In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Queer Theory and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Landmark Theoretical Works
  • Reviews, Essays, Commentaries, and Elaborations
  • Journals
  • Early, Radical, and Proto-Queer Theory
  • Education and Schooling
  • Film and Television
  • Child as History and in History
  • Nation, Colony, and Citizenship
  • Clinical Controversies and Gender Normativity

Childhood Studies Queer Theory and Childhood
Diederik Janssen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0022


Emergent interfacing between queer studies and childhood studies has amounted to a playing field simultaneously scandalous and undeniably compelling. An early 1990s theoretical response to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and feminist politicizations of sexual and gender identity, queer theory loosely refers to criticism of normative, essentialist, and otherwise regulatory underpinnings of such formulations. Queer studies loosely refers to the consolidation of an academic commitment to the intellectual and ethical space opened up by engagement with queer theory. Stringent demarcations of queer studies within culture studies or within critical theory are unproductive, however: distinctions among LBGT liberalism, queer theory, recent calls for post-queer theory, and critical theory not specified as queer, centrally animate the ontologically delicate and tactically intricate rubric of “queer.” Childhood has been recognized as a crucial emblematic function in neoliberal sexual politics, and it has been duly regularized as a central queer concern: an arguable crucible or ground zero of all sexual politics. This especially pertains to the child’s implication in regimes of categorization that are to govern complex coordinations of subjectivity across class, race, gender, maturational, and sexual fault lines (coordinations often related to what anthropologists used to call the incest taboo). At the same time, the child may be considered to harbor potential for resilience in the face of these overarching forms of containment. Whether and how this potential may translate to children’s agency, or instead remain redemptive on a strictly intellectual level, is one of the cardinal questions posed in the works cited in this article. The specific imaginary of the “queer child” has benefited from a variable tutelage in the more expansive theoretical vistas of queer temporalities, queer pedagogy, and, to a lesser degree, queer kinship. Major questions revolve around the child’s legibility as a position within age-stratified socialities, particularly the family and (primary) school. The “queering” and “queerness” of the child are accordingly tied in with that of the family, adult, parent, teacher, and “pedophile.” The pertinence of queer theory to childhood studies, furthermore, opens out on the questioning of any instance of normalization pertaining to childhood—indeed, how the child is “queer” in a very generic sense—and of the instrumentality of the trope of the “normal” or “innocent” child across social, cultural, legal, and increasingly global domains. Most of queer theoretical commentary pertains to the 1990s and to the early-21st-century US or Anglophone West more broadly, but a recent and growing number of texts deal with broader postcolonial and “human rights” concerns (see Nation, Colony, and Citizenship). On the theme of the child, queer theory has been importantly prefaced by a small French forum working in the proximity of Foucault, as cited in Early, Radical, and Proto-Queer Theory. While queer theory is noted for unpacking rubrifications, for the purposes of this bibliography, “child” loosely coincides with the period before or early in “adolescence.” Theoretical commentary addressing adolescence and youth often readily allows extension to childhood studies, however.

Landmark Theoretical Works

Many authors in the prehistory and canon of queer theory (Guy Hocquenghem, Michel Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Michael Moon, Lee Edelman) have thematized the child, but they have focused quite variably on childhood’s figurative and generative properties across literary genres, on its implication in developmental theory, or on conditions for its agency. Sedgwick 1991, an essay titled “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” can be considered the starting point for the present bibliographic focus, while a later essay, Probyn 1995, already raised the stakes considerably. However, major literary historians and theorists of children’s culture, working collaterally on queer studies or anticipating its scene (Kincaid 1992 and Rose 1984, respectively), have offered arguments invaluable for later queer commentary and elaboration, and they are therefore included in this section. Queer theoretical engagement with psychoanalysis is a prominent controversy. Some Lacanian theorists argue that Freud 1975 (first published in 1905) provided the most important 20th-century manifesto against sexual normativity; others emphasize the partiality of psychoanalysis in normative bulwarks. In this light, queer theory is continuous with post-1968 critical work on Freud, especially early work by Deleuze and Guattari. Using a Lacanian framework, Edelman 2004 presents a radical thesis on the child as the cardinal figure of heteronormative and pronatalist sexual politics. It continues to divide authors over the quagmire of queer sociality, as well as over the implications for childhood. Foucault’s seminal introductory volume of History of Sexuality (Foucault 1978), together with mid-1970s lectures published much later, is of founding importance in centralizing the positions of child and “child-harming pervert” in the historical emergence of modern sexuality. Rose 1984 advances a now canonical critical focus on children’s literature as propelled by adult, rather than accounting for children’s, desire. Bruhm and Hurley 2004 has the distinction of bringing together diverse texts for the first time, and the editors’ introduction constitutes the important step of exploring the intersection from that new vantage point. Bond Stockton 2009 is arguably the most direct and extensive elaboration of the notion of “queer child.”

