Why Liberals Should Find Heteronormativity Defensible Even If They Think It Wrong

To many modern minds, including the minds of most people my age (thirties) in the Western world, it is practically inconceivable that there might be any legitimate rationale for inculcating a preference for heterosexual marriage over any other expression of sexuality, including homosexual marriage. This preference is the historical status quo, but it has been so dramatically rejected in the last 75 years (and especially the last 15) that, for many today, the whole business of disapproving sex for any reason other than nonconsent is wholly alien, bizarre, and even evil–a thing to be dismissed with a word: “Victorian,” “repressive,” “culturally insensitive,” etc. But can it be so easily dismissed? Where did the tradition of disapproving expressions of homosexuality come from?

Is it, as many moderns imagine, entirely irrational, evil, and indefensible?

I think not. At most, heteronormativity is partly non-rational, like most (perhaps any) value judgments, including most (perhaps all) of the value judgments made by the proponents of the opposite position. At least some of its effects are good. And, as I hope to show in the remainder of my essay, it is eminently defensible, even from a non-religious perspective. To accept this, you need not agree that the reasoning in favor of heteronormativity is persuasive–only that it might be persuasive to an honest person. My goal is not to make you think that it is right, but to persuade you that those of us who hold the view are not malicious and biased for doing so.

Given the deplorable state of the political dialogue about this issue, and the appalling quality of thinking by some who equate heteronormativity with hatred of LGBT persons, an instinct of self-preservation impels me to disclaim any personal enmity against LGBT people. I get along perfectly well with my LGBT acquaintances, and while I reject those lifestyles/behaviors (along with drinking and premarital sex and other behaviors generally approved by my society) on religious and other grounds, I do not feel the need to become contentious about it. We each have our deeply and sincerely held opinions. The fact that they conflict does not make them my enemy. What I insist on here is that it should not make me their enemy either.

Why a Non-Religious Perspective?

I will focus on non-religious arguments for heteronormativity, but not because religious arguments are invalid. Taking the Christian view (my own) as an example, if an omniscient God of Love really said, “This thing is abominable to me,” then there is no better reason for disapproval. The moral sense and value judgments of such a Being are more to be trusted than our own. Therefore, the force of this argument rests solely and entirely on the reasons for believing that an omnipotent God of Love really did say that. There are good arguments for this proposition, but they belong to a controversy that is far afield from our subject, and many of the reasons for belief are not publicly accessible, such as ineffable spiritual experiences. If the Spirit tells me something, that is a very good reason to believe it (and, I would add, to vote accordingly). But a stranger in the public square can hardly be expected to find my claim that the Spirit told me so persuasive. Furthermore, my belief is that God’s judgments are not arbitrary, and that the reasons God said so are, in this case, at least partially discoverable by human reason.

For my part, I do not have any visceral reaction to the idea of gay sex. My nerves do not concur with God’s Bible-proclaimed judgment that the thing is abominable. If I were to see gay pornography, I am sure that I would find it alluring in the same way as I would find heterosexual pornography. Nor do I have any difficulty treating gay persons respectfully. Admittedly, when I first learned about homosexuality as a boy, the idea shocked me. But familiarity has changed that, and neither personal dislike nor disgust form any part of my current natural reaction. Instead, I disagree with those behaviors on intellectual and spiritual grounds, and I only urge that the various reasons intelligent people have historically forwarded for such rejection cannot be dismissed offhand.

The following are not necessarily my non-religious reasons. Some are, some are not. But they are all non-religious reasons that I feel carry weight, and which a reasonable person might find persuasive.

1. The Teleological Reason

“Teleological” means driven by a meaning/end (“telos”). Anyone who believes that the telos of sex is reproduction, and that sex divorced from this telos is empty, will tend to think gay sex wrong, or at least impoverished.

Gandhi says in his autobiography, after outlining certain principles of good parenting,

The couple who realize these things will never have sexual union for the fulfilment of their lust, but only when they desire issue. I think it is the height of ignorance to believe that the sexual act is an independent function necessary like sleeping or eating. The world depends for its existence on the act of generation, and as the world is the play-ground of God and a reflection of His glory, the act of generation should be controlled for the ordered growth of the world. He who realizes this will control his lust at any cost, equip himself with the knowledge necessary for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of his progeny, and give the benefit of that knowledge to posterity.

Gandhi expressed these views partially in explanation of his vow of chastity. Because he did not desire more children, and believed sex for any other purpose to be a mere act of lust, he swore off sex, even with his wife.

Interestingly, Biblical scholars speculate that Joseph, the husband of Mary, likely belonged to a sect of Jews who, like Gandhi, believed sex without a procreative purpose to be wrong. This would explain why Joseph, despite having taken Mary for his wife, “knew her not” until after the birth of Jesus. Whether or not Joseph was a member of this sect, the sect existed. Good, reasonable people belonged to it.

