Normal isn’t necessarily good; but denying abnormality isn’t good either

One of the expressions I'm hearing more and more, that I find really troubling is 'heteronormativity'. Not only should homosexuality be legal and not discriminated against. Not only should it be celebrated. But it should be equally 'normal'. Anything else is 'heterosexism'.

You don't have to believe that homosexual practice is immoral to object to this bundle of assumptions. There's just so many quetsions being begged here:

  • Statistically: homosexual attraction (especially exclusively homosexual attraction) is rare. It's statistically abnormal in that simple sense.
  • Sexologically: homsexual sexual activity is not reproductive sexual activity. Even when the similar sexual acts are performed by a hetersexual copule they are unable to be procreative. That's not to say that all sex must be procreative. But it is to say that there is something essentially unique about heterosexual sex. Indeed the sex of an infertile heterosexual couple is abnormal, in a way that often causes a great deal of grief for that very reason.

Nevertheless, to call homosexual orientation abnormal in any sense amounts to some kind of discrimination or hate speech. In the first place, we need to be clear: normal does not necessarily mean good and abnormal does not necessarily mean bad. Just observing that something is unusual doesn't necessarily bring with some big Natural Law argument that it is therefore good and right.

But having said that, something normal is desirable and abnormal is undesirable. And that's ok too. It's ok to want to have the 'normal experience' of marriage and 2 kids. That's a noble and understandable desire. And it might be very sad for someone to miss out on this. 'Normal' can help us explain things that are generally expected, even generally valued, without implying they are necessary in some moral or experiential sense.

Often we think that calling someone abnormal would be hurtful and oppressive. We need to affirm everyone's equal normality, it is argued. Or get rid of the category altogether. But not only is denying abnormality not the path to reality (as argued above), it is also not a path to emotional resilience. Part of the growth process of dealing with any abnormality (in physical or mental disability, infertility, unwanted singleness or whatever else) is some measure of grief about that abnormality. To deny that grieving process can't be ultimately healthy. 

Even those things that are abnormal but not seen as a bad thing or a loss in and of themselves (extreme physical or mental, being a demographic minority etc) can still cause some degree of grief for being different. And that's ok. That has to be allowed and mustn't be muted by denial. Indeed that was my experience of the Queer movement of the 1990s: a celebration of difference, Otherness, Queer-ness.

Because, whether an abnormaltiy is desirable or undesirable, recognising its unusualness can lead to a special kind of redemptive celebration: delighting in the quirky and unique experiences afforded by that 'special–ness': whether wanted or unwanted, desirable or undesirable.

I suspect what really lies behind many thoughtful gay rights activist is still something pretty similar to the Queer Theory I studied at uni: by deconstructing and removing privilege from normality, we ultimately cause the whole concept to decay. In the end we don't want Gay to be 'as normal' as Straight... but rather lose the concept of normal altogether, and blur the continuum between Gay and Straight as well! In other words, in denouncing 'heteronormativity', I wonder if many people really want to denounce is normativity.

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