Scott Gunther: "Alors, are we 'queer' yet?"

Reprinted with permission from The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, May-June 2005 v12 i3 p23(3)

Alors, are we 'queer' yet? by Scott Gunther

[click here to visit Scott Gunther's website]

[click here to send Scott Gunther an email]

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gay & Lesbian Review, Inc.

IN JUNE 1997, the Centre Pompidou hosted the first conference on queer theory in France. When the presentations were done and the discussion was opened to the floor, I was surprised by the hostile tone of many of the questions and reactions from the audience. The hostility manifested itself in different forms, from the ugliness of the word "queer" and its strange pronunciation in French, to the inappropriateness of these American ideas within the French social model.

This article examines the difficulties associated with a linguistic and cultural translation of the American term "queer" into the context of contemporary France. The first difficulty for such a translation is how to stabilize the term's shifting meaning in the American context. The American debates over the meaning of "queer" are frequent and sometimes ferocious, but there is some common ground for its use: it refers to a flexible identity that's constantly in motion, constantly becoming, constantly transgressing. The question then becomes, how do we go about fixing the meaning of a term that challenges the fixity of meaning itself? It is possible to isolate at least two defining characteristics in the use of the term "queer" in the common ground of American debates.

First, to be "queer" is to be against assimilationism. In the early days of the American GLBT movement, the term "queer" explicitly asserted, in the words of Joshua Gamson (1998), an "in-your-face difference with an edge of defiant separatism: 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it,' [went] the chant. We are different, that is, free from convention, odd and out there and proud of it." In recent years, however, anti-assimilationism has become so self-evident to groups such as Queer Nation that it is perhaps no longer necessary to state it explicitly in contemporary assertions of the meaning of "queer." With time, the use of "queer" has moved beyond simple anti-assimilationism toward a more destabilizing rebellion against the formation of identities around fixed poles of gender or sexuality. This call to arms against fixed, binary identities is the second prong of my working definition.

Contemporary American queers claim to have opened a new theoretical space: a space in which desire, the body, and sexuality have become primary. In this new space, desire is not only considered primary, but autonomous. As an autonomous force, desire cannot be understood as socially or historically determined. For American queers, the goal is to defy the social and historical construction of categories of sexuality and gender, and in particular the fixed identities of straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual, because any construction of identity only serves to restrict the autonomous expression or performance of desire. This act of defiance presupposes the existence of sexual identities. To defy the limits of straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual identities, the identities must be understood to exist. This notion poses particular problems when translated into a French context, since the a priori existence of sexual categories in France is far from axiomatic.

The initial resistance encountered by American queer theorists in France was due in part to the French social model of universalism. Under this model, the opportunity to be socially integrated exists in principle for anyone willing to accept the constraints of assimilation, and as a result tolerance of difference is not what's called for. For a group to be separated from society according to race or sexual orientation would not be construed as a desirable outcome, standing in direct opposition to the goals of universalism and social integration. Thus, anything perceived as stemming from American-style identity politics is often met with a high level of skepticism by French GLBT groups. The French sociologist Frederic Martel (1999) warns, for example, that French gay activists "who attempt to imitate the American model, unless they are prepared to completely dismantle the French model of integrating individuals, need to realize that such surgical operations could prove perilous in a country where no tradition of communitarianism exists, at least not yet."

Despite such warnings, it remains unclear to what degree French gays and lesbians have been "Americanized." In his analysis of the supposed "Americanization" of French gay and lesbian movements, social anthropologist William Poulin-Deltour (2004) explains that, "while there may be agreement that American forms, such as 'community centers,' have crossed the Atlantic, the content or filling of these forms varies widely between French and American contexts." He adds that changes associated with the American model "do not simply sweep away French social and cultural characteristics. Rather, they are appropriated, structured and deployed in relation to those characteristics, thereby reproducing national differences between France and the United States."

Since the original conference at the Centre Pompidou, some French theorists have taken a new and hesitant look at queer theory, and in recent years there has developed a small but vocal queer movement "made in France." Since 1997, an organization calling itself Le Zoo has organized a series of seminars to address the question of how one might go about importing American queer theory into the French context. In 1998, they published a collection of articles on this question in a book entitled Q comme Queer. In the preface, Catherine Deschamps, a founding member of Le Zoo, provides a possible definition of "queer" for a French audience:

  Queer is non-assimilationist and non-essentialist. There, that's all I
  have to say. We don't feel like making some kind of pedagogical
  spectacle on what queer is anyway--to understand what queer is in the
  United States would lead us into a long debate. As for what it could
  be in France ... we have quite a bit to say. Mostly because the French
  social and historical context is different from the American context
  and in France, the notion of queer collides with the sacrosanct
  principle of integration a la francaise.

Already we see here a desire to liberate the French use of "queer" from the American usage, and an attempt to start breaking down the particular limitations of French assimilationism. The point is not to defy pre-existing identities but to establish a distinct new identity, one that's constructed in opposition to French bourgeois heteronormativity. As explained by self-proclaimed French queer activist Marie-Helene Bourcier (1998): "Our presuppositions are the opposite of those of the assimilationists: we are different and our difference allows us to resist discourse, practices and laws which do not want us to be different. We are different and we want to live differently and thereby invent new social and cultural forms."

Here we see the primacy of anti-assimilationism in this French understanding of "queer," one that seems to recognize the impossibility of a direct importation of American queer theory and its calls for the blurring of categories of identity. Bourcier's concluding remarks in Q comme Queer bring this out clearly: "In the United States, it is the movement resolutely based on a gay identity which has led to excluding marks of difference. And one of the reasons for the existence of queer over there is to undo these identities which threaten to become natural. In France, however, the idea of 'queer' can first serve to build up an identity in the classic sense."

