I’ve been teaching her work since I came to GW in 1994. Though most of my graduate school friends were turned on to her work by Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, my favorite of her early volumes was the second that I read, the essay collection Tendencies. Reading through those genre-bending essays convinced me that there was almost nothing that Sedgwick could not make me see anew. And isn’t that what queer theory is all about?
From “White Glasses,” an essay in Tendencies, here are a few sentences in which Sedgwick speaks about cancer, femininity, the body, and the complexities of sexual identity:
One of the first things I felt when I was facing the diagnosis of breast cancer was, “Shit, now I guess I really must be a woman.” A lot of what I was responding to was the way the formal and folk ideologies around breast cancer not only construct it as a secret whose sharing defines women as such. All of this as if the most obvious thing in the world were the defining centrality of her breasts to any woman’s sense of her gender identity and integrity! This did not happen to be my situation: as a person nonprocreative by choice, and whose sense of femininity, whatever it may consist in, has never been routed through a pretty appearance in the imagined view of heterosexual men — as a woman moreover whose breast eroticism wasn’t strong — I was someone to whom these mammary globes, though pleasing in myself and in others who sported them, were nonetheless relatively peripheral to the complex places where sexuality and gender identity really happen.