A quick primer on queer theory and the heterosexual matrix

By | April 20, 2016

Let’s talk about the fiction of the gender binary.

This fiction is pretty simple: There’s a story our culture tells us about identity. This story convinces us that gender is an either/or proposition. Your options in the drop-down gender box are to mark 1 for male, 0 for female. There are no other options. There is nothing in between. There is nothing off to one side. There isn’t even an “other” or “not applicable” box to mark.

The fiction of the gender binary gets cross-referenced with the fiction of sexual identity. In this fiction, people have three possibilities to choose from: Straight, gay, or bisexual. Those are the only options.

This might seem really simplistic, like lots of people’s experiences and identities get erased or ignored. That’s precisely the point. When these very limited gender and sexuality categories get cross-referenced with each other, what emerges is what Judith Butler labels the heterosexual matrix–“that grid of intelligibility through which bodies, gender, and desires are naturalized” (Butler, 1999, p. 194.6).

Here’s one way I’ve recently visualized the heterosexual matrix:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.40.49 AM

Recently, our culture has started recognizing another gender divide: transgender or cisgender (non-transgender). Generally, though, it’s agreed that regardless of whether you’re transgender or cisgender, you still fall squarely into either the “man” category or the “woman” category, so that you’re either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman, or a transgender man or a transgender woman:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.45.35 AMSo now we have four gender options to choose from. These four gender options get multiplied against those three sexuality categories:

[Table describing the identity possibilities when the four gender identities get cross-referenced with the three sexual identities.]

[Table describing the identity possibilities when the four gender identities get cross-referenced with the three sexual identities.]

Now we have twelve identity categories to choose from! And here’s the genius behind the heterosexual matrix: Anything that doesn’t fall squarely into one of those twelve cells is either difficult to see or targeted for obliteration (and sometimes both). Among the tools for preserving the sanctity of the heterosexual matrix are laws, social institutions like schools and prisons and hospitals, fists, any household object that can be turned into a bludgeon, and guns.

Many people think queer theory is a weird, confusing, and abstract conceptual framework, but it just really boils down to one main goal: To expose the fiction of the heterosexual matrix and to show how other identities, and other ways of living our lives, are not only possible but also real and present in our culture and experiences. Some of the work of queer theory involves introducing new terms, like queer, genderqueer, genderfluid, pansexual, asexual, agender, and so on. Queer theorists also often try to show how identity labels trick us into thinking we have stable identities that are fully captured by the language of the heterosexual matrix. For example: gender variance isn’t something that only trans-identified people experience–even people who identify as cisgender women or cisgender men vary their gender over time and in different situations. A person might identify as a lesbian, even while dating a cisgender man. And so on.

That’s basically it!

Ok, but I want to add one more thing: Even though I’ve described gender and sexual identities as fictions in this post, the experiences we have around gender and sexuality are very, very real. The impact of this fiction weighs heavily on queer folks and transgender folks, and even more heavily on those whose queer or transgender identities intersect with other historically marginalized identities. (It’s worth noting that the heterosexual matrix pretends that things like race, class, and regional identity aren’t relevant.) Here’s something that Julia Serano said about this:

Instead of trying to fictionalize gender, let’s talk about the moments in life when gender feels all too real. Because gender doesn’t feel like drag when you’re a young trans child begging your parents not to cut your hair or not to force you to wear that dress. And gender doesn’t feel like a performance when, for the first time in your life, you feel safe and empowered enough to express yourself in ways that resonate with you, rather than remaining closeted for the benefit of others. And gender doesn’t feel like a construct when you finally find that special person whose body, personality, identity, and energy feels like a perfect fit with yours. Let’s stop trying to deconstruct gender into nonexistence, and instead start celebrating it as inexplicable, varied, profound, and intricate.

So don’t you dare dismiss my gender as construct, drag, or performance. My gender is a work of non-fiction.


Ok? Ok. Now go forth and fuck with the heterosexual matrix, in whatever way feels safe and scary to you.

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