(more in expanded post)
One of the most common attitudes contributing (however subtly) to the marginalization of BGLT people is—yes, our old friend heteronormativity (or what Kavulla prefers to call “heteropresumption”). The thing to keep in mind with heteronormativity is that, as with other forms of stereotyping, accuracy is beside the point. The problem with assuming the heterosexuality of an audience is that failing to call attention to this assumption reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is ‘normal,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘good,’ which implicitly designates other sexualities ‘abnormal,’ ‘unnatural,’ and ‘bad.’ Those skeptical of my jump from ‘abnormal’ to ‘bad’ might reflect on how seldom transgendered people garner affirmation for being ‘special’ and ‘different.’ A hate crime here at Harvard last year illustrated that challenging rigid gender categories is a decidedly dangerous and sometimes deadly affair. As Judith Butler contends, we negotiate our gender in a world that punishes us for transgressing the gender roles assigned to us at birth (this punishment may be as subtle as an unsolicited invitation to join a Bible study group). Each heteronormative statement—mundane and dispassionate though it may be—slightly fortifies the hegemonic gender binary urging us to reward behavior conforming to gender norms and discourage (too often through violence) ‘unnatural’ or ‘exceptional’ acts, behaviors, and identities.
The last time the word “heteronormative” generated buzz in the Crimson, Jada Pinkett Smith had given a speech in Memorial hall in which she advised Harvard women to “love your men,” offering relationship advice to all students in the audience using her marriage with actor/rapper Will Smith as a guideline. In pointing out the heteronormativity of Pinkett Smith’s comments, the BGLTSA was careful to note that they were not accusing her of homophobia (or heterosexism: see below). Same goes for my criticism, cited in Kavulla’s piece today, of the earlier, “vapid” Crimson column. Do I accuse the author of malice? No. Do I expect better from our brilliant, savvy columnists? You bet. Presenting “we Harvard women” as a salient category characterized by a burning desire for male partners, especially when the forum for this generalization is not a casual chat among friends but the most widely-read (and theoretically the most broadly representative) campus publication, unintentionally marginalizes a whole host of Harvard students. Recognizing the existence of multiple sexual orientations and gender identities does complicate speaking about love, romance, women, men, and sexuality. But the challenge of expanding our language and thereby thinking critically about heteronormative assumptions and heterosexism pales in comparison to the burdens that queer Harvard students shoulder when peers and faculty marginalize or minimize their life experiences.
Despite disagreeing on which terminologies are more alienating, Kavulla and I do agree on one point. The word “homophobic” may not be the best terminology to describe people who detest homosexuality and/or any sexuality that falls outside a perceived heterosexual norm. The ‘fear’ suggested by the root ‘phobia’ has confused people for quite a while–“I’m not afraid of gays, I just don’t like them” resounds as an all-too-familiar chorus. And while a fear of being perceived as homosexual, or fear of and disgust for one’s own homosexual impulses, may very well be a strong motivator for displays of aggressive homophobic actions, this is not always the case, and such a characterization of homophobia tends to overlook more subtle forms of discrimination and bigotry against BGLT people. Had Kavulla done a bit more research, he might have learned — to his chagrin — of yet another useful term: “heterosexist.” Heterosexism is a helpful concept since most people can immediately appreciate the potential for “sexism” to be subtle and systemic. The word may not invoke a perfect parallel, since most people associate sexism with problems of objectification, devaluation, and attempted ownership of women, rather than a deep hatred or disgust toward them. In this sense, racism may be a closer analogy to heterosexism. Nevertheless, it can come in handy in deflating the rhetoric of those who may hate or disapprove of queer people but want to make it abundantly clear to the world that they aren’t afraid of them (like that kid who jeered so vehemently at ‘fags’ in middle school, only to come out of the closet in or after high school).
Inevitably, any attempt on my part to engage a writer who treats serious matters so colorfully and flippantly will make me seem angsty by comparison. And while Kavulla’s column fairly questions the usefulness of seemingly obscure or politically correct vocabularies, he seems to view these discourse-shifting efforts as mere political games, breezily ignoring their life-or-death consequences. On a practical level, queer-inclusive frames actually do more to empower and enliven discourse than repress it, enabling people to explore previously un-navigable territories of gender and sexuality theory and praxis. True, some of these words don’t exactly roll off the tongue—growing accustomed to them takes some practice, as is the case with any new terminologies. If we keep at it, hopefully people will come around and the words will take root. Discourse doesn’t change overnight: at one time, attempts to phase out the terms ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’ may have been greeted with mockery and resistance, as was the inclusion of ‘Ms.’ in common parlance. We know that language has the power to shape culture and consciousness. But cultural change comes slowly. In my own small attempt to quicken its pace, I’ll continue to rock my “Have a Gay Day” getup.