Thomas Piontek contends that 'for many people their sense of being gay relies intensely on literary representations' (137). Though his argument refers mainly to fiction, in this essay I want to extend Piontek's contention and suggest that one's sense of one's self and one's sexuality may also have a close relationship to non-fiction texts about gay and lesbian cultures. Indeed, Michael Hurley points out that in the nineteen seventies 'The dominant genre of lesbian and gay writing was non-fiction' ('Introduction' 19). Among the most important texts about lesbian and gay cultures in contemporary Australia is Annamarie Jagose's Queer Theory (1996). The popularity and authority of this book in contemporary literary and cultural studies, as well as among gay and lesbian readers, make it an object of significance for Australian literary studies.
Lesbian and gay historiography in Australia, as elsewhere, has been characterised by disagreements: about ideology; about strategies for achieving legislative change; and, more importantly, about definitions. Twenty years ago, Dave Sargent suggested that 'Tension and disagreements are nothing new to the Gay Movement (163). (1) Writing more than a decade later, Annamarie Jagose uses the term 'quagmire' to describe the 'messy conceptual irresolution and the current debates over the terms connoting homosexuality' (Jagose, 1993 159). Jagose's metaphor--applied both to definitions and to identities--aptly describes the re-configurations in discourses of sexual dissidence occurring in the early 1990s, the most debated of which was the emergent category of queer. (2)
Within Australia, the publication of Queer Theory has contributed and contributes to these debates, presenting as it does a history of gay and lesbian communities and cultures in relation to literary and cultural theory. Within the book's historical account, the echoes of the nineteen-seventies and eighties may be heard, but the tendency is to characterise the nineteen-nineties as a decade of more intense social change than other decades after the Stonewall Riots of 1969. While I acknowledge the richness of the debates about definition and ideology occurring in the nineties, Jagose's representation of the politics and theory of the previous decades through a trope of 'the old' and 'the new' valorises debates about queer as more politically and culturally important than others that have occurred in the past. The accounts of political exchanges in earlier decades and, in turn, the writing of the histories of the gay and lesbian communities/movements as they have been figured in and by 'the queer moment', seems given, but is actually polemical. My own argument is that the post-Stonewall decades were and are periods of constant debate, and that the social formations of the gay and lesbian movements/communities and the institutional sites of gay and lesbian studies are fraught with definitional anxiety.
The term 'queer', a rubric for political and theoretical work that enacts continuities with, but differs from, the lesbian and gay movements, emerged 'in a period which has also seen the triumph of capitalism and a retreat from principles of social justice and the welfare state' (Altman, 1996 1). Its development coincided with the proliferation of post-modern discourses concerned with problems in representation, authenticity, subject positions, the body and the (de)legitimation of identity politics. The narrative of Queer Theory revolves around the binary node of determinacy/indeterminacy, constructing 'gay' and 'lesbian' as unified identities, and their related social movements as rigid political formations. Such a representation operates in the interests of the queer moment to enhance its historical intelligibility, and to displace gay and lesbian studies in academic discourses by the more 'modern' queer; further, by harnessing an ethical value--inclusivity--to this modernising narrative, 'gay' and 'lesbian' are displaced in literary and cultural studies.
Queer theory rapidly achieved discursive dominance in Australia in the 1990s, while Jagose's introduction to the phenomenon, Queer Theory, occupies a privileged position in academic discourses. In his 1998 commentary 'Un-Queer Anti-Theory', Dean Kiley commented on this ascendancy, noting that 'Queer Theory continues its fairytale run on the academic and open markets' (1). He listed a number of well-known journals that had published special issues focusing on 'queer', and noted that queer theory
set up its own brains trust (inQueeries) and [has] been garrulously bullish in some usually-straightlaced (e.g. Arena) and unlikely places, from mainstream broadsheet fashion commentary to Mardi Gras theatre, from glossy-glib gay magazines to Radio National, from Sex/Life on TV to queer zines on the net. (1)
Kiley describes Jagose as 'the flagship' of this group (1). Though mildly parodic, the metaphor affirms the prominence of the writer in this country and particularly in academic culture, something that is reinforced by the wide availability of Queer Theory itself.
