Can heteronormativity be smashed?

(Figuratively of course. Ideas are difficult to literally smash.)

So on Saturday I had a rather interesting drunk conversation with a (gay) friend of mine about a bunch of stuff relating to the queer struggle. The main thing I’m going to focus on is the following set of arguments, which I’m paraphrasing from my very imperfect memory (so apologies if this ends up looking like a mischaracterisation).

You seem to think that the existence of a norm in society is inherently oppressive, and I don’t think that’s true.

Straight people will always be seen as the norm in society simply because most people in society will always be straight, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as LGBT people aren’t discriminated against.

Kids learn most of their ideas about relationships from observing their parents before anyone ever sits them down and has the sex-talk with them, and since most parents will be straight couples, kids will naturally infer that straight-monogamous relationships are the norm.

Predictably, Drunk Me wasn’t particularly effective at arguing against this, but there’s a lot of important ideas in what I should have said, and this is a pretty decent argument to hang an exposition of those ideas around.

I’m gonna break it down into two sections.

Will the majority of people always be straight?

I doubt it, although there’s a limit to how much I can say about the subjectivities of others. Particularly it would be wrong to merely dismiss those who experience their sexuality as innate and natural to them. But the fact that most people experience sexuality this way is almost certainly coloured by the fact that they live in a society that constantly tells them that this is the only way to experience sexuality and entirely erases the voices of anyone who experiences things differently.

Who we’re attracted to is definitely influenced by physiological factors (to deny this would turn queer theory into an anti-materialist abstraction). But it’s also influenced by all kinds of other material forces – most significantly the ideas we’re exposed to about sexuality and the social and economic consequences for the individual if they believe those ideas or not, but also things like the geographies and ecologies of the spaces we inhabit.

Socialisation plays a huge role in forming identities and determining behaviours. To argue from analogy: the reason why the vast majority of people wear clothes for the vast majority of their lives is not because humans are biologically determined to be clothes-wearing animals, but because it’s socially unacceptable for people do be naked in most social settings, because there are certain culturally created ideas about people who are inappropriately naked (they’re assumed to be mentally ill, or sexual predators, or weird hippies, or something like that) and about the human body more generally and the genitalia specifically, and because there are pretty significant negative consequences for people who are inappropriately naked and not a huge amount of pluses.

It’s hard to say with certainty how people would think and feel and behave in a radically different society. It’s hard to determine how much of a role biology has in shaping sexuality because we can’t extract people from their social reality and run controlled experiments in a culture-free vacuum (and even if we could, studying the sexuality of someone who has never interacted with another human being probably doesn’t tell us a whole lot when they only have themselves or the Void to be attracted to). But we can say with certainty that humans do all kinds of things all the time that couldn’t possibly be merely acting out a script written by genes and hormones. We have more agency than that.

Which categories of people you feel attracted to probably has a lot more to do with which categories of people you allow yourself to think about feeling attracted to than it does with some primal urge to fuck someone because your genes are telling you they’d be a good person to put bits of your DNA in (or whatever evolutionary psychology bullshit is trendy at the moment).

For more on this issue, check out my post here and this post by another blog on the same topic. And also Significant Othering, which is pretty great and somewhat related.

Is a ‘norm’ inherently oppressive?

Um, maybe…

I think one of the key points here is actually semantic: we need to draw a distinction between a (socially enforced) norm and merely a majority sexuality.

The former is what exists under the discursive power structure of heteronormativity. Under heteronormativity, heterosexuality is not merely the sexual preference of the majority of people in society – it’s a privileged identity. It’s an identity whose legitimacy is beyond question. It’s an identity which is seen as the default, and which you are assumed to identify with unless you indicate otherwise. It’s an identity that is associated with notions of belonging in society. It’s an identity that allows you greater access to power within society.

This is not something that just happens because 9 out of 10 people in society are heterosexual. It requires the continual propagation and continual enforcement of a mutually supporting and reinforcing set of ideas about sex, sexuality and gender. It requires all of the cultural institutions of society to continually pump out ideas about what kind of sex you can have, who you can have it with, what kind of relationships you can have, and what genders you can be. It requires policing of those who step outside the margins of normalcy or acceptability; the kinds of policing action that take place range from being made to feel weird, or dirty or anxious, to ostracisation, bullying, abuse and violence. (Policing can disguise itself as inclusion by including queer people in a way that emphasises their otherness, or which emphasises the power of straight people to decide who gets included, or by making the inclusion contingent on being queer in a way that’s palatable to straight people.)

The fact that it’s not something that just happens and must be actively reinforced is key here, because it implies that heteronormativity is something that can be fought against by stopping the processes that reinforce it. Even if we accept (for the sake of argument) that only 10% of people in society will ever experience attraction to someone of the same gender, it’s entirely possible for the majority of people to be straight and for society not to make any kind of assumptions about those who aren’t. But that does require us to dismantle the institutions (capitalism, the state, etc.) which propagate those ideas in the interests of the ruling class.

Still: 10% is not enough. Recruit!*

*Not a joke.

  1. Johnson Young said:

    But hetronormativity will always be the norm. Men who are not sexually attracted to women, and women who are not sexually attracted to men unsuprisingly end up having a lot less sex with the opposite gender. As male-female sex is the origin of 99% of people on this planet (and before IVF the origin of absolutely everyone), anyone outside of the norm is going to see a corresponding drop in the number of children they have, so if any aspect of their desires is genetically determined, those genes are unlikely to get passed on to future generations unlike hetronormative ones which are.

    How many of your own ancestors do you believe weren’t hetronormative?

    • Wendell. said:

      No matter how many generations go by, homosexuality doesn’t go away. It is documented in other mammal species, too. So if I read your post correctly, I think you’re wrong specifically regarding the idea that homosexuality will be selected out of the gene pool.

      Another quick correction: genes aren’t heteronormative, societies and cultures are, so heteronormativity is a learned phenomenon, while sexuality is more often a from birth thing, albeit fluid due to the existence of bi, queer, and trans individuals. So genes aren’t etched in stone, just as culture isn’t.

  2. Sorry it’s taken so long to reply to this! Firstly, it’s a very interesting response and I agree with almost everything you’ve said about socialisation and privilege. However, I think it’s bizarre to question whether or not the majority of people will always be straight. If people exist, they are the result of heterosexual relationships (births from IVF, surrogacy, etc. make up a very, very, very tiny number of all births and always will). So as long as people continue to exist, most of those people will be heterosexual. And so most children will be raised by heterosexuals and will therefore naturally assume that heterosexuality is normal. That’s why most gays and trans people generally just want to be normal, and seek lifestyles that approximate the norms established by their heterosexual parents. Strip away capitalism, the state, conservatism, religion, etc. and that norm will still remain because norms are necessarily instilled in children by their parents and their parents will (almost) always be heterosexual. Moreover, you quote the (frequently debunked) statistic that 10% of most populations are gay; the reality is that closer to 4% of people are non-heterosexual. Most parents will probably just unconsciously presume their children are straight because it’s extremely likely they are. Given that’s the case, I think you’re essentially arguing that the simple existence of heterosexual majorities oppresses non-heterosexuals which seems like a tautology to me. And that’s why I suspect calls to destroy heteronormativity are in fact futile. It might be better to relax, accept that “coming out” will probably always be a rite of passage for LGBT people and take solace in the fact that more and more parents are reacting in a way that is supportive and open.

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