Hetero/Homo – normativity

I read a rant from a Facebook friend the other day, the gist of which went like this (I’m not quoting):

I can’t stand the double standard. Straight people can kiss in public all they want. They can virtually have sex in public without anyone saying anything. But if a gay or lesbian couple so much as share a peck on the cheek in public, watch out!

I can understand where my friend is coming from, and the completely skewered obsession the conservative Christian community in this country has with male homosexuality and anal sex is unreal to the point of laughable.[1] However, my reactions to this posting went in a number of directions. In exploring all these different directions, I hope to get a better understanding as to what kind of ‘standards’, double or otherwise, I can see within myself the systems within which I work and live. I also hope to get some idea as to what my response to these standards are, or should be.

First, there was my defensive posture – ‘what are you talking about, why I can remember when I was young’, etc. (God, that makes me sound so old!) Now, before anyone accuses me of hiding behind heterosexist privilege, I just want people to know that I am part of a bi-cultural couple (my wife is Korean). When I first came to South Korea, in 1997, public displays of affection between the sexes were frowned upon, as well. Ironically, women friends could walk down the street arm-in-arm, and male friends could walk down the street arms draped over each other’s shoulders (it still seems to be OK, the assumption is that they’re ‘just friends’). Nonetheless, when we were dating, my then-girlfriend made sure that overt displays of affection were not made in public, so as not to draw attention, frowns, or worse yet, public lectures (I have heard about incidents where these types of things have happened).

Now I will be the first to admit that I have been blessed with a group of strongly supportive Korean friends who have been behind us from the very beginning. It’s not insignificant that when we met, my best Korean friend was divorced, like me; starting his life over again, like me; and beginning a new relationship, like me. He and the other Korean friends I have made over the years have been unswerving and constant in their support of me and my relationship. They also happily attended my wedding, and I (and my wife) have since attended weddings of theirs, gone to birthday parties for their children, and hosted them at Christmas dinners and New Year’s Eve parties through the years. They have been a blessing.

Ah, yes, back to my defense. The main cultural factor which appears to be at play in traditional relations between the sexes is known as nunchi (눈치), which literally means ‘eye measure’. It’s the Korean equivalent to what we might call ‘emotional intelligence’, being able to read the feelings and emotional reactions of people in a given situation. Although it can play out in many different ways, I’ve heard people say that when it comes to marital relationships, it shouldn’t be necessary for the husband to tell the wife that he loves her, since she should be able to pick up on his feelings for her through her nunchi. I wonder if that’s why the Ashley Madison website has gained 150,000 members in Korea since it started business here, the majority of them women.[2]

Well, it wasn’t until we were almost three years into our relationship that I could say the playing field changed. It was when we and a group of Korean friends were walking down the main street on Wonju’s old downtown – that was when it still had bars and cafés – when one of the males in the group talked to my girlfriend. I thought, ‘Oh, God, here we go.’ After they were finished, I asked her what they were talking about (I’m ashamed to say, I’ve lived in this continent over 18 years, but neither my Korean nor my Chinese skills would give you pause to think that).

She said to me, ‘He asked me if we were a couple.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said, “Yes”’.

‘What did he make of that?’

‘He said to me, “Well, act like it!”’

She then proceeded to slip my hand in hers.

Since then, I’ve seen the cultural restrictions on opposite sex displays of affection in South Korea relax considerably. In spite of this, whenever I see a young Korean couple holding hands or exchanging a kiss when they’re departing, I almost want to go up, hug them both, and say, ‘Bravo, you two!’

The second direction I went in was memory. It was of a classmate of mine at Emmanuel College during my MDiv studies. She was the first classmate I met while going through the theological education process who told me she was gay/lesbian. I remember her expression of frustration with the heteronormative pressures of the culture around her. ‘I would like so much’, she once said to me, ‘to be able to walk down the street with my date, hand in hand, without having to worry about being chased by people with baseball bats!’

I also remembered that, even in a place as ‘affirming’ as my theological alma mater, Emmanuel College, was in those days, there were limits to how much that affirmation was pursued. I have distinct memories of the first end-of-year formal dinner and dance I attended, known as the ‘Emmanuel Annual’ (catchy title, eh?). There was one student there who was ‘out’ as a lesbian with another woman whom I later found out was her partner. In retrospect, it was very clear that they were having discussions as to whether they should dance together, especially during slow dances. They didn’t. I have no other memories of a same-sex couple going to the Emmanuel Annual during my time there. Even in the ‘affirming’ places, there could be the hang-overs of an unspoken, yet oppressive, pro-straight atmosphere. Can we say ‘heteronormativity’?

