The Politics of -Normativity

A few years ago, in the midst of finishing my gender/sexuality/queer studies minor, my professors started talking about transgender studies. In particular, what does the T in LGBTQ even mean?

At this point in time, it was only a hint of a question, a nudge in the right direction. I remember thinking that homosexuality was going to take a huge leap forward before people even started to think about transgender rights. This was at a time when I had just started to really get excited about gay marriage. It was beginning to move through the states, getting legalized more quickly with each year.

It seems that gay marriage is more or less a done deal. Same sex couples can now marry in the majority of the United States, with all but a few states moving towards a similar conclusion.

This is in part, I believe, due to something called homonormativity. I argue that homonormativity is/was essential in creating space for homosexuality in the United States. To get to where we currently are in the fight for equality, it was essential for gay men and women to present themselves as neutral, and to remove their perceived threat.

The threat of gay marriage was, for many, the idea that homosexuality would ruin the institution of marriage and taint it with something wrong or unnatural. To move gay marriage forward, homonormativity was a strong political move. Gay couples were presented as being very clean cut, good looking, happy, desiring a very particular type of relationship that would pose no harm to heterosexual couples. They were often presented as good old fashioned American’s in the media. Nothing too threatening about that.

This presentation of homosexuality – that being homosexual looks or feels a certain way – is called homonormativity. It presumes that all gay people want to be a certain way or are a certain way. In truth, not all gay couples want the ability to get married. Not all gay couples want to be monogamous. Not all gay couples dress a certain way or behave a certain way. I’m pretty sure they aren’t all waving giant American flags on the front of their picture-perfect houses.

This mentality is not restricted to homosexuality. Looking backwards we can see similar restrictions in heterosexuality, with heteronormativity. Heteronormativity also strengthens and reaffirms ideals about gender/sexuality. Heteronormativity is also part of what strengthens gender roles – ideas about what men and women are supposed to do and look like, for instance.

How does this tie in with being transgender, the T in LGBTQ, and the current movement for transgender rights?

All of the normativities I’ve mentioned up to this point tie in to one another and support one another. Believing someone who is straight must appear a certain way reinforces the idea that someone who is gay must be a certain way, and so forth. In this, we can tightly pack the idea of transnormativity. The idea that someone who is trans is also certain way. This conversation can become more complex as being transgender can be deeply influenced both by gender and sexuality. These things are also influenced by class, race, and other forms of privilege that allow people to present themselves in certain ways (or not.)

As you’ll likely see in the coming months and years, an idea of what it means to be transgender is shaping. This has been happening slowly since the 90s but will pick up speed as we become more accustomed to and comfortable with the idea of transgender rights. It will also likely speed up as society drops the ball on gay rights “we got marriage equality so its all good guys.” 

We’ve already seen a lot of this in the news recently with the “is she or isn’t he?” gender mania around Bruce Jenner and a potential interview with Diane Sawyer.

What would transnormativity look like? Some things I have noticed: she always knew she was transgender from birth, she liked to play with toys of the opposite sex and dress up, she didn’t like the boy toys we gave her, she is taking testosterone and already making changes to dress and style like a man. There are a lot of narratives on what a trans person should or ought to do. Things like getting surgery, taking hormones, confessing a story that “explains themselves” to everyone to justify the change. As though, somehow, knowing it for your whole life is more redeemable than realizing when you’re 30, 40, or 50. There is also a lot of pressure to fit in with the gender that you are – to look like a man or to look like a woman. What if someone can’t afford these changes? What if they are not available to them? What if they just don’t want them? These are assumptions we and the media make by looking at someone or by hearing segments of their story.

Normatively exists within all factions of gender/sexuality and I feel like we will continue to see transgender men and women played in the media in a certain way that both moves forward and restricts the rights of those who do not fit that particular schema.

These types of normativity reinforce ideas of privilege and who should or shouldn’t get the right to be who they are. Pay attention. Don’t always accept forward momentum as progress.

What do you think?

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