By heteronormativity we mean …

By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent — that is, organized as a sexuality — but also privileged. It’s coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural ideal or moral accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness […] Heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality. One of the most conspicuous differences is that is has no parallel, unlike heterosexuality, which organizes homosexuality as its opposite. Because homosexuality can never have the invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness that heterosexuality has, it would not be possible to speak of “homonormativity” in the same sense.

Michael Warner, ‘Fear of a Queer Planet’, Social Text, no. 29 (1991): 3 – 17.  

Blog against heteronormativity 2006

I posted this (rather rushed I have to say) piece on a now deleted personal blog back in 2006.

It’s time to Blog Against Heteronormativity

The word ‘heteronormativity’ can refer to all the discourses, ideologies, social norms, cultural representations and expectations that work to keep heterosexuality privileged, normalised and, importantly, naturalised. The notion that “heterosexuality,” in the broadest sense of the word, is natural, normal and better than any other sexual way of relating is fundamental to heteronormativity in all its manifestations. In this post, I want to consider some aspects of heteronormativity and suggest possibilities for resistance. When dealing with heteronormativity there are some things to keep in mind:

1) Heteronormativity is complex

I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that heteronormativity is a complex, multifaceted and seductive phenomenon. It is not in any way monolithic, and it functions very differently in different social and cultural contexts. Trying to analyse heteronormativity with the critical equivalent to a battering ram won’t get you very far because it’s just too shifty and it’s everywhere. Whether we like it or not, heteronormativity shapes and structures our experience of the world. So, I think you need to treat it rather like a tightly woven fabric — something that needs to be unpicked and unravelled rather than beaten to a pulp.

2) Engage rather than simply demonise

We need to learn from feminist theory to raise our consciousness about heteronormativity, render it visible in our lives (because it works by being invisible), become aware of the role it plays, critique it, and resist its most damaging incursions. So get married if it’s important to you, but don’t be fooled into thinking that doing so makes you any better than anyone else, or deserving of the social privilege you will receive as a consequence.

3) You will never be entirely heteronormativity free

Most of us will continue to hold some heteronormative views and will do and say things in our lives which re-affirm heteronormativity. It is perfectly possible to resist heteronormativity with one hand and re-affirm it with the other because it’s a shifty thing. For instance, when I say that “I am a lesbian” I both resist and re-affirm heteronormativity. Of course lesbianism disrupts heterosexuality, but the insistence upon the existence of sexual categories such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ is entirely necessary to heteronormativity. It is heteronormativity that has produced the need for such categories in the first place. Why do we have them? Why does it matter? It only matters because heteronormative society has a mania for sexual categorisation which we are strongly encouraged not to question.

4) Heteronormativity is based upon the construction of binary oppositions

Man/woman, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual etc. These terms are defined as being in opposition to one another and one term is always privileged over the other. I suspect that most of us are aware, really, that gender, sexuality and desire exist on continuums of human experience rather than in separate boxes. For many of us, our gender performance and sexuality changes as we move through our lives. According to heteronormativity this can’t happen because we should all have a “true” sexuality and a “true” gender which should also be essential sources of meaning in our lives. Of course heterosexuality is regarded as the only truly true sexuality against which everything else is really deviation and perversion. But there are hierarchies even within heterosexual experience. In this context, monogamous, married, reproductive heterosexuality is considered the best version – the one deserving of the most rights, privileges and rewards. Remember that heteronormativity always sets up hierarchies.

5) Heteronormativity abhors fluidity and flexibility, especially in relation to gender and sexual identity

The notion that people’s sex, gender or sexuality can change or might not be stable is very disturbing to heteronormativity. This is why bisexuals, intersex people and transgender and transsexual people – those individuals who appear to exist in “in between” states – are believed to be particularly deserving of distrust, marginalisation and silencing. The rejection of stability and “natural” categorisation which they seem to represent is very alarming to heteronormative society and, as a consequence, there is a powerful drive to discount, mock and invalidate their lived experiences and embodiments. If you want to resist heteronormativity, it is important to resist this impulse.

6) Heteronormativity works hard to limit the way we can interpret and experience the world

In a sense, heteronormativity is a reading lens. It is what prevents you from seeing queer possibilities, and tries (in vain I should add) to render all the queer experiences, lives and voices invisible in any way other than the way which in which heteronormative culture chooses to represent, or not represent, them — which usually as terrifying family and society destroying threats with which you must not identify.