbian + bisexual + transgender” (+ “straight but not narrow”).  Since that time, the trend toward using “queer” and “glbt” (or “lgbt”) relatively interchangeably has, if anything, reached the stage where fewer and fewer people seem even to recall that less than two decades ago “queer” represented a deliberate challenge to, and critique of dominant ways of conceiving, representing, and performing the identities represented by the words “gay,” “lesbian,” and “straight,” and even, to a somewhat lesser degree, “bisexual” and “transgender” as well.

    The two general and inclusive definitions of what it means to "be" queer that I just cited, and especially the first (queer as referring to all gays and lesbians, or all "homosexuals," and queer as referring to all gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, and straight but not narrow people), were not new in the late 1980s and early 1990s; what was new was the extent to which "queers" chose to call ourselves queer and the extent to which self-identifying as queer was understood as positive, and indeed something of which to be proud, even defiantly so.  After all,"queer" was widely rejected in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Riots as derogatory and demeaning, as suggesting that homosexuality is "strange" in the sense not only of "unfamiliar," but also of "perverse."  A principal aim of most currents within the movement(s) for gay and lesbian liberation throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s was to contest this representation of homosexuality as queer.

    Why then did so many gays and lesbians (as well as bisexuals, transgendered people, and straight but not narrow people) start to call ourselves queer fifteen twenty years ago?  There were five principal reasons:

1.     First, queer provided a single term for the difference that united all "non-straights" and allowed for differences among queers to be reunderstood in terms of differences within a common "queerity"— in other words as representative of different modes of queerity as these take shape along and across multiple axes of queerity.  "Queer" therefore did the work that "gay" was originally intended to do, before gay became increasingly exclusively identified with male homosexuality (that is to refer to a social, and especially public identity, community, and [sub]culture rooted in, but extending and developing beyond, a common homosexual "orientation").  Queerity, moreover, could refer simultaneously both to the experience of alienation from, and the action of rebellion against dominant "regimes of the (hetero)normal," where these regimes were understood to be responsible for defining and delimiting a range of conceivable, desirable, and possible forms of sexual relations and practices.

2.     Second, this kind of commonality was most frequently understood not so much as a substitute for other means of self-identification (such as gay, lesbian, homosexual, etc.), but rather as a complement to and an extension of these: queers, therefore, included gay queers, lesbian queers, bisexual queers, transgender queers, and even, as aforementioned, at least according to some definitions, queer-friendly and/or queer-identifying heterosexuals.

3.     Third, queer identity was most often understood as not so importantly an inherent—ascribed or prescribed— identity, but rather, more importantly, as an identity that is created, and, especially, performed by queers (albeit by no means necessarily according to the dictates of a simply deliberate, conscious choice, action, and/or exercise of will).  This kind of queer identity is actually therefore an "identity-effect," an emanation outward from within the immanent conduct of queer praxis.  The semblance of an identity that precedes the performance of identity is in fact an illusion, as leading queer theorist Judith Butler has famously argued, because “identity” is itself the “materializing” effect of the repetitive performance of the terms that constitute this identity according to the citation of norms that themselves govern the shape of this constitution.  More simply put, queers both define and continually redefine what it “is” for ourselves to “be” queer in the very process of “being” queer.  The fluidity of this queer post-identity was frequently further understood, in this initial moment of the re-turn of the queer, as allowing for both the greatest possible tactical flexibility in coping with and fighting back against straight repression, and the most extensive freedom in possible avenues for self-expression.  At least potentially, therefore, the use of queer opened up the possibility of queers widely accepting a constructionist essentialist conception of what is responsible for the formation and constitution of “sexual orientation.”  In other words, the fluidity understood as intrinsic to the formation and constitution of queerity makes it possible for many queers to accept the position that our sexual orientation—and gender identification—is reducible neither to a merely physiological predisposition nor to the result of the pressures of environment and experience in merely an initial moment of psychosexual development.  This understanding in turn sustains a wide acceptance among queers that queerity can and should enact an assault upon—as a subversive wedge within—straight norms for and constraints upon sexual relations and practices.

4.     Fourth, use of queer as a mode of (positive) (self-) identification meant that queers were less likely to see ourselves as fundamentally like everyone else, and our difference as therefore relatively inconsequential and insignificant, a merely ignorant and bigoted misunderstanding of our real normality.  In fact, queers refused to pretend that the extent of our marginalization within—and from—straight society and culture was minor and insubstantial, and we refused quietly to plead, let alone apologize, for ourselves; queers instead confidently asserted ourselves, maintaining that we did suffer ample reason for outrage against straight society and culture.

5.     Fifth, and finally, appropriation of queer from homophobic discourse so as to redefine queer within anti-homophobic discourse sought to disable homophobia by extending the counter-attack to include an assault upon the power to determine what kinds of sexual relations and practices are to be conceived of and engaged with as normal versus abnormal, natural versus unnatural, familiar versus strange, proper versus shameful, healthy versus sick, and moral versus sinful.

    “Queer,” therefore, was not initially, by any means, simply the latest, most fashionable way to describe gay and lesbian (or glbt) people.  It is, moreover, historically inaccurate to suggest that this initial "queer use of queer" referred merely to all gay and lesbian (and bisexual and transgender) people, as queer was initially appropriated to refer to a more exclusive and particular mode of radical subjectivity.  What at least initially united most modes of queer subjectivity was a shared queer spirit of impatient anger.  Queers were outraged glbt people and straight supporters who proceeded beyond merely venting our rage to demanding satisfaction for what outraged us and to taking whatever we could whenever this was not given us in response to our demands.  This queer spirit was, moreover, itself the product of the evolution and intensification of struggle from the middle through the end of the 1980s to fight back against both: 1.  the decimation of the gay community by AIDS and by the stigmatization of gays—and lesbians—as responsible for AIDS, as well as 2. a rising tide of violence directed against gays and lesbians that far exceeded the scapegoating of gays and lesbians as responsible for AIDS.  

