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Positions for Classicists,
Why Should Feminist Classicists Care about Queer Theory? *

Kirk Ormand

Gayle Rubin in 1975:
"The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is therefore a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women."-- "Traffic in Women" p. 180

Gayle Rubin in 1984:
"Feminism is the theory of gender oppression. To assume automatically that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other."-- "Thinking Sex" p.32

What is the relationship between queer theory and feminism? Despite the clear demarcation that Rubin made in 1984, that relation is a complex one. I think it is clear that queer theory derives several key concepts from feminism. To start, the hallmark of this recent development in Lesbian and Gay studies is, of course, the concept of the "queer," which is generally taken to be a relational and reactive subjectivity: so, for example, Alexander Doty defines queerness as "a quality related to any expression that can be marked as contra-, non-, or anti-straight" (Doty 1993, p. xv; Cited by Walters 1996, p. 835). We are not far, here, from the definition of women developed by Kristeva more than twenty years ago: "If women have a role to play. . .it is only in assuming a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning, in the existing state of society."[1] Both women and queers, it seems, can be said to posses "identities without essences."[2]

These similarities between the theories are made deeper by the fact that, as Rubin and Sedgwick recognize, sexuality and gender are mutually implicated discourses, even, or perhaps especially, in their most punitive modes. That is, gay men are often understood as "feminine" even if they're butch as hell, and women can be assumed to be "lesbians" if they resist any aspect of patriarchal structure -- say, being raped. Studies of these institutions, then, are necessarily congruent, and they share a number of affinities. Nonetheless, feminists and queer theorists often find themselves at odds, concerned about appropriation and colonization: specifically, queer theory looks and acts a lot like feminist theory only, as some critics would have it, with the focus shifted once again to (usually white, upper class) men (who happen to be gay). Today I want to explore some of the areas of conflict and overlap between these two theories before turning to problems of their use in analyzing ancient texts.

Let's start with queer theory: it seems to me that queer theory has developed one unique move, that of "queering" a text. In the act of queering , the critic typically takes a revered work in the Western tradition--say, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"--and proceeds to demonstrate the function of male (or, more rarely, female) homoerotic desire in the text.[3] I say that this move is unique to queer theory, because although feminists have always resisted the patriarchy in texts, they have not, so far as I can see, "feminized" texts (which would be the analogue to queering). Nobody seems anxious, for example, to suggest that Hemingway's novels actually depict not only a feminine but even a feminist sensibility.

I take the motivation of queering a text to be homologous to the more direct political action of "outing" a celebrity: the point is to show folks in the mainstream that their icons are not as straight as we thought they were. Queering a text, particularly a pre-modern text, however, depends on a particular action that is missing from "outing." Queer theorists are, so far as I can tell, confirmed constructionists. With Foucault, they argue (rightly, in my opinion) not only that sexual orientation is a product of social construction, but that the notion of sexuality itself -- the idea that the world is divided between homo- and heterosexual, and that this is set up specifically as a discourse of knowledge and a social identity, rather than a set of practices -- is a product of the modern age. As Rubin puts it, writing about a Victorian earl: "The earl did not slip into his tightest doublet and waltz down to the nearest gay tavern to mingle with his fellow sodomists. He stayed in his manor house and buggered his servants" (Rubin 1993, p. 17). At the same time, the effect of queering a text like Sir Gawain clearly stems from a residue which that critical action sets up. As constructionists we insist that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are not gay, that in fact that word has no meaning in relation to them; but at the same time, we detail their homoerotic behavior because it makes them look gay. By this action we unsettle the normativity of the Western Canon, we force the canon-makers to accept something "queer" in their (our) institutions and themselves.[4]

Such readings have given rise to serious problems for feminist scholars. In part this is because the shift from gender to sexuality has sometimes been presented as a narrative of critical progress rather than of critical difference: feminism was fine as far as it went, but it remained for Foucault to tell us what was really going on (e.g., Walters 1996, p. 844; Skinner 1996). Of equal importance, the term "queer," though notionally gender-neutral, has usually been applied to gay men, as indeed the whole field seems fascinated with men's "queering" of gender: the fascination with (usually male) cross-dressing, the delineation of male homosocial behaviors, the careful historicization of male sexuality and power, articles about male lesbians, and the like. (The example I chose above, of Sir Gawain, stems from a brilliant article on male-male relations in that work by Carolyn Dinshaw.) Queer theory, as often as not, reduces gender to the status of a trope to be transgressed by daring gay men; as such, it both ignores lesbians, and places lesbians as women under ellipsis (Walters 1996, pp. 843, 854, and throughout). In part, as I hope to show, this is an effect of the implicit relations of gender that are invoked in "queering" a text.

