In late February of 2015, I received an email about creating a textbook in LGBT/Queer Studies from Bill Cohen, founder and publisher of Harrington Park Press, an independent queer (then LGBT) press . Bill (for we quickly moved to first names) wondered if I had any ideas about what such a book should contain. I was in my fourth successive semester of teaching a course, called Queer Studies, at Ithaca College, and I had found each semester I changed readings and course structure. One of the challenges I found in teaching the course was finding the right number and the right level of materials. I wrote Bill back suggesting a number of characteristics I would want such a book to have. It should be:
• a book in “queer studies,” not “queer theory” — informed by queer theory but not a rehearsal or reiteration of the writings of such folk as Foucault, Butler, Sedgwick, and others;
• far-reaching in terms of topics — my students came from all majors and with no prerequisites, so such a book needed to find some common ground with their range of backgrounds and interests;
• intersectional — drawn from critical race theory and opening new avenues for analysis of identity that pushed beyond the “silos” of individual categories. My students brought issues of race, class, gender expression, disability, ethnicity/ nationality into the classroom, and many did not identify as queer/LGBT;
• “beyond binaries” — deconstructing (in ways accessible to my students) the either/or-ness of identity politics and analysis; what is often called “poststructuralism.”
By the time we got this far, I had gathered enough courage to suggest myself as the writer. As it developed, the book became a kind of “family affair” — I found myself running down the halls to the offices of my colleagues in various departments to test out my knowledge in such areas as Koranic commentary on same-sex relationships, John Boswell’s theories on medieval “marriage,” and so forth. I also found myself turning to even earlier “families of choice”: my high school friend, the novelist Jane Hamilton, an ally of queer people, allowed me to include a section from her novel of gay male adolescence, The Short History of a Prince; my high school/college girlfriend, Loraine Edwalds, gave me permission to publish scenes from her musical and dramatic piece about the Michigan Womyn’s music festival, as viewed through a set of lesbians who had, like Loraine and her wife, attended for several decades; my friendship, which goes back as far as middle school, with the queer NY sculptor Peter Lane gave me the lovely image that graces the book cover. And Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American poet who composed a poem and read at Barack Obama’s second inauguration, made it possible for me to include one of his breath-taking poems, “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.” The generosity of these people, as well as others, made the book a far stronger and more inclusive book than it might otherwise have been.
Queer Studies: Beyond Binaries was published in the autumn of 2019 and Bill and I were still corresponding about instructor’s materials (they are now available through Columbia University Press). Sadly, Bill unexpectedly passed away that December. I never met Bill in person; indeed, I do not recall that we even spoke on the phone — such is the nature of email in our age. But I always found him to be a wonderfully warm and supportive person through the digital correspondence in which we engaged, helping me through those inevitable periods of questioning and fatigue, always exuding his commitment to the project and, more broadly, to the production and dissemination of queer scholarship. I am grateful he got a chance to see the book in print; I am only sorry that we were not able to make the journey together to celebrate it in person.
NOTCHES also mourns the passing of Bill Cohen, who was for several years a kind supporter of this blog. We are grateful to Bill for sharing Queer Studies: Beyond Binaries with us, to Bruce Henderson for his reflections on the experiences of creating the text, and to Columbia University Press for permission to print this extract from the book’s introduction.
Queering “Queering”: A Way of Seeing/Experiencing/Knowing
Queer Studies: Beyond Binaries is designed as an introductory textbook for undergraduate courses in this rapidly growing field; it is also a product of my own experiences as a teacher of a semester-long course in this subject over a series of years. Such courses are often developed as part of a call for a broader spectrum of classes that address identity issues or diversity education, and students are enrolled for any number of reasons. Some identify as queer (or use a parallel term, such as gay or LGBTQ+) and are looking for opportunities to study in a systematic way how their own experiences are connected to broader histories and issues of “queerness” in general. Other students wish to expand their toolkit of diversity knowledge, adding to the kinds of education they have often received in courses on race and gender (and, less frequently, class). Still others, when asked why they have enrolled in such a class, may mention that a friend or family member has recently come out, and the students wish to develop ways of understanding experiences of people who are important to them and, in some cases, to work with them as advocates, whether within the domestic sphere of the family (particularly for siblings) or in larger social and political contexts.
My hope is that this book will be of value to each and all of these students. So, readers, whatever your reasons for picking up this book, I trust that it will speak to you and provide you both with information and perspectives that will enrich and enlarge your ways of thinking about and understanding queerness, both as a way of being and as a way of experiencing and knowing. My goal is to make the material accessible enough so that those who have not studied sexuality in any academic or scholarly way will be able to navigate the myriad perspectives and concepts, while those of you who, either because you have done previous coursework in gender studies or because you “live the life,” will find much that is new and illuminating here as well.
The phrase in the subtitle, “beyond binaries,” invokes the term binary, which readers may have encountered previously, though perhaps in other disciplines or contexts. In our digital world, most are familiar with the use of the binary pairing of 0 and 1 in computer coding; the electronic transmission of information and language would be very different without this technology.