  • Bond Stockton, Kathryn. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

    Culminating from various previous publications, the author offers arguably the most encompassing theoretical elaboration of the queer-child nexus. Connects diverse topoi from race, Freud, and animals to pedophiles, through the formula of “growing sideways,” a horizontal growing “to the side of cultural ideals.” Primary texts are 20th-century US literature and film.

  • Bruhm, Steven, and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

    First and only reader on the figure of the child in queer theory, with editors’ eponymous introduction sketching the contours of this emergent thematic interfacing. The latter is recommended for introductory and exploratory reading.

  • Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822385981

    Already canonical Lacanian polemic against the social-familial order, pitting the child as “defining mark” of “reproductive futurism” against the “sinthomosexual” refusing that order. Sparked lively debate about queer presentism, antisociality, and archive choice, but largely excluded discussion of implications for classificatory children or minors. Incorporated as chapter 1 is the author’s key essay “The Future Is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive,” Narrative 6.1 (1998): 18–30.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

    Ur-text of critical sexuality studies, highlighting the centrality and coincidence of the “sexualization of children” and the “specification of the perverted” in the (familial and medical) deployment of modern sexuality. Includes critical notes on psychoanalytic, medical, and anthropological constructions of the child. Translated from the 1976 French edition.

  • Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. 4th ed. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

    Traces the origin of infantile sexuality to component instincts considered perverse because of seeking satisfaction independently of each other, thus defining a universal “polymorphously perverse disposition.” Queer commentary on Freud, whether or not via Lacan, is varied (compare especially Edelman 2004; Angelides 2004, cited under Abuse; and Bond Stockton 2009). Translated from German; first published in 1905.

  • Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

    Classical and far-ranging study of the twin fixture of “erotic child” and pedophile in Victorian and late-20th-century American culture. Traces the child as a Gothic figure of prelapsarian innocence, erotic precisely in its figural remoteness to the erotic. Also available as ACLS Humanities e-book.

  • Probyn, Elspeth. “Suspended Beginnings: Of Childhood and Nostalgia.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2.4 (1995): 439–465.

    DOI: 10.1215/10642684-2-4-439

    Early programmatic queer formulation of “gay and lesbian childhood as event: a tangled discursive skein, a multilevel production in which lines of truth, representation, history, science, and experience compete.” Suggests queer theorists may “remake childhood into evidence of the necessary absence of any primary ground in queer politics.” Incorporated as chapter 4 in author’s Outside Belongings (London: Routledge, 1996).

  • Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Language, Discourse, Society. London: Macmillan, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-17385-3

    Milestone psychoanalytic critique of children’s literature studies frequently mentioned in later queer contexts (e.g., Owen 2010 and Lesnik-Oberstein and Thomson 2002, both cited under Reviews, Essays, Commentaries, and Elaborations). Prefigured queer and other formulations of the child as adults’ (sexual) imaginary. Is appreciated in a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.3 (2010). Reprinted in 1992 by the University of Pennsylvania Press with a new introductory essay.

  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay.” Social Text 29 (1991): 18–27.

    DOI: 10.2307/466296

    Argues that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. (DMS-III) 1980 introductory codification of Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood entailed covert continuity with the pre-1973 pathologizing of homosexuality. Informally considered the inauguration of childhood as a queer concern. Reprinted in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, edited by Michael Warner and Social Text Collective (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 69–81; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Series Q) (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 154–164; The Children’s Culture Reader, edited by Henry Jenkins (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 231–240; and Bruhm and Hurley 2004, pp. 139–150.

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