Queer Approaches to Communication

John M Sloop. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Queer approaches to communication share a common commitment to exploring the role(s) that gender and sexuality play in communication practices, theories, and analyses. While they certainly have some overlap with other areas of communication—notably feminist approaches—their political origins, their focus on sexuality, and their emphasis on non-normative identities and behaviors make them distinct.

To begin, studies of gender and studies of sexuality are inextricably linked; contemporary feminist and queer scholars work from a perspective that holds that the socially “proper” performance of gender is tied strongly to the proper performance of sexuality and vice versa. In short, in a culture in which heterosexuality is seen as the norm and heterosexuality presumes binary notions of gender, the proper performance of both men and women is tied to stable forms of sexuality. This is why, for instance, a common stereotype of gay men is that they are feminine (“abnormal” sexuality is culturally linked to “abnormal” gender identity). As a result, any study of gender implies a study of sexuality, and any study of sexuality implies an investigation of gender.

In addition, it is important that I stress that queer approaches have a political dimension; that is, they are academic enterprises that grew from political movements and that support political goals derived from those movements. Beyond their origins in public, political movements, queer scholars see gender and sexuality as always inherently political because of their relationship to power; that is, struggles over gender and sexuality are always struggles over the power that accompanies (or is limited by) the “proper” or “improper” performance of gender and/or sexuality. Below, I discuss the origins of queer approaches to communication and then describe three broad themes—recovery, representation, and reconceptualization—that characterize contemporary research using queer approaches to communication.

The Development of Queer Approaches to Communication

Queer approaches to communication can be traced to their roots in scholarship about gays and lesbians that developed in response to the public visibility of gay/lesbian social movements. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, a time period when the term queer scholarship would have sounded like a pejorative, a number of scholars were studying discourse about “gay rights” or discourse produced by gay and lesbian groups. For example, in 1979, Barry Brummett provided a Burkean analysis of the discourse of gay rights controversies, and in 1973, Chesebro, Cragan, and McCullough analyzed the discursive patterns of gay rights activism and gay consciousness raising. Other rhetorical analyses of the language of gay activism and the “gay community” include Joseph Hayes’s (1976) critique of the language employed by gays in community conversations; Bonnie Dow’s (1994) reading of the gay activist Larry Kramer’s important 1983 essay on AIDS, “1,112 and Counting”; and James Darsey’s (1991) “From ‘Gay Is Good’ to the Scourge of AIDS,” a summary of the changing language of the gay liberation movement. Although there was a simultaneous body of scholarship emerging that concerned the ways in which gays and lesbians were being represented in mass-mediated texts (which I will discuss below), much of this early work focused directly on political movements emerging from the political activism of gays and lesbians.

Beginning in 1995 with the publication of Anthony Slagle’s essay “In Defense of Queer Nation” (1995), a similar growth of scholarship emerged from (or studied) the discourse of queer politics and queer social movements. If we take gay and lesbian social movement discourse broadly to assume that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are stable identities and that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals deserve access to the social order based on their overall similarity to heterosexuals, then queer activism built political identity around differences and partial and fluid identities. Slagle’s subtitle, “From Identity Politics to a Politics of Difference,” laid out this transition rather directly.

While the terms queer and queer theory are wildly contested in academic literature and political discourse, I attempt here to provide some assumptions that are broadly shared. First, queer criticism operates on a logic that deconstructs the “gender/sex” binary discussed above. Growing in part from the work of Judith Butler’s now classic 1990 book Gender Trouble, queer theory assumes that bodies are understood as sexed or gendered through the filter of cultural meanings that preexist in those bodies. Our understandings of gender and sexuality are maintained and challenged through performance, but the performance of gender or sexuality does not have a natural or necessary relationship to a particular kind of body. In short, queer criticism assumes that our ideas about the proper performance of masculinity and femininity are maintained by the expectations of heteronormative culture—including our behaviors toward each other in daily life and the representation of proper behavior in public discourse. Thus, the role of queer critique is not only understanding how dominant meanings attached to gender and sexuality are continually reproduced but also the “queering” (i.e., destabilizing) of such meanings and norms. Queer research is thus committed to opening up the possibility for resisting dominant meanings of gender and sexuality through performances that operate outside normative gender and sexuality “boxes.”

