7 Days of Queer Theory

On Facebook last week, my friend Ramzi Fawaz -- a recent Ph.D. in American Studies and lecturer at George Washington University -- posted a different Queer Studies quotes each day, in honor of SF Pride. I enjoyed the quotes, so with his permission, I reprint all seven, with his (brief) introductions.

This wonderful entry from Michael Warner's "The Trouble With Normal," can kick us off:

"The received wisdom in straight culture, is that all of its different norms line up, that one is synonymous with the others. If you are born with male genitalia, the logic goes, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women, desire them exclusively, have sex in what are thought to be normally active and insertive ways and within officially sanctioned contexts, think of yourself as heterosexual, identify with other heterosexuals no matter how tolerant you might wish to be, and never change any part of this package from childhood to senescence. Heterosexuality is often a name for this entire package, even though attachment to the other sex is only one element. If you deviate at any point from this program, you do so at your own cost. And one of the things straight culture hates most is a sign that the different parts of the package might be recombined in an infinite number of ways. But experience shows that this is just what tends to happen. If heterosexuality requires the entire sequence, then it is very fragile. No wonder it needs so much terror to induce compliance."

- Michael Warner, "The Ethics of Sexual Shame"

Day 2's quote from the master herself, Judith Butler:

"Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one's best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak of my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must) we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or indeed, by virtue of another."

- Judith Butler, Undoing Gender

Day 3, from the phenomenal Mr. Michel Foucault:

“A way of life can be shared among individuals of different ages, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be "gay," I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try and define and develop a way of life.”

? Michel Foucault, Essential Works of Foucault (1954-1984), Volume 1: Ethics

Day 4, a collection of wonderful lines from the always moving and generative Sara Ahmed,

“The body becomes present as a body, with surfaces and boundaries, in the showing of the limits of what it can do. Phenomenology helps us explore how bodies are shaped by histories, which they perform in their comportment, their posture, and their gestures…what bodies ‘tend to do’ are effects of histories rather than being originary...We can see that the tending towards certain objects and not others produces what we could call ‘straight tendencies,’ a way to act in the world that presumes the heterosexual couple as a social gift. Such tendencies enable action, in the sense that they allow the straight body, and the heterosexual couple, to extend into space. The queer body becomes from this viewing point a failed orientation: the queer body does not extend into such space, as that space extends the form of the heterosexual couple. The queer couple in the straight space might look like they are slanting, or oblique...We could describe heteronormativity as a straightening device, which rereads the ‘slant’ of queer desire...For me, the important task is not so much finding a queer line but asking what our orientation towards queer moments of deviation will be. If the object slips away, if its face becomes inverted, it looks odd, strange, out of place, what will we do? If we feel oblique, where will we find support? A queer phenomenology would involve an orientation toward queer, a way to inhabit the world that gives support to those whose lives and loves make them appear oblique, strange, and out of place.”

- Sara Ahmed, "Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology."

Day 5, on the queer sensibility of ACT UP, the extraordinary Debbie Gould,

“ACT UP not only inaugurated a new era in lesbian and gay politics and in AIDS activism, it also was the site from which a new, queer sensibility emerged and took hold, a sensibility that was embraced by lesbians, gay men, and other sexual and gender outlaws across the country. Queer wove together the new emotional habitus and the movement’s oppositional politics and sex-radicalism, creating a collectivity that set queer-identified folks apart from the more establishment-oriented gay leadership and institutions. Rather than an identity, or even an anti-identity, in the way that queer theory posits, queer, in its moment of rebirth circa 1990, might best be understood as an emotive, an expression of…fury and pride about gay difference and about confrontational activism, antipathy toward heteronormative society, and aspirations to live in a transformed world. It validated those who held radical politics, who refused assimilation, and who celebrated sexual difference. Eliciting and fortifying a fierce pride in bucking political, emotional, and sexual norms, queer exerted a strong affective pull that enticed thousands to adopt the label and to support the movement out of which it emerged."

- Debbie Gould, "Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS."

Day 6, the inimitable Eve Sedgwick in two equally brilliant and insightful entires whose varying lengths make them no less true,

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

- Eve Sedgwick, "Tendencies"

And Sedgwick's first axiom for Queer Theory:

"People are different from each other."

- Eve Sedgwick, "Epistemology of the Closet"

Day 7 of seven days of Queer Theory, will end with two quotes from the frontlines of LGBT activism. The call to arms of The Queer Nation Manifesto - distributed at the 1991 March on Washington - and Sheryl Holtzman's electrifying description of an ACT UP demonstration at the 1990 SF Pride Parade. Both Queer Theory in the making.

From "The Queer Nation Manifesto":

"Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It's not about the mainstream, profit-margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It's not about executive directors, privilege and elitism. It's about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it's about gender-fuck and secrets, what's beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it's about the night. Being queer is "grass roots" because we know that everyone of us, every body, every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility. We must fight for ourselves (no else is going to do it) and if in that process we bring greater freedom to the world at large then great. (We've given so much to that world: democracy, all the arts, the concepts of love, philosophy and the soul, to name just a few of the gifts from our ancient Greek Dykes, Fags.) Let's make every space a Lesbian and Gay space. Every street a part of our sexual geography. A city of yearning and then total satisfaction. A city and a country where we can be safe and free and more. We must look at our lives and see what's best in them, see what is queer and what is straight and let that straight chaff fall away! Remember there is so, so little time. And I want to be a lover of each and every one of you."

And quoting ACT UP member Sheryl Holtzman after a 1990 demonstration in San Francisco, Debbie Gould relates:

"When Sullivan was finished, [the members of ACT UP who had participated in the demonstration], marched out of Moscone Center, feeling absolutely ebullient, and walked down Fourth Street to join the [Lesbian and Gay Pride] parade. As we neared Market [Street], we saw the ACT UP colors, the SILENCE=DEATH signs, and for a split second we froze in amazement. Out of over 200 entires in the parade, ACT UP was crossing the intersection just as we were arriving...like lovers who had been kept apart in a battlefield, we ran towards them - our friends, our fellow warriors, our family. It was exuberant and unbelievable. People were jumping in the air, they were hugging, they were crying, they were laughing through their tears."