To write a “short guide” to the intersection of queer theory with postcolonial theory seems perhaps like a fool’s errand. Both areas of scholarship, after all, are rife with diverse, contentious, and oppositional viewpoints from a wide array of thinkers, activists, and artists — which is to say, there is no singular “queer theory,” nor a unified, monolithic “postcolonial theory,” as both are undefinably broad with unclear borders. Both are rapidly expanding corpora of literature, with no single guiding question, methodological approach, form of criticism, or theory. Both, however, have specific focal points, blurry as they may be, and this guide is interested primarily in the conjuncture of those overlapping points.
When queer theory intersects with postcolonial theory, particular questions arise concerning the relationship between nationality, nationalism, and sexuality, between citizenship and gender, sex, and normativity. Queer theory is concerned with a series of questions about what is considered normal, specifically when it comes to human desire and sexuality. Postcolonial theory is also concerned with what is considered normal, but asks that we consider long lineages of slavery, oppression, imperialism, and colonialism in answering; that is, postcolonial theory looks at how relations of domination and colonization have normalized certain national modes and patterns of exploitation, violence, and dehumanization.
The conjuncture of queer and postcolonial theories, both plural in form and content, gives rise to several pressing questions, like:
- How does colonialism produce and maintain (sexual, gender) norms?
- How is or how can heteronormativity be a colonial transmission?
- What are the colonial legacies regarding gender and sexuality?
- How are queer experiences universalized?
- What is considered the “center” of queer theory, and what of the periphery?
- Who is considered the “subject” of postcolonial theory?
- How does globalization impact how norms are seen?
- Is there or can there be a national sexual subject?
- Is queerness a largely Western concept?
- What is the “when” and “where” of queer?
- What is the relationship between gender and nation?
Below you will find a list of possible research topics that emerge out of the intersection between the two theories.
Essentialism is a complicated concept, and you’ve perhaps heard some variation of “essence prior to existence.” It basically means that something has a set of properties that makes it what it is. An apple, for instance, essentially has seeds and skin — otherwise, it would be something else. If you’ve ever heard a variation of “all men are like this” or “all women are good at that,” then you’ve been exposed to gender essentialism, which embraces the notion that men and women are discrete categories with characteristics that makes them essentially men or women (the presence of genitalia, or any study that tries to find the differentials between the “male brain” or “female brain,” for instance).
Queer theory, on the other hand, generally rejects most simple essentialisms, and would argue in the last case that social development had a hand in those formations. Essentialism is typically contrasted to theories of “social constructivism,” or the idea that the environment, other people, and social influences have as much — if not more — impact on development than simply genetics or “essence.” Postcolonial theory, as well, rejects simple binaries imposed from imperial powers.
Both theories indeed are invested in investigating binaries within different cultures and across geographies to see how they manifest and to understand any fidelities people have to maintaining them. To return to gender essentialism, men/women binaries impose an either/or limitation on human expression, perpetuating the notion that you can only be one or the other. Other binaries like colonized/colonizer tend to associate the first term with essential qualities like “enlightened” and “civilized,” and the second term with “unenlightened,” or “savage,” and are thus in need of colonial intervention.
Postcolonial and queer theorists reject binaries for their instrumentality in justifying colonial and state violences against marginalized bodies and cultures. Postcolonial theories focus on the histories and legacies of colonial domination to understand how cultures, economies, and peoples were impacted by the brutal violence of colonization. As such, they understand things like gender or sex as constructed socially from the encounter between traditional/indigenous concepts and practices and the dominating ideologies of the colonizers.
Queer theorists similarly reject simplistic binaries of LGBTQ/straight or homosexual/heterosexual. This generally comes through critiques that point out how sexuality is neither just identity nor behaviors, lifestyle, or actions, but a complex web of desire and power differentials.
Queer and postcolonial theories also are both concerned with notions of the “particular” or “local” as contraposed to a “universal” or “global.” Neither theories consider those terms fixed in content or form, which is to say that a considerable sum of their work comes in critiquing certain norms as they are considered by some to be universal, or natural, or some kind of “inevitable and historical fact.”
Norms complexly contain ideological traces, which is a way of saying that norms are both perpetuated by certain ideologies and perpetuate certain ideologies. Ideology, in this sense meaning particular ways of thinking or viewing the world, gives rise to norms, and in turn norms give rise to ideologies (a tricky note: some would say we cannot say which came first, the norm or the ideology, as they are “co-constitutive” and emerge alongside each other).
For instance, “rugged individualism” is a popular way of viewing the world in the United States in that significant responsibility is delegated to the individual for making their way through the world. The emergent norm of “workaholism” produces a work-addicted culture with particular material conditions. That ideology emerged from norms in turn related to the “Protestant work ethic” and the “Prosperity Gospel,” and laborers who had to work to survive. Certain concepts considered to be universal truths, such as the supposed inherent goodness of democracy, may circulate without question or objection from colonial-imperial sites to colonized sites.
