Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gay By Accusation: Upholding Heteronormativity

I had recently returned from my hometown and was reviewing my paper on Judith Butler's "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" when I came to an uneasy realization. While Butler focuses on the transvestite as enacting blatantly subversive revaluations of gender, I realized that, generally, one need not embody improvisations on the gender script in order to come under social scrutiny. While reference to a supposedly “natural” gender role is necessarily ambiguous, social forces keep one constantly trying to upkeep an oppressive male sexuality so as not to come under question. Regardless of one's best efforts, however, anything opposed to or apart from the interests of those embracing heteronormativity is often construed to be "gay." Thus, if one listens to dance music, wears (relatively, of course) eccentric clothing, identifies with intellectuals, etc, accusations of homosexuality as a defect begin. Thus, as I waited in my vehicle outside of a gas station in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, an unknown trio consisting of a male and two females openly derided me for listening to Out Hud, jeering and motioning obscenely, putting me in my place, as it were. (For reference, check http://www.lala.com/#album/720857415391984316/Out_Hud/Street_Dad, the song “Dad, There’s A Little Phrase…”)

Heteronormativity finds many fickle and mostly imperceptible manifestations. I remember a particularly odd situation in high school when the question of same-sex individuals sleeping in the same bed arose. Opposing myself to the common interests and fears of my peers at the time, the idea of same-sex bedfellows did not repulse me. I found myself asking, “If the only available sleeping surface is spacious enough for multiple people, should someone's fear of questioned sexuality force them into sleeping on the floor?” A few examples of limited sleeping surfaces later and rumors circulated in my backward high school concerning my friend group’s “crossing over.” The discomfort of many Americans with seemingly strange practices and interests of others translates into rabid xenophobia in the case of foreigners (today, the Others are “Arab”), but within the community, fear and concomitant anger are made apparent in the form of “gay-bashing.” I realize this is primarily the perspective of a white heterosexual male intermittently attacked with accusations of homosexuality. However, both "flamboyant" and "more reserved" (less open, fearful) homosexual males have found themselves at the bloody end of social brutality.

In relation to nebulous gender roles, many activities may do not fit within the traditional, "ideal" heterosexuality, something variable by region, class, “race,” ethnicity, sex, “gender,” age, etc. Nevertheless, homophobia occurs in near ubiquity, across a variety of classes and creeds. For example, a short reflection upon life at Rhodes College reveals the pervasiveness of gay jokes. A heterosexual male sarcastically dons the persona of a hyper-sexualized homosexual male for the sake of a laugh. What of “Burt’s Bees” lip balm? Is it considered “womanly” to carry such lip items, as Dodge's “Man’s Last Stand” commercial suggests? Apparently men never experience painfully cracked lips, or at least they prefer not to remedy the problem.

In our class, Prof. Johnson rightly redirected our attention to a poignant quote, “The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness,” (99). Thus the habits or practices outside one’s specific construction of gender, itself achieved through performative acts, seem to threaten this construction which is seen as necessary and natural. I’m sure the group which accosted me drove away with their camouflage caps and jackets, listening to clich├ęd modern country music or nu-metal, as this grouping, by mere repetition, is the accepted mode of musically expressed gender. (Never mind the changes always occurring within these genres, band members wearing makeup and excessive hair products, grotesquely ornate clothing, etc.) For a group so terrified of redescription in the gaze of the Other, the angry rural American youth find the most effective way of enforcing heteronormativity in use of the term “faggot.” This word expresses efforts of these agents of heteronormativity to essentialize gender-bending or simply unwanted Otherness into a single, definitive, derogatory term. Even the use of softer descriptions such as "gay" reflect the negative significance ascribed to homosexuality. As "gay" and "bad" are artificially linked even in the minds of children, heterosexuals feel the need to defend themselves against accusations of homosexuality. By the use of these epithets to signify some unwanted quality, and in order to enforce the norms which absolve them from critically examining gender roles, Poplar Bluff's hoi polloi become the social agents described by Butler, those who "constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign,” (97). Within the hearts of those particularly “entranced by their own fictions” in regard to gender, a “Real Man” is by definition heterosexual, aggressive, potentially dangerous, meat-eating, and, somewhat paradoxically, Christian. In this case, I must ask in response to Butler’s call for subversive acts of gender constitution, how does one reach these people without potentially engendering violence, when even mild cases, i.e. my listening to dance music, are cause for extended reprimand?

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