    What distinguished the initial queer moment in the ongoing struggle to fight back against homophobia and AIDS was the emergence therefore of  a mode of queerity that represented an aggressively offensive form of defense on the part of “victims” who not only refused the status of “victim” but also demanded that the conditions that render us victims be changed—and changed immediately.  Queers refused to plead politely with powerful straights for these straights to throw us a few crumbs of support in the form of slightly greater tolerance, queers refused to wait patiently for straight society gradually to open itself up to allow for greater acceptance of the queerly different, and queers refused to remain closeted or to downplay our queerity as we worked and played within straight society.  Queers instead demanded that straights support, and practice, complete tolerance for queer difference, that queers be accepted right away and everywhere within straight society as we are and as equal: as enjoying equal right of access to—and equal opportunity to exercise—social resources, powers, and capacities.  In addition to these demands, queers further demanded an end to government and medical industry inaction and delay in deploying the resources sufficient to end the AIDS epidemic, as well as an end to homophobic violence, whether this took the form of overtly physical attacks upon queers, discriminatory and prejudicial laws and government regulations directed against queers, news and entertainment media mis-/under-/or non-representation of queer life (and of queer lives), or condemnations—and demonizations—of queers disseminated by fundamentalist religious organizations as well as by institutionalized representatives of general cultural and/or local community morés.

    In fighting back against homophobia by defiantly asserting queer visibility, contemporary queer activism emerged as a logical extension of AIDS activism (and, of course, as is well-known, the ties between queer activism and AIDS activism were even more direct than this as the first Queer Nation chapter was initially an affinity group of ACT UP New York).   However, in contrast with ACT UP, the main focus of queer praxis (whether in the form of academic queer theory, extra-academic queer activism, or anti-academic and anti-activist queer punk nihilism) was not AIDS but rather queerity—or, more precisely, intervention directed against (hetero)normative regimes for defining conceivable, desirable, and possible kinds and forms of (social-)sexual identity (and activity).  

    Unfortunately, neither ACT UP nor Queer Nation proved capable of sparking a large-scale mass movement of collective action directed at radical social transformation.  Over the course of the 1990s and into the 2000s radical queer activism has declined simultaneous with the reemergence of a reinvigorated liberal-reformist glbt civil rights movement.  Today, the most active and visible forms of glbt politics focus primarily upon largely non-confrontational, peaceful efforts aimed at lobbying the state for ameliorative reform and toward politely making the case to “the American public" that gay and lesbian Americans should be—equally—accepted as just another one among the many kinds of already accepted (and already equal!?) groups of different Americans.  From this vantage point, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people deserve to be included within the American multicultural “mosaic” along the same “ethnic” lines as "African Americans," "Latino Americans," "Asian Americans," "Irish Americans," "Polish Americans,"  "Italian Americans," etc. because gays and lesbians (or at least most of us) have also proven ourselves to be capable of behaving as “mature” and “responsible” “citizens.”  In fact, the mid to late 1990s witnessed a backlash against queer radicalism on the part of “mainstream” advocates for glbt “rights,” as many of the latter frequently asserted that queer “radicals” had created unnecessarily counterproductive and even elitist divisions within the larger “glbt community” by means of their adoption of radical programs, strategies, and tactics, and, even worse than this, had risked altogether alienating important straight friends by “playing up” “extreme” forms of behavior unlikely to be welcome, if understood at all, by many of the latter people.  In response to this charge, remaining queer “radicals” at times hurt themselves by failing adequately to critique their critics' tendency to conflate “radicalism” either, on the one hand, with (shockingly outlandish) styles of (personal) dress, appearance, manner and display, or, on the other hand, with a readiness to resort to a diffuse, abstract, and even theatrically “violent” array of “confrontational” tactics.  

    As a result, today the one principal area where “queer” continues to maintain a distinctive edge versus “glbt,” or “glbt + straight but not narrow” or “glbt + straight-friendly” is queer theory, even as the “radical” queer insurgence begun in the late 1980s/early 1990s continues to exert impact and influence across a wide variety of cultural locations, albeit in often considerably compromised, mediated, or hybrid forms.  Nevertheless, that brings us next to “queer theory,” which, for better and worse, remains largely an academic phenomenon.


    Queer theory represents the convergence of postmodern critical theory and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender cultural studies.  As a result of this convergence, queer theory focuses priority attention upon a critical examination of the discursive construction of sexualities and genders (the construction of these in language and other systems of signs or modes of expression and communication) in relation to the binary oppositions of "normal" versus "abnormal," "dominant" versus "subordinate," "included" versus "excluded," and "familiar" versus "strange."  In the course of this examination, queer theory deliberately problematizes prevailing notions of the distinction and opposition between each of these paired terms, deconstructing what it contends represents a "violent hierarchy" that establishes the former in a position of apparent superiority.  Queer theory performs this deconstructive work by striving to show the extent to which the former category is always thoroughly dependent upon the latter, including in every attempt it makes to justify its claim to superiority.  For example, you can't define or explain what heterosexuality is without doing so in relation to, and distinction from, homosexuality; heterosexuality therefore needs homosexuality to make any sense, even to exist at all—as heterosexuality.

