Solidarity Against Straightness – access copy

University of Hamburg, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter

 Philosophisches Seminar

November 22, 2021

My core argument in this piece is: We should be in solidarity against straightness. I want to be on the side of straight people, against straightness as norm, institution, and system. While my own political orientation remains toward queerness of many sorts, I’ve come to think that my hazy earlier plan, to convince all my suffering straight friends that they should become queer, is both impractical and condescending. And I’ve become interested in the straightening of many non-heterosexual spaces, what my comrade Gary Kinsman is theorising as the “neoliberal queer”. In a moment when many young people no longer think of themselves as straight, where there is a certain proliferation of queer orientations, of ace sexualities and nonbinary genders, it is tempting to think that heteronormativity is dying a quiet death offstage. But, alongside these proliferations, straightness as a social relation of oppression and benefit weaves its way through our lives, a coproduction of eugenics, medicalisation, and neoliberal social structures organized around the monogamous, dyadic, reproductive family unit. How can we challenge straightness without recapitulating its core modalities?

 I’m interested here and always in how the affect, practice, and fantasy of solidarity can offer something helpful to our work for collective liberation across and with difference. To get there, I’m going to try to lay out some diagnostic criteria for straightness and consider what it would mean to betray straightness. Here I think about betrayal in line with work on white people becoming treasonous to whiteness in the ways that Mab Segrest articulates that possibility, when one wants to abolish a social relation in which one is embedded and from which one benefits. Wherever we are placed in relation to straightness, we experience the torque of ways it distributes benefit and harm as a stabilizing social relation of oppression and benefit. So, wherever we are placed in relation to straightness we have traction for opposing it personally and politically.

In 1982, Adrienne Rich reflected that her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” was written to “encourage heterosexual feminists to examine heterosexuality as a political institution which disempowers women – and to change it” (Rich 23). Rich was interested in how the existence of lesbians affects naturalised heterosexualty – rendering its compulsory nature perceptible. On some level she seems to think that it would be best for all women to decide to be lesbians (“we can say that there is a nascent feminist political content in the act of choosing a woman lover or life partner in the face of institutionalized heterosexuality”) – but, as she emphasizes, “for lesbian existence to realize this political content in an ultimately liberating form, the erotic choice must deepen and expand into conscious woman identification – into lesbian feminism” (66).

Forty years on from Rich’s words here, Jane Ward’s book The Tragedy of Hetrosexuality makes a call to return to a version of lesbian feminism based around a kind of woman identification that claims loving women as a choice, “a cultivated political stance, an act of opposition to heteropatriarchy” (Ward 160). Choosing to be straight in a way that is about liking women, not just desiring them, might constitute what Ward thinks of as “deep heterosexuality” – resonant with Allyson Mitchell’s “deep lez” art practice. Ward is interested in extending to straight men a “lesbian feminist mode of desire.” She writes:

Lesbian feminist ethics dictated that to lust after women, to want to fuck women – even casually or nonmonogamously or raunchily – was inseparable from being identified with women as a whole and with the project of wanting women’s freedom. It meant learning about what lifted women up, and also what harmed them, and aligning one’s desires in the direction of women’s collective liberation rather than their suffering (166).

Such an approach resists what Ward characterizes as the “misogyny paradox,” whereby “boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed within a broader culture that encourages them to also hate girls and women” (27). I know a lot of feminist, cisgender, straight women who believe that heterosexuality disempowers women, but not many who share Rich’s or Ward’s of hope about leaving or changing it. I’ve been especially struck by how many of my straight women friends really didn’t like The Tragedy of Heterosexuality – at exactly the same time that many of my straight men friends like it a lot.

  1. Diagnostic Criteria: What does straightness require as its minimum conditions?

The helpful site WikiHow defines straightness as feeling “attracted to people of the opposite gender.” I know this is one step away from starting a paper with a definition from the dictionary, but to the extent that straightness is defined explicitly rather than gesturally, this captures something. I think there are three core conditions that define straightness. They are weird, because none of them exist, and yet I think these are the things that people are relying on when they identify themselves or others as straight. Like so many other imaginary social relations with material effects, that they are lies doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Common conceptions of straightness involve:

  1. Identifiable distinct sexes – usually based on a physical marker for sex (secondary characteristics, chromosomes, hormones).
  2. Stability of gender designation over an individual’s lifetime, usually yoked to sex designation.
  3. Sexual or romantic desire.

