I’m a white, heterosexual, private school and university-educated 30-year-old man from a traditional nuclear family. I rarely reflect on how these conditions have influenced my accomplishments and social standing, and how the world sees me. Doors open for me without my knowing they were there in the first place. I feel neutral and inoffensive. I’m normal.
In a small apartment in Nørrebro, I sit across from Mads Ananda Lodahl, a slight and soft-spoken man with a piercing through his septum and pink polish on his nails.
“When I’m dating someone and we’re walking down the street, there’s not a second when I’m not reminded that I’m a faggot,” he says wearily, sipping tea.
“One of my biggest wishes is to kiss a partner in public with my eyes closed. But I have to keep my eyes open for fear of being attacked. That’s a privilege I don’t have, and one I’m constantly reminded of. I know straight people don’t have to think about it. Their straight identity gives them a privilege I don’t have.”
The straight world order
Lodahl is a queer writer whose mission is to end the straight world order (SWO) that privileges heterosexual lifestyles and traditional families. He wants to challenge why we think this is “normal,” when many people cannot relate to or fit within it. And he wants us to understand the struggle that people who deviate from the norm face when they draw unwanted attention, or lack rights that straight people take for granted.
I feel uneasy saying ‘queer’, which I’ve always seen as a derogatory term for homosexuals. But the term has long been re-appropriated, and an academic discipline has been built around it – queer theory. In the words of American gender theorist David Halperin, “queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.”
Queer theory holds that gender and sexuality are primarily social constructs, and that a complex set of factors (including but not limited to genetics) influences which sexual practices, orientation and appearance a person identifies with. The message is that there is no normal, but rather a multitude of sexual and gender possibilities that are each as legitimate as any other.
While this may be, the gender binary is still deeply embedded in our society. We are surrounded by expectations on how to behave and talk, how our bodies should look, and how we ought to dress. These expectations alienate not only those who deviate far from gender and sexual norms, but also those who unquestioningly fall into line.
“We all need queer theory. When I look at the people I grew up around, some of them are just trying to make ends meet and get through the day. But a lot of the things that make life difficult are actually related to gender. Take a working class family, where the man can’t express sadness and therefore feels insecure and doesn’t know how to communicate. Gender stereotypes make us insecure because we become victims of people’s expectations of how we should behave. This is my background, I know it well.”
A working-class queer
Lodahl comes from a provincial town that was permeated with sexism and racism. He moved to Copenhagen as a teenager and joined the punk and autonomous movements. It was in this political setting that he realised that he was entitled to demand change for people like himself – people who could not identify with the norm and went through hell because of it.
Together with some friends, he formed the Queer Jihad movement. This was a group of activists and artists who painted graffiti, printed t-shirts, published zines and held parties. They wanted to challenge gender stereotypes, but were unaware that a path was already being cleared for them.
“A year or two into the project, a friend called me and said, ‘Hey Mads, there’s something called queer theory and people study it at university! And there’s something called feminist theory!’ But we had no idea, we were just activists trying to change stuff.”
They quickly dived into the academic theory, learning and reading everything they could. Many went on to study it at university too, but Lodahl eventually decided he knew what he needed, and looked for ways to apply it. He turned to military strategy, reading Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Malcolm X. What’s the point in having this knowledge, if it doesn’t reach the people who really need it, he thought.
“I come from a family where I never once saw my parents read a book. So I know that the people who need queer theory the most aren’t people who read books about it, any more than the people who need knowledge about racism aren’t the people who go to university and do PhDs on racism.”
Mads Ananda Lodahl speaking at TEDxCOPENHAGEN last year about the straight world order
Spreading the word
Lodahl gets his message out by holding talks, writing, and speaking on the radio. On his website almindelig.com – which translates as ordinary.com – he asks you to think about what a man is and what the opposite sex is. He asks whether you think you have to answer people who ask prying and disrespectful questions. He outlines the argumentative techniques that are used to silence and shame sexual and gender minorities. Once you’ve learned them, you can use them against your attacker. Offense is the best form of defence, so stand up for yourself!
“I know what it looks like inside a white male norm, and how confusing it can be to look at a world where the reality is different from your expectations. After all, when you turn on the TV, there’s a 99% chance it’s about white straight men.”
He has compassion for people who don’t realise that the world is structured to favour the heterosexual norm. Often it is reinforced structurally, through the tax system and the gender pay gap, for example. Married couples are allowed to share their annual tax deduction between them, and because women earn on average 18 percent less than men, it makes economic sense for the man to take both tax deductions, while the woman stays at home.
Still, increasing number of rights have been granted to people who don’t identify as heterosexual. Same-sex couples can now marry, and trans people can legally change their sex without first having to undergo surgery.
But the SWO still suppresses trans people, who are forced into choosing which side of the gender binary they want to be. And often, they aren’t even given a choice.
“We are very ignorant and disrespectful toward trans people as a society. They aren’t protected by the law, and don’t have the right to make decisions about their lives. For example, it’s still illegal to have a name more commonly associated with the so-called opposite gender. But the fact is, the gender binary doesn’t fit everyone. Many people are born intersex and have sex organs that diverge from the norm. Often they are operated on as infants in order to fit the norm, even though they are healthy people. At the same time, trans people find it very difficult to get the operations and hormones they need to diverge from the norm. So in this sense, the entire health system is reproducing a gender binary norm, which creates a lot of hurt.”
Earlier in the month, I interviewed the founders of the Danish branch of the Everyday Sexism Project, which helps women share how sexism affects their daily life (see page 14). It was an eye-opening experience, and I told Lodahl that I almost felt the project was targeted at someone like me – a man who rarely, if ever, notices sexism in the world around him.
Lodahl interrupts me with a laugh as he pours us both more tea.
“It’s funny, straight white men often feel that everything in the world is made for them and is about them,” he says. “I think ESP is primarily designed to empower women. It’s also for people like you. But it’s primarily a resource for women.”
I rally a defence.
“Just because I’m a straight man doesn’t necessarily mean that I think the whole world revolves around me. I think I’m just a person that…” I say, before he cuts in again.
“You’re not just a person; you are a straight white man. Many people who live within the norm have a tendency to see themselves as just a person, as something neutral. But nobody is just a person. I’m a faggot, a queer person. But I’m also a white person and a person with male privilege, because people see me as a male person. Nobody is just a person.”
Ultimately, his mission is to get us to look at ourselves and each other, and question whether the assumptions we have about sexuality and gender are accurate and useful.
“I try to walk a fine line between patient and compassionate diplomacy and uncompromising demand for change. I try to juggle those two things and to constantly have both. I do demand of you and everyone else that you realise your privilege and that you have an identity. But I want to meet you with patience and understanding. You can’t wash the straight world order off you.” M