Heteronormativity and Queer Identity

Audience and Goals

The target audience for this mini-course is high school students involved in a voluntary and relatively small Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) or similar program. Students would imaginably have some knowledge of the modern gay rights movement (especially the gay marriage debate), but little to no knowledge of anti-assimilationist queer movements. They will not be expected to have dealt with the idea of heteronormativity. The goal of this course is to define and raise questions about heteronormativity, its institutions (especially the couple) and its effect on queer individuals and identities.

Lesson Plan

Day One:

Because students are not expected to have experience with the ideas of heteronormativity, the first two lessons will be designed to give them an introduction to anti-assimilationist queer arguments and the stakes of resisting heteronormativity. Before the first class, students will read the Queer Nation Manifesto. During the first class, we will discuss the frustrations with heteronormativity presented in the Manifesto. The main topic to be explored here is that of straight privilege and the ways it manifests and supports itself in heteronormative media, AIDS-related medical care, common religion and morality, and in the “stroking” of (suspiciously) sympathetic heterosexuals by “angry queers” in this “arrogant, heterosexist world.” Reception of these ideas will likely be widely varied; however, the goal of the first session is to establish these ideas. In the next session, there will be a mock debate designed to disconnect students from their personal views. For the rest of the first session, students will construct a mind-map (described below) of “the couple.” These are some traits that students would imaginably give: monogamy, marriage, love, completion, happiness, children, tax breaks. Alternatively, students could brainstorm famous contemporary and historical couples and describe the traits they associate with these examples. This list will be kept, revisited and added to after finishing other works.


Queer Nation Manifesto. History is a Weapon. Web. 8 May 2013, <http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/queernation.html> (accessed December 12, 2013).

Day Two:

At the end of the first day, students will be assigned the Polikoff and Marx readings. They will also be given teams for the mock debate activity (described below), which will take up most of the second session. After the debate, students will ideally have a better idea of the arguments against heteronormativity via Polikoff, Marx and the Queer Nation Manifesto. Before the session ends, students will return to the mind map that was started the day before in order to add new insights to their definition of “the couple.”


  • Polikoff, Nancy. “Ending Marriage As We Know It.” Hofstra Law Review 32.201 (2004): 201-232. Print.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. by Robert C. Tucker, New York, NY: Norton, 1978, pp. 734-751.  Print.

Days Three and Four:

Days three and four will be used to discuss Giovanni’s Room. (Reading questions to be given to the students can be found below.) The goal of including this text is to give an example of the effects a heteronormative culture can have on the psychologies and identities of queer individuals. The book will be spread across both days with reading questions for both sessions. At the end of each session, the students will return again to the idea of “the couple,” supplying and discussing new understandings of the terms from the earlier sessions and including newly discovered aspects of the couple.


Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York, NY: Delta, 2000. Print.

Description of Readings

Queer Nation Manifesto: Students will read the Queer Nation Manifesto before the first session. The goal of this text is to expose students to a particularly radical queer argument against assimilation into heteromormative society. It is expected that students will not have encountered these ideas before. Students may be resistant to the Manifesto and its anti-assimilationist argument, but the mock trial assignment will (hopefully) allow them to understand its arguments more clearly by helping them remove their personal beliefs from analysis of the queer argument.           

Polikoff, “The End of Marriage As We Know It”: Polikoff’s argument shows that marriage and coupledom are supported not only by heteronormative society, but also by American government. It shows the legal and economic privilege given to heteronormative couples and argues that free people shouldn’t be taxed for choosing not to enter into certain state-approved formations of relationships. Presented with the Marx reading, this text will add to the idea that “the couple” is not something that decidedly needs to be state-supported, and, in fact, if state sanctioning leads to inequalities, the legal institutions surrounding it should be amended.

Karl Marx, excerpts on marriage: This text will give an interesting historical analysis of the institution of marriage and its relationship to property rights. It’s useful in that it denies normative claims that would see marriage and coupledom as not only traditional, but also natural.

