Mads Ananda Lodahl talks at TEDxCopenhagen 2013. Below is a transcription.
I’m going to tell you what the straight world order is and why it has to end.
This is David. When he was a teenager he had long, curly hair and a sway in his hips that made people call him feminine. He liked his looks, but some of the other boys didn’t. They called him names and made fun of him. One time they even ganged up on him to “beat up the faggot,” as they said. He had kissed another boy one time, but he didn’t like it much and now, at 42, he is just a “normal heterosexual man”. He cut his hair short and learned to stiffen his hips when he walks so people don’t bother him anymore.
This is Robyn. She’s born in a female body, in a girl’s body but she can’t identify much with the traditional ideas of femininity. She prefers to be somewhere “in between genders.” She also wears her hair short and dresses more or less like a construction worker. When she has to use public bathrooms she has the choice to be shouted at in the women’s room or sexually harassed in the men’s room. One time a group of drunken men threatened to “find out for themselves if Robyn was a man or a woman.”
Louise, on the other hand, loves being feminine. She loves to wear short skirts, tight tops and lipstick. Sometimes men comment on her looks. They say things like: “Hey beautiful, smile for me,” or “You’d look pretty if you lost a little weight.” No matter the nature of the comments, they always make Louise feel uncomfortable. And sometimes she’s scared that people might do something worse to her.
None of these three people are LGBT people. None of them are lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgender people, but all of them are in conflict with, what I call, the straight world order – a place that puts heterosexuality, traditional gender roles and men at the top.
I could have told you about the lesbian teacher who is scared to come out to her pupils or the transwoman who got knocked down with a hammer. But it is obvious that LGBT-people are in conflict with the straight order and my point today is that I believe that a majority of all the people – a majority of all of you – is actually in conflict with the straight world order.
My name is Mads Ananda Lodahl and I can’t even think straight. I have been violently attacked around 10 times for being a queer person and I have stopped counting the times when strangers spit or shout at me in the street.
For the last 10 years and still today I have been writing articles and giving lectures to young people about queer theory, queer politics… And you might think that makes me an expert at being gay, but if anything it makes me an expert at understanding normal.
Queer means a lot of different things but something that is central to the queer perspective is to turn the focus away from the people who deviate from the straight norm – onto the straight norm itself. To stop asking questions like: “Why do people become gay?” and “Why do gays have to act like that?” and start asking the big question: “How did normal become normal?”
That is: “How did the straight norm become so strong and so integrated into every part of our lives, our societies, our relationships and ourselves that for us to even begin to understand what the straight world order is, is like asking a fish to describe water?”
However, the straight world order is a never-ending list of expectations to everything regarding sex, gender and sexuality, and a variety of punishments that happen to those who fail to live up to these expectations.
You know some of the expectations… We expect boys to climb trees and girls to wear dresses. We expect women to want to have children and to be patient and softspoken and smile, we expect men to be constantly looking for sex. We expect sex, when we take someone home from a party and then we have very clear expectations of what we expect to find when they take off their underwear. We don’t expect to see female truck drivers, or male nurses and gay couples in the streets.
Actually, when we’re walking in the streets, or entering a classroom, or a new workplace, or a bus or this theater we expect to see nothing but masculine men and feminine women who are all heterosexual. And then when we do see someone who doesn’t fit into the straight norm, we act surprised and think: “That’s right! Queer people exist too! I should start telling people what I think about them!”
When you deviate from the straight norm the punishment can be violence, or it can be legal and financial inequality, can be spitting, shouting, threatening, can be name-calling, bullying, sexual harassment. Or it can be more subtle, people will stare at you, or ask intrusive questions or comment.
They say things like: “You’re disgusting.”, “That’s unnatural.”, “It’s a phase. It’ll pass.”, “All women want to have children!”, “Why do you wear nail polish?”, “Why don’t you shave your legs?”. We make fun of boys who sit down when they pee. It’s that stupid sometimes.
In Copenhagen, in the last 10 years, I have seen three gay couples in public. Three. I see three straight couples every minute and, still, straight people have the guts to come up to me and tell me they don’t have anything against gay people, but why do we have to shove it in their face? Well, here’s a mirror!
We also expect people who deviate to want to fit in, to want to become normal, but in the face of the straight world order, let me just say this: “I don’t want to be normal”. And I don’t mean that in a Coca-Cola-just-be-yourself-advertisement-slogan-kind-of-way either!
I didn’t come here today to defend myself. I didn’t come to defend homosexuals, or women or transgender people. I came today to attack. I came to declare a war, today, on the straight world order. I came to strike matches and to throw rocks. And I came with a toothpick for you when you’ve got the straight world order stuck between your teeth and with a pair of pliers to pull it out of your foot when you stepped on it.
I may be at war with the straight world order, but I am at peace with myself and the first thing I do every morning when I wake up is to thank the universe and the stars that I’m a faggot. And that I am free from the restraints of the straight world order. I am disgusted – not by heterosexuals – but by the straight world order and I want no part of it. No, thank you. The Gay Liberation Front had it right in 1971 when they said: “We don’t want a piece of that pie, that pie is rotten.”
