Queer theory, meaning in this context the interpretation of a text through a ‘queer’ lens, is widely misunderstood and even maligned in many circles. It’s derided as pointless, offensive, indecent, slanderous, and egotistical. The general misconceptions of queer theory can be sorted into three assumptions:
-Queer theory asserts that a text factually and intentionally contains homoerotic content.
-Queer theory asserts that an individual character is purposely constructed as anything other than straight.
-Queer theory asserts and seeks to prove that a creator themself is homosexual.
While these are arguments people make, queer theory is a broader concept than arguing factual queerness. Accepting that begins with understanding interpretation in the first place, and that interpretation isn’t necessarily concerned with finding the One Single Secret Truth in a text. You can say, “There’s something gay about that,” but it’s harder (and not necessary, usually) to conclude that something’s intentionally gay.
One must also accept that authorial intent is not absolute, and that we can’t always control how much of ourselves drips onto the page while we’re fevered with the work. Art would be way less interesting if we could. Consider: A story in which we all live in an existence constructed by an exploitative outside force, wherein a select few with some creeping half-awareness of the falsehood can choose between willful ignorance and something close to easy contentment or a life that is harsher and more dangerous but ultimately fuller, is an extremely queer idea.
This example highlights the core difference in how queer theory is perceived (as arguing that something is an intentional effort by the shadowy Gay Agenda) and how it actually operates. Because queer theory isn’t always about sex; it isn’t even always about how characters interact. It can be, that’s a valid way to interpret a text or portions thereof, but the net’s wider than that. Instead of being specifically about sex or interactions between characters, queer theory is more generally about strangeness and about how elements in a text might read to someone who is privately strange themself. If you’re straight, cisgendered, and gender-conforming, The Matrix is this weird abstract technodystopia, an outlet for feeling smart and special in power fantasies at its most resonant. If you’re… anything else, it’s a caricature of how the world actually is.
Queer theory is, at its most basic, concerned with strangeness and deviation. This strangeness can be as literal as homoerotic character interaction or non-standard gender performance, or as figurative as a character’s parents locking them in a closet for years and years to repress some supernatural thing about them that can’t be easily understood. It’s about sympathy for characters who are separate – either physically or philosophically – from a world and a way of life that are ostensibly mundane and ideal, and the sympathy part is key. Magic users like Harry Potter and Elsa may be maligned and set apart from larger mundane societies, diasporas like Zion may be grimy and secretive and fraught with strife, but a narrative we’re inclined to call queer will elevate these strange things above the status quo. They cast our Normal as either no more normal than the queer or as substantially more nonsensical. If it does anything else, it’s a conventional story. and we really are stuck talking mostly about how much characters of the same gender touch each other. The Lord of the Rings is a conventional story that treats deviation and others as a serious problem, home and hearth and family as practically sacred, so one naturally focuses on how this one time a woman dresses up like a man and two dudes establish a lifelong friendship at the very end. That doesn’t make it a bad story, it just makes it a challenge for this kind of criticism.
It also explains, maybe, why it and a lot of similar stories didn’t resonate with me when I read them as a kid. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy them, but there was just Something about other stories that I couldn’t put into words until college introduced me to queer theory. There’s Something about the world being fundamentally false and you realizing and action on that realization entailing grave consequences. There’s Something about how these two interact. There’s Something. There’s just Something.
That’s what queer theory is, at its most inclusive: A study of Somethingness.