Queer Theory was published as part of the 'Interpretation' series, an imprint of Melbourne University Press. (3) The series provides clearly written introductions to recent theories and critical practices in the humanities and social sciences. In addition to the publication by a prestigious university press, the book is held in the libraries of sandstone and newer universities across the country: Kinetica shows that around 50 Australian libraries hold the book. Many of these are multiple holdings, with copies on special reserve (see for example, the University of Queensland), an indication of high use by students. The book also has a considerable virtual presence, with excerpts, reviews, commentary and citation, including presence on the websites of several Australian universities (La Trobe, Melbourne and Sydney). In these institutional sites, Queer Theory is a key text, particularly in courses concerned with gender and sexuality. In the ISI Web of Knowledge, there are twenty-seven citations in journals and newspapers. While this interest in gay and lesbian cultures is to be applauded, it does raise the question of which version of history and theory has become canonical in Australia. (4) While Gary Dowsett may well be correct in asserting that queer has had 'very little impact in Australia (outside a few fiction writers, student politics and a few feral academics)', the prominence of Queer Theory within tertiary studies tells a slightly different story.
The Australian edition of Queer Theory gives 'an introductory account of the queer phenomena', Jagose suggesting on the first page that 'queer' is characterised by a definitional indeterminacy (1). She describes it as 'those gestures or analytical models which dramatise incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire' (3). The Shopping Basket page of Melbourne University Press's website notes that Queer Theory 'traces the intriguing history of same-sex sex over the last century through the mid-century homophile movements, gay liberation, the women's movement and lesbian feminism to the new concept of queer', while the book itself asserts that queer lies within 'a history of sexual categories which have evolved over the last hundred years or so' (2). The trajectories of queer, then, are situated in relation to and against the 'preceding' formations of the gay/lesbian movements/communities, and before these, the homophile groups.
Queer theory adopts denaturalisation as a primary strategy; Jagose claims that 'queer confounds the categories that licence sexual normativity' (Queer Theory 98). It follows that the queer moment rejects the identities of 'gay' and 'lesbian', and the political practices that ensue from these terms. But all too often, this means discarding as well the political achievements of the lesbian and gay communities, and the experiences that they offer. For many gay and lesbian individuals, these communities are experienced as freedom and as constraint, limitless and limiting; they are constantly fractured with social tensions around class, gender, sexuality, and individual subjectivity (Escoffier 27; McWhorter 97). Ladelle McWhorter points to the complexity of the relationship between an individual and their (activist) community:
The relationship between communities and sustained, organised political activity is extremely complex. Political activity is no more and no less dependent upon the community than the community is dependent upon political action; nor are they interdependent necessarily and in all cases. (92)
Equally, the relationship of those communities to heteronormative communities is complex, but lesbian and gay cultures do provide a base from which to make political interventions in and to the larger social formation.
The representation of lesbian and gay history and theory in Jagose's Queer Theory is indicated by terms such as 'traditional' (1) and 'stable' (3), and phrases like 'model of stability' (3) and 'more established gay and lesbian model' (5) which construct a 'gay and/or lesbian' that is characterised by unity and rigidity. 'Queer' is thereby represented as inherently mobile and contradictory, in contrast to 'the gay identity' which, it is claimed, was consolidated during what is termed 'the civil phase of the gay movement' (40). Jagose mentions the late-twentieth century fashion of body-piercing as 'a way of distinguishing old-style lesbians and gays from the new' (98). Cited in the book as a gesture towards radical chic, the distinctions between 'styles' of individuals position 'queer' in the discourse of the most fashionable social theory. 'The New Fashionability', as Altman calls it ('On Global Queering' 5), equates queer with youth, while 'gay' and 'lesbian' are positioned as the expression of 'the older generation'. This trope loops back to the determinacy/indeterminacy binary, where 'gay and lesbian' are staid and sober, while queer is exuberant and spontaneous. Although Jagose acknowledges that 'Nationally and internationally, gay liberation was neither a monolithic nor even an entirely coherent social movement' (Queer Theory 36), elsewhere in the book there is a tendency to characterise the gay and lesbian communities and movements as unified, even stagnant.
