Exploring Feminism and the Normalisation of Heterosexuality

In this powerful essay, Nivedita Menon, feminist scholar, writer, and professor of Political Thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, writes about upturning the status quo, homophobia, queering the narrative, and the nature of ‘identity.’ This is an excerpt from Because I Have A Voice: Queer Politics in India (2020), edited by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan. The anthology, consisting of 27 essays, platforms queer voices from all across India. This excerpt has been published with permission from the publisher, Yoda Press.

How Natural is Normal? Feminism and Compulsory Heterosexuality1
Nivedita Menon

Anyone who has ever tried to raise sexual preference as a political issue in India would be familiar with the stern admonition—there are many more serious issues we have to deal with first: poverty and class conflict, caste and communalism. This bit of wisdom though, is useful far beyond the context of sexuality—it is a neat all-purpose argument that serves to set aside and trivialise any issue that challenges the dominant common sense, whether of Left politics or of the conservative middle class. For instance, on the question of reservations, you will often hear the sonorous pronouncement that Dalits are not well served by reservations in jobs—only when structural changes like land reforms have taken place will their position improve. Why go in for piecemeal measures? Until the huge radical transformations have taken place, let us not disturb the status quo. This kind of argument sets up a hierarchy of oppressions along a scale decided by one set of opinions. What if your opinions don’t tally, you don’t agree with this hierarchy, and you insist, cussedly, that the oppression your particular stigmatised group faces is as important and as immediate as any other? Then you are engaging in ‘identity politics’, and breaking up the possibilities of a broader unity.

The term ‘identity politics’ is used as a term of abuse by those who see themselves as occupying some unmarked identity such as ‘Indian citizen’, rather than an ‘identity’ such as ‘woman’ or ‘muslim’ or ‘dalit’ or ‘homosexual’—but believe me, you have to be pretty damn privileged if you can afford the luxury of that unmarked designer label of ‘citizen’. Only if you are privileged by your class position can you forget that you are any of those identities, and even then, most women and non-heterosexuals any Dalits and Muslims know to their cost that they can shout for all they are worth that they are simply ‘citizens’—they are stigmatised, branded (now in a different sense—not branded as in designer label, but branded as in cattle), by their ‘identity’ whether they like it or not. This is not to say that all forms of identity politics are by definition democratic, because there can be antidemocratic assertions of identity. But by the same token, not all norms of identity politics can be simply denounced without taking into account how they define themselves with reference to the larger society.

Now, as far as patriarchy is concerned, this ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ argument is something feminists have heard since the time feminists first walked the Earth—you’ll get the vote after the white working-class men, then after the black men, we’ll get to your stuff after the revolution, after the nation is free. At best, gender gets treated as an add on to what is called a ‘broader understanding’—add gender to class, to caste, to communalism, to development, just a little soupcon to improve the flavor. Then you get questions like—how are women and children (why isn’t it ever, ‘men and children’, just to be even more irritating and cussed) affected by communal violence/caste oppression/development strategies that marginalise the powerless? The more questions are posed in this way, the more the fundamental point lies unrecognised, that if you take ‘gender’ seriously as an axis of oppression, then Class and Caste and Nation themselves look very different. You can’t simply ‘add gender and stir’.

A glimpse of the book cover, published by Yoda Press in 2020.

But it seems feminists have learnt the lesson too well from patriarchy when it comes to sexuality. If not being actively homophobic, our movement’s best response tends to be along the lines of ‘not now, this is not the time’. But is ‘sexual preference’ (a term that tames and domesticates the really scary issue at stake here, but we’ll come to that later)—a mere add-on to feminism? Or, to translate the question in a way that any feminist would understand: is gender merely an add-on to nationalism/ development? Did we feminists spend over half-a-century of scholarship and politics challenging the ‘add gender and stir’ formula, only to apply it to sexuality ourselves?

What we need to recognise, particularly as feminists, is that the normalisation of heterosexuality is at the heart of patriarchy. Patriarchy needs the institutions of compulsory heterosexuality to survive. (Note ‘compulsory’ as opposed to ‘natural’, we’ll be coming back to this.) But compulsory heterosexuality undergirds most other forms of identity too. Caste, race and community identity are produced through birth. So too is the quintessentially modern identity of citizenship. The purity of these identities and social formations and of the existing regime of property relations is protected by the strict policing and controlling of women’s sexuality. Thus, the family as it exists, the only form in which it is allowed to exist—the heterosexual patriarchal family—is key to maintaining both nation and community.

1This article is based on two presentations, one made at the Larzish Film Festival, Mumbai, October 2003, and subsequently published in Scripts Number 4, April 2004 and the panel organised by PRISM at WSF 2004, Mumbai, and subsequently published as ‘Unnatural Sexuality versus Natural Justice’ in The Indian Express, 21 January 2004.