Throughout queer history, there have been multiple events as well as figures that have shaped today’s acceptance and understanding of sexuality and gender in particular. The following writing will analyze three particular interventions of thinking as well as interventions of critical theorists that have had a significant impact on the world’s understanding of gender and sexuality over time, resulting in our understanding of queer theory today.
First, the existentialists were one of the most important and influential groups during the early twentieth century whom resulted in becoming a few of the many predecessors to queer theory.
The existentialist intervention had a focus of and central belief that “existence precedes essence”(Barker and Scheele 33). This means that these existentialists focused on the downfall of the essentialist’s perspective that humans have a predisposed “…fundamental essence which precedes the meanings that we give to ourselves, and to each other, through our experience”(Barker and Scheele 33). Through this belief that essentialism was not completely accurate, the existentialists questioned overall ideas of biological essentialism, which described that all humans were born a certain way, and social essentialism, where humans become a certain way through their lived childhood experiences.
In particular, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir were two of the most important existentialists who proposed an intervention of thought about sexuality during the twentieth century. Jean Paul Sartre understood and focused on that all humans are in “bad faith” if one believes that every person has to be a fixed way due to biological and social factors.
This blossomed into the overall belief that all humans are in the constant process of evolving and creating our own personal identities. This branches off of his ideal that our individual selves are the people who are responsible for what we establish and discover. Next, Simone De Beauvoir had beliefs of existentialism similar to Sartre, but she focused on specific limits within the progressive self-creation described previously. For example, De Beauvoir focuses on the essence that some people do have predisposed restrictions of freedom, such as race, ethnicity, and gender, which limits their ability to fully procreate their personal identities. The existentialist views are described in her production of The Second Sex that emphasizes that De Beauvoir “…condemned the “spirit of seriousness” in which people too readily identify with certain abstractions at the expense of individual freedom and responsibility”(Mussett 1). This means that De Beauvoir overall argues that people categorize themselves too easily and unknowingly which results in a lack of individual freedom in order to progressively self-create.
The existentialists and their movement was particularly important during the history of sexuality and queer theory. The existentialists believed that each person is in a constant process of shaping their identity and evolving throughout their life, as it was described previously. This particular belief was important during the twentieth century because it completely contradicted other theorists and scientists beliefs that humans have a predisposed identity into which they are born into biologically. This was substantially critical during this time period where research was primarily focused on finding a medical or genetic reason as to why one may be queer, gay, or not categorized in the normal binaries of gender and sexuality, such as gay or straight, or, male or female. This particular intervention mattered during this time period, as well as today, because these few beliefs started the fascination and alternate forms of research focusing on the meaning of queer, not necessarily on biological, scientific aspects of a human and their identity. This challenging of the normal understanding of queer as a medical pathology has shaped our understanding of sexuality today being a result of knowledge and experience, particularly focusing in on that sexuality is fluid and not a set, determined identity.
The next influential intervention during the history of sexuality is Post-Structuralism. This intervention arose during the 1970’s and 1980’s and overall rejected any form or version of the word “truth”. Post-Structuralists doubted, questioned, and researched theories that attempted to discover truths, like religion and sciences that have been discovered to describe these definite “truths”. Those post-structuralists also were weary of theories that included grand-like narratives because these particular narratives affirmed that there is an overall generalization of the human experience from one specific structure proposed by theories, for example, of Freud and Marx. During this intervention, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault were the top well-known critical theorists whose work blended and sparked the concept of post-structuralism. The work of these three critical theorists focused on that knowledge is not the end all determination factor for gender and sexuality.
This means that knowledge overall is partial and only contextual. For example, this is seen in “Queer: A Graphic History”, where the authors described this concept of how “Knowledge cannot be neutral or objective; it’s contingent on systems of power, and it shapes the power relations between people”(Barker and Scheele 56). This context of knowledge leads to the beliefs of these three critical theorists that there is no particular or one truth about who each of us are or will be. This also can be understood that there is no distinct, fixed, or stable identity that any one person obtains throughout their entire life. Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault present the overall viewpoints of post-structuralism to be that humans have certain identities that are simply only occupied, including sexuality, race, gender, and class. This meaning that one may employ different identities depending on the relations with the world and those who inhabit it. In sum, depending on individual contexts, humans can have different identity possibilities that are simply occupied depending on the particular place and time in life.
The post-structuralism intervention and movement had an overall influence on the thought about gender and sexuality both during the 1970’s and 1980’s, as well as today. For example, post-structuralism started to initially redefine the meaning of gender and sexuality in terms of generalization. This was important during its time because it first resisted the overall categorization that society was strictly based off of. This ideal of post-structuralism pushed forward the ability to understand that gender and sexuality is something that is different for each individual and is not something that is determined by the same factors for everyone. These thoughts and ideals brought up critical theorists Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, were extremely influential in their time as they are described as predecessors of queer theory. This movement of post-structuralism is still effective today in our society included in our understanding of queer theory. Society today is more accepting and understanding the queer community based off of these post-structuralist viewpoints and debates. For example, this particular intervention was a huge component in the creation of the term “queer” as an umbrella term, since it focuses on the differences of all people without the societal norm of generalization.
Lastly, Foucault and Butler were two of the most well-known theorists responsible for the formation of today’s queer theory and its overall understanding. Foucault had an influential factor of understanding knowledge in the presence of sexuality rather than a particular truth, as described above. This essential piece of understanding of sexuality by Foucault, described in his work of The Theory of Sexuality, aligns exceptionally with Butler’s connection of gender and sexuality in her work of Gender Truth. Butler focuses more on gender than Foucault, yet still incorporates the idea of sexuality and its relation to gender. For example, Butler states that these two seemingly different, fixed identities are simply actions and roles that we as humans perform. This belief that Butler states and produces challenges the historical , and even present, societal gender relations and definitions. This critique and challenge is also aimed at discouraging oppression and inequality across all people, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, etcetera. These two theorists are described as the godparents of Queer Theory based off of their influential overall, average, determination factors of known Queer Theory today. Since the term Queer Theory has many definitions based off of different theorists, there are a few unifying factors of queer theory that these theorists can agree on. For example, “Resisting the categorization of people, Challenging the idea of essential identities, Questioning binaries like gay/straight, male/female, Demonstrating how things are contextual, based on geography, history, culture, etc., Examining the power relations underlying certain understandings, categories, identities, etc.”(Barker and Scheele 31) to simply name a few.
Michel Foucault and Judith Butler were known mainly as the godparents of queer theory. These two theorists were critical resources for the formation of the queer theory known today. Foucault and Butler were notably important throughout the history of understanding and defining sexuality and gender overall because they both pulled together the foundational determinants of queer theory including their understandings of the relations of sexuality and gender, lack of truth, as well as the ideals of existentialism and post-structuralism. These two critical theorists were impactful particularly during the later twentieth century as they formulated one of the first versions and understandings of queer theory. This resulted by the summing up of beliefs and arguments of, for example, existentialism, post-structuralism, as well as their arguments including anti-normativity. This sum of arguments and understandings has formed over the past few decades into the well-known concept of queer theory that is defined today. This is so influential in today’s world in marching towards acceptance of all people while striving towards freedom and individuality by deconstructing the normal binaries of society, especially in the United States.