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Heteronormativity awareness. Critical notes on Workplace Pride

13 minutes to read
Sanne van Driel

Now that Tilburg University has raised the rainbow flag, let's talk about heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity awareness day

On Friday October 11, international ‘Coming Out Day’, Tilburg University announced its membership of Workplace Pride, an international organization that offers tools and support to help organizations become safer and more inclusive to the LGBTI+ community. The raising of the flag was accompanied by a speech from a member of the Board of Directors about the importance of being yourself at work. Later that day, there was a small event aimed at sharing stories about coming out in academia. When the diversity officer approached me to ask if I knew someone who could speak at the event –maybe me myself?  

I was not very excited, to say the least. I felt worried and tired and my mind started to race. How do I explain, I thought, that I am not in any way interested in raising the rainbow flag with members of the board, nor in hearing speeches about the importance of being yourself at work? What does it even mean for Tilburg University to raise that flag and announce their wish to be inclusive to the LGBTI+ community, a community I consider myself part of (even if in my case, the Q of Queer would be crucial to include here)?

How do I explain that it doesn’t feel quite safe for me to speak about personal-political matters at a public event set out to present its good intentions flag, while at the same time asking if there is even still a need for such attention; while wondering where the lesbians, gays, transgenders, intersex and queer people even are? I couldn’t imagine the whole thing to mean anything else than stating: we are tolerant heterosexuals. It reminded me of Sarah Ahmed’s concept of the non-performative: when stating diversity and inclusivity is considered as already doing enough and paradoxically functions as an obstruction to actually DOING it.

"Did you ever feel you needed to hide or reveal a part of you? Did you ever change the way you speak, walk, dress, or live in order to avoid being all too visible? Will you tell us about it in public, so that we can learn?"

I left the email hanging for a few days, then I responded with a suggestion: instead of putting the burden of responsibility on those who are excluded in order to be included, why not talk about the power structures that create this in- and exclusion? In other words, why not talk about heteronormativity?

Heterosexual awareness

Let's start with some basic heterosexual awareness. It is a variation on The Heterosexual Questionnaire (1977). Imagine what it would be like to ask 'heterosexuals', 'cisgenders' (so called owners of their ‘sex’ in correspondence to their ‘gender’ who find their love- and lust objects to be of 'the opposite sex') to put a lens on their lifestyles and the way they orient themselves?

To ask them: Did you ever feel you needed to hide or reveal a part of you? Did you ever change the way you speak, walk, dress, or live in order to avoid being all too visible? Have you ever taken on a role that didn’t suit you in order to fit in and be accepted? What happened when you failed? Are you afraid to fail? Will you tell us about it in public, so that we can learn?

'I know when to go out, and when to stay in.' -David Bowie, Modern Love (1983)

The experiment shows that we, members of the human species, are all gendered and sexual(ized) beings, and we all have stories to tell. It also shows that being questioned and put on the spot to share personal stories feels uncomfortable, unsafe or even harassing. These stories require attention and care, and an audience with a certain level of knowledge rather than ignorance to keep one safe. A safe or safer space, so to speak, held by others who are willing and also able to look out for you.

Safer spaces can take many forms, requiring different facilities, skills and knowledge(s) to accommodate different people, different bodies, different needs. But even if it would for none of us feel particularly safe to be vulnerable in corporate-academic spaces, these spaces make some certainly more vulnerable and thus less safe than others. Assumptions of heterosexuality and either male or female identity as the norm or even as a natural given, will keep LGBTQI+ community members in vulnerable and marginalized positions. Even if in the end this is oppressive to most of us, they will take the blow.

Coming out

Let me explain this by coming back to the phrase ‘coming out’. In no way do I mean to criticize, judge or discourage anyone who has a coming out story or multiple coming out stories to tell - stories of trauma, stories of struggle, stories of shame and loneliness, stories of rejection, relief, friendship and liberation, stories of pride. Often all of the above. These stories and experiences can form an important part of one’s identity.

The notion of ‘coming out’ of the presumed closet however, is problematic in several ways. For one thing, it creates a divide between who is in and who is out. More precisely: a divide between those that are closeted in order to come out to and deviating from those to whom the logic of the closet does not apply. In short, it creates a divide between homo- and heterosexuality. If, as Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality (vol. 1, 1978), at the end of the nineteenth century the homosexual was born as a species, so, by consequence, was the heterosexual. According to critical theory- and literary scholar Eve Sedgwick (1990), this divide is as crucial to our understanding of Western culture as the sex/gender divide between man and woman and masculine and feminine.

The notion of ‘coming out’ of the presumed closet is problematic in several ways.

Endorsing Foucault’s thesis that sexuality is central to the workings of modern disciplinary power, she argues that homophobic oppression takes a central place in the twentieth century because of its inextricable relation to the process of knowing in modern Western culture at large (33-34). Foucault’s personal-political idea of liberation entailed the refusal of taking on the label of a homosexual identity forced on individuals by society. He never ‘came out’ as ‘a homosexual’, even if his regular presence in gay underground culture and its sexual practices was no secret.

