The Evolution of Queer: Expecting the Impossible from Language

by Elaine Sheehan

Westminster College

In his introduction to The History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses the impacts on power of talking about sex and sexuality. He argues that talking about sexuality does not actually dismantle the power structure surrounding sexuality, but that talking about sex actually reinforces the existing power structure. Using Foucault’s theory to analyze the word queer, I will highlight how categorizing labels reinforce power structures and draw on this analysis to make Foucault’s argument clearer. The evolution of the term queer, while often thought of as a revolutionary development in the use of language surrounding sexuality, actually further demonstrates the nuances of power surrounding sexuality even in the most intentionally revolutionary instances. The intended fluidity of the term queer, and the downfalls of the implementation of the term prove that in order for sexual identity to be fluid and outside of the influence of power, language itself must be genuinely fluid, an accomplishment that is inherently impossible, regardless of how hard people try to artificially influence language.

Foucault demonstrates the issues of talking about sex by breaking down the repressive hypothesis, revealing that talking about sex actually contributes to disembodying sex, creating harmful categories to further control sex, and maintaining the power structure rather than dismantling it. The repressive hypothesis is the misconception that repression is the primary form of controlling sex within the power structure, and that by not talking about sex, society exerts control on sexuality. By this logic, talking about sex frees it from power. After introducing the “repressive hypothesis” and three doubts that he has about it, Foucault explains the reasoning behind his three doubts as coming from an awareness of “a more devious and discreet form of power”(11). By talking about sex rather than repressing it, the conversation of sex does not leave the power structure, but rather gives power a new place to manifest. Those who talk about sex “are conscious of defying established power” but are unaware, according to Foucault, of the fact that pushing back against the repression of the power structure only gives it a new, more devious and discreet place to manifest in revolutionary conversations, a place where it can be even harder to recognize the power in play (6). The issue then is not to speak out against repression or talk directly about sex, but to talk about the power structure surrounding sex.

Foucault’s main questions about the language and conversation surrounding sex reveal the ways that individuals can talk about power, rather than talking about sex in ways that further power structures. He gears his conversation more towards talking about the power surrounding sex rather than sex itself by posing the central issues of his argument:

The central issue, then…, is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance of denies its effect, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute all things that are said. (Foucault, 11)

Rather than talking about sex to combat repression, one must ask questions about the manner in which power is influencing the individual and the system by focusing on the manner in which people talk about sex. The “discursive fact of sex,” as Foucault labels it, can at least shed light on the “polymorphous techniques of power,” providing a new awareness of how sex contributes to maintaining power structures (11). Understanding the discursive fact of sex, therefore, cannot dismantle the power structure, but can be useful in preventing oppression that goes unchecked or unquestioned. The power structure will continue regardless, even if repression itself stops.

The discussion of sex within science provides an example of Foucault’s discursive fact of sex at work. A large part of how sex is talked about in science contributes to the creation of categories within sexuality that promote objectivity and disembodiment. He brings science into the discussion by noting that “perhaps some progress was made by Freud; but with such circumspection, such medical prudence, a scientific guarantee of innocuousness, and so many precautions in order to contain everything” ( Foucault, 5) Although sex is talked about in medical and scientific discourse, science ignores the discursive fact through the implementation of objectivity, removing sex from its context for the sake of progress by creating categories outside of societies “normal” sphere. The categories, although socially constructed according to Foucault, create real effects by allowing sexuality to be discussed in certain circles while still maintaining a system of power through defining sexualities. By labeling the different categories of sexuality, groups of people can be further separated from the norm, and further isolated within the discourse. The label queer is the example I will use to explore how labels have been used to separate groups from the norm within discourse. Labeling and categorization allows discourse, thereby taking away repression, but maintaining a structure in which power continues to define what sexuality can be defined as when discussed.

