Yeah, this only becomes a problem when “not normal” is automatically also meant as a negative or wrong somehow. It can be soul destroying when that is the case, for the first 20 years of my life I’ve felt like I was a leper.
Really, it’s this. The problem isn’t the word “normal” it’s the use of “abnormal” in relation to it (specifically when it comes to identity), and the conflation of “normal” and “natural”. In academia the standard terminology is “normative” to indicate that “normal” is socially-constructed, rather than something that occurs naturally (for example, heteronormative).
Unhappiness is normal. Poverty is normal. Illness is normal. Normal is nothing to write home about.
This is more what I mean. If it’s not normal, then the connotation is that it is abnormal when it might just be unusual, exceptional or unfamiliar. All things we generally pursue in our lives to escape normalcy.
Underlying this, also, is the idea of “natural” being good and “unnatural” being bad. What’s natural in human existence? Roads, grocery stores, movies? Human nature is intrinsically unnatural and we’d like to escape the brutality of the natural world as much as possible, honestly.
This is why I’m skeptical when people like Jordan Petersen and Steven Pinker point to biology and evolution to support traditional values and conservative behavior in people. There is not a “natural law” underlying the way we think and behave.
I’m a bit lost as to exactly what point you’re trying to make, but if you’re saying that you don’t think it’s an interesting discussion worth having then that’s obviously your prerogative, no-one is obliging you to participate.
I dunno. I’ve just seen it suggested that 10% of the population is gay ad that feels too high.
Normal, rare, minority and so on are abstract terms I guess used at times to reinforce arguments or political perspectives. For me normal is big enough that each person might have enough of a relationship with someone of that type. Most people have a circle of 250 people, less than 1 in 250 pushes the limit of normal.
The problem is that the word “normal” is inherently judgmental, in that anything that does not fit into your definition of normal is, in effect, abnormal. If children growing up in a two-parent family is normal, then growing up with a single parent, whether through divorce, separation, death, or other reason, is abnormal.
Better to use the terms “common” or “usual” , I think, to describe something that is statistically more likely. Children being raised by heterosexual parents is common, whereas growing up with two fathers is statistically uncommon. But the latter situation is not abnormal, except to narrow-minded individuals.
I think if you considered every person who has had homosexual experiences in their lives, 10% is a conservative number. I imagine the percentage of people who are openly or actively homosexual is probably between 5-6% of any given modern population.
It’s also incredibly difficult to get an accurate number for given the amount of intolerance (both personally and systemically) people still face as a result of their sexuality. The numbers more likely reflect the amount of openly-gay (and that leads to a question of what is meant by “gay” for the person being asked) people, rather than those who are still in the closet.
I think there’s a lot about “normal” that’s already been said, but I think there are a number of really important distinctions and points.
Johnny, I get that your broader point is more philosophical and, while I think that can be argued and debated, the problem is it’s even further removed from most people’s common experience than knowing a gay person might be.
Historically, as soon as we have started to label people, or groups of people, as abnormal simply because they deviate from what is common in their population, then that is used as an excuse for discrimination, bigotry and at the extreme, atrocity, to flourish against them. Philosophically arguing “no-one is normal” is fine, but that’s not the common usage of the concept of normal and while I wouldn’t for a second imagine that you saying statements like:
was going to lead to harm for me and mine, I hope you understand that for me, and anyone else who is in some way different in an uncommon way, that phrases like that send a chill down the spine. You saying that you think I am not “normal” is, for you a phrase used neutrally (and I suspect if anything with a degree of positivity), but that’s not how the majority would use it when starting a conversation about my sexuality.
(In more general terms, I’m with you (and Dave’s discussion with his daughter) on the concept of individual normality:
But in the context of this sort of discussion, it’s not that sort of normality/individuality we’re talking about; it’s about population “normality”.
There is a difference between normal, common, and similar.
My sexuality is different, uncommon … but normal.
How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender - or otherwise different in terms of sexuality or gender identity? We honestly don’t know. As several people have said, one of the difficulties with trying to work it out is that there are still significant numbers of LGBT+ people in countries like the UK and US who don’t feel safe or comfortable in identifying as such, which means estimates are always likely to be on the lower side. That effect becomes more pronounced on a global scale - if you live in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offence, unremarkably, people are less likely to identify as LGBT+ there, whether they are or not. We see it within societies/cultures/religions where homosexuality is viewed unfavourably - biologically, there are likely to be roughly the same proportion of LGBT+ people in Muslim populations for example, but estimates tend to be less.
