The End of Normal? We’re Not There Yet

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Being normal isn’t all that its cracked up to be. In 1963, Betty Friedan exposed the dark underside of “normal” femininity in a book that helped launched the women’s movement, The Feminine Mystique. Michael Warner’s 1999 polemic, The Trouble with Normal, made an impassioned case for how queer people, unencumbered by marriage, subvert gender and sexual norms.

The collapse of normal gender and sexuality has rapidly progressed, according to some observers. As the argument goes, rising divorce rates, the growing affirmation of queer relationships, and the proliferation of singles, among other developments, are changing the way we live. The expectation that we’ll fall in love and spend our lives with one person, that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and even that there are two, and only two sexes, is fading.

Recent Hollywood rom-coms like The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers, and Knocked Up, filled with nebbishy guys and relationships gone awry, offer further proof, according to J. Jack Halberstam in her latest book, Gaga Feminism–as does kids’ culture. Children are playful, they elude categorization, they embrace nonsense, and they’re organic gender warriors, according to Halberstam. While the adult world tries furiously to place the author in gender boxes, the children in her life, she says, happily describe her as a “boygirl.”  As Freud suggested, children are polymorphously pleasure seeking. It’s their parents who screw them up, forcing them to conform to old, tired prescriptions of what they should be like.

Sociologists who’ve studied children and adolescents– such as Barrie Thorne, C. J. Pascoe, and Karin Martin — agree in theory that gender is infinitely malleable. Society produces “the natural”– yet there’s relatively little about gender that’s cast in stone. But these empirical researchers see norms as fairly resilient. Schools, in particular, teach kids how to be “themselves”–how to be girls and boys. Children pick these lessons up from their teachers, as well as from other kids, who bring all of their exposure to media, parental prejudices, and so forth with them each day, along with their lunch and sharpened pencils.

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Bless those feminists and gay liberationists who in the heady 1970s believed that we could slice and dice it all, and make a world where categories would have less sway. And praise be to the gender-queers and sex radicals who continue to struggle to create a different order of things, or a happy disorder. Collectively, they’re brave– even visionary. But sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry. If left to their own devices, perhaps kids would create a world of polymorphous gender and sexuality, where girls can be boygirls and boys can be girlboys–a world without fairy princesses, or muscled soldiers toting bayonets. But to a great extent kids live in a world of their elders’ making. Even as Freud described the enormous flexibility inherent in little humans, he believed that as they matured most people develop along a fairly predictable trajectory, and end up as either male or female, and generally as heterosexual.

Card-carrying feminist and queer parents (and I’m among them) often speak of how the experience of raising children tempers their radical constructionist commitments. Gazing upon their little daughters who insist upon wearing pink, some parents pronounce the triumph of biology: girls will be girls; boys will be boys. There’s a tendency to enlist explanations of innate gender differences to account for why radical change hasn’t happened. Missing from this account is just how dominant the dominant culture remains.

So, as much as I’d like to believe we’re seeing the unraveling of the normal, I’m not so convinced. That doesn’t mean that we should stop struggling against the categories which confine us, but that we need to see the struggle as a very, very long one.

Ambivalence at the Altar

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Last week, the man who washed my hair in a beauty parlor –he was perhaps 30– nonchalantly referred to the person he shares a home with as his “husband.”  That term, along with “wife” and “fiance” are rolling off the tongues of more and more people I encounter, suggesting that “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” and “partner” or “lover,” may soon be quaint reminders of an age before gays and lesbians could marry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage–and the fact that I’m not really the marrying kind, even if long-term monogamy seems to suit me fairly well. I was domestically partnered for over 20 years, and am the nonbiological mother of a 15 year old. I’m no radical queer, at least in relation to the broad contours of my life. But neither have I harbored the belief that marriage would make me more secure, respectable, or complete.

I am, in short, ambivalent about the whole thing.

The other day, at a Mother’s Day brunch with my ex, her fiance, her fiance’s ex, my current partner, and our kids (it takes a lesbian village to raise a child!) we sipped mimosas and discussed the impending wedding of my ex and her fiance, whose ring finger is now graced by a glittering diamond.

“Do you think it’s a radical act to get married?” her fiance asked me.

“No,” I replied. “It’s a liberal act.” It doesn’t exactly strike a blow against male domination, or class inequality. It does, however, open up a powerful institution to a group of people–gays and lesbians– who have been excluded from it.

For most of us the urge to be married is not about changing the world, but about gaining access to the same rights, privileges, and social affirmation that coupled, middle class people enjoy in this country. Because of the centrality of marriage in our culture –as a route to gaining decent health care, inheritance rights, and community membership– I can’t begrudge anyone for wanting that.

Even in relatively liberal parts of the country, such as the suburban New Jersey town where I lived  for many years, we’re still marginalized. Several years ago, when our son was in middle school, he was asked to fill out forms that asked him for his mother’s name, his father’s name, and their respective telephone numbers. The configuration of this form assumed that all children have a mother and a father, and also that both parents share one address. There were many, many more mundane instances of a how we went unrecognized as a family.

In a soon-to-be-published volume, I’ve contributed an article, “Who’s Your Daddy?: Intimacy, Recognition, and the Queer Family Story,” about how nonrecognition and misrecognition impacts gay and lesbian parents, particularly our children–and threatens our sense of worth.

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In the piece, I describe the ways many of us have improvised rituals and objects to represent our families. In my own queer family, for example, we made our son a book which tells the story of how he came to be. With the right to marry, such improvisations would no longer be necessary.  It would accord many of us instant recognition, belonging and ease, furthering what some have described as the “normalization” of homosexuality.

Yet I can’t help but think about those who are left out of the wedding party– such as single people, people whose material circumstances prevent them from marrying, and couples who choose, for any number of reasons, not to do so. (I’ll write about this in future posts). That’s why, for my own part,  I’ll continue to the use “girlfriend” or “partner” to describe my significant other–blurring the distinction between those who marry, and those who do not.

Writing without an Audience

Starting a blog is a bit like keeping a diary, which I did for so many years–throughout my teens and twenties. While the diarist tends to keep one’s thoughts private, guarding them from curious eyes, the blogger hopes to speak to others, but is never entirely sure whom he or she is reaching. Today, I’m much (much!) older, and no longer keep a diary; the existential scribblings of my youth have been disciplined, and most of the writing I do is for others– academic articles, books, and the occasional newspaper op-ed. And yet I’ve never been all that enamored of scholarly prose, which I tend to find ponderous and often flat.  Why should we limit ourselves to those who speak our specialized languages? While there’s certainly a time and place for doing so, straying outside those worlds opens up new, exciting  possibilities. For now, then, I write for myself, hoping that others may occasionally join me.