When I say “none of these exist,” I mean, none of these conditions are the kind of stable and reliable determinant on which we should rationally build entire social orders; they each have salient counter-examples that show that they are not sufficient diagnostic criteria.

Identifiable distinct sexes Any physical marker used to delimit sex categories – male, female, or other non-binary but socially-fixed sex designates – has counter examples. To take the top three: Sex identification based on chromosomal markers (where XX chromosomes indicate “female” and XY indicate “male”) is unreliable; the usual example given here is that of people with XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity, who may not know of their hormonal status unless medical interventions are needed and “look like” woman. The idea that secondary sexed characteristics will have clear delimitations – genitals, facial hair, voice timbre and so on – similarly fails, especially in intersex people. And the idea that hormones make the male or female, popularly framed as though people with lots of estrogen are female humans and people with lots of testosterone are male humans, is similarly inaccurate.

Stability of gender designation over an individual’s lifetime Gender designation may seem simpler to stabilize over our lifetime, since after all many societies relentlessly gender and re-gender everyone from human babies to cars, and since many of us actively participate in liking our gender and how we live it. I read the sheer effort that goes in gendering process – whether it’s the joyful effort of feeling gender euphoria or the punishing effort of disciplining other people’s genders – as telling us something about how instable and needy gender is as a project. As I settle into middle age I am reflecting also on the felt experience of gender shifting over the life course. A remarkable number of people my age and older are taking up nonbinary or agender gender identifications; this may be because of the increased hermeneutic space in which people can understand their genders. It may also be about the ways that gender shifts across our individual life-course, even for people who do not think of themselves as transgender or transexual.

 Sexual or romantic desire Finally, sexual or romantic desire exists for many, but unstably even for those who have it. Orientation or availability to interest might be a settled state, but its manifestation is episodic, often specific to particular people or places. People are not in continual states of lust or heart-eyes swooning after someone, and it’s worth noting how much of the classification of straightness relies on the assumption that people’s self-identification can be reliably read through this species of other-directedness. There might be a lot of distance between people’s fantasy lives and their sexual practices. People might not have sexual or romantic desire at all in their lives, after life transitions, or in relation to specific circumstances. Monogamy turns out to also be central to the disciplinary conceptions of sexual and romantic desire; people are expected not only to have stable orientations but also to attach them to one person, who is themself expected to not transform their gender, sexual orientation, sex designation, or pattern of desire.

So there are obvious counter examples to any of the popular anchors for common sense straight identification: When we examine any of them in any detail at all we can see that the categories that are taken to give clear, scientific, common-sense answers for the questions we’d need to answer (about sex, gender, desire) whether someone is “really” straight don’t have clear answers. At the same time, there are so many non-scientific examples of straightness not relying on these core anchors. There are many straight trans people. Asexual and aromantic people are often read as straight, imputing forms of orientation to them they may not have – but by the same token they may be straight despite not having sexual or romantic desire. Or consider any of the people you know who always identified as straight until they got into a queer relationship. Consider people who thought of themselves as totally queer until they started dating a straight person and began to worry – if they’re in a monogamous relationship with someone who identifies as straight, what does that mean for them?

  • What does straightness need to stabilize itself?

Thinking about these broad baskets of concepts – distinct sexes, stable genders, desire – as Wittgensteinian family resemblance affiliations that do not rely on conceptual clarity might get us some distance toward thinking about what Crys Ingraham thinks of as a logical incoherence at the heart of heterosexuality (Ingraham 3). Maybe what we should be doing is just abolishing the entire category of straightness, since it’s conceptually and practically incoherent. And, as Jane Ward points out, many queers are delighted enough with being queer that we do on some level think all our straight friends would be happier if we just recruited them. Since the boundaries are in fact so fuzzy and gestural, and since there has been so much violence and suffering directed at people who are not deemed straight, perhaps the appropriate political and theoretical move is just to declare everyone actually a bit queer and go on from there.

Here I would note that although the fuzziness of boundaries around criteria for proper straightness is quite thoroughly disavowed, their bright lines take brutally clear bureaucratic and social form. Just try to sponsor someone to immigrate outside of family bonds articulated through monogamous sexual and romantic love, or to give your insurance benefits, if you’re lucky enough to have them, to a friend. So, we could say, family resemblances, fuzzy boundaries, but also, massively stabilized categories requiring mountainous collective work to perpetuate their existence. Here we perceive the work of whiteness, medicalized conceptions of bodies as having a real, true, knowable existence, and the heteropatriarchy come together. I see six stabilizing patterns to be the most significant in maintaining heterosexuality:

  1. Naturalizing evolutionary narratives as explanation for social organization – nature made us so that we could reproduce the species, care roles arise from reproductive roles, men naturally do y, women naturally do x.
  2. A conception of sexual desire as natural, organizing, and simultaneously out of control and foundational to social life.
  3. Disciplining hierarchies that simultaneously produce and enforce the social organization of gender – heterosexuality stabilized through social and political institutions
  4. Distinct and mutually-exclusive gender roles
  5. Material social relations of oppression and benefit that stabilize people’s access to a good life based on their proximity to straightness
  6. Under neoliberalism, an intensified conception of the family as the only appropriate unit of care.

