The Overwhelming Heteronormativity Of ‘Born This Way’


You’ve heard the phrase ‘born this way’. We all have. Even before Gaga turned it into an earworm that has been rattling around my brain for every single sentence of this post, it’s been a way that people explain queerness. And, for many of us, it’s something that makes sense in our own lives. We point to telltale signs in our childhoods that there was always something different about us. When people call us perverts and abominations, we respond by assuring them that no, this is who we are, and that this is how we were born.

I despise it. And I’d like to explain why. This is going to take a little work, though- we’ll be talking about heteronormativity, gender, and even the dreaded patriarchy along the way. So make yourself a nice big mug of something, because we’re going to start right at the heart of it all- wondering why on earth homophobes are.

Why on earth would anyone hate queer people?

It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here we all are, doing our thing in a world that has plenty real threats against us, and people pick who someone loves or what gender they are as reasons to despise them. On face value, it doesn’t make any sense. Queer people mainly go about our days like everyone else does, by-and-large minding our own business. Our existence doesn’t harm anyone. We don’t prevent anyone else from living their lives as they choose. Generally, we just want the same right to choose our own destinies and to have our families and identities respected the same way everyone else’s is.

On face value, it seems bizarre that that would be a big deal.

Why do people hate us so much, then? It’s easy to say “religion” or “ignorance”, but those answers don’t really tell us anything. While it’s true that some religions have taboos against entirely harmless things, it’s unusual to find something harmless that the majority will forbid. When you do, though? It’s often a sign that there is a threat lurking just below the surface. Something that is dangerous in ways that are not always obvious.

Reproductive rights aren’t dangerous unless you have a vested interest in controlling women. Diversity in gender and sexualities isn’t dangerous, either- unless, that is, you have a vested interest in maintaining a distinctly binary and patriarchal gender system. Which, if you’re given power by that system? You do.

We live in profoundly patriarchal (and kyriarchal) societies. It’s not just that men hold most positions of power and the vast majority of wealth in the world. It’s that the positions men tend to hold and the ways that men tend to do things are more valued themselves. And it is, of course, that we divide what people should do and how they should do it on binary gendered lines. Not necessarily on purpose, by the way. Patriarchy isn’t a shady cabal of men meeting in secret in darkened rooms to plot against equality. It doesn’t have to have leaders. It doesn’t even have to be something that people are obviously or consciously aware of. It’s just people doing what they do, groups working to their own advantage, and power entrenching itself in obvious and subtle ways over the decades.

Yes, by the way, I am going to get back to queer people. Trust me- it’s all connected, but for the moment we’ll have to talk a little more about gender.

Because the only way that this kind of large-scale social control and organisation can continue, of course, is if people buy into it. We need to feel like it’s a good thing. We need it to feel natural, like there’s an essential good to men doing one kind of work (largely paid and visible) and women doing other kinds of work, which are more likely to be unpaid and invisible. It has to satisfy us. We need to feel like we live in a world where this is not just inevitable, but preferable. Like it’s the only truly natural way to be. And if you’re a human, which I am almost certain that you are, then one of the ways you make sense of the world is through narrative. It’s through narrative that we create and pass on our ideas about what is good, what is bad, and what our happy ever after looks like.

When it comes to gender? We have narratives in spades. Think of family homes- warm, welcoming spaces filled with nurturing mothers, grannies and aunties. Think of good, decent men who work all day to provide for the families they love, before coming home to spend time with the kids they dote on. Think of the love they all have for each other and the ways they take care of each other.

I know you can, because we all can. We’ve all lived our lives in a world saturated with these stories. And stories.. stories get under your skin. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Queerness as threat

These stories aren’t just about the family. They are situated in the family, but they’re about far bigger things. They’re about how we define ourselves as men and women, boys and girls. They’re tied both to aspects of our core identity, and to some of the largest-scale social divisions we have. Three and a half billion people on one side, three and a half billion on the other. And the thing that divides one 3.5 billion from the other? Is the same story that we tell them will keep them safe, loved and happy in their closest and most intimate relationships. It’s the story that we are all men or women, and that men and women are deeply, essentially distinct groups of people. It’s the story that, for all our differences, there is one thing that is an essential maleness, and another that is an essential femaleness, and that the complementarity between these differences is what brings us together.

