No such thing as “normal”

Let me tell you something about normality.

Normal is a construct invented by the privileged to pathologise non-conformity. Normal is a reason to keep you out of a space because you’re too brown, too female, too queer, too trans, not binary enough, not able-bodied enough, not rich enough, not connected enough for the dominant class’ tastes. Normal is why women earn less, why non-whites are relegated to poorer neighbourhoods, why queer and trans people are targets of violent crime, why disabled people are stigmatised and looked down on and shunned, why sex workers aren’t allowed the agency to run their own lives.

Most of all, normal is a lie.

I am not normal. I am too brown and too female (and femme) and too mentally ill and too queer to be normal. Most of the people I know aren’t normal. And every time one of us tries – usually so that we might get that job we really want or a place on that guest speaker list or a piece of writing published or just acceptance into a new circle of friends – we find that the goalposts have shifted. Because the big secret about normal is that it’s whatever the people oppressing you want it to be. You can never meet the standard, because the standard will change with the specific goal of making you fall short yet again.

If you are brown, you will never be normal enough to be accepted unreservedly in white-dominated academia. If you are a woman, you will never be normal enough to be welcomed into the fold of mostly male businesspeople and entrepreneurs. If you are queer, your relationships will never be normal enough to gain mainstream acceptance; you will find yourself on the receiving end of disapproving stares from the parents of young children, awkward silences at family dinners, judgemental screeds from people who think they have a god(s)-given right to tell you that you’re immoral. If you are trans, you will never be normal enough to pass for your true gender, and if you do pass, that in itself will be a sign of your abnormality – you will be labelled a traitor, a deceiver, a liar. If you are disabled of body or mind, you will never be normal enough to escape the pity, scorn, condescension or disgust of people who will reduce the entirety of your being to a diagnosis. And so it goes.

Normal is a lie. It is a toxic lie, one that seeps beneath our skin and turns us against ourselves. Normal is why I grew up hating the colour of my skin and the way it marked me out as different from my classmates. Normal is why I wanted to be a boy growing up, because boys got to do all the things I wished I was allowed to do. Normal is why my ex used to silence me every time the topic of my queerness arose in conversation with friends – he was ashamed to be dating someone non-heterosexual, someone perverted. Normal is why many Muslims think I’m too “western” and westerners think it’s weird that I don’t drink alcohol or eat bacon. Normal is the little voice whispering in your ear that whatever you are, whoever you are, you are an outsider and a freak and you will never be good enough.

Normal drives people to hate themselves.

We are sold the idea that we will never be good enough for anyone unless we are willing to sacrifice our true selves on the altar of conformity to an ever-changing and unattainable ideal of normality. We must be taller, shorter, slimmer, curvier, lighter, darker, bolder, less assertive than we are. We must have more partners or fewer; we must be more willing to take risks or less outrageous; we must always be something else, anything else, other than ourselves. Our bodies, our souls, our minds are never normal enough. We are too clever or not clever enough or too spirited or not spirited enough or too bright or not bright enough for comfort. If we do not jump through impossible hoops, contort ourselves in impossible ways, we are hateful. We are worthless, unlovable, perverted, deformed. We are abnormal. We are pathologically different.

This is the toxic truth behind the lie that is normal – it serves only to push the oppressed and marginalised further down so that the privileged may be elevated. Normal protects the rights and freedoms of the dominant class at the expense of the people over whose backs they clamber in order to attain greater heights. It is a luxury enjoyed only by the privileged, and it is contingent on the erasure and stigmatisation of those who do not conform. To be normal is to never have to worry that one’s differences will mark one as undesirable. To be normal is to know that one’s self does not just meet the standard: it is the standard.

What a terrifyingly powerful thing that is.

I will never be anyone’s idea of normal. No sandstone institution will elevate my opinions to the status of truth. No industry will ever deem me their ideal: not of beauty, not of personality, not of anything. But I do not care about this, because I know that normal is a lie so I refuse to chase it. I refuse to change a single thing about myself in order to meet a standard that was never set with me in mind. I refuse to think or speak or act in a way that would make me more acceptable to the kinds of people society considers normal because I know what they do not: that the pedestal on which they are perched is a precarious one. Because the other thing about normal, you see, is that it is ever-changing, and the higher one climbs on the backs of the marginalised and dispossessed, the farther one has to fall when the goalposts shift.

Normal is a fiction, and to treat it as reality is to allow its toxicity to permeate our lives, to twist and contort us until we are unrecognisable even to ourselves. Do not strive to be normal; you will destroy the things that are true and valuable and lovable about yourself and you will still get nowhere. Strive instead to be yourself, and let the goalposts shift where they may.

Normal is a curious game, you see. The only winning move is not to play.