Challenging Heteronormativity in Pets
Hasn’t our journey toward equity and equality made tremendous strides in the past year? After all, awareness of the destructive nature of heteronormative and cis-biased language is at an all-time high. Representation for the disadvantaged and underprivileged is steadily increasing. Our progressive and forward-thinking representatives do battle daily against those on the right, entrenched as they are in medieval ideas about men and women. The feet of those holding onto hurtful stereotypes are being held to the fire in growing measure.
But we have by no means reached our goal. Our movement has succeeded in many ways — we must not lose sight of that encouraging fact—but it has not yet reached full saturation. We must not rest until every vestige of the Judeo-Christian system is dismantled and destroyed. We must not rest until every linguistic expression containing antiquated gendered notions is exterminated.
We cannot fail now, with as much ground as we have gained, to disrupt every aspect of the heteronormative foundation that has been killing people for centuries—no matter where it may be found.
And to be clear, I am talking about me.
I am a dog persyn. I love dogs. I grew up in a family that always invited dogs to live with us. (I refuse to say we “owned” dogs for obvious reasons.) Playing with dogs, walking dogs, snuggling with dogs was part of my own lived experience, and has made me who I am today. And so, when my neighbor (a beautiful, lovely woman whom I will call Daisy) overheard me the other day playing with my dog, Alex, and expressed sincere concern over the language I was using, I have to admit, I was surprised. But stopping and listening to her made me realize just how insidious the heteronormative power structures in language actually are!
What was it I said? Innocently enough (or so I thought), all I said was “Here boy!” Alex had picked up the stick I had thrown, and so I called out the common phrase, heard in houses and in yards across the world, wherever people engage in lawn sports with dogs. But Daisy, listening to our play, leaned over our shared fence and asked me, straight up (a disgusting phallocentric idiom if ever there was one), “How do you know Alex is a boy?”
The question caught me off guard, I have to admit. I was halfway to saying “well, look — he has a package between his back legs” when I realized my mistake. Here I was, talking to a woman with a penis, and telling her, of all people, that anatomy determined gender! I was horrified by my own unconscious acceptance of everything I have fought against. I broke down right there under the weight of my own transgression. I looked up at Daisy with tears in my eyes and apologized, confessing to her my own medieval assumption. Daisy smiled (we were good friends) and said, “See? See how easy that was?”
I will never forget that moment. We have championed the progressive-gender movement in humans, but I fear we fall prey to speciesism when we fail to apply all our advances to our friends in other parts of the animal kingdom.
I cannot continue to impose on Alex a “reality” that they have not assented to. It is made especially egregious by the fact that Alex cannot respond, Alex cannot speak for themself. And for me to continue to berate them with gendered language against their will, no matter how patient or docile they may seem, is an affront to their autonomy as a separate being.
I was only half-way to this more equitable understanding in my refusal to use the word “owner.” I cannot own Alex. I can invite Alex into my home, and I can make promises to feed them, and give them shelter and companionship. But I do not “own” them. However, I did not go far enough. What I failed to recognize was the fact that calling Alex “him,” simply because of their anatomy, was not just a harmless mistake (how often have we heard that excuse?) but an outright attack on all non-cis people of every species.
Furthermore, and just as galling to me, was the realization of how complicit I was in my assumptions regarding the reigning heteronormative paradigm that I have long attempted to undermine. I am still upset at how insidious those notions are, and at finding them in myself. It reinforces my understanding that no matter how many advances we make, there is always more ground ahead of us. There is always more shedding that needs to be done.
We are at war with a narrative caught in the grip of harmful prejudices and we must never flinch at fighting that worldview, even when (especially when) it evidences itself in our own lives, with those things we hold dear. Everything must be burned.Joe Carlson
(MA Humanities) is a poet and translator living in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. His new blank verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as accompanying reader’s guides, are available at dantepoem.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/the-horror-of-here-boy