In a world where the family- that space where we create our homes, our refuge from the world, where we love and nurture each other- is based on the idea that men and women are essentially different beings, queerness is scary. If two men, two women, or an entirely different configuration of people can come together and create a family? If little girls can grow up to be men, little boys to be women, and anyone to be neither men nor women? We are left without an anchor for some of our most treasured truths. We are left afraid in a world that makes even less sense than we thought it might.

People aren’t scared of queerness because there’s anything immediately wrong with one woman loving another, or with some people’s bodies being configured differently to others. They’re scared of queerness- and they lash out at us- because we challenge one of the biggest narratives our society has, one that stretches from large-scale division to the intimacy we share with people we love to our very sense of ourselves.

And for many of us? We are left without one of the few things that gives us some semblance (or a great deal) of power and authority.

By now, there’s likely no going back. Many of us queer people are no longer willing to hide. We have families and friends who love and support us. Our existence can’t be denied. The evidence that we are as capable as anyone of having meaningful lives and creating nurturing families continues to grow. To talk directly about how we challenge gendered narratives is to admit that those are stories that might themselves be challenged.

And so- without deliberate effort, but because it makes sense to us and helps us to feel safe- an overwhelming narrative arises. Instead of facing our stories head-on and challenging the truths they claim, we adapt them. Just a little bit, on the edges. We fit queerness into the cracks of our stories, moulding it to keep us feeling safe.

We say that we were born this way.

Born This Way as neutraliser

Before I go on, I want to make a point very clear. I am not stating for a second that everyone’s orientation or identity is chosen, malleable or fluid. From many LGBT people’s childhood stories to the overwhelming failure of ex-gay ‘therapy’ to do anything other than hurt the people it claims to help, it’s clear that sexuality is, for many people, something that revolves closely around a fixed point.

For others, though, it’s not. Sexual and gender expressions are gloriously diverse. Even if we’re born with particular inclinations, the choices that we make after those define us as much as that which we are born with. Additionally? Something that could be fixed for one person may be chosen for another.

I hope you’ll forgive me for mentioning myself for a moment- I live in my own mind, so I can’t speak for anyone else. I grew up with the potential to be attracted to people of a variety of genders. I chose to come out, to pursue non-hetero relationships with the people I felt drawn to. I learned about different ways of doing relationships. Currently, I choose to pursue nonmonogamous relationships, if I pursue romantic relationships at all, because they fit well with the values I’ve developed, the way I prefer to build family and community- and, if I’m honest, because I happened to meet some wonderful poly people along the way.

I’m willing to bet that, whatever your own orientation and preferred relationship configuration(s), you have similar stories. You were born or grew up with a certain innate potential. Then you met some people, learned some things, discovered different ways of doing relationships, and made some choices about what kind of things suit you. Some of these things are dealbreakers. Some are open to negotiation. And there is, over the decades of your life, change between which category a particular thing fits into.

In short? We have potential. We make choices. We change. We grow. Many of us have the potential to be different to what we are- and maybe someday we will. Or we won’t. Life is complicated, and it sends us in unexpected directions sometimes.

The idea of ‘born this way’ ignores all of that. ‘Born this way’ introduces the idea that we have no choice in who we are, who we love, and what we do.

On one hand, it encourages a horrible narrative in supporting equality- the idea that we simply can’t help who we are. Who, it asks, would ever choose such a terrible fate as to be queer? If we could be cishet we would, right? ‘Born this way’ doesn’t challenge heteronormative ideals of the superiority of particular relationship forms. It doesn’t celebrate anything about queerness- not the relationships we have, the cultures and families we create, and the things we have to teach cishet society. Instead, it asks for ‘normal’ people’s pity. Don’t be mean to us. We can’t help it. We were born this way.