Giovanni’s Room: The second week will be given entirely to Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, as this text gives an incredible psychological case study of the effect existing in heteronormative culture can have on a queer individual. With this work, I hope to emphasize the potentially dangerous effect of normative culture on its deviants, especially in terms of individual and communal humiliations. David’s helplessness throughout the novel will help reveal the difficulty of existing outside of social norms. I intend to use this novel in discussing modern normativity and its acceptance of a certain kind of monogamous and heteronormative homosexuality.

Additional introductory videos:

Assignments and Activities

Mind-map: The mind map exercise is an ongoing exercise used to track the class’ understanding of the couple. On the first day, students will give an initial list of the traits they associate with “the couple.” Alternatively, students can list famous contemporary and historical couples and list the traits that they associate with them. This list will likely reflect traditional, heteronormative traits. On the second day, having read the Queer Nation Manifesto, excerpts from Marx, and Polikoff’s review of same-sex marriage, students will reassess the terms they provided on the first day and give additional terms. On the third and fourth days, students will continue to assess their initial reactions, judging them now with respect to Baldwin’s characters.

Mock debate: The mock debate is an especially important assignment in this course, as it will ideally allow students to remove their own beliefs from their analysis of both LGBT arguments for homosexual integration into heteronormative society and counter-normative, queer arguments. The expectation is that students will be resistant to the latter, as they have less experience with it. If this is not the case, it will still be beneficial to lay out specifically the arguments for either side and practice pitting these ideas against each other. To prepare for this activity, students on both teams will prepare arguments for or against gay marriage, specifically, drawing on their readings, former knowledge and potentially their (minimal) independent research.

Reading questions for Giovanni’s Room: These reading questions are designed to lead students as they read Giovanni’s Room. They will ideally lead students away from accepting uncritically Baldwin’s apparent cynicism towards the possibility of a successful queer community. Discussing these questions will also underscore David’s humiliation and show it as potentially a wider condition of queer communities existing in heteronormative societies.

Giovanni’s Room Reading Questions

  • Read the passage about Joey and David’s first and only sexual encounter (p7-9), noting Joey’s transformation in David’s mind from “beautiful creation” (8) to “the black opening of a cavern” (9). Using specific examples, which thoughts contribute to David’s crisis? How do these thoughts inform David’s other identity crises in the rest of the novel?
  • On page 25, Jacques claims that “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden” (25), a sentiment that David goes on to mentally agree with. How does the use of the use of this image to describe a time of innocent happiness for queer individuals reevaluate the traditional associations with this heteronormative and couple-oriented creation myth?
  • David’s observations of les folles (p26-7) and the “flaming princess” (38-40) seem unapologetically homophobic. How does David understand himself in relation to les folles and the princess? How does David see himself in relation to other characters (i.e., Guillaume, Jacques, Giovanni, Hella)? By the end of the work, do you think David’s observations would be different?
  • One of the earliest uses of water imagery in the novel was in David and Giovanni’s first conversation about choice. How does this example relate to other uses of water imagery in the novel?
  • The title of the novel emphasizes the importance of Giovanni’s room. In a story describing David and Giovanni’s relationship, why this emphasis? What other rooms are described in the novel, and how do they relate to Giovanni’s?
  • Think back to the (highly heteronormative) image of the man and woman hemmed in by roses on the wall of Giovanni’s room. How does this image relate to David and Giovanni’s relationship, or rather how does this image relate to David’s perception of their relationship?
  • At a few points in the novel, Hella expresses her desire “to be a woman,” and, towards the end, she asks David directly to “let her” be a woman. What does she mean by “woman,” and what is David doing that is preventing her from achieving this goal? Does David seem to similarly want “to be” a man? What about Giovanni, Jacques, Guillaume or Sue?
  • During a fight between David and Giovanni, Giovanni accuses David of “never [having] loved anyone,” of “[loving his] mirror” and being “just like a little virgin” (141). What exactly is Giovanni accusing David of with these insults, in terms of their relationship? Do these insults accurately represent David?
  • What do you think of the ending of this book? What lessons do you think readers might take away from it, if any?



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One response to “Heteronormativity and Queer Identity

  1. Pingback: QUEERS READ THIS (The Queer Nation Manifesto) | Queer Literature and Film

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