Queer

The word “queer” is a slippery one; its etymology is uncertain, and academic and popular usage attributes conflicting meanings to the word. By the mid-nineteenth century, “queer” was used as a pejorative term for a (male) homosexual. This negative connotation continues when it becomes a term for homophobic abuse. In recent years, “queer” has taken on additional uses: as an all-encompassing term for culturally marginalized sexualities—gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and intersex (GLBTI)—and as a theoretical strategy for deconstructing the binary oppositions that govern identity formation. Tracing its history, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the earliest references to “queer” may have appeared in the sixteenth century. These early examples carried negative connotations such as “vulgar,” “bad,” “worthless,” “strange,” or “odd,” and such associations continued until the mid-twentieth century. In the early nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier, “queer” was employed as a verb, meaning to “to put out of order,” “to spoil,” “to interfere with.” The adjectival form also began to emerge during this time to refer to a person’s condition as being “not normal” or “out of sorts.” To cause a person “to feel queer” meant “to disconcert, perturb, unsettle.” According to Eve Sedgwick (1993), “the word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root—twerkw, which also yields the German quer (traverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart . . . it is relational and strange.” Despite the gaps in the lineage and changes in usage, meaning, and grammatical form, “queer” as a political and theoretical strategy has benefited from its diverse origins. It refuses to settle comfortably into a single classification, preferring instead to traverse several categories that would otherwise attempt to stabilize notions of chromosomal sex, gender, and sexuality.

From the late 1980s, “queer” began to take on a more political function. AIDS activist groups in the United States such as “Queer Nation” demanded recognition of the severity of the AIDS crisis, and challenged homophobic social attitudes and government policies. Children’s and young adult (YA) literature responded to these social-political contexts by incorporating “queer” themes and issues into their narratives. The reappropriation of “queer,” changing it from an insult to a “linguistic sign of affirmation and resistance” (Butler 1993), was an important precursor to the radical theorization that was to follow, namely, “queer theory.” Teresa de Lauretis coined the phrase “queer theory” in 1991, as “a working hypothesis for lesbian and gay studies” (De Lauretis 1994). However, “queer” and the theories that support it are in constant formation, being redeployed, taking twists and turns from previous usages, while always expanding their political purposes (Butler 1993).

Queer theory continues to be a contentious and contested field of academic study. All scholarly attempts have only revealed the impossibility of finding a static, mutually agreed-upon meaning. Resistance or inability to settle on a clear-cut definition is itself part of the inherent radical potential of queer theory. Michael Warner (1993) refers to this lack of specificity as the preference for “queer” as representing “an aggressive impulse of generalization.” An inevitable effect of this impulse is that “queer” permeates discourses that go beyond GLBTI lives, reaching more broadly into Western urban cultures and the marketing of consumer products, including entertainment and fashion accessories. This kind of “market fetishisation” of the word “queer” threatens to dissipate its political valency, which, in turn, results in the ironic situation of making it “a site of privilege par excellence . . . that only the most privileged can afford or achieve” (Winnubst 2006). The so-called “culture of childhood” has also become an area whereby researchers have examined “queerness” in the lives of children, with respect to children’s sexuality and sexual desires, gay and lesbian parenting, pedophilia, cross-dressing, and transgenderism (Owens 1998; Bruhm and Hurley 2004; Kidd 2004; Flanagan 2007; Mallan 2009).

While the uncritical adoption of “queer” in popular culture has certainly domesticated the term to some extent, it retains its conceptually radical challenge to normative structures and discourses. Drawing on feminist, poststructuralist, Foucauldian, and psychoanalytic theories, queer theory began to investigate and deconstruct categories of gender, sex, and sexuality, arguing the indeterminacy and instability of all sexed and gendered identities. In troubling gender categories and their support of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, Judith Butler developed the notion of “performativity” in her influential books: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993). Butler’s proposition of the performative considers that gender is not what one is but what one does. It is in doing one’s gender that subjects repeat and reiterate prior norms that constitute them as a boy or a girl. Gender can be performed differently when one refuses to conform to these norms by blurring the gender boundaries, as does the eponymous character in Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (1977). The concept of the performative has provided ways for thinking about the processes by which discourse and language construct identity, the functioning of social norms, and how disruptive performances of gender and sexual identity (e.g., drag and parody) can subvert identity categories, as well as reinforce existing heterosexual structures.

