“Same-sex desire alone does not equal gayness. In order to be gay, a man has to learn to relate to the world around him in a distinctive way.” So writes David Halperin in How To Be Gay, expressing the contentious notion behind his controversial University of Michigan course of the same name. “‘Gay,’” he continues, “refers not just to something you are, but also to something you do... Gayness, then, is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos: in short, it is a practice.” American gay male life, he argues, is reflective of “a common culture” and “shared sense of self” that must be acquired, a “characteristic relation to mainstream culture” that must be “discovered” by gay male subjects who “resist the summons to experience the world in heterosexual and heteronormative ways.”
To Halperin, gay culture is something of value, able to enhance or enrich the perspective of people of any sexual orientation. But for Halperin, as for others, the gay rights movement seemed to have prioritized “normality” in ways that both denied and jeopardized gay culture, perhaps nowhere more so than in the effort to legalize gay marriage. With the U.S. Supreme Court having deemed same-sex marriage a right, we look to Halperin’s take on what “gay marriage” might mean for “gay culture.”
When gay people are deprived of a common, communal existence, of a social world of their own, the keynote of gay politics ceases to be resistance to heterosexual oppression and becomes, instead, assimilation—that is, accommodation to the mainstream, the drive to social acceptance and integration into society as a whole. It’s all about the need to fit in, to adapt yourself to the locality in which you already happen to be living and working. Issues like gay military service or marriage equality, which had formerly been about access to benefits, distributive justice, and the removal of discriminatory barriers, now become struggles over the symbolism of social belonging. They are reframed to center around social recognition, the definition of citizenship, the meaning of patriotism, the practice of religious worship, the idea of family. There are still important material demands behind such struggles for inclusion, but they tend to be subordinated, at least in the rhetoric of the movement, to the goals of assimilation and conformity.
In such a context, gay culture seems an increasingly bizarre, insubstantial, intangible, nebulous, irrelevant notion. It is the sign of a failure (or refusal) to assimilate. What would gay people want nowadays with a separate culture anyway? Such a thing might have made sense in the Bad Old Days of social oppression and exclusion. Now it is simply a barrier to progress. It impedes the achievement of assimilation. No wonder we keep asking, with barely suppressed impatience, why gay culture doesn’t simply disappear. Surely social acceptance and integration will spell the end of gay culture. Since gay people are no longer so oppressed, there is little reason for them to band together in separate social groups, let alone to form distinct cultural communities. The assimilation of gay people into straight society has put an end to all that. Gay culture is a vestige from an earlier time. It is archaic, obsolete. Gay culture has no future.
These predictions, I believe, overlook a crucial consideration. Social acceptance, the decriminalization of gay sex, the legalization of homosexual social and sexual institutions, the removal of barriers to same-sex marriage, to military service, to the priesthood and psychoanalysis, along with other previously off-limits professions, should not be confused with the end of sexual normativity, let alone the collapse of heterosexual dominance.
Some gay people, to be sure, may see social equality as tacitly implying an affirmation of the essential normality of lesbigay folks. That is indeed what it signifies to many people, straight as well as gay, for better or for worse. And of course the release of gay people from social oppression, as well as the breakdown of the once-universal consensus about the fundamental pathology of homosexuality, which served to justify that oppression, represent absolutely momentous developments, of wide scope and astonishing rapidity, whose significance cannot be overstated. In fact, the gay movement (as David Alderson argues) may be the only progressive social movement from the 1960s to have prevailed, to have consolidated its successes, and to have realized some of its most far-fetched aims (such as gay marriage)—despite the rise and eventual triumph of the New Right during the past thirty-five years. Nonetheless, gay liberation and, more recently, the gay rights movement have not undone the social and ideological dominance of heterosexuality, even if they have made its hegemony a bit less secure and less total.
Not only have gay versions of radical politics, radical sex, and radical styles of life fallen out of fashion among us; gay people seem to be rediscovering and championing the superiority of heterosexual social forms, including astonishingly archaic forms that heterosexuals themselves are abandoning.
Instead, what seems to be happening is the reverse. Gay people, in their determination to integrate themselves into the larger society, and to demonstrate their essential normality, are rushing to embrace heterosexual forms of life, including heterosexual norms. In so doing, they are accepting the terms in which heterosexual dominance is articulated, and they are positively promoting them. Not only have gay versions of radical politics, radical sex, and radical styles of life fallen out of fashion among us; gay people seem to be rediscovering and championing the superiority of heterosexual social forms, including astonishingly archaic forms (like wedding announcements in the society pages of local newspapers) that heterosexuals themselves are abandoning. We are trying to beat heterosexuals at their own game.
