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Don't straighten the queers
Tolerating the queers at once marginalizes the queers and legitimates "our" own sense of straightness

By Afsaneh Najmabadi
March 8, 2004

I must start with a confession: When I first read "Being straight with queers," I was tempted to write a response with a title like: "What a straight job on the queers!" Then I was reminded of the hadith-i nabavi, a prophetic narrative, about woman, which goes something like this: "Woman is crooked [being born from the rib of Adam]; don't straighten her, she will break." So I wanted to echo the prophet's words: "Don't straighten the queers."

On second thought, I remembered the sometimes rampant, but more often subtle, homophobia that has been expressed in the past in the columns of by some writers. So perhaps even a patronizing normalizing tolerance is better than intolerance.

But more seriously: here is my trouble with Golnar Shirazi's well-wishing piece.

The article is structured, from its very beginning with the sub-title "Let us stop hating homosexuals," around two categories of people: we/us, the straights, and then those other people, they/them, the queers. The "we" includes, beyond the "I" of the text, through the address of the article ("Let us...") and its content, the readers of this article, in particular the Iranian readers of, thus prescribed as straight.

At the margins of this straight community there are some queers. Queers are persistently referred to with the use of third person pronouns, reminding me of parents who talk about their children in the third person, as if they were not in the room. It seems that in the reading room of no queer reader is expected to intrude.

Shirazi is pleading for "our" tolerance of these queers by connecting to the national spectacle of gay and lesbian marriages. This national scene provides the occasion for declaring queers as almost "virtually normal": "They" are almost as normal as "us". The normality of "us" straights of course always goes without saying; heterosexuality never needs an explanation, nor do we see its constant public display as a sign of its need to state itself over and over again.

On the other hand, the displayed visibility of the desire of some gay and lesbians to marry in public is taken to be a singular sign of their normality: they are happy and want to get married, they stay home and take care of their kids, they work hard, they are ambitious, are intelligent, beautiful,.... The listing of virtual normality goes on and on. By doing the same things as "we" do in "our" daily lives, "they" have gained the privilege of not being hated by "us."

It is for the normalized queers that Shirazi is begging tolerance. The problem with tolerance is that, to be frank, we tolerate not what we like, not what we think belongs to our community, but what we really would prefer not to have in our midst, but then being nice tolerant people, we know better; tolerating the queers at once marginalizes the queers and legitimates "our" own sense of straightness.

Yet, not all queers are or wish to be so normal. Being normal is not as "natural" as one may think. As de Beauvoir said about woman, one is not born a woman, one becomes one. None of us are born normal; becoming normal is a "learning process," a continuous struggle to perform what a culture at a particular point in history has come to define as norms of normal womanhood and manhood, straight and queer.

Normalcy gains its meaning through many repetitious daily performances; we all modify gender and sexual scripts as we perform; sometimes more radically, sometimes through resistance to the norms. Queer norm-resisters appear in Shirazi's article by their exclusion from the good gays: occasionally the modifier "most" creeps in; "Most gay people I know..." "Most of the people I see getting married...."

It turns out that after all "some" queers refuse to be normalized; these terrible folks continue to engage in life styles that perpetuate instead of "breaking the stereotypes of the gay lifestyle" against all these other "normaller than normal" queers. Do "they" deserve "our" tolerance?

Yes, there are many privileges that the legal contract of marriage bestows upon husband and wife and deprives other partners of. But in the rush to get marriage extended to gay and lesbians, what gets lost is the recognition that this rush is because partners have been refused those social goods through any other legally recognized sanction; why could we not have extended such goods to partners who have formed "families of their choice" to love and care for each other?

Some gays and lesbians have turned to extension of marriage as the way to obtain them; others (including both straights and queers) are less jubilant about this; as the extension of marriage is at the same time a reiteration of marriage as the only recognizable institution through which such social amenities and recognition are bestowed. As such it reinforces marriage as a key normalizing institution in this society.

As a friend recently said, "Otherness begins at home." It seems that one place that otherness of Iranian queers starts is on the home page of

Afsaneh Najmabadi teaches History and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.

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