I usually use the 2% figure when estimating how many LGB people there are in a population (accurate data for transgender people is even harder to obtain). You’re right - it’s not common, but neither is it unusual when we look at other biological differences.
Red hair is a great example because, worldwide, the incidence of red hair as a biological variation is about the same as the incidence of homosexuality, somewhere around 2% of the global human population. That variation isn’t uniform - in Northern Europe, around 5% probably have red hair, and in Ireland and Scotland, up to 10% of the population do. (The converse of course is that in some populations, red hair is much less common) While the social and cultural interpretation of someone having red hair can vary, biologically it’s a genetic difference which has persisted in the population because overall there is some benefit to the population. Red hair is an established, normal variant of human biology - but it is not common.
An even more straightforward example is height. This is a standard growth chart for males in the UK between the ages of 9-18 years. We use this to monitor growth trajectories, but also to make statistical inferences on what is normal or not; most of the population sit within two standard deviations of the median for a continuous variable like height.
At 14, it is uncommon for a boy in the UK to be above 180cm in height … however, about 2% of the population are. They will physically stand out from their peers and this will typically be seen as a positive thing for them. At the same age, it is uncommon for a boy to be less than 145 cm in height … but, again, about 2% of the population are.
Most of these teenagers are typically developing, “normal”, with no medical reason for their height - it usually comes down to genetics. Because greater height is usually positively socially correlated, the tall kids are generally quite happy with life, but the short kids want to be investigated for medical problems and many of them and their families are keen to be given growth hormone.
We use statistical cut-offs, along with trend over time and overall clinical assessment, to help determine those who do need investigating to identify the rarer causes of both tall and short stature which might need specific medical treatment but, for many, they’re just genetically short or tall. Their height is different to their peers, uncommon compared to the population as a whole - but normal, part of the normal range of expression of human biology.
Again, while I get where you’re coming from, I think this is too narrow. Just because something doesn’t exist as obviously apparent within your relatively limited personal social circle doesn’t make it abnormal either. I grew up in a community of more than 250 people where no-one positively identified as gay because, in that time and place, positively identifying as gay would have been seen as a negative thing. My only experience of gay people within my extended social network as a child and teenager was hearing people talk about “perverts and paedophiles and poofters”
(It’s also why positive representation of LGBT+ people in books, TV programmes and films is so important … because for many people that might be the first positive impression they may get that how they are realising they think and feel about who they are isn’t an inherently negative thing)
Coming back to how common being LGBT+ is.
I think this is an important point for this, and it echoes back to the Kinsey research that ranked people on a scale from “Exclusively homosexual” to “Exclusively heterosexual”.
Those who identify as “Exclusively homosexual” are probably the majority of the 2% that population data generally picks up (currently) as being LGBT+. The Kinsey scale is far from perfect, but its a useful way to start to frame the discussion.
(I’m technically a 5 on the Kinsey scale; I’ve had heterosexual sexual encounters but they were a long time ago now, and I identify today as exclusively homosexual)
Increasingly there is a more interesting way to ask the question. If you ask people in a country like the UK, as the Office of National Statistics has been doing over the last decade, whether they identify as straight or not, the numbers change. From 2017 data, the most recent we have, 93.2% of people in the UK over the age of 16 years identify as straight … meaning 6.8% identify as something other than straight. We’ve only been tracking this data since 2012, but there is a downward trend in those who identify as straight, most marked in the younger section of the population. There are likely multiple reasons for that - teenagers and young adults who do identify as LGBT+ are much more likely to feel confident in saying so (if you’d asked me in any official or public way aged 16 whether I was anything other than straight, the answer would have been a resounding “no”), but there is also an evolving understanding of sexuality and gender identity which comes back in part to that Kinsey spectrum. Someone who experiments with same-sex sex as a young adult may well go on to identify as heterosexual with no further desire or intention to have same-sex encounters or relationships (me in reverse basically), but they are now also more likely to say that that means they don’t identify as 100% straight.
(Data from the same survey continues to estimate the prevalence of LGB people in the UK as 2%, and that is staying more stable … though 4% of the population aged 16-24 now do. It will be interesting to see over time if that 4% is a more accurate estimate of LGBT+ identity in a population where identifying as such is viewed more neutrally or positively, or whether it’s a function of increased biological fluidity related to the still developing adolescent and young adult brain in that age range. It’ll probably be a bit of both)
So, to come back to your original point, and perhaps to ask it in a different way:
Is there harm in saying that LGBT+ people, or those in same-sex relationships, are not normal?