This led to the third direction I went in, which was, as it tends to be these days, was research. I looked up a standard definition of ‘heteronormativity’:

Heteronormativity is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes. Consequently, a “heteronormative” view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles. Heteronormativity is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia.[3]

Fair enough. A little farther down in the source I was reading, I also came across the definition of ‘homonormativity’:

Homonormativity can refer to the perceived privileging of homosexuality or the perceived assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into LGBTQ culture and individual identity. The term is almost always used in its latter sense…[4]

And later on…

According to Penny Griffin, Politics and International Relations lecturer at the University of New South Wales, homonormativity upholds neoliberalism rather than critiquing monogamy, procreation, and binary gender roles as inherently heterosexist and racist.[5]

‘Ay, there’s the rub’, as Will liked to put it[6]. It’s only in the wake of the marriage equality decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that I’ve even heard of the seemingly oxymoronic ‘conservative argument for marriage equality’, although it certainly exists.[7] Yet, it seems that critics of hetero-/homo-normativity claim that to pursue marriage equality is only to go after the hallmarks of acceptability in a heterosexist society. They may have a point. I watched a sample of 14 pro-LGBT commercial campaigns from 2014[8], to see what kinds of relationships were portrayed in them. 8 featured either married or established couples, often with children; only 1 could be called trans, and that one featured two drag queens from RuPaul’s series Drag Race.

I also watched a Canadian-made documentary on how perceptions of the gay community have changed over time. Of the different phases described in the documentary, the advocacy for marriage equality was very telling. The most telling quote I heard in that section was from Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, who said that ‘the process…(of promoting marriage equality), perhaps, (was) no different from the way that Kellogg’s goes about selling cereal to its consumers’[9]. Is that a necessary evolution in how to use modern research and advocacy techniques, or is it buying into the neo-liberal corporate capitalist, and heterosexist, culture? I don’t have an answer to that one, and I won’t even try – I’d just end up being an ass in the process.

However, I do note that many of those who rail against hetero-/homo- normativity are not just railing against what they oppose – they have proposed an alternative vision. Around 1200 academics, religious leaders, artists and musicians, and activists have signed the statement ‘Beyond Same Sex Marriage’, stating that there is a need to allow for the registry of a variety of relationships by the state. They state, boldly in my opinion, ‘Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.’[10] The variety of relationships they name is wide-ranging, and includes:

  • Senior citizens living together, serving as each other’s caregivers, partners, and/or constructed families
  • Adult children living with and caring for their parents
  • Grandparents and other family members raising their children’s (and/or a relative’s) children
  • Committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner
  • Blended families
  • Single parent households
  • Extended families (especially in particular immigrant populations) living under one roof, whose members care for one another
  • Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households
  • Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, serving as each other’s primary support and caregivers
  • Care-giving and partnership relationships that have been developed to provide support systems to those living with HIV/AIDS[11]

I also note, with interest, that the registration process for couples in Korea is separate from the process of planning and having a marriage ceremony. However, it’s also very clear that the purpose of registering couples is to ensure the ability to trace ancestry and bloodlines. You’ll see this very clearly whenever you have to go to your local neighbourhood government office to get a Certificate of Family Status. To be considered a family unit, there has to be a designated family ‘head’, and the parentage of that family head is named on the certificate. Interestingly enough, in my case, my wife is ‘head’ of the family, presumably to ensure the ability to trace Korean bloodlines. You can bet the family farm that if I were Korean, she wouldn’t have that status!

