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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Why We Need Queer Theory Now

by Whitney Monaghan and Hannah McCann 5th November 2019

Whitney Monaghan and Hannah McCann explore queer theory and how it can be used as an activist tool in society at large.

Queer theory is a tricky thing. It is often considered indefinable, which can make it difficult to grasp – though it is perhaps this very indefinability and destabilising logic that is key to queer theory! In broad terms, queer theory is an area of critical inquiry that brings the term “queer” into the academy. The term originally referred to the odd, strange, or sick and it was used as a slur for homosexuality until it was reclaimed by the LGBTIQ community as a term to connote resistance, non-normative sexuality, and unapologetic difference. In contemporary usage, queer is sometimes used as an umbrella term where it functions as shorthand for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Queer/Questioning (LGBTIQ) community. At the same time, however, queer is used as a verb. In this usage, queer is a doing, a way of being, and a means of approaching the world. When we unite “queer” with “theory” we seek to conjure these many usages of queer and leverage them in our thinking and practice as academics, in the politics of our activism, and in our creative work.

Taken up as a term within academia in the 1990s, queer theory is regularly associated with the theories of postmodernism and poststructuralism that saw major questioning of grand narratives and ideas relating to truth, power and identity. Theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick were at queer theory's helm. Yet queer theory equally emerged in conversation with prior theories of sexuality and gender, as well as histories of thinking around race, class, embodiment, ability, affect and more. Queer theory gains much of its enduring power from its roots in lesbian feminism, lesbian of colour theory and activism, trans activism and theory, gay and lesbian studies, and gay and lesbian activism.
Queer theory has lasting relevance because of its ability to remain flexible and open to new directions. We treat queer theory as a lens that helps us to think about and see the world in queer ways. Queer theory puts the slipperiness of binary categories of identity, namely sex, gender, and sexuality, into focus. Queer theory is a tool that we regularly draw upon from our critical toolbox.

Queer Theory and Climate Change Activism

So how can queer theory help us think through major contemporary issues? One thing that queer theory helps us get to grips with is how the figure of the child is currently being mobilised in debates around climate crisis. A central strand in queer theory is thinking around temporality (questioning our relationship to time). Queer theorists such as Lee Edelman question how the figure of the child operates in culture as a signifier of the future. This is a specifically “heteronormative” future, where the reproduction of the heterosexual nuclear family unit is at the centre of future imaginings. From political campaigns to advertisements, the figure of the child is used to invoke ideas of this future (heterosexual) horizon.

However, with the climate crisis the very idea of the future is threatened, and young people such as activists Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, and Bruno Rodriguez are leading the rebellion against government inaction on climate change around the world. In places like Australia, the government has responded to children’s school strikes for climate, with statements from the Prime Minister Scott Morrison such as “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools”. On the face of it, such responses merely represent a conservative view that children should not engage in politics. However, queer theory helps us see more deeply into this issue.
Placeholder Image
Greta Thunberg holding a sign which reads 'School Strike for the Climate'
Photo by Leonhard Lenz. Avaliable on Wikipedia Commons via CC0

Queer theory suggests that the rebellion of children, demanding system change and a reorganisation of the world, is profoundly disturbing to the way that children are commonly invoked in political discourse to reinforce the status quo. Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations in 2019 that proclaimed, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”, refigures the child as a symbol of a lost future, a future of precarity and uncertainty, a future in crisis. In this way, queer theory helps us to see how and why certain things – such as the rebellion of children – are so very core-shaking to the establishment, and to the dominant paradigm. Rather than signifying a stable, heteronormative future, children themselves are questioning and destabilising this symbolism.

This is just one example of the ways in which queer theory helps us to question what is taken for granted, and particularly the heteronormative logics that underpin the political landscape and our everyday lives.
Featured image credit: Photo by mathiaswasik. Avaliable on Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0