I've been struggling with the idea that we have no shorthand for the view that homosexuality is abnormal and morally aberrant. Most who hate such a view call it homophobia, but there's a clear distinction between those who have this view and those who truly don't like people who are gay, are uncomfortable with gay people being involved in their life in any way, etc. Well, now I've seen a term that sounds to me as if it's just simply descriptive of the view in question. Someone who considers heterosexuality normal and/or normative is heteronormative. I think there are already a few ambiguities in the term, but it's better than anything else I've seen so far. The biggest problem is that the people who coined it seem to rule out the possibility that it could be ok to be heteronormative, as evidences by those of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) who are criticizing Jada Pinkett Smith's comments last week at a Harvard multi-culturalist event, a criticism that itself raises some interesting moral questions.
The Harvard Crimson didn't bother to include what she said that got them so upset, but the original Crimson writeup does give a quote:
Women, you can have it all � a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want. All you have to do is want it. To my men, open your mind, open your eyes to new ideas. Be open
Jordan Woods, a leader in BGLTSA said this in response:
Some of the content was extremely heteronormative, and made BGLTSA members feel uncomfortable.
The Crimson adds:
Calling the comments heteronormative, according to Woods, means they implied that standard sexual relationships are only between males and females.
Woods further said: Our position is that the comments weren�t homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships.
So they're clearly distinguishing between homophobia and heteronormativity, but heteronomativity would still be condemned by them. I'm not sure they're going to draw the line between the two where I would draw it, but I'm glad they see the distinction. I would just hope that they're morally sensitive enough to realize that the term itself doesn't assume whether heteronormativity itself is good or bad and that their classification of it as bad is beyond what the meaning of the term conveys.
Heteronormativity and Similar Concepts
The closest analogy I can think of is what some people who write about race call normative whiteness. See my post specifically on that for more detail, but it's basically the structures in society that make whiteness seem normal for most white people, such that they tend to assume things that are normal for white people will be normal for others. In one sense that's exactly the sort of thing the BGLTSA is saying Jada Pinkett Smith was doing, assuming relationships will be like the heterosexual relationships she's experienced herself.
I think they're saying a little more than just this sort of assumption, though, because this is what happens with right-handed people assuming right-handedness except when specific information says otherwise. The difference is the moral element. Hardly anyone nowadays, at least in western nations, thinks the normativity involved with handedness is a moral normativity. It's not that it's morally superior. It's simply what's assumed because it's most common.
There's a little more going on with race. While the average white person doesn't think about race often enough to affect many aspects of their lives, there often is residual racism that crops up, leading to instinctive snap judgments assigning a more negative value to things done in way perceived to be black. This is the sort of thing most white people don't want to do and are embarassed when it happens, but it's more than just assuming whiteness or white ways, as is the case with right-handed people assuming right-handedness and right-handed ways.
What about heteronormativity? One of the reasons I said there's an ambiguity is because we've already separated out two elements that can be in this sort of thing, and there's even a third one when it comes to homosexuality. There are those who assume straightness and think of straightness as normal and gayness as unusual, out of the ordinary, and other. On one level, that's got to be uncontroversially natural, not because heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality unnatural, but just because it's natural to assume what you know and to think of those who differ as different.
The second element is the one that appears with race but not with handedness, and that's some level of value without necessarily bringing in a moral judgment. Men might have at least an unconscious negative response to the idea of having sex with another man, and that can easily transfer to thinking of gay sex as gross. I think this is less common with women, but there's probably something like it. Also, many people think there's nothing at all morally wrong with homosexuality itself, gay relationships, or even gay marriage but will still believe deep down, whether they like it or not, that heterosexual relationships are better.
