Postmodern Deconstruction of Queer Studies

Vision or foolishness?
Before we more forward, we must be clear.

Before we more forward, we must be clear.

By Don Allen, Publisher – Our Black News

The postmodern effects of thinking are seen in our Western culture, with homosexual, bisexual, and polyamorous behavior becoming more acceptable to Americans, but it also creates a divide in academics and the academic political right. The most worrying trend is scholars who are right-wing Christian fundamentalist looking through the lens of queer studies who do not represent a homosexual orientation and have taken up the mantle of inquisition, self-charged to define, compare and contrast acceptable rhetoric about queer studies.

My article on queer studies looking through a postmodern lens addresses the problems of sexual identity, human sexuality, and gender. The challenge still remains should academics debate how we should interpret the relation between the long history of queer practices and the history of queer identities – or come to terms the interpretations of queer practices has changed across time and space?

If postmodernism represents a new way to look at queer studies, then critical literary apparatuses must be used to define queering (or queer studies) as a non-sexual orientation ideology. However, when looking through the lens of postmodernism as it pertains to color, race, class and more specifically, sexual orientation, it becomes even more problematic to define the modern, postmodern and post-post modernism; not because we cannot comprehend the meanings, but so few intellectuals have been indoctrinated with postmodernism in a way that would lay bare my very clear definitions, claims, arguments and evidence as it pertains to queer studies. Heterosexual males in academia are not considered authorities on queer studies, however English departments and many other disciplines have adopted the principles of queer studies and trained their students to read though this lens.

In the process, lesbian or gay studies sometimes take on a sound of essentializing lesbians, gays, or straight people and pitting lesbians or gays or “homosexuals” against straights as binary opposites. Just as deconstruction tries to go beyond the binary oppositions that structuralists believe organize our thinking, so queer studies drawing on and contributing to deconstruction- tries to go beyond the binary oppositions and essentialism that it sometimes sees as characterizing gay or lesbian studies. Could this be considered a postmodern approach? “Deconstruction is only the negation of the negation, it remains in the same sphere, it nourishes the same terrorist pretension to truth, that is to say the association of the sign — here in its decline, that’s the only difference — with intensity. It requires the same surgical tampering with words, the same split and the same exclusions that the lover’s demand exacts on skins,” (Lyotard).

The concern is that some people use terms such as lesbian and gay or use lesbian or gay studies to suggest a belief in stable characteristics that can describe all gays or all lesbians across geography and time and that definitively separate gays and lesbians from each other and from straight people. By contrast, the term queer suggests instability and continuous process. We might say that queer studies are a deconstructive version of gay and lesbian studies. “When this debate is applied to sexualities, the interactionist/postmodernist offers up a much more modest account of sexualities than many in the sexological world would have us believe. It throws into doubt any ‘Grand Narratives of Sexuality’—from Freud to sexology—that have haunted much of the modern world’s analysis of sexuality,” (Plummer p. 520).

The desire for a deconstructive postmodern version of lesbian and gay studies speaks to the larger project of reconstructing ideas of identity and sexuality, moving away from the naturalizing of heterosexuality and away from compulsory heterosexuality. The naturalizing of heterosexuality is the assumption, typically made without thinking, that everyone is heterosexual unless labeled otherwise, that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is a special case. What postmodernism presents can be meaningless promoting obscurantism and uses relativism (in culture, morality, knowledge) to the extent that it cripples literature and most judgment calls.

In the post war years, issues of gender and sexuality were discursively embedded within   seemingly unrelated decisions, the legal system, medical opinions, and scientific   theories.  In addition to the widely documented Cold War persecution of homosexuals, the 1950s witnessed, in various domains of professional expertise, an effort to stigmatize people with unconventional gender and sexual expressions. Going beyond the richly studied McCarthy witch hunts, the first half of this article traces various examples that illuminate how gender and sexual diversity was dealt with and handled in public policy, law, medicine, and science between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. From public policies and laws concerning citizenship, the welfare state, and immigration, to the rising cultural authority of medical professionals (especially psychiatrists) on the subject of sexuality and gender, to the scientific   theories and medical treatments of homosexuality and trans sexuality. In first half of this article, I will explore how different-sometimes competing-elite discourses worked together in powerful ways to regulate and shape the American people’s sexual experience in the early postmodern Cold War era.

