Sexuality and sexual orientation tend to be regarded as clear and simple matters: a common opinion is that discriminations based on them should be erased, but that gay people as a group have no further political interest. However, almost every political issue over sexuality and its regulation is usually linked to social institutions and norms of the most basic sort. Therefore, sexuality is political, and so it is being queer (Warner, 1993; XIII). The term "queer" can indeed take on different meanings depending on who and how it is used. Claiming to be queer it is not just a matter of sexual orientation, it can also take on a strong political function in the struggle against the system and its inherent and rooted inequalities. Since sexual and gender normativity are deeply embedded in a very wide range of social institutions as well as in the most standard accounts of the world, a queer politics, with its queer imaginary, can thus prove to be the most efficient remedy to the oppression of heteronormativity —the hegemonic and highly normative system based on heterosexuality as the default model of human relations that is assumed to be the only and most valid one (Warner, 1993; XXI; Sullivan, 2003; 132-133). In fact, queer struggles aim not just at giving tolerance and an equal status to minorities, but at challenging those institutions and accounts from the very base. Nonetheless, the destruction of straightness would not mean the destruction of heterosexuality as a sexual preference; rather, it would mean the possibility to create "a world in which all of our bodies, all of our desires, all of our genders, all of our consensual sexualities, would be honoured and viable”(Papantonopoulou, 2012; p. 185).
Within Western society, heterosexuality is considered as the "normal" sexuality. This conviction is so deeply implanted in our minds and culture than it seems impossible, even daring, to question it. The consequence of regarding heterosexuality as the norm is its naturalization: “Het culture thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of inter-gender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of reproduction without which society wouldn't exist" (Warner, 1993; XIII). This model is so strong and pervasive that humanity and heterosexuality have almost become synonymous. In fact, despite the considerable amount of research on sexuality, heterosexuality and its alleged natural status are still taken for granted and very rarely questioned. However, this alleged normal sexuality is not just heterosexuality as a sexual orientation, but a particular form of it which is constructed upon a set of specific norms that it reinforces by reitereting them: heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is "a very specific type of heterosexuality that reinforces the dominance of the ascribed set of norms: cohabitation, procreation, marriage, monogamous coupling, etc." (Daring, Rogue, Volcano, Shannon, 2012; p. 15).
Fortunately, many cultural critics have started to argue that heterosexuality is not simply a natural, universal and trans-historical phenomenon, but rather a discursive construct and cultural institution that functions favouring men while at the same time oppressing and exploiting women and their reproductive work. Moreover, as any other cultural and historical product, sexuality can take various specific forms of which heterosexuality is just one of the many and different possible ones. This means that it is no more normal or natural than any other form of sexual relations. Still, due to the many myths about his pretended “naturalness”, it tends to remain invisible and unquestioned. As Saffo Papantonopoulou (2012) claims, “straightness is a multifaceted set of social rules that police our bodies, our minds, our desires, and the ways we interact with others”(p.184). This means that, like any system of social relations, straightness is something that is not only “out there” in what we call society, but also “inside” our heads, our hearts and our minds. It is something that we do to other people as well as to ourselves. It means “to kill the inner queer in order to fit oneself into the straight mold”(Papantonopoulou, 2012; 185).
This is the reason why many feminist writers have pointed out that heterosexuality is one of the most relevant and efficient ways in which patriarchy maintains both itself and the social and sexual power of men over women. According to some of these scholars, such as Adrienne Rich (1980) and Monique Wittig (1980) heterosexuality is thus unquestionably antithetical to feminism. Unfortunately, the solution proposed by both these authors —pursuing and choosing a form of political lesbianism instead of heterosexuality— carries different criticalities, the biggest of which is that it reinforces the form of binarism typical of the “straight mind” that it aims to eliminate. Nonetheless, this strategy can result not only counterproductive but also limited and limiting since it denies the existence or even the mere possibility of finding new and creative forms of subversion and resistance available for heterosexual people who want to take part of feminist and queer fights.