In fact, these communities engaged in disputes over ideology, definitions, and the goals and targets of political action. Thus Sargent could argue (in 1983) that the lesbian and gay movement/communities have never been unified political formations: 'Rather, ... [they're] comprised of lesbians as well as gay men and ... [manifest themselves as] loose collection[s] of competing interests, discourses, political positions and institutions which have organised around a concept of (homo)sexual politics' (165). Indeed, the histories of same-sex communities in Australia strongly suggest that fluidity and change are constants in these social formations. Garry Wotherspoon notes that 'Unlike Britain, America and Germany, Australia had no ... history of gay activism' (162) prior to the 1960s. But by the end of this decade, there was 'a homophile group in Canberra pushing for homosexual law reform, and law reform subcommittees established in the Humanist Societies of New South Wales and Victoria' (163; 167). In 1970 the Campaign Against Moral Persecution Inc (CAMP) was established, while a chapter of the American-based Daughters of Bilitis was set up in Melbourne as the Australian Lesbian Movement (168). (5)
The membership of CAMP included women and men, organised around the goals of legislative reform and societal change through education. In 1971, political divisions erupted between some lesbian women and some gay men, because of the sexism of those men; meanwhile, numbers of the more radical men left CAMP and formed gay liberation at the Universities of New South Wales and Sydney (Soldatow n.p.). Later in the decade, these emergent political groups forged links with the commercial scenes developing around Kings Cross and Oxford Street Darlinghurst (Altman, 'Oz Movement' 17). By the end of the 1970s, the ethnic model of minority organising, with its demands of political recognition and impulses towards legislative reform, evolved into the dominant political formation. (6)
In chapter four of Queer Theory, entitled 'Gay Liberation', Jagose circulates a cultural myth: that the nineteen-seventies and eighties were characterised by huge political chasms between lesbian women and gay men. Suddenly, in 1988, coalitionist politics emerge, with numbers of lesbian women (re)joining the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Association. Gay liberation, as it is represented in this chapter, is largely a gay male concern, especially after the eruptions over sexism noted earlier (Sargent 176). However, this assumption needs to be contested: lesbian women continued working with gay men in varying political contexts in Australia; simultaneously, theoretical differences existed between (some) gay men and lesbian women.
The initial flurry of political activism ended with Gay Pride Week in 1973 (Airman, 'Oz Movement' 17), but in his essay 'Oz Movement 1971-1978', Dennis Altman was nevertheless able to write that 'One of the most encouraging developments this year  has been the co-operation between gay women and men' (17). Missing from Jagose's book is an example of that co-operation that was also an event of major historical significance: the first Sydney Mardi Gras, at which police attacked peaceful lesbian, gay and heterosexual revellers. This sudden and violent event was and is a defining instant in the history of lesbian and gay activism in New South Wales. Apart from Mardi Gras being at the centre of numerous popular and historical representations of lesbian and gay culture, (7) the 1978 event signified an important shift: from a movement, to a community model of minority-organising. It produced a re-invigoration of political and cultural life in Australia, particularly New South Wales, and exemplified the capacity of gay men and lesbian women to work together, and indeed, to be arrested together. (8)
Other political activities in Australia contributed to academic debate and discussion: between 1975 and 1982, there was a series of national conferences, while from late-1980 to 1984 the journal Gay Information, published by a collective of lesbian women and gay men, was a crucial outlet for ideas, and the exploration of political praxis. An important theoretical innovation within gay and lesbian studies was the work enacted by gay men around variations of Marxism, but this too is omitted from Jagose's account of history and theory--although the first person arrested on the night of the 1978 Mardi Gras was not a member of the gay and lesbian activist communities, but a member of the Communist party. Explaining the varying threads of the Marxist intellectual project, Dave Sargent cites several socialist conferences held in Australia during the seventies (170-71) at which gay and lesbian issues were discussed. These elisions work against the narrative impulse of Queer Theory, their inclusion making unstable the representation of 'gay and lesbian' as characterised by stasis and coherence. It is ironic, then, that Jagose should observe that 'Gay liberation rhetoric commonly represents the distinction between homophile and liberationist movements as a clean break' (22), implicitly criticising the liberationist project for erasing historical developments.