Mere normality no longer seems to satisfy assimilationist-minded gay people. Normality itself is no longer normal enough to underwrite gay people’s sense of self-worth. We are witnessing the rise of a new and vehement cult of gay ordinariness. In an apparent effort to surpass straight people in the normality sweepstakes and to escape the lingering taint of stigma, gay people lately have begun preening themselves on their dullness, commonness, averageness. A noticeable aggressiveness has started to inform their insistence on how boring they are, how conventional, how completely indistinguishable from everyone else.
In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times about the possibility of Americans electing an openly gay president, Maureen Dowd quoted Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay Washington-based political lobbying organization, who “fretted to his husband that a gay president would be anticlimactic. ‘People expect this bizarre and outlandish behavior,’ he told me. ‘We’re always the funny neighbor wearing colorful, avant-garde clothing. We would let down people with our boringness and banality when they learn that we go to grocery stores Saturday afternoon, take our kids to school plays and go see movies.’” Electing a gay president would change nothing, apparently: nobody would be able to tell the difference. It would be a “non-event.” (In which case, why bother?)
When on June 24, 2011, the State of New York enacted a law permitting people of the same sex to marry, the Associated Press requested a response to that historic development from openly gay New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who had broken the news of the state legislature’s suspenseful final vote during a press conference by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Quinn declared, according to the AP, that “the decision [would] change everything for her and her partner.”
What did Quinn mean by “everything”? The changes she went on to enumerate had nothing to do with increased material benefits, equality before the law, the progress of human rights, the rewards of distributive justice, the defeat of homophobia, the breaking-up of the heterosexual monopoly on conjugality and private life, or the removal of legal barriers to the formation and preservation of intimate relationships. Any of those changes might well have qualified as momentous. Quinn, however, described the impact that the legalization of gay marriage would have on herself and her partner in these words: “Tomorrow, my family will gather for my niece’s college graduation party, and that’ll be a totally different day because we’ll get to talk about when our wedding will be and what it’ll look like, and what dress Jordan, our grand-niece, will wear as the flower girl. And that’s a moment I really thought would never come.”
Is the moment Quinn describes really the one we have all been so urgently waiting for? Is this the glorious culmination of a century and a half of political struggle for gay freedom and gay pride? And how is this new and “totally different day,” which sounds a lot like heterosexual business-as-usual, actually all that different from the day that went before it? Is the whole purpose of gay politics, or gay culture, to return gay people to the fold of normal middle-class heterosexual family life, with all its obligatory rites and rituals—to enable us to reproduce the worst social features, the most ghastly clichés of heterosexuality?
Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.
Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.
What Quinn’s testimony plainly indicates is that the end of discrimination, the rectification of social injustice, and the leveling of all differential treatment of sexual minorities—even should it occur—would not be the same thing as the end of the cultural dominance of heterosexuality, the disappearance of heterosexuality as a set of cultural norms. Social equality for gay people will not in and of itself make the world gay. It will not enable us to attain a queerer world more in line with our desires, our wishes, and our fantasies. It should therefore not be confused with, nor will it lead to, the erasure of gay subjective specificity or cultural difference.
Gayness would still be a deviation with respect to the cultural norm, the ways in which the majority of people live or expect to live, and the socio-cultural forms which their lives take or aspire to take.
What makes gay people different from others is not just that we are discriminated against, mistreated, regarded as sick or perverted. That alone is not what shapes gay culture. (That indeed could end.) It’s that we live in a social world in which heterosexuality retains the force of a norm. In fact, heterosexuality is the name for a system of norms that goes far beyond the relatively harmless sexual practice of intercourse between men and women.
“The received wisdom, in straight culture,” as Michael Warner describes it,
is that all of its different norms line up, that one is synonymous with the others. If you are born with male genitalia, the logic goes, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women, desire them exclusively, have sex in what are thought to be normally active and insertive ways and within officially sanctioned contexts, think of yourself as heterosexual, identify with other heterosexuals, trust in the superiority of heterosexuality no matter how tolerant you might wish to be, and never change any part of this package from childhood to senescence. Heterosexuality is often a name for this entire package, even though attachment to the other sex is only one element.
This system of norms may not describe how people actually behave. It’s a system of norms, after all, not an empirical description of social existence. But it does define the expectations that many people have for the way they and other people live. It implies that “gender norms, [erotic] object-orientation norms, norms of sexual practice, and norms of subjective identification” are congruent and stable. “If you deviate at any point from this program,” Warner adds, “you do so at your own cost. And one of the things straight culture hates most is any sign that the different parts of the package might be recombined in an infinite number of ways. But experience shows that this is just what tends to happen. . . . No wonder [heterosexuality] needs so much terror to induce compliance.”