Gay practices cannot be reduced to gay identity. However, separating practice from identity entirely will work in favor of the silent default of heterosexual discourse, pushing important sources of knowledge into the closet only to come out in straight terms. The logic and ‘epistemology of the closet’, as Sedgwick’s classic work is called, privileges both male knowledge and ignorance of matters that threaten its power, damaging knowledge overall. Hence the need to both understand its workings as well as study the “less stable and identity-bound understandings of sexual choice [that] also persisted and developed” (9). Studying modern literary culture through a gay lens and centering gay experiences, Sedgwick aims to pluralize and multiply understanding of sexuality, liberating both sexuality and gay culture from its oppressive binary distinctions.

On a more daily life level, if the closet assumes a hostile homophobic environment, it also functions as a place to hide from hostile attacks. To put the burden of responsibility to come out on those in need to hide instead of the ones who need to change their attitudes, is unfair. Furthermore, it suggests a kind of secretiveness or deceit on the side of the one 'inside'.

Not coming out

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans- and non-binary genders unwilling to explicitly declare or ‘out’ the truth of their identities ‘cause confusion’ and run the risk of being accused of being misleading and possibly sexually threatening to those who are unaware. This is an especially urgent matter in the lives of transgenders. That the logic of coming out privileges masculine heterosexuality shows in the jurisprudential history of the ‘gay panic’- and ‘trans panic defense’. Violent and even murderous actions are in these cases (partly) legitimized and understood as provoked by the anxiety of having a non-heterosexual encounter (see Lee and Kar Yu Kwan 2014; Woods et al. 2016).

More often, gay or trans 'phobia' (some prefer the term 'misia', for this means hatred, not fear, which seems more accurate) comes in more 'subtle' ways, sometimes even meant as expressions of tolerance along the lines of 'I'm ok with it, as long as they don't touch me.' (Note that I am not saying that all heterosexuals are homophobic or 'bad'. My point is that the homo/hetero divide has damaging effects on people, assuming heterosexuality as default and projecting all its ugliness (and secret desires) on its others.)

In 1980s ballroom and voguing culture –as portrayed in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingstone) and recently in the drama television series Pose (2018-2019, Ryan Murphy) trans- and gay people, mostly people of color, came together in clubs to perform their (multiple) identities, dressing up extravagantly in self-created outfits. They used the dancefloor as a performance-catwalk, competing to win trophies in different categories like ‘Face’, ‘Butch Queen’, ‘Femme Queen’ and ‘Luscious Body’. (Note: even if drag performance is part of the ballroom scene, not everyone there is a drag queen, and drag artists can have, be or identify as any gender and sexual orientation. ) 

Another category was ‘Realness’. In this category, the performers were judged and scored on the extent to which they passed as successful, mainstream, straight bodies. For example a transwoman of color passing as a middleclass white woman, or a poor gay man passing as a Wallstreet executive. As queer philosopher Judith Butler (1993) shows, the idea of passing and the category of realness show us two things:

  1. First, all identities are performative. The Wall Street executive wears a costume and follows the rules his body, gender and position in society have laid out for him; a drag queen performs certain (often stereotypically exaggerated) femininities; a drag king does the same for masculinities; transwomen and transmen perform the gender they feel they ‘truly’ are and might not want their 'trans-ness' to show, while non-binary trans-masculine people prefer to have masculine traits and expressions without trying to pass as 'real men' .
  2. Second, even if all identities are performative, some are considered to be more performative than others, more 'fake', 'unnatural' or 'performed' than others. And there is a danger in crossing identity lines that threaten some bodies more than others. While the Wall Street executive is under a lot of pressure to keep up his performance, the gender- and identity lines keeping him in place are very well protected by society. And if he risks his reputation and his job in crossing them, femme bodies and bodies of color might crash into a wall protecting wealthy white male hetero-norms protecting these jobs and reputations.

So as serious as the performance of 'Realness' was, and as severe the ‘reading’ (criticizing someone in a theatrical, comical way) when performers did not pass the category, in the ballroom space at least it was safe to try to pass and fail. Out there on the street however, it could be fatal. Every year still the lives of hundreds of transwomen of color murdered in the streets are memorized on the 20th of November, Transgender Day of Remembrance 

Failing to pass in academia

The notion of 'passing' points to external traits related to societal norms that make the lives of those who have or seem to have them easier. In this sense, there is a reason why heterosexual orientation is called 'straight', as it offers an often treaded path to normality. Those who pass -as straight, as cisgendered, as masculine, as white, as rational, as ablebodied, as sane, as healthy- experience less friction, have better access, are less visible as being 'different', 'other', problematic. They are more visible in the sense of being recognized as human citizens contributing to society. 