In Cultural Politics--Queer Reading, Sinfield writes that 'Every inside is defined by its outside. The text cannot be self-sufficient, an ideal whole. Without gaps, silences and absences--that which the text is not--it would not exist; they frame it' (37). 'That which the text is not' frames Queer Theory: what is omitted from the representation of gay and lesbian histories affects, or even enables, the rhetoric that valorises queer. By way of contrast, the book offers a panegyric to Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993). Jagose, in turn quoting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, notes that 'Gender Trouble is the ... influential book for queer theory' (21). Butler and her books are mentioned three times in the index, with twelve accompanying page citations, more than any other writer. The frequency of citation is a mode of authority-making, and in this case replaces historical research as a form of verification of the argument. This is not a crude dichotomising of theory versus praxis, valorising the latter over the former. Rather, it is to suggest that while the arguments of Queer Theory are grounded in a reading of social movements, those arguments take theoretical commentary as evidence, rather than a detailed analysis of the movements themselves. (9)
Dennis Altman points to 'the frequent invocation of post-modern gurus' (6) as an indication of queer's self-aggrandisement. The frequency of citation of key theorists positions queer theory as a realm of knowledge held in awe by its practioners. An essential element of this awe is the 'newness' of (the old term) 'queer'. (10) In Queer Theory, Jagose cites the recent publication of books with 'Queer' in their titles (97-98), and the academic and literary journals that have published special issues on queer theory as evidence of its contemporaneity (2). Relatedly, the (only) social context that Jagose discusses is educational institutions, where queer's impact on gay and lesbian studies has been and is significant (2, 83, 93, 101, 109, 111). But there is no discussion of queer's effect on legislative reform, for example, nor on the lived conditions of gay men and lesbian women. Discussions of queer theory tends to assume a university education, its (mostly) middle-class aficionados sharing a common knowledge and lifestyle.
As Craig Johnston notes, queer 'denigrates gay and lesbian difference in favour of a more, amorphous flexible difference': 'Queer critiques rigid categorisation and seeks to deconstruct a gay and lesbian movement by claiming to be a part of it and then, from within, demanding gay and lesbian subjectivities be dissolved into a wider "non-category" which covers a range of sexual practices' (8). But if queer desires to 'include all those whose sexual identifications are not considered normal or sanctioned' (emphasis added), and concomitantly claims that it is more accepting of individuals experiencing dissonance around gender and/or sexuality, then it follows that queer's '[political] constituency is almost unlimited' (Queer Theory 1). The political purchase gained by distinctiveness that is the basis of community politics is then called into question.