Since Slagle’s 1995 venture into queer activist logic, a number of scholars have used the tactics of activist queer groups to highlight the rhetoric of queer politics or general political lessons that can be drawn from queer tactics. For example, Charles Morris’s and my essay (Morris & Sloop, 2006) used images produced by the queer activist group Gran Fury to think through the politics of queer male kissing in public spaces. Additionally, in a number of essays, the rhetorical critic Daniel Brouwer has looked at the ways in which people with AIDS have constituted counter-publics (i.e., marginalized individuals who form a group identity and group logic separate from mainstream or dominant logic) that have queered public understandings of the queer body. In “The Precarious Visibility Politics of Self-Stigmatization” (1998), for example, Brouwer investigates the use of HIV/AIDS tattoos as “self-stigmatization” and in “Counterpublicity and Corporeality in HIV/AIDS Zines” (2005), he focuses on the discourse of two zines produced by gay men with HIV/AIDS to investigate the rethinking of the “diseased” body in discourses that created counterpublics and new cultural logics.

From gay liberation to queer nation, then, the politics and discourse of the social movements themselves have been important resources for communication scholars. I want to stress, however, that the relation between social movements and criticism has been a complicated and robust one. While the discourse of social movements at times has served as a text for analysis by communication scholars, the unique politics emerging from these movements also have been used to help critics understand discourse and politics in other movements. And while rhetorical and cultural critics have used theory to illuminate gay/lesbian and queer movements, the politics of the movements also have altered the ways critics theorize discourse.

Queer Approaches to Recovery

As the result of a large number of factors, the queer “recovery” project is more abbreviated than the feminist one described in the previous chapter. First, because many historical gay/lesbian/queer speakers either did not identify themselves as such or did not speak out on gay/lesbian issues, they are somewhat invisible to any recovery process. Second, and this may be the more forceful reason, institutional/academic homophobia discouraged rhetorical critics from choosing to highlight gay/lesbian/queer speakers. As a result, just as early gay and lesbian research focused on gay/lesbian discourse or discourse about gays and lesbians often at an arm’s length (i.e., without an obvious political agenda around gay and lesbian communities), it took even longer for queer recovery to emerge in communication studies.

While there were more overt recovery projects ongoing elsewhere in the academy, such as Jonathan Katz’s (1992) Gay American History, communication studies as a discipline has moved somewhat slower in this regard. Nonetheless, the combination of the closeted nature of many historical queer orators and queer topics has set the stage for recent interesting queer scholarship. In “Keeping a Good Wo/man Down,” for example, Robert Brookey (1998) provided a rereading of the female Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson Gannett as transgendered, hence forcing a rereading of Gannett’s feminist statements that had been studied by others. By providing a queered understanding of Gannett, Brookey not only “recovers” Gannett but also transforms the meaning of Gannett’s feminist statements. Along these lines, in Charles Morris’s recent edited volume, Queering Public Address (2007), I reread the story of Lucy Lobdell, a 19th-century woman who lived as a man, as a transgendered story, a case I will discuss more completely below. Such a reading forces a rethinking of the medical and psychiatric linguistic constraints that discouraged queered understandings.

Those who wish to see a stronger urge to rethink historical subjects in communication studies certainly owe a debt to Charles Morris. Not only has he offered fascinating readings around the closeted queer stories of figures such as the 20th-century FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in “Pink Herring and the Fourth Persona” (Morris, 2002), but, in an essay in his edited collection Queering Public Address, he also has investigated the queer panic that occurred in academic journals over the very possibility of Abraham Lincoln’s recovery as a queer subject (Morris, 2007). In most of these cases, the “actual” sexuality of the subject is less important than a critique of the historical discourses that attempted to hold them in place as straight. Queering Public Address includes a number of essays that re-read historical figures in productive ways that force critics to understand the constraints on our historical understandings of gays and lesbians. Of particular note are Dana Cloud’s (2007) reading of the discourse concerning First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Lisbeth Lipari’s (2007) reading of the African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and Eric Watt’s (2007) critique of the queer facets of the Harlem Renaissance.