Yes, I think there absolutely is.
If the world was perfect, and we could have those brilliant conversations that you are having philosophically, and Dave is having practically with his daughter, about the idea that “normality” is a social construct anyway and we should celebrate people for who they are, with all their individual differences, then yes, absolutely. But that isn’t the world we live in.
We live in a world where if you define me as “abnormal” that that puts me at increased risk of harm to my physical and mental health - and in some countries where identifying as LGBT+ is still punishable by death, would go far beyond that and pose an existential risk to me, and those like me.
In that context, it’s not only good, it’s imperative to make the point that homosexuality (and all of the other complex variants of sexuality and gender identity) are almost always within the range of normal human biological variation. We might be uncommon, we might be different to your or other people’s experience of what they expect (like a red-head in south-east Asia) to see - but we are absolutely fundamentally normal … and what follows from that is that our human rights, which is what this is really all about, are the same as everyone else’s.
I will absolutely shout my individuality from the rooftops, but I also need to be protected by a social, cultural and legal framework that respects my biological variation as being normal.
Also in this general area, and as a counterpoint to the English school story where promoting inclusive education was challenged mentioned upthread, I wasn’t the only member of my family doing their bit for LGBT+ inclusivity on Friday.
She goes to a primary school just outside Inverness, run by the Highland Council (the same council that ran the primary school I went to, a bit further north, 30 years ago). Scotland has been ahead of the game on LGBT+ inclusive education in schools for some time now and, last year, the Scottish Government ruled that it is now a legal requirement that ALL schools in Scotland must include LGBT+ inclusive education at all levels (traditionally a lot of the more religious schools in particular had excluded this from their curricula)
This year, the Highland Council, in part because of their positive attitude to LGBT+ inclusive education in schools, scored very well on the annual Stonewall Education Equality Index (8th in the UK overall) and they chose to mark this on Friday by inviting a group of primary school pupils to raise the rainbow flag at the Council HQ.
Someone asked Izzy what the rainbow flag meant to her. She’s five. She’s known me all her life and while we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the intricacies of gay identity politics, she knows that Uncle Mike (who’s a very important person to her I’m delighted to say) loves men and not women. She treats that information in the same way as she treats information about any other adult relationship. It’s normal to her.
Her answer to “what does the rainbow flag mean Izzy?”
“It’s for love and to be kind and that anyone can love anyone”
That’s what inclusive education in primary schools - and growing up in a context that normalises same-sex relationships - means. She wasn’t coached in that at all; it’s just how she’s absorbed information about the world and the people she knows in it.
(And, she’s awesome and I love her to bits)
So, at the same time I was launching the Rainbow NHS badges, my awesome niece was doing this:
It’s an interesting discussion. I would like to suggest that normal is indeed not the same as “common” in the context of this issue, but rather as what is commonly accepted.
Of course, the ideal state of things - as Jonny suggests - would be that everything should be commonly accepted, every individual life decision seen as equally valid, as long as there is no harm done to anyone. However, we do know that Othering is a process that happens all the time and everywhere, and while it is important to try and fight that instinct, it is also true that for any given group that is being othered, it is also essential to fight for inclusion.
It is a bit paradoxical, one has to admit.
(The concept of The Other as the big umbrella under which many important and worrisome things are currently happening has been on the back of my mind to the extent that I have made it the topic of this year’s school theatre courses. Any suggestions for literary texts dealing with configurations of the Other are welcome!)
However, I didn’t ask if there was harm is saying that LGBT+ people are not normal. That wasn’t my point at all. In fact, my point was that using normal or abnormal is dangerous in any discussion about it as those words don’t mean anything specific but can make people react very emotionally. I didn’t say homosexuality was abnormal, but you still reacted emotionally.
My point is quite the opposite and it is playing out here in the United States on a much larger scale than in the UK.
What is the harm of saying homosexuality is normal? Have you considered that?
I agree that there is nothing harmful and even a lot positive about accepting homosexuality as a legitimate part of human behavior, but this is absolutely not a simply philosophical discussion about the dangers of calling something normal. I’m absolutely serious about it and think it will and already has opened up gay people to harm. Not in areas where the argument has already been won. That’s part of the point - calling it normal where most people already agree is not going to make a difference, but calling it normal where most people don’t agree that it is will cause real, not philosophical, damage.