    In short, queer theory aims to show the normal is actually, ultimately, as abnormal as the abnormal, the dominant as subordinate as the subordinate, the included as excluded as the excluded, and the familiar as strange as the strange.  It's all a matter of standpoint, or perspective.  More precisely, queer theory aims to demonstrate that the conception of the normal that the normal employs to argue for itself as normal depends upon first conceiving of the abnormal in order, ostensibly, to distinguish normality as that which is not abnormal.  Even conceived on such a negative basis (i.e., as the opposite of what it defines as the other), queer theory contends that the normal inevitably proceeds to violate its own logic of what it proposes amounts to normality. The normal is, as such, always thoroughly contaminated, in every attempt to insist upon its normality, with the logic of the very abnormal against which it seeks to define itself. What's more, queer theory finds this same pattern at work in the attempts of the dominant to account for its dominance versus the subordinate, the included to account for its inclusion versus the excluded, and the familiar to account for its familiarity versus the strange.  Again, to go back for a moment to heterosexuality/homosexuality, this means that every attempt to define and delineate heterosexuality has to refer to and relate to homosexuality—and attempting to explain the former as normal and the latter as abnormal depends upon setting up an arbitrary standard for distinguishing normal from abnormal that can easily be reversed and overturned by looking at things from a different vantage point or perspective.  As some queer theorists have bluntly argued, there's nothing in many respect "queerer" than normative heterosexuality—or "straightness."   This is, in other words, a highly unnatural state, and one that requires  multiple strange convolutions, and self-deceptions, to fabricate.  In  the practice of physically heterosexual relations, moreover, many "straight" people behave quite "queerly"—in forms and to extents that they would often not want to become widely known.

    Queer theory marshals this deconstructive practice to support its rejection of 'essentialist' understandings of gender and sexual identity, in particular the "minoritizing" notion of lesbian and gay difference where lesbians and gays are treated as if we are a class of persons discretely distinguishable from those who are straight on the basis of a fundamentally different—and entirely separate—kind of "natural" "orientation."  Instead of this minoritizing perspective, queer theory advances a "universalizing" conception that reunderstands straight and queer as inextricably imbricated, and all demarcations of gender and sexuality as highly fraught, tenuous, provisional, unstable, and ultimately incoherent—so that, in short, we all take up positions and engage in practices that overlap with and flow into each other.

    We perform gender and sexuality, queer theorists argue, according to normative scripts which we for the most part unconsciously internalize in the course of our socialization and acculturation (and from the vantage point of queer theory, socialization and acculturation do not end in childhood adolescence or with the achievement of adulthood but rather continue throughout the course of our lives).  It is the repeated performance of the roles these scripts define that produces the semblance of substantial gender and sexual identities (but, in fact, according to queer theory, we maintain no real essential, innate sexual or gender identity at all: it's all an illusion, if, admittedly, an often quite convenient and useful one).  Since, queer theory contends, this (performativity) is a continuous process and one which is in fact highly unnatural (i.e., very much a product of what our specific culture dictates) as well as (ultimately) extraordinarily unstable, there are always cracks, fissures, gaps, and holes in every attempt to 'naturalize' the performance—to make it seem like gender and sexual identities simply emanate from biological nature.  It is immensely difficult, queer theory contends, to do so (to 'naturalize' in this way), requiring the investment of considerable resources, in order to try to conceal the ways that gender and sexual identities are always first and last performances, and, as such, both inescapably artificial and ultimately arbitrary (arbitrary in the sense of historically and culturally conventional).  In sum, we perform gender and sexuality; we don't express what is innate or essential to our 'natures'.

    What, if anything, then, from a queer theoretical vantage point, distinguishes queer from straight ways of social being?  How, in other words, does it make any sense, given what I've just shared with you about queer theoretical understandings, to recognize straight versus queer human subjects (or human subjectivities) once we deconstruct the notion of there existing a hard and fast distinction between the two (between straight and queer)?

    Queer theory does contend that maintaining this distinction remains in large part highly problematic, as doing so tends to sanction conformity to the prescriptions and proscriptions conjured by an illusory polarization that functions to repress the embracing of other (than rigid, bipolar) possibilities and to oppress those marked as abnormal versus the normal along this normalizing scale.

    At the same time, however, queer theory accepts that distinguishing queer from straight remains a necessary consequence of the historically, and perhaps even naturally, finite limits of human imagination and forms of social organization.  Insistence upon maintaining the practical semblance of a distinction between queer and straight also can serve as a kind of convenient fiction.  It may, queer theory is often wont to suggest, even prevent, or at least forestall, totalitarian tendencies toward the absorption, containment, and dissipation of emergent forms of resistant, disruptive, and subversive kinds of gender and sexual difference (i.e., keeping some kinds of identity and practice markedly 'queer' prevents everything from being turned into a repressive sameness).

    In short, for queer theory, the force of 'the queer' relies upon the preservation of a kind of boundary-effect at the same time as 'the queer' troubles, and transgresses, the boundaries that the straight trusts tend to separate itself from the queer. In other words, 'being'/'becoming'/'identifying as'/'acting' queerly means transgressing, disrupting, and subverting straight norms and conventions.  What's more, queer theory conceives it to be possible sharply to distinguish queer versus straight modes of manifestation and engagement with the continuous instability, incoherence, flux, and play of gender and sexual "identity," such that 'the queer' represents the performance of an identity-effect by all those who cannot—or will not—conform to the dictates of the naturalizing illusion that gender and sexual identities are, could be, or should be straight-forward, fixed, stable, and coherent.  In short, 'queers' act out the fluidity, instability, and incoherence of gender and sexual identities.

