The wages of heteronormativity

A commenter using the pseudonym Tommy Boy about my brief death notice for John Holm:

The NYT obit mentions Holm’s husband twice. Interesting to note that some newspapers’ reproduction of the NYT story omit reference to ‘husband’… The Bahamas Tribune which borrows heavily from the NYT article makes no mention of Holm’s husband, despite regularly using the standard “is survived by” for its obituaries.

First, the NYT obit followed the paper’s fairly rigid conventions on the form and content of obituaries (I will explain). Second, it was natural for the Bahamas Tribune to pick up the story (I will explain that too). Third, many people believe that reference or allusion to homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, is by definition talk about sex acts (in the case of male homosexuality, specifically, talk about male-male anal intercourse), so that such talk is inappropriate, indeed deeply offensive, in many contexts — like the pages of a family newspaper or the halls and classrooms of a school. (I will amplify.)

Obituary conventions. The traditional obituary has several fixed parts. The first paragraph  (or sometimes two) announces a person’s death, giving their name and age and place of death and (sometimes) cause of death and briefly characterizing their life’s course and significance. If the obit is an original (not a relay of an obit in some other media source), the next paragraph names the source or the report and characterizes the relationship of the source to the decedent.

The point of this paragraph is to establish the reliability of the report: it comes from a specific named source with some close association to the decedent (a family member, close friend, companion, business associate, spokesperson for an organization identified with the decedent, etc.). After all, rumors about deaths abound, and a respectable news outlet doesn’t want to retail rumors. (I suppose I should point out here that Paul McCartney is still not dead, after all these years.)

The obit then proceeds with an appreciation of the decedent’s life and work, and the writer is free to structure this portion of the obit as suits them.

Then, at or close to the end of the obit, a short section looking to the future: the survivors are listed, in the format “NN is survived by …”. Survivors here always include blood relatives in the direct line (parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, etc.), or their adoptive equivalents, and (current) spouses, and may include people outside (but close to) these categories — collateral relatives, in-laws, step-relatives, ex-spouses, companions, domestic partners, etc. — if that seems justifiable to the writer (and the writer’s editor). This concluding material might include a schedule of funeral services, memorial events, and the like (and especially in obituaries written with close friends in mind, information about memorial contributions).

The Times obit for John Holm, an original written by William Grimes, has both the report-source and survivor sections in their standard formats. Once same-sex marriages became available, the Times (and a number of other U.S. newspapers) made the principled decision that since same-sex marriages are legally marriages, they should be treated as such in the paper’s pages. Same-sex weddings are reported in the wedding pages, and news stories and obits treat these couples in such marriages in the same way as other-sex couples.

When same-sex couples in romantic relationships are not in fact married (for whatever reason), the Times seems to fall back on the terminology it used for such couples before same-sex marriage came along, usually involving companion or close friend.

Now, relay publications (other papers picking up the original story, magazines, blogs, and so on) have no obligation to include the report-source and survivor sections, and might omit them because they don’t seem central to the story. The Bahamas Tribune story, “Co-Writer Of Bahamian Dictionary Dies, Aged 72”, by Nico Scavella on 1/5/16,  starts with the opening paragraph

John Alexander Holm, who co-wrote the Dictionary of Bahamian English and is a former lecturer at the College of The Bahamas, died in Azeitao, Portugal on December 28 after reportedly battling prostate cancer.

and then launches right into the body of the story. And omits the survivor material.

Now this might just be for reasons of economy, but it might also be because the paper is wary of refence to things lgb. From Wikipedia on lgbt rights in the Bahamas:

Same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was legalised in The Bahamas on 16 May 1991. However, the criminal code still discriminates against gay, lesbian and bisexual people in that the legal age of consent to engage in homosexual conduct is eighteen years, while the legal age of consent to engage in heterosexual conduct is sixteen years.

Moreover, there are no legal protections for lgbt people; same-sex marriages and civil unions are not legal; “Most Bahamas citizens affiliate with a socially conservative Christian sect that views homosexuality and cross-dressing as signs of decadence and immorality”; and homophobia is widespread.

Why the Bahamas? The reason John Holm’s death is noted in the Bahamas Tribune should be clear from the headline and lead paragraph of its obit above. More detail in the story:

Mr Holm, a native of Jackson, Michigan, co-wrote the first dictionary of Bahamian English with Alison Watt Chilling while serving as English and German linguistics lecturer at the College of the Bahamas from 1978-1980. The dictionary, which was published in 1982, serves as an official guide for the amalgamation of the various English, European and African elements that helps comprise the Bahamian vernacular.

Heteronormativity. From Wikipedia:

Heteronormativity is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes. Consequently, a “heteronormative” view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles. Heteronormativity is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia.

Michael Warner popularized the term in 1991, in one of the first major works of queer theory. The concept’s roots are in Gayle Rubin’s notion of the “sex/gender system” and Adrienne Rich’s notion of compulsory heterosexuality

On this view, heterosexuality is not at root a sexual orientation, but simply the normal, natural state of all human beings, which happens to include, as one of its components, sexual attraction to members of the opposite sex; being straight is not about sex or sex acts acts, except coincidentally. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is abnormal, unnatural, perverse, sick — and if you take your Christianity neat and strong, sinful, against God’s Law, and an affront to Christ – and it’s all about sex acts. especially for men, where it’s all about anal intercourse.

If you take this view, then referring or alluding to homosexuality is talking about sex acts and so is inappropriate in many contexts. These references or allusions include, but are not limited to: referring to someone as gay (or queer or lesbian or bisexual), talking about same-sex marriage, talking about your same-sex partner as such, coming out (as lgb) to others, displaying lgbt symbols (rainbow flags, pink triangles, etc.), talking about Pride parades or similar events, displaying same-sex affection (holding hands, embracing, kissing, etc.) in public, openly belonging to a Gay-Straight Alliance or to PFLAG. All of this is an offense to the heteronormative and can trigger sanctions of many sorts. Kids have been punished, sometimes severely, for being out at school (on the grounds, administrators say, that it’s unacceptable to talk about sex acts at school). Less drastically,  some media outlets simply refuse to mention same-sex marriage, refer to people as glb (except to excoriate or condemn them), report news about lgbt events, publish images of same-sex couples showing affection, take ads for anything lgbt-related, or the like. The idea is that such things should not be talked about in polite company.

The lgbt pushback has been to attempt to normalize lgbt people and their relationships, a campaign that has had significant successes in the U.S. in the abandonment of DADT (don’t ask, don’t tell) policies in the military, the same-sex marriage decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the granting of lgbt protections in many jurisdictions, and a raft of comings-out by public figures and celebrities. But there’s a long way to go, and a whole lot of heteronormativity out there.

My own pushback: two affectionate wedding photos: Talisha and Monika, Gary and Nhon:



One Response to “The wages of heteronormativity”

  1. [META] Blogroll update! | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky’s Blog is the blog of a smart gay linguist. One post I liked was his examination of linguist John Holm, and how his sexuality and his partner were ignored in the Bahamas whose […]

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