In other words, the old hierarchies of gender continue to rule literary interpretations, even queer ones, just as they do subjects of various sexualities. It is important for us, as feminists, to remember that lesbians are often seen first by society as women. That means that a lesbian might not have a chance to lose a job because she's gay; she might not get it in the first place because she's female. It also means that the relation between lesbians' sexuality and their gender is different from that of gay men. Gay men are encouraged to conform to the image of a straight man, a position of relative power. Lesbians are encouraged to become straight women, a position of relative oppression (Rich 1993, p. 235). So, as Walters argues, it can never be the same for a woman to cross dress as for a man; and queer theory, with it's celebration of "camp" needs to keep these sobering thoughts in mind (Walters 1996, p. 854).

At the same time, as Teresa de Lauretis has argued, feminist theory needs queer theory (among other theories) because feminism came into its own in a post colonial mode (De Lauretis 1990, pp. 131ff.) The study of gender-based oppression became most effective when white, upper-class feminists (to say nothing of boys like me) were forced to recognize that gender is mutually implicated in other discourses, most notably race. That is, African-American women do not experience sexism in the same way that white women do, any more than they experience racism in the same way that African-American men do. The same can be said for sexuality: lesbians experience sexism differently than do straight women. That difference is the basis for their alliances with gay men, particularly in the era of AIDS and AIDS related phobia, and as feminists we need to remember and articulate that difference.

Second, it is important to recognize with Rubin and Sedgwick that discrimination based on sexuality is not the same as discrimination based on gender, and that a strictly gender-based model can, in fact result in sexuality-based oppression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Walters' article, "From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace." Though Walters has a good deal useful to say about the dangers of queer theory, its masculine aspect, and especially its emphasis on camp, when it comes to sexual matters she reveals herself to be quite close to the "lesbian sex police" whose existence she denies throughout. She flatly labels butch-femme relationships "counterproductive and reductive," refers to sexual practices different from her own as "hobbies" that are insufficient to create a real theory (Walters 1996, p. 858-9); she is unsure whether drag, cross-dressing, or S/M can be said to have a collective identity (Walters 1996, p. 857); she finds the young lesbian persona, complete with lipstick and Doc Martens, "superficial" (Walters 1996, p. 860). In other words, there's one right way to be a lesbian, and it's the 70's feminist way. But as Rubin points out, such analysis fails to recognize the panic with which our society -- right wing and left, feminists and Rush Limbaugh -- oppress different sexualities. As Rubin states: "The only adult sexual behavior that is legal in every state is the placement of the penis in the vagina in wedlock" (Rubin 1993, p. 20). Our society is extremely oppressive in this regard; while I hesitate to speculate about all of your sexual practices, I can state with some certainty that there is at least one unconvicted sex criminal in the room this afternoon.

Critiquing the "lipstick dykes" of the 90's as anti-feminist also fails to take into account the idea of sexuality as a different axis of power. Ru Paul, perhaps the late 90's queer icon par excellence, was recently quoted as saying that he does not dress like a woman; his clothes are much too tight, and women don't dress like that.[5] Drag queens, it turns out, dress like drag queens. Similarly, as Sue-Ellen Case has intelligently argued, butch-femme relationships do not reproduce patriarchy: they may stem from a parody of traditional gender relations, but their emphasis is on producing a particular queer relation of power which one does not find in vanilla heterosexuality. (See now the movie Bound for a careful distinction between relations of gender and relations of sexuality.) So queer theory is not just another way to trash feminism, and indeed, feminists do need to recognize the "queer" axis of power.

Where does all this leave us in terms of interpretation, and in our position as classicists? Let me posit two axioms, a la Sedgwick, before turning to an ancient text.

Axiom one: When we separate feminism from lesbian identity, we cannot take ancient lesbian sexuality for granted.

