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What is straight culture?

If queer people have drag and disco, do straight people have Maroon 5 and Live, Laugh, Love mugs?

When a bunch of white guys in cargo shorts requested a permit for a ‘Straight Pride Parade’ in Boston this summer, everyone was perplexed. The aim was obviously to troll, and articles have already outlined why the concept is damaging and ultimately, pointless. Pride was born out of systems of oppression, but these guys haven’t faced that. Straight Pride is just a bunch of dudes stamping their feet and demanding a seat at the one table in the world not built with them in mind.

The organising group – who call themselves Super Happy Fun America despite having ties to far-right extremist groups – rebuked these claims, arguing they want to “celebrate the diverse history, culture and contributions of the straight community.”

If heterosexuality is treated as the universal default (it is), that means ‘straight culture’ is basically… well, it’s just ‘culture’. OK then, let’s ask – what is straight culture, really? What are the emblems, the heroes, the defining traits? If queer people have Stonewall, drag and disco, do straight people have Maroon 5, Fiat 500s and gender reveal parties? 

I canvassed for opinion the only way I know how – I asked Twitter. Examples of straight culture came thick and fast from user @theysingular, who listed everything from Mumford & Sons, couples’ yoga and “Ann Summers 50 Shades of Grey kink to spice up your life” to ball-and-chain jokes, “putting a bow on your baby’s head because you’re worried people won’t know the gender” and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, Pawsecco – “only for your lady dogs with their pink lady collars. Also comes in rosé!”

Given examples of straight icons included James Bond (guns, cocktails and shagging, although cocktails and shagging are pretty gay, right?), Kirstie Allsopp, Jeremy Clarkson and Barney Stinson, the notorious womaniser of How I Met Your Mother. Super Happy Fun America inexplicably added another name into the mix by designating Brad Pitt as their mascot, before he responded by demanding his name be removed. A true ally!

Generally, these examples were rooted in rigid domesticity, tame entertainment and strict adherence to what society sees as a ‘normal’ couple – he’s the emotionally unavailable husband scratching himself and drinking beer in his ‘man cave’, whereas she spends every waking hour doing the dishes, buying matching outfits and occasionally necking a cheeky rosé. These tropes are similarly written across ‘straight culture checklists’, which namecheck his & hers mugs, clichéd pet names and everyone’s favourite inspirational mantra: ‘Live, Laugh, Love.’

Sometimes, these observations are on-the-nose. Straight culture is restrictive by default, because to be the norm, you have to actively try to be the norm. Anyone that deviates is subject to constant interrogation: think of the bros being shamed for showing emotion, the women stereotyped as ruthless for choosing careers over families and married couples shunned for daring to divorce.

But occasionally, discussions of ‘straight culture’ veer into observations based on taste. The checklist implies that heterosexuals are genetically engineered to only appreciate dad rock and inoffensive pop (Ed Sheeran, Journey) and to shy away from female artists in particular. To test these examples, I sent a copy of the checklist over to Meg-John Barker, an academic and gender studies expert who recently co-authored Life Isn’t Binary. The initial response was unexpected: “I was amusingly dismayed that many of the music-related straight culture things applied to me!”

In their eyes, examples of cheesy musical taste aren’t so much ‘straight culture’ as they are observations based on age and class. “I know some queer events which have had issues with alienating older and working-class people, often because they assume their audience will be into certain music, TV programmes or films,” they explain.

“I know some queer events which have had issues with alienating older and working-class people, often because they assume their audience will be into certain music, TV programmes or films” – Meg-John Barker

This ties into a wider issue: that cultural analysis generally leans on stereotypes, and that off-the-cuff attempts to define ‘straight culture’ will iron out the diversity of a demographic in order to broadly define it. Issues like these have long plagued analyses of queer culture. Lack of nuance, coupled with femme-shaming and internalised homophobia, has led some gay men to self-identify as ‘androphiles’. These men have absorbed the idea that being ‘gay’ is synonymous with inhaling poppers every weekend, having lots of casual sex, and listening solely to Ariana Grande; because they don’t identify, they distance themselves from the word and discriminate against those who don’t.

