Would petitioning be too heteronormative too?

TW: heterosexism, pathologization of queerness, HIV/AIDS

So if you follow me on tumblr, you’ve probably already seen this quote which I reblogged and then spent a possibly unwarranted amount of time picking apart. I can’t find a source for this lengthy point about heternormativity and what both the means and ends of queer activism are that isn’t tied to that original tumblr post, so it may be a bit uncharitable to credit this to MSNBC show host Melissa Harris-Perry:

For me, queer theory is the emblematic example of how we say the value of what queer politics brings is a challenge to what is the normal. And it’s of course what that whole angst is about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and marriage equality. On the one hand, those are basic citizenship rights, right? You always know that there’s some second-class citizenship going on in military policy and marriage policy, right? If you’re looking for second-class citizenship, look in those things and you’ll often find it. So it’s a very reasonable set of political strategies, but the problem is also a very normative set of political strategies, right? It’s not about, ‘We have a right to be queer and create different kinds of communities and different definitions of family.’ It’s about, ‘Look how much just like you we can be; look how respectable we can be, see; we can have our families look just like your families, and we can serve in the military just like you; and so look how straight we can be!’ Rather than, “Look how queer we can be and look at how valuable it is to take queerness and open up the very definition of what constitutes respectable and normal.

While this specific point lacks and airtight attribution to her, it does fit within a class of argument that she’s made many times before. More than a year ago, she explained in an interview, “full inclusion into the American project of lesbian, gay and transgender people should not just mean, ‘Oh, good, now you can assimilate.’ It should mean that we have to challenge all of our assumptions as well. Expanding the citizenry ought to expand what the country is.” That’s a rather important point to make, but unfortunately incomplete.

In both these cases, Harris-Perry frames heterosexism near exclusively as marginality imposed on queer people and their families. She asks repeatedly about what’s understood to be normal, who is included, and who’s defined as family. Those are necessary parts of a conversation that needs to be had in the United States (and ultimately every part of the world in some form or other), but the explanation on tumblr that purportedly originated with her makes that the entire struggle of queer people. There’s another important fact to how normalcy is created – queer people are pathologized.

The idea of queer people as infectiously dangerous is hardly new – legally recognizing their kinship structures apparently taints the entire institution, there’s the constant arguments about “recruitment”, and concern for the children that often seems to bleed into fears of them becoming queer themselves eventually. Still, it seems remiss to discuss the dynamic without mentioning AIDS – the disease that to an eerie extent still defines queer men in our culture.

Silence = Death poster
(Government assistance to end what was effectively a plague had to be advocated for, because it was perceived as simply another dimension of how pathogenic queerness was, from here.)

So there is indeed a risk involved in queer people erasing their distinctiveness in order to assimilate into the still heteronormative culture of the United States, but to complain that queer people are preoccupied with explaining, “how much just like [straight people they] can be” comes from a place of privilege. One expression of that privilege is not having the US government treat your blood as infectious and dangerous to a degree that no other population’s is. The struggle for queer liberation, much like the on-going struggle for Black liberation, remains to some extent a struggle to be seen as valid, effective contributors to society, which is honestly incompatible with the vision of queer people as either pathogens or irresponsibly pathogen-infested.

If you want to be part of the struggle against those views, I’d recommend doing something other than wondering if there’s too much focus on same-sex and same-gender marriage, and instead supporting efforts to end policies that treat queerness as synonymous with being infected. A few friends of mine are trying to end one such policy. Will you sign their petition?

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2 thoughts on “Would petitioning be too heteronormative too?

  1. […] might remember my previous annoyance over something Melissa Harris-Perry said, which while rooted in a lot of complex and revealing […]

  2. […] a common tool of straight and cisgender commentators – and not just those that seem to be intending to be genuinely mindful, but also those that are more dubious, or those that are outright trying to define what our […]

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