The image of being queer: how should we tackle heteronormativity?

Megan Wallace discusses the limitations of queer subcultures as presented in the media and beyond

, 31 January 2017

With the past year seeing the election of Donald Trump in the US, Britain’s vote to exit from the EU and the rise of the far-right Front National in France, western politics is undergoing something of a right-wing radicalisation. While this will undoubtedly be harmful for most of society, it is minorities who will face the most open discrimination. Indeed, in the face of an increasingly inhospitable environment, minorities are given two choices: to keep our heads down, ceding important aspects of our identity to do so, or to reject the new normal and work to overturn the hierarchy created and maintained by capitalism and its associated inequalities.

At times, minority subcultures come into fashion, which can make it seem as though acceptance has been easily and naturally achieved. However, we need to be critical in these instances in order to avoid mistaking appropriation and commodification for acceptance. Take the example of minority gender identities: androgyny is in the fashion magazine Vogue, amongst other high-fashion magazines, which use gender-neutral designs and a slew of new models to represent versions of beauty which transcend strict gender divisions. As a consequence, discussions surrounding gender fluidity have opened up, allowing more people to learn about the gender spectrum and about the multiplicity of non-binary identities which exist outside of ‘male’ and ‘female’. However, it can’t possibly lead to real progress when the criteria for fashionable androgyny is so strict, defined above all by extreme thinness, sculpted cheekbones and short hair. Furthermore, the troubling lexicon of ‘modernity’ and ‘otherworldliness’ surrounding androgyny in fashion contributes to the otherness attributed to non-binary individuals.

If you conspicuously possess other qualities appreciated by society and internalise mainstream values then assimilation is possible

So, while it is true that recent years have seen significant growth in terms of LGBTQI+ representation and acceptance, this progress has been on strictly heteronormative terms. What this means is that queer individuals are split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with those belonging to the ‘good’ category being incorporated into mainstream society, albeit on uncertain terms. Basically, if you conspicuously possess other qualities appreciated by society and internalise mainstream values then assimilation is possible. For example, in the case of a good-looking, white, non-disabled, wealthy and cisgender man, a preference for the same sex is not nearly the barrier it used to be. However, individuals who belong to one or more other minority group face far higher levels of discrimination. Even once something which resembles acceptance has been achieved, it can never be taken lightly: being seen as ‘normal’ is a constant struggle to say and do the right thing.

For any of you who look to fashion and erroneously consider this foray away from the gender binary a true triumph of ‘diversity’ in fashion, I would direct you to LGBTQI+ subcultures which provide a framework for the expression of a multiplicity of gender identities. Take the example of lesbian communities, where gender expression does not translate into the strict butch/femme dichotomy, and instead takes the shape of a fluctuating spectrum. This is one of the reasons why the fight for gay rights has historically been linked with the fight for trans rights. More than just providing solidarity, queer communities operate further outside of the heteronormative mould and thus can function as spaces in which broader conceptions of gender are recognised and accepted.

It’s worth acknowledging that heteronormativity stretches beyond this, such as in imposing ideas of straightness which are damaging to the queer community

However, the issue of heteronormativity is a tough one to shake and is a phenomenon which profoundly impacts queer communities in the here and now. As we become more educated about straight privilege, the term ‘heteronormative’ is slipping more and more into common usage. It is widely, and correctly, understood as an assumption of universal heterosexuality. But in order to better understand its negative impact, it’s worth acknowledging that heteronormativity stretches beyond this, such as in imposing ideas of straightness which are damaging to the queer community in multiple ways. Simply put, heteronormativity is the assumption that we’re all either men or women, that men and women each look a certain way and play a certain role, that men and women are romantically and sexually attracted to one another and are destined to pair off and form neat little units of two where each plays their assigned role. Possible consequences of heteronormativity are that a bisexual woman in a relationship with a man can often be perceived as straight or that polyamorous relationships are painted as immoral for not fitting into a neat heterosexual mould.

Distressingly, we can even see heteronormative values replicated within the LGBTQI+ community itself, perhaps because queer individuals are so accustomed to living in an unequal society that they automatically replicate hierarchies within the LGBTQI+ microcosm. What this essentially means is that gay men and women are at the forefront of the queer community, whereas those who are bisexual or pansexual can be subject to discrimination from within the community. The logic behind this is that being attracted to more than one gender is something of a threat to the heteronormative values which queer individuals must internalise in order to be seen as ‘respectable’. Indeed, those who are attracted to more than one gender are often painted as promiscuous and duplicitous, in much the same way that queer individuals have been historically viewed by wider society.

From how I dress to my topics of conversation, the way I present myself has become more cautious, more calculated and more careful

The defining factor in determining whether you qualify as acceptably queer is whether you are cis. Don’t agree? Try writing down all of the homophobic words you know and try to find one, just one, which doesn’t promote traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity. I have been ‘out’ for roughly eighteen months and I can say that, while I feel free in a whole host of ways I could never have imagined before, I also carry the weight of a host of equally unexpected pressures. Definitively, I use femininity as a bargaining tool and a smokescreen in order to be accepted — if I can bond with women over the way we dress then that makes me ‘normal’ and neutralises any threat which I might represent. Social integration is a fragile balancing act and, should I falter, I will be tarred as a sexual deviant or whatever other lesbian stereotype is current nowadays. From how I dress to my topics of conversation, the way I present myself has become more cautious, more calculated and more careful. Things which before seemed so trivial, take on a new level of importance when the tolerance of others is not guaranteed.

The movement as we know it may well have to undergo certain changes but Feminism could very well act as a safety-net to queer individuals in the act of social integration. What is needed is an accepting, intersectional and trans-inclusive Feminism. Only once this is achieved can we unravel the binaries upon which our society has been constructed and, in the process, provide a safe space for all minorities where trans, intersex and nonbinary individuals will receive the recognition and respect they deserve. Certainly, model Hanne Gaby Odiele’s courageous decision to ‘come out’ as intersex earlier this week and the positive response which this garnered, are testament to the fact that things could very well be changing for the better.

Image shows a grayscale image of a person with short blonde hair and glasses. Credit for the image belongs to Jake Wild.

Megan is a student and freelance writer from Edinburgh with specific interests in queer theory, visual culture and the politics of language. She is committed to intersectional Feminism and believes that the movement should be used to help deconstruct restrictive ideas of sexuality and gender identity

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