The straight world order is a hierarchy that puts the heterosexual, masculine man who is not transgender at the top and gets everyone in trouble who cannot be, be like or be liked by him, as my favorite queer thinker Kate Bornstein puts it. It is a place where privileges such as freedom, safety and self-determination are granted to people according to how well they fit into the norm.
Out of these three people, only one of them managed to stay out of trouble, that was David, and the only way for him to get out of trouble was to cut his hair short and learn to be more masculine and in this way punish himself so that others wouldn’t.
The two women didn’t have that option. Robyn, she got in trouble for not being what some might call “a real woman”, whatever that is, and Louise – well, she got in trouble for being one.
And this right here, this explains why I believe that most people will get in trouble with the straight world order, if they aren’t already. This right here. Because there is really only one tiny little space where people won’t bother you, where you can be safe and that is if you can be a heterosexual, masculine man who is not transgender. David learned that the hard way, so he became one. He didn’t want to, but he did.
And then there are the rest of us who either cannot or don’t want to be a heterosexual, masculine man who is not transgender and as different as we are amongst ourselves we have a common enemy in the straight world order.
Add to this that sex, gender and sexuality are really only three digits in an enormous equation of privilege also including hierarchies regarding race, ethnicity, class, age, citizenship, beauty standards, educational levels, and whether or not you have a disability. Life is complicated.
So there’s a whole lot of trouble and punishment going on in the straight world order, but who are the victims and who are the bad guys, you might ask. And the answer is really simple. We all are. We are all being terribly limited by the straight world order, but at the same time, we also all of us contribute to the upholding of it. Although some of us are definitely more oppressed and some more oppressive than others.
Let me give you an example: in Denmark 97% of those convicted of violence are men. That means that almost every single person who is violent towards other people is a man. Of course statistics never tell the whole story and this one fails to mention that many of the victims of men’s violence are other men.
Who did the punishing in these stories? Almost exclusively men did. Now, I’m not saying that only men do the punishing, or that all men are bad guys, cause it’s not like that. But there is a clear tendency though, that while we’re all being victimized and limited by the straight world order, the punishments come from the tip of the norm, the tip of the hierarchy, and trickle down through all the deviating positions. And the more you deviate – that is, the further away from the norm that you are, the harder the punishment gets.
So what would I like you to do about it?
Well, I would like you to first of all remember that the hierarchies of the straight world order are not built on merit. OK? So if you get in trouble with this order, if you are at the bottom of any of these hierarchies you didn’t do anything wrong to deserve that. OK?
At the same time, if you are at the top of the hierarchy, you didn’t do anything to deserve that either. You didn’t work hard to earn your privileges as a man, as a heterosexual, or as someone who is not transgender. You don’t have your privileges because you are hardworking, or intelligent, or a good person, or because people like you. You have your privileges simply because others don’t.
And then I would like you to be aware of it when you have certain expectations to people’s sex, gender, and sexuality and realize that they might not live up to your expectations and that that’s not a problem, that is not a threat to you. It is not a mistake, or a failure that you need to fix. It’s not something that people do to get your attention or to provoke you. It is the way they live their lives and you don’t need to ask about it, stare at it, comment on it, or try to correct it. What you need to do is: you need to respect it.
This is Cecillia. Four months ago on a sunny Tuesday afternoon right here in central Copenhagen, Denmark, actually around this hour of the day, a few hundred meters away from where I’m standing now, she was on the way from the hairdresser when everything suddenly went black. A man had hit her full force on the back of her head with a hammer, because she is transgender. This was the kind of punishment that the straight world order had in store for her.
When preparing this talk I sent her an email to ask if it would be okay to share her story. And the answer I got back was very short: “Please call me. I can’t read so well anymore.” On Skype I could tell that she had trouble talking as well and that she couldn’t use her left arm. She is still training to get better, and she’s a fighter, but the doctors say she will never be the same again and she should be happy she survived.
Normal. Normal becomes normal when many people act normal. David actually managed to climb to the very top of the hierarchy, but he had to cut his hair off to get there. He made a choice to fit in and to act normal and of course everyone is free to make their own choices. But you should know that when you choose to hide that little part of you that deviates from the straight norm, that is a choice that you make for other people too. By choosing to make the norm that bit stronger by hiding, you make life a little bit harder for those who don’t have the choice to simply fit in.
What happened to David, and Robyn and Louise is bad enough. It really is. But for a lot of people – and for a lot of my personal friends – [what happened to Cecillia] is what they fear every single day of their lives.
Cecillia is out there every single day, fighting, in the face of all this harassment and violence. And while she gets in trouble just for being herself, David actually contributes to her trouble by choosing to be the shorthaired, masculine version of himself. Had he kept his long hair and that sway in his hips like he wanted to, that would have been a tiny, tiny step towards a world with more diversity – a world more appreciative of people like Cecillia. And Robyn. And Louise. And me.