- Heteronormativity without Nature: Toward a Queer Ecology
Reviewing Gust A. Yep’s important article, “The Violence of Heteronormativity in Communication Studies,”1 I am struck by the persuasive case he makes for the perniciousness of heterosexism and the violence it begets against a diversity of bodies. Throughout Yep’s review of heteronormativity’s justificatory gestures is a refrain of appeals to nature. From gender norms to biological reproduction, heteronormativity relies on implicit assertions of what is and is not natural. As a queer scholar of environmental communication, I find these references noteworthy because they speak to a productive intersection of environmental awareness and LGBTQIA concerns. Queer theory, as Yep articulates it, does much to destabilize and dismantle a priori assumptions of heteronormativity, including the taken-for-granted-ness of its claims to being “natural.” In response to Yep’s article, I contemplate two related consequences of this critique: first, I briefly review the emergence of a queer ecology that does much to articulate social constructions of nature, going so far as to imagine an ecology without nature; second, I consider what LGBTQIA commitments to an environmental ethic might look like, using the organization Out for Sustainability as an example. Not only do queer bodies share an imperative with the rest of humanity to live more sustainably on the planet, but also queer subjectivities contribute a more fluid and relational understanding of environmental stewardship. [End Page 137]
Throughout Yep’s article, he attends to the systemic effects of heterosexism. That is, members of the LGBTQIA community are not the only ones to suffer from violence and discrimination at the heart of heterosexism. He considers the impacts of heteronormativity on straight women, both in terms of their agency over their own reproductive rights and their suffering from systemic sources of violence against women. He also considers the toxic effects of straight masculinity on straight male bodies. These moves do not simply demonstrate that heterosexism’s violence affects us all; they support Yep’s understanding that “race, class, gender, and sexuality are systems of oppression,”2 an observation sourced in a systems perspective on ideology and culture. Or, read another way, he seems to conceptualize the problem as ecological—that is, as emergent from interconnected relationships that are complex, variable, persistent, and hierarchical.3
Throughout the article, Yep identifies how heteronormativity assumes its privilege by asserting what is and is not natural. Yep observes with other noted queer theorists that “heterosexuality is not natural, universal, transhistorical, fixed, stable, or monolithic.”4 Yep’s assertion is necessary because heterosexuality’s ardent adherents often claim that it is all those things, despite the contradictions such claims create. For example, hegemonic heterosexuality presumes the purpose of sex is to procreate, and the notion that queer sex does not inseminate serves as a rationale for discrimination against queer bodies. Procreation becomes an incoherent shifting signifier of heteronormativity’s dominance—at once a necessary, natural precondition but, in some cases, not a mandate. Hence, heteronormativity is both decisive and indeterminate about the nature of sex, acknowledging yet marginalizing its relationship to pleasure. Lurking in this thorny thicket of birds and bees is a construction of nature as an essentializing justification for heteronormativity’s dominance.
I stress these claims because they emphasize a central quandary about “nature” that is not limited to queer critiques of heteronormativity: what even is nature and why does it always end up serving the normative? Environmentalists increasingly struggle with this concept, too. In the same decades that have seen the rise of queer theory, we have seen repeated critiques of nature as a problem for those engaged in environmental advocacy. For example, Evernden explores the social creation of nature, with a particular emphasis on some environmentalists’ preference for the “light” side of ecology that stresses harmony and balance while tending to downplay phenomena like predation and parasitism.5 Cronon suggests that when we are getting back to nature, we may be getting back to the wrong nature.6 As an environmental historian, he reviews shifting understandings of nature in regards to U.S. land management and the National Park System. In proposing that nature is a social construct, both scholars...