A Greek Lesson
Few would resist the claim that it is important to know what words mean before we use them. Unfortunately, we tend to use words we don’t properly understand. In this era of grammatical upheaval we need to ensure that we are not making careless blunders of this kind.
When we commit such blunders we are often none the wiser and so need to be corrected. It is important that our words make the kind of sense that we intend. That is, when we speak we don’t want to contradict what we intend to say with poor word choices. I’m talking about those moments when we use words thinking that we know their meaning having heard them in use elsewhere, or based on how they look. Before we know it we’ve said the word and potentially committed to meanings that are different to the intention behind the original word choice.
Our New Testament exegesis lecturer Allan Chapple taught us: beware the butterfly trap. Of course, Koine Greek is ripe for dodgy semantic extrapolations based on the presence of a particular prefix. His straight-faced differentiation between a butterfly and a butter fly is apt even today as we seek to comprehend the word heteronormativity.
I’ve seen the word heteronormative or heteronormativity inappropriately used in print and I’ve the heard the word inappropriately used in speech too many times to remain silent. When we comprehend heteronormativity in its technical sense, we learn that its meaning may not befit those who profess the gospel.
Avoiding Butter Flies
The term heteronormativity comprises one root word, one prefix, three concepts, and one meaning. Let’s do the hard work and look at these in turn.
Normativity or normative might appear to have the word normal as its root, but we should tread carefully. The root word of heteronormativity is in fact "norm." The difference is subtle but significant: the presence, characterisation or exhibition of norms make or qualifies something as normal. Heteronormativity is therefore a term that is concerned with norms that make things normal. So whatever we think heteronormativity means, it must have something to do with the making of normal with norms.
What are these norms that make something normal?
The prefix answers this question for us. Hetero means other or one of two. So that which is normal is realised as such only when it is characterised by the "hetero." In order to be normal the thing must take part as one of the two, or as one or the other.
There is, however, an assumed concept in the compound word in view. While hetero may be used broadly to indicate a binary concept (like wrong belief as opposed to right belief—heterodox) the use of hetero in heteronormativity takes on specific content when it is found in gender and sexuality discourse. The assumed content of the norms is specifically concerned with the gender binary (man/woman).
So the root word + the prefix + the assumed concept constitutes the equation required to nut out the meaning of heteronormativity. But at this point we must beware the butterfly. If we simply do the maths (the root word + the prefix + the assumed concept = the meaning) we may make one of those blunders we spoke of earlier.
Now to the one meaning, but first a caution. Whether one thinks that the gender binary constitutes what God created as good is beside the point when it comes to understanding the word heteronormativity. The reason for this is because the word does not communicate what is the case, but rather how things are produced and regulated—how things have become the case. In other words, heteronormativity does not describe what is normal, but points to the processes by which something is made to be and kept normal.
Some critical reflection is required at this stage. We must be aware that the term heteronormativity is a grammatical positioning device. It is not concerned with merely identifying normative claims or those who make normative claims, but (re)positioning those and their claims as a self-reinforcing myth of what is normal. Heteronormativity is the charge that one is using a binary notion of gender (norms) to produce and regulate "good" manifestations of gender and sexuality as "normal."
This means that heteronormative is a label that does not condemn one for holding to the supposed myth of the gender binary, but for violently conforming what is not normal to be normal according to that myth. It names the process by which gender and sexuality violence takes place, which is sometimes described by gender theorists as compulsory heterosexuality.
In other words, what is made to be normal is not normal, but has the appearance of normal having become sedimented over time through obedience and regulation of norms, which are not norms at all but mythical views of what is good (or normal).
The use of the term heteronormative seeks to challenge the assumption that what is normal is good on the grounds that the norms that ground them are mythical. Of course, one can challenge the charge, but the term heteronormative names that charge. When one uses the term, they are not making a substantive claim about what God made or ordains, but how mythical norms function to sediment what is an arbitrary notion of normal and good.
To be clear, the word does not seek to prosecute those who hold to norms, even gender norms according to the gender binary. Rather, the word names the imposition of binary ordered norms to regulate and sanction those who transgress them. Arguably, this means that one can hold to gender norms without being heteronormative.
Now if we understand how the word heteronormativity is being used in gender and sexuality discourse, it makes no sense to me why we would want to use this word to describe one’s belief in God’s creation of man and woman for each other in marriage. Reclaiming and redeeming words is an important aspect of church engagement with society on gender and sexuality issues, but we must understand this word for what it is—an accusation. When it comes to the word heteronormativity, we should respond to it as an accusation rather than make the blunder of identifying with the accusation because we thought it describes how God created humanity in the beginning as man and woman.
In terms of responding to heteronormativity as an accusation, I wonder if we could read it more generously as a useful question or challenge? In this way heteronormativity would be seen as a challenge to think through the possibility that theologically geared gender ideals underwrite forms of violence that are reserved for only some of us who fall short of them.