Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and Practice

Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and Practice

Unit Resources

Online Notes

  • Unit Content: Critical Consideration of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and Practice

Required Reading

  • Williams, E. (n.d.). Gay to Trans and Queering in Between. Retrieved from Trivia-Voices of Feminism
  • Watson, K. (2005). Queer theory. Group Analysis, 38(1), 67-81. (e-reserve)
  • LeFrancois, B. L. (2011). Queering child and adolescent mental health services: The subversion of heteronormativity in practice. Children in Society, 1-12. (e-reserve)
  • Hicks, S. (2008). What does social work desire? Social Work Education, 27(2), 131-137. (e-reserve)
  • Mullaly, B., & West, J. (2018). Chapter 10, pp. 52-55 & 57-65. (Please revisit!) (textbook) 

Substantive Question

Bearing in mind the different possible strategies of resistance LeFrancois (2011) presents, as well as other ideas you might have, please answer the following question for this unit’s assignment: How does heteronormativity play itself out in your current place of work? What is the impact of heteronormativity in your practice? What could be done to make visible and erode heteronormativity within your practice specifically and within social work practice generally?

Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and PracticeIntroduction

In this unit, we will briefly consider the main theoretical influences and tenets of Anti-heterosexist/Queer theory, as well as discuss and/or reflect on:

  • The relevance of our own socially constructed ideas, beliefs and values about gender, sexuality, and sexual identities;
  • The relevance of our own socially constructed ideas, beliefs and values about queer people;
  • Some of the limitations of the theory in view and its potential value for social work anti-oppressive practice with GLBT/Queer people and communities;
  • The implications of how sexuality is currently theorized in social work practice; 
  • The importance of understanding intersectionality and multiple subjective positions in respect to those individuals who identify as queer.

Defining Queer Theory

Watson (2005) provides a brief overview of the work of key feminist and queer theorists who have contributed to the development of Queer theory. As she indicates, queer theory is a critical theory that is informed by postmodern/poststructural feminism and Foucault’s analysis of sexuality. No doubt as you were reading the material for this unit, you could probably identify some very strong links between feminist theory and queer theory. Like feminist theorists, queer theorists principally focus on the deconstruction of dominant discourses that pertain to gender and sexuality. In doing so, they highlight the historical, and current social, cultural, and institutional forces that contribute to the construction of our dominant beliefs about sex, sexuality, and gender. Queer theorists, also challenge dichotomous structures and binaries associated with essentialist, fixed sexual and gender identities and subjectivities such as straight/gay, heterosexual/homosexual, male/female, men/women. In other words, “they assume there is no essential nature to being a man or woman; but rather, gender and sexuality, like other identities are constructed through social relations and discourses” (Lee, Sammon, &Dumbrill, 2007, p. 26). Additionally, queer theory challenges us to consider a more fluid notion of sexuality whereby all subjective sexual and gender identities have equal merit and can no longer be ‘measured’ against the heterosexist norm which is but one of many sexual subjective positions/identities. In this sense then, sexuality and gender, rather than being fixed is viewed as ‘performative’ (Butler, 1999 cited in Gibson, 2010, pp. 243-244). Because queer theory challenges basic assumptions about sexuality, gender, and heterosexist power relations, and presents a fluid conceptualization of sexuality and gender, individuals are free to “construct new identities and reconstruct troubling gender and sexual social relations” (Lee, Sammon, &Dumbrill, 2007, p. 27).

LeFrancois (2011) encourages us to consider a broad understanding and application of the term ‘queer’ and indicates others who are oppressed in society can take up the term and identify as queer. However, most queer theorists have focused their analysis on how social relations, discourses, and language construct and constrain those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual or transgendered.

