Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Challenging heteronormativity

Key reading: Clarke et al. 2010 
Clarke, Victoria; Sonia J. Ellis; Elizabeth Peel; Damien W. Riggs 2010. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans & Queer Psychology. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Heteronormativity is “a concept developed in queer theory that describes the social privileging of heterosexuality and the assumption that heterosexuality is the only natural and normal sexuality” (Clarke et al. 2010: 261). This assumption used to be so widespread and commonsensical that it resulted in homosexuality being perceived as a taboo, a pathology, or even criminal behaviour. This means that any “gay-affirmative” approach to psychology, sociology and related disciplines of science had to (and still has to) “prove the normality of homosexuals” (p. 15). In this way, even if they are supposed to be supportive of homosexuals, such approaches actually reinforce heteronormativity. They render heterosexuality as the natural, neutral, normal option with homosexuality occupying the “just as good as” position; the former remains the basis for comparison, the standard that must be followed. Notice how homosexuals have to look and behave like heterosexuals if they want to be considered normal, e.g. by adhering to the standard of being in a monogamous relationship. 
The use of such categories as LGBT(I/Q) may also be seen as reinforcing heteronormativity, since they label people as a minority, different from the “norm” of heterosexual majority. It must thus be emphasized as often as possible that this project employs them purely as analytical categories. 

Heteronormativity is associated with the dichotomous or binary model of sexuality, i.e. “the division of sexuality into two, and only two, categories: heterosexuality and homosexuality” (p. 259). This model is dangerous because it polarizes the distinction – with homosexuality as the exact “opposite” of the norm of heterosexuality – and ignores the diversity of sexual orientations and behaviours, including bisexuality. The diversity and flexibility of human sexual behaviour has been captured in a 0-6 scale developed by Kinsey (the Kinsey scale, Clarke et al. 2010: 11). Exclusively heterosexual behaviour (0) and exclusively homosexual behaviour (6) are just extreme points on the scale, with equal amounts of heterosexual and homosexual behaviour in the middle (3). 
It should be emphasized that similarly dangerous is the binary model of sexes (female/male) and genders (feminine/masculine). It seems useful to consider this distinction in terms of a scale too, with feminine women and masculine men at the extreme ends, “the opposing poles of a continuum of human sexual and gender expression” (p. 7). 

The system of two, and only two, sexes is understood as ideological, “a lens through which we view and interpret the world” (p. 32); “the two-sex model is a relatively new way of understanding sex, which was invented during the eighteenth century alongside the development of modern science. Prior to the emergence of the two-sex model, a one-sex model was dominant, in which women’s bodies were understood as different (and inferior) versions of men’s bodies” (p. 32). The two-sex model is troubled by the existence of intersex people (“people who are born with ‘sex’ chromosomes, external genitalia and/or an internal reproductive system that are not considered ‘standard’ for either male or female”, p. 32) and trans people. 
Challenging heteronormativity means not only questioning these dichotomies, but also negating the “heterosexual matrix” of sexual desire (coined by Butler): “in western thought, desire for a man is often understood as a feminine desire and desire for a woman as a masculine desire” (p. 30). Within this matrix, a woman’s desire for a woman may only be understood if the desiring woman or the desired woman are somewhat “masculine”; people expect homosexual couples to adhere to the standard (play the parts) of “one woman and one man” in a relationship. 

Heteronormativity accounts also for at least a part of the existing negative attitudes towards LGBT parenting: “lesbians are often viewed as too masculine, and gay men as too feminine, to be good parents or gender ‘role models’” (p. 198). Clarke et al. devote pages 199-207 to research on gay/lesbian parenting which proves that children raised in homosexual-headed families do not differ in terms of psychological development from children raised in heterosexual-headed families; however, they also postulate “moving away from a ‘proving otherwise’ agenda” (p. 207), i.e. from the “just as good as” approach. They claim that comparative research is defensive (accepts heterosexual parenting as the gold standard), treats difference as problematic and reinforces problematic social norms. It measures the extent to which children conform to culturally normative definitions of gender identities and gender roles: “evidence of cross-gender identification or unconventional gender behaviour is interpreted as a ‘bad outcome’ (…) rather than as a positive sign of breaking down gender stereotypes and experiencing gender in new and liberating ways (p. 208, emphasis mine). 

Heteronormativity assumes that heterosexuality is natural, normal, and does not require explanation, while homosexuality is a developmental anomaly which demands explanation (p. 28). Homosexuality is still sometimes considered an illness, a disease. The American Psychiatric Association included homosexuality in the list of mental disorders (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM) in 1952, and removed it again in 1973. The APA then urged “all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness” associated with homosexuality (p. 13). However, the fact that homosexuality was on the list for 21 years (even if the association has existed since 1844, under present name since 1921) still serves as a strong argument in homophobic discourse. Nedbálková argues that the discursive change from “homosexual identities” to “gay and lesbian identities” reflects the shift away from “medical categorization, deviance and stigma” associated with medical, institutional discourse on homosexuality (2007: 78). 

Heteronormativity assumes that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else – a deviation. Homosexuality is regarded as a “choice”, homosexual people are expected to “change back”, but heterosexuality is not subject to choice – it is a given. By applying to heterosexuality the assumptions typically reserved for homosexuality, anti-homophobic or resistance discourses reveal such double standards, lack of understanding and discrimination faced by LGBT people. For example, Clarke et al. (2010) suggest the following questions for discussion and classroom exercises: 
 “Why are people heterosexual? Do people choose to the heterosexual? Is it a product of socialisation and early childhood experiences? Are people born heterosexual?” (p. 50) 
Asking such questions with regard to homosexuality is common and conventional; asking them with regard to heterosexuality seems absurd. Heterosexuals are not normally asked to account for their sexual identity, to explain it, to defend it. The point I am trying to make has been captured wonderfully in the following text coming from advice column of the Washington Post (especially the fragment in bold). 

Ask Amy: Parent pressures gay son to change 
By Amy Dickinson, Published: November 18 

DEAR AMY: I recently discovered that my son, who is 17, is a homosexual. We are part of a church group and I fear that if people in that group find out they will make fun of me for having a gay child. He won’t listen to reason, and he will not stop being gay. I feel as if he is doing this just to get back at me for forgetting his birthday for the past three years — I have a busy work schedule. Please help him make the right choice in life by not being gay. He won’t listen to me, so maybe he will listen to you. -- Feeling Betrayed 

DEAR BETRAYED: You could teach your son an important lesson by changing your own sexuality to show him how easy it is. Try it for the next year or so: Stop being a heterosexual to demonstrate to your son that a person’s sexuality is a matter of choice — to be dictated by one’s parents, the parents’ church and social pressure. I assume that my suggestion will evoke a reaction that your sexuality is at the core of who you are. The same is true for your son. He has a right to be accepted by his parents for being exactly who he is. When you “forget” a child’s birthday, you are basically negating him as a person. It is as if you are saying that you have forgotten his presence in the world. How very sad for him. Pressuring your son to change his sexuality is wrong. If you cannot learn to accept him as he is, it might be safest for him to live elsewhere. A group that could help you and your family figure out how to navigate this is This organization is founded for parents, families, friends and allies of LGBT people, and has helped countless families through this challenge. Please research and connect with a local chapter. 

The term homophobia is probably losing its evaluative power today: it is being reclaimed and proudly used for self-identification, comparably to the words black and queer. Clarke et al., not without sense of humour, suggest a new term:
Genderpathophilia - "an abnormal need/desire to pathologise any gender behaviour which makes you uncomfortable" (Clarke et al. 2010: 15).

No comments: