What is Queer Theory in a nutshell?
Queer Theory is essentially a body of philosophical ideas that bases itself around the belief that identities are not fixed and do not determine who we are in our entirety of being. David Halperin has said, "Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence." It's meaningless to talk about a group of people as a fixed construct; as I have proved not all transgender people act the same or indeed believe in the same things. Identities consist of many different elements so to assume that people can be seen collectively on the basis of one characteristic is wrong. Queer Theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick propose that we should deliberately and explicitly challenge all notions of fixed identity in varied and non-predictable ways.
Judith Butler: Gender as Performance:
First thing to note about Judith Butler's approach to gender identity is that she believes 2nd Wave feminists such as Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan made a massive mistake by trying to assert aggressively that women were a unified body with "common characteristics and interests". Trying to argue transgender people are another example of a unified body is like arguing all children like to drink milkshakes when having a Happy meal at Maccie D's. It reinforces a "unwitting regulation of gender relations" a desire to maintain a false binary view of "man and woman" and the same with sexual identities such as "gay" and "straight. Butler points out that such "identity categories" "tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalising categories of oppressive structures or as rallying points for liberatory contestations of that very oppression". For example, the concept of homosexuality itself is part of homophobic discourse because the term "homosexual" created in Germany in 1869 as a legal-medical term predates that of "heterosexual" by 11 years. Heterosexuality as a concept then only came into being as a consequence of the need to define homosexuality as a "other" or abnormal concept. Transgenderism, like homosexuality is not a stable, essential identity so that "identity can become a site of contest and revision" (Gender Trouble, p.19).
Butler posits that all identities, including gender ones, are "a kind of impersonation and approximation...a kind of imitation for which there is no original" (p.21). Therefore, it can be possible to argue that identity can be seen as a constant switching among a range of different roles and positions, drawn from an endless data bank of potentialities. So a transgender person can be seen as masculine because he or she enjoys playing rugby but can also be labelled as feminine because they enjoy shopping in Primarni for a few hours on a Friday morning. Those two facets of their identity are NOT incompatible!
Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold (i.e. they have come to seem natural in our culture as it presently is) -- but, she suggests, it doesn't have to be that way. Rather than proposing some utopian vision, with no idea of how we might get to such a state, Butler calls for subversive action in the present: "gender trouble"- the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders - and therefore identity.
Eve Sedgwick: Epistemological Genius:
In her "Epistemology of the Closet", Eve Sedgwick considers how the act of "coming out of the closet" is not as single and absolute as it may first appear. So a transgender person may first reveal their desire to transition to a partner or their parents openly at a massive coming-out party or by having a quiet word at home but they may choose not to reveal their intentions to their colleagues or employers for fear of being discriminated against at work or even losing their job in spite of Equality Act legislation. Hence, being "in" or "out" is not a simple dichotomy or a "once and for all" event.
However most "normal" people will understand this difference in openness with regards to gender identity. Not every person tells their friends about their employment and some guys may never tell their mates down the pub that they really support Leicester when they all support Man United. Equally not every transperson may be seen as completely an outsider, free from patriarchal taint. A transman who is a well respected academic could certainly be seen as being in a position of privilege by a trans female administrative assistant. Sedgwick's point is that identity as a construct is necessarily a mix of chosen allegiances, social status and professional roles rather than being a fixed inner essence.
Transgender people should never be seen as one homogenous body; an externalised "Other" for "normal" people to gawp and gaze at. Transrights should be advocated for those transgendered people who believe they are being discriminated against at home or at work but activists must realise we are not speaking for all transgendered people in the world. By all means join the cause but don't feel obliged to because you think other trans people will feel better about you!