As we reflected on the components of queer theory and the more fluid conceptualization of sexuality and gender, Em William’s (Trivia) personal account, in which she presents her thinking about gender and sexuality and identifies her own transitions in and through different subjective positions. Although her reflection provides us with a fascinating example of what viewing sexuality and gender as more fluid might entail, we found her account challenged each of us to reconsider some of our own taken for granted ideas and beliefs about nature of sexuality. Although we both have a pretty solid conceptual understanding of the concepts and tenets of queer theory, and believe we have a well honed critical perspective, her examples and ideas still evoked feelings and served to disrupt some of our individual thinking and beliefs. For example, Tracy was reminded once again about the power of heteronormativity and how it oppresses all who are positioned as ‘other’ because of their gender and/or sexual subjective positions. She was also somewhat dismayed to realize how often she loses sight of how this power is ever present, and how dominant discourses and practices perpetually operate in both blatant and insidious ways, an idea that we touched on in Units 3 and 4.

Given that sexuality, sex, gender identity and expression can be sensitive and difficult topics that evoke strong feelings in many of us, we wondered if you are also struggling with some of the ideas, concepts, and the language contained in the readings. Perhaps even the word ‘queer’ is troubling for some. If so it might be important to keep in mind the use of the word ‘queer’ is purposeful and reflects resistance to prejudicial and offensive language that has been used to describe queer people (Lee, Sammon, &Dumbrill, 2007).

As we considered our reaction to the readings on a ‘felt’ level, the importance of critical reflexivity immediately came into focus (Unit 3). Previously in Unit 2, we deconstructed some of our beliefs about ‘family’. Although sometimes difficult, thoughtful reflection on our constructed beliefs and assumptions about sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation, is equally as important because our beliefs in this area interconnect and permeate our understanding of family, and what it means to be a woman and man; all of which contribute to the construction of our views/attitudes about different queer individuals.

Deconstructing and considering the implications of heterosexual privilege which is not distinct from white privilege and male privilege is an important step in this reflexive process. Given this, we encourage you to take a moment and reflect on the description of the many heterosexist assumptions many of us can make on a daily basis (Mullaly & West, 2018, pp. 52-55) and consider the implications of those which you could recognize as having made.

 Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and Practice

Limitations and Possibilities of Queer Theory

Watson (2005) notes that one of “enduring criticisms of queer theory has been the tensions that have arisen around the theory-practice interface” (p. 75). In addition to presenting us with what can be quite ‘daunting’ ideas about sexuality and gender, the way Queer theory is ‘languaged’ can render it impractical and inaccessible (Gibson, 2010; Watson, 2005).

Gibson (2010) and Hicks (2008) both indicate that much of the research that informs practice with members of the queer community is based on fixed categories, whereby individuals in that category are compared and/or contrasted against the heterosexual norm; for example, definitions of ‘good parent’ or in the case of lesbians, ‘good mother.’ Hicks (2008) notes that social work, when considering the research, plays the ‘evidence game’ by providing what are perceived as facts that counter ‘myths’ about the people who fall within the category under scrutiny. Gibson’s (2010) discussion of her interview on lesbian parenting demonstrates the quandary she encountered when she found herself citing research based on the fixed categories of lesbian parent and/or mother(s), contradicting the more fluid notion of sexuality which she held. It was also evident in her reflection, that Williams ( continued to be constrained by heterosexism and dominant discourses that pertained to sexuality and gender roles despite her personal stance and the multiple theoretical and subjective positions she personally assumed. This would suggest, while queer theory deconstructs discourses and practices about gender and sexuality and proposes an alternative conceptualization of both, it does not appear to explicitly highlight the fact that heterosexism persists and still constrains people. As such, queer theory has been critiqued as being too abstract and apolitical. This critique is particularly relevant in view of social work’s commitment to social justice and the implementation of anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive practice.

