Episode 53

LGBTQ History Part 3: The Trouble With Normal, by Michael Warner

Published on: 28th September, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. A few years ago I was traveling in Asia and we took a bus out to a large lake where there was a floating village. As we took a boat out onto the lake and the shore disappeared behind us, I felt as far from home as I have ever felt, and a friend I was with was even more out of her element and visibly very uncomfortable. She leaned over and said  “why are we here?” Right as she asked that, a tiny boat floated up alongside ours, and a woman looked at me and we locked eyes. We were about the same age, and I had a profound sense of shared humanity. My heart swelled beyond what I felt my body could hold as this woman looked right into my eyes, and I thought, I’m here because these people are real - as real as I am. I want to know about all the people I share this planet with not only because I am curious and I want to learn as much as I possibly can, but also because I love all my siblings, not just the ones who look like me  or live like me. And also, as I talked about on our previous episodes, sometimes if we don’t make meaningful connections with people beyond our communities and our comfort zones, we might unwittingly harm them. We might support a war that kills and maims them or sanctions that impoverish them. We might unthinkingly use slang that demeans them. We might support policies and vote for legislation that limits their civil rights. Connecting with others’ ideas and others’ lives, in person and in books, helps us to make more informed choices, to make bonds with our siblings in this big human family, and to realize that we are not the center of the universe. 

SO. With the books I read for these last two episodes, I traveled farther from home than I had yet on this podcast! I’m so glad I did, and I’m so grateful to have my dear friend Matthew Nelson here to guide the conversation again. Welcome, Matthew! 

Matthew: Great to be back, this time surveying the wildest lands of queerdom. 

Matthew, you’ll remember that when we were talking about doing an episode on Obergefell v. Hodges, you suggested that we expand the conversation beyond marriage equality, and suggested some critical queer theory texts.  And I must admit: sometimes I did find myself feeling so far out into unknown territory - so far from my home assumptions and beliefs, I thought “wait, why am I here?” and I had to remember “because my siblings live here” and it was a powerful experience for me to spend time inhabiting - via these books - a queer world, where queerness is central and I was the outsider. So thank you for holding my hand on this journey!!

Matthew: I too can feel out of sorts reading these queer theory texts of liberation. I am a cisgender male still learning how to hold my privilege responsibly, working toward an anti-racist, gender egalitarian future. The queer theory on offer today also accosts me as a married man. Have I capitualited to an assimilationist agenda, supplanting the true political legacy of Stonewall? How might these texts embolden me to challenge my own assumptions of queer futures and democratic ideals? Personally, how might these texts move me off a gender performative binary, to a deeper embodiment of selfhood? Like all good books -- from the Good Book to Karl Marx’s Das Capital -- we really need to be shaken from the rigidity of ideology, certainty, and comfort as much as we can.   

Amy: So let’s dig in… we’ll review Michael Warner today, and Lee Edelman and Jose Esteban Munoz on our next episode. 

Michael Warner is considered one of the founders of queer theory.

He was born in 1958, and received two Master of Arts degrees, one from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and one from Johns Hopkins University. He received his PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University in 1986, and is an American literary critic, social theorist, and a Professor of English Literature and American Studies at Yale University.

Lee Edelman was born in 1953. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University, and he received an MPhil and a PhD from Yale University. He is an American literary critic and academic. He serves as a professor of English at Tufts University

Jose Esteban Muñoz was born in Havana, Cuba in 1967, and moved to Florida with his parents the year he was born. He received his undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence College in 1989 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature, and in 1994, he completed his doctorate in Literature at Duke University. He was a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts until his death in 2013.

So that introduces the authors… now I’ll turn the content over to you, Matthew.

Matthew : 

Perfect, let’s get out of the cold of orthodoxy and head back into my classroom in A246. There is a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies on the table. Using a napkin, take one and sit. Don’t get comfortable. No one will be comfortable tackling these queer theorists today. 

As you can see on the white board, our essential question for today’s lesson is: To what extent do marriage and the family rely on patriarchy in modern American culture, and how are LGBTQ people subverting patriarchy in demanding equality in these institutions or spurning them outright? 

