Rethinking Normativity

Ann Williams
5 min readApr 16

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This is an essay I am not thrilled to write. I know that many who read it will respond by reacting rather than reasoning, and will see condemnation and hate where none exists. Nonetheless, things that need saying must be said by those who can say them, else they won’t be said and everyone pays the price.

The idea of normativity, as it relates to sexuality and gender, is anathema in the LGBT community. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity are referred to with loathing and contempt; and it’s not hard to understand why. It is very easy for people to hear the phrases, “People should be heterosexual” and “People should be cisgender” as implicit judgments of someone who is not these things. Attempts to explain that these are not judgments of the individual are met with skepticism and scorn for the idea that it is possible to “hate the sin yet love the sinner.” Yet they are, in fact, two different things.

It is possible to distinguish judgment of the condition — and sexuality and gender are both conditions, just as warmth is a condition on a sunny day — from judgment of the person whose condition it is. The phrase, “People should be cisgender,” can be heard in two very different senses. The first sense is the one that people react to: “You have a moral obligation to be cisgender, and you are at fault (or of less value as a person) if you aren’t.” The second sense is the one that is real: “If things were as they should be, you would be cisgender.”

These two senses might be distinguished as subjective normativity (the first sense) and objective normativity (the second sense) — and it is this latter sense in which I use the term herein.

Whatever trans people may say about cisnormativity, desire to conform to it is commonplace in the trans community. People wish they could press a button and be magically changed to have the body that matches their gender, and some would press a button if it would simply make their gender dysphoria go away and allow them to live comfortably in the body they have. This is implicit recognition that having a gender that diverges from one’s sex is not as desirable a condition as having one that doesn’t; and that’s all “cisnormativity” means in its objective sense.

Now, when the term “cisnormativity” is used in its subjective sense, I agree with the LGBT community: it is offensive — profoundly so. But it’s critical that we recognize the legitimacy of cisnormativity and heteronormativity in their objective sense — because denial of the legitimacy of objective normativity makes the suffering attendant upon being gay or trans meaningless.

It is easier to see these things in a less emotionally-charged context. Rather than speak in terms of being gay or trans, let’s instead speak in terms of being born with a cleft palate. There are cultures to this day where a child born with a cleft palate is shunned by the community as something to be feared or loathed, holding the child responsible for its affliction. This is holding the child to a subjectively normative standard. However, it is possible to regard having a cleft palate as something less desirable than not having one without holding the child responsible for its affliction. That would be holding the affliction, not the child, to an objectively normative standard. It is the condition that is undesirable, not the child.

Some people in the LGBT community, however, cannot separate these things. If you regard their condition as less desirable than the alternative, they regard this as a personal judgment of themselves. And there is a reason they do this: many people do hold them to a subjectively normative standard; many people do hold them at fault for “being the way they are.” When your attackers fail to distinguish between the sin and the sinner, so to speak, it’s understandable if you do the same; and the impulse to throw away any sort of difference in value between being gay and straight, cis and trans, is not unexpected.

But it’s still an error, and an error with consequences. If we say that there is no objective difference in value between being gay and straight, cis and trans, blind and sighted, it necessarily means that our suffering because of our condition is meaningless; and despair is then inevitable. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow; but it will come. Fighting it off will be an exercise in swimming against the tide, and eventually you’ll run out of the strength needed to resist it.

And it’s not what people really believe, anyway. What a person believes is reflected in what she does, not what she says; and most people whose gender doesn’t match their sex wish it were otherwise.

Thus far, I’ve spoken of the internal evidence for objective normativity: the desire of trans people for their sex to match their gender. There is also the evidence from nature. Put simply, having a gender or sexuality that doesn’t match one’s sex is inefficient to survival of the species. Put even more simply, nature clearly intended for sex and gender, and sex and sexuality, to match: it’s not the way we were designed. Some people will, no doubt, argue that “design” doesn’t enter into it; but that’s shallow. Design, purpose and meaning are all different sides of the same idea. They are inseparable; and to say that there is no design to life is the same thing as saying life is meaningless — and no one believes that, whatever they may say. Their actions prove it.

Now, if the evidence from both within and without is that being heterosexual and cisgender are objectively normative, it follows that a social order seeking to be meaningful must recognize these qualities as such. It cannot treat being gay or trans as value-neutral, anymore than it can treat being blind or lame as value-neutral. Does this mean that it should discriminate invidiously against people who are gay or trans? Certainly not — not any more than it should discriminate invidiously against people who are blind or lame. Indeed, in a compassionate society, gay and trans people will be reasonably accommodated to the extent they can be, without, however, compromising the values of heteronormativity and cisnormativity — just as it doesn’t compromise the values of sightedness and ambulation. It posts signs in braille and builds wheelchair ramps, but it continues to treat seeing and walking as normative. It doesn’t turn itself upside-down or treat blindness and lameness as valued equally to their opposites.

What does this mean, in a practical sense? I think that is probably a question for another essay; but I would rather people think about it themselves than wait for me to voice my opinion. So, I may not get to that question for awhile. Don’t wait for me.

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Ann Williams

Trans woman living on an island of reason in a sea of hysteria.