This is also the point of view of another contemporary feminist scholar, Christine Overall, whose aim is precisely to envisage a more compatible relationship between heterosexuality and feminism. Overall focuses on the question of choice, arguing that “beyond the claim that heterosexuality is innate […] and the claim that heterosexuality is coerced […] there is a third possibility: that heterosexuality is or can be chosen, even -or especially- by a feminist” (Sullivan; 2003; p.126). This is neither to dismiss the claim that heterosexuality is usually coerced nor to state that making a conscious and informed choice to participate in heterosexual practices without concomitantly endorsing the heteronormative regime is a simple task. Rather, it is a way of giving a chance to heterosexuality as a sexual orientation to free itself from the chains of heteronormativity as a social system. According to Overall (Sullivan, 2003; 126-127), choosing heterosexuality can be a feminist practice -or, at least, can coexist with a feminist life- if made with a conscious and critical mind. Also the feminist activist and scholar Lynne Segal is committed to the project of rethinking heterosexuality in a more complex and open way. In particular, Segal finds the “dual depiction of feminism as anti-heterosexual pleasure and heterosexual pleasure as anti-woman”(Sullivan, 2003; p.127) both dangerous and demoralising. Therefore, rather than simply encouraging heterosexual women to choose to participate in heterosexual practices on their own terms, she invites those women to play an active role in subverting heterosexual norms by “queering” them.
The term "queer" is not one of immediate comprehension. Although it is usually used to talk about one's sexuality, it can mean so much more than just "not being straight". The term queer refers indeed “to whatever subverts, resists, or creates alternatives to various forms of normativity”(Kadji, 2020; p.21). Under this perspective, queer is thus the opposite of normal. In our society, whatever behaviors, desires, thoughts fall into the category labelled as “normal” are dominant, intelligible, visible and powerful; on the other hand, those behaviors that fall under the definition of "abnormal" become subordinate, unintelligible and thus suppressed, repressed, and oppressed. Queerness can thus become a political stance when it means fighting against the oppressive and hegemonic dominion of heteronormativity by constantly challenging the common understanding of every aspect of our everyday life —from the definition of gender difference to the healthcare system or our relationship with the environment. As Michael Warner states (1993; XIII), “queers do a kind of practical social reflection just in finding ways of being queer".
The first necessary step to queer heterosexuality is trying to dismantle the sex binarism on which it has been constructed. In fact, from the very moment of birth, our bodies are forced to fit into a social system in which there are only two genders available, a system built upon the myth that only the two sexes commonly understood as male and female are “natural”. Our heteronormative (and Western) society demand that everyone is labelled “boy” or “girl” to the point that it will not refuse to use violence against intersex bodies in order to apply these labels. Even if one could think the opposite, also in many feminist writing there is the predominance of these “dichotomous images of the male body and the female body, of the penis and the vagina, of activity and passivity, of impenetrability and permeability”(Sullivan; 2003; p.129). The main problem with the insistence on these images is that they act to reinforce and reproduce “the tendency for the genital markers of sexual difference […] to render the kinds of power relations attendant upon them as natural and inevitable” (Sullivan; 2003; p.129).
If we stop focusing on the physical difference between the two sexes in our way of understanding sexual relationships, we will notice that the sexual encounter consists of something other than two separate, autonomous, and supposedly complementary bodies that come together. As Segal and some other scholars have shown, sex is inevitably intersubjective: “Sexual pleasure involves the transgression of the supposed boundaries between self and other, subject and object, inside and outside, active and passive, power and powerlessness”(Sullivan; 2003; p.130). Consequently, Segal concludes that “sexual relations are perhaps the most fraught and troubling of all social relations precisely because, especially when heterosexual, they so often threaten rather than confirm gender polarity”(Segal, 1994, cit. in Sullivan; 2003; p.131). This means that heterosexuality is not always and only heteronormative. In fact, heteronormativity is not completely consistent and stable like it may seem, and it would be a mistake to assume that it does always exist as a discrete and coherent body of thought, norms and regulations. Given this, it is possible to argue, as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner do, that some “forms of sex between men and women might not be heteronormative” and that “heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality”(Berlant, 1998, cit. in Sullivan; 2003; p.132). At the same time, we have to keep in mind that being queer is not to be equated with same-sex relations. Therefore, queering what we usually think of as “straight” sex can give us the chance to move away from fixed notions of gender and sexuality as the assumed foundations of identity and social relations.