In part because 70's lesbian feminism looked back to Sappho as a foremother, I think we have been careless, at times, about the historical construction of lesbian sexuality. That is, whereas ancient male sexuality has been carefully and even lovingly articulated, the assumption seems to be that Sappho's subjective experience is immediately understandable to us, and in fact, that she would have fit right in at Dartmouth in the 70's. (I say this despite recent excellent articles by Marylin Skinner, Ellen Greene, Holt Parker, and Eva Stehle, among others, who have been careful to delineate exactly how Sappho writes of her sexuality. I also note that Page DuBois deals with this in her new book, Sappho is Burning.)[6]

The historical differences between us and Sappho cannot be overlooked. It seems to be accepted on both sides of the "sexuality wars" that ancient sexual practice was divided not according to object-choice, but to according to the role one played (active or passive) in the sexual act. (Ironically, even the sharpest of David Halperin's critics, Amy Richlin, confirms this generalization as true for Rome as well as Greece in her article "Not Before Homosexuality.") Given that system of sexual behavior, what does it mean when we speak of ancient female "sexuality"? It seems to me that women in ancient Greece and Rome are relentlessly characterized as "passive" in sex -- they are the term by which ancient men defined passivity. What subjectivity can they adopt that will put them on the opposite end of the axis? In other words, the matrix of gender is so persuasive, so overarching in ancient Greece and Rome that it supersedes any notional concept of "sexuality" that we might try to see in ancient women, particularly when dealing with male-authored texts. Thus, the situation I described earlier obtains even more fully in regard to ancient women: we may try to find lesbians, but they will be first and foremost women, and subjected to patriarchal control on those grounds.

Axiom two: There are modern reasons for "queering" ancient masculinity that are currently lacking for ancient femininity.

As I think most of us would agree, we read the ancient world in particular ways in part to shape our own political present. As such, I believe that there is an immediate political value in reading Heracles, say, or Achilles as queer. We out them when we do that. We reduce their power within the traditional patriarchy by making them seem gay, even if, as constructionists, we are careful to explain that their cross-dressing, their love-relations with other males, are gendered sexual behaviors but not sexualities. By contrast, there seems little point in suggesting, say, that Deianeira might have had a sexual relationship with her female servant in Sophocles' Trachiniae. I say this not because I think it's not true -- I'm rather interested in the possibility, actually -- but because Deianeira, as a woman, is already in a position of relative powerlessness. By queering her, what rearrangement of current politics do I achieve? William Bennet doesn't care about her anyway. I offer this as a partial explanation for why, to date, most study of ancient sexuality has been on men rather than women.

Let me close with a specific example from a Roman male author, one which presents nicely the difficulty of trying to read ancient female sexuality. You have on your handouts the story of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Iphis, we learn, was born a girl, but raised secretly as a boy. Having grown up with Ianthe, the time came when the two were (naturally) in love, and to be married -- an apparently insurmountable problem, at least as Iphis' rather extreme soliloquy in lines 726-763 has it. Miraculously, Isis steps in at the last minute, changes Iphis to a man, and the two are (happily?) married.

Now, on the one hand, this is a terrific story for demonstrating how gender is constructed in ancient Rome. For as Iphis becomes a man, we see the various cultural signs of masculinity come over her: her step grows longer, her color darker, her hair shorter, her voice deeper, and her strength greater (lines 786-790). As such, the story neatly encapsulates not only the supposedly natural difference between men and women, but also the changes that boys must go through as they become men. It articulates exactly the gender system in ancient Rome, and as such lends itself to feminist critique.

Is it also a story about sexuality? John Makowski has recently taken it this way, and argued that through this story Ovid demonstrates his homophobia, which Makowski then sees emphasized in the story of Orpheus that immediately follows (Makowski 1996, pp. 30-32). On the face of it this seems unlikely; given the system of gender in ancient Rome I do not think that such an easy correspondence would be drawn between male-male and female-female relations. In fact, in arguing that Ovid is "homophobic," Makowski relies on Ars Amatoria 2.683-84, in which the poet states that he does not care for love with boys, because both partners are not satisfied. The relationship lacks a symmetry of sexual pleasure. But, as we will see in a moment, it is exactly such a symmetry of pleasure that marks the relationship Iphis and Ianthe while they are still both women.

