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Questioning Heteronormativity as an Ideology

Updated on June 29, 2013

Through its perpetuation of heterosexist ideology, heteronormativity threatens the legitimacy of homosexual relationships. A heteronormative social structure sets up heterosexuality as the standard for romantic relationships, rendering homosexuality a form of extreme social deviance. The designation of homosexuality as an illegitimate practice is key to Charlotte Bunch’s theory of lesbian-feminism. Pushing homosexuality to the fringes of “normal” society is not just a civil rights concern for homosexuals; it also limits women to romantic partnerships with men only, reinforcing women’s previously established dependence on men. Thus, lesbian-feminism is “not for lesbians only” because by questioning the ultimate normalcy of heterosexuality, it advances various aspects of the feminist movement through its suggestion that individual women are capable of independence from the established system of patriarchy.

Full equality between men and women is partially dependent on the recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate alternative to heterosexuality, rather than the alternative of a deviant minority. By equality, I am referring to a social, political, and economic infrastructure in which men and women yield the same level of influence and power, and where men and women have the same opportunities and agency. What role does sexual orientation play when we are dealing with equality between men and women? The answer is simple: The assumption that heterosexual relationships are the natural standard, rendering the legitimacy of homosexual relationships widely unrecognized, perpetuates patriarchal authority in its corresponding assumption that all women are straight (Bunch 212) and are therefore only seeking male partners:

The heart of lesbian-feminist politics, let me repeat, is a recognition that heterosexuality as an institution and an ideology is a cornerstone of male supremacy. Therefore, women interested in destroying male supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, equally with lesbians, fight heterosexual domination – or we will never end female oppression. (Bunch 212)

Charlotte Bunch

Bunch’s claim seems to come with the assumption that all heterosexual men are out to exert patriarchal domination on their female partners. In reality, many men are themselves gay, and many more still, especially with the changes that society has been through between now and the time that Bunch is writing, recognize and actively avoid contributing to a male-dominated social infrastructure. Therefore, it is not all who contribute to the dominance of the heterosexual framework in society who are the problem; it is those who take said framework for granted as a supplementary means of asserting the patriarchal domination that they are already predisposed to: “Our very strength as lesbians lies in the fact that we are outside of patriarchy; our existence challenges its life” (Bunch 214). It is not that patriarchy pervades all things heterosexual; it is that heterosexuality as an ideal plays a crucial role in the maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchal domination. Once lesbianism becomes a legitimate “institution,” the institution of heterosexuality will lose potency as a locus for patriarchal domination.

We can now see why heteronormativity, the assumption, in this case, that all women are straight and therefore subject to patriarchal domination, is more than just a matter of civil rights. The allowance, by which I do not mean mere tolerance, but the unconditional inclusion of homosexuality, specifically lesbianism, as a valid social framework, will have a quantifiable impact on pay equity:

When we look at how women are defined and exploited as secondary, marginal workers, we recognize that this definition assumes that all women are tied to men. I mention the workplace because it upset me yesterday at the economics panel that no one made that connection; and further, no one recognized that a high percentage of women workers are lesbian and therefore their relationship to, and attitudes toward, work are fundamentally different from those assumed by straight workers (Bunch 212).

By eliminating the assumption that a woman’s income is merely supplementary to that of the primary income of her husband, all women moving for pay equity at the time of Bunch’s article would have benefited from the lesbian-feminist ideas that she is proposing. Thus, straight feminists are more than welcome to aid in a movement against the assumptions and corresponding oppression that result from a heteronormative ideology, they just fail to recognize the universal applications for which lesbian-feminism are useful (Bunch 212). In this light, the significance of lesbian-feminism to the broader goals of the feminist movement in general becomes even more certain. This is something that Bunch herself quickly became aware of upon the initial separation of her movement from the general feminist discourse:

There are many lesbians still who feel that there is no place in socialist-feminist organizations in particular, or the women’s movement in general, for them to develop that politics or live that life. Because of this, I am still, in part, a separatist; but I don’t want to be a total separatist again: few who have experienced that kind of isolation believe it is the ultimate goal of liberation. Since unity and coalition seem necessary, the question for me is unity on what terms? with whom? and around what politics? (Bunch 211)

There is no doubt that lesbian-feminism is best served, and serves best, when it is integrated into the broader feminist discourse, but there is also no doubt that the terms and follow-through of this integration must be handled as prudently and shrewdly as possible to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Hélène Cixous

We need not go any further than a thorough understanding of exactly what lesbian-feminism entails to see how it can be incorporated into the feminist movement. It is most important to first understand that lesbian-feminism offers a valuable perspective on feminist issues. Lesbian-feminists are without the intimate relationship with a man that many straight feminists have, and are therefore able to gain insight unattainable by women who relate deeply with at least one man on a daily basis:

When I left the man and the marriage, I also left the newly developing socialist-feminist movement – because, for one reason, my politics then, as now, were inextricably joined with the way I lived my personal, my daily life. With men, with male politics, I was a socialist; with women, engaged in the articulation of women’s politics, I became a lesbian-feminist. (Bunch 211)

Realizing that she was a lesbian, and taking the action that it entailed, Bunch came to understand feminist politics in a whole new light. Once men were no longer an integral part of her life, once she was no longer “tied” to one, she was able to evaluate the woman condition from a purely female point of view. It is the contribution of this perspective that makes lesbian-feminism such a valuable asset to the feminist movement. The thoughts of Hélène Cixous resonate very deeply with the socio-political insights that are gained by lesbian-feminists:

Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement (Cixous 215).

Lesbian-feminists are able to consider the political and social angles of the feminist movement from a strictly female point of view, without being led astray by the social theory/politics of men, and the corresponding misconceptions and stereotypes that ensue. Now, this assertion needs some further explanation to avoid dangerous misunderstanding. The idea is not to wipe men out of the feminist discourse entirely, but to allow certain women the chance to develop feminist theories based on the female experience and condition exclusively, for the sake of defining what a woman is, in social terms, without the interference of male prejudice: “Lesbian-feminism is based on a rejection of male definitions of our lives and is therefore crucial to the development of a positive woman-identified identity, of redefining who we are supposed to be in every situation, including the workplace” (Bunch 212). Men can, must, of course still contribute to the feminist discourse, but so too must lesbians by virtue of their dissociation with men.

Lesbian-feminists are a very potent combination. Their fight for the legitimacy of homosexual relationships threatens the patriarchal framework that is at its strongest in a society where heterosexual relationships are the standard, and their agenda as feminists seeks to break down the patriarchal ideology of heterosexual relationships. They are a valuable asset to the broader feminist discourse for the unique perspective they have on human relationships as they do not relate on an intimate romantic level with men, and are therefore able to establish an all-woman identity. This is not to say that men are precluded from engaging in the feminist movement; men and lesbians, as groups, contribute to the broader feminist discourse.

Works Cited

Bunch, Charlotte. “Not for Lesbians Only.” Feminist Theory: A Reader Third Edition. Ed. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2010. 211-214. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminist Theory: A Reader Third Edition. Ed. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2010. 215-221. Print.


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