2. Antipathy to Sexual Desire

The foundational idea of the original form of Buddhism is that desire is the origin of suffering and that liberation from desire is the key to escaping suffering. Because of this, Buddhism tends to be averse to all sexual desire because it is averse to desire generally.

Others might reasonably conclude that among the desires, sexual desire is particularly distasteful for any number of reasons, including the perceived indignity of the sexual act, the extreme heat of sexual desire when aroused, its inconstancy, the indiscriminateness of its objects, etc. My own experience with dogs in Taiwan somewhat inclined me to this view. I would regularly see street dogs humping. It was very off-putting. I found it mildly gross, and the obvious analogy to human sexuality made me ask, “Is this really what all the hype is about?” One dog even began humping the leg of a person I was with. The person pushed the dog off but the dog came back, repeatedly. I assume the leg or pants smelled like something that triggered a sexual response in that canine cranium. I laughed, but the animal’s attempt at non-consensual intercourse also turned my stomach.

One might reasonably conclude that all the fuss about romance and love (“love is love is love is love”. . .) is merely our attempt to dress up and civilize the self-same thing that turned my stomach in Taiwan when I saw it nakedly on display by dogs. On this view (which I do not believe, though I find it plausible) all sexuality participates in the same ickiness, but the necessity of procreation might be thought to at least partially redeem the ordered union of man and woman. As Benedick says, “The world must be peopled!”

3. Avoiding Social Role Confusion In Same-gendered Interactions

Nearly all people of all times and cultures seem to agree that close family members should not marry or have sex. The prohibition against incest has been called a “universal taboo” by anthropologists. As this article on the subject explains, anthropologists have advanced differing theories to explain this taboo. The one that rings the most true to me is that “the incest taboo exists to prevent social role confusion or conflicts within a family, particularly regarding parent-child and sibling roles.” How would it influence family dynamics if siblings were potential lovers? What would it do to families to have an incestuous sibling relationship begin? Would the brother-sister couple move into the same room and begin acting like a husband-wife couple? What would that do to the remaining siblings? What if they broke up? What if one sibling fell in love with another but the love was unrequited? What would a love triangle do to a family? If erotic relations between siblings were viewed as a legitimate possibility, it would corrupt the sibling bond, tending to make it more difficult for siblings to be free and open and generous. Hugs or gifts or other gestures of love would become ambiguous, tending towards gossip and hurt feelings. In various ways, the possibility of romance would introduce an unfortunate shyness and carefulness into the relationship, and home life would become less safe, secure, and settled as a result, to the detriment of everybody.

Arguably, what is true of siblings is also true of same-gendered peers. Josh has written about “The Privatization of Privacy,” and expressed his view (which I share) that something valuable and healthy is being lost as bathrooms and locker rooms become intensely private–not just from persons of the opposite gender, but from the different individuals of the same gender who are using the space at a given time. Men are increasingly unable to be naked with other men, and women with other women. The increasing normalness of homoeroticism, while it has positive effects such as decreased violence against gay people, surely also contributes to this negative trend. So does the eroticization of nudity in general. And this inability to be naked together perhaps symbolizes and encapsulates the broader effects on same-gendered relationships.

4. Too Many Choices

Jean M. Twenge and David Myers have independently asserted that “too many choices” is one reason our young people today struggle with mental health and suicide at an alarmingly high (and ever-increasing) rate. The notion that too many choices would produce unhappiness is counterintuitive to the American culture of freedom, capitalism, and consumerism. But I believe it is true.

As David Myers argues in his book The American Paradox, the United States has become a place where we have more but feel worse. Technology and material things may make life easier, but they do not seem to lead to happiness. Instead, we long for the social connections of past years, we enter a confusing world of too many choices, and we become depressed at younger and younger ages.

(Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, p. 136 (2006).)

The sympathies and focus of our cultural moment lie with those who feel they have not been given a choice in their sexual identity–who feel some other identity has been imposed on them. Without dismissing the pain this has caused some people, I know that many others have experienced similar pain because they have been given a choice. In a culture that rejects gender norms and assumptions about sexual orientation, our teenagers (who are already stressed and bewildered enough) are required to find for themselves an entire aspect of identity.

It seems to me that the culture most conducive to adolescent well being would be one in which there were strong norms coupled with open-mindedness, compassion, and care with regard to those who found themselves unable or unwilling to comply with the norms. It is not easy, but it is possible, for all of this to coexist at the same time in the same culture.

5. Health Risks And Aesthetic Judgments

I have heard the proposition that homosexual intercourse, especially between men, involves more health risks than heterosexual intercourse. My limited understanding, which is submitted to the correction of more knowledgeable persons, seems to support this. If this is correct, it would be possible to favor heterosexuality because it is healthier.

It is also possible to favor heterosexuality because one finds it more beautiful, as I do. It presents both the male and the female forms and it combines symmetry and asymmetry, sameness and difference, in a way that is unique and remarkable. In my view, loving coitus in a face-to-face position is the most beautiful of all possible sexual acts–an interaction of male and female, where the same movement gives a similar-though-different pleasure to both parties, and where the eyes have their own tender communications at the same time.

