Queer theory has gone mainstream. Its tenets pervade media, entertainment, the corporate world, even medicine. History is being rewritten with gender-bending labels of recent invention: Joan of Arc is non-binary now, so is Queen Elizabeth I, and the Renaissance artist Donatello is queer. Queer theory may have begun as a countercultural sensibility, but its recent embrace by the establishment is no accident: It has proved an ideal legitimating ideology for a political economy defined by the fluidity of capital.

Some on the right regard the mainstreaming of queer theory as the product of some “postmodern neo-Marxist” conspiracy to undermine stable notions of truth and knowledge. The problem with this is that so-called postmodernists were for the most part attempting to characterize evolving social conditions resulting from economic and technological shifts, rather than to endorse these developments. But it’s also true that queer theorists tacitly adapted such observations into prescriptions and argued it was liberatory to deconstruct normative sex and gender.

Judith Butler, perhaps the most influential queer theorist, popularized the notion that sexuality and gender are performative. In other words, they derive neither from biology nor any inner essence, but from constant articulation in gesture, self-presentation, and language. Gender, in this account, is not given, but made and remade through performance of normative roles. By the same means, it can be subverted—in practices like drag, the analysis of which took up the most famous sections of Butler’s canonical Gender Trouble (1990).

In championing such ideas, queer theorists present themselves as a revolutionary vanguard taking on an oppressive status quo. David Halperin, another influential figure in the field, has defined “queer” as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” By the same logic, some trendy definitions hold that the category includes de facto heterosexuals who simply “feel” queer. Queer has thus become a generic term of approbation for whatever is regarded as subversive of the status quo—even as, paradoxically, queer-theory dogma becomes more entrenched in the mainstream.

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