Around 1990, “queer” got a major make-over. Before that queer was more likely to be used as an epithet to disparage Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals, than to be enthusiastically embraced as a form of self-affirmation. “Queer!” was much more likely to be hurled as an insult, than proclaimed as an identity. Then, quite suddenly, the tables turned: “We’re here. We’re queer. We’re fabulous. Get used to it.” Queer heralded a new way of declaring “who” we are. It also changed who “we” are (insofar as we embrace our “queerness.”) So, what happened? Why did queer get “resignified” (to invoke Judith Butler’s idiom) and with what effects?
In this course, we will explore the changes in thinking “sex” and “sexuality” during the 1970s and 1980s that preceded the new queer apotheosis in order to understand the problems and questions to which “queer” provided a possible answer. In the 1970s and 1980s, “Lesbian and Gay”, or “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual” (and sometimes “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual”) named political movements as well as academic fields. Yet as questions about these identities got more troubling and as thinking about sexuality got more complicated, these names had increasing difficulty bearing the weight of both historical events and theoretical inquiry. Theoretically speaking, after publication of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, vol. 1 in 1976 (and its translation into English in 1978), “sexuality” began to be understood as (a) problematic, rather than appearing as a self-evident aspect of human experience. Historically speaking, after the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the notion that “sex” could (or should) serve as the basis for political affinity seemed less clear-cut, and even the notion of what “sex” means—or should mean--became less obvious (as the debates about “safe sex” revealed).
Using Foucault’s insights, feminist theorists like Gaye Rubin, Eve Sedgwick, and Judith Butler began to rethink the intellectual work that “sexual identity” performs. Or, in Butler’s terms, they began to imagine sexual identities as performances. Their insights opened up new fields of inquiry and new ways of asking questions about sex and sexuality. Over the course of the 1980s, these new intellectual tools intersected with the new forms of political activism catalyzed in response to AIDS (e.g. ACT-UP) and from this turbulent field of thinking and acting a new form of sexual identification and sexual subjectification was born: Queer. By tracing this “queer” genealogy, we will explore the ways that sexuality both fictions identities and informs how we experience ourselves in their terms.