That’s not the only way, though, in which the ‘born this way’ narrative- and it is a narrative, which emphasises certain aspects of queer experience while ignoring and erasing others- bolsters heteronormativity. You see, ‘born this way’ also reinforces the separation between straightness and queerness. If we are ‘born this way’, than, by extension, straight people are not. If we are born this way, then we are, and are destined to always remain, different from the norm. An exception, distinctly separate from the rule, made so by an accident of birth. If we are born this way, we pose no threat or challenge to gender norms or heteronormativity- we’re nothing more than abberations. A minority who will always stay that way, and always be slightly apart.

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Greetings and Salutations


I am in the process of buying a thing online. I get to the page where I am asked to enter my details. One of the required fields is ‘Salutation’.

The available salutations are as follows: “Mr, Miss, Mrs, Dr”.

This, gentle readers, is what we call a Conundrum. I go by Ms. Always have. Unless I get myself a PhD, I always will. I have no desire whatsoever for utter strangers to call me by a name which demonstrates, primarily, whether or not I am considered by polite society to be available to fuck.

This leaves out Miss and Mrs. My marital status is none of your goddamned business unless you want to marry me. In which case you hopefully know me well enough to know my marital status already.

The only other two are Dr and Mr. Given that I identify pretty strongly as female and have (so far) an MA as opposed to a PhD, neither of these is entirely honest, either. However, I am currently in a situation where I have no choice but to pick one.

The question, therefore, is this: Do I have more respect for the institutions of education and academia, or for those of arbitrarily-defined gender?

Mister it is, then.

The little things: Sleazy?


Overheard at work, in a conversation between a couple of people about an email one of them was writing:

“”Looking for the girl in the office”? That sounds sleazy. Very, very sleazy”

…Why? What is ‘sleazy’ about saying that you’re looking for a particular person, whose name you don’t know and whose (assumed!) gender you remember, in an office? Why is that sleazy? What are the assumptions that make it so? What does it say about us, that we consider an entire gender of people intrinsically sexualised by their very existence?

I am a woman. I regularly sit in an office. What is sleazy about that?

Singleness, Being Alone, and Deficiency


This one, by the way, is gonna be personal. Not all personal, and I’ll try and keep specifics out of it since the personal things aren’t just about me. Also, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with things getting somewhat confessional here. But I do want to write about this.

Me and the ELO* broke up, a little over a month ago. As is often the case with these things, this situation is.. difficult. Actually, ‘difficult’ is probably the wrong word. It’s fraught, it’s confusing, it hurts like hell, once in a blue moon it feels fine for a little while. I suppose that’s almost always how it goes. And I’m doing all the usual things that a person does at times like these, from impulsive haircuts to spending hours on end watching Veronica Mars to learning ukulele and reevaluating my entire damn life. I figure that’s almost always how it goes, as well. Is it just me, or do LTRs sometimes feel a little like eras in your life?

And then I saw Chally’s post The Deficient Single Woman. Ohhhh boy, that one got me thinking.

Here’s the thing. Part of grieving for a relationship is simply missing the person themselves. Or being angry at them. Or, I guess, just dealing with whatever complicated feelings it is you have for them.

And then, I’m finding, there’s the other bit.

You see, for me, this whole process has as much been about dealing with finding myself single as it is about finding myself no longer involved with ELO. And those are two very distinct things. Being single, as Chally rightly points out in her post, is a social status. It’s a social status that’s seen as lesser- check out the post above for her discussion on that.

Here’s the thing. Dealing with being single means dealing with possibly ending up single. Every time you’re not in a relationship, there’s a perfectly reasonable possibility that you’re going to stay that way. It happens. For as many reasons as there are people in that situation.

I don’t know how to unpack the parts of that which are scary personally, and which are scary because I live in a world that sees ending up single as, well, a deficient way for a woman to be.

