FORUM: How (or Why) Do You Teach Students about the Construction of Heterosexuality?

By Zimmerman, Bonnie; Thomas, Calvin et al. | Transformations, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

FORUM: How (or Why) Do You Teach Students about the Construction of Heterosexuality?


Zimmerman, Bonnie, Thomas, Calvin, McNaron, Toni, Peiss, Kathy, Bergman, David, Transformations


Bonnie Zimmerman

San Diego State University

Before I begin discussing how I teach about the construction of heterosexuality, I want to ruminate a bit about the question itself. The question is not, how do I teach about heterosexuality, about which I would have a considerable amount to say given that my regular teaching assignment includes general education courses in women's studies. Women's studies is all about gender and sexuality, which means that it inevitably is all about heterosexuality. But the phrase, the construction of heterosexuality, has a different and more precise intonation. It can be construed as shorthand for how do I teach the Foucaultian theory of sexuality, how do I teach social construction theory -- in other words, how do I position myself in relation to postmodern theory especially of the queer kind?

The fact is, when I teach gay and lesbian courses, whether in my Women's Studies department, or in our new Gay and Lesbian Studies not-quite-a-program, I don't teach much about heterosexuality at all. That's not what my students care about. They have come to these courses because their previous education has been all about heterosexuality, and here is one space where homosexuality (and increasingly bisexuality and transgenderism) is both subject and object of study. I don't mind at all giving them what they want. Of course, what it means to be lesbian, gay, queer, etc. -- whether it is an essential or socially constructed identity -- is the central question we wrestle with in every LGBTQ class I teach.

Still, it's a pleasure to be able to focus an entire course on lesbian or LGBT issues without feeling much obligation to reaffirm the centrality of heterosexuals. But in general education Women's Studies courses (primarily Women in Literature), I do feel the obligation to get across the point that heterosexuality -- all sexuality -- is constructed, not natural or divinely inspired. In these classes, I introduce them to Adrienne Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality, to the radical feminist idea of heterosexuality as an institution, and to a much watered-down version of Foucault -- "the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality were invented in the late 1860s; prior to that, people thought in terms of sexual behaviors, not identities; the notion of sexuality as an essential part of one's identity is very modern; etc." -- even though, as a scholar, I think this is all too simplistic. Still, it gets the point across. I try to show them through literary examples how heterosexual norms and expectations have varied over history, how marriage didn't necessarily mean the same thing in the seventeenth- or nineteenth-centuries as it does today. In a sense, this is just one instance of the underlying premise of the whole course: that what it means to be "a woman" is the product of a densely interconnected network of historical, sociopolitical, and individual relations, representations, and realities.

How much of this do they get? Not enough, I suspect, for them to question the naturalness of heterosexuality in their own lives. But maybe, just maybe, the next time someone argues against gay rights on the basis of Adam and Eve, they'll remember what their women's studies professor taught them, and argue spiritedly back.

Calvin Thomas

Georgia State University

Pedagogically, I try to queer and to denaturalize things as much and whenever I can. I like, for an example of queering, to suggest to students that anyone who has ever masturbated -- which is to say, everyone -- is a queer, that is, has engaged in what is inevitably a same-sex activity, despite the hetero-erotics of one's reveries or visual aids. I hope that this news will help students get in touch, so to speak, with their queer sides, though it may have the effect of causing some to abjure masturbation altogether in order, perhaps, to focus on honing their sports skills -- until, of course, we talk about sports as sublimated homoerotics. …

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