In short, while “queer recovery” work in communication studies has been slow coming and is certainly dwarfed by work on queer media representations, as I will discuss below, it is an area that is proving ripe for those interested in the history of gay/lesbian/queer orators as well as those interested in the constraints and possibilities allowed by shifting cultural meanings of gender and sexuality.

Queer Approaches to Representation

Like feminist studies of media representation, queer approaches to media representation assume that massmediated texts are powerful disseminators of ideology about sexuality. The intersection of media studies and gay/lesbian/queer representation has proven to be a highly productive area. If one traces out its path over time, one sees changes in popular culture as well as changes in the methods and perspectives of queer criticism. For instance, looking at work in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, we find a focus on either the invisibility of homosexual characters or the problematic ways in which homosexuality is made visible. Good examples of this type of research include Larry Gross’s (1991) “The Contested Closet,” a discussion of the ethics of mediated outing of public figures; Alfred Kielwasser’s and Michelle Wolf’s (1992) powerful critique of the symbolic annihilation of gay and lesbian adolescents; and Fred Fejes’s and Kevin Petrich’s (1993) overview of gay representation, “Invisibility, Homophobia, and Heterosexism.” In short, the criticism of this era focused on the lack of mainstream gay representation, offering insights into the reasons for this lack.

However, as gay, lesbian, and queer characters became more visible and more durable as characters throughout the tenure of different series (even becoming the lead characters in shows such as Ellen and Will & Grace), the focus slowly turned from critiques of invisibility to critiques of visibility. A great deal of such work is reviewed in my earlier essay “Critical Studies in Gender/Sexuality and Media” (2006) in Bonnie Dow and Julia Wood’s edited volume The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Communication. In these critiques, we also find a tension at work between critics who focused on the ways gay and lesbian characters were disciplined into stereotypical “gay” behaviors and critics who found cause for celebration of gay/lesbian possibilities. In short, this body of work displays a tension between highlighting “progressive” changes and highlighting ideological constraint.

While the impulse toward the celebration of possibility or the critique of constraint remains at work, the number of texts to work with in mainstream media outlets—and hence the number of publications about them—continues to grow. Hence, while Katherine Sender (1999) was writing about the dual purpose of “gay window dressing” advertisements in the late 1990s in “Selling Sexual Subjectivities,” what Gust Yep (2003) refers to as “queer readings of the media” in his coedited volume Queer Theory and Communication are in full force in the first decade of the 21st century.

Most of these readings in the early part of the decade focused primarily on a discussion of the problematic ways in which gay/lesbian/queer characters were conformed to the gender/sexual ideology of mainstream culture. From Kathleen Battles and Windy Hilton-Morrow’s (2002) discussion of Will & Grace to Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfaulhaus’s (2002) critique of the disciplining of the homoeroticism of the film Fight Club, to my own (Sloop, 2000) and Brenda Cooper’s (2002) alternative readings of the story of the murdered transgendered teen Brandon Teena in “Disciplining the Transgendered” and “Boys Don’t Cry and Female Masculinity,” respectively, to, finally, Bonnie Dow’s (2001) essay “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility,” communication critics have provided numerous accounts of the ways in which these representations constrained gay/lesbian subjectivity, with minor focus on the ways such representations encouraged a queered set of possibilities. Importantly, some of this work is noteworthy for its attention to masculinity and male privilege and its simultaneous engagement with feminist perspectives. For example, in Helene Shugart’s (2003) reading of gay man/straight woman pairings in popular film and television in an essay titled “Reinventing Privilege,” she argues that such couplings reinforce heteronormative norms as well as reinscribe male privilege for gay male characters.

There are relatively fewer recent discussions of representations of lesbians in mass-mediated discourse. The ones that have been written, however, generally take a more optimistic tone. For example, Jennifer Reed (2005) offers a critique of the discourse about Ellen DeGeneres and argues that DeGeneres’s outing has opened up positive representational spaces for other queer performers. Additionally, C. Lee Harrington (2003) offers a somewhat celebratory reading of audience reactions to the lesbian narrative line on All My Children in an essay titled “Lesbian(s) on Daytime Television,” and Didi Herman’s (2003) “Bad Girls Changed My Life”—an analysis of a British drama set in a women’s prison—suggests that the show did not offer the expected read of lesbianism through the male gaze but rather presented lesbianism as normal, desirable, and possible.