Can we read the story, then, as about sexuality without seeing it as "homophobic?" A student of mine reading in a lesbian-feminist vein once suggested that the story was really rather sad; here we had this nice lesbian relationship -- characterized by mutuality and equality -- that gets ruptured by the intrusion of masculine difference. We can find support for this latter reading: in lines 718 and following, we see the kind of equality and mutuality of desire that we are accustomed to associate with lesbian relationships. Contrary to all Roman norms for marital relations of any stripe, it seems, the two are of the same age, have received the same instruction, and are smitten by the same love. It seems all too easy to conjoin Iphis and Ianthe with Thelma and Loiuse.

Are we talking about sexuality here, though? In Iphis' soliloquy, she paints a female-female relationship as totally impossible. She even goes so far as to say that Pasiphae stood a better chance of love -- she may have loved a bull, but at least it was a male bull (735-8). Now, Ovid knew about Sappho; he knew that two women could have fun in bed together. But that isn't what he's talking about here; he's talking about marriage, about Romance with a capital "R". And that is not a matter, it seems, of sexual object-choice, but of gender. Indeed, even before Iphis and Ianthe have obtained gender difference, their desires have. In lines 723 and following, Ianthe "loved one whom she thought to be a man, and believed would be her man/husband," while "Iphis loved one whom she knew she could not enjoy,/ and this fact increased her flames, and, a girl, she burned for a girl. . . ."In other words, Iphis finds her love for Ianthe increased by Ianthe's inaccessibility, a common trope of heteroerotic relations. More to the point, Ianthe loves Iphis as a man; her desire cannot be said to be homoerotic, let alone lesbian, at any point.

Nor, I think, do we gain much by "queering" this text, which we might hope to achieve by pointing to Iphis as a cross-dresser. Here, the story is that she completely succeeds in impersonating masculinity, until she no longer needs to do so. She is not dressing in drag in the modern sense; if she were, the idea would be to look like a woman dressed as a man. She does not transcend gender, she confirms it.

Once again, then, I think that the ancient gender system completely overrides any notion of sexuality in this passage, so much so that the passage vehemently denies the possibility of any alternative sexual arrangements. By this token, I think Makowski is mistaken to see this story as a critique of sexuality: the story does not present forbidden female desire so much as it presents the problem that neither of the lovers is a man; that, in the terms Halperin has outlined, there is nobody there to play the active role.[7] Iphis says this directly: "Why should you, Juno, why should you Wedding gods, come to this wedding, for which he who leads is lacking, and where both of us are to be lead?" (lines 762-3)

Well, I admit I find it depressing to have lost these two as lesbians. But I find that I do not know where else to go.

Still, difficult though it must be to uncover female-female relations in antiquity, I think it is imperative for us, as feminists and classicists, to continue to try. It remains an area of unarticulated female experience and subjectivity. At the same time, we need to recognize that in doing so, we are trying to shape our own present as much as our past, and as such, the barriers in our way will be organized around (at least) two axes of modern power. As always, we struggle with the difficulties inherent in studying women in a patriarchal culture, and having only male-produced texts for evidence. But we will also face impediments in the form of homophobia, in an unwillingness to recognize other sexualities in antiquity and in the modern world. These walls will surely be built by the camp (pun intended) of Jesse Helms; we do not need, as feminists, to add to them by reading ancient female sexuality only in the terms defined by the lesbian-feminism of the 70's and 80's, nor by denying -- a la Walters -- the legitimate political reality of alternative sexualities.[8]


S-E. Case, 1993. "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, D.M. Halperin. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 294-306.

T. de Lauretis, 1990. "Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness," Feminist Studies 12: 115-150.

A. Doty, 1993. Making things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press.

D. Halperin, 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford Press.
_______, 1990. One Hundred Years of Sexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge.

J. Makowski, 1996. "Bisexual Orpheus: Pederasty and Parody in Ovid," Classical Journal 92: 25-38.

A. Rich, 1993. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, D.M. Halperin. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 227-254. (First published in 1982.)

A. Richlin, 1993. "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men," Journal of the History of Sexuality 3: 523-73.

G. Rubin, 1993. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, D.M. Halperin. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 3-44. (First published 1984.)

________, 1975. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Towards an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, pp.157-210.