First, as a history teacher is wont to do, let’s anchor ourselves in the historical context to set our queer theory conversation:

  • Remember, Stonewall & the 1970s...
  • Now, why did the Queer Liberation Movement embrace relatively conservative institutions as its chief political priorities? 
  • Initially, the gay rights movement is focused on non-discrimination ordinances, sexual orientation recognition in hate crimes statutes, and domestic partner benefits in corporate America and in public jobs in big cities.
  • Then, HIV/AIDS overwhelms so much of the political agenda of the Long 1980s.
  • No one is demanding marriage rights. There isn’t a single active same-sex marriage case in all the 1980s. No gay rights group has endorsed marriage rights. And, very telling, their opponents are not even trying to deny them marriage rights. They are more concerned with stopping LGBTQs from teaching in public schools and adopting children. 
  • Remember -- coincidentally? -- the rise of the Religious Right paralells that of the Queer Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 80s. 
  • Intuitively, one would think that the top priorities would be employment and housing discrimination protections. Perhaps LGBTQ people would have foregrounded such things had AIDS not ravaged the community, but they didn’t.
  • Two very interesting ideological critiques also assisted keeping marriage equality off gay rights activists’ agenda in the 1980s:
  • A rift in the LGBTQ community between the:
  • Assimilationists -- As if reverting back to the Homophile Movement of the 1950s, wanted to present as “normal” -- white, bourgeois, suburban gay lifestyle. 
  • Liberationists -- LGBTQ people had unique mores and values that we could offer mainstream American society.
  • Second-wave feminists, including women lawyers, who were helping newly-out lesbians who had just been divorced from their husbands and wanted custody of their biological children, made the argument that marriage was created to subjugate women. Therefore, the goal of queer family law should not be to gain access to this patriarchal institution, but to advocate for state recognition of “multiple families” -- different permutations of forming a family (partnerships, single parents, co-parent adoptions, communal living, etc.). This is why domestic partnerships, like the law passed in Vermont in 2000, becomes the initial compromise within gay rights groups and between liberals and conservatives.    
  • Then in 1990, in Hawaii, local activists, quite apart from any professional advocacy group including the state chapter of the ACLU, won a victory at the state Supreme Court in 1993. Six couples sue the state for marriage rights, and unexpectedly the court rules in their favor. The LDS Church in Utah is the first to mobilize opposition including the Roman Catholic Church, fearful that a same-sex marriage in HI would have to be recognized in UT. They are ultimately successful. Religious conservatives make opposition to marriage equality a defining issue of the 1996 primary and the Federal DOMA advances to Bill Clinton’s Oval Office desk. By 1998, HI passes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
  • Conservatives set the agenda for the Queer Liberation Movement with their culture war priorities -- same-sex marriage and banning open service in the military which leads to the DADT compromise.


Second, to frame our conversation today, Amy, we need the audience to grasp two essential terms. Perhaps I can invite our listeners to find images or symbols that make such abstruse concepts more concrete.

  • The first will be familiar to the audience given the last episode. 
  • Hetero-patriarchal normativity (heteronormativity): pervasive and invisible norms of hetero-patriarchy that underpin society
  • Temporality: is the social organization of time. In speaking about hetero-patriarchal temporality, we mean a temporality that turns on traditional family relations, heterosexuality, and reproduction.
  • Let me explain how these two concepts connect -- heteronormative temporality. This concept speaks to the social construction of a life in heteronormative culture. Social scripts, stories and myths, rites of passage and rituals, norms and expectations shape how a young person should proceed throughout their life. What constitutes the good life? Heteronormative temporality teaches and reinforces this through a series of celebrated milestones which may include: coming-of-age rituals, dating and courtship, the prom, bachelor/ette parties, marriage, gender-reveal parties and baby showers, anniversaries, retirement, and funerals. Heteronormative temporality is on full display in our film culture, from: When Harry Met Sally to Bridesmaids to Beauty and the Beast. Recently, movies that question such normative temporality, even actively critique and deconstruct it are en vogue: from Mulan, to The Boys in the Band, to Moonlight, to Love, Simon
  • Now: What if we were to imagine queer temporaility? How might queer temporality radically recreate the world in which we now inhabit? How do our authors understand queer temporality differently vis-a-vis heteronormative temporality? 

