Queer Theory and What Feminists Can Learn From It

Imogen Thomas talks us through the importance of queer theory in feminist discussion

Both feminist theory and queer theory focus on meeting the dominant culture and systems of oppression with defiance. Both challenge patriarchal and heteronormative forces. These similarities are unsurprising: queer theory owes a lot to feminist theory. But since it sprang out of queer studies and feminism in the 1970s, queer theory has developed our understanding 
of gender and sexuality and it now has much to give back to feminism. So here are three things which feminists can learn from the field.

Don’t assimilate, agitate

The Queer Nation Manifesto says that being queer is: ‘not about the mainstream, profit-margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It’s not about executive directors, privilege or elitism. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves.’

Queer theory challenges assimilationist attitudes which suggest that, if LGBTQIA+ people
are able to be integrated into the systems which currently oppress them, they will be equal. For example, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage is a good starting point, queer theorists would call into question the power dynamics of the whole institution of marriage, not just the position of LGBTQIA+ individuals within it. Though LGBTQIA+ individuals 
may well wish to marry, and this right should be fought for, effort should also be put into challenging the historical and present-day misogyny and heteronormativity of marriage. Emphasis should be on criticising the heteronormative model, not simply emulating it.

Women need to be more represented in most political and social structures, but we shouldn’t just focus on assimilation without also interrogating the system as a whole, which is rigged not just against women, but against LGBTQIA+ people, people of colour, disabled people and other marginalised individuals. Why strive to make women equal to men when not all men are equal? Focusing merely on integrating into existing patriarchal structures runs the risk of giving more attention to fighting for the rights of able- bodied, white, cis, heterosexual women. Queer and feminist attitudes both demand an intersectional, not just assimilationist, approach.

Reassess, redefine, reinvent

Queer theory does not sit still. It is constantly developing and it is not fixed. Feminist theory has come a long way from its gender-essentialist starting points, but there is always further to go. As Barbara Johnson says, ‘any discourse that is based on the questioning of boundary lines must never stop questioning its own.’ As feminists, we must learn from, but also transcend the ideas of, those who came before us. For example, whatever may be said for Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, feminists must make a firm stand against her transphobia. As José Esteban Muñoz says, ‘the future is queerness’s domain,’ and feminism, too, has more to gain from looking forward than harking back.

We don’t need to rebrand

This one’s more something I’ve learnt form queer urban culture than queer theory. It’s often much better to embrace standing out than to struggle to fit in. Gregory Woods puts it perfectly in his ‘Notes on Queer’: ‘queer culture wastes
no time in projecting ‘positive’ images; it reclaims and takes pride in negative images.’ We could dance around forever redefining ourselves whenever the dominant culture condemns us, but we’re always going to be subversive and a threat to that culture, so we’re never going to win on its terms. It’s ‘smash the patriarchy,’ not pander to it.

Outreach to misogynist men does have its place on the feminist agenda, but the women’s movement as a whole does not need to change to be palatable to its oppressors. Conceding to misogynists isn’t going to get you very far. Of course the patriarchy is hostile to feminism. We are hostile to it.

Homophobia is the fault of the homophobe, not a problem with the image of the LGBTQIA+ movement. Similarly, sexists failing to change their ways is not down to the word ‘feminism’ needing replacing. It’s down to an entrenched system of oppression and a lack
of education on women’s issues.

As feminists, we need to be aware of issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community. Not only are they key to intersectional feminism (for example, the UN found that 23 per cent of non-heterosexual women

in 2014 experienced physical or sexual violence by non-partner perpetrators as opposed to five
per cent of heterosexual women),
but the fundamental principles feminism is founded on apply to marginalised sexualities too. Both LGBTQIA+ activists and feminists aim to save lives and avoid violence towards vulnerable groups, working towards socio-political, personal and economic rights for all. With so many common aims, much can be gained from learning from each other’s theory.


Photo by Emily Tierney-Lever

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