    In sum, queer theory embraces the position of the "queer" as offering a powerful vantage point from which to critique common (mis)perceptions concerning the place (or lack of place) of gender and sexuality across the full range of social relations and institutions as well as cultural discourses and practices within which we participate throughout the course of our everyday lives.

    In carrying out this work, queer theory finds all extant varieties of "queerity"—of what a particular community, society, and/or culture conceives of and treats as strange, odd, abnormal, bizarre, and perverse forms of human (anti-)social behavior—potentially interesting and significant, yet implies that, historically, same-sex erotic attraction, desire, and interaction most frequently functions as the paradigmatic instance of "the queer."  In other words, 'homosexuality' is that which has tended to be and continues to tend to be widely regarded as 'the queerest' kind of social behavior.  Queer theory frequently therefore conceives of "homosexual queerity" (as well as, less often, the perhaps even more troubling, boundary-crossing and boundary-dispensing form of "bisexual queerity") to represent the historically most unsettling, disturbing, and threatening instance of "the other" at work within—and upon—the (post)modern social and cultural imaginary (space of collective phantasy and imagination).

    However, from the vantage point of queer theory, in the aftermath of the successes-and especially the failures—of gay and lesbian liberation in the approximately first three decades after the watershed moment of the (1969) Stonewall riots, no longer does "the homosexual" (or even "the bisexual") per se manifest a particularly powerful queerity.  On the contrary, all those either unable or unwilling to conform to "heteronormative" standards for stable, consistent, and coherent forms of gender and sexual identity (and difference) today embody this potential for transgressive resistance, disruption, and subversion.  For queer theorists, "queer" is, therefore, not so much an adjective or a noun that refers to the broad array of contemporary lesbigay identities, but rather a verb that marks out a shifting field of gender and sexual discourses and practices that work "to queer" both the straight and the lesbigay.  This queering, in other words, proceeds by taking up the position and the interest of those who occupy the sexual margins of "mainstream" lesbigay sub-cultures as well as the far fringes of dominant—straight—culture.  In sum, it is not a question of 'being' 'queer' but rather of 'doing' 'queer'.

    As frequently as queer theory tends to privilege homosexual forms of queerity (along with, to a lesser and yet far from negligible degree, bisexual forms of queerity), many queer theorists, in contrast, tend to find transgender modes of queerity yet even queerer.  Transgender queerities evidence the extent to which one of the principal pillars within the binary logic of Western "phallogocentric" thinking (where the socially symbolic 'phallus' acts as the de facto center, or virtual God, of patriarchal relations), and its attendant forms of social organization (i.e., the division of the category of gender into the apparently obvious duality of man and woman) by no means represents a simple cultural reflection of biological logic (or, to put it in ultimately just as problematic yet slightly different terms, a direct cultural response to natural necessity).

     On the contrary, queer theory contends that the dominance of gender binarism results from a lengthy and continuing history of repeated violent imposition and restriction upon the potentially free play of gender, post-gender, and a-gender identities. In short, here, once again, queer theory contends that 'monogenderism' is restrictive and incoherent and inauthentic—versus transgenderism: it desperately pretends to a solidity and a normality that it cannot sustain, prove, or justify.

     By deliberately denying-and, even more than this, actively, diligently striving to erase-all signs of the equivalent "naturalness" and "normality" of transgender forms of human being and relating, while at the same time attempting to conceal or otherwise mystify the fact that this is what it is doing, "the straight" once again sets itself up for a subversive queer counter-attack.  Queer theory responds here not only by exposing the dependence of gender binarism upon violent suppression but also by challenging the adequacy of gender binaristic as well as heteronormative frames of intelligibility (structures for understanding) ever to do justice to the actual as well as potential range of human physiological-psychological and social-sexual modes of identity, difference, and relation.

     In conclusion, as you can tell, this is a highly complex form of critical theory.  And it certainly is contentious.  My doctoral dissertation was a Marxist critique of the place of queer theory within contemporary cultural studies.  I argue there, by and large, for a more materially and historically grounded (or “rooted”) mode of queer theory and practice than has been predominant in 'ludic' (playful) postmodernist form.  We will consider Marxist (and other) critiques of queer theory later in the semester, but, initially at least, we will try, as far as possible, to understand and work with queer theory on its own terms—and to take up and make use of what queer theory proposes represents its positive potential for progressive critical practice.


    That brings me now, finally, to some helpful points to keep in mind, and to make use of, as you approach our work with queer theory and culture—and, especially, queer theory this semester.  

    First, we can only engage with a small number of significant contributions to the immense amount of work that has been generated in queer studies over the course of the past two decades.   Even at the graduate level, this course is only an introduction to the field; don’t expect that what we read and study this semester represents the ‘ultimate truth’ or the final answer to what constitutes the most important work in ‘queer theory and culture’ (queer theory, as you will see, rejects the viability of any such claim to absolute, singular truth).   Feel free to explore writers and writings we do engage further than our assigned textbooks allow and feel free as well to bring others these books don’t directly represent to bear as we proceed.