Since the minimum conditions of straightness are incoherent fictions, yet socially real, these stabilizing apparatuses are perhaps the most vulnerable vectors for destroying the white cissexist heteropatriarchy – indeed, these have been historically some of the main points of attack for collective social movements. I am thinking about attacking these as a useful starting point for betraying straightness and building solidarity.

  • Betraying straightness, Building solidarity

I’ve come to think that only straight people can really betray straightness, in the way that Donna Haraway notes that only true believers can be truly apostate or blasphemous. However, all of us can work to collectively transform the social relation of oppression and benefit that animate straightness.

Consider the white supremacist “14 words,” – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” As Ladelle McWhorter has argued, in the North American context, racism, ableism, hetrosexism, and sexism do not operate in isolation from one another, but in fact collectively underwrite “oppressive conditions and relations.” Thinking about their entanglements invites an intersectional method that is comfortable with, indeed relies upon, the transformation of the social relations that also constitute us. The monster is always already inside the house, and it’s from here that we’ll do any transformation.

I see three primary modalities for productive betrayal, out of which we might build aspirational solidarities for selves and futures that don’t yet exist – personal, political, and social. Political and social betrayal take the form of aspirational solidarity work.

Straightness is experienced personally, in the every day and every night lives of straight people. Whether they’re going on dates, trying to get a job, parenting, grieving, trying to make friends, their micro, biographical experiences are part of what constitutes social relations of straightening. Of course, we queers also experience straightness personally, since straightness defines itself against us – I do not want to minimize the torque of serving that role in the very intimate ways that most of us have. This personal production of straightness out of people’s personal lives is frequently painful, at each point that it is specifically straightness as a norm being enacted. Quite a lot of the pain here involves the production and stabilization of a co-produced gender binary and gender hierarchy.

As Ward puts it:

Heterosexuality (or the investment in a normative sexuality organized around the attraction of opposite bodies) is not the outgrowth of preexisting binary gender differences but a force that requires and produces binary gender differences. In other words, the tragedy of heterosexuality is about men’s control of women, but it is also about straight women’s and men’s shared romantic and erotic attachments to an unequal gender binary, or to the heteroerotic fantasy of binary, biologically determined, and naturally hierarchical gender oppositeness (22).

Or, again, the misogyny paradox, that straight men and women are expected and enabled to desire one another and build lives together without liking, respecting, or understanding one another. Ward again notes, “if we held straight couples to basic standards of good friendship – mutual respect and affection and a sense of comfort and bondedness based on shared experience – many straight relationships would fail the test” (17). Of course, many queer relationships, let alone many friendships, would also fail this test. But as a socially structuring imperative – to pursue monogamous sexually replete straight pair bonds, establish them in single-family dwellings supported by productive work, and unfold them through biological progeny – it is striking how difficult it can be to be straight. Ward productively (for the straight men I know who’ve read her book and loved it) suggests many ways straight men can practice women-identification, regard, and friendship; they can really like women, and desire them in all their complexity, enlargement, and expansiveness. I do see such practices of friendship inside straight relationships as a betrayal of straightness as a hierarchical norm; such betrayals are potentially useful.

But perhaps one reason my straight women friends seem to find Ward’s book depressing rather than exciting is that they do attempt to practice friendship in this way with their men partners – they may have respect for, affection towards, they may like the men they’re involved with, but they often don’t have a sense of comfort and mutuality.

So, on that level of the personal, perhaps friendship can be a betrayal of straightness in a more thoroughgoing way than simply being friends with people with whom we are sexually or romantically involved. One of the most precious perceptual lenses asexual and aromantic friends have offered me opens the radical space of relationality without these forms of desire. Holding dyadic sexual-romantic relationships as the paradigm for our social world but adding friendship is not transformative, even on the personal level. I think of the famous conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, where Lorde emphasises, as she so often did: “we cannot fight old power on old power terms only. The only way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting” (Lorde 103). Consider the ways that friendships outside dyadic relationships are perceived as threatening the pair-bond, and reflect: instead of simply adding friendship to that threatened interior – better though that would be than a relationship where you say you love someone you do not like – what else might happen?