I know that the idea of living alone seems awfully lonely to me. I know that I’m at my happiest with someone to come home to, someone to share my space with. Someone to get to taste whatever it is I’m cooking. Someone to talk about my day with, go grocery shopping with. Someone to wake up next to in the morning. A window lit up when I’m walking home that quickens my step and puts a smile on my face, every time. Someone who’s the first person I call. Someone who knows I can be the first person they call.

That stuff is good. It’s also something I always somehow assumed I’d have, in the end.

And while right now there is no way I want to seek out all of that with someone new (after a reasonable amount of time flopping about in NRE-induced idiocy, natch), the idea that that might never happen for me leaves me cold.

And that’s where the unpacking comes in. Because how much of that is because it seems like it’s always assumed that all of those things happen in one kind of relationship? And how much is because I genuinely really want primary romantic relationships? How much of it is not seeing any alternatives? How much of it is my own desire, and how much is what I’ve always been taught to desire? And- more urgently- how much of it is my own fear of never attaining what I desire, and how much of it is my fear of not measuring up? How much of a fear of loneliness is also, or really, a fear of failure?

If, as Chally pointed out, we live in a society where ‘singleness is treated as something to be fixed’, then how are we to tell the difference between what we really want, and what we’re scared of?

 

*Entirely Lovely Other, who has showed up in a post or three before.

**I always get my hair cut at times like these. Always.

Being Privileged (and not being an ass about it)


Jen McCreight over at Blag Hag just posted about a rather predictable thing that happened when she mentioned her disappointment at an impressively-skewed gender ratio of speakers at a conference. Namely, that only 2 of 15 speakers were women, which would be impressively skewed if it weren’t so darned common.
A predictable reply, of course, ensued:

Jennifurret, do you think the organizers are being sexist? Should they seek out more women to speak? Do you have a list of such speakers you could give them? If you feel there need to be more women at such conferences, then by all means, go to such conferences. Get involved, write articles, get invited. I’d do it except I’m not qualified to be a woman, so you have to.

Now, Jen has perfectly marvellously demolished most of this person’s, eh, ‘arguments’, since she’s got the list, writes the articles, and speaks at the conferences. Booyeah! This is the woman behind Boobquake, fer feck’s sake!

The thing I’d take issue with is that last sentence. You know the one. Just so you don’t have to strain your eyes too much looking up at it, I’ll copy it here for you again:

I’d do it except I’m not qualified to be a woman, so you have to.

This, my lovely readers, is one of the major essences of Being A Privileged Ass. Not only do you get to have bucketloads of privilege, but you also get to completely deny any responsibility for doing anything about it! It’s up to those lazy oppressed people to get up off their asses, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and work as hard as all the privileged people have been working all these years! Privileged people have no responsibility whatsoever to even be aware of their privilege, never mind actually giving a damn and doing anything about it. Right? Right?

Which would be great, if it weren’t, in fact, the other way around. Members of any oppressed class you care to mention tend to have a whole lot more to deal with than their relatively privileged counterparts. In addition to this, they tend to be less likely to be in positions of power, and are less likely to be listened to. Not to mention being at higher risk of all sorts of hassle and violence if they do speak up. Because of this, people who are relatively privileged- and as a white, able-bodied, college-educated cissexual Westerner, I’m counting myself in this- have an absolute responsibility to do something about the structures which privilege us. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is to add our voices to those calling for more representation of, and necessary accommodations for those who do not share our privilege.

Or, you know, we could all throw up our hands and say that it’s nothing to do with us. That’s sure to help.

Attention: women! You might be fat without even knowing it!


According to this charming article which has been lurking about the internet for a few weeks now (several decades in internet time, I am aware), a full quarter of women who are overweight perceive themselves as normal.

Oh, and this is a problem. A terrible, terrible problem, because all of those women? They might not know about all of the horrible health conditions they could be suffering from right at this very minute! These women might even be eating a normal amount of food and not starving themselves, because they don’t even know that they’re disgusting, sick freaks of horribleness possibly maybe kinda unhealthy. Maybe. Because, of course having a BMI over 25 automatically makes a person unhealthy than their 24.9 counterparts. Because a woman could never know herself if she is healthy or not. Because the only way to be healthy is to eat a restricted diet. Because, of course, a person who is overweight can’t be normal.

