A Dummy’s Guide To Queer Theory

Posted By: Anureet Watta

Art By: Maitreyi Jha


Erasure of queer narratives in mainstream history has been a common phenomenon worldwide. From the secret lives of scientists, to the not so secret gay erotica published by mainstream poets, queer identities have always been muted. Queer theory, is being rapidly revived by philosophers and theorists across the globe. Intersecting through various questions of class conflict, caste consciousness, gender, heterosexism and others, this field is constantly breaking the status quo. Within philosophy, queer theory remains restricted to the margins, limited to ‘activism’ and seen as something viewed either objectively, from a distance, or minutely, due to personal interest. Here is a list of seven exciting queer philosophers, writers and theorists, for you to start with, that have left academia and philosophy with their rainbow footprints.


“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”

The central figure of a black, gay and liberated history, James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a playwright, novelist and activist. His work unearths a deeper layer of conflict between race, religion and sexuality; questioning the puritan ideology at its root. Living in a white supremacist state, where state sanctioned violence was common, Baldwin’s queer and racial political interventions were especially audacious.  He also commented on emerging queer phenomenon like rainbow capitalism and frivolous alliances. Class and race narratives in very skewed crime demographics of a white America dictated most of his narratives. 


“I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.”

Michel Foucault (1926–84), philosopher, historian and activist, was one of the most influential of the thinkers whose work is generally categorised as poststructuralist. Foucault was also a gay man who died of AIDS. His first work concerning the queer theory and elements of sex, gender and desire – The history of sexuality offered a counternarrative to the existing story of repressed Victorian sexuality. One of his most controversial views, that was also a great influence for the development of queer theory was that of the modern homosexuality being a constructed category of knowledge rather than a discovered identity. Theories like these emerged from his belief of sexuality that is something which is culturally dictated rather than inherent.


“Women cook food Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him. “If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

Ismat Chugtai (1915-1991) was an Indian Urdu writer and activist. Her works revolved extensively around female sexuality, femininity, middle class gentility and class conflict. Her most controversial and acclaimed novel, ‘Lihaaf’ brought forward many ground breaking revelations in colonial India. The story takes the readers to the hushed topic of same sex desire and sexual life of Muslim. The contents of the book were more than taboo and the contexts it was written in led to it being charged for obscenity, in the ‘polite’ society. Her work focuses on psychological and emotional milieu rather that outright sociological and political theories. 


“The failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness.”

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet, essayist and feminist activist. She criticized rigid form feminist identities and coined the ‘lesbian continuum’. She can be credited with bringing forward structurally disadvantaged women to the forefront of the feminist movement. Her essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ took the feminist world by a storm. Broadly, the essay talks about how heterosexuality isn’t a natural instinct but an institution that is conditioned and imposed. She views this heteronormativity as a political institution and lesbianism as both, a strong counternarrative and a personal choice. 


“No appeal to reason will touch me. No appeal to humanity will touch me. No appeal to Indian history or modern science will touch me. My brain is a science-free zone. My brain is a history-free zone. My brain is a fact-free zone.
This, at its core, is a simple matter. My love is right. Your love is wrong.”
Vikram Seth (1952-) is an Indian novelist and poet. Coming out in the 1990s and thereafter being an active influence for the campaign to remove Section 377, he is truly a post-colonial, modern India queer revolutionary. His literary works, have often made references to same sex desires. He believed ‘we are a world of post modernism, Modernism said gay or straight, postmodernism being more poetical paradoxical and kinder says, both gay and straight- bisexual.’


“When you’re getting ready to launch into space, you’re sitting on a big explosion just waiting to happen.”

Sally Ride (1951-2011) America’s first woman in space, and now known as the first acknowledged gay astronaut led a highly private life. To her death her queerness was covert and only revealed in lowkey obituary referring to her partner of 27 years- a woman. Given that then NASA and the American society in general viewed this queerness as disease, and how this mindset would hamper several of her endeavours, she kept her identity covert. Sally Ride did not want to be reduced to her sexuality, and her legacy is carried forward in her company Sally Ride science.


“The theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualising an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. It is the in between space that carries the burden of the meaning of culture, and by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves.”

Homi K. Bhabha  (born1 November 1949) is an Indian English scholar and critical theorist. He is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. The theory of Hybridity is most commonly related with him. This postcolonial theory refers to the creation of new transcultural forms produced in spheres of linguistics, politics, cultures, race and philosophy, due to the contact of two distinct cultures. He professes that these forms are constructed in a space called ‘Third Space of Enunciation’. He dismisses the notion of hierarchal cultural purity. For him recognition of this cultural ambivalence well helps us overcome the exoticism of cultural diversity. 

These philosophers, go a long way in not only bringing queer narratives into the mainstream while also being diverse commentary about several socio-political poles. Multiplicity of identity, confluences of cultures, and their subsequent influences are referred to time and again. 


One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting, but I think any queer theorist list is incomplete without Judith Butler. And in Indian context, Ruth Vanita and Nivedita Menon are big names for the evolution of Queer Theories.


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