Amy, do you think we are ready to launch into some queer theory today? 

Amy: Let’s do it!

We will porceed through this queer theory chronologically. These authors are, of course, in conversation with each other. Michael Warner, wrote The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life in 1999 through Harvard University Press. Conservatives, gay assimilationists, such as Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan spent the 1990s and 2000s arguing that LGBTQ people should try to be as “normal” as possible if they expect to win equal rights and respect in U.S. society. Culminating in the right to marry, these gents suggested we'd no longer be marginalized, but be fully American. Professor Warner argued in this text that marriage equality is the wrong goal for queer politics and activism. He analyzes discourse, the likes of which also come from gays and lesbians themselves, which stigmatizes sex work, fetishes, polyamory, people living with HIV, and non-normative families. He argues that by participating with the state in elevating certain relationships, marital relationships, this inevitably denigrates domestic partnerships, non-traditional families, and broad-based legal and financial protections for all vulnerable people in society. He urges LGBTQ people to abandon the pursuit of normalcy, and fight for a queer planet of radical, universal prosperity and relational affirmation. Sexual libertinism, for Warner, is central to this utopic vision of queer activism, but ethical, political, and social transformation looms large too. 

Alright, class, let’s get into the text. 

Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999)

Patriarchy enforces heteronormative temporality with the tool of shame.

  • Page 8

 “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual, and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement, a sense of innner secrets and hidden shame. No amount of adult ‘acceptance’ or progress in civil rights is likely to eliminate this experience of queerness for many children and adolescents. Later in life, they will be told that they are ‘closeted,’ as thought they have been telling lies. They bear a special burden of disclosure. No wonder so much of gay culture seems marked by a primal encounter with shame.” 

  • Page 24-25

 “Failing to recognize that there is a politics of sexual shame, I believe, leads to mistakes in each context: it confuses individuals, cowing them out of their sexual dignity; it leaves national politics pious and disingenuous about sex; and it reduces the gay movement to a desexualized identity politics. 

In later chapters, we will see how the politics of shame distorts everything, from marriage law to public health policy, censorship, and even urban zoning. I also argue that the official gay movement - by which I mean its major national organizations, its national media, its most visible spokespersons has lost sight of that policitics, becomeing more and more enthralled by respectability. Instead of broadening its campagin against sexual stigma beyond sexual orientation, as I think it should, it has increasingly narrowed its scope to those issues of sexual orientation that have least to do with sex. Repudiating its best histories of insight and activism, it has turned into an instrument for normalizing gay men and lesbians.” 

Warner contends that LGBTQ politics, as with the fight for marriage equality, is enthrall to hetero-patriarchal temporality.

  • Page 47-48 

“Try to imagine...  that heterosexuality might be irrelevant to the normative organization of the world. People are constantly encouraged to believe that heterosexual desire, dating, marriage, reproduction, childrearing, and home life are not only valuable to themselves, but the bedrock on which every other value in the world rests. Heterosexual desire and romance are thought to be the very core of humanity. It is the threshold of maturity that separates the men from the boys (though it is also projected onto all boys and girls). It is both nature and culture. It is the one thing celebrated in every film plot, every sitcom, every advertisement. It is the one thing to which every politician pays obeisance, couching every dispute over guns and butter as an effort to protect family, home, and children. What would a world look like in which all these links between sexuality and people’s ideals were suddenly severed? Nonstandard sex has none of this normative richness, this built-in sense of connection to the meaningful life, the community of the human, the future of the world. It lacks this resonance with the values of public politics, mass entertainment, and mythic narrative. It matters to people primarily in one area of life: when it brings queers together. Gay political groups owe their very being to the fact that sex draws people together and that in doing so it suggests alternative possibilities of life.”