For queer studies, once the heterosexual/gay or heterosexual/lesbian binary breaks, then the line between heterosexual and queer no longer looks so firm as the conventional insistence on compulsory heterosexuality can imply. Within the binary model, same-sex desire is a quality that certain people have and others do not. Alternatively, same-sex desire and opposite-sex desire are potential in everyone. As you may recall from course readings Freud believed that infants are polymorphously perverse, meaning that they can find erotic pleasure in any body part. Perversity in this sense is not a moral judgment but a description of desire that persistently turns in unpredictably multiple directions, and polymorphous means it takes many forms. In this model, everyone has the potential for any sexual orientation. However, for most infants’, the surrounding world structures and streamlines their polymorphous perversity into standardized patterns, such as gay, lesbian, bi, or straight. Whether Freud had that exactly right or not (and people disagree on that issue), the larger queer claim is that people’s desire is more multiform than the rigid binary between straight and queer can account for.

The process of the legal denunciation of homosexuality both reflected and reinforced   the pervasive post-World War II gender ideology, according to which women were expected to devote their time entirely to domestic life, as opposed to gaining economic   independence. In the case of the GI Bill, it offered the most generous benefits to married   men, bolstering   their role as family providers through   dependency allowances and survivors’ benefits. Women’s   benefits   were always inferior to men’s, and the two-percent cap on women’s   participation in the military force (until   1967) made women’s overall access to the GI Bill even more restricted. These regulations therefore ensured that women experienced   the   expansion of U.S. social citizenship   primarily through their husbands’ benefits. The GI Bill did more than exclude those individuals who were believed to have engaged in homosexual acts or to possess homosexual tendencies. It also channeled many more governmental resources to men than to women, securing the economic incentives for women to enter heterosexual marriages. Simply put, the denunciation of homosexuality in federal policy and the legal normalization of heterosexuality were two sides of the same coin.

In addition to defining U.S. citizenship internally through the welfare state, the legal   normalization of heterosexuality also occurred at the nation’s borders, which were governed by anti-homosexual U.S. Immigration law around the mid-20th century. The 1952 Immigration     and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, contained two anti-homosexual provisions: one barred from entry   immigrants who had committed “crimes of moral turpitude,” and another barred those afflicted with psychopathic personality. The increasingly widespread equation of homosexuals with Communists, both of which were construed as specific types of people who could easily slip into U.S. borders undetected, constituted an important   driving force behind the Cold War surveillance of the geographical boundaries of the United States.

Psychopaths were sexualized, so to speak, only after the power and cultural authority of psychiatry expanded beyond its initial base in mental asylums into courts, prisons, and the military forces, and this was accompanied by the increasing influence of Freudian psychoanalysis on U.S. psychiatric practice from the 1930s onward. By the 1950s, psychiatrists interpreted sexual psychopathy as a distinctly male trait that was appropriate for describing violent sexual offenders, a group that came to be understood as exclusively nor necessarily homosexuals. Meanwhile, psychoanalysts theorized homosexuality as a more profound inadequate psychosexual development that represented one of the fundamental roots to many other psychopathological traits

For example, in the movie The Crying Game (1992), Dil repeatedly explains herself (actually himself), to Fergus by saying such things as “A girl has to have a bit of glamour” and “A girl has to draw the line somewhere.” In effect, she proposes a structuralist poetics of femininity. Each time she calls on that poetics by explaining her actions and preferences as matching what a girl has to do, she performs a feminine role. But by calling attention   to her performance as a role, she also suggests an ironic possibility that not all girls have to have a bit of glamour or have to draw the line in the same way and that she or some other girl might consider drawing the line some other way. Once Dil is revealed as a he or for all those who suspect all along that she is a he or who know from watching the movie before or hearing about it before that she is a he, then Dil’s remarks about what a girl has to do multiply in their already multiple meanings. A girl may have to do certain things, by one model, but a guy may not have to do those things. On the other hand, a guy who is also a girl or is performing girliness might feel even more pressure to do them or might find pleasure or relief in doing them. On the other hand, he might find pleasure in vexing Fergus’s more conservative notions of what gender requires from Fergus or from men or from couples. When Fergus desires Dil, supposing she is a woman, or a woman performing a woman, and then discovers that she is a man, or a man performing a woman, then Fergus can find himself rethinking his understanding and performance of his own desire. Audience members might go through the same rethinking, if they have specularized Dil in the way that Laura Mulvey proposes that audiences specularize movie showgirls as feminine heterosexual objects and icons. Fergus discovers that he has been performing heterosexuality and his newfound sense of his heterosexuality as performance can compromise its stability as heterosexuality. Suddenly, things he did not understand before cascade into a series of newfound recognitions, such as his memory of (Dil’s previous boyfriend) words about Dil, his own bonding with Jody, and his conflicted feelings about his attraction to Dil and his unlikely commitment to pursue her.