In a dense reflection on the glory of actor Jason Mamoa, Yasmin Nair offers nuanced investigations into what she theorizes as “the queer art of friendship.” She writes:

If “queer” means anything, and if we queers have given anything to the world, it’s a combination of sex and love that stretches the imagination and the concept of friendship.  Conventional heterosexuality has been bounded by a need to define friendship between non-romantically-linked opposite-sex people as nothing but a field of landmines, sending therapists and columnists into near-panic. …We queers ask, on some level: whom do you love in ways that exceed bounds of conventional romance, and whom might you sleep with and then bound back with into a long and abiding friendship without feeling the need to “break up?” Nothing is perfect and this is by no means the last word on the matter, but we can safely say that queers have perfected the art of friendship as something not defined by whom you are or are not sleeping with but who excites you and whom you keep in your ambit: Who makes you crazy with love when you see them?

  I want to follow Nair in this question of what follows when we ask who excites us and whom shall I aim to keep in my ambit? Beyond imagining a world in which romantic and sexual relationships did not trump any and all friendship, this is an invitation to attune ourselves to our own excitement, interest. For many women, and many straight women in particular, being attentive to other people’s excitement and interest overrides even the question of our own interest. And the question of ambit is generative. Ambit gives scope – we cannot be friends with everyone, or friends in the same way with everyone we’re friends with. But attuning to our own sense of aliveness in our relationships can be part of practicing forms of relationality orthogonal to straightness.

Prioritizing friendship can also have the personal effect of disrupting what Dean Spade talks about as the “romance myth” – which operates in both queer and straight spaces – one stabilizing story that facilitates straightness. As Spade articulates it, this is the myth that there is a perfect/best partner out there who we should give up anything for, who we will be with for our whole life, who will meet all of our relational needs, with whom love and sex will be continuous and easy, and that this the most important, sustaining relationship, competitively secured through being an appropriate seller/consumer of the dating market, we can aspire to. Having friendships of many different sorts can viscerally disrupt this myth; in particular I want to mark that recent focus on people who marry their best friends, or books like Big Friendship don’t disrupt the romance myth as much as they slightly displace it. To really nourish friendship, as Nair’s work encourages us to consider, requires including not only these “big friendships” but also the situational, episodic, casual friendships that are also part of a complex ecosystem of relationships.

My gym wife Anne Clarke – a very specific category of friendship! – has theorized in conversation with me this more collective approach to disrupting the harms of straightness. Beginning from the reproductive labour of raising four kids, intensified in context of the last year of parents everywhere being thrown to the Covid wolves, Clarke argues that we have been collectively stripped of the capacities and skills to build community. She thinks of care work as definitional of humanness, including in the ambit of care kids, vulnerable people, sick people, as well as the nonhuman animals and ecosystems for which we might care better. She texted me yesterday, “being human is the antidote to straightness.” I’m sparked by this formulation, because so often the pillars of straightness are equated with humanness – or, at least, with a wrong-headed and conservative conception of the work of evolution to produce the dyadic straight family. Resistance to such a conception of the human and the family in marxist humanism – becoming more human humans – has been a central preoccupation and question for me for many years now.

Ultimately we do not transform social relations of oppression and benefit through individual transformation, whether that is becoming better friends to ourselves and others, or skilling up the capacities to be vulnerable, connected, and in communities not organized through capitalism. While I think there is a lot of promise in the work of betraying straightness on a personal level – through queerness in many forms, straight friendships that do not defer to the romance myth, mutually supportive communities – the best way to challenge the white cis heteropatriarchy is collective and it is political.

I was struck by how often in the AIDS activist oral history project I did, people would talk about how they got involved with organizing across difference. Gay men would say things like, Well, I got interested in gay politics and so of course I was going to the abortion clinic defense actions that were happening then, and so that’s how we got to know feminist organizers who’d been working on the political part of health for ages and we learned so much from them. And then lesbians would say, well, I was doing anti rape activism and so of course I got to know the gay men that were active around town and supporting our work there and when they started struggles about AIDS it was obvious that that was something that mattered to me. And straight people would say, well, I was working on drug access in prisons and it was obvious that we couldn’t talk about needle exchanges without thinking about how gay sex was stigmatized and that’s how I got connected, showing up for demos and that.

