Hetero Huh?

Ashley Thorne

Talking with some friends the other day, I got puzzled looks when I mentioned the war on “heteronormativity”—they had never heard the word before. Not all that surprising.  These friends went to school with me at a Christian college that didn’t speak the vernacular of political correctness and I hadn’t heard the word myself until I began working at the NAS. But the concept of “heteronormativity,” which dates from 1991, is now perfectly mainstream on college campuses, having trickled down from the queer theory vanguard at places like Yale all the way to such outposts of higher learning such as California’s Ohlone Community College—where it shows up in the syllabus for WS-101, Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies.  But for the sake of those still perplexed, I wanted to take a moment to clear things up.  

Heteronormativity is a bitter new term that campus administrators like to sprinkle on their trays of PC sugar cookies. College and university statements on diversity reject it along with racism, sexism, and ableism (bias against the disabled). So what does it mean? Essentially heteronormativity is the belief that it is normal to be heterosexual and abnormal to be homosexual. Wikipedia calls it: 

a set of lifestyle norms which indicate or imply that (1) people fall into only one of two distinct and complementary sexes (male and female) with each having certain natural roles in life, and that (2) heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation, thus making sexual and marital relations appropriate only between members of the opposite sex. 

On the website for her course, “Introduction to Theories of Gender and Sex,” Purdue professor Dino Felluga defines heteronormativity as “those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity.” Here it is used in a sentence in a Guardian article on Sarah Palin and soccer moms: “To others she's become lazy shorthand for white, middle class heteronormativity.” And here's an example of a heteronormative remark: "Why would you want to see Twilight? You're a guy."

“Homophobia,” which technically means fear of homosexuals and homosexuality, has fallen out of use, since it gives a name to the aversion some heterosexual people feel. “Heteronormativity,” in contrast, shifts the blame back to heterosexuals for daring to think of their own sexuality as normal. 

The term sprang up from the concept that sex – renamed gender – roles are socially constructed (entirely) rather than biological. We can choose to be either male or female, and sexuality can be whatever we make it. We don’t confine these things to rigid rules, and we don’t have to submit to biology.   

But it’s about more than just openness and tolerance. We ran anagrams of heteronormativity and got “I to try vain theorem.” Our wise new friend Anu Garg says that anagrams never lie, and it’s true, heteronormativity is a vain theorem. It invokes bigotry, victimization, and oppression, but it imposes a tyranny of its own. NAS president Peter Wood explains:  

When it is mentioned the word “heteronormativity” serves as a warning to people that they must treat what is natural as unnatural lest they be accused of siding with the oppressors. [...] “Heteronormativity” is the new “sexist”—a scare word for enforcing obedience to a theory.  

NAS member Katherine Kersten recently uncovered a proposal at the University of Minnesota’s ed school to make race, class, and gender politics the “overarching framework” for teacher education. The university’s Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group has a lengthy set of guidelines, including a desired outcome that students be able to “discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.”  

If these guidelines are approved in January, teacher candidates who believe that male-female attraction is normal will be considered a hindrance to the goals of the college. The same applies to students who are unashamed of being male or white. Instead of teaching students how to teach, the school at U Minnesota is trying to break down students’ “prejudices.”   

As far as I can tell, heteronormativity does not have an antonym, a term that expresses the desirable state of trained open-mindedness. Nor is there one for “hegemonic masculinity” or “internalized oppression.” Politically correct university leaders find it easier to reject certain behavior and create taboos than to provide positive alternatives. But to understand better the coercive culture they seek to create, it helps to know what heteronormativity means.  

A word such as “heteronormativity” is a way of asserting a political point without the bother of actually making an argument.  Is it wrong for society to treat heterosexuality as the normal form of human sexuality?  It is, in fact, the normal state for the vast majority of humans.  Shouldn’t our institutions accommodate to that fact?  

Sugar cookies are normally sweet.  It would seem distinctly odd to stigmatize grocery stores, bakeries, and grandma’s kitchen for fostering fondness for sweet stars and hearts and powdery disks, with barely a mention of alternatives such as jalapeño-flavored cookies. But that’s pretty much the logic of heteronormativity, the vain theorem of the bakers of cultural estrangement in contemporary higher ed. 

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