Diversity and Democracy

Queer Theory's Relevance to Student Learning

The recent It Gets Better campaign prompted everyone from lesbian septuagenarians to young snap queens to the president of the United States to throw a reassuring virtual arm around the shoulders of LGBT youth. Compared to such outreach-based phenomena spurred by grievous tragedies, what is the role of queer theory? I've heard versions of this question in the media, from activists and fellow academics, and in my classroom: Who has time for theory? What does it accomplish? Of what possible relevance are the alleged fictions of gender, the fissures of "the subject," or the phenomenology of desire when queer kids—and adults—are feeling bruised, getting hurt, even losing their lives?

Ironically, the late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick cited these very factors as having prompted her intricate theoretical writings on sexuality. She begins her essay "Queer and Now" by opining, "I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents.... How [can we] tell kids ... that, farther along, the road widens and the air brightens?" (1993, 1–2). She recalls convening her first seminar in lesbian and gay studies in her home in 1986. Expecting five or six students, she found herself hosting sixty-five. For them, the class's very existence entailed a sign of things getting better.

Thus to assign or study queer theory, even at its most difficult, is not to abandon but to gratify a real-world community, encouraging its members to consider our lives as pivotal within major conceptualizations of human experience, local and global, past and present. Genders and sexualities of all stripes deserve to be valued as centerpieces, not sidebars, within histories of human thought. To address these subjects as complex ideas in perpetual flux—as theories, not facts—challenges students to think critically and to engage across differences.

Debates surrounding queer theory and its notorious difficulty are not reasons to avoid teaching it. Rather, they are cues for teaching it in considered ways. Reading should operate like physical training, working muscles to levels just beyond present potential, furnishing slightly heavier bars than students think they can lift. When I assign difficult essays, I typically offer three reflection prompts to students: Transcribe and then comment for three to four sentences on an idea in the reading you feel sure you understood. Do the same for a passage you did not initially understand, but now feel that you do. Do the same for an idea you know you did not understand. My lessons are informed by all three prompts, but especially the second one: when students confront puzzles they feel newly capable of solving, I find them at their most candid, diligent, and intellectually imaginative.

Queer theory is the bedrock of my undergraduate course Introducing Queer Cinema. Students who worry about the practical pertinence of their humanities-based classes often perk up when learning about direct collaborations among artists, activists, and academics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While analyzing films, we discuss how every image makes certain kinds of sense in its immediate context but also enlists our reflexive understandings of what a close-up, cross-cut, or dissolve typically connotes. By the same logic, individual desires encompass gestures, grammars, frictions, and intensities that amass shared meanings over time but are not limited to those meanings. The films that students credit as brave or eye-opening are often those that are trickiest to understand. They require us, as queer theory does, to work for their meanings rather than gobbling them like popcorn.

Queer theory is not to everyone's taste—but it is not, for that reason, unrelated to "real life," as detractors have claimed. Its emergence answered curricular gaps and communal needs that could all too easily return. Teaching theory doesn't prohibit teaching sociology, science, history, politics, or public health. Fields like these inevitably entail their own concepts of gender and sexuality; surely testing concepts against observations is better than naturalizing or ignoring concepts altogether. For all these reasons, reading and getting comfortable with queer theory, without silencing questions or debates, is part of It Getting Better.


Sedgwick, Eve. 1993. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nick Davis is an assistant professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University.


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