By categorizing and defining sex and sexuality, science allows for power to manifest itself very discreetly in the form of labels and language. Because scientific discourse surrounding sex remains isolated and objective, “a more devious and discreet power” enters scientific discourse and the oppression of sexuality can take hold. Science isolates and reduces sex to a reproductive process, discreetly oppressing sex by putting restrictions on what sex can and can’t be. In order to see the dynamics of this discreet power, one must take into account “who does the speaking, [and] the positions and viewpoints from which they speak” (Foucault 11). Understanding this interaction between discourse and those who speak makes the power structure visible in a way that then makes it possible to combat oppression, even if power itself cannot be combated. If sex is merely for reproduction, as scientific discourse poses it to be, it makes sense that the scientists in dialogue—who benefit from the capitalist structure and viewing sex as a matter of production within that system—are labeling sex in order to maintain the power structure. Looking deeper into that label and the nature of that discourse reveals those structures of power. The power behind definitions and labels of different categories becomes apparent to those who question discourse under a Foucaultian lens.

While each of Foucault’s questions is significant to understanding the power dynamics of the structure, knowing who is talking about sex is central to understanding the power dynamics between people and groups of people within categories. Vocabulary, categorization, and labeling were specifically powerful forces in the scientific discourse of sex and continue to play an important role in how sex is discussed. Whoever has control over the terminology and the language of categorization has control over the group that is being labeled. Foucault’s discursive fact of sex makes understanding this dynamic an important aspect of dismantling oppression and understanding the power structure.

While Foucault would argue that using language to push back against the power structure only contributes to furthering the power, groups within the power structure will often times use language reclamation to push back against the power structure and, in some ways, against Foucault’s argument. The term queer provides a rich history of influence from the power structure as a term that is continuously evolving and being used by different groups within the power structure in different parts of the hierarchy. The term queer also has been claimed as a way to drastically alter the power structure, create space for a specific group, and reclaim the power of the individual to label one’s self. The evolution of the term queer presents, not so much a counterargument to Foucault’s argument, but an important example demonstrating the complexity of the discursive fact of sex.

For the last couple centuries, artificial language alteration has played a large part in structuring society. Margaret Bryant, a linguist, described the beginning of language control as a social force, rising out of the nationalistic push in European countries to establish a single, national language during the eighteenth century:

As progress was made towards a uniform standard in the English Language, freedom decreased. Rules began to be formulated, efforts began to be made to fix the language, to determine what was right, and what was wrong, to prescribe the goal to be attained. This attitude reached its height in the eighteenth century, the age in which reason and logic were uppermost. (89−90)

Governments took control of language in this “prescriptive” movement towards single, national languages. Language prescriptivism made it so that “language came to be used as one of the most potent means by which social structures of power could be constructed and justified” (Watts, 29). The primary use of this structure of power was in the establishment of national and class identity as “certain speakers … were stigmatized as lower class” merely based on how they structure sentences differently from the higher class individuals (Denham and Lobeck, 397).  This stigma surrounded foreign dialects that did not align with the language closest to political centers rather than speech that was actually incorrect, further contributing to the linguistic identity of nations. From the beginning of prescriptivism, language has been used as a means to define identity within a power structure.

For most of its history, the term queer was not manipulated by prescriptivism but instead evolved organically, as most language does. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original use of the word, as seen during the sixteenth century, defines queer as “strange, odd, peculiar,” and “eccentric” (OED, “Queer”). This definition of the term as that which is deviant from normal prevailed until much after the shift to prescriptivism. In the early twentieth century, people started using the word in mainstream conversation to signify “of or relating to homosexuals or homosexuality” (OED, “Queer”). The Oxford English Dictionary also makes a note that the term was “originally chiefly derogatory (and still widely considered offensive, esp. when used by heterosexual people” (OED, “Queer”). While the term queer did evolve organically to signify heterosexuality, it still carried its original meanings in the sense that queerness still meant that which was deviant from the norm. On the other hand, it did not undergo deliberate, artificial transformation until the 1980’s when the progressive queer population began to shape its meanings for their own identification purposes (Hogan, 154).