Matthew: By implication, then, Warner is suggesting that LGBTQ politics allowed its thinking to get too small by making marriage equality its priority. Because the “normalcy” agenda held sway, marriage equality became the be-all/end-all agenda item. I don’t read Warner as saying marriage equality shouldn’t be one legitimate goal for the queer community to strive after, but that the 21st-century queer activist gamit should have been a grander one that one have secured freedom and protections for a multiplicity of “alternative possibilities of life.” 

This leads us back to the question we were asking before: How did what Warner is characterizing as an ill-fated quest for “normalcy” become a predominating preoccupation for queers?

As Warner writes, “What immortality was to the Greeks, what virtu was to Machiavelli’s prince, what faith was to the martyrs, what honor was to the slave owners, what glamour is to drag queens, normalcy is to the contemporary American. Of course people want individuality as well, but they want their individuality to be the normal kind, and given the choice between the two they will take normal. But what exactly is normal?” (53) 

  • Page 59,

 “So it is ironic, to say the least, when we are now told that our aspiration should be to see ourselves as normal. No doubt gay people regard this as the ultimate answer to the common implication that being gay is pathological. No, they want to insist, we’re normal. But this is to buy into a false alternative. The church tells us that our choice is to be saved or be damned; but of course it might be that these are not the only options, any more than Democrat and Republican need be the only options in politics. Just so, normal and pathological are not the only options. One of teh reasons why so many peopel have started using the word “queer” is that it is a way of saying: “We’re not pathological, but don’t think for that reason that we want to be normal.” People who are defined by a variant set of norms commit a kind of social suicide when they begin to measure the worth of their relations and their way of life by the yardstick of normalcy. The history of the movement should have taught us to ask: whose norm?”

Warner cuts to the quick for me, Amy! Ouch. One book that I read in the late aughts that resonated with me along these lines, written more for babyboomer gay men than a Gen. Yer like myself, was Alan Downs’ Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Rage of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. If your listening audience wants a penetrating psychological treatment of the topics we have been discussing throughout these episodes, they can’t do better than this text. In Downs’ book, he suggests that gay boys mask these secrets by over-copensating -- proving their masculinity in sports, striving to be the best student, trying to be a model Christian, Catholic, or Mormon. We are driven to outshine the rest because we want to cover for our perceived shortcomings in gender and sexuality. I have met many gay men whose early life was characterized by this singular mission to demonstrate one’s worthiness through success to distract from this secret they were trying to hide. So, when Warner speaks of an aggressive drive to be normal, I think he is under-stating things. For many gay men, myself included, we have been driven to be the best, not just normal. When it comes to heteronormative temporalities, we want to demonstrate that we can run the lifecycle better than any straight guy. Before I got married, I had to think about whether I wanted to be married given that such a milestone was another credential of the heteronormative temporality. I got married for love, of course, but Warner is challenging me here to think about how my marriage might also be a site of resistance to patriarchy and for liberation for all LGBTQ people. I took on a big responsibility in marrying, according to Warner, though he is skeptical about whether marriage equality will really deliver the expansive queer liberation he yearns for.

Amy: What might it look like if LGBTQ people set aside adherence to hetero-patriarchal temporality? 

Well, let’s read how Warner addresses your question.

  • Page 75, “Were we to recognize the diversity of what we call sexuality with the kind of empathic realism in which many queers are unsurpassed, the result would not be separatism, and could not be, because it would give us no view of who ‘we’ are apart from the fact that there are a lot of non-normative sexualities in the world.”

Warner envisions a multiverse, if you will, of temporalities that are considered valid to explore.

Amy: Specifically, what might straight people learn from queer temporalities, or queer ways of being, and how would this influence our understanding of marriage? 

  • Page 116, “The impoverished vocabulary of straight culture tells us that people should be either husbands and wives or (nonsexual) friends. Marriage marks that line. It is not the way many queers live. If there is such a thing as a gay way of life, it consists in these relations, a welter of intimacies outside the framework of professionsa dn institutions and ordinary social obligations. Straight culture has much to learn from it, and in many ways has already begun to learn from it. Queers should be insisting on teaching these lessons. Instead, the marriage issue, as currently framed, seems to be a way of denying recognition to these relations, of streamlining queer relations into the much less troubling division of couples from friends.”