    Second, the reading you will do for this course should, at least from time to time, challenge you; you should find it at times difficult, at least initially so; and you should not expect that what you read will always make intuitive sense or provide immediate satisfaction.  Of course, I hope that eventually you will experience a sense of confidence, even excitement, in working with these levels and kinds of knowledge-practices, but I do not want you to imagine you necessarily should be able to do this right away, with ease.  For many of you, this is likely one of your first courses in critical theory and critical cultural studies, whereas, in most cases, you had already taken many courses, and read many texts, in the area of “literature” even well before you began your university studies.  Imagine what it might be like to take a course of introduction to literature having never previously taken such a course, studied or read any of the material, or maintaining even much, if any, familiarity with what literature involves and what it might mean to make sense and respond to it.   Expect, therefore, in this class, that you will grow in understanding, facility, and confidence; don’t be needlessly hard on yourself—accept that you will learn through trial and error, through taking risks and trying out ideas, and by making mistakes.  You don’t need “the right answer” or “the right way to say it” to talk (both of which, for that matter, once again, queer theory rejects as impossibly nonsensical ideas); by no means—learn through talking, and through becoming comfortable recognizing and accepting what you don’t already clearly understand and what you can’t already clearly articulate.

    Third, you will need, consistently and conscientiously, not only to work hard to remain patient, and to keep an open mind, but also to trust in the potential value of conceptual thinking—and the corollary power of mental abstraction.  Do not rest content with the superficially apparent, the merely commonsensical, the seemingly self-evident, the already familiar; queer theory, like most critical theory, deliberately challenges all of this, and in order to appreciate what it means to think, speak, listen, read, write, act, and interact in a queerly critical theoretical manner, you will need to follow this path as well.

    Fourth, even as I will provide some specific sites for testing and applying what we can extract from our readings in queer theory and culture, I will count on you to take the initiative to do this yourself as well.  You have to be an active participant in this course; you will gain relatively little if you don’t bring extensively, and intensively, to bear your own knowledge, experience, interests, and concerns in direct relation to the concepts and practices we study.  You have to find ways to make what we read and study relevant to and for you; you need to extrapolate; you need to engage as someone who seeks to theorize and critique, not just learn something about theories and modes of criticism.

    Fifth, and following closely upon the last point, since all of you enrolled in this course are advanced students, I do expect you to demonstrate the intellectual maturity you have acquired through the duration of this previous work.  I know people enrolled in 789 have in most cases taken many English as well as many other courses for a considerable number of years now; all of this, including the meaning, value, significance, relevance, and effectiveness of what you have studied and learned, as well as have not, should become ‘grist for the mill’ in our discussions together this semester.  We will frequently reflect on the following questions: a.) Why study queer theory and culture—what can we gain, each of us, all of us, from doing so?  b.) What difference does it make, and can it make—i.e., for whom and for what–that we are reading, writing, teaching, studying, talking about, and otherwise engaging with the kinds of “queer” texts, topics, issues, and approaches we are, working within this department at this university at this place and time?

    Sixth, and again as a consequence of what I have just elaborated, you will need to participate actively—to ask questions, to offer comments, to not be afraid to speak, and to write what you think, no matter how tentative, uncertain, or confused you might find yourself (i.e., you must be prepared to take the risk that what you say, or write, might turn out to be, or, more likely, to appear/to seem ‘wrong’).  In fact, don’t look for hard and fast, simple right and wrong answers; queer theory, like much critical theory, is as much, if not much more, focused upon asking questions as it is about securing answers, and the process of queer theorization, and queer critique, is continuously ongoing.   All positions are limited, in one way or another, and those seriously engaged in theoretical and critical practice readily recognize and accept this fact.  We, who work with critical theory, are constantly striving to extend, develop, refine, enrich, renew, open up, pass beyond, approach again, take in a new and different direction–and all the while continuously updating because the objects of our theoretical and critical work do not remain static.  They change, often dramatically, with time and over space, plus the work of theorizing and critiquing these objects changes them, in turn requiring new theorizations and new critiques.

    Seventh, and finally, while I welcome you always to disagree with anything we read whenever you find yourself so inclined, and even strongly encourage you to do so, I expect, at the same time, that you will always first strive to understand what you read ‘on its own terms’, especially when you find yourself troubled or disturbed by it, so that you will not simply dismiss or reject what you oppose but instead carefully argue against and precisely critique it.  I expect you to work hard first to do justice to the positions you engage, and to be able to re-present them as their adherents would recognize them, even when (perhaps especially when) you aim to move from this first stage to a second stage in which you argue strongly to the contrary.  I expect you will do the same with positions I as your teacher advance as well as those your classmates advance.  And I encourage you eventually to work to find theoretical and critical positions that you can stake out as your own vis-a-vis the positions (and practices) we will engage within queer theory and culture, as well as to use your sincere commitment to these as the basis for your engagement with other positions (and practices); to do so means you have to listen, read, and try very hard to understand where others might be coming from, how so, and why so (including when they seem to be coming from very different places than you).

    The following required books are available for purchase at the UWEC Bookstore:

1.    Hall, Donald E.  Queer Theories.  Transitions.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.  ISBN#: 0-333-77540-6.

2.    Carlin, Deborah and Jennifer Di Grazia, eds.  Queer Cultures.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.  ISBN#: 0-13-041653-3.  

3.    Kirsch, Max H.  Queer Theory and Social Change.  London: Routledge, 2000.  ISBN#: 0-415-22185-4.

    The following additional books I have ordered for the course (and which are also available for purchase at the UWEC Bookstore) are optional, meaning that you can purchase and use these as you wish/as you find useful, but you do not need to do so  (they may well prove helpful to you as you work on your term paper or project as well as in pursuing further studies in queer theory and culture):

1.    Sullivan, Nikki.  A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory.  New York: New York University Press, 2003.  ISBN#: 0-8147-9841-1.