I think it is safe to say that life in academia, as anywhere else, requires passing as many things. In an institution specialized in scientific knowledge production, set in a Western, Christian and Eurocentric tradition, to pass as white, masculine and rational (even if only in one's thinking) makes life easier (which is not to say better). It makes it easier to digest the predominantly white, masculine canon, to speak up in meetings and lectures and to live up to neo-liberal rules of productivity. This is not to say that white men have it easy or that femme or queer presenting people of color cannot live or pass in academia, nor that academia is this monolith that can only be and do one thing.

What is important, however, if being inclusive is really a matter of importance to Tilburg University, is to guard the space actively from harassment and actively encourage taking care of each other.

My point is rather small: passing is hard enough when the system cooperates with you, when everything is going smoothly, one’s life in relative order, one’s priorities straight. When it doesn’t –regularly, structurally- hit you in the face and stomach, or -even if just casually- disregards what matters to you. I am not talking about the occasional setback that is part of anyone's life, but a structural pickering at one's life base, which possibly makes one more vulnerable to or emotional about setbacks as well. Failing to pass often hurts, and this hurting requires care.

The good news is, it also opens up a space 'beyond passing' that allows for reevaluation and reorientation. A 'queer' space, if you will, that requires protection from violence and harassment in order to keep the space safe and allow for different connections to happen. Here queer politics conflates with a criticism on neoliberal austerity politics that produces a continuous lack of space and time to come together and share and discuss ideas. While using the word queer in this more general sense runs the risk of disconnecting it from the context of its community and its specific issues, I choose to use it here to show that queer theory need not and should not be pinned down to be only applicable to sexuality and gender identity issues. Queer theory is about understanding difference and making different connections.

Genderclowns and clubbing

For several years (2014-2018) I was closely involved in the organization of a queer party in Rotterdam, where I live. I was part of a group of ‘genderclowns’ -a term we invented to express a not so serious, messy and unprofessional way of dealing with gender, beauty standards and expectations one might have of a club night. Unfortunately, in my experience and those of most genderclown crew members, heterosexual clubbing implies harassment on the dance floor (which includes constantly being weary of the possibility of someone grabbing your ass without consent and no-one of the organization there to do anything about this kind of behaviour).

At our party this harassment was explicitly and actively not allowed: no un-consensual grabbing and touching, no asking invasive questions about another’s body, gender expression or sexual preferences. We hosted a safe space for all kinds of bodies and all sorts of gender expression to enjoy themselves in any (ethical) way they liked. The space was inclusive to 'queer bodies', and while we welcomed everyone, a queer-inclusive space is not the same as an all-inclusive space. We would make sure everyone read, understood and agreed to the intentions of the party before entering. Inside, our genderclown crew was available for people to come to if they had a bad experience or witnessed harassing behavior, so we could offer support and if needed, ask someone to leave.

It is a basic rule of ethics: do what you want to do, but make sure to do it with consent, without hurting others. Because of our efforts to protect the space from harassment and to encourage taking care of each other, people experienced the freedom to try new things. I have no coming out story to tell, but I do have a story about feeling liberated when I experienced for the first time, after years of experience in pubs and clubs, that being grabbed, being insulted after saying 'no' and avoiding eye contact to prevent being grabbed or insulted, does not have to be part of the deal. That others were there with me and for me to hold the space I needed to move and breathe and connect with other people.

Brave places

Not every space is or needs to be a queer space, in the sense of a space specifically and explicitly focussed on sexuality and gender identity issues. Not every space needs to be a safe space, in the sense of specifically focussing on the expression of vulnerability or vulnerable identity issues. Academia is not and need not be a safe space in that sense. What is important, however, if being inclusive is really a matter of importance to Tilburg University, is to guard the space actively from harassment and actively encourage taking care of each other. This implies actively fighting the structural heteronormative and white masculine bias on all levels of academia.

In this sense it is more accurate to talk about brave spaces instead of safe spaces (Arao and Clemens 2013), for creating such an environment takes courage –perhaps we could say motherly (m/f/x) courage. But also the courage to own up to privileged ignorance and place the burden of responsibility where it belongs. So that it no longer be only on women and queers to actively care about fighting gender and sexuality oppression, on people of color to care about fighting racism, on climate activists to care about fighting the climate crisis. Being inclusive implies crossing identity lines and holding the spaces in between to make contact, take care of and stick up for each other. Wouldn’t that be something to take pride in? I’d say: start failing to pass and queer up.


Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013), From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135–150). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jordan Blair Woods, Brad Sears and Christy Mallory (2016), Model Legislation for Eliminating the Gay and Trans Panic Defenses. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.

Judith Butler (1993), Bodies that Matter. On the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge: London/New York.

Michel Foucault (1978), The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990, 2008), Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

Cynthia Lee and Peter Kar Yu Kwan (2014), The Trans Panic Defense: Heteronormativity, and the Murder of Transgender Women. GWU Law School: Hastings.