Overall, attention to masculinity and male privilege in studies of these representations also sensitizes us to the imbalance—in both media representation and scholarship about it—between representations of gay men and representations of lesbians. Indeed, feminist scholars have repeatedly critiqued the ways in which queer scholarship often uses gay male experience as its foundation, ignoring the differing experiences and situations of lesbians and failing to account for the ways in which queer theory elides or runs counter to feminist concerns. Susan Fraiman’s (2003) Cool Men and the Second Sex is a strong example of work of this nature. Finally, two notable book-length projects emerged during this era—Larry Gross’s (2001) Up From Invisibility and Suzanna Danuta Walters’s (2001) All the Rage; each asks readers to be cautious before celebrating the recent growth of gay visibility, and each questions the particular contours of gay/lesbian/queer representations.

More recently, the critical readings have become richer as they have intersected with other forms of critical analysis, such as those interested in the political economy, media studies, and democratic theory. For example, emerging amidst the multiple academic readings of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that focused on the heteronormative disciplining of the show’s titular queers, including E. Michelle Ramsey and G. Santiago’s (2004) “The Conflation of Homosexuality and Feminity” and Robert Westerfelhaus and Celeste Lacroix’s (2006) “Seeing Straight Through Queer Eye,” Katherine Sender’s (2006) “Queens for a Day” read the show through the lens of neoliberalism. She argued that the “queer men” on the show act in ways that reinforce neoliberal economic ideology while simultaneously offering a campy aesthetic that potentially undermines certain aspects of heteronormative sexual equations. In “Riding in Cars Between Men” (Sloop, 2005), I combine queer critique with media ecology, offering a reading of “gender trouble” in automobile sports that questions some of the oft-suggested liberating “effects” of technology. Jeffrey Bennett’s (2006b) essay “Seriality and Multicultural Dissent in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate” investigates the rhetorical dispute over same-sex marriage to understand how the value of difference in democratic politics—including differences in sexuality—can be productively understood as taking place in a process of “seriality” rather than being either essential or fluid. While sexuality is a strong focus of his work, it also serves to help the reader understand arguments over democratic processes.

Although there are other ways of mapping out the trajectory of the history of analyses of “queer” representation, the one I have drawn here highlights changes in mainstream representation of gays and lesbians and accompanying changes in the critical project around representation. Hence, when there was a lack of viable queer representation in mainstream media (or solely negative representations), critics focused on this lack and its political outcomes. When queer representation and visibility proliferate, critics urge caution in the particular ways in which this representation takes shape, warning readers about the perils of too easily equating visibility with progress. Finally, as the representations have taken on a wider variety of hues, queer critics have been able to spend more energy articulating their concerns with a variety of other critical projects.

Queer Approaches to Reconceptualization

In many ways, attempting to identify a “reconceptualization” element of queer criticism is an impossible task. That is, if we take the move from gay/lesbian criticism to queer criticism to be a move that undermines the stability of both gay and straight identities, contesting any solid categories on the grounds of gender or sexuality/desire, then all queer criticism acts as a model of ongoing and permanent reconceptualization. That is, regardless of where we pinpoint the origins of “queer criticism,” it grew out of (and separates itself from) lesbian and gay projects and politics, working in part to undermine clear categories and reasons for holding onto systems and structures that maintain these categories. Hence, queer criticism always already functions as a tool for reconfiguring identity categories, with an ongoing expectation of these temporarily stable identities being undermined again.

In his summary of academic work in queer theory in Queer Theory and Communication, Gust Yep, Lovaas, and Elia (2003) noted the difficulty of talking about the purpose or overall project of “queer theory.” Given that it does not aspire to attain theoretical hegemony, given that it is an open system without a telos, or end goal, and given its refusal to be fixed to solid “reconceptualizations,” it is difficult to point to specific models. While gay and lesbian scholarship may have pointed to very particular politics or goals (e.g., the inclusion of homosexuals within particular social orders), queer theory to some degree is always troubling categories and meanings before they begin to solidify.