In these ways, “The Crying Game” trades on Fergus’s heterosexual desire and queers it, or reveals it as always already queered. It asks whether a queer desire drives Fergus’s heterosexual pursuit of the girlfriend, who too conveniently performs the ostensibly heterosexual stereotype of the showgirl chanteuse. Queer studies often proceeds by taking ostensibly heterosexual practices and unveiling queerness within them, making queer into a verb.

In the spirit of deconstructive queer studies that sees practices and beliefs as changing across time as scholars study queer history in a postmodern era. From one approach, the notorious trials of Oscar Wilde in London in 1895 look like a landmark in the public recognition   of queerness, particularly for gay men. Wilde, the brilliant playwright, poet, wit, and aesthete (champion of art for art’s sake), was convicted of “gross indecency,” a euphemism for gay sex. Through the Wilde trials, a gay male subculture came into the wider public eye and consciousness, which many historians see as transforming an awareness of gay acts to an awareness of gay identity and culture.

Not all historians continue to debate how we should interpret the relation between the long history of queer practices (studies), and the history of queer identities remains clear, nevertheless, that the interpretation of queer studies has changed across time and space. Of course inserting the post-anything and queer studies into any historical debate would sum to several varying interpretations.

For example, in ancient Greece, erotic love between men and boys was honored among the aristocracy, including the military and the leaders of culture and government. While scholars continue to sift the evidence and debate the details of ancient Greek pederasty, the Greek example shows how ideas about sexuality vary. Passionate expression of love between heterosexuals of the same sex was routine in the nineteenth-century United States. In some countries, a man may penetrate another man without being thought of as gay. Most people do not realize that the sexual categories and assumptions of their own time and place have a history. They are not essences. They have changed over time, and they continue to change.

The very term homosexual did not appear until 1869. In the late nineteenth century, it came into prominence as a diagnosis for what many doctors then considered a sickness. Because of its history as a medical term connoting illness, many people now reject the term. When situated in its proper historical context, however, this medical debate over trans sexuality simply reveals the larger cultural dynamic of the Cold War era. Although the two sides of the debate seem to be in strong opposition, in terms of the way, medical experts interpreted the phenomenon of trans sexuality specifically, both sides nonetheless shared the same normative assumptions about desirable gender orientation   and behavior. Anchoring on traditional understandings   of the proper alignment between sex and gender-men with masculinity and women with femininity-the opinions of those psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who argued for psychotherapies as the best means to treat trans sexual it explicitly endorsed heterosexualized gender norms.

As the Cold War sociopolitical climate intensified, most physicians insisted that the proper alignment between sex and gender represented the most desirable and perhaps even the most natural-arrangement of sexual development.

Meanwhile, within queer studies – or some would say outside it there has always been tension between lesbian and gay studies. Many scholars see it as the productive tension of an alliance, while others resent the potential for gay studies or lesbian studies to overshadow the other or to overshadow or be overshadowed by queer studies. In a still patriarchal   culture, some critics see gay studies as especially at risk of overshadowing lesbian studies. At their best, each of these possibilities helps keep scholars-and gay, lesbian, and queer people more generally-more alert to the consequences   and nuances of their practices and assumptions. Meanwhile, these potentially productive tensions have increasingly found themselves   mirrored in similar suspicions and provocation between, on the one hand, lesbian, gay, or queer studies and, on the other hand, transgender studies, an emerging area of interest and scholarship that overlaps with each of these other   categories while still laying claim to its postmodern distinctiveness.