Our determination to group queer people into one homogenous lump also leads to inaccuracy and erasure. It’s why large swathes of the community are so often erased: people of colour, trans and non-binary people and even working-class LGBTQ people don’t fit the stereotypes we see on screen (and even those are usually played by straight actors). As a result, we’re left with a combination of diluted, occasionally harmful representation for some, and complete invisibility for others.

Academics over the years have tried to show just how weird it sounds to discuss heterosexuality in the way we discuss queerness. Meg-John sends me ‘The Heterosexual Questionnaire’ published in 1977 by a PhD candidate named Martin Rochlin, whose queries include ‘is it possible that it is just a phase you may grow out of?’ and ‘isn’t it possible that all you need is a good gay lover?’ The aim was to outline to straight audiences how frustrating is to feel like a curiosity, or an aberration whose existence needs to be justified. It claims that ‘straight culture’ is actually defined through privilege, and the sense that your identity is valid enough to escape interrogation, or persecution.

Professor Jack Halberstam took a more playful approach, creating a university module loosely titled ‘What On Earth Is Heterosexuality’? In Gaga Feminism, Jack writes: “Using clips from Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, The Bachelor, and other TV shows, I would act like an anthropologist visiting a strange group of people engaged in odd sexual rituals, showing the class what heterosexuality looked like from the outside.” The approach was political yet tongue-in-cheek, an attempt to flip the script and analyse the dominant norm in the ‘how weird is that?’ way that queerness is usually discussed.

What’s clear is that definitions of ‘straight culture’ tend to be regressive and heavily gendered. A viral tweet joked about Straight Pride floats including AXE Body Spray (they hilariously tweeted their support of Gay Pride and playful responses to conservative detractors) and ‘Tomi Lahren riding a giant Swastika”, whereas the examples I’m given include “learning about racism from Netflix” and the infamous gender reveal party.

These jokes are aimed more at the straight people who feel the need to declare their pride – they hint at begrudging minorities the chance to create space for themselves, and therefore show their bigotry. But straight culture more generally is more regressive than outright discriminatory; it finds comfort in binaries, and punishes anyone who rejects them. In this sense, poking fun at ‘straight culture’ isn’t enough – what we need to do is unpick gender and sexuality completely.

In Life Isn’t Binary, Meg-John and co-author Alex Lantaffi advocate for a shift towards this approach. They use everyday examples to show that nothing is as simple as an ‘either/or’ box, and that we need broader analyses which acknowledge gender and sexuality as spectrums. “Jokes about straight culture are amusing and helpful in the way they question how great the supposed natural, normal, ideal way of being is: pointing out how bland it is, or how it appropriates from queer culture, or how it doesn’t make people happy,” says Meg-John. “But flipping it in a funny way that suggests gayness is better than straightness still maintains that people can be divided into ‘straight’ and ‘gay.’”

“Flipping it in a funny way that suggests gayness is better than straightness still maintains that people can be divided into ‘straight’ and ‘gay’” – Meg-John Barker

Culturally, this isn’t the case – less young people identify as straight than ever. Other lines are being blurred, too; a recent graphic expanded LGBTQ to LGBTQQIIAP to include ‘allies’, and pissed off queer people in the process. But whatever you think of allyship or the appropriation of queer culture, society increasingly accepts that gender and sexuality exist on spectrums – that groupings are messier and more complex than ‘either/or’.

As a result, ‘straight culture’ is dying – if it ever existed at all. If it does or did, then it can’t be defined outside of privilege, gendered stereotypes and a steadfast fixation on norms, making it completely redundant outside of Fiat 500 memes and gender reveal jokes. Straight Pride itself would be appropriation of a queer custom built on a history of struggle, so even that wouldn’t be straight culture. In other words, Super Happy Fun America’s attempts to troll us have unintentionally shown the flimsiness of ‘straight culture’ as a concept, and unintentionally highlighted that it literally doesn’t exist without the contributions of queers. They played themselves, and got told to fuck off by Smash Mouth in the process.