In those tired campus circles where national politics are discussed at
length, it’s fashionable to echo a claim of noted liberals like Al
Franken, that Republicans are so successful because they manipulate
language to win the debate.
As so, the benign-sounding “estate tax” is now better known
by the nefarious moniker “the death tax.” The Democrats, of course,
play the same game, though perhaps less successfully; the Republican
strategy for eliminating judicial filibusters, “the constitutional
option,” is now universally referred to as “the nuclear option” by
Yet for all the chattering politicos dedicated to observing
the obvious on the national scene, a far more interesting battle over
words is being played out on college campuses.
As in national politics, the modus operandi is simple: win points for your political argument by changing the terms used in the debate.
And nowhere has the tactic been more realized than in the gay
rights movement, whose campus proponents have a nasty habit of blending
moderation (civil unions) with madness (see below).
It all started with “homophobia,” coined in the late 1960s.
Today, we know that “homophobia” is not a phobia at all, in the
sense that it is not a pathological fear. As Bunmi Olatunji, the author
of a 2002 University of Arkansas study, summarized, homophobia is “not
a conceptually accurate [term].” That is because homophobia implies a
pathological disgust tantamount to anxiety or fear of homosexuality. In
reality, participants in the Arkansas study reacted with “moral
contempt” to homosexuality.
Despite the term’s false premises, it continues to be wielded
widely and potently. Someone labeled a “homophobe” is deemed an
incorrigible bigot, unworthy of participating in dialogue with reasoned
individuals. The “homophobe”—a term which, thankfully, still elicits my
word processor’s red-underline spell-check function—is a person who has
a psychological illness, who must be ignored, and who can only see the
light through that “progressive” melange of tolerance and
understanding. And to cure them all, there will have to be heaping
mounds of understanding: as it happens, 57 percent of
Americans—“homophobes” by definition—consider homosexuality “against
God’s will,” according to a Los Angeles Times poll conducted last year.
While “homophobia” was begotten on college campuses, it has
spread throughout political circles as gay rights advocates came to
realize branding their opponents “homophobes” was a convenient way to
But new, more egregious terminologies have now been invented that will never be found infiltrating non-academic fora.
Writing on Cambridge Common, a Harvard-related blog whose
contributors hail from the far left, Katherine E.S. Loncke ’08 calls a
particular line of reasoning “disturbingly vapid [and]
“Heteronormative” is a peculiar (some would say vapid)
invention that does not yet pack the rhetorical punch “homophobia”
does, largely because the idea that underlies it is so absurd on the
face of things.
Here’s an example: Let’s say in the midst of a dross-filled
dining hall conversation between a pack of men, one mentions a “hot
date” he’ll be having later that night. Following which, one of his
mates inquires, “who’s the chick?”
This is the face of “heteropresumption”—the companion noun of
“heteronormative”—which is the gaffe of assuming the person you’re
talking to is, like the vast majority are, a heterosexual.
When Loncke brandished the term “heteronormative,” she was
attacking the assumption that the typical Harvard woman would someday
want to come together in marriage with—brace yourselves—a man.
To the unpronounceable, consonant-rife likes of the college’s
BGLTSA or the divinity school’s GBLTQSIA, heteronormativity is now a
condition that demands to be overcome.
But as yet, if six-tenths of Americans could be labeled
“homophobes,” surely more than nine-tenths (including many gays who are
more aware of reality) would require the label “heteronormative.”
Yet, on college campuses, the quest to end heteronormativity
is having some real consequences. Responding to complaints that dorms
that house those of the same sex together are heteropresumptive, a
handful of liberal arts colleges have taken down those bothersome
gender barriers entirely.
And for some years now, BGLTSA has been tilting at windmills
to transform Harvard’s “gendered” bathrooms into “gender-neutral
spaces.” The argument for the change is that those—and here’s another
term to add to our overpopulated lexicon—“identifying” as transgendered
feel alienated from gender-specific bathrooms, that they cannot be
classified by those silhouetted stick figures, and so require a
totalizing change to make them feel comfortable.
Eventually, such battles hit the wall of reality. Such was
evident at a recent speech by Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 on “Feminism and
the Autonomy of Women.” Mansfield’s argument that women might now feel
more liberated by staying in the home and raising children is
controversial enough. But those expecting it to be condemned at the
hands of feminists, eager to see women stay in the workplace, would
have been surprised. Instead, the bulk of criticism came from BGLTSA
types, outraged at Mansfield’s heteronormativity.
Mansfield was assailed with questions that asked not about
the heart of his theory but about the exceptions: “what if two women
are married to each other?” Another concerned a woman that started to
“identify” as a man—what to do with this transgendered person in
Mansfield stood his ground, properly calling those examples
marginal and ultimately irrelevant to his core argument. But many have
not been so steadfast with reality. When the proposition of changing
Tuft’s “heteronormative” housing confronted the university’s president,
he found it hard to respond in the logical way—that heteropresumption
is the way of a world where the huge majority are straight—and instead
invented a nonsensical excuse underpinned by a worry that sexually
transmitted diseases would increase if the sexes were mixed.
Caving willingly to pressure, Wesleyan College’s imprimatur
has been accorded to a group that wants to educate professors and
incoming freshmen on the use of the transgendered pronoun “ze” and its
Perhaps what’s most disconcerting about all of this, however,
is not the impact these new terms are having on everyday life or
mainstream academia—for most people, overtly or quietly, recognize the
gay rights movement’s latter-day silliness.
Rather, it’s the prospect that a community whose goal has so
long been “acceptance” is isolating itself and alienating others by
creating a separate body of knowledge that only they appear to care
about or know. Of those transgender terms, BGLTSA’s Noa Grayevsky ’07
is quoted in last week’s Fifteen Minutes, “People that are either queer
or educated on this topic use [‘ze’ and ‘hir’] pretty widely.” And, of
course, no one else does.
And the creation of new genders has become a hobby for those
on the fringe. Consider Kit Yan, a “gender queer” Hawaiian poet who
will be performing tonight at BGLTSA’s invitation. In one poem, after
rolling through several dozen “genders”—including appellations like
“polyamorous,” “heteroflexible,” and “boydyke”—Yan solemnly declares,
“and that’s just the beginning...There may be as many as a million
genders / Just floating around, searching for the right person / To
snatch them up.”
The ivory tower is the only place where such nonsense can find
a home and even as we on campus witness the germination of a new, ever
stranger vocabulary, few can imagine taking any of it seriously.
In the world at large, social acceptance and gay marriage seem
to be accomplishable (and sometimes, accomplished) goals of the gay
rights movement. What fruits can those who are using these new,
awkward, polluting words possibly hope to reap?
Travis Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator affiliated with Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.