Gay/Lesbian Studies, Queer Theory
Critical practices that consider instability and
indeterminacy as characteristic of discourse and
Theories that problematizes “’normal’
heterosexuality” and valorise “a variable,
contingent, and multiple sexuality whose
mobility and potentiality is signalled by the
worlds of possibility opened up by gays and
There is a close and natural affiliation between this
and the previous section in that feminism posits the
semiotic or “pre-Symbolic Imaginary order [as] a
realm of bisexual/androgynous/polymorphous
sexuality” prior to the subject’s entry into the malecentred Symbolic order where, among other things,
sexuality undergoes a process of normativization
towards ‘normal heterosexuality’.
The problematization of sexuality contained in such
theories as the semiotic or écriture féminine
suggested a departure from a fixed, imposed binary
heteronormativity (man/woman) in favor of the
notion of sexuality as something that is constructed
by such variables as social norms and exigencies,
ideology, culture, history.
Foucault’s declarations in The History of Sexuality
(1976) that “Homosexuality appeared as one of the
forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the
practice of sodomy to a kind of interior androgyny, a
hermaphrodism of the soul.
The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the
homosexual was now a “species”, inspired much of gay
This section will deconstruct and explore the
masculine/feminine binary supporting patriarchal
assumptions about sexuality, gender and sex.
And as Barbara Smith, makes clear, academic inquiry
into the nature of feminism and sexual identity cannot
be disengaged from other contingencies such as race.
Gender designates the dynamic that
accommodates a provisional, fluid identity in
which biological (or genital) identity and
socially constructed (or performed, according to
leading theorist in gender studies, Judith
Butler) masculinity or feminity need not concur
“There is no guarantee that what one is
identified as being (biologically or culturally
male or female) will line up in a predictable and
necessary way with a particular set of sexual
behaviours or psychological dispositions or
social practices”.
Studies that focus on gender also challenge
essentializing feminist discourse and its proposition
that (women’s) gendered identities are ‘real’ or
‘natural’ or occupy a pre-social or pre-civilizational
realm which lies in close bond with nature.
Judith Butler proposes gender be considered as a
signifying practice: we ‘do’ or ‘perform’ gender, relying
on the repetition of words and acts.
Gay and lesbian studies have found common cause
with the feminists as well as with gender theorists,
gay and lesbian theory has trained its sights on gender
formations as a whole, arguing that “heterosexuality
can be understood as forming a continuum with
homosexuality” since “the male bonding that sutures
patriarchy is necessarily homophilic and forms a
continuum with homosexuality”
Traditional gender or sexual binaries were unstable,
variable and historically contingent (supeditado)
(indeed, that everyone was potentially gay) pointed the
way towards queer theory.
‘Queer’, a heterosexist term of abuse designating
homosexuals, was reclaimed by gay and lesbian
militants as a self-referential term or token of
pride to describe their marginal positionality
with regard to the dominant heterosexist
By the 1990s queer theory was operating as an
expression and exploration of “sexual plurality
and gender ambivalence” in the field of cultural
Analytic inquiry was no longer –or not onlylimited to gay and lesbian orthodoxies or fixed
Broadened to consider alternative sexualities
such as drag (queens) or camp, cross-dressing or
transvestism which in turn, through their
representational or performative nature, uphold
the non-biological nature of gender
construction. Camp: Exaggerated effeminate
mannerisms exhibited especially by homosexuals.
Throughout, ‘queer’ scholars have pushed the
argument that hetero- and homosexuality operate on
the same continuum on which the point demarcating
normativity from non-normativity is variable and
 The intersection among gender, gay/lesbian and queer
theories, and that of these theories with New
Historicism, cultural studies and feminist theories
underline the interdisciplinary nature of
poststructuralist critical theory.
In the late 1960s, gay and lesbian scholars silent
regarding their sexuality or the presence of
homosexual themes in literature began to speak.
Their work brings into being a new school of
gender theory in the 1980s.
Gender critics, inspired by Foucault’s work on
the history of sexuality, began to study gender
and sexuality as discursive and historical
Gender Theory and Gay/Lesbian Studies,–Queer
Theory- which linked gay/lesbian scholarship to
such public concerns as HIV/AIDS.
Gender and gay/lesbian theorists are concerned
with unearthing a hidden tradition of
homosexual writing and with examining the
gender dynamics of canonical literature.
The building of a counter-tradition is difficult. There
have been many gay writers –from Sappho to
Tennessee Williams- but few of them wrote openly
about their lives and experiences.