Visibility and public awareness make a difference. In some ways, of course, postmodernism combined with the undertaking of queer studies make things better by showing both the queer and straight public the ordinariness of queer life. However, in the face of continuing homophobia and even queer bashing, inside and outside of literature, visibility and public awareness also pose a threat to lesbians and gays and to anyone else whom a homophobe culture might suppose is lesbian or gay. That threat, in rum, appears to have changed the profile of homo-sociality, because the sex acts and expressions of passionate affection that once could happily y coincide with a heterosexual self-identity soon came to look lesbian or gay in a culture that often saw lesbian and gay life as an abomination.

As a result, homosocial friendships changed, at least till the Anglo-American and western European world. They lost much of their passionate language and openness of touch, but they did not disappear. Indeed, homophobia and the continuation of homosocial-clarity have much to   do with each other.

Indeed, Butler makes this very case: “Hence, if it were not for the notion of the homosexual as copy, there would be no construct of heterosexuality as origin. Heterosexuality here presupposes homosexuality. And if the homosexual as copy precedes the heterosexual as origin, then it seems only fair to concede that the copy comes before the origin, and that homosexuality is thus the origin, and heterosexuality the copy [emphases hers],” (Butler).

Although still facing a wide range of hostile persecutions in the public sphere, many gay men and lesbians endorsed Kinsey’s framework of sexual normality. They began to think of and portray themselves as healthy individuals and eventually organized around themselves a homosexual emancipation movement-known as the “homophile” movement in the early 1950s.

This movement consisted of the founding of the Mattachine Society, whose members were mostly men, in 1951 by Harry Hay and a small group of his friends. Soon, its lesbian counterpart organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in 1955 in San Francisco. Both organizations gradually spawned chapters across the nation, the most prominent ones being in Los Angeles-Mattachine Society’s initial headquarters San Francisco, New York City, and Washington D.C., and each organization published   its own magazine: the Mattachine Review by the Mattachine Society and the Ladder by the Daughters of Bilitis. In addition, the homosexual magazine ONE, based in Los Angeles, was established in tandem with these efforts. Despite how they seemingly represented separate endeavors, the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE supported and collaborated with one another in a tight underground social network.

Not all sexual minorities, however, believed that their sex at birth determined how they ought to behave. Besides the many swishes who insisted that there was nothing inherently wrong with their effeminate behavior, many individuals with cross-gender identification went directly to medical professionals for altering their physical sex.

Aware of the broader social anxiety of the Cold War era, most policy makers, state officials, physicians, psychoanalysts, and other cultural authorities maintained that a normative gender and sexual order rooted in the ideal of heterosexual familial life style was crucial to establishing a stable national community. The GI Bill, the McCarran Walter Act, and psychoanalysts’ rejection of the theory of universal bisexuality all stigmatized individuals with gender and sexual expressions that failed to adhere to a hetero-normative framework.

On the other hand, publicity about people with cross-gender identification began to articulate a distinct transsexual (and later transgender) identity that fundamentally contests unwanted social regulations of one’s gender and sexual orientation. Furthermore, initially conceived as part of the gay and lesbian movement, cross-dressers, lesbian butches, drag kings, female impersonators, and inter-sexed people, among other individuals who transgressed boundaries of sex and gender, eventually organized themselves to support an   autonomous transgender movement by the 1990s. In the broader postmodern historical shaping of the early Cold War United States, whether as friends or foes, delivering liberating or oppressive expert opinions, cultural authorities defined the social meanings of Americans’ gender and sexual experience, which ultimately reflected the hopes and fears that marked their vision of political change in the decades to come.

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Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993): 307–320.

Carmines, Edward G., and Geoffrey C. Layman. 1997. “Issue Evolution in Postwar American Politics.” In Byron Shafer, ed., Present Discontents. NJ: Chatham House Publishers.

D’Emilio, John. “The Homosexual Menace: The Politics of Sexuality in Cold War America.” Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Parker, Robert Dale. “Queer Studies.” How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Plummer, Ken. “Queers, Bodies and Postmodern Sexualities: A Note On Revisiting The “Sexual” In Symbolic Interactionism.” Qualitative Sociology 26.4 (2003): 515-30. Print.

The Crying Game (DVD). Artisan Entertainment, 1992. DVD.

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