Because, as Warner emphasizes, sexual desire for a person of a different sex is “only one element” of this larger package, heterosexuality can cease to be an all-powerful sexual norm and still exert normative power. In fact, as a specifically sexual norm, heterosexuality seems to be loosening up a bit. It is gradually becoming less unbending and inflexible. It may even be losing its monopoly on acceptable sexual behavior. But for the survival of gay culture, what matters is not the normativity of heterosexuality as a sexual practice. What matters is the larger package—the fact that heterosexuality remains a social and cultural norm, that heterosexuality retains the power of heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity is a system of norms connected with a particular form of life, a form of life that comprises a number of interrelated elements, all of them fused into a single style of social existence. That system of norms does not so much describe how people live or ought to live as it defines a horizon of expectations for human life, a set of ideals to which people aspire and against which they measure the value of their own and other people’s lives.
According to those norms, the dignity and value of human life find expression in a particular form of intimate, coupled existence. Such an existence, in order to be brought into being, requires a stable domestic life indivisibly shared with one other person of more or less the same age, but of a different gender and a different sex (the one that person was born with, subject to no modifications), in an exclusive, dyadic, loving, non-commercial arrangement that is conducted in a jointly inhabited home space, established and consolidated by the ownership of property and other kinds of wealth that can be transmitted to future generations. Intimacy, love, friendship, solidarity, sex, reproduction, child-raising, generational succession, caretaking, mutual support, shared living space, shared finances, property ownership, and private life go together and should not be parceled out among different relationships or otherwise dispersed. They should all take place under one roof. They combine to constitute a single, uniquely valuable, and more or less compulsory social form. Ideally, you should have all of those components together—or not at all. (This is what Michael Warner calls the “totalizing tendency” of heteronormativity.)
Linked to this single form of life are models of appropriate community membership, of public speech and self-representation, political participation, freedom, family life, class identity, education, consumption and desire, social display, public culture, racial and national fantasy, health and bodily bearing, trust and truth. All are associated with heterosexuality as a sexual practice and preference. But this heteronormative system can accommodate some minor variations in sexual preference without undergoing any significant alteration in its basic structure—and without imperiling the social dominance of the single form of life in which heteronormativity finds its most powerful and imposing expression.
Just as you can participate in gay culture without being homosexual, so you can participate in heteronormativity without being straight.
Heteronormativity can therefore survive the end of the monopoly of heterosexuality on sexual life. Just as you can participate in gay culture without being homosexual, so you can participate in heteronormativity without being straight. Gay people nowadays often do participate in heteronormativity in this sense—either because they dearly want to or because they find themselves pressured to conform to the single model of dignified human intimacy that heteronormativity upholds. In neither case is it a matter of sex; in both cases it is a matter of cultural norms. For what heteronormativity involves is not only the normativity of a specific sexual practice, but also the obviousness and self-evidence of a style of social existence which carries with it an unquestioned prestige and normative power.
Heteronormativity represents the privileging of a normative horizon of expectation for human flourishing. It generates an ethics of personal and collective reproduction, implying an orientation toward a future. It yields an aesthetics of social being, which attaches to the shape of a proper life and gives it beauty and value. It embodies an imaginative structure that imparts meaning to the form of individual existence. There is also the dimension of heteronormativity that Warner calls “reprosexuality—the interweaving of heterosexuality, biological reproduction, cultural reproduction, and personal identity” into a style of life that produces “a relation to self that finds its proper temporality and fulfillment in generational transmission” and gives rise to an ethos of “self-transcendence” as the basis of human dignity.
The dominance of heteronormativity depends on the pervasiveness and inescapability of that ethos—much more than it does on compulsory heterosexuality as a sexual practice. Just as gay culture is more taboo nowadays than gay sex, so it is the culture of heterosexuality—what we call heteronormativity—that currently provides the strongest guarantee of heterosexuality’s social legitimacy. Social equality for gay men and other sexual outlaws, should we ever achieve it, will not in itself overthrow heterosexuality’s cultural and normative dominance, or the single form of intimacy it produces and imposes. So gay equality alone will not spell the end of heteronormativity and its social ramifications. Heteronormativity may well be qualified, restricted, limited, and possibly undermined or weakened to some extent that is now hard to predict. But the model of human life that it represents, and that it promotes as a horizon of aspiration for every proper human subject, will not disappear with the legalization of gay marriage or the ability of non-heterosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military.
That is why queer politics is so much more far-reaching, so much more transformative than the politics of gay rights. “Because the logic of the sexual order is so deeply embedded by now in an indescribably wide range of social institutions, and is embedded in the most standard accounts of the world,” Warner observes, “queer struggles aim not just at toleration or equal status but at challenging those institutions and accounts.” Queer politics takes aim at the very heart of our modernity.