Jeffrey Escoffier criticises queer's limited political scope, contending that attempts to wrest control only over discourse reduces social change to a 'cultural politics', to individualist 'gestures' (Queer Theory 3). Likewise, Alan Sinfield argues that this political practice is 'individualist and volunteerist; too closely allied to the romantic gesture of an exalted, solitary engagement within the profoundly troubled self' (Gay and After 142). By way of contrast, community organisations like the Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby (NSW) are based in communities, and advocate changes to legislation that discriminates against lesbian women and gay men. That legislative change occurs does alter the living conditions of gay men and lesbian women and, in turn, changes the heterosexist fabric of the social formation. It is preferable for these political interventions to occur than not to. Thus Sedgwick concludes that
Political progress ... has depended precisely on the strength of a minority-model gay activism; it is the normalising, persuasive analogy between the needs of gay/lesbian students and those of Black or Jewish students, for instance, and the development of the corresponding political techniques that enable progress in such arenas. (58)
Likewise, the valency of fictional and of non-fictional texts for gay and lesbian readers needs to be factored into discussions of their use within and beyond academia: if we consider Queer Theory merely as 'theory' then we dichotomise theory and practice, and divide a cultural product from the conditions of its production. We also, perhaps, erase consideration of the uses to which a text like Queer Theory might be put by readers. In writing Queer Theory around the binary of determinacy and indeterminacy, Jagose claims that 'queer' 'turns identity inside out' (132). But a cultural materialist approach can show the historical blindspots of Jagose's narrative, highlight versions of history that lie outside of Queer Theory's field of vision, and demonstrate that 'gay' and 'lesbian' are not the stable and monolithic categories that they are claimed to be. Such a rethinking of cultural history has implications for the way in which we read the cultural history and the literary texts of the later decades of the twentieth century, and beyond.
(1) Evidence of this disagreement is seen in books like Kenneth Plummer, ed. The Making of the Modern Homosexual (London: Hutchinson, 1981); Gay Left Collective, eds. Homosexuality, Power and Politics (London: Allison & Busby, 1980); Guy Hocquenghem, Homosexual Desire (London: Allison & Busby, 1978), and Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981).
(2) These changes resonate with the observations of other commentators, including Dennis Altman, who observes that 'a major revolution has occurred in how we imagine homosexuality in the contemporary world' ('On Global Queering' 1); see also Angelides 66; Jagose Queer 3; Sinfield, Gay and After 5 and Watney 19.
(3) In the same year New York University Press published the book as Queer Theory: An Introduction, in cloth and paperback editions. New York University Press/Edinburgh University Press has this year (2003) also published A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory by Nikki Sullivan.
(4) A history of the emergence of 'queer' and 'Queer Theory' is given by David Halperin in his response to Dennis Airman's 'On Global Queering'. Donald Morton offers a different kind of materialist critique of queer theory in his response to Airman. See Australian Humanities Review 2 (1996).
(5) See also Altman, 'Oz Movement' 17; Jagose Queer Theory 35; and Sargent 165.
(6) See Garry Bennett, 'Categories: Activism, Community and Change.' Gay Information 7 (Spring 1981): 7-11; John Cozijin, 'Sydney 1981: A Community Taking Shape.' Gay Information 9-10 (Autumn-Winter 1982): 4-10; Brian McGahen, 'Views on (the) Trust.' Gay Information 7 (Spring 1981): 12-14; and Craig Johnston, 'From Gay Movement to Gay Community.' Gay Information 5 (Autumn 1981): 6-9.
(7) See for example John Roberts, Mardi Gras: The Novel (Darlinghurst: Round the Square Press, 1995); Gary Dunne, Shadows on the Dance Floor (Leichhardt: Black Wattle Press, 1992); Richard Wherrett, ed., Mardi Gras! True Stories (Ringwood: Penguin, 1999).
(8) In 'A Night to Remember: The First Mardi Gras', I described the violent altercations between the police of New South Wales and the revellers. See also Larry Galbraith, 'Celebration and Hysteria: A History of the Sydney Gay.' Campaign (February 1985): 12-13: 16: 40-41; a more recent version of this history is in the video Dancing in the Dark, dir. Maria Chilcott. Inside Story. Sydney: ABC, 1998, which collects reminiscences from others present in 1978.
(9) Jeffrey Escoffier suggests that 'Queer theorists never recover the social because the empirical detail of institutions and social structures is never examined' (179).
(10) The OED gives the first citation for 'queer' meaning (male) homosexual as 1922, with further citations from the 1930s.
