“You know, straight people are the statistical majority, right?”

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In classroom full of college-bound high school seniors, I found a group of students that defended heteronormativity by pointing out to me that there are more straight people than gay people. This was so interesting to me in so many ways.

First, though I taught four separate groups, this concept of the “majority” was brought up in every discussion about heteronormativity. This idea was not the belief of one student; it was the general consensus across the entire grade. Even those students that did not voice this position, eager looked to me to see how I would respond as if to say “Yeah, that about THAT?” The group was basically saying they understood the concept, but didn’t see the problem.

I tried a few approaches to this response. I tried to explain that at some point they may be the minority and would appreciate consideration. I tried to use some real life examples to try to encourage empathy. I eventually settled on what is almost a forced-guilt response. I called them out on being, in a word, lazy. I asked if they were simply too busy to engage a person in a conversation about their lives or if they were too important to recognize that everyone may not have the same values or behaviors. I explained that they are obviously welcome to approach everyone as if they are the “majority,” but they are very likely to offend many people and close many doors for themselves.

I also felt compelled to explain heteronormativity multiple times in each section. I wanted to be clear that when you consider the term in its fullest interpretation, you must also consider gender identity, sexual behavior, and relationship style IN ADDITION to sexual orientation. That is, most people do not participate in monogamous, sexually vanilla (however, that is interpreted), strictly heterosexual relationships.  What they interpreted as the “majority” may very well apply to small number of people being held to an unrealistic standard.

The group hit similar hurdles with transphobia and slut shaming.

With transphobia, I found myself explaining why they shouldn’t ask any question about a trans person’s body or sex life that they wouldn’t ask a person their perceived as cisgendered. To which one student responded “Well, as part of a minority class, isn’t it their job to educate us.” After taking a second to contain my emotional reaction, I explained that simply finding yourself in a misunderstood group does mandate you to explain your community to the majority. I pointed out that the approached presented by the student was a very passive approach to acceptance. I also identified myself as cisgender woman and explained my passion for education around gender non-conformity to make the point that one can care about the proper treatment of a minority without being a member of that minority.

Our conversations around slut shaming went down multiple paths. Some groups were more interested in the gender role policing aspect of slut shaming, while others were more interested in the actions that could be read as “slutty.” Most of the students agreed that slut shaming could easily fit into their current schema of girl culture and we moved on. I pushed other groups a bit harder to think about THEIR INDIVIDUAL definition of a “slut.” We talked about the word, what the word meant, and where the line was. I asked them to think about out social influences. For example, young girls should look sexually attractive and appear sexually confident, but when it comes to actually engaging in sexual activities they cross the line from “hot” to “slut.” They are expected to look the part, but not act the part. One girl challenged my sex positive position, by asking “what if your fifteen year old daughter was having sex with multiple partners?” She wasn’t expecting me to respond by saying that I believe young adults are capable of defining their values and pursuing healthily, informed, consensual sexual experiences, if they are in line with how they exist as sexual beings. She waved me off and refused to believe that I would be that supportive of my own theoretical teenage daughter. However, I did get some inside information from the school later that let me know students were discussing their definitions of the word “slut” long after the lesson was over.

Maybe students left spouting new inclusive terms like the gender neutral pronouns I taught to one group or discussing examples of gender role policing and maybe students left defending their views of sexual morality and expressing disgust for my sex positive position. Either way, if they were debating their sexual values beyond my workshop, I succeeded. I succeeded in empowering them to define what they value and created cognitive dissonance around new topics in sexuality.

 

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One Response

02.05.13

Very well written article. I would only add within the conversation about heteronormativity that the cause and effect may be conflated: most people are ‘heterosexual’ because of heteronormativity, not the other way around (as the students are arguing)

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