Heterosexual culture was intolerant of gay
perspectives; women were put in the attic for being
“mad,” gays were put in jail for being “perverse.”
Wilde is the most famous example, but Elizabeth
Bishop and Henry James who remained “in the closet”
were more common.
Much gay/lesbian work is concerned with
tradition building, but gay critics also
interrogate the very notion of sexual identity
and question the logic of gender categorization.
They question the relation of gender categories
to sexuality and physiology.
The relation of such categories as masculine and
feminine to such stable bodily and psychological
identities as male and female or man and woman
is contingent (depending) and historical.
The normative alignment of male and female
with heterosexual masculinity or femininity in
the dominant gender culture must be seen as a
political rather than a biological fact.
They question the opposition between
heterosexual and homosexual, interrogating the
identity of each and the hierarchical relation
(mainstream and margin) between the two; they
are differentially connected moments of a
continuum that includes numerous other
possible variations.
Heterosexuality contains a moment of homosexuality,
when the child identifies with the parent of the same
sex, or when heterosexual men relate to each other
while competing over women, and homosexuality
comprises both masculinity and femininity, in mixed
and variable amounts.
The dominant discourses assume that there are
stable identities such as masculine and feminine
or man and woman or heterosexual and
homosexual, that give rise to the discourses that
describe them.
But such identities are produced by discourse
and by cultural representation.
The alignment of dominant discourse with
stable identities –as in compulsory heterosexualityis the result of a politically enforced
naturalization of a particular form of sexuality
that comes through constant repetition and rote
learning (Memorización).
Heterosexual men are masculine and
heterosexual women are feminine because the
reigning cultural discourses instruct them in
behavior appropriate to the dominant gender
representations and norms, stigmatizing nonnormative behavior.
 The identities of male or female and the norms of
reproductive sexuality are effects of enforcement
procedures that operate through cultural and legal
discourse, privileging certain object choices and
psychological dispositions while denigrating others.
Gender identities as “woman” are not pre-discursive
foundations but normalizing injunctions (mandates)
produced by discursive performances
 Continuities between a variety of sexual
practices across a variety of possible gender
formulations (masculine lesbian, masculine
heterosexual woman, feminine gay man,
feminine heterosexual man, etc.) are erased and
subsumed to enforced norms of oppositional
identity (either masculine heterosexual or
feminine heterosexual, either heterosexual or
Connected, related terms are displaced in favor
of essential, total identities.
 They substitute an entire representation –
lesbian- for a plurality of connected gender and
sexual possibilities that might include lesbian as
one moment but that are not fully reducible to
such categorical singularity.
Lesbian is internally differentiated into a
plurality of possibilities (varieties of feminine,
varieties of masculine, etc.) and externally
differentiated through its connection to or
disconnection from a plurality of other
It is not a singular totality that stands opposed
to another singular totality –the normative
heterosexual woman, for example, who in any
event generally engages in relations that contain
homosexual components, as do men with men.
Both cultural and social, that have
contributed to the marginalization and
exclusion of homosexuality.
The more rigorous forms of heterosexual
masculinity originate in sexual panic, a fear
or anxiety in heterosexual men regarding
their sexual identities.
From the instability of heterosexual identity, a
fear that such identity may be a
contingent/dependant construct that serves as a
defense against a potentially overwhelming
reality of diverse sexual choices and identity
possibilities that exist simultaneously in the self
and in society.
Gender Studies has analyzed the repressed “homosocial”
strains that motivate the heterosexual tradition’s
construction of compulsory heterosexuality and normative
One of the most interesting and subversive approaches to
develop out of gay/lesbian and gender theory – Queer
Theory- pushes this point even further.
Homosexuality is not an identity apart from
heterosexuality. Everyone is potentially gay, and only the
imprinting of heterosexual norms cuts away those
potentials and manufactures heterosexuality as the
dominant sexual format.
Suppressed homosexuality is queered into being in the
various kinds of homophilia central to heterosexual
culture, from football to film star identification.
 Sexual transitivity is silenced for the sake of the labor
of large-scale species reproduction, but in the realms of
cultural play, the excess of desire and identification
over norm and rule testify to more plural potentials.
Poet, major voice in American feminist since the
late 1960s. She has explored the ways in which
patriarchal society oppresses women and the
ways in which women have responded to that
Her analysis of “compulsory heterosexuality” is
her most lasting contribution to literary and
social theory, wide range of topics, from the
silencing of women’s voices to the history of
childbirth and motherhood.