Altman, Dennis. 'On Global Queering.' Australian Humanities Review 2 (1996):
--. 'Oz Movement.' Campaign 36 (1978): 17-18.
Angelides, Steven. 'The Queer Intervention: Sexuality, Identity and Cultural Politics.' Melbourne Journal of Politics 22 (1994): 66-88.
Argus, John, and Stephen Cox, eds. Queer in the 21st Century: Challenge and Response. Fortitude Valley, Qld: Gay and Lesbian Welfare Association, 2000.
Atkinson, J. Keith, and Justin J. Finney, eds. Queer in the 21st Century: The Body--Queer and Politic. Fortitude Valley, Qld: Gay and Lesbian Welfare Association, 2001.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York, London: Routledge, 1993.
--. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Dowsett, Gary. 'Gary Dowsett Responds to Dennis Altman.' Australian Humanities Review 2 (1996):
Escoffier, Jeffrey. American Homo: Community and Perversity. Berkeley and London: U of California P, 1998.
Hurley, Michael. 'A Response to Dean Kiley' Australian Humanities Review 9 (1998):
--. 'Introduction: Writing, the Body Positive.' Pink Ink: An Anthology of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writers. Redfern, NSW: Wicked Women, 1991. 12-42.
Jagose, Annamarie. 'Queer Theory.' Australian Humanities Review 4 (1996-1997):
--. Queer Theory. Carlton South, Vic: Melbourne UP, 1996.
--. Lesbian Utopics. New York: Routledge, 1994.
--. 'Homosexual Writing in Australia.' Meridian 12.2 (1993): 159-64.
Johnston, Craig. 'Sydney joins the A Team.' Sydney Star Observer 19 March 1998: 8.
--, and Paul van Reyk, eds. Queer City: Gay and Lesbian Politics in Sydney. Annandale: Pluto, 2001.
Keane, Jonathon. 'AIDS, Identity and the Space of Desire.' Textual Practice 7.1 (1993): 453-70.
Kiley, Dean. 'Un-Queer Anti-Theory.' Australian Humanities Review 9 (1998):
McWhorter, Ladelle. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalisation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1999.
Mitchell, Peter. 'My First Mardi Gras.' capital Q 29 January 1993: 9-10.
--. 'My First Mardi Gras.' capital Q 5 February 1993: 7-8.
--. 'Critique of Left-wing Moralism.' Gay Information 2 (1980): 7, 18.
Piontek, Thomas. 'Unsafe Representations: Cultural Criticism in the Age of AIDS.' Discourse 15.1 (1992): 128-153.
Primrose, Michael. 'Grinding the Identity Axes.' Sydney Star Observer 30 April 1993: 16-17.
Sargent, Dave. 'Reformulating (Homo)sexual Politics: Radical Theory and Practice in the Gay Movement.' Beyond Marxism: Interventions After Marx. Ed. Judith Allen and Paul Patton. Leichhardt, NSW: Intervention, 1983. 163-82.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistomology of the Closet. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1994.
Sinfield, Alan. Gay and After. London: Serpent's Tail, 1998.
--. Cultural Politics--Queer Reading. London and Philadelphia, Pa.: Routledge and U of Pennsylvania P, 1994.
Soldatow, Sasha. What is this Gay Community Shit? Chippendale, NSW: Panacea, 1983.
Walsh, Gay. 'Not a Pretty Picture.' Gay Information 4 (1980): 4-5, 24.
Watney, Simon. 'Homosexual, Gay or Queer.' Outrage 107 (1992): 18-22.
Wotherspoon, Gary. City of the Plain: History of a Gay Sub-Culture. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1991.
Young, Craig. 'A Response to Dean Kiley.' Australian Humanities Review 9 (1998):
--'A Response to Annamarie Jagose" Australian Humanities Review 4 (1996-1997):
PETER MITCHELL is completing a PhD at Southern Cross University. His research interests are ecocriticism, queer theory, AIDS narratives and gay/lesbian cultures.…