Given that queer theory currently has a somewhat tenuous foothold in the social work academy, a failure on the part of many queer theorists to explicitly discuss the implications of this precarious co-existent and tension, can unwittingly predispose us to accept the current research without critically considering the implications of the participants being conceptualized as fitting a fixed category. Hicks (2008) indicates when this occurs we can continue to reinforce essential categories/identities and by extension, dominant discourse about sexuality, leaving the dominant version of sexuality and heterosexism unchallenged. This, by turn, limits the possibility of our becoming viable allies who are able to challenge organizational policy and practices that reflect dominant discourses. It can also affect our ability to contribute to the creation of anti-oppressive organizational cultures. Perhaps it is this realization that predisposed Kirsch (2000 cited in Watson, 2005, p. 75) to charge queer theory as being ‘apathy-encouraging’ and ‘agency-deflating.’

There is however, room for optimism. If we do hone our critical lenses and challenge taken for granted gender/sexual categories/identities and come to accept and understand the relevance of a more fluid notion of sexuality, we believe queer theory creates the possibility for change. It helps us to understand those forces that currently construct LGBT people in western society; and it provides us with the opportunity to again confront the implications of our binary thinking about sexual and gender positions. This analysis and reflection presents us with opportunities to deepen empathy and acceptance, the foundation of a meaningful relationship with members of the queer community. Additionally, it enhances our capacity rethink and challenge dominant discourses and practices that permeate the research and modern theories that continue to inform much of our current practice as it pertains to GLBT persons (Hicks, 2008; Watson, 2005).

Despite the misgivings of Kirsch and others, queer theory also creates opportunities to establish partnerships with others to resist and to contribute to healing and social change. Queer theory urges us to interrogate and resist social arrangements which oppress subjective positions that do not conform to dominant definitions of gender and/or sexuality.  This opens the door for others also constrained by heteronormtivity to resist and identify as queer (LeFrancois, 2011).  The possibility of others becoming allies is a positive contribution that queer theorists like Judith Butler (1993) have made to social work practice.

Queer theory’s broader and more fluid definition of sexuality and gender recognizes a spectrum of many possible identities and subjective positions.  This provides space for those who identify themselves variously to be recognized, respected and valued within the community and opportunities for building alliances.  Mullaly and West (2018) tell us the ‘politics of difference’ which we believe is reflected in the possibility of diverse ‘queer people’ coming together, can contribute to the development of ‘more viable anti-oppressive policy’ (p. 224). Further the ‘politics of difference’ in combination with the ‘politics of solidarity’ is viewed as having the potential to overcome the limitations of identity politics which has often contributed to competition and resentment between groups (Bishop, 2002).  The politics of difference can enhance the possibility that diversity of identities is respected, while the politics of solidairity can keep a focus on developing policies that enhance the lives of all the groups.

LeFrancois (2011) provides us with a number of possibilities for ways we can make changes in our practice and in our agency policies and practices; possibilities that could also be employed to challenge racist, ableist, classist, and so on, policies and practices as well. These include”…spontaneous acts of:

“Explicitly naming the unspeakable (Butler, 1999); resisting normative and regulatory practices; deconstructing the workings and effects of heteronormativity (Chambers, 2007); pointing to the systems of power that produce the practice; revealing the institutional,cultural and legal norms that reify and entrench the normativity of heterosexuality (Chambers, 2007, p.665); exposing the ways in which heterosexual identities are rewarded and privileged; and finding ways to reshape practice – or rearrange the world – with the exclusion of norms and hierarchies (Butler, 2004). All these approaches involve demonstrating the existence of norms, which in and of itself may be subversive given that norms function best when they are hidden” (Chambers, 2007).

Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and PracticeFurther Considerations of Critical Reflexivity

Reflecting on LeFrancois’s (2011) suggestions, we recognized that our individual capacity to implement many of these strategies is partly dependent on our capacity to be critically reflexive. Prior to speaking to the relevance of intersectionality to understanding the unique issues of LGBT people, we want to return to the challenges of reflexivity and once again emphasize how important deconstructing our worldview is to all forms of practice with GLBT individuals. Because sex, sexuality and gender tend to be very difficult areas to grapple with in our society, social work as a profession has not done well in taking up the challenge of doing so (Hicks, 2008). We too may understandably want to ‘avoid’ the area and wish to protect ourselves from any potential emotional, and for some, spiritual conflict such reflection can generate. In addition to the heterosexist assumptions outlined in Mullaly and West (2018), the article by McGeorge and Carlson (2009) also provides us with some additional ideas that can facilitate our thinking about the relevance of our heterosexist assumptions to practice.