2.    Corber, Robert J.  and Stephen Valocchi, eds.  Queer Studies: an Interdisciplinary Reader.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.  ISBN#: 0-631-22917-5.

3.    Morland, Iain and Annabelle Willox, eds.  Queer Theory.  Readers in Cultural Criticism.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.  ISBN#: 1-4039-1694-2.

4.    Eng, David L., Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz, eds.  What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?  Social Text 84-85.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.  ISSN#: 0164-2472.

5.    Baird, Vanessa.  Sex, Love & Homophobia.  London: Amnesty International, 2004.  ISBN#: 1-873328-57-5.

    I will supply you with copies of a few additional supplementary readings, as well as of study guides and other materials to assist you as you work with the ideas the course introduces.  You may feel free to purchase these books from any other bookstore or book outlet, including by means of on-line ordering outlets (such as amazon.com), as you wish, as long as you acquire them in time to use in and for class.


QT=Donald E.  Hall, Queer Theories

QC=Deborah Carlin and Jennifer DiGranza, eds., Queer Cultures

QTSC=Max Kirsch, Queer Theory and Social Change

T 1/24: Introduction and Orientation.   Initial Class Exercise: What is ‘Queer’—as Noun, Adjective, and Verb.                         

T 1/31: Introduction to Critical Theory of Gender and Sexuality and to Queer Theory and Culture—Lecture.   Discussion of Readings, QT: “Introduction: What ‘Queer Theories’ Can Do For You,” “A Query,” Chapter 1: A Brief, Slanted History of ‘Homosexual’ Activity,” “A Query,” “Chapter 2: Who and What is ‘Queer’?,” “A Query,” and “Chapter 3: Queering Class, Race, and Gender, and Sexual Orientation),” 1-81, and 86-111.

T 2/7: Discussion, QC: Section One—What is Queer Theory?  (D’Emilio, Smyth, Duggan, Sedgwick, and Goldmann), 1-98.

T 2/14 Discussion, QC: Section Two—The Sociopolitical Origins of Queer (Treichler, Anonymous Queers, Maxine Wolf with Laraine Sommella, and Crimp), 99-196.  

T 2/21 Discussion, QC: Section Three—Queer Formulations and the Politics of Identity (Delany, Moraga, Vaid, Inness, and Gamson), 197-303.

    * First Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Assigned *

T 2/28 Discussion, QC: Section Four—(DE)/(RE)Gendering Sexualities (Rubin, Butler, Hollibaugh, Young, and Cromwell), 304-426.

T 3/7  Discussion, QT: “Chapter 4: The Queerness of ‘The Yellow Wall Paper’,” “A Query,” “Chapter 5: Queering the Self: Dr.  Jekyll and Mr.  Hyde,” “A Query,” “Chapter 6: Reading for Excess: The Queer Texts of Orlando, Giovanni’s Room, and The Color Purple,” and “A Query,” 115-171.

    * First Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Due *

T 3/14  Discussion, QC: Section Five—Cinema Queerité and Queer Pop Culture (Doty, Burston, White, Pramaggiore, and Straayer), 427-524.

T 3/28 Discussion, QC, Section Six—Queer Fictions of the Past (McRuer, Bravmann, Mackenzie, Chauncey, and Halperin), 525-687.

    * Second Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Assigned *

T 4/4  Discussion, Critiques of Dominant Directions in Queer Theory and Culture: QTSC, Introduction, Chapters 1-6, and Conclusion, 1-123.

T 4/11 Discussion, Critiques of Dominant Directions in Queer Theory and Culture: Morton, “Pataphysics of the Closet” (To Be Distributed); Cloud, “Queer Theory and ‘Family Values’: Capitalism’s Utopias of Self-Invention” (To Be Distributed); Hennessy, “Identity, Need, and the Making of Revolutionary Love” (To Be Distributed); QT, “A Query,” 82-85; and Butler, “Merely Cultural” (To Be Distributed).

T 4/18 Student Term Paper/Project Presentations.

    * Second Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Due *

T 4/25 Student Term Paper/Project Presentations.
    * Third Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Assigned *

T 5/2 Student Term Paper/Project Presentations—English Festival Presentations.

T 5/9 Student Term Paper/Project Presentations.
T 5/16 Student Term Paper/Project Presentations.

    * Third Learning and Contribution Reflection Paper Due *



    I expect students in this course to strive to become sincerely interested in learning about the subject matter of this course, and to be consistently intellectually serious as well as academically diligent in their pursuit of this learning.  I expect students to strive to bring actively and extensively to bear-in their essays and contributions to class discussion-insights they gain through their engagement with the texts and topics addressed as part of this course, and I expect students to strive at the same time to relate these texts and topics as closely and as fully as possible to subjects of genuine interest and concern in their own lives.  I expect students to let me know right away when and if they have any questions or problems about any aspect of how they are.