So, what’s the ‘Christian’ position to take on these things? I’m only beginning to wrap my head around this issue, so I don’t have any clear answers yet. However, there are some things to consider:

  • Apart from very broad principles based in our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus, appealing to the Scriptures won’t be of much help. Be very sceptical of those who talk about ‘Biblical marriage’. If you actually look within the Scriptures, you’ll find that the models of ‘Biblical marriage’ don’t look very much like the nuclear family ‘husband, wife, and 1.9 children’ model we have lived with since the end of World War II. Don’t believe me? Fine, don’t take my word for it – take the word of Betty Bowers![12]
  • We have to be aware of the perspective from which we address this issue, and if we enjoy even the slightest amount of privilege, let’s be upfront about it. I have privilege as a heterosexual male. Even though my wife has to be the head of our family unit in the Korean family registry, I can still claim the right to register my relationship with her – Korean citizens who are sexual minorities cannot.
  • It’s vital to be aware of the vested interests that are at work in your context. Here in South Korea, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has declared that working on the establishment of LGBT+ rights is not only not within its mandate, but that it is also seeking to pressure municipalities within Korea which have proclaimed LGBT+ rights (Daejeon Metropolitan City; Gwacheon City, Gyeonggi Province) declarations to withdraw them![13] Gee, I wonder who is behind that?

However, based on those ‘broad principles in the Gospel of Jesus’, I think there is something we can appeal to. If we take seriously the principles of Jesus to withhold judgment on others lest we call down judgment on ourselves; doing to others as we would have done to us (both from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 7); and to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to define ‘neighbour’ to include the last person we would ever want to have as our neighbour (the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10); I can affirm the following principles:

  • the individual Christian person, with the support of a caring community, can be trusted to find the relationship(s) which give him/her fulfilment;
  • all relationships in which people engage must be mutually satisfying, rooted in justice and caring for the other, and seek to strengthen the self and community[14]; and
  • Christians are called to act responsibly in their private and public lives.

That seems like a good start.

One last thought – I remember a Catholic priest, of all people (!), suggesting at the time marriage equality became the law of the land in Canada, that all couples have a state-based registry of their relationships. Then, those who wanted to have a faith-based marriage ceremony could freely do so. Sound like an idea?

[1] For recent examples, see Iglauer, P; Lee, T H (2015, 28 June) Pride parade must be stopped because gays are ‘diseased,’ pastor says, The Korea Observer. [online] Accessed 29 June 2015 at http://www.koreaobserver.com/pride-parade-must-be-stopped-because-gays-are-diseased-pastor-says-33223/; and Koo, S W (2015, July 22) South Korean Evangelicals’ Anal Obsession, Korea Exposé [online] Accessed 20 August 2015 at http://www.koreaexpose.com/in-depth/south-korean-evangelicals-anal-obsession/.

[2] Klug, F, and Lee, Y K (AP) (2015, 12 June) Cheating site Ashley Madison is booming in South Korea. Business Insider [online] Accessed 20 August 2015 at http://www.businessinsider.com/cheating-site-ashley-madison-is-booming-in-south-korea-2015-6.

[3] From one of the answers to everything – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heteronormativity – accessed 25 August 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Hamlet, Act iii, Scene i.

[7] For example, Angelo, G T (2015, 18 July) A conservative case for marriage equality. Washington Examiner [online]; or Olson, T B (2010, 8 January) (!)The Conservative Case For Gay Marriage, Newsweek [online]. Accessed 25 August 2015 at http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/a-conservative-case-for-marriage-equality/article/2567744, and http://www.newsweek.com/conservative-case-gay-marriage-70923 (respectively).

[8] Avery, D (2014, 29 December) The 14 Best LGBT Commercials Of 2014. Logo TV/NewNowNext [online]. Accessed 25 August 2015 at http://www.newnownext.com/14-best-lgbt-commercials-of-2014/12/2014/.

[9]In (2013, 28 November) How We Got Gay. Doc Zone. CBC Television. Accessed 10 June 2015 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvKyY382KUc (posted by ‘Darkness Documentary’).

[10] (2006, July 26) BEYOND SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: A NEW STRATEGIC VISION FOR ALL OUR FAMILIES & RELATIONSHIPS. In beyondmarriage.org [online]. Accessed 18 August 2015 at http://www.beyondmarriage.org/full_statement.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] As found in (2009) Betty Bowers Explains Traditional Marriage to Everyone Else [online]. Posted by Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian. Accessed 2 May 2015 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFkeKKszXTw.

[13] This is the subject of two petitions I have recently signed on avaaz.org.

[14] This is an echo of something I remember from Gift, Dilemma, and Promise, a report presented to the 30th General Council of the United Church of Canada.


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