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R. R. Reno
For twenty-five years, the term heteronormativity has been a strategic usage. The basic definition isn’t complicated. Heteronormativity is the act of interpreting heterosexual desire as the normal, natural way of human being and society. The term doesn’t signify the normal-ness of heterosexuality. It signifies the disposition to normalize it.
Therein lies the power of the word. It bears an assumption difficult to dispute. It is this: What naïve people take as a natural state of affairs is, in truth, the result of a social machination. Critical minds see through the veneer of normalcy, complacent minds don’t.
Ever since Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner (“Fear of a Queer Planet”), and other theorists of the late-80s and early-90s unveiled this heteronormative construction, casting their approach as an insight into the real state of things, anti-heteronormativity has enjoyed rare pragmatic value in academic settings. Not to appreciate this now-unveiled human truth is to be backward, blind, repressed. As Sedgwick put it in the first paragraph of Epistemology of the Closet.
an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.
If you don’t assume a critical posture toward homo/hetero distinctions, you suffer from a “damaged” conception of life. Academics especially are intimidated by such accusations. It puts the enlightened minds on one side, the side that sees homosexuality and heterosexuality dialectically. The proper critical outlook recognizes that heterosexuality is one thing, homosexuality another, and the normalization of the first is precisely that, an “-ization.” It’s not a norm we discover or accommodate. It’s one we erect and enforce, whether we realize it or not.
Those who still believe that heterosexuality is a natural norm, citing, perhaps, the statistic that only 1.7 percent of adults 1844 identify as gay, 1.8 percent as bisexual, have no effective answer to heteronormativity arguments, not in academic settings and, increasingly, not in media, entertainment, or government, either. At the present time, the pragmatics of academic discourse steer authority toward those who see through human circumstances, who find a social, historical cause for them. Appealing to nature or God or anything transcending human decision-making marks you as less intelligent than your peers, trapped in the past, and insufficiently critical. Defenders of a natural conception of heterosexuality face a prior hurdle before arguing their positionfirst, they have to prove that they aren’t narrow-minded and unaware. The momentum of academic thought runs headlong toward social explanations for everything. Queer theory may sound like an exotic sub-school of thought, but it is part of an entirely familiar wave of social constructionism that has been inundating academia for decades.
This is why anti-heteronormativity caught on so fast and so broadly, and why it has spread to popular culture and primary and secondary education, too. It falls neatly in line with the general de-naturalization of people and society that has dominated academic thought. Others feel confident enough to apply it everywhere, as in this outline of anti-heteronormative practices from Edutopia, George Lucas’s influential schools project. Among its lessons is “Don’t assume all students are heterosexual,” and also,
Find and utilize resources that challenge a binary view of gender and sexuality diversity. Include books that have two moms or two dads. Include books that have gender-creative children.
It is important to note that the paper begins with an example of a three-year-old, which suggests that these lessons should begin in pre-K.
Many parents object, not because of homophobia, but because they feel it is a distraction from core schoolwork and a form of indoctrination. But while “anti-normativitists” have a mountain of academic argument to support them, what do the parents have?
As far as I can see, one particular fact is the practical way to begin. It is the poll cited above, which finds that 96.5 adults identify as heterosexual. Only 1-in-30 does not. That rate is significantly less than the rate of adults who suffer from what the National Institute of Mental Health defines as “serious mental illness” (4.1 percent). The rate of children and teenagers who experience the death of a parent is 1-in-9. Why, parents and others might ask, are we devoting so much attention to this feature of humanity and not that? Why focus on such a tiny population?
The larger question would be, what does that 96.5 statistic mean in terms of the normativity process? With numbers like those, a teacher can’t help but normalize the majority group. When people in their daily lives encounter one exception to every twenty-nine instances, they naturally incline toward normative judgments.
This is why anti-normativity has surrounded itself from the start with claims of insight and acuity. It explains why educators and the larger culture impose anti-normativity regulations, instructions, and assignments repeatedly, and to the point of absurdity. Anti-normativity policing has to be vigorous because it faces such a steep numerical imbalance.
So, I say to parents, when you go to school to discuss the anti-heteronormativity ideology piled onto your children, or when you accompany your seventeen-year-olds on campus tours and spot all the flyers posted on alternate sexualities, begin with that question: Why are teachers and administrators spending so much precious time and instruction on something that affects such as small part of the population? Why don’t we see the same focus on music, chess, Latin and French, debate . . . ?
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.