But less of the snark, and let’s get to actually looking at the article, shall we? Most of the article focuses on the fact that a reasonably large proportion of women feel themselves to be in a different BMI category than they are. Some women who are ‘overweight’ see themselves as ‘normal*’, and vice-versa.
Okay, fair enough. Not all of us have the time or the inclination to constantly check our BMIs. We might be more interested in how our bodies feel and look to us than how this relates to a height-weight ratio that is, frankly, of very little use on an individual level. We might be busy with actually getting on with our lives and have different priorities.

But then we get to the discussion, to what is talked about, what is left out, and how topics are actually discussed. While the research itself appears to have included ‘underweight’ as a category, this article defines ‘normal’ weight as a BMI under 25. Can anyone else see the large, glaring problem here? Particularly when being severely underweight comes with rather more acute health problems (actual starvation) than being equivalently overweight (claims that certain chronic conditions are more likely which, contrary to popular opinion, are frequently contested).
When contrasting unhealthy behaviours among people who misperceive their weights, there also seems to be an imbalance in discussion in this article. While ‘normal’ weight people who perceive themselves as overweight are more likely to smoke or take diet pills- both activities which are dangerous in themselves- those who are ‘overweight’ might simply not be restricting their diets. How… terrible?
Later, however, we get to the really peachy stuff**. The last section of the article talks about how the ‘fattening of America’ could be causing people to feel themselves to be ‘normal’ when they are really abnormal ‘overweight’- how seeing other people of similar weights around them causes people to normalise higher weights.
Leaving aside that this is problematised? Again, okay, fair enough. I can see how seeing people like you around you would lead you to think that being like you is pretty much normal. However, let’s go back to the numbers, shall we? Some back-of-an-envelope calculations give me, in this study, 22% of ‘overweight’ women seeing themselves as ‘normal’, and 16% of ‘normal’ women seeing themselves as ‘overweight’. While there is a disparity between the two, I’m going to guess that it isn’t a hugely significant one***. It’s around the same range, ish. Oh, and no numbers at all are given for women classed as ‘underweight’. Surprised?
Which is where we go back to the problematisation of ‘overweight’ women perceiving themselves as ‘normal’. There simply isn’t an equivalent problematisation, in this article, the other way around. It’s not there. The idea that there are every bit as significant a fraction of women who think themselves to be ‘overweight’ when they’re not? The fact that we’re shaming women of all sizes into behaviours that are both unhealthy and damned un-fun in the pursuit of a certain body type, and then writing damning articles about them when they have a healthy self-image? Not there either. And all of this without even a mention of the 49% of the human race left out of this discussion entirely.

There’s just one more thing I want to talk about, regarding this article and the women it criticises. And that is that it appears to me that one of the people they’re talking about here? The people they’re criticising like this for not restricting their diets and being suitably ashamed of their bodies? Is me.
See, I did some calculations over the past few weeks after this article came out. It turns out that my BMI? Varies between 23-ish and 25-ish. If I’m feeling a bit bloated, a bit on the PMSey side of things and happen to have eaten recently? If I’ve decided today that I’m probably closer to 5’2″ than 5’3″? I could, without even noticing, cross that great divide between Normal and Abnormal Overweight, between Healthy and Should Be Starving Herself. Today? I have no idea, and I have no interest in getting on the bathroom scales and taking out my calculator to find out.

*Here I recommend tying a nice pillow onto your forehead to avoid bruising from the inevitable headdesking and facepalming. If you don’t happen to have any pillows of appropriate size, you should be able to McGyver something with, say, some nice thick socks and some string or elastic.
**You might want to make sure that pillow is firmly attached to your forehead before going any further.
*** Feel free to jump in here please, statisticians!