The Curse of Heteronormativity

In Giovanni’s Room James Baldwin uses the space of the novel as a place to enact queer identity and queer theory. Baldwin uses the novel in order to show how literature can serve as a way to explore and contend with the complexities of human sexuality and its transformative impact on identity. Baldwin does this by describing how a gay identity operates in a heteronormative context and how difficult having a non-normative body in a “normative” context can be. As Judith Halberstam writes in “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies,” “the idea that the body centered identity creates a model that locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place and practice.”

Giovanni’s room is the physical space in which Baldwin attempts to represent the struggles of homosexual identity and desire and how homosexuality operates in and out of the heteronormative construct. When Michael Warner coined the term “heteronormativity” in 1991, he created a term through which one could describe the experience of being queer in a world that performers normative sexuality, even as it argues that heterosexuality is a fixed and natural part of human identity. Heteronormative culture, according to Warner, is one that privileges masculinity over femininity, and where the male is the subject and the woman the object.  In the introduction to Judith Butler’s Variation on Sex and Gender, it states: “One way of overcoming the Cartesian mind/body dualism is to argue that sex is already gender, since the body/mind split no longer makes sense if you claim, as both Butler and Beauvoir do, that gender is a way of ‘doing’ the body.” As Butler notes: “we can only know sex through gender, and although we ‘become’ our genders, there is no place outside this gender that precedes this becoming.” For David there is no place outside of his gender or the heteronormative construct where he can be fully himself. David can only find his identity within his male heterosexual image, yet that image becomes the source of dissonance since he enjoys having sex with men. While he is able to temporarily give into his desires and to other men whenever he performs homosexual acts, this is only temporary since he cannot become this identity outside of the bedroom.

David struggles to publicly identify as a gay man because in doing so he would be forced to give up the power and privilege inherent in his heterosexual identity. This struggle is described in Leo Bersani’s The Rectum as a Grave? Bersani writes about what taking the passive role in sex can represent to someone who is usually dominating in some part of their identity, writing “… the honourable sexual behaviour consists in being active in dominating and penetrating, and in thereby exercising one’s authority… in other words the moral taboo on ‘passive’ anal sex… is primarily formulated as a kind of hygienics of social power to be penetrated is to abdicate power.” David sees his manhood as being penetrated and powerless in his sexual experiences with both Joey and Giovanni since, because he lives in a heteronormative society, being penetrated and having same-sex desires is correlated with being unmasculine and feminine. David is explicit about seeking to stay within the bounds of acceptable masculinity and normative gender relations, stating, “You want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet for a room and kiss you when you come through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl” (142). David cannot signify his power as a “man” from the position of being a man who has sex with men and has homosexual desires. Because of this, he rejects Giovanni in order to be a part of the heteronormative structure.



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