Straight culture

I was recently interviewed by Jake Hall for an article on straight culture. You can read Jake’s piece here, and my full interview below.

Straight Pride has raised questions around ‘straight culture’ and what it is. What are your thoughts on this, and what do you think of the tongue-in-cheek examples of ‘straight culture‘ we tend to see in listicles / videos?

My unpacking of all of this would start with the way wider culture understandings sexuality and gender. The heteronormative understanding is that people can be divided into men and women (gender) and straight and gay (sexuality), with the former being historically and culturally massively privileged over the latter in each case. 

So there are two major problems with the idea of straight pride. The first – which these listicles and things like the heterosexuality questionnaire and the straight privilege checklist are pointing out – is that straightness is massively privileged culturally over gayness. The reason that LGBTQIA+ prides are needed is due to the invisibility, marginalisation, and oppression of queer people in a culture that regards straightness as natural, normal, and superior in all kinds of ways. We have to point out that we exist and that that could be something worth celebrating rather than seeing as a problem.

The second issue with the idea of straight pride – which the critiques don’t usually get into – is that the heteronormative model that it’s based on is grounded on this binary understanding which does not capture how gender or sexuality actually work, and which erases many people’s experience.

Tongue in cheek jokes about straight culture are amusing and helpful in the way they question how great the supposed natural, normal, ideal way of being is: pointing out how bland it is, or how it appropriates things from queer culture, or how aspiring to these norms doesn’t really make people very happy, for example.

However, this kind of flipping which suggests – albeit in a humorous way – that gayness is better than straightness still maintains a binary way of thinking whereby people could be divided into straight and gay. So it could be seen as shoring up one aspect of heteronormativity (the binary) even as it critiques another (the hierarchy or power imbalance inherent in it). 

J.J. Halberstam wrote about his experiences as a Gender Studies professor, in particular about his course ‘What is Heterosexuality?’ which flipped the script and examined heterosexuality in the way we normally examine queerness. How effective do you think approaches like these are, and what do you think are the core cultural tenets of heteronormativity?

The great thing about this kind of approach is that it reveals the hierarchical heteronormative model and how it operates. It’s a similar approach to the heterosexual questionnaire which asks straight people the kinds of questions that queer people are often asked, like when did you first know you were straight? might it be a phase? have you tried not being straight? what made you straight?

This last one in particular is important. Because straightness is culturally regarded as the norm, queerness is constantly called upon to explain itself – from parents asking a queer kid if it was their fault, to scientists searching for a gay gene or a physiological cause of transness. Nobody asks for explanations of why people are straight or cisgender. The only reason that people have to ‘come out’ at all is that the default assumption is that people will be straight and cis (the supposed norm).

This is all rooted in the long history of a scientific approach which divides ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ and endeavours to explain, treat, or even eradicate the ‘abnormal’. This is interwoven with the history of colonialism, ableism, and capitalism, as well as heteronormativity, as it is strongly linked to the projects of proving that certain racial groups were intellectually or morally inferior, in order to justify enslaving or colonising them, as well as eugenic projects to eradicate certain bodies, and capitalist projects of proving women inferior in order to justify their unpaid labour in the home or low paid labour in the workforce.

The project of turning the lens of study on whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, etc. is a vital one for revealing this historical context, and for situating the problem in the structures of power which sustain it – and in those who benefit from this.

While definitely a useful move, my issue with approaches like turning the lens on heterosexuality is that, again, they often still accept a binary understanding where people can simply be divided into straight and queer, cis and trans. It’s important to dismantle these binary understandings entirely given they are a key underpinning of heteronormativity.

You recently co-authored Life Isn’t Binary. You’re an advocate for queer thinking, and for dismantling oppositional categories. Do you think society at large is becoming more open to resisting binaries? If so, what could the long-term effects of this be on heterosexuality? 

So my approach would be to point out how binary understandings don’t work for most people.

  1. Most of our genders and sexualities do not fit neatly into these binary understandings
  2. Gender and sexuality is way more multifaceted than these ways of understanding it suggest
  3. The binaries are bad for everyone – those who fit on the privileged and marginalised side, and those who are erased by the binary entirely.

To unpack these points:

  1. Recent research suggests that nearly half of young people don’t experience themselves as exclusively gay or straight (even within a heteronormative culture). Over a third of people experience themselves as to some extent ‘the other gender, both genders, or neither gender’. 
  2. Many queer theorists and scientists have pointed out that gender of attraction is only one dimension of human sexuality, with many others being equally – or more – important, such as how much attraction we experience, what kinds of people we’re attracted to, what roles we take sexually, what desires or fantasies we have, etc.
  3. There is a good deal of evidence that endeavouring to fit rigidly into gender norms, and a heternormative lifecourse (dating, settling down, marriage, kids, etc.) is pretty bad for people’s mental and physical health, including high rates of depression, body dissatisfaction, and relationship problems for women, and high rates of addiction, aggressive behaviour, and suicide for men.

