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The first photograph of Duane Michals's series Things Are Queer [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] depicts a simple bourgeois bathroom. Picture 2 introduces a pair of enormous hairy legs. As the series continues, the camera moves back, revealing that it is not the legs that are unusually big, but the toilet, sink, and bathtub that are small. The camera retreats again, and we become aware of an enormous thumb on a page. It turns out that what we have really been seeing is someone looking at a picture in a book of a man standing in a tiny bathroom. As if in a film, the camera keeps panning back. The man reading the book is in a dark corridor. In the penultimate photograph we find that this walking and looking man is merely a blowup of an, image that is in the mirror in the bathroom. With the final image in the series we have come back full circle to the original toilet, sink, and bathtub.
On the face of it, Michals's subject has nothing to do with homosexuality (though its landscape of bathroom, dark corridor, and voyeurism may have vague sexual connotations). The queer of Things Are Queer is not a matter of specific sexual identities but of the world itself. The world is queer, because it is known only through representations that are fragmentary and in themselves queer. Their meanings are always relative, a matter of relationships and constructions. In contradiction to its title, the series seems to say that things themselves are not queer, rather what is queer is the certainty by which we label things normal and abnormal, decent and obscene, gay and straight.
Michals's series could stand as an allegory for the current ambitions of lesbian and gay studies to go beyond documenting specific homosexual identities and cultural practices. Increasingly its charge is to investigate the mechanisms by which a society claims to know gender and sexuality. Homophobia is not a mere byproduct of the ignorance and prejudice of a segment of the population, but an aspect of the way power is organized and deployed throughout society. As lesbian and gay theorists are fond of pointing out, the word heterosexual was only coined after homosexual - both terms are late nineteenth-century inventions. It is as if the dominant culture needs the Other to be certain of itself. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet begins with the claim that "the …