Since its conception, one of the defining characteristics of queer as a critical scholarly and political perspective has been that it resists definition. On the one hand, this reluctance towards precision reflects the queer-theoretical position that clear-cut categorisations are problematic as such. On the other hand, it is a strategy to maintain the dynamism of the perspective. However, as the literature has grown wider and the concept has been applied in ever new contexts, it has also acquired new, sometimes inconsistent, meanings and connotations. For example debates about intersectionality have involved impulses to widen the scope of queer research. Not only has attention been drawn to the importance of considering other hierarchies – such as race/ethnicity, disability, or age – in the analysis of the consequences of heteronormativity in non-heterosexual lives, practices, and cultural expressions, but some researchers have been prompted to ask whether queer theory could be transferred from the study of gender and sexuality to analyses of those other hierarchies as such. As a consequence of its multiple significations, the concept of queer now risks lack of clarity but also loss of expressive power. In other words, today the term queer itself conveys fairly little meaning and, if no clarification has been offered, the reader is obliged to deduce its meaning at any given time by the context. The increase of the ambiguity and versatility of the concept means that, for example, a summary of wider debates in which the term is used in several ways requires some patience and effort. The complexity of the term queer, obviously, transfers to the derivatives such as queer scholarship, queer readings, etc. In this essay, I will discuss what we mean by queer politics or queer activism and present a tentative typology that might assist in dealing with the multiple significations of queer.
According to its canonized genesis, the queer perspective was born about 1990 in the USA as a combination of poststructuralist theorisation and a demand for radicalisation of gay and lesbian politics in the wake of the AIDS crisis. This genealogy points to three central components of the queer perspective: queer theory, radical activism, and roots in gay and lesbian politics. The three components are quite apparent in most presentations of queer theory and politics, but in the literature their distinctness has often been overlooked or ignored and it seems that they are expected to simply merge into one in the queer perspective. They are indeed generally intertwined and appear together in different combinations. Therefore, they must probably be regarded as different ingredients that may produce different emphases in queer thought and activism rather than markers of separate strands of queer discourse. Nevertheless, I find it useful to consider them as distinct for a moment in order to use the distinction as a method to analyse the various meanings of queer. Obviously, the difference between these components has been noted before, but I would suggest that it might, in addition, be helpful to put simple labels on these elements of queer in order to facilitate further discussion of the various meanings of this concept.
In a previous discussion which focused on queer research I termed the three different aspects of queer the theoretical, the political, and lastly (a bit hesitantly) the cultural. The theoretical aspect obviously refers to the body of poststructuralist scholarship on gender and sexuality (for the most part originating from feminist debates) that was branded as queer theory about twenty years ago. The political aspect, then, equals the radical in-your-face activist attitude that does not shun confrontation or provocation which we tend to associate with queer. The cultural aspect refers to the association of queer with gay men and lesbians or, at best, with an extended LGBTI coalition without necessarily considering the theoretical or political aspect of queer. This is an understanding of queer that is rather common in our culture but contradictory to the queer-theoretical critique of categorical identities. Just as queer research is by no means always defined by the theoretical aspect of queer, queer activism need not always be primarily linked to the political aspect. There is activist work that is queer in the sense that it is informed by queer theory, and there is political practice that is called queer just because it carries on the legacy of gay and lesbian politics.
At this stage, this distinction is not aimed to be an analytical vehicle to profound new insights. Rather, it is intended as a terminological tool that could be helpful when situating different perspectives on queer and formulating concise specifications and qualifications, if needed, when we use the ambiguous concept queer – particularly in discourse where we move quickly from emphasis of one of its dimensions to another. In the next three sections, I will discuss the three aspects of queer and provide examples of different kinds of political activism and debate that employ the notion of queer and clearly stress one of its dimensions more than the others.
Many queer academics consider their scholarly efforts as a form of activism. Without wanting to contest this view I will here focus on, on the one hand, political work outside the academy and, on the other hand, work in academic arenas that reaches out to political debates outside the university context, engages actively in interaction with the rest of the movement, or discusses the applications of scholarly debates in pragmatic politics.
The relationship between queer theory and activism has not been straightforward. The labelling of the work by Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and other poststructuralist thinkers on gender and sexuality as “queer theory” was apparently originally inspired by the activist reclamation of the word, and students informed by Foucault’s concept of power contributed as activists to the often aesthetically and conceptually innovative forms of demonstrations. Nonetheless, the theorisation was soon to be criticised for being too abstract and esoteric for application in practical politics. In this context, two main issues have long been considered as problems: queer theory’s lack of attention to the social world and its lack of viable concrete alternatives to the identity politics that it opposes. Yet, despite this critique implying that queer theory could not work as basis for any socially relevant activism, there has been a shift toward greater emphasis of the theoretical aspect of queer in the use of the term queer activism. It seems to me that the term was originally associated mainly with the political aspect of queer exemplified by the edgy and provocative strategies of Queer Nation and other groups like it. Soon, however, and increasingly over the years, queer activism came to be understood in terms of practical political work which applies insights of queer theory. In other words, even with tensions the relationship between theory and activism appears to be dynamic and in progress. Next, we shall take a closer look at the points of friction.