    In addition, although I hope this is something I can assume most (if not all of) of you take for granted, both as graduate (along with advanced undergraduate) students, and as students enrolled in a course entitled “Queer Theory and Culture,” you should keep in mind that the higher educational academy is not a "safe space" separate from the rest of the "real world" where you can expect to be sheltered from encountering anything you might find disagreeable or objectionable.  On the contrary, I expect you to take up the challenge to confront these kinds of texts and topics in a mature, responsible way, and that means bringing directly to bear any negative reactions—including reactions of shock, dismay, and discontent, if and when you experience these—in class discussions and in your writings and presentations for class.  If you find a position or practice represented in the assigned readings for class (or in anyone’s contributions to class discussion) to be objectionable, it is therefore of crucial importance that you raise your objections openly and honestly, not simply claim personal exemption from having to hear, talk, read, and write about these kinds of matters.  After all, disturbing positions and practices exist extensively outside of the classroom as well as in what we read, see, hear, and otherwise confront in and for class; what we confront in class exists in this institutional space as symptomatic of positions and practices that operate beyond the confines of the classroom, the course, and the university.  If and when you find any text or topic genuinely appalling, you maintain the ethical responsibility, as a mature adult and as a responsible citizen, not simply to try to hide from these positions and practices but rather to work to critique and change them.   It’s worth also keeping in mind here as well that a professor differs from a high school teacher in many respects, but one key difference is that we maintain a principal professional, ethical responsibility forthrightly to represent the most advanced knowledges in our fields of expertise and to proceed from there to work toward their further development and dissemination.  In short, we must create, advocate for, and profess these knowledges; you should expect that your professors may from time to time take strong and indeed controversial positions on difficult and challenging issues, eschewing the pretense of disinterested neutrality.  To do anything less than assume this responsibility, and to do so with alacrity, would be to shirk our professorial responsibility and to render ourselves unworthy of maintaining our professorial position.



    In evaluating all work done for this course, I will take account of how carefully, seriously, intelligently, enthusiastically, and imaginatively students engage with the concepts, issues, positions, and arguments addressed in the course and represented by the texts we read, by me, and by each other.


    Attendance is expected, every class of the semester.  This is a small class, which we will conduct primarily as a seminar.   We will count on everyone.   If you aren’t in attendance not only will you lose out, but so will everyone else.   Of course, emergencies come up now and then which make it impossible to attend; I understand that.  But please restrict absences to emergencies, and please let me know as soon as possible if you cannot make a class, and why not—I appreciate this notice a great deal.

Learning and Contribution

    My foremost aim in teaching this course is to help you to learn something of significance and value.  I will judge you to a significant degree on what you learn, how- and how hard-you strive to learn, and on how—along with how well—you contribute to the learning for the rest of the class.

    You cannot learn or help others learn if you do not contribute.  If you don't contribute to the work of this class not only will you fail to derive as much gain from it as would be the case if you did contribute, but also you will deprive everyone else of the benefit of your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, knowledge, and experience.  In fact, to remain passively silent in class exploits the work of others who actively engage.

    Class participation represents an important opportunity to learn, not just a place in which to demonstrate what you have learned.  By raising questions, testing and trying out ideas, taking risks and making mistakes, you learn a great deal—and help others learn a great deal as well.  You learn through talking, not just talk to show what you have learned.  Don't hesitate to speak forth in class if you have anything at all to throw into the mix.

    At the same time, just talking a great deal does not necessarily mean that you are making a quality contribution to the class by aiding the learning that we aim to accomplish.  Quality of participation is much more important than quantity, although a sufficient quantity is indispensable to insure quality.  Still, I want to emphasize here that I perceive talking which pulls us off on far-fetched tangents, which remains disconnected from and disengaged with the reading and the rest of the class, or which effectively silences others, to be negative participation.

    Quality class participation does not, moreover, involve merely asking questions of me and responding to my questions; quality class participation requires you to work as assiduously as you can to advance a serious and substantial discussion with your peers about the texts and topics subject to discussion.  Students should, therefore, be prepared to engage with and respond to each other in class discussion, and I will take particular note of how well you do so.

    I would like you to come to class with strong opinions on the topics of discussion, to be ready to share your opinions with the class, and to be open-minded enough to debate your own and others’ thoughts and to push them as far as they will go.

    Please come to class prepared to make connections between the assigned readings and specific texts and topics with which you have particular knowledge and experience or otherwise find of particular interest or concern to you.  Come prepared, in other words, to try to help us all in drawing out the broad implications—the potential meaning, value, and significance—of the ideas you have encountered in the assigned reading.  Don’t wait for me, the teacher, alone to do this.  

    Contribution to the class certainly can extend far beyond mere speaking in class: it may include a variety of ways in which you can bring to bear your insights to help yourself as well as the rest of us gain from the experience of this course.   Excellent  writings for and in response to class on Desire2Learn, where I will set up a forum for you to discuss readings and issues outside of and beyond the time we spend doing so in class, and as part of your learning and contribution reflection papers (see below) can help make up for limitations as far as participation in class goes.   At the same time, listening carefully, respectfully, and thoughtfully in class discussions is yet another important means of contribution.

    Learning and contribution will constitute a significant proportion of your overall course grade.   As part of this grade, you will write three learning and contribution reflection papers.  For these papers I will ask you questions that will require you to reflect upon both what you have been learning as a student enrolled in this course, and how, along with how well, you have been contributing to your own learning, and to that of others in the class.

    As I see it, these papers provide you a useful opportunity to communicate with me how you believe you are doing with the course, as well as why so, and to demonstrate your critical self-reflexivity.  As you are assessing your own learning and contribution, you may include thoughts in reaction to issues raised in class discussion that you did not have the opportunity or did not feel comfortable enough to share in class; these additional reflections will help me get a better sense of what you have been thinking about and how you have been responding to class discussions, as well as to the readings.   I will take into account what you write in determining your learning and contribution grade for the preceding semester period; performance on these papers represents a vital component of your learning and contribution grade.

