By Kevin Niparko, Contributing Columnist
Published on Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Last Friday the Cornell social group Direct Action to Stop Heterosexism sponsored a unique pre-Valentine's Day protest: a homosexual kiss-in. Beneath a banner that read "Queer Kissin'" students of the same sex publicly kissed on Cornell's Ho Plaza. The protest was an attempt to increase the visibility of a phenomenon that I had never heard of before: heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity, according to The Cornell Daily Sun, is the idea that heterosexuality is the "normal" sexual orientation. It is, in the words of Cornell senior Ashley McGovern, "the normalization of heterosexuality in society." Undergirding this idea is the notion that gender is simply binary -- male or female -- and that "normal" sexual relations occur between a member of each of these two genders.
Around the world, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Allied (LGBTQA) community has worked to undermine common heterosexist and heteronormative attitudes with similar types of showy protests, as well as with more conventional demonstrations. Members of the Dartmouth LGBTQA, for instance, are holding a panel forum on Wednesday night to share their experiences with the greater Dartmouth community. Additional protests, like the Day of Silence, raise awareness of the struggles of the LGBTQA community.
Similar to other LGBTQA efforts, the Cornell kiss-in was an attempt to raise awareness about the realities of alternative sexual preferences. After reading about the kiss-in, I was left with two questions: (1) Is a protest like this respectful of the greater community? and (2) Can something as trivial as a kiss-in have any effect on changing the way people understand the LGBTQA community?
I shared my questions with a friend, and his response perhaps addressed the very heteronormativity the kiss-in meant to publicize.
"I consider myself a pretty tolerant person," he said. "But when I see two guys making out in a frat basement, I have to admit, it kind of freaks me out."
Although I hated to acknowledge it, I absolutely understood what he meant. I grew up in a heteronormative environment. While my school did its best to raise tolerance for alternative sexualities, I graduated without knowing a single openly gay classmate. It is not that being raised in that kind of environment taught me to dislike or judge homosexuals, it just failed to expose me to the plurality of opinions and lifestyles that thrive at places like Cornell and Dartmouth.
While my friend's comment is obviously heterosexist, I think his observation is representative of the double standard our culture holds toward the LGBTQA community. Our culture accepts (and even encourages) men and women to all but make sweet passionate love to one another on a fraternity dance floor, but the idea that two men, two women or a gender-neutral couple might be interested in doing the same thing startles us. Our generation seems to be far more intellectually accepting of different lifestyles and sexualities than our parents', but the moment we actually witness these lifestyles in practice, some of us cringe.
Some might pass off Cornell's kiss-in as a cry for attention or a stunt pulled solely for shock value. I might have been just as quizzical had straight Cornell students decided to swap saliva mid-Ho Plaza. Critics might condemn this protest as disgustingly lascivious -- another act of so-called flamboyancy and attention-garnering by the gay community.
But at the same time, I think the shock value some of us find in "Queer Kissin'" says a lot about where we stand as a culture. We may be a relatively tolerant generation -- on an intellectual level -- but, in practice, we are not nearly as accepting as we claim to be. The Cornell kiss-in encourages us to reevaluate and question the tacit beliefs and prejudices we may not have known we had. By pulling these skeletons out of the closet, I think, we as a society can grow more accepting and understanding of varying opinions and lifestyles.