Gay and Lesbian Criticism

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele

The practice of Gay and Lesbian literary criticism, or Queer theory as it is often referred to now, dates back to the turn of the nineteenth century, though works focusing on this field of criticism most likely stretch back much further than that. They were kept hidden due to the illegal nature of the texts during the period where homosexuality was a criminal act. Since the resurgence of the gay rights movement, Queer literary criticism has risen and gained traction in mainstream culture. Most importantly, we must recognize that queerness has always been present in literature, and it is those that bring these themes to light that allow gay and transgender voices to be heard. 

Firstly the history of the word “queer” must be discussed, as Gay and Lesbian criticism has evolved into the more inclusive term Queer criticism. In 1513 the word found its roots in the definition, “not normal, something peculiar, something odd.” It was then weaponized in the United States as a slur against homosexuals in 1914. The current edition of Websters New World College Dictionary describes it as,  “[Slang] homosexual: in general, usage, still chiefly a slang term of contempt or derision, but later was used as by some academics and homosexual activists as a descriptive term without negative connotations.” It is important to know the history LGBT people have with this word and to not use it lightly. Some LGBT people still carry negative connotations to this word, but some find it inclusive of the range of identities that fall under the acronym LGBT. For academia and inclusivity sake in the way Lesbain and Gay literary critics read texts today, I will be using Queer Theory.

The feminist and queer lens are often intertwined, in that their ideas mirror the other so that one cannot exist without the other. Writer and feminist theorist Hélène Cixous is a notable example of this in her feminist essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,”(1976). She wrote, “We are all Lesbians; that is, don’t denigrate woman, don’t make of her what men have made of you.” The essay draws attention to the way women have been conditioned to never speak, their ideas to never flourish. For lesbians this goes doubly, silenced by their gayness and silenced by their womanhood, for those of color it is even more so. Queer theory has always been multidisciplinary in this way. 

In an interview with the New York Times, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick said, “For these scholars, literature is embedded with homophobic fears and anxieties.” This is disciplinary that has only recently became as respected as other forms of criticism like its relative feminist and gender criticism. Homosexuality is a deep intrinsic fear for some, and this is what leads to the burying of many queer texts. Sedgwick also discuses the phenomenon of the “mutual friend” in which she said, “the ”cultural setting” was England of the mid-1800s, where a strong attraction between two men would not necessarily culminate in sex but would lead to a kind of ”homosexual panic.” In other words, an attraction between men would be buried beneath the guise of a mutual friend, the same way stories about two women living together for years would be painted as a strong friendship. Queer theorists learn to read between these lines and make the distinction between friendship and something more, they learn human relationships and the intricacies of a romance deemed illegal by the culture at the time. In Sedgwick’s essay, “Epistemology of the Closet,” (1990) she discusses this as one character knowing a secret, which is often one’s sexual identity. The problem of knowledge here is there is reason to hide it because knowledge is forbidden. To find out something implies it was a secret, it is a queer theorist’s job to read through this understanding, and be able to fill in the gaps otherwise left blank. They are historians and they are psychoanalysts, reading with what little context was given to them. The gay rights movement took hold after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. LGBT people began to shout when their voices weren’t being heard and in response, much of our queer literature and theory evolved from this. Much of queer theory is in response to a crisis in the community. An essay titled, “Fetishizing the health sciences: Queer theory as an intervention” by Tyler M. Argüello said,  “In a way, queer theory can also be seen as a response to the simultaneously emerging AIDS crisis in the 1908’s and the fomenting homophobia in the public sphere.” It claims that the presence of AIDS in the community served to strip LGBT people of their identity and present them as the disease, especially in medical communities. Queer theory humanized the plight. It put faces and names to those who were dying in order to give back the notion of identity. Queer theory evolved on these practices from works like

 “Melancholia and Moralism; Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics,” by Douglas Crimp, which challenges the fetishization of AIDS in politics and media, and seeks to dismantle the notion that the AIDS crisis is over, which is how it is so often portrayed in media. 

LGBT people know how to read the subtext, it is a way to see ourselves in literature when no author will write to us. Queer theory or criticism is so centered around subtextual reading. They are doing the valiant work of resurfacing these relationships and identities that have been buried by prejudice and oppression. It gives voices to those who have had their communities and their bodies take by disease, and continuously bring radical ideas into a new age, letting literary scholars everywhere know that Queer theory has just begun.

Further Reading: 

Queering and Gay Studies by Thomas Piontek

Published: 2006

Call Number: N/A (Electronic book)

The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature by Scott Herring

Published: 2015

 Call Number: PS153.G38 C36 2015

The gay and lesbian literary heritage: a reader’s companion to the writers and their works, from antiquity to the present by Claude J Summers

Published: 2002

Call Number: N/A (Electronic book)



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