Review: The Trouble With Normal
While The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life written by Michael Warner was first published in 1999, I believe many of its core messages are still valid today. They are valid not only for LGBTQ people, but also anyone with non-mainstream ideas about sexuality or who otherwise doesn’t fit what is considered “normal” by society.
Warner starts with the premise that people like to control the sex lives of others and for many this is where their sense of morality begins. But Warner argues that controlling the sex lives of others is not only unethical, but that this attitude is actually moralism rather than any kind of ethics or true morality. Our culture governs sex, not just harmful sex like rape, but all sex by legally regulating what is and isn’t acceptable, prohibiting some forms of victimless sexuality and by restricting access to and information about sexuality. Society also claims one set of sexual values and practices as normal while vilifying all others. Those who fall outside the sexual norms might be humiliated, beaten, jailed, or stigmatized as deviants and criminals. Warner argues that what many would take for granted as immoral, criminal, or pathological might just be harmless difference and a rival morality. And society’s repression of sexuality may be the basis of pathology rather than sexuality itself.
Attitudes about sexuality have been tainted by the early Christian church’s fear and repulsion of the flesh and the belief that sex is only about procreation. As such, society dictates that certain things aren’t permissible and should be controlled including: homosexuality, sex outside the Holy institution of marriage, promiscuity, masturbation, group sex, casual sex, sex with someone outside your age group, public sex, pornography, BDSM sex, and virtually any other sex that doesn’t include the possibility of insemination. Traditionally, this even included birth control, and if you’re Catholic it still does.
All of these things are vilified and shamed by our society. LGBTQ people are particularly vulnerable to this shaming because we grow up in heterosexual families and with heterosexual peers who all assume we’re heterosexual. Our schools and religions assume the same and indoctrinate us to grow up to be normal, responsible heterosexual citizens. To those who grow up realizing they’re gay, this leads to a sense of estrangement and secrecy that further perpetuates those feelings of shame. Is it any wonder that many gay adults and even the gay movement itself seek validation and acceptance from the mainstream rather than sexual autonomy and difference? To embrace our difference and our sexuality would be to invite shame and our own feelings of inadequacy – of not being “normal.”
This creates ambivalence for many gay people. They want to feel normal and connected to the heterosexual world that includes their parents and family, but they’re also part of the gay world and the stigma associated with it. They may feel that their own feelings and actions are honorable, and so must blame this stigma on others in their group especially those that are further from straight norms and those who act in stereotyped ways. They may also feel a need to repudiate sex and to desexualize themselves, others, and the gay movement as a whole. This ambivalence plays out in the gay community with assimilationists seeking respectability and normalcy on the one end; and sex radicals embracing their sexual differences on the other end. Those seeking respectability are the most likely to be harboring sexual shame.
The trouble with normal according to Warner is many-fold but boils down to this. By trying to be “normal” we are only feeding into larger society’s stigma toward sex and sexuality and that when we take this attitude on as a movement the result is to reproduce a hierarchy of shame within our own community. Embracing normal throws shame on those further down the ladder or respectability including those who are effeminate or otherwise don’t act “straight,” those not in monogamous relationships whether bachelors or polyamorists, those into BDSM, sex workers, drag queens, those who actually admit to liking pornography, and so on. We do a disservice to ourselves and to society when we try too hard to win acceptance and respectability rather than challenging the faulty assumptions and ethics of the dominant culture. For gay people to disavow sex and sexuality in an effort to fight stigma is to reject the very thing that defines us.
Warner also points out that what we think of as normal is really what is statistically normal. People didn’t start worrying about normal until polling and statistics came into popularity. Being normal is not really a good reflection of desirability. It’s normal to have health problems and to be in debt. It’s not normal to be a genius or to be well endowed. People have come to see normal as meaning to be certified or approved, but in essence to be normal is to be common with nothing too special about you.
Warner spends an entire chapter with a compelling critique of gay marriage. This was long before same-sex marriage became legal in the U.S. Warner argued that while many believed same-sex marriage would somehow erase all the hate and intolerance existing in society toward LGBT people, it doesn’t address the real root of the problem which is society’s stigma and intolerance of sexual variation.
Opponents of gay marriage want their marriages to be holy at the expense of someone else. But that’s really the problem with the institution of marriage as a whole, and that doesn’t change much with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Marriage sanctifies and gives legitimacy to some relationships at the expense of others. It commends and privileges those who are married. It makes them special. If you don’t have it you and your relations are less than worthy. It’s kind of like being a single person on Valentine’s Day. Marriage confers a number of social and governmental benefits and privileges to married couples that are denied to single people, people in non-traditional relationships, and other types of cohabitating households. Warner argues that applying strict definitions of marriage onto same-sex relationships provides less freedom to LGBTQ people, not more.
Marriage might not be the right choice for gay people for other reasons as well. Historically marriage has been designed to define lineage and to perpetuate families by having and raising children, not to mention to indoctrinate and carry on a family’s religious beliefs – that’s why mixed religion marriages have traditionally be frowned upon and are still an issue in some families even today. As many feminists would point out, marriage has also historically been a way of dominating and trafficking women. A carry over from this can still be seen today when a bride’s father gives her away to the groom. Marriage allows the state to regulate and enforce the dictates and rules of marriage, as well as regulating and enforcing restrictions on sex in other contexts outside of marriage. Marriage gives power over to the state and third parties to legitimize and affirm the status of a relationship rather than letting that come from within the relationship itself.
Instead of gay marriage, Warner offers other solutions. These include extending the special legal privileges currently defined narrowly within marriage into wider contexts including domestic partnerships, common law marriages, and alternative forms of families. Rather than trying to force the plethora of gay relationships and even many straight relationships into the mold of marriage, it might be better to take the forms of relationships already existing and extend benefits and rights to those making them available and accessible to gay and straight people alike. Rather than trying to make gay relationships more straight, perhaps we should be trying to allow straight relationships to be more queer.