Queer: A Very Unclear Word

After yesterday’s in-class discussion about queerness, transness, and other -nesses (we forgot the Loch Ness!), I thought I’d share my two favorite definitions of “queer.”

The first comes from the introduction to the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of “Social Text.” The issue, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” discussed progress, and failures, made in queer thought over the past decade. David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz co-authored the introduction, which includes this awesome definition of “queer” as an approach to action, rather than an identity.

Around 1990 queer emerged into public consciousness. It was a term that challenged the normalizing mechanisms of state power to name its sexual subjects: male or female, married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, natural or perverse. Given its commitment to interrogating the social processes that not only produced and recognized but also normalized and sustained identity, the political promise of the term resided specifically in its broad critique of multiple social antagonisms, including race, gender, class, nationality, and religion, in addition to sexuality.

This is probably the most deftly-worded and open-minded academic definition of “queer.”

But, if you want something a little less academic, I recommend the definition offered by Sophia Petrillo (played by Estelle Getty) in the TV sitcom Golden Girls. In the episode excerpted below, Sophia’s son, Phil, has just died. Phil was a life-long crossdresser who, by all accounts, was also 100% heterosexual.


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