I propose that we understand “queer” as an analytic keyword whose adjectival (as in queer theory), noun (as in persons who identify as queers), and verbal (as in to queer the West) forms are all integral to the past, present, and future of western American cultural production and scholarship. I propose this understanding not in an imperialistic or totalizing spirit but in the denaturalizing spirit—the thinking otherwise approach—that informs the theoretical and political promise of queer thought within and beyond western American literary and cultural studies. This notion of “thinking otherwise” has its roots in poststructuralist approaches to language, history, and knowledge, such as Derridean deconstruction and Foucauldian genealogy. To engage in queer thought is to examine, destabilize, and undo the (binary) categories through which we experience and know our own and others’ sex, sexuality, and gender. When queer studies scholars think otherwise, we engage in projects that imagine new modes of identity and sociality, family and futurity. What we imagine are new worlds.
The terms “queer” and “queer theory” are notoriously slippery, and purposefully so. As poststructuralist formations, they are not really terms within a politics of identity; rather, they partake of a politics of difference and relationality, as queer theorist Annamarie Jagose has demonstrated. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of the many diverse academic mobilizations of the terms “queer” and “queer theory”—whether antisocial or utopian, Foucauldian, Marxian, or psychoanalytic—has been a structuring binary of queer versus normative. In place of falsely stable and often exclusionary unities such as gay and straight people or gay and straight culture, “queer” names those bodies and practices [End Page 63] that stand askew of what “normal” folks look like and do. Queer theory and politics develop around sexuality and gender, but they are concerned as well with all those aspects of individual and social life on which gender and sexual norms exert an informing, often coercive influence. Queer theorists Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson recently have suggested that this emphasis on opposition to the “normal” threatens to create (perhaps already has created) a new and equally false unity out of the heterogeneity of “normal” people and practices. Despite this emerging limit, the wide-ranging critical and epistemological implications of queer theory’s politics of difference and relationality allow us to (re)read western American cultures and scholarship as particularly productive sites of queerness.
To apprehend sufficiently the queerness of the North American West, we need to begin with the Indigenous peoples and practices rendered queer by their difference from Anglo-American social and political norms. As queer Indigenous studies scholar Mark Rifkin has argued, Indigenous kinship formations eccentric to Anglo-American social and political forms provided a pretext for the dispossession of native peoples, who were portrayed “as primitively perverse, as needing to be trained in the ostensibly natural kinds of privatized intimacy organizing bourgeois family life” (When 34). In Rifkin’s hands, queer theory and the category of sexuality provide a powerful major framework for a critique of US settler colonialism. Moreover, as Lisa Tatonetti points to in her piece in this volume, other forms of Indigenous queerness, such as the female warrior masculinity of the Dakota woman Tusee in Zitkala-Ša’s short story “A Warrior’s Daughter,” can be productive and protective for the family and the tribe. This is not to say that a character like Tusee or many of the Indigenous individuals and collectivities that Rifkin treats in his study would have self-identified as queer. Rather, the point of Rifkin’s approach to Indigenous kinship, and of Tatonetti’s reading of Tusee, is to recognize the central and labile place of queer sexualities and queer genders in the histories and cultures of the North American West. It is to think relationally about the space and the people who inhabit it. For the West is not intrinsically or essentially queer, though it is home to many people, Indigenous [End Page 64] and non-Indigenous, who identify themselves as queer. Rather, the West is queer in relation to the various and heterogeneous normativities—the “normal” people and practices—that are constituted and reproduced every day.
Anglo-American cultures of...