Finally, the element that doesn't appear in either handedness or race, at least in the west and among fairly educated people, but does appear with sexual orientation is a moral evaluation of the action involved. It's primarily the idea that gay relationships are morally wrong and that something is bad even about the fact that people might be gay (not that they are necessarily to blame for having found themselves gay, which would be a further thesis). It's this last element that I've been trying to put a name to, since it's usually erroneously called homophobia. Calling someone who holds this view heteronormative is at least a little better than calling the person a homophobe. The problem is that heteronormativity might refer to any of these three elements or some combination of them. I think the BGLTSA meant something like the first category, but I can easily see the term being used for either of the others. So perhaps I haven't found the word I'm looking for.
Jada Pinkett Smith's Heteronormativity
The BGLTSA seem to be upset that she said something assuming most of her audience to be straight. She told the women to have certain attitudes with respect to their men, and so on. The reason this group is so mad is that she didn't speak to every possible situation there, in particular gay people who wouldn't have the same sorts of relations with people of the opposite sex. I just can't see how this moral claim can stand up. They're saying that any group that might possibly feel not included in a statement needs to have a similar statement that would include them, or else it shouldn't be said. That strikes me as pure victimology. Even if it's true that straight people assume straightness and find it and only it to be normal, I don't see how that justifies condemning someone trying to speak in favor of diversity for stating something that she thinks applies to most people (and if it's indeed true then it does apply to most people, because most people are straight). How is this supposed to help the ignorant see when it seems more likely that it will just get them mad? How is it looking toward real solutions to whatever social problems there are related to sexual orientation?
If they'd really cared about everyone being represented, they would also have thought to mention that some people intend lives of celibacy, and they'd feel left out. At least that's what someone applying their own logic would say against their objections, since the objections leave out celibates as those who might feel offended. If you leave the group out, then you're assuming normative sexual activity. The same would go for those who actually want to stay home with their kids and not have a career. Maybe the BGLTSA should apologize for their insensitivity in leaving those groups out. Do you see the problem? There's always going to be some group that gets left out, and Jada Pinkett Smith left out some groups who don't share her perspective on gender roles in society. When BGLTSA complained, they themselves left out all the same groups except the one they represent, gay people. They committed the same crime of insensitivity that they accused her of committing, and it's an unavoidable crime.
When you're talking from one perspective, you don't need to include every possible perspective on that issue due to potential offense it might cause to oversensitive people of that group who think you consider them worth nothing simply because you don't always think from their perspective. That's what's called paranoia. Thinking people don't like you or don't consider what you value important simply because they don't approach it the way you do is a sign that something's gone wrong, either in your reasoning or in your emotional responses. Not everything is about you. We're supposed to learn that as we get older. Victimologists don't seem to get that. Some things are about one particular group or perspective, and the fact that another group or perspective isn't represented in every sentence uttered at a diversity event at an elite institution should not be the cause of moral outrage.
What's really funny to me about this is that the kind of heteronormativity they're accusing her of is the same kind most right-handed people exhibit toward lefties. It's not really all that outrageous. So why the outrage? The person here who should be offended is Jada Pinkett Smith for their assumption that her speech reflecting her own conclusions from her own life should be phrased so it would apply to every single person there in the same way.
A former officer of the BGLTSA wrote an opinion column in The Harvard Crimson criticizing his former group for their political idiocy. He himself amounts to calling it victimology, though he doesn't use that word:
"Heteronormativity" is hardly a pressing concern when issues like hate crimes and job discrimination plague LGBT Americans more frequently and devastatingly. And yet still the BGLTSA focuses its efforts on demonizing Pinkett Smith, who spoke from her heart and personal experience in a plea for a respect for diversity. How dare she? By terming Pinkett Smith's speech "heterosexist discourse," the BGLTSA serves only to isolate and alienate proponents of a respect for diversity.
Victimology is counterproductive. Anyone who wants to see social progress needs to learn that. Conservatives, whites, Christians, and other groups traditionally associated with the majority need to learn that and cut it out just as much as minority groups need to.
[Hat tip: Confessions of a Cooperator]