While McGeorge and Carlson have a number of helpful ideas, there are limits and gaps in what they present. Although the authors discuss the relevance of the therapist’s (worker’s) heterosexist privilege, there is no gender analysis or discussion of power.  This has implications for lesbians as well as men who have transitioned and become women and remain sexually attracted to other women. There is also limited consideration of professional power as it relates to the relationship between the queer person and therapist. Additionally, their discussion of models of LGB and heterosexual identity development is problematic as it reinforces essentialized and fixed identities in both instances. Their discussion fails to consider the relevance of diverse and intersecting identities and subjective positions that exist. They fail to consider how other positions of privilege that we might occupy can mediate our experiences of oppression.  They also do not address how historical, social and cultural contextual factors can impact us all quite differently as we interpret and make meaning of our experiences (Hulko, 2009).

Critical Considerations of Anti-Heterosexist/Queer Theory and PracticeIntersectionality and Diversity within the Queer Community

Before concluding the course generally and our discussion of queer theory more specifically, we would like to revisit intersectionality (Mullaly & West, 2018), and through an example, hopefully demonstrate the very diverse subjective positions that people can claim and occupy. We have chosen to share an example from a second-year undergraduate social work class that Tracy developed and has been teaching for several years. During the week that the class considers LGBTQ content, she frequently brings together a panel of people who may self-identify as two-spirited, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, gay or otherwise sexually and/or gender ‘fluid.’ While the composition of the panel varies from year to year because of the participants available, the people who volunteer to participate also reflect a number of diverse positions in respect to age, gender, ability/(dis)Ability, race and/or culture, class, spiritual beliefs and/or faith group affiliation, geographic location and so.

During the class each panel member talks about:

  • when they began to grapple with their sexual orientation/gender identity; and discuss
  • how ‘readiness’ to ‘come out’ was influenced by other forms of identity and difference; the historical/political/social context of when they were coming out to themselves;
  • the response of significant others and their community to their sexual orientation/gender identity; And if individually relevant, s/he may also choose to discuss
  • the relevance and challenges presented by their spiritual beliefs and/or faith group affiliation.

Although each participant experiences oppression and is constrained by heterosexism, it is evident that their subjective identifies and the positions they occupy differ. Factors and forces that influence their lives, such as the nature of their community and culture, or the historical/political context of when they were coming out, can also greatly differ and impact each of them in different ways. As well, each of them will understand their experiences and themselves quite differently within different social contexts at different times. For example, consider some of the factors that might be operating in the life of a 68-year-old gay middle-class man living in St. John’s who is currently losing his sight; but who, in his youth, resided in Toronto and was in the closet. Then contrast this with a young lesbian, Metis woman who has just come out to her family and friends.  She resides in small outport community in Newfoundland where her parents and grandparents have all worked in the fishing industry and have often struggled to make ends meet. Given their many differences in identity and possible life experiences, as well as the other marginalized positions they occupy, how they self-identify and what concerns them may vary significantly.

If we fail to critically consider the following then we may once again run the risk of contributing to their oppression:

  • how the theories we employ construct the individual
  • whether the theories and models view the person as having a fixed ‘queer’ identity
  • the complexity of how other differences interconnect and influence how the person constructs and perceives their world and themselves.

If however we work diligently to understand the complexity of oppression, hone our capacity for critical thinking and reflexivity, engage in self-reflexive practice and critically consider the theories we employ, our capability to work anti-oppressively will be greatly enhanced.

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