It was quite common, during much of the twentieth century, to divide human sexual identity and experience into a neat binary: heterosexual-homosexual in the case of gender; there have been and continue to be binaries clustered around such oppositional terms as “male-female” or “masculine-feminine,” pairs that trans people and their allies contest and interrogate. Aside from the fact that such a binary omits even the possibility of bisexuality as a genuine axis of identity, it flattens the complex, rich experiences of people who don’t find their experiences of attraction, activity, social identity, or embodiment so easily wrapped up in a single word. To put it less academically, binaries can run the risk of forcing people to “pick a side,” or, in the case of trans people, to be what the writer Michel Foucault called “docile bodies,” to “stay on the side” assigned them either at birth or throughout childhood and adolescent development by medical professionals, family members, or society at large. Human experience is just not that easily categorized.
Indeed, in developing the book, the people at Harrington Park Press and I have had valuable conversations about the title of the book — whether it would be better to use the word queer or the term LGBT. Ultimately, we have gone with the former, as being more inclusive. While LGBT may seem more neutral and, depending on where and when you experience the terms, less negative in its history and connotations than queer, the presence of four categories (LGBT) nevertheless continues the spirit of binaries — of asking people to contain their experience of self and others into boxes. And, in fact, even LGBT has become somewhat outmoded, as various, more specific ways of describing sexual identity have come into existence.
One of the most searching and thoughtful discussions of the tensions and possibilities for productive dialogue between LGBT and queer perspectives is that of the late scholar R. Tony Slagle. In his essay “Ferment in LGBT Studies and Queer Theory: Personal Ruminations on Contested Terrain,” Slagle writes about his own career in the field of communication studies, which he began when the discipline’s scholarly and professional association, the National Communication Association (later the Speech Communication Association), had established, a few years back, a caucus (similar to an interest group, originally designed to raise awareness and do professional activism in the association) for “Gay and Lesbian Concerns”: the word “queer” had not yet really or fully entered the lexicon as anything but a slur.
Slagle was one of a new generation of scholars who were reading queer theory and introducing it into their teaching, scholarship, and everyday lives. In the essay, Slagle notes the opposition he faced, sometimes in the form of ad hominem (personal) attacks, for his attraction to queer theory (and for his use of the word queer in and of itself, which to the previous generation was both unwelcome and, to their minds, unscholarly), and the essay charts both the personal costs, psychological and professional, that his commitment to queer enacted on him, and more recent developments: as of this writing, the association now has a Caucus on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns, as well as a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Communication Studies Group, which focus on scholarship on those identity groups. Slagle’s “personal ruminations” articulate with eloquence and honesty the challenges of navigating the waters even (perhaps especially) in scholarly and intellectual contexts. They point not simply to generational differences, but to political commitments, in which those opposed to Slagle’s use of queer either reject the term as mired in historical offense or view the primary work of their group as dealing with sexual orientation, not gender identity and expression. So, understanding of different people’s use of (and preference for) such terms as LGBT and queer will probably lead to better communication and more productive discussion.
Queer Studies and Queer Theory
We hoped this book might add to the relatively small number of books designed specifically for bright undergraduate students interested both in gaining ways of thinking about queerness (theory) and in applying such thinking to the experiences of people who either identify as queer or have meaningful interactions with queer people (in other words, everyone!). Queer theory as a scholarly concept has a history that is typically traced back to the coining of the phrase by the film and literary theorist Teresa de Lauretis and to a central set of scholars, such as Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Alexander Doty, and Michael Warner, who drew on various philosophers and other thinkers to develop a distinctive methodology and set of assumptions in carrying out their work.
Queer theory, though it varies in scope and approach, is predicated on the concept of nonnormativity as a legitimate, nonpathologized variation in human existence and in its centrality to viewing and acting in the world. It argues, as others have said of critical race theory and feminist theory (with which it shares many points of contact), that the “margins may define the center” as much as the other way around; in simpler terms, the assumed centrality of the “norm” is as much a social construct as the “othering” of those who, by social construction and history of such features as race (usually marked by skin color and assumed geographical point of origin), gender, or sexual orientation, as well as disability and class, have been viewed and treated as “nonnormative.” Queer theory, as its name suggests, tends to focus most on sexual orientation and gender identity. It also differs from LGB (or LGBTQ+) studies in that it typically views sexual or gender issues not as static (though an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity may be experienced as continuous and consistent), but as open to change and variation over the course of a lifetime or in different social and cultural contexts. Queer theory also argues for the epistemological (i.e., knowledge producing) value of, in Alexander Doty’s phrase, “seeing things queerly,” that is, as opening different and valuable perspectives from the dynamism that queerness as a concept encourages.