  • To wed or not to wed?
  • Page 131, “So I have my doubts when legal scholar Cass Sunstein, for example, argues that gay marriage would redress gender inequality by ‘subverting’ traditional marriage, making it no longer the heterosexual matrix of women’s subordination. This view enjoys great popularity among lesbian and gay apologists for marriage, including Wolfson and Nana Hunter. And not without reason. Hunter is undoubtedly right to claim that same-sex marriage would further weaken the model of subordination that has typified marriage. If marriage were not necessarily heterosexual, people could more easily view it as an equal partnership. This is to say only that same-sex marriage might improve things, if not for queers then (indirectly) for women married to men.”

Amy: This comes up in my conversations increasingly frequently!! When we’re talking about dynamics between spouses in marriage, we sometimes ask “well how would a same-sex couple navigate this?” because in those unions no one has a trump card. 

Matthew: Do you recall my implication from a lesson in the previous episode? If feminists care about eradicating patriarchy, they must think intersectionally and approach the dismantling of heteronormativity as ardently as they would the dismantling of gender inequality. To the queers listening, for our part, queers must all be feminists! The hope is that not only will marriage equality further egalitarianism for women in heterosexual unions, but that the furtherance of LGBTQ rights will contribute to Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Amy: According to Professor Warner, then, what should be the ethical and political agenda for the Queer Liberation Movement now? 

Matthew: Let’s conclude with Warner’s passage on page 146: 

  • “Is it possible to have a politics in which marriage could be seen as one step to a larger goal, and in which its own discriminatory effects could be confronted rather than simply ignored? I can at least imagine a principled response to this challenge that would include ending the discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage. It could not be a program that said simply that marriage is a right, or a choice. It would have to say that marriage is a desirable goal only insofar as we can also extend health care, tax reform, rights of intimate association extending to immigration, recognition for joint parenting, and other entitlements currently yoked to marital status. It would have to say that marriage is desirable only insofar as we can eliminate adultery laws and other status-discriminatory regulations for sexuality. It might well also involve making available other statuses, such as expanded domestic partnership, concubinage, or something like PACS for property-sharing households, all available both to straight and gay people alike. Above all, a program for change should be accountable to the queer ethos, responsible to the lived arrangements of queer life, and articulated in queer publics.”

Matthew: Warner wants us to return to the riots of Stonewall and their aftermath where we could reimagine a new social order with rainbow temporalities. Queer publics of ever-widening circles of care, pleasure, and material support would usher in a new way of being human on a planet beset with climate collapse, human rights violations, and staggering income and wealth inequality. What the hell do we want with normal, really!? Normal might very well doom us! This new social order starts with an unbridled embrace of eros -- sex in all of its many forms -- as a model for the embrace of all the ways we are beautifully unique in this world.

Now, if you thought this episode’s ideas were radical, wait for our final installment!     

Addendum: Before I introduce next week’s texts, I want to add an addendum to this episode, which I’m recording a few weeks after Matthew and I finished the conversation that you just heard. In this discussion, Matthew and I talked about the shame that many - or even most - LGBTQ persons feel as they grow up and discover their identity, so I want to mention two films that I saw after we had this conversation that were incredibly helpful. First, the Pixar film “Luca,” which I thought was a powerful way of representing that discovery of identity that is not considered “normal”... it was so creative and masterfully done. And then the second recommendation is the Netflix film, “Pray Away” which was co-produced by my friend and previous reading partner, Jenn Lee Smith. I mentioned “conversion therapy” on this episode today, and to learn more about it, please watch this extremely important documentary. Matthew and I discussed it and he also said it was an absolute must-watch. So watch “Luca,” and watch “Pray Away,” and then in preparation for next week’s discussion, look up the books No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, by Lee Edelman, and Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, by Jose Estaban Muñoz. Both of these books are very challenging reads and contain some pretty explicit sexual content, so I highly recommend reading them if you’re up for a challenge, but whether or not you read them, Matthew will guide us through a fascinating discussion, so join us next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.