If you think saying “homosexuality is not normal” is scary, then think about the reactions to saying “homosexuality is normal” will bring about to people who in no way think of normal in any way the same as you do.
Because normal and natural are simplistic terms that, as you can see here, has no set definition that any rational argument will make convincing. Heart disease and cancer are natural. Alcoholism and depression are normal. Adultery and drunk driving are normal. Normal does not mean okay. Natural does not mean healthy. Neither of them are another word for good.
Normal is a subjective experience, and for people who find homosexuality to be abnormal, trying to teach their children that it is normal, to them, is simply brainwashing their kids. Not only are they already prejudiced against gay people, but now you’re messing with their kids’ minds.
This is not theoretical. It’s going on right now, today, in schools all across America. Fighting the “homosexual agenda” is literally one of the pillars of the very powerful and influential Christian Right. They’ve already won the “normal vs abnormal” argument. You will need a much better approach to accomplish anything in those communities and states or you will risk actually making it less safe and free for gay people in those communities by accidentally stepping into their pre-fab paranoid fantasies generated by their church leaders.
As per the story above, those arguments are happening in the UK as well - but I don’t believe it helps anyone to concede the point that the uninformed and the frankly bigoted are making.
Children and young people growing up LGBT+ in those environments are already at risk, and seeing the people who should be standing up for them and advocating for them back down in the face of ignorance and prejudice makes them feel more isolated and at risk of harm, not less.
One of the reasons seeing someone like Trump, and those around him, in power in countries like the US is something I find scary is because it emphasises how fragile those hard-fought for principles - that human rights are human - might be. Do we need to be aware that in standing up for something that is right carries risk and consequences of irs own? Absolutely - but how is that different to any other civil rights battle that has needed to be fought and won?
I agree with you that there is a time and a place for how those ideas need to be vocalised; in countries like Nigeria where it is an issue of state-mediated life or death sticking your head above the parapet to make these points is infinitely more risky than it is in the UK, or the US.
But conceding the point, and agreeing with those people - or with you - that homosexuality is, by definition, abnormal doesn’t give any more advantage to those at risk of persecution by those who would use that to, as Christian says, Other those who are LGBT+. When you give ground to the ignorant and the bigots, it rarely works out to anyone’s advantage except the ignorant and the bigoted.
In countries like ours, winding the clock back and defining homosexuality as abnormal would be regressive and - ultimately - cause more, and deeper, harm than the argument you’re making.
Arguing that normality is subjective for something which is within the standard range of biological variation for human people is a dangerous step to take; do you similarly think it’s acceptable for a society to define redheads, or very tall people, as “abnormal”? And if not, why gay people but not those people?
So, while I can see on one level where your arguments are coming from, hearing someone like you happy to define me as “abnormal” does nothing but send a very cold shiver down my spine. Defining people as Other is the first step in permitting them to fall outside the protection of universal human rights - and that’s not a point I’m prepared to quietly concede.
I never said you or homosexuality was “abnormal.” That’s a point you keep trying to stick to me even though I specifically said that “not normal” is not the same as abnormal many times. Instead, I said unusual, uncommon or exceptional. Not abnormal. That’s at the heart of what I said in the first place. The association of normal with good and not normal with abnormal is at the heart of exclusion even though no one really wants to be normal.
My point is that normal is a harmful term in this argument - and for me, normal is generally a bad word - and you should say specifically what you mean from the beginning. Acceptable, unusual, healthy. I’m not conceding anything to those afraid of homosexuality - already irrational - but sidestepping the traps they’ve already laid and used to win this debate.
Arguing that homosexuality falls within the variance of natural human biology doesn’t help. Alcoholism falls within the variance of human biology. Schizophrenia falls within the variance of human psychology. You don’t have a high chance of developing dementia, but if you do, it’s normal. Feel better about it?
Is it good or bad? Right or wrong? Biology won’t tell you that.
If a person needs to be called normal to be accepted or if we keep telling people that being normal is important, that concerns me. That means that only normal things deserve to be accepted. It’s still pushing the cult of the normal which is at the heart of what excludes and punishes a lot of unusual people and exceptional behavior.
Instead, the first step is to get people to see that they are actually not normal and they don’t want to be. I’m unusually tall. That’s not normal. Occasionally I get teased about it. No big deal. You’re gay. That’s not normal. So what? However, the fact you can get hurt for being not normal is the trouble. So, people need to learn to stop worrying about normal.
Most people want to stand out a little bit. In daily experience, we don’t want to be called normal. It’s a synonym for boring.