Heteronormativity and the cult of good feelings

One of the standard arguments against “heteronormativity”–that is, holding the married, heterosexual, complementarian family as the ideal–is that doing so marginalizes other kinds of families. For instance, Drucilla Cornell writes in the New York Times:

There is a voluminous literature arguing that the act of child adoption itself constitutes a trauma. For example, the writer Betty Jean Lifton argued that no matter what adoptive parents do, an adopted child has undergone a foundational trauma. I have argued against that position because for Lifton, biological connection is the only way for a family to constitute itself through a foundational narrative of belonging. On that view, an adopted child will necessarily be robbed of such a narrative, and will be without answers to basic questions like “When did mommy meet daddy?” and “What happened on the day I was born?”

But of course it is not only adopted, children who lack such narratives. Those who do not live in conventional heterosexual families are also cut off from them. The normalization of the heterosexual family — mommy and daddy and baby makes three — does not describe the majority of families. If one narrative of family belonging — in this case traditional heterosexual — is treated as the only valid one, it cuts off other possibilities for other stories of how one becomes a family and belongs to a family. Thus, the very argument that adoption is foundationally traumatic shuts down possibilities that would allow adopted children to tell different family stories and be part of different kinds of families. The argument itself becomes exclusionary.

This argument amounts to “We shouldn’t allow the heterosexual family to become the dominant narrative, because it makes other families feel baaaaad.” Gay and lesbian parents, adoptive parents, single parents, infertile couples–all of these people will feel bad–“excluded”–if we adhere to a standard narrative of family formation.

Frankly, I find this argument mystifying. I freely admit that many aspects of my own life are sub-optimal and far from ideal, so I don’t understand this concern that the very existence of ideals will lead to hurt feelings. For instance, it would be better if I learned to sew my own clothes, instead of whining that I can’t afford pretty, high-quality, sweatshop-free clothes from places like Modcloth or Shabby Apple. It would be better if I attended Mass daily instead of once or twice a week. It would be better if I spent all my spare time writing my dissertation instead of this blog. Does admitting all of this hurt my feelings a little bit? Yes–but then, those hurt feelings should be channeled towards constructive action, towards acquiring better homemaking skills, a stronger relationship with God, and a better work ethic, even if my life situation doesn’t specifically allow for daily Mass or sewing lessons. It’s possible to admit that our lives are sub-optimal without becoming paralyzed with depression.

If Ms. Cornell genuinely believes that gay parents or single parents are just as good, perhaps better, for children than the traditional heterosexual ideal, she should say so, not just complain that people who believe otherwise are making her feel bad. The progressives’ argument against heteronormativity seems preoccupied with attaining good feelings, which is an oddly self-centered goal. The goal of life–especially family life!–is to perform your duties and vocation as best you can, not to pursue good feelings.  While Christians should certainly be charitable and shouldn’t seek to gratuitously cause bad feelings, I don’t think that merely stating an ideal is uncharitable.

10 thoughts on “Heteronormativity and the cult of good feelings

  1. “One of the standard arguments against “heteronormativity”–that is, holding the married, heterosexual, complementarian family as the ideal–is that doing so marginalizes other kinds of families.”

    To tell the truth, there really is only one kind of family.

  2. reminds me of the problem of pain where C.S. Lewis argued that people now adays are motivated by kindness instead or virtue, Love and sacrifice.

  3. Yeah, I think it should be possible to acknowledge the ideal even when we ourselves don’t quite fit it. I’m not really a full-time stay-at-home mom right now, but I still think that young children deserve a parent’s full attention when it *is* possible.

  4. their not arguing heteronormativity to make them feel better. Their discussing this sociological topic in the pursuit of truth, like any other academic topic. There are not feeling sorry for themselves.
    And although it would be more productive for you to go to mass more and spend more time on your dissertation, it would more socially just for gay, infertile etc families to be considered as normal as “regular” ones

    • If academic discussions of heteronormativity really take the pursuit of truth as their goal, then they should begin with a rational investigation of the kinds of families that are best for children. Instead, most of these discussions focus on how bad it is to “feel” excluded or marginalized. Subjective feelings, not research, constitute the sole “evidence” in these discussions.

      • This particular article might be based on feelings. Heteronormativity however is a serious topic based on research evidence. And to be honest with everything your saying, how can you deny that though our sex is certain our gender is up to us. A male can take a mother’s role for a child and woman can do fathers??

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