If we put together all of the people whose genders and sexualities are – in some way – non-normative, we actually get the vast majority of people: all those who experience little or no sexual attraction (on the asexual spectrum), all those attracted to more than one gender (bi, pan, queer) or the same gender (gay, lesbian), all those whose sexual desires are other than penis-in-vagina sex leading to orgasm (e.g. kinky desires), all those who deviate from mononormativity (e.g. people with multiple partners, open relationships, or having affairs), all those whose gender doesn’t completely fit the one they were assigned at birth (either in terms of identity, role, expression, or experience).

I think there is increasing awareness of this diversity of gender and sexuality (rather than binaries), for example in the claiming of multiple identity terms or the expansion in meaning of terms like gay and queer. This may offer an alternative model for dismantling heteronormativity (and potentially so much more), but there is also a massive backlash against it currently (which the whole straight pride story is but one tiny part of), so we will have to see

What are your thoughts on ‘ally’ as one of the As in LGBTQQIAA+?

Hm. I guess I like the additional Q for questioning because it includes those who are not clearly in any identity politics place (maybe it is more about their experience or attraction), and potentially makes that radical point that being questioning, uncertain, in a ‘phase’ or fluid about our sexuality and gender is a valid place to be (perhaps a more honest place for many people to be than ticking a box). 

Ally however is a potentially problematic term. It feels a bit like woke to me. Like anybody who claims to be an ally, or to be woke, almost certainly isn’t. Like one could be aiming at allyship and wokeness, but if you ever imagine that you’ve got there, you haven’t. It’s an identity or state that can never be achieved, and one that it might be okay for more marginalised folk to say they felt you were, but never to claim yourself. 

If you think of yourself as an ally I suspect you’re in grave danger of being in a rescuer/saviour place – that sense that you are going to help to poor, marginalised people which furthers an ‘us and them’ binary rather than recognising these structures and systems as ones that hurt us all – and working to dismantle them in sustainable ways for the benefit of all – including yourself.

Another risk with rescuers is that they are invested both in the people they are helping getting better (to prove that they have been a great rescuer) and in those people staying victims (in order that they will still have a job – as a rescuer). There’s a danger of that with allyship: allies still distancing themselves from the people they are allies to – and being invested in that group shoring them up (giving them a cookie for being so helpful) at the same time as staying marginalised (so they can keep performing great allyship).

Any more thoughts?

I think it’s a great idea to look at those issues of appropriation and assimilation too in relation to what straight culture is. However, I was amusingly dismayed that many of the music-related straight culture things on the questionnaire applied to me. Being horrifically cheesy and uncool in your musical taste should not be a marker of straightness I think!

Perhaps there is something interesting here about the conflation of queerness with youth – and perhaps being of a certain class background/education/wealth – too. I know that some queer events have had issues with being alienating to older people and more working class people – often because it’s assumed that people will be into certain music, television, movies, arts, etc.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Thank you for this posting Meg-John. Once again you have got me thinking! We’ve never been on a Pride march – to be authentic I feel, that at 56, I am too old and fat to go now. The gay male community feels like it is fixated on slim, young guys (on TV you often hear ‘Past it at 30’ said as a joke). My husband and I have never been ‘on the scene’; ‘The scene’ tends to be clubs and pubs (playing loud music) and we are not into that. I was interested in a kink video that I saw on Instagram; what put me off of the club the video was shot in was the very loud music playing and all the slim young people – I just do not feel we would be welcomed at such an event. Maybe we are too sensitive? I have a Norfolk accent and have a working-class background – it’s amazing the assumptions people make about me based on my accent! I am also dyslexic – when I was teaching I was once told (by a parent) that I was ‘very brave’ when I ‘admitted’ to being dyslexic.
    As a counsellor I work with a lot of bereaved clients. Since reading your books, I have started suggesting to my clients they might want to think in a less binary way about their future relationships. Intimacy can be found in many diverse ways: with a person of the same gender, through friendship with someone of the opposite gender or a Trans person, non-sexual touching, with multiple partners. Intimacy does not have to lead penis-in-vagina sex ending in an orgasm(s). I find that so many of my clients a have ‘shut down’ way of thinking brought on through their upbringing, societal messages and abusive relationships. Meg-John’s writings are all about opening up possibilities which, personally, I find very liberating – I believe my clients do too. Meg-John’s Blogs, Zines and books are so helpful and inspiring.

  2. Thanks so much for this comment Paul. I think those things you raise are a real issue with the scene – how they exclude many people who are older, from different class/culture backgrounds, and with access needs (those kinds of venues are seriously unfriendly for folks with hearing issues like me too, as well as neurodiverse people). So important to have a range of spaces which are queer- and gay-friendly.

    I hadn’t thought of the bereavement point but it’s such a good one – opening up the range of relationships we might have following loss of whatever kind.

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