While queer theory draws attention to questions of sexuality and the power that “heteronormativity” exerts on individuals in naturalizing and privileging heterosexuality, a story about a gay character does not makes it ipso facto a queer story, though such stories may indeed be queer. In the nineteenth century, books emerged with child or adolescent characters who harbor, even covertly, same-sex desires. In these texts, the doomed, sacrificed, or dismissed figure of the “erotic child” (Kincaid 1998; Moon 2004) provided narratives of “childhood sexuality.” According to Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley (2004), these narratives ultimately resolved in affirmation of “secular gender normativity.” Examples from this period include Constance Fenimore Woolson’s short story “Felipa” (1876), which considered the fate of lesbian desire for its eponymous young character, and the homoerotic romances of the “ragged boys” created by Horatio Alger in the popular Ragged Dick (1868).

The publication of books for young people that deal with same-sex desires or active or implied gay or lesbian sexuality has expanded significantly. Since the first YA novel with gay content—John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969)—there have been numerous titles published that can be broadly classified as “gay or lesbian children’s or YA fiction.” Realistic fiction with gay or lesbian characters attempts to reflect the diversity of sexuality within society as well as the divergent attitudes toward nonconformity. Consequently, some of these fictions perpetuate or debunk stereotypes about gay people (Uncle What-Is-It Is Coming to Visit!! by Michael Willhoite [1993]), provide affirming “coming out” stories (Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden [1982]), and offer a neo-liberal agenda of gay assimilation (Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman [1989]).

From the 1990s, attempts to classify these texts as either “queer fiction” or “GLBTI fiction” have become blurred, when “gay” and “queer” are treated synonymously. While many may see “queer” as “a newer or hipper synonym for gay” (Carlson 1998), others such as Donald Hall (2003) contend that “queer fiction” exhibits particular “queer qualities.” These include a refusal of a naturalized binary of hetero- and homosexuality; a politicizing of the interplay of sexuality and identity (or at least allowing the reader/critic to politicize this interplay); and a resistance to facile closure on questions of sexual identity. Despite the proliferation of GLBTI fiction, not all of it offers a “queer aesthetic or sensibility” (Morris 1998). Integral to this aesthetic or sensibility are the narrative processes that draw readers’ attention to the incoherencies in a binary system of sexual identity, and to “the oppressive regulation of sexual desire and practice in a social order” that is dominated by metanarratives of heteronormativity (Pennell and Stephens 2002). In Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish (2007), Grady, the female-to-male transgender protagonist, questions why such a binary must exist. Like Parrotfish, Julie Anne Peters’s Luna (2005) demonstrates the impossibility of any “natural” sexuality and invites readers to join the characters in their questioning of seemingly unproblematic categories such as “man” and “woman.” Queer YA fiction often deals with the subject of desire as a counter-approach to mainstream identifications and pleasures that dominant culture denies or prohibits to GLBTI subjects. In some instances, the narratives use humor as a strategy of subversion, as in Will Davis’s My Side of the Story (2007). Picture books and novels for younger readers deploy masquerade and cross-dressing, but often the effects of these strategies do not necessarily subvert dominant discourses about gender and sexual dualisms. The picturebook Odd Bird Out (2008) by Helga Bansch offers a queer aesthetic or sensibility through the character of Robert, a cross-dressing raven. Through his flamboyant clothes and lifestyle, Robert flaunts social convention: he not only triumphs against the social constraints, but is the motivator for change within his community. By contrast, other humorous cross-dressing novels, such as Bill’s New Frock (1989) by Anne Fine, offer a closure that returns to the social order of naturalized binaries of sexual identity, depoliticizing the interplay between gender, sexuality, and identity.

Queer fiction for children and young adults remains, like queer theory, a contentious and confused area for many. It also offers pleasures for readers, who may gain insights into the lived realities of diverse individual characters, whatever their sexual identity may be. Queer fiction turns identity politics on its head, shifting from “queer” as a noun to a verb “to queer.” From a queer perspective, the most successful fiction for children makes visible the processes that seek to enforce heteronormative categories and binaries, and that foreground subjectivity as multifaceted and shifting. The most successful queer stories “queer” their readers by provoking them to query the assumptions that underpin notions of normal and abnormal identity, especially sexual identity.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay