Culture Editor Grace Baxendine explores the role of art and literature in ‘Queer Theory’, including an interview with Elliot Evans, who has written various works on gender and sexuality
Eve Sedgwick, one of Queer theory’s founding creators, has stated that it is about trying to understand different kinds of sexual desire and how culture defines them. The point we are at now with this theory could not have come to pass without some very important activists many of whom have contributed endless literary and artistic works. Here are a few I find particularly iconic.
Magnus Hirschfeld: The father of transgenderism
He has been named the father of transgenderism and is perhaps one of the first doctors to deal with the phenomena of transgender surgery.
Hirschfeld, educated mainly in Germany at the turn of the century, was a sexologist interested in gay and transgender rights. Hirschfeld opened the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. One of Hirschfeld’s first clients was Einer Wegener, who transitioned to become Lili Elbe, undergoing the worlds first documented male to female gender reassignment.
Rachilde: The anti-feminisit drag icon
Rachilde was an intriguing figure. Once claiming to be against the idea of feminism she would seem an odd choice for this iconic list. Rachilde is a lesser known French novelist from the late 19th century and early 20th century but no less interesting than Hugo or Balzac, in fact quite the contrary. A cross-dressing, bisexual temptress, Rachilde wrote works exploring sexuality, gender and murder. Her works include Monsieur Venus, a novel she wrote at the age of 20 which follows a woman who dresses as a man and seduces a man. The roles of binary gender here are completely flipped.
Michel Foucault: Blame the establishment!
Foucault is rather more famous and has been an influence on much modern day philosophy. Though his work doesn’t focus particularly on women and gender identity per say, his work on power, sexuality and the body within the arts and thus society has been one of the greatest influences on queer theory. Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick have both cited Foucault as being instrumental in the development of Queer theory and gender studies.
Foucault himself was marginalised for his sexuality and his attack of the power and repression that the establishment enforced was key.
Virginia Woolf : The Queen of Redefiniton
Woolf’s novels do not only demonstrate her redefinition of gender roles but also the changes happening in narrative techniques employed in novels during the modernist era. Her novel Orlando is very much an exploration of sexuality and questioning of the idea of gender identity.
Following a protagonist who changes sex half way through the novel, sleeping with various partners of various sexes, Woolf explores this troubling identification that the establishment of the early 20th century couldn’t handle.
André Gide: Wilde’s French Cousin
Gide is a well known literary figure. His work encapsulates a decadent world which underpins a dormant sexuality. As one could imagine, Gide struggled as a child with his homosexual tendencies in a world where the discourses on sexuality saw such a lifestyle as ‘perverse.’ Friends with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Gide wrote The Immoralist, a sort of homage to the search for sexual freedom, making subtle hints towards the freedom of gender identity in the ever conformative world of 19th century Europe. These works are invaluable when exploring how we have arrived at Queer theory.
Interview: Dr Elliot Evans on Queer Theory
Elliot Evans is a lecturer at the University and has written various works on gender and sexuality. They are particulary engaged with transgender and queer theories
Could you tell us a bit about LGBTQ+ history and how it has existed in the arts?
Expressions of non-normative sexualities and genders have always been present throughout art history. However, since what counts as ‘normal’ sexuality and gender has not been consistent over time and across cultures, we should be wary of imposing our own ideas of identity onto works from these other contexts. You can see depictions of male homosexuality on Greek pottery, for instance, but that doesn’t mean these are ‘gay men’ as we understand that term today.
When do we first see this theory come to pass in literature?
Queer theory emerged from the US in the early 1990s. Prior to this we saw more of the approach of ‘Lesbian & Gay Studies’, which sought to uncover hidden gay histories. Queer theory is much more about unsettling how we understand words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ and would see such attempts as anachronistic. Queer theory today has had a big impact on how we work on literature and art, but also how we understand ourselves and our identities.
Your research seems very interesting and relevant, could you expand on what your currently working on?
My work focuses on queer theory, which highlights the instability of identity categories like the above – ‘gay’ is a fairly recent identity category, for instance, as is ‘straight’. These are categories that came into being through (for example) legal and medical discourse, rather than being something we are born as and remain constant over time.
I have also investigated how queer theory was received and developed in France – I work with the authors Paul B Preciado and Monique Wittig and the artist ORLAN in particular for my book Queer Permeability. I’ve also worked on the particular reception of the #MeToo campaign in France, thinking about how literary work from the 18th century onwards has informed a kind of national sexual identity bound up with an idea of ‘libertinism’ that is at odds with contemporary ideas of consent.
Again, this shows that sexuality isn’t something ‘natural’ that we’re all born with, but is very specifically influenced and shaped by the ideas and culture surrounding us.
France seems to be a particularly important country regarding its literature and art in general and especially how LGBTQ+ is represented through these mediums? Do you have any examples of particularly interesting figures? And could you tell us about them and their work/philosophies?
French and Francophone literature and art is important, absolutely! Many of the best works written in French in the last century presented non-normative sexualities and genders. Marcel Proust’s work, for instance, is permeated with queer characters, so much so that Eve Sedgwick (one of the founding figures of queer theory) drew on his work to formulate her theories.
French literary history is full of really fascinating characters – Jean Genet, for example, who was sent to a penal colony at age 15, dishonourably discharged from the Foreign Legion (for sex with other men) at age 18, fell in love with a tightrope walker and later in life became involved in with the Black Panthers, campaigning against police brutality and the Algerian war.
He wrote some of the most incredible literature of the 20th Century – particularly his work Notre-Dame des Fleurs, which he wrote in prison in 1942.
Has there been much of a difference between the development of this in France compared to Britain, now and even throughout history?
I think people in the UK seem to think of France as a far more sexually liberated society. I wouldn’t say this perception is always true to life – France is very much a Catholic country despite being ostensibly secular, and there was far more opposition to gay marriage in France than in the UK, for instance. The way we understand gender and sexuality depends on context, so for this reason there are huge differences in views of gender sexuality in France and in the UK – this will be informed by (amongst other things) the prevailing culture, laws, the language (French is a heavily gendered language), literary and artistic history, the presence and value placed on other cultures etc.
Oscar Wilde is arguably one of the most famous LGBTQ+ artists of the 19th and 20th century. How influential has his legacy been on queer theory? Are there any other literary or artistic figures that have influenced the development of movement/theory in a similar way to Wilde?
I’m not sure how much of an influence Wilde has been for queer theory, but he was an incredibly important figure in terms of challenging the restrictions of his time. I’d suggest someone like André Gide might be comparable in the French context – Gide was a contemporary and companion of Wilde. Both engaged in a kind of ‘sex tourism’ of the day – going to North Africa where they could ‘engage in’ sexual acts with Arab boys – so definitely not the kind of expansion of sexuality we think of today.
ORLAN seems like such an interesting example of queer art, could you expand?
Yes, I agree! Her work is a really radical example of work that pushes the boundaries of how we experience our bodies and what it means to live in a body today, surrounded by technology. She has had multiple surgical procedures to ‘cite’ various representations of women in art history on her own face – the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the brow of the Mona Lisa. She questions the construction of femininity in art history but also in society. I really like how she confronts the issue of the body – how this is so central to her work. Her work is queer, to me, because it challenges our boundaries, our preconceptions particularly regarding identity.
There seems to be a lot of correlation between activism and art? You have said that this is an interesting point of discussion and part of your research. Could you expand with some examples, perhaps the visual representation of the early HIV crisis in France and Quebec? What did your research into this relationship suggest?
I’m interested in the way activists have used visual work to draw attention to their political aims. I’m particularly interested in how this happened during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, with groups such as ACT UP trying to raise awareness of their cause. Artist collectives such as Gran Fury in North America produced iconic posters and images (take a look at Silence = Death, for example), and artists/writers like David Wojnarowicz produced incredibly moving and vital pieces of work. Wojnarowicz is so fascinating because his art and writing is inseparable from his activism and both become part of how he imagines his own body – he writes about imagining his eyes becoming cameras to record the illness and its effects surrounding him, he writes about his body becoming a political weapon due to his HIV+ blood… All of this is present in his art work.
My research suggested that there is a particular visual currency that’s specific to art produced in the midst of the crisis in the US (mainly in the New York arts scene). This is different to that produced in France because of the particular way in which concepts like sexuality, privacy, propriety and the like were and are imagined in these societies.
Finally, how important are the arts to the development of queer theory and how we understand it today? How we identify and how we understand ourselves?
The arts have always been central to the development of queer theory – whether drawing on literature or visual work, this conversation has been key in developing queer ideas. For me, what’s so magical about art is that it offers the space to think totally radically and differently -that’s so important in a world that’s becoming increasingly globalised, with dominant culture everywhere thanks to the internet – it’s much harder to escape it in some ways. I think that kind of space for reflection and for thinking outside of norms is really vital.