LGBT History Month: Queer Theory with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
In 1991 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published a paper titled Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl that caused such outrage among Austen worshipers that one declared her “more dangerous than Saddam Hussein”. The pen being, apparently, not only mightier than the sword but the WMD, too. Infuriating literary purists was, in large part, what made Sedgwick’s name as an academic, writing on “thematics of anal fingering and ‘fisting-as-écriture’” in the work of Henry James, male same-sex bonds in 19th century literature, and the “erotic triangles” and socio-sexual subplots in Charles Dickens. It was a refreshing – or, certainly, novel – take on classic texts that formed part of queer theory, an approach to literature and the humanities of which Sedgwick was a co-founder.
Like many a theory, it has been complicated by academics sometimes to the point of being utterly incomprehensible, but it’s actually based on a couple of pretty straightforward principles: a rejection of labels such as gay or straight and an exploration, instead, of gender and sexuality as fluid rather than fixed. “It’s about trying to understand different kinds of sexual desire and how the culture defines them,” she told The New York Times in 1998, explaining the function of queer theory. “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”
Or, as she put it in the intro to her work Epistemology of the Closet, considered a founding text of queer theory, “People are different from each other”.
Married for forty years, Sedgwick was occasionally criticised by readers of her work for apparently fulfilling the mainstream norms for relationships – heterosexual and monogamous – while only writing about those who subverted such dictates, but her passion extended beyond observation and into activism as she campaigned for gay rights and against the censorship of HIV education and the governmental suppression of gay teen suicide rates. “I’ve heard of many people who claim they’d as soon their children were dead as gay,” she wrote. “What it took me a long time to believe is that these people are saying no more than the truth.”
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 and, again, in 1996, Sedgwick shifted the focus of her work to her own experiences of the disease and of the social definitions and perceptions of illness. Combining her own writing and conversations with her therapist, she wrote A Dialogue on Love about her fears, depression, and changing sense of gender identity following a mastectomy. A Buddhist, poet, artist, writer, and critic, she died of cancer in 2009 aged 58.
Despite its radical beginnings, queer theory has become a cultural staple in the form of zines. Slant Girl, Out of the Closet and into the Libraries: a collection of radical queer moments, Hard Femme Bike Tour, Film Bitch, Golog: Rebel Nomad, and Queer Writes: How to Become A Radical Militant Youth are a handful of the zines who owe their outlook and determination to explore and celebrate identities outside of presumed norms to Sedgwick and her fellow queer theorists.