During the 1980’s, the term queer was reclaimed through prescriptive methods and through the queer community’s deliberate alteration of language, resulting in a creation of identity similar in some ways to the artificial language change that created national identities at the beginning of the prescriptive movement. While there are multiple reclamations of the word queer, the primary definitions of the term agree that “radical activist groups use ‘queer’ to reclaim its original definition (odd/unusual/eccentric/unconventional) and subvert it” (Hogan, 154). This subversion is accomplished in two major ways. The more common result is when the derogatory definition of queer as referring to homosexuality is used in a positive way, combining the against-the-norm connotation with a more positive view of sexuality, as seen when “community-based organizations that are defeated by the necessity of ever-expanding acronyms to include all sexual fringe groups use ‘queer’ as an all encompassing term” (Hogan, 154) Through this collectivization, the reclamation of the word queer has a similar result to the prescriptive control over language in that the term queer has been used to create unity and solidarity within a group of people who identify similarly.

 The second way in which queer has been reclaimed also came out of this movement towards reclaiming the term and its definitions, but took the reclamation a step further in a way that partially removes it from questions of identity and therefore out of its categorizing role. According to some of the groups that have reclaimed the term, queer more so refers to “sensibility or culture rather that sexual behavior or orientation” ( Zwicky, 23). While it is clear that the term rose out of a need to reclaim the derogatory term, scholars adopted it as a more theoretical concept to describe deviant mindsets and cultures. In the setting of Queer Studies, scholars define queer as “a political metaphor without a fixed referent” (Amin, 175). This definition more so embraces the original definition of the word but separates itself from a fixed identity by having a contextual fluidity.  Individuals or groups no longer need to use the term queer as a way to describe a category of people. Queer Studies scholars have embraced this definition of the word by becoming “a field paradoxically defined by its lack of a defined object of study and by its quasi-infinite mobility of reference” (Amin, 179). Because the term is essentially defined by deviance, users of the term can apply it to identity or to any subject, theoretically giving the term itself a fluidity of application with transgressive potential. By having a fluid definition, the label of queer could not restrict a group or individual into a single category as most other labels could. In this way, it transgressed the power of labels. This transgressive potential is an attempt to break down the categories that power often times requires to manifest itself. Once a term no longer applies to a single category, power theoretically cannot take hold within that term.

Members of society who wish to transgress power in any field can use the term queer due to its potential for contextual fluidity and ability to avoid the power of categorization Foucault fears is tied to talking about sexuality, allowing everything that is attached to it to do the same. Because of its fluidity, the term queer makes it possible for “queer scholars [to] deploy queer’s lush connotations, bifurcating from the denotative use of queer as an umbrella for LGBT to exploit instead some connotative sense of queer that appears better suited to forward the transgression and political potency with which queer became laden around the early 1990s.” (Amin, 184) Because of queer’s many definitions, it can move between contexts and meanings to serve as a general term of transgression or as a term for identity. In theory, power cannot restrict the term queer when it is applied to identity because the connotation of queer as that which inherently transgresses power is inherently built into its definition, therefore escaping the trap Foucault points out in dismissing the repressive hypothesis. This makes it a very appealing term for the sake of identification because it allows for an individual to transgress the categories that power has placed them in using other terms.

While queer is theoretically able to transgress power through its fluidity of context and connotations, this does not in practice actually serve as a means to subvert the power structure, as Foucault’s argument would have originally suggested. The failings of the term present nuanced examples of how exactly this label is unable to escape the power structure Foucault illustrates. The term queer becomes stuck between two possible downfalls. The first possible downfall is that it doesn’t actually create fluidity, but rather creates a lack of definition that would ultimately lead the default privileging of certain groups, also tying the term back into the power structure it attempts to subvert.  Hogan presents the complication that the “mainstream usage of ‘queer’ is associated not only with male, but also with white and middle class,” even though the term was originally reclaimed for anyone who sexually deviates from the norm (155). The fact that queer often will point towards white, middle-class maleness reflects a common problem in feminist studies as Lloyd points out by noting that “‘sexlessness’ which, as many feminists have pointed out, is often a covert way of privileging maleness”(Lloyd, xi). When those in control of discourse remove issues of identity from discussions, there is a risk that the currently privileged identity will continue to manifest as the primary identity. Comparing sexuality to sex, removing the categories of the power structure and society often leaves the discourse with nothing but the previously privileged definitions. By doing this, the individuality of sexuality is lost to the power structure again. The umbrella term of queerness then bleaches “any useful meaning from the term and in addition devalues gay people and their interests by burying them in a loose collection of sexually transgressive types” (23). By having a fluid definition, queer leaves room for power to manifest in other ways, maintaining the categories by even further disguising the divide between groups and further privileging one over the other.