Since the publication of Q comme Queer in 1998, queer theory has received increased attention in France, and the understanding of queer theory has gone beyond mere anti-assimilationism to include the defiance of binary categories of identity. In 2003 Rue Descartes published a volume, Queer: repenser les identites, that made it clear that a lot had changed in France since 1998. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that a number of English-language books, including works by David Halperin, Jonathan Katz, Vernon Rosario, and Leo Bersani, have recently been translated into French. (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble are to be translated soon.) Still, the contributors to Queer: repenser les identites continued to find a number of problems with American-style queer theory.

The most important criticisms of queer theory stem from the very fact that it originated in the U.S. Resistance to "queer" represents for some a resistance to American imperialism. Contributors Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki (2003) explain that

  the transplantation goes in the classical direction of American
  cultural hegemony toward countries subjected to this hegemony. And
  once you take into consideration the weight associated with the United
  States as a colonizer of the world, economically and especially
  culturally, you immediately find yourself before a paradox: a notion
  like queer which erupted from vehement socio-political struggles, and
  which thus opposes American dominance, risks being assimilated into
  the politics of American cultural exportation. For it is well known
  that the United States exports its dominant culture with as much ardor
  as it exports its subcultures.

Another problem is that the English word "queer" has no history in France: Can it mean the same thing if it only exists as a translation? Klonaris and Thomadaki explain that "One cannot take on this emerging thought without knowing what preceded it, what it is in dialogue with, and what new things it proposes. In order to discuss queer theory, it's first necessary to construct an infrastructure." They argue that it's necessary to invent another French word for these ideas, "a word that the [local] homosexual community has already suffered from. Once it's transplanted, the status of the word changes. Its ability to strike hard, to effect change, is lost in the [trans-Atlantic] journey." The risk is that "queer" could become an "empty-signifier" in France, leaving its definition open to anyone and allowing its meaning to be distorted for almost any strategic purpose. Some have argued that this has happened in France with interpretations of Foucault, whose writings have been used in a variety of strange ways, including as justification for gay people to live "with discretion." As Klonaris and Thomadaki point out, "If we don't problematize this transplantation, queer [terminology] runs this risk of carrying some 'snob value' or at best of being part of a 'cult theory' more than that of a catalyzing political idea." In other words, with the importing of foreign terms, there's a risk of creating a special clique of people who are "in the know" and can throw around terms like "performatif" and other terms of art. Such a use of queer theory obviously runs counter to its original political intent.

Some French defenders of queer theory have avoided the issue of American cultural imperialism by arguing that even if the ideas originated in the U.S., the concepts themselves are essentially anti-American. Philosopher Beatriz Preciado (2003) argues that national borders no longer matter for queer theory. It benefits from globalization and is a form of cultural production that defies national or linguistic borders. She suggests that it's a mistake to call it an American movement, since it is fundamentally a critique of U.S. imperialism. "Queer theory provokes an incessant transgression (in the geographic sense of the term) of borders, which is not irrelevant at a time when we're witnessing the decomposition of traditional nation states and an outbreak of nationalist politics. This crisis of the national body is mirrored by the crisis of the modern sexual body." She argues that globalization is in fact a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it means the decline of nation states' sovereignty, but it also allows for the emergence of transnational social movements--such as ACT-UP, Amnesty International, Queer Watch, and Queers for Racial and Economic Justice--as political actors, groups that unite ethnic and sexual minorities and give them a voice.

Perhaps paradoxically, another type of criticism of queer theory is not that it is American, but that it is French. This critique argues that there's nothing original or radical about queer theory, which is a mere outgrowth of 1970's French thought, and a watered-down version of French thinkers like Foucault, at that. Queer theory is seen as a pale imitation of these theorists, lacking their rigor and subtlety. Still others have argued that there are more important things to think about than gender and sexuality, such as the spread of free market globalization and the rise of nationalism in Europe.

Let me end by offering the possibility that France is already "queer" in some, perhaps unintentional way. In the words of porn director Bruce LaBruce, "France seems particularly queer to me. France has always had a certain je ne sais quoi that announces to the rest of the world that it is queer. It's something they all share, a meticulous attention to detail, an appreciation of the better things in life." It is perhaps a bit of a caricature, but the French are often thought of in the following queer ways: as people who recognize the primacy of desire and pleasure; who are reluctant to build social identities around sexual practices; who value the absurd, the irrational, the superficial, and the frivolous--in short, a culture that understands and appreciates the performative aspects of social behavior.


Bourcier, Mari-Helene. "Le 'nous' du zoo," in Q comme Queer. Cahiers Gai Kitsch Camp, 1998.

Deschamps, Catherine. "Intro-mission," in Q comme Queer. Cahiers Gai Kitsch Camp, 1998.

Gamson, Joshua. "Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma," in Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies. Routledge, 1998.

LaBruce, Bruce, "La France: un je ne sais quoi deja queer," in Queer: repenser les identites. Presses Universitaires de France, 2003.

Marie, Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki. "Filmer les identities sexuelles comme une complexite en mouvement," in Queer: repenser les identites. Presses Universitaires de France, 2003.

Martel, Frederic. The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968. Stanford U. Press, 1999.

Poulin-Deltour, William J. "French Gay Activism and the American Referent in Contemporary France," in The French Review, October 2004 (78.1).

Preciado, Beatriz. "Il faut queeriser l'universite," in Queer: repenser les identites. Presses Universitaires de France, 2003.

Scott Gunther is assistant professor of French at Wellesley College.