Welcome! This guide offers a brief introduction to Queer Theory and resources available at Indiana University. This guide is divided into four sections:
This guide will not contain all of the key figures/texts in the field but we hope that it can serve as a jumping-off point for future research whether you are a seasoned academic or completely new to the field.
Photograph: Queer Nation activists march at a New York City peace rally in October 1990. Tracey Litt, KQED.
The Libraries have curated a number of interrelated resources and features to continue and deepen the conversation. You'll find these below:
Queer Theory emerged in the 1990s out of the fields of lesbian, gay, and gender studies. There are many interpretations, applications and uses of queer theory, but broadly, it can be taken as the study of gender practices/identities and sexualities that exist outside of cisgender and heterosexual “norms.” Queer theorists and thinkers are critical of essentialist views on sexuality and gender and view these concepts as constructed social and cultural phenomena.
Informal use of the term “queer theory” began in the 1990s with scholars, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, who were inspired by Michel Foucault's 1976 work The History of Sexuality which posited that identity is not innate and that sexuality is a social construct. In 1984, Gayle Rubin published the influential essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” which interrogated the value system that societies attribute to sexuality and sexual practices. In 1990, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published the seminal work, Epistemology of the Closet, and Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, developing the theory of gender performance. That same year, Teresa de Laurentis organized the first queer theory conference. At the time, her use of the word “queer” stirred controversy.
Queer Theory is an interdisciplinary field that encourages one to look at the world through new avenues. It is a way of thinking that dismantles traditional assumptions about gender and sexual identities, challenges traditional academic approaches, and fights against social inequality. For many academics, queer theory provides a lens through which they can “queer” ideas and works in their own disciplines. In this way, “queering” is not always about imposing queerness on an area but about utilizing the lenses of queer theory to imagine new, previously unidentified possibilities.
Historically, the word queer was—and still can be—used as a pejorative term against members of the LGBT community. However, beginning in the 1960s, in the wake of the LGBT rights movement, people in the community sought to reclaim the word queer as an umbrella term for all non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities. That's what the Q stands for in the acronym LGBTQ! Despite today's wide acceptance of the word queer, it is still important to recognize that not all members of the LGBTQ community identify as queer, and may still find the term offensive.
For more information about the history of the word "queer," check out the YouTube video below.
Video: Tyler Ford Explains The History Behind the Word "Queer," InQueery. them. (2018).
For more journals related to queer theory, explore the following links:
The following chronological list is a small selection of essential articles in queer theory. For additional lists, explore the following:
For additional resources and guides, explore the following links:
Henry D. Abelove is an American historian and literary critic whose writing focuses on the history of sex in the modern era. He is best known for his books The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists (1990) and Deep Gossip (2003). He co-edited The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993) which provided the fields of lesbian, gay, and queer studies with first teaching anthology. Abelove spent most of his teaching career as a professor at Wesleyan University.
Sara Ahmed is a scholar best known for her work in feminist theory, affect theory, lesbian feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. Her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) is a foundational text of affect theory. Ahmed currently works as an independent scholar.
Leo Bersani (1931–2022) was an American academic known for his contributions to French literary criticism and queer theory. His best known works include his essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?" (1987) and his book Homos (1995). Bersani spent the majority of his teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley.
Judith Butler is an American philosopher whose work has been extremely influential in the fields of feminism, political philosophy, queer theory, and literary theory. Butler is best known for developing the theory of gender performativity. They are a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Video: Berkeley professor explains gender theory | Judith Butler. Big Think (2023).
Tim Dean is a British academic and author who works in the field of contemporary queer theory. He is a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne.
Lee Edelman is an American literary critic and academic. His third book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) is a post-Lacanian analysis of queer theory and is widely cited and debated. Edelman is a professor at Tufts University.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher who is considered to be one of the founders of queer theory. His work, particularly The History of Sexuality (1976), a four-volume work on the history of sexuality in the Western world, influenced many feminist philosophers and queer theorists including Judith Butler.
Jack Halberstam is a gender and queer theorist who has written on gender binarism, masculinity, and passing among many other topics. Halberstam is currently a professor at Columbia University.
David M. Halperin is an American theorist in the fields of gender studies, queer theory, and critical theory. He is a cofounder of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. He is currently a professor at the University of Michigan.
José Esteban Muñoz (1967-2013) was a Cuban American academic who worked in the fields of performance studies, queer theory, cultural studies, and critical theory. His book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) develops a critical methodology of hope and is widely influential.
Paul B. Preciado is a philosopher and curator whose work focuses on gender, pornography, architecture, and sexuality. He is known for developing the idea of "the pharmaco-pornographic regime" in his book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (2008).
Video: Orlando, My Political Biography (Trailer). Paul B. Preciado, visionsdureel (2023). Preciado's film is not available online but North American rights were recently acquired.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009) was an American scholar in the fields of gender studies, queer theory, and critical theory. Sedgwick is considered to be a founder of queer studies. She wrote on queer performativity, the works of Marcel Proust, non-Lacanian psychoanalysis, pedagogy, and textiles/texture, among other topics. Epistemology of the Closet is a seminal text in queer theory.
Michael Warner is an American literary critic and social theorist considered to be one of the founders of queer theory. He is currently a professor of English Literature and American Studies at Yale University.