    I  will provide you specific directions in the assignments I give you for each of these papers; please note well that the questions you address will change from the first to the second reflection paper.  The first learning and contribution grade (including the first learning and contribution reflection paper) will be worth 20% of the overall course grade.  The second learning and contribution grade (including the second learning and contribution reflection paper) will be worth 20% of the overall course grade.  The third learning and contribution grade (including the third learning and contribution reflection paper) will be worth 20% of the overall course grade.  

Term Paper/Project

    Each of you will prepare a term paper or project on an area of particular interest to you in queer theory and culture.  You may work on this individually or collaboratively with a classmate or several classmates.  If you collaborate with a classmate or classmates you will share the same (collective) grade.   

    You will select an area of interest and do research in this area, working next to find a specific focus, from there move to develop (and refine) a particular (critical/creative) take on the precise issue(s) and/or text(s) which you focus on, and then proceed to explain and justify (argue for) this take.  Here are some (very) broad areas you might consider working within: literature, film, music, theatre, art, politics, religion, popular/mass culture, television, everyday life, race/ethnicity, nationality/internationality/ transnationality, postcoloniality, class, history, the body, health/illness, (dis)ability, age/generationality, etc.  Many other areas are certainly equally viable as well.   

    I mention the possibility of a term project as well as a term paper for those students who might prefer to do some sustained queer work, or some sustained work in and on something queer, in a form other than a term paper.  This might take a whole host of different possible forms (such as a short film, a musical composition, a theatrical performance, a work of visual or plastic art, etc.).   Consult with me if you are interested in this possible ‘alternative’ to a term paper.  

    Start thinking right away about what areas interest you, and talk with me about these as soon as possible.  Together we can work toward a precise focus.  Also, of course, pay attention to what the readings suggest to you, and reflect as well on ideas from our discussions (along with potential prompts from my presentations, brief as they may be); these can all help give you some good directions—as can bibliographies, indices, and other supplements you will find in both the required and optional books I have ordered for this course.  And do look over the optional books carefully—many interesting topics for term papers or projects readily follow from chapters and essays in these books.  Queer theory extends, at least potentially, enormously broadly in terms of what it finds of substantial interest, and queer culture can also include a potentially vast range as well (much larger in fact than commonsense might lead one to believe).  Choose a specific focus that excites you, and also one that strikes you as likely to prove important to others, where you think you might be able to discover something of considerable interest as well as set forth ideas of your own that others will find stimulating and provocative.  

    As aforementioned, I will help you as you proceed with this work—and your classmates can too.   I’ll set up space on our Desire2Learn electronic classroom website where you can discuss potential term papers and projects, in progress; share ideas and resources; and offer each other constructive critiques.   

    I will offer you more detailed advice, instructions, suggestions, and recommendations for your work on this term paper or project as the semester proceeds.

    You will present initial (short)  versions of your papers or projects in class on either T 4/18 or T 4/25.   We will discuss and (constructively) critique these together.   On T 5/2 you will all present revised (short) versions of these to a public audience as part of the annual UWEC English Festival, in a session to run the same time as our class normally does (in a room to be announced).  Then on either T 5/9 or T 5/16 you will present further revised versions of these papers or projects in class once more (or potentially additional parts of your work/newly completed parts of this work).  And we will discuss and (constructively) critique these together yet again.  Your final version of the term paper report or project will be due to me by 12 noon Friday 5/19.   

    Your grade on this term paper or project will be worth 40% of the overall course grade.  I will take into account all of your work of preparation and presentation, through the successive stages indicated above, as well as evaluate your final version of this paper or project, in determining your grade.    


    I encourage you to meet with me in conference during office hours or at another mutually convenient time to discuss any issue of interest or concern related to what we are doing in this course.  Learning that takes place in conferences can at times be equally as important, and in fact occasionally even more important, than what takes place in class.  Please do not hesitate to meet with me during office hours or to ask for an appointment at any time you think this might be helpful; I regard making myself available for conferences with you outside of class to be an indispensable part of my responsibility as your teacher.   Moreover, I always sincerely do welcome getting to know and work with my students outside as well as inside of class.  I am ready to do whatever I can to help you in your understanding of issues addressed in discussions and readings, as well as to help you in your writing for and participation in this course.  I want to make sure that I do all that I can to help you succeed in this course and I want to help you, as far as I can, to gain as much out of it as possible through your participation in and work for it.   You may also feel free to write me via e-mail, and to call me–or leave a message for me on the answering machine—at my office.  I enjoy meeting and working with students outside as well as inside of class; I really do.  I would rather talk with you during my office hours than do anything else, so please do not worry about “disturbing” me in coming to talk with me; my office hours are time that I have set aside to meet, talk, and work with you.  PLEASE DO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS OPPORTUNITY!

    * Any student who has a disability and is in need of classroom accommodations, please contact the instructor and the Services for Students with Disabilities Office early in the semester. *


    I strive to be as responsible and as accountable to my students as possible.  I believe it is crucial that students become aware of the ideas and the values that shape and direct their education, and I believe students should expect that all of their teachers will be prepared to explain why they teach as they do.  Please, therefore, take the time, as early as you can this semester, to read through and think carefully about my "Statement of Teaching Philosophy" that I have posted on my UWEC faculty website:


This statement explains WHY I teach as I do.  I think it is extremely important that you know and understand where your teachers are coming from in teaching you as they do.  You will find me one who trusts you sufficiently always to be frank and honest about this with you.