6. Homosexuality Does Not Participate In The Drama Of The Generations

I hope I may be forgiven for referencing some prior writings of mine. First, Umbilical Cords, Belly Buttons, and Breastmilk: The Drama Of The Generations: there is a line of umbilical cords and belly buttons and breast milk that is drawn bodily through every generation. We derive our existence from this procreative tradition. It is a viable opinion, and one that I hold myself, that we are indebted to our ancestors and even to this procreative tradition–that we come into existence not radically free, as the contemporary ideology holds, but radically bound–bound, among other things, to “pay it forward”–to increase the cultural, spiritual, and other asserts that enrich our lives and that we received in major part from our ancestors, for the benefit of future generations, and to ensure that future generations are present to enjoy those asserts. Our hearts should be turned to our parents and to our children, as Malachi prophesied. (Though to generalize this moral imperative to include everyone, we have to use the term “children” in a very broad sense, to include such things as baby brothers and younger coworkers.)

Second, Meaning Versus Desire: A Theory And Critique Of Contemporary Sexuality: “the type of sexual relationship in which the meaning is the fullest, richest, and highest is the marriage of a man and a woman. For in dual-gendered marriage there exists the union of male and female–the microcosm of all humanity and the joining of past and future that inheres in procreative action.”

This is a variation on the teleological reason–the difference being that those who advance the teleological argument consider sex without its purpose (procreation) to be impoverished, while this view focuses on something broader than purpose–namely, meaning. Part of what makes sex meaningful or non-meaningful is the participation or non-participation in the very tradition from which our biological existence derives. In gay sex, this meaning is dramatically diminished.

In other words, dual-gendered marital sex embraces the biological tradition that formed our bodies and the cultural and legal tradition that formed the families of our ancestors, and it also contains in itself a meaning about future bodies and families (i.e., the potential child and its children). In these ways, its meaning transcends itself in both directions. Homosexual intercourse is relatively lacking in such transcendence. The only mainstream tradition that it by its nature embraces (that of romantic love/erotic desire) is the one relied upon by LGBT rhetoric. And that tradition is equally present in dual-gendered marriage, along with the other arguably more important traditions just discussed.

7. Babies are Good

This basis differs from the teleological reason in that it does not not necessarily view sex divorced from procreation as bad; rather it views procreation as good and desirable in itself. One might have no problem with non-procreative sex as such, but one might nonetheless feel it a pity that a gay couple will not become parents (at least not on their own as a couple and not without the state’s intervention). Children are good for parents–they challenge a parents’ natural self-centeredness, they demand the exercise of love and patience. Parents’ needs aside, children are good for a community and for the economy. A growing population is needed to support the elderly and to avoid stagnation; children are needed as the ennobling focal point of our individual and collective efforts to improve society. And society’s needs aside, children are good for their own sakes. Life is beautiful. Each new baby gets a shot at the world, and that is a wonderful thing in itself.

8. Desirability of Parents Raising Their Own Biological Offspring

In a perfect world, adoption would not exist. Children would be welcomed whenever they came (and they would never come if they would not be welcomed). Parents would live to raise their own children. It is not a perfect world. But this ideal–parents raising their own kids–is still the most desirable of all possible realities. It predates the state by possibly millions of years. Adoption and surrogate pregnancy and artificial insemination, by contrast, depend on (1) parents not welcoming or not living to raise their own children, and/or (2) legal and medical interventions that raise various legal, ethical, and practical problems, and that (all other things being equal) lead to worse outcomes on average for the children involved than natural parenthood.


I have outlined 8+ lines of argumentation in favor of heteronormativity that reasonable people have found persuasive. The weight of these arguments depends on value judgments. Many philosophers (e.g., William James) believe that value judgments are categorically non-rational and unprovable. Not only that, the weight of these arguments compared with the arguments against heteronormativity depend on comparative value judgments whereby the relative value of different and competing goods are judged. As just one example, the debate involves comparing the value of autonomy with the value of social order. Those are two competing goods and there is no “objective” scale of absolute value in which they can both be weighed–or at least, any such scale is not publically accessible. Autonomy and social order are apples and oranges, yet they must be compared. The result of that comparison for each person depends on an impossibly complex network of value judgments, assumptions, and sensibilities. We all think we are right in our value judgments, and we all have our reasons. But none of us, if we are wise, will assume that others are unreasonable or bad merely because they weigh the evidence differently. We may think they are unreasonable if they do not weigh the evidence at all, or use fallacious arguments. We may think they exhibit moral failings if they do things we view as bad and if we have reason to think they should know better. But a value judgment different from ours, without more, does not support any such conclusions. Heteronormativity is a hot-button issue, and the fickle winds of the age blow strongly against it. Therefore, to those whose value judgments concur with the contemporary winds, the continued defence of heteronormativity may appear as a mere dogmatic stubbornness or else as mere malice. If I have done anything to dispel that impression, my goal has been achieved.

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