This book uses the overarching concept of queering, drawn from queer theory, as a way of looking at the lives of queer people across a range of concepts and in light of different academic and scholarly disciplines. At its simplest level, we might say that what queer theory brings to the book is a conviction that thinking beyond normativity (assumptions that there is a “natural” or “normal” state of being or way of experiencing) yields useful and equally valid knowledge about the world. In a sense, what queering (as a gerund or verb) does is to challenge what might be considered the figureground proportions usually unchecked or uncritiqued. In this sense, to queer is to ask all of us to consider or reconsider what gets emphasized and how seeing from what are often marked as the “margins” may make it possible to produce better, more inclusive knowledge.
Queerness as a way of Inclusion, not as a Barrier
A book of this nature often deals, by necessity, with statements about large groups of people and a certain degree of generalization; needless to say, the experiences of individuals vary considerably, depending not only on when and where they live, but on the complex intersectionalities of the other facets of their lives. As you will see, the term queer, which will be the overarching term of the book, is not one all people discussed here would necessarily use to describe themselves or embrace for historical or political reasons. When feasible and when logical, I have endeavored to use the language that individuals would have used, though queer remains the default term as a rule when there is no reason to use another. So, it is a delicate balance, and one to remain aware of as you navigate through the book. Similarly, assumptions about the lives and identities of scholars, writers, artists, and other individuals should be suppressed, unless there is historical or autobiographical material to lead to a conclusion. The author Jane Hamilton, for example, whose gay-centered (perhaps even queer) novel, The Short History of a Prince, is included, identifies as heterosexual, though she has had deep friendships and important relationships with queer folk. The same is true for work on trans issues: the musician David Bowie, who identified as cisgender and, for most of his life, either heterosexual or bisexual, popularized a style of appearance and rock music that built on a complicated resistance to gender binaries. In some cases, individual artists’ (or other workers’) life narratives have shifted over time. The British comedian-actor Eddie Izzard, who frequently performs in what is marked as traditionally feminine clothing and makeup, has moved, over the course of decades, from describing himself as a heterosexual “drag artist” (they also have appeared and acted in male roles onstage and in film, as well as in stand-up comedy) to now preferring nonbinary pronouns and identity. Izzard may be seen as having always done queer work, especially in terms of trans issues, and their own journey suggests the kind of fluidity queer can signify.
At the same time, the question may be complicated in different ways in other contexts or for other individuals. In corresponding with the contemporary New York–based sculptor Peter Lane, who identifies as a gay man (perhaps he would use the word queer), I posed the question whether his art is queer (you can find examples of his magnificent — “monumental,” to use his own descriptive term — pieces online). He responded to my question with the following statement:
I don’t think there is any connection between my sexual nature and my work, but at the same time, my sexual nature is an important part of who I am. . . . But I digress. Sexual expression is separated from sexual nature by culture and situation. Straight guys become gay in prison . . . and flaming queens go ultra-butch under repressive regimes. And I’m lucky enough to remember when, in the immortal words of Jonathan Winters, “the Gideon Bible only gets you so far, and then you gotta go downstairs.” Well, we’ve reached a time when, for better and for worse, you don’t have to go downstairs. (personal correspondence)
Lane’s statement is an honest description of his own complex sense of how his sexual identity and his art are inextricably entwined, but not necessarily overtly, programmatically, or intentionally “driven” by a desire to make something that could be identified as queer. Is his art queer? Viewers and critics might say yes; he might say the question is not an important one to him. Take a few minutes and look at this book’s cover; its principal image is drawn from Lane’s sculptural work. Lane’s work is not figurative, as a rule, depicting representations of things; he has used the word monumental to describe his style and motivations. While he, as he suggested, does not see himself as overtly or intentionally queer in his aesthetics or in the political implications of his work, consider how the image might be seen as pushing boundaries of the kinds of normativity we might associate with “fine art.” In what way, whether overtly or not, does the image lend itself to a queer reading or understanding?
All this is to say that queer, as a descriptor, as an experience, as an academic method, requires that we adopt a fluidity of approach and an openness to difference and variation that do not constrain us, any more than we would want to be constrained by a too rigid, formulaic, or prescriptive imposition of a binary such as queer–non-queer. Queer should be a place that allows for exploration, disagreement, and discovery, for honoring of individuals’ experience and naming of their own lives and experiences, and for ongoing conversations about possibilities.
Excerpted from Queer Studies: Beyond Binaries by Bruce Henderson. Copyright (c) 2019 Harrington Park Press, LLC Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Bruce Henderson is Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies at Ithaca College, where he taught for over three decades. In addition to Queer Studies: Beyond Binaries, he has co-authored two performance studies textbooks with Carol Simpson Stern and co-edited a volume of essays on disability studies and performance studies with Noam Ostrander. He holds the Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, as well as the PhD in Disability Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is past editor of Text and Performance Quarterly and Disability Studies Quarterly. He is currently beginning a scholarly study, tentatively titled Crip Haunted, Queer Haunted: Intersectional Excursions in US Southern Literature.
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