Heteronormativity or homophobia?

While compulsively checking my WordPress stats (as I often do) I came across a piece titled ‘Is hetronormativity the problem ?’, which is a response to my piece ‘Can heteronormativity be smashed?’ (Spoiler: It can.) The piece is interesting not because it brings anything particularly new or insightful to the discussion, but because I think it’s reflective of the prevailing attitude to queer and gender politics among the leftist milieu.

The central claim of the piece, which might more accurately have been titled ‘In Defense of Hegemonic Masculinity’, is that

[t]he phenomena (sic) of people considering heterosexuality the norm does not cause heterosexuality to become a privileged identity… rather homophobia diminishes the general value of gay (sic) identities in relation to heterosexuality – thus establishing heterosexuality as privileged… it’s the activity of homophobia that’s problematic… not homophobic/sexist attitudes being seen as the norm retrospectively.

Hetronomrativity (sic) is less of a value statement (or collective set of statements) about the way things should be, and more of an assessment concerning the way things are.

The inability to understand this distinction, and the cause of gender/sexual oppression tends to result in misplaced attacks on manifestations of homosociality/heterosexuality (which are assumed oppressive on account of their privileged status within hetronormative (sic) society)… [such as] isolationist proclamations on the need to smash an ambiguous ‘’lad culture’’ ect.

The ‘distinction’ drawn here is an abstract one, which separates homophobia as a concrete activity from the material and cultural conditions that produce it: homophobia is metaphysically prior to heteronormativity and the relationship between the two is one of simple linear causation (X causes Y, stop X and there’s no more Y). In reality, this distinction is about as useful as arguing for a separation of classist activity from capitalism, and asserting that if we can put a stop to the activity of classism, the lower classes will be able to live harmoniously within the system (the liberal position).

This ‘Red Rant’ is breathtakingly un-Marxist in it’s approach, which is probably a reflection of the privileging of economics (and by implication of the white heterosexual male worker) among Marxists, and a resultant failure to apply a Marxist methodology to gender. Gender is not understood as forming a system in it’s own right (in practice “patriarchy theory” is treated with derision within the organised Left) and is only relevant insofar as it relates to the class struggle, which is where real politics happens. Gender issues are reduced to sexism and homophobia – discriminatory attitudes and practices which divide the working class against itself – and are treated more or less as liberal issues.

In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ (which is excellent and deserves to be read in full) Catherine McKinnon frames the relationship between Marxism and feminism as follows:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

What McKinnon calls ‘heterosexuality’ might be more accurately be described by the neologism ‘heteronormativity’, which refers to cultural and institutional practices which establish, reproduce and enforce heterosexuality as the norm (and indeed also limit the forms which sexual activity between men and women can take). In this analysis, the issue is clearly far deeper that mere homophobia: homophobia can be seen as a policing mechanism aimed at those who deviate from the norm, but the problem is the compulsory nature of the norm, the forms of cultural participation and belonging that are contingent on compliance with the norm, and the forms of power that are accessible differentially based on the extent to which individuals or groups comply with the norm.

Heteronormativity is not an historical accident. Neither is it simply a hangover from pre-modern religious ideologies. Rather, as Foucault points out, it is intimately linked with the emergence and practice of biopolitics (that is, a governmental practice concerned with the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings) by political powers. The regulation of sexuality is an important biopolitical concern because on the one hand, powers are concerned with the regulation and discipline of bodies, on the other with the regulation of populations. (‘Regulation’ here should not be confused with ‘repression’: the exercise of control over sexuality may involve ‘refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification’.) (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction.)

Effective resistance, then, is not simply a matter of opposing explicitly discriminatory practices either by individuals or institutions, but in contesting the terms on which masculine and feminine identity and sexuality are constructed. This makes things like ‘lad culture’ – which is defended as “a male working class identity” as if this were all that need be said on the matter, implicitly privileging working class heterosexual men, with any critique dismissed on the basis that it is ‘alienating’ (this is liberalism of the 6th type, incidentally) – which at it’s heart is the celebration of a hegemonic masculinity which is implicitly heteronormative, into sites of political contestation. Who gets to participate in masculine cultures, who is included and who is excluded, who gets to decide on what basis, and why certain forms of activity considered to be homosocial by default, are all important political concerns, which leftists should afford the same level of rigorous and radical criticism as the do to class issues.



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