Queerness is, by definition, the antithesis of straightness, since it comprehend everything that is prohibited by it. “Queerness includes gender non-conformity, transness, homoeroticism, BDSM, or even the radical notion that two hetero men who are friends can hold hands in public”(Papantonopoulou, 2012; p.185). Queer liberation seeks to liberate all these forms of expression; thus, it is the dismantling of straightness (heteronormativity) with all its norms and hierarchies. “Not questioning these norms —within yourself and your relationships with others around you— is to play into the dominant order of straightness. Questioning them —regardless of the conclusions you may reach— is a revolutionary act" (Papantonopoulou, 2012; p.186).
Heterosexual people that want to queer themselves and the world around them must do the collective effort to unlearn and deconstruct as much as possible their internalized straightness by questioning themselves and their desires, convictions and behaviours as well as listening to queer people. On a more practical level, queering ourselves means challenging dominant forms of social organization including the state, the institution of marriage, capitalism and the nuclear family. It means adopting radical queer politics and practices that can offer to non-normative heterosexual relationships a range of possibilities, including polyamory, intimate friendships, expressive and mutual aid communities, sexualities that are built on intimacy, respect, and consent. It can also mean making authentic decisions instead of following the usual pattern to follow as someone who identifies as straight: being heterosexual —even if one chooses to be monogamous— does not mean that the only possible happy ending will include marriage and kids. There are plenty of other possibilities that are worthy to be explored if we allow ourselves to do that. Of course, we must be very careful not to appropriate or claim queer spaces as our own while we try to queer our heterosexual selves. As Sandra Jeppesen explains, “the idea is to support queer struggles, to integrate queer ideas into our practices, to be as queer as possible, in order to work as allies to end queer oppression. Liberation means this. It means we keep writing the narrative of our lives, our desires, our genders, our sexualities”(Jeppesen, 2012; p.135).
Kadji, A., 2020, Genealogies of Queer Theory, in The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies, Siobhan Sommerville (Ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Warner, M., (1993), Introduction, in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer politics and social theory, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.
Sullivan, N., (2003), Queering ‘Straight’ Sex, in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, New York University Press, Washington Square, New York.
Jeppesen, S., (2012), Queering Heterosexuality, in Queering Anarchism: Addressing and Undressing Power and Desire, AK Press (Oakland, Edinburgh, Baltimore).
Papantonopoulou, S., (2012), Straightness Must Be Destroyed, in Queering Anarchism: Addressing and Undressing Power and Desire, AK Press (Oakland, Edinburgh, Baltimore).
Cover Image: Wittert, Max(2022), What does it mean to be a top, bottom, or verse during queer sex? [Illustration]. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://www.them.us/story/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-top-bottom-or-vers
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Fig. 2: Darling, Geneviève (n.d). Lovestruck prints by Geneviève Darling [Digital Art], Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://thehoneycombers.com/hong-kong/queer-artists-on-instagram-lgbtq/
Fig. 3:Chalabi, Hayfaa (2022). Dal-Gem Against the Binary [Illustration]. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://gal-dem.com/against-the-binary-queer-sex-parties/
Fig. 4: Verdi, Colin (2019). Ordered work for Babeland Toys [Digital Painting]. Retrieved November 18, 2022 https://www.creativeboom.com/inspiration/colin-verdi/