The solidarity orientation here seems to me to be about rejecting that privatization of straightness, taking personally the connection of struggles. Activists who did care work in the context of AIDS recognized that the best way to support people living with AIDS was not to focus on supporting individuals living with AIDS. It was to make drug trials ethical and responsive to people directly affected, and then to make drugs accessible regardless of wealth. It was to make public housing a priority and resist attacks on the poor. It was to stand with drug users and sex workers and dismantle criminalization of survival, and then to try to get people out of prisons but to make needle exchanges and condoms widely available inside in the meantime. It was to highlight how border imperialism and neoliberal regimes of global capitalism distributed access to treatments to the global north and medical trials and bad drugs to the global south. It was to put into practice the understanding that neither the state nor dyadic privatized families could not be relied upon to offer end of life care. I’m interested in how we can do likewise with some of how we struggle to challenge white cis heteronormativity today.

I take this idea from Ladelle McWhorter’s book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-American. This bookdoes vitally important work on the interconnection of struggles against racism, ableism, sexism, and more. She thinks specifically about the ways that social movements for transformation inherit past struggles and rearticulate them in our current work. As McWhorter writes:

Times have changed. Doing likewise is not necessarily doing the same. Doing likewise is taking up the challenge of inventing what to do in the absence of set models and clear precedents and of living with the uncertainties and unforeseeable consequences that invention entails. And of course doing likewise is no guarantee that we shall overcome – or that we shall be overcome as agents and conduits in an order we want to resist and dismantle. But it is, I think, the only open door, the only possibility. Go forth and do likewise – which means: Listen. Speak. Incite. Invent. And never, ever adjust (McWhorter 331).

McWhorter here signals, with the notion of “adjustment” the process by which we straighten ourselves, or by which we are disciplined. So again there will always be a significant part of what we do that involve the personal betrayal of the harms of straightness.

But it is more interesting to take a page from activists like the people who fought for the lives of people living with HIV. In betraying straightness, we might do well to build collective practices that erode the disciplinary foundations stabilizing straightness. But simply moving to collective forms of relationality not built around the ideal of the dyadic family unit only takes us so far.

The political betrayal of straightness involves targeting its stabilizing apparatus, the ways straightness distributes material harm and benefit along the lines of how well people fit its illusory criteria. To return to those six significant ideological apparatuses of straightness, this would mean:

  1. Contesting the social organization of care based on a narrative about the “natural fitness” of women to take care of kids and elders, with the concomitant distribution of wage disparity, household labour, emotional labour, and so on.
  2. Reconfiguring how we think and talk about sexual desire everywhere from schools to bathrooms such that we do not posit it as foundational to human experience but simultaneously dangerously impossible to control. This means taking seriously the idea that men are not natural rapists biologically compelled to control the people they date because of evolutionary compulsions to identify their biological progeny, that women are not incapable of partner abuse, and so on.
  3. Resisting the form of heterosexuality as Ward advises – personally, straight people coming to like and respect one another, collectively recognizing many different forms of friendship and relationship as valid and good, and politically shifting tax law, practices of housing and cohabitation, hospital visitation rights, adoption and fertility access practices, and monogamy as norm.
  4. Fighting the stabilization of mutually-exclusive gender roles in every aspect of life.
  5. Providing meaningful access to a life of sufficient abundance and meaning for everyone, regardless of whether they fit straight norms of dyadic gender-differentiated monogamous reproductive coupledom.
  6. Refusing the neoliberal cant that the family is the only form through which humans should offer care and nourishment to one another or the world.

 If we had universal guaranteed housing, people would not be forced to stay in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go; universal child care would allow caregivers of kids to better unfurl their own life course; universal, public medical care for people of all ages would transform the bounds of family and community; free movement of people across borders would do away with the need for family reunification procedures and simultaneously eliminate exploitative foreign worker programs and punishing border regimes; eliminating forced surgeries and treatments for intersex people and universally accessible dignified trans health care would shift how we live gendered lives. In sum, the best way to betray straightness is to work towards fundamental, revolutionary shifts across nearly every aspect of our lives and social relations. Such work can only be done together, in beloved community. The solidarities we practice toward in order to do this work are of necessity aspirational – we stand with future versions of ourselves who do not yet exist, who have refused to be adjusted, who have yet to be realized. How beautiful that world we can’t yet fully experience is, and how worth struggling for.

(I’ve taken down the rest of this paper, since it’s still very much in process, but if you’re working on this stuff and would like to read it, you’re welcome to email me to get whatever is the current draft.)