E. Sedgwick, 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

M. Skinner, 1996. "Zeus and Leda: The Sexuality Wars in Contemporary Classical Scholarship," Thamyris 3: 103-123.

S. D. Walters, 1996. "From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace (Or, Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Fag?)," Signs 21: 830 869.

M. Wittig, 1993. "One is Not Born a Woman," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, D.M. Halperin. New York: Routledge Press, pp. 103-109. (First published 1981.)


This paper was originally presented at a workshop (co-led by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz) on Queer Theory/Feminist Theory/Classics at the conference on "Feminism and the Classics: Setting the Research Agenda," Princeton, Nov. 7-9, 1996. I am much indebted to the conference organizers and participants for the opportunity to present this paper, and for their keen questions and insights. Special thanks go to Karen Bassi, Joy Connolly, and Yopie Prins for fruitful conversations after the workshop; they should not, of course, be held responsible for the errors and infelicities contained here. They did their best to keep me out of trouble.

[1] "Oscillation du 'pouvoir' au 'refus,'" Tel Quel 59 (1974). Translated in New French Feminisms, ed. E. Marks and I. de Courtivron. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press, 1980, pp. 166-167.

[2] I borrow the terminology and the concept from David Halperin.

[3] This is not the only way to queer a text, but it is a common one. See below for further discussion.

[4] At the conference Karen Bassi and Yopie Prins talked with me at some length on this point. Both felt (rightly) that I had over-simplified things in this formulation. The point of queering a text is not to make its characters look gay; the point is to make the text itself seem less normal, less normative, and less "straight" than it once did. The end product of such readings is to destabilize the canon itself, and so to render the literary landscape less rigidly constricting. One prominent mode of achieving this is to call into question the sexuality of a canonical text's characters, though there are other methods. I still think that the analogy of "outing" a celebrity is roughly correct, in that the point is to render less secure the subjectivity of those who have respected and idolized the celebrity/text in question. I am much indebted to Drs. Bassi and Prins, however, for their clarifying points on this subject. Once again, they should not be held responsible for my stubborn errors.

[5] I read this in a "daily quotes" column in the Chicago Tribune; I do not know its original source. Even if apocryphal, the point is correct.

At the conference, Shelley Halley asked me why I did not discuss the fact that Ru Paul is black. I cannot answer this question any more adequately here than I did there; any answer I might give as to causes of my omission would only serve to confirm my own racism, so I decline to enter into such a discussion. The point raised by the question, however, is worthwhile: part of Ru Paul's "drag" typically includes a blonde wig, so that he queers race as well as gender, in roughly analogous ways. This serves to demonstrate the versatility of drag, and of queering.

[6] The relevant references are: P. duBois, 1995. Sappho Is Burning, Chicago, esp. pp. 152-156: U. of Chicago Press; E. Greene, 1994. "Apostrophe and Women's Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho," TAPA 124: 41-56; H. Parker, 1993. "Sappho Schoolmistress," TAPA 123: 309-51; M. Skinner, 1993. "Woman and Language in Archaic Greece, or Why is Sappho a Woman?" in Feminist Theory and the Classics , eds. N. Sorkin Rabinowitz and A. Richlin. New York: Routledge; E. Stehle, 1981. "Sappho's Private World," in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. H. Foley. New York: Gordon & Break.

[7] See especially "The Democratic Body" in Halperin 1990.

[8] This paper fails in several important ways. Perhaps its most disturbing ellipsis is its total failure to discuss the way in which "queer theory," by adopting a more (deceptively) pluralizing stance than Lesbian and Gay Studies has allowed scholars (of whom many, like myself, are "straight" in every important social category) to talk about "queer" aspects of texts, modern society, etc., without ever discussing sex. That is, "queer" is a subjectivity without specific practice, and so, without risk; it imparts a hip cachet to its practitioners without necessarily doing anything for real oppressed minorities. As David Halperin has recently stated, "For example, the Modern Language Association last month in Chicago was full of straight boys giving papers about sodomy in the Renaissance. It was clearly the topic of the moment. . . . I think if we reduce [Lesbian and Gay Studies] to a series of critical commonplaces designed to tease out dimensions of homophobia from contemporary representations, or a series of routing gestures in the direction of psychoanalytic or deconstructive theory, we shall be the poorer for it." (Interview in Exegesis (1996) p. 13.) This is a grave problem, one which feminists should not overlook.