Like Elaine Showalter and Susan Bordo, Rich
links patriarchal oppression to power exerted
directly (and often violently) on women’s bodies.
Her concern with the psychic and social
supports of sexual identity also links her work to
the queer theory of Judith Butler and Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Increasingly identified with the women’s movement
throughout the 1970s, composing poetry with feminist
themes but also for the first time writing prose.
 By the mid-1970s she was openly lesbian, and she was
exploring all aspects of what she calls “lesbian
 Her work in the 1980s and 1990s also included new
attempts to connect to her Jewishness, her family and
the poetic tradition.
This essay has been widely influential. It marked
the end of sisterhood feminism, the assumption
that all women were sisters in their shared
 She highlights the presence of both lesbians and
heterosexual women in the feminist movement
and calls on feminism to acknowledge its fear of
 As those hostile to feminism often dismiss it as
the complaints of a small group of lesbians.
Many 1970s feminists went out of their way to
prove their heterosexuality.
 Lesbians and lesbian experience became
practically taboo within the movement (except
in its more radical branches).
 Her essay, along with the feminist work of
women of color and of working-class women,
challenged a feminism that claimed to speak for
all women yet assumed the viewpoint of a
heterosexual, middle-class white woman.
Much of the feminist work of the 1980s was
devoted to considering the ramifications of
these differences (of race, class, and sexual
orientation) for the category “woman” and
to attending to how such differences would
strengthen or weaken feminist activism.
Rich’s main purpose is to consider the extent to
which heterosexual desire and identity are
fundamental to women’s oppression.
Heterosexuality is not natural but social, and it
should be analyzed as any social institution.
How is heterosexuality established and
maintained? What groups resist it? What
alternatives must be suppressed for it to prevail?
Who benefits from and who is harmed by this
institution’s dominance? What forms of
enforcement underwrite the dominance?
Heterosexuality is compulsory because only
partners of the opposite sex are deemed
appropriate, all same-sex desire must be denied
or indulged in secret, and various kinds of samesex bonding (including friendships) are viewed
with suspicion.
Compulsory heterosexuality ensures that women
are sexually accessible to men, with consent or
choice on the women’s part neither legally nor
practically taken into account.
Compulsory heterosexuality is an institution that
punishes those who are not heterosexual and
systematically ensures the power of men over
deny women their sexuality(clitoridectomy
and infibulation)
 force it upon them (rape, wife beating,
father-daughter incest)
 command and exploit their labour to
control their produce (marriage and
motherhood as unpaid production, male
control of abortion, contraception, etc)
 control or rob them of their children
(seizure of children from lesbian mothers)
confine them physically and prevent their
movement (rape as terrorism, purdah, foot
binding, veil)
 use of them as objects in male transactions
(arranged marriages, call-girls, geisha)
 cramp their creativeness (witch and female
healers prosecutions, erasure of female
 keep them from large areas of knowledge and
culture (non-education of females).
argued that sexual harassment is a form of sex
discrimination because the act reinforces the
social inequality of women to men.
She said women are horizontally segregated by
gender and occupy an inferior position in the
describes all the enforced conditions under which
women live subject to men:
 prostitution, marital rape, father-daughter and
brother-sister incest, wife beating, pornography,
bride price, selling of daughters, genital
mutilation, and purdah.
 Women are expendable as long as the sexual and
emotional needs of the male can be satisfied.
Women are sexual being whose responsibility is
the sexual service of men.
As compulsory sexuality is central to preserving the
inequality between men and women, Rich argues that
the issue feminists have to address is not simple ‘gender
inequality’ nor the domination of culture by males nor
mere ‘taboos against homosexuality,’ but the
enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of
assuring male right of physical, economic, and
emotional access.
 Feminism cannot truly comprehend the sources and
system of inequality if it does not analyze the
institution of compulsory heterosexuality.
1- Sexualized relations of power within
institutions: women face the trials experienced by
all subordinates in hierarchical institutions and
they must also present themselves as attractive
according to dominant standards of heterosexual
desirability and be concerned with sexuality in
the appropriate ways (e.g., be flirtatious within
the proper bounds, be supportive of male
 Such expectations, rarely conscious, even more
rarely explicit, permeate public male-female
relationships. They form part of a larger
unwritten set of rules about the relative positions
of men and women in society.
2. Lesbian experience: and the lesbian continuum- challenges the
notion that women need men by calling attention to all the ways
in which women interact with one another, all the activities
central to their lives that do not involve connection to a man.