As a result, a queer take on reconceptualization has to queer “reconceptualization” itself, understanding that the reconceptualization is a temporary alignment to solve a particular problem while simultaneously acknowledging that this temporary solution conflicts with other shared political goals and all the while knowing that the new conceptualization itself must be destabilized. Hence, when Jeff Bennett (2006a) recently critiqued two television shows—Boy Meets Boy and Playing It Straight—in his “In Defense of Gaydar” essay, he is critical of the way in which “gaydar” was ultimately shown to work on the show, unearthing the “true” queers. In place of the reading provided by the show, Bennett offers us the opportunity to confuse the sexuality of the characters on the show, hoping to undermine—without allowing a stopping point—the sexual and gender “boxes” of these characters.

A better example in terms of its effect on the reader may be Charles Morris’s (2002) “Pink Herring and the Fourth Persona,” a reading of the discourse surrounding J. Edgar Hoover and the way in which Hoover behaved publicly. Drawing on relatively recent claims that Hoover was a closeted gay man with a lifelong partner, Morris traces out the public actions taken by Hoover to close down the ways he was “publicly read” throughout his lifetime. Moreover, Morris illustrates the ways in which other biographers have argued over the meaning of Hoover’s sexuality—some refusing to consider him as homosexual, others opening the door to more fluid interpretations. However, by refusing to take a particular stance on Hoover’s sexuality, but instead illustrating discursive maneuvers to stabilize it, Morris ultimately leaves the reader with a stable understanding of how culture attempts to stabilize sexuality but an unstable understanding of sexuality itself.

While I see Morris’s entire Queering Public Address volume (2007) as a project intended to destabilize both the ways in which public address scholarship is carried out, as well as the categories we inherit from history, my chapter in that volume provides another example. In “Lucy Lobdell’s Queer Circumstances” (Sloop, 2007), I investigate the case of the first person to be named a “lesbian” in psychiatric discourse. By drawing on Lobdell’s case history, medical/psychiatric claims about her, and more contemporary readings of Lobdell, I strive to illustrate the ways in which Lobdell’s attempts to “live as a man” were ultimately read through a semiotic lens that could only read her as “homosexual.” By then employing language from queer and transgendered scholarship, I offer other ways in which Lobdell could be read and categorized now. The purpose in such an offering is not to come to a “final” conclusion about Lobdell’s identity but instead to point out the ways in which such an identity—in Lobdell’s lifetime and in the course of subsequent history—is always stabilized by existing discursive frames. A result of reading the chapter, it is hoped, is to recognize these constraints and to rethink the categories of the present based on a destabilizing of the past.

Ultimately, then, while it might be difficult to point to a unified project around which there is one ending point or goal, we can understand that current queer scholarship in communication studies has a task of revealing the fluidity of what seemed to be stable ideas and categories. Moreover, and as I pointed out in the section on representation, as such scholarship progresses, individual scholars are tying the queer project on sexuality into queer projects concerning media theory, political economy, neoliberalism, and so forth. Importantly, however, queer studies, especially in communication studies, have been very slow to take on questions of transglobalism or intersections with race. While there are a couple of remarkable explorations in the area of race and queerness—I would point to E. Patrick Johnson’s (2003)Appropriating Blackness and Jennifer Brody’s (2003) “Queering Racial Reproduction,” for the most part, this remains an area that demands more focus. While opening attempts at transglobal queer studies have been made outside communication studies—Dennis Altman’s (2001) Global Sex is a good example, searches in our journals come up fairly empty. Seeing repeated calls for such work without a response should give us all cause for reflection.


Like the public arguments that parallel queer scholarship, the work in this area went from an era of relatively rare publications, most of which had an observational or “objective” tone, to a proliferation of work, much of it with a personal and political tone. Relatedly, the three themes I point to in this chapter—recovery, representation, and reconceptualization—have each seen strong growth in terms of the quantity, if not quality, of publication. Finally, one of the most exciting aspects of this area of work is that it is persistently reflexive about its own assumptions, its own project. As a result, the field of communication can expect to continue to see strong and complicated offerings in queer scholarship in the years to come.