The second downfall of the fluidity of queer is that queer has not actually become fluid enough.  The fact that the term is “still resisted by certain people who feel it cannot be appropriated, subverted or used to connote freedom and pride” proves that, while the term is intended to be fluid, society still attaches it to its previous definitions(Hogan, 154). The reclamation of words can never truly escape the previous connotations that are inevitably laden with previous power because “historicity makes figures and terms “sticky”—particular emotions, particular proximate terms become bound to them” (Amin, 181). Amin explains that the history of the term queer is still very much alive:

The very polyvalent richness of queer—the fact that it remains a highly charged term that can evoke, simultaneously and contradictorily, injury, negativity, utopianism, transgression, defiance, righteousness, superiority, radicalism, hipness, and rage, but most often some combination, some metonymic attraction between a series of those terms—indicates that queer is not slick but rather the stickiest of terms. (181)

So while those who define queer within certain circles try to keep the term fluid, the long list of connotations surrounding the word actually serve to tie the definition more closely to that which power can have influence over, even though that is not what those who reclaimed the word intended for the term queer.

In order to be successful as a means to subvert power, queer would have to have a genuinely fluid definition.  Amin argues that “if queer is to have life, if it is to be driven to do new things and grapple with new problems, it is through the force and the course of its ongoing affective history” (184). In other words, it must continue to have a “quasi-infinite mobility of reference” (Amin, 179). In practice, this is impossible, not only from a linguistic standpoint, but from a reflection of how the term is used as a whole. The term will either have no definition and take on the privileged definition in society, or it will be impossible to separate its previous connotations and definitions. The term queer is an example of both happening simultaneously. While queer attempts to subvert the power structure through remaining fluid, it actually plays right back into the power structure, strengthening it. The term queer, therefore, proves that even the intention to subvert the power structure through talking about sex will ultimately lead to the reinforcement of power, just as Foucault predicts. In order to make sexual identity genuinely fluid, and therefore outside of a structure of power, the language surrounding sexuality itself would have to be legitimately fluid as well.

Because it is impossible to create fluid language, it becomes even more crucial to understand who is talking about sex, going back to Foucault’s understanding of the discursive fact of sex. In order to avoid the two major downfalls of using the term queer, one must understand the context in which it is being used, who is using it, and who or what it is being applied to and why. While the definition of the term queer cannot be fluid to the point of escaping the power structure, it can still prove useful in the many, fluid situations it is applied to. Once contextualized, embodied, and understood, individuals and groups can use the term queer to navigate the power structure. An understanding of the discursive fact of the term will allow for individuals and groups to use queer to move through the power structure with more freedom. Individuals moving through the power structure using the term queer may result in negative side effects and new forms of oppression as the categories are maintained, but this movement may also lead to a necessary restructuring of power and its control over categories and labels. By aiming for fluidity, language has the potential to create fluidity between these categories for individuals, even if it cannot dismantle them.



Amin, Kadji. "Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory’s Affective Histories." WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 44.3-4 (2016): 173-89. Web.

Bryant, Margaret M. Modern English and Its Heritage. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Print.

Denham, Kristin E., and Anne C. Lobeck. Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/ Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.

Hogan, Melanie. "Radical Queers: A Pop Culture Assessment of Monreal's Anti-Capitalist Ass Pirates, the Pantheres Roses, and Lesbians on Ecstasy." Canadian Woman Studies (2005): 154-59. Web.

Lloyd, Genevieve. "Reason, Science, and the Domination of Power." The Man of Reason(1984): 1-17. Web.

OED Online. "Queer" Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 10 December 2016.

Watts, Richard J. "Mythical Strands in the Ideology of Prescriptivism." The Development of Standard English (2000): 29-48. Web.

Zwicky, Arnold M. "Two Lavender Issues for Linguistics." Liminal Lexicality (1986): 21-34. Web.


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