Coming out, for example, is a trope in Western LGBTQ life experiences, but it is not universally or uniformally experienced — and neither is it a life experience we can assume non-Western cultures simply also go through. Queer theory and postcolonial theory challenge the universality of coming out as a transnational trope or experience, and understanding the different ways that cultures/individuals relate to their queerness (whether through “coming out” and confessing it, or elsewise) can open up vast new areas of inquiry. Homophobia is another complicated concept brought into more distress when both approaches are utilized.
Identity, another extremely complicated concept, is typically defined as all the things that make a person or thing who or what they are. Psychologically, it is all of the characteristics somebody thinks they are or have. Generic, common identity categories are similar to demographics, or what one might see on a census; things like racial identity, gender identity, or class identity are just some of what constitutes us.
Queer theory and postcolonial theory alike resist the temptation to conceptualize identity as merely additive of discrete categories (meaning they don’t impact the other identities) that you either do or do not belong to. Instead, they focus on the intersectionality of identities to understand the ways that, for instance, race is sexualized or gendered, or disability is racialized or classed. To take the example further, think about what is meant by saying a “white gay man” versus a “black gay man”; they both may share similar sexual identities, but queer and postcolonial theories would argue that the race they both belong to impacts how their sexuality formed and what the actual, material representation looks like; additionally, that they would both be considered “men” is also worthy of critique.
It is worth noting that both theories also argue that these identity categories are not inherent, universal, or “natural,” instead critiquing state, national, and imperial powers and colonial histories of domination for having a hand in constructing those categories — while maintaining that they were somehow a priori to, meaning that they came before, colonial or state interventions, discourses, violences, and ideologies.
The two approaches can “bridge” the sometimes theoretical gap between materialism — the consideration of material conditions like income, access to food, education/literacy rates, scarcity of resources, etc., — and desire, which is a complicated term, rife with nuance, that we can basically summarize as the longing for something, be it an erotic want or something else. In queer theory, this focus is sometimes on “deviant” sexual desire but can also be desire for belonging and kinship, for queer intimacies, for a quotidian normalcy, etc. Desire is sometimes critiqued in non-materialist ways, but postcolonial theory can bridge that gap by forcing questions with queer theory like: how does a scarcity of resources impact sexual desire? or what are the material conditions produced by colonialism that influence what is desired?
Certain views about sexuality can be transmitted from an imperial or colonizing site to a colonized space; for instance, Section 377 was established in India during colonial rule. Section 377, sometimes referred to as the “sodomy law,” made sodomy illegal based on its supposed deviance or immorality. India was praised by a Western liberal paradigm for overturning this law as though they themselves had come up with it originally (despite its initial import to the colonies from the West), but instead had merely received this conceptual understanding of sodomy as both outside of nature (“not normal”) and too much of nature (“animalistic”).
Even further, we can see how sodomy and sexual deviance were associated with colonized bodies in need of a “civilizing project,” revealing how intimately intertwined sexuality is with justifying nation-building and nation-expanding projects. Contemporary globalization, in the hands of Western powers like the United States, additionally erases the sexual histories of indigenous and native cultures, subsuming their difference into the “American Melting Pot.” This complication shows us how difficult it is to simply think of queerness as a “Western” concept insofar as it developed out of encounters between colonizing and colonized bodies rather than simply emerging “from the West.”
The combo of queer and postcolonial theory can bring issues like the above into the foreground, asking questions about the legacies, untold histories, and inherited conceptions of norms surrounding sexuality. This focal point can reveal to us the ambivalences of origins and how complicated it is to find the “source” or the “cause,” but also the importance and legitimacy of questioning things often taken for granted within commonsensical knowledges. Further, it forces us to question the positionality of critique: what is being assumed as the “center” and what is the “periphery”? How might moving that center, or destroying the concept of a center, change criticism?
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- Camminga, B. Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa: Bodies Over Borders and Borders Over Bodies. Palgrave, 2018.
- Chen, Jian Neo. Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures & Technologies in Movement. Duke University Press, 2019.
- Gopinath, Gayatri. Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora. Duke University Press, 2018.
- Lim, Eng-Beng. (2013): Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias. New York University Press, 2013.
- Liu, Petrius. Queer Marxism in Two Chinas. Duke University Press, 2015.
- Luibhéid, Eithne. Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
- Morgensen, Scott Lauria. Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
- Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Duke University Press, 2013.
- Ochoa, Marcia. Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela. Duke University Press, 2014.
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- Reddy, Chandan. Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State. Duke University Press, 2011.
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- Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York University Press, 2014.
- Stockton, Kathryn Bond. Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where Black Meets Queer. Duke University Press, 2006.
- Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014.
Author: Tyler Tennant
Last edited: September 2020