She wants to highlight how hostile to and threatened by women’s
independent action patriarchal society is and the prevalence of
such action despite the price paid for it.
The lesbian continuum includes a variety of relationships between
and among women, ranging from the sharing of a rich inner life,
the bonding against male tyranny, [to] the giving and receiving of
practical and political support.
By desexualizing the term lesbian, Rich calls our attention to the
variety of bonds formed between women and to the various
functions those bonds play in women’s lives. Lesbian existence
comprises both the breaking of a taboo and of a compulsory way of
Questions of sexual identity: How is sexual identity
 Through what processes of psychic identification does
a self form heterosexual and/or homosexual desires?
 Rich is more suspicious if psychoanalytic
understandings of these processes than are many
queer theorists but she recognizes that the law of
compulsory heterosexuality plays a crucial role
in the formation of selves, even as she notes that
the early bond of the girl baby with her mother works
against the injunction to be heterosexual.
The notion of the lesbian continuum recognizes that
sexuality comes in many forms and results in many
different behaviors –a variety badly captured by the
simple dichotomy homosexual/heterosexual.
Two lies sustain compulsory heterosexuality: women
are inevitably drawn to men and women turn to
women out of hatred for men.
“Desire is neither unitary nor fixed once for all. Women
especially suffer in a heterosexual regime that ignores
the fluidity of desire in favor of channeling that desire
toward heterosexual unions in which the needs of the
male are primary.”
Adrienne Rich
A pioneer of black feminist and lesbian
 Despite the achievements of the women’s
liberation movement and the civil rights
movement during the 1960s, the feminist
movement seemed to speak primarily from
the perspective of white, middle-class,
heterosexual women, and the civil rights
movement for black men.
In “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” she
says “All segments of the literary world do
not know that Black women writers and
Black lesbian writers exist,”
Smith assumed the task of establishing a
tradition of black women’s writing and a
specifically black feminist and lesbian
The 1970s were a rich time for black
women’s writing, with the beginning of the
careers of a generation of writers like Toni
Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice
Walker, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan; the
formation of organizations which provided
an alternative to mainstream feminism; and
the recovery of early writers.
This renaissance of black women’s literature
inspired the black women’s liberation movement.
Its members agreed that women of colour
experience oppressions different from those of
white women and black men, because of their
race, sex, sexuality, and economic status.
They were committed to the liberation of black
women from racism, sexism, heterosexism, and
classicism in culture as well as politics.
She points out the absence of scholarship
on black women’s writing, which she links
to black women’s invisibility in the
mainstream feminist movement.
Feminist initially emphasized the
universality of women’s experiences and
the bond forged by their differences from
To correct the limitations of this universalizing
assumption, Smith calls for a redefinition of the
goals of the women’s movement and for an
autonomous black feminist movement.
Smith shows evidence of black women’s
invisibility. Both black and white male critics
ignore or denigrate black women’s literary
accomplishments, and even some feminists
omitted women writers of color from the studies
they published in the 1970s.
Explore both sexual and racial politics in black
women’s writing;
 Assume that there is an identifiable literary
 Decipher the common themes, motifs, and
concepts in black women’s literature that derive
from writer’s political, social, and economic
Examine the specific black female language in
this literature;
 Demonstrate an existing tradition of Black
women’s art”;
 Try to be innovative and daring, following the
model of black women’s literature.
 Assert the political implications of a literary
work and its connections to the situation of black
Smith devotes a substantial portion of the
essay to a reading of Toni Morrison’s novel
Sula (1973) from the perspective of black
lesbian feminism, focusing on the
relationships between women.
It is a pioneering analysis of the novel,
though some criticized what they saw as a
fabrication of lesbian themes.
However, Smith notes that Morrison did not
intend to view the relationship between the
two main characters, Sula and Nel, as
lesbian, and that her reading of the lesbian
connotations in their relationship
exemplifies how a black lesbian feminist
perspective might deepen our
understanding of the nuances and political
possibilities of a text.
She provided a model for later writers who
stressed the differences among women.
A key debate in feminism has concerned
essentialism, with most feminists opposing
the view that gender, ethnic, and racial
identities are determined by biological
essences rather than by cultural
Some have criticized Smith’s insistence on a
separate literature and criticism for black
women as “essentialist.”
She has dismissed it as a narrow academic
debate, arguing that she shares an objective
political status with other Black females in this
country not altered by economic or educational
“Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” is intended
as a consciousness-raising piece to call attention
to the common ground black women share.