As we go into LGBT+ History Month, many figures throughout history – modern or not – are looked upon and celebrated, and rightly so. What is often overlooked, however, is the way that ‘queerness’ has been a part of culture for centuries. To make one thing clear, what Queer Theory is not is simply taking a piece of art or literature and coming up with some elaborate and unfeasible way in which to label Oliver Twist a gay icon. Rather, it is about analysing how artists have interacted with and subverted heteronormative expectations through their works.

The basis of Queer Theory comes from Judith Butler’s 1990 work Gender Troubles, whereby she argues that gender is a performance that we do rather than a permanent attribute. Which makes sense when you think about it; in certain contexts, everyone acts more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ than in other situations, and therefore everyone will have their own interpretation of you and the extent to which you conform to gender roles. Away from gender and on to sexuality, Sedgwick, working upon the ideas of Foucault, argued that the homo/heterosexual binary is an invention of modern culture. Instead, sexuality is fluid and this fluidity can be seen within literary texts and other artistic works. Like Butler, Sedgwick argues that the concepts society considers to be ‘binary’ are in fact in closer relation to each other, writing that “categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary opposites – heterosexual/homosexual, in this case – actually subsist in a more unsettles and dynamic tact relation”. Inherent to her argument is the idea that our understanding of sexuality should not be confined to two binary models, but should exist instead as something malleable that is constantly subject to change. So Queer Theory, in the simplest way, is the rejection of the categorisation and permanence of gender and sexuality. 

So why is this important for the study of literature and art? Well, it’s quite interesting to see how writers who we think we know well have been subverting heteronormativity for centuries, but it is also important for the sake of our own liberation: rather than queerness being a modern or niche phenomenon, this proves that it is an integral part of human culture rather than something to be ashamed of. In the same way that feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytical interpretations of texts have been extremely useful to help people understand their own identities and minds, so to can queer readings help people to better understand gender and sexuality.

To a certain extent, there have always been queer readings of texts on the condition that the artist was known to be queer. For example, it is quite hard to read The Picture of Dorian Gray without thinking about Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, despite the fact that there is no explicit queerness within the novel. In Mrs Dalloway, identity is often read as existing outside of a binary, which is something that largely relates back to Virginia Woolf’s own fluid sexuality and supposed affair with Vita Sackville-West. But for other artists who were presumed to be straight/cis, history has instead ignored or glossed over any queer connotations. I mean, Shakespeare wrote 126 sonnets to a “Fair Youth” yet only recently has this been given a Queer reading.

Staying on Shakespeare for the sake of convenience, Queer readings can also be applied to some of the characters of his plays in terms of gender. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the feeling of love inverts the gender roles of the protagonists: Romeo becomes too ‘effeminate’ to willingly fight Tybalt, while Juliet is at home praying for Romeo to return quickly for the sake of consummating their marriage. Two cultural icons of heterosexuality do, in fact, reverse their expected gender roles while the rest of the characters often make sexual innuendos and completely conform to the male/female binary. When read in this way, Romeo and Juliet is changed from a soppy romantic tale into an interesting study of gender conformity in the early 17th century.

Not even Jesus is exempt from Queer Theory. Or, more specifically, the representations of Jesus throughout the centuries are not exempt. In many early representations, especially around the time that Christianity was being introduced across the Roman empire, the gender of Jesus was difficult to interpret visually; the point of this was to make him both a maternal and paternal figure when moving from a pantheistic to a monotheistic tradition. Even Leonardo DaVinci’s Salvator Mundi subverts gender expectations of the Son of God.

Overall, Queer Theory is a vibrant school of thought and one which can be applied to most literature and art. By applying it, the heteronormative view of cultural history can be deconstructed and instead a more nuanced understanding of individual works can be reached. Sedgwick even argues in Epistemology of the Closet that we should reach an understanding of “sexuality” that is inherently separate from “gender”, and that we shouldn’t use one to define the other. Even in works where gender or sexuality are not main themes, an understanding of how the artist interacts, conforms to, subverts or even ignores gender and sexuality leads to a greater appreciation of the complexity of the work as well as the context in which it was written. If you would like a greater understanding of Queer Theory, Butler’s Gender Troubles (1990) and Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990) are both easy to follow, and form the basis of Queer Theory.