Heteronormativity: An Explanation

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What Is Heteronormativity?

Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the default or “normal” sexual orientation. Heteronormativity assumes that gender is binary (only two) and unchangeable.

Heteronormativity supports the idea that there are only two genders and those two genders should only engage in sexual or romantic relationships with the opposite sex. Heteronormative culture privileges cisgender heterosexual people. They don’t’ have to worry about the adversities and concerns that queer people do. Their identities are the standard, rather than “queer”.

Queer is the umbrella term for anyone who isn’t cisgender and/or isn’t heterosexual.

Read: Gender Essentialism

Modern society is very heteronormative. All the way from calling 3-year old boys “ladies’ men” to the expectation that queer people must announce their sexual orientation or gender identity because it’s assumed to be something entirely different from birth.

Read: Sex, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality: What’s the Difference?

Society forces people that don’t fit heteronormative ideals to explain their entire identity, even if they themselves don’t fully understand it. Modern society doesn’t provide safe outlets or forums for young people to really experiment or understand their own identity freely.

Heterosexism is the systemic discrimination against gay people on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation.

If you’re in a same-sex relationship, people are constantly questioning “how sex works” for you or which one is the man/woman. This is a common occurrence, especially for WLW (women who love women) relationships. They’re interrogated on which one is the man. The whole point of a WLW relationship is that there is NO MAN.

Heteronormative, heteronormativity, heterosexism, heterosexuality
Photo by Tallie Robinson on Unsplash

However, we assume that one must be “the man” and one must be “the woman”. Or that one must be dominant and one must be submissive. Or that one pays for everything and the other pays for nothing. That one must simply be masculine and one must be feminine.

All of these assumptions are prime and common examples of heteronormativity.

It’s no one else’s business who you’re attracted to, how you identify or how you choose to express yourself… until you’re “different”. When you’re queer, all of a sudden, it’s everyone’s business.

Heteronormativity and the Gender Binary

The gender binary is the concept that there are only two genders: male/man and female/woman. We assign sex at birth based on the sex phenotype (penis or vulva) of the baby.

Intersex identities exist. But we still recognise sex as male or female. Intersex conditions are sometimes concealed through unnecessary medical procedures. They can also be left (as it’s not life-threatening), but doctors will label the baby as either a boy or girl.

Even biological sex as “male” or “female” is considered to be a social construct. It has been shown that biological differences between the sexes have almost no impact on social behaviours, interests and norms. Gender essentialism is the idea that there are traits, opinions and characteristics that are explicitly female and feminine, and there are others that are explicitly male and masculine. Academics have disproven this harmful concept many times. The differences between men and women are entirely a result of gender expectations and conventions of society that teach us how to be males and females.

Read: What Is Gender Essentialism?

Every social institution is massively segregated by gender. On one side there are boys and on the other there are girls. Clothes, activities, interests, even celebrities are usually assigned a “gender”. Taylor Swift appeals to girls and John Cena is more popular among boys. Makeup is for women and video games are for boys. There are endless other examples and, realistically, most things do (or can) appeal specifically to either boys or girls. Not to mention the fact that there are literally all-boys and all-girls schools.

Heteronormative, heteronormativity, heterosexism, heterosexuality
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Baby boys wear blue and baby girls wear pink. Boys wear suits and girls wear dresses. Boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. Boys are aggressive and girls are passive. Men belong in politics but women belong at home. Sports are for boys and makeup is for girls. And so on…

Schools are a major example of this. Boy-girl seating plans promote a lack of socialisation between the two genders. The only reason seating plans are organised boy-girl-boy-girl is because people think that they won’t talk to each other, as if boys and girls can’t be friends. When all the students play sports together, the first suggestion for teams is always boys vs girls. Gender is the main feature of identity that people seem to use to differentiate between individuals/groups.

Heteronormativity and Homophobia

Heteronormativity means assuming that everyone is straight. Heterosexuality is the default. When someone doesn’t fit this social standard, society sees this as a threat to traditional values and conventions.

Homosexuality is perceived as a threat to heterosexuality. Far too many people seem to think that homosexuality is going to “take over”. Lots of people truly believe homosexuality is being “forced on them”. But is that really true?

When straight people see a pride flag, is it being forced on them. When they see two men kissing or holding hands in public, it’s being forced on them. When queer people are protesting for basic human rights, it’s being forced on them.

Heteronormative, heteronormativity, heterosexism, heterosexuality
Photo by Elena Rabkina on Unsplash

But is it really? Is it being forced on them? Or are people just accustomed to a heteronormative society where straight couples are the norm? Their own sexist reductive values won’t allow them to respectfully perceive anything different.

Heteronormativity puts reproductive, monogamous relationships on a pedestal. Society sees reproduction and monogamy as a major part of the foundation of a positive relationship. This contributes to society’s hierarchical view of relationships. Those that don’t fit these standards (same-sex, queer, polyamorous, etc) are seen as “deviant”. Heterosexism is the sysetmic discrimination against gay people on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation.

Erasure of Other Sexual Orientations

Whenever grown women see a 2-year old boy and a 2-year old girl together in the playground there’s jokes and giggles about how they could get married one day. Sex education only teaches young people about heterosexual sex. Many young girls and women are constantly quizzed by their family members about whether they’ve got a boyfriend because it’s assumed that they’re straight. It’s also assumed that they’re looking for or should be in a relationship.

Simply put, not everyone is straight.

There a variety of sexual orientations. A recent study has shown that less than 50% of teens identify as straight. Even if the majority identifies as heterosexual, we shouldn’t assume that everyone is. We shouldn’t treat one sexual orientation as the default or the “norm” when there is so much variation and diversity around the world in sexualities.

We also need to consider the way this affects people. Heteronormativity promotes homophobia. People assume that heterosexuality is normal and so everything that isn’t heterosexual is seen as bad. Other sexualities are erased.

Bisexuality is often seen as “a phase” or just not real. Bisexual women with boyfriends are still bisexual, as are bisexual men with girlfriends. Pansexuality faces similar difficulties, added to the fact that it’s much lesser-known.

Additionally, lesbianism is often erased as well. “Hasbians” is a derogatory term that describes lesbians who engage in heterosexual activities. In the past, lesbianism was criminalised and villainised by society (more so than it is today). Many lesbians entered heterosexual relationships to cover up their “deviant” sexualities. Today, the term “hasbian” is used to describe people that went through a lesbian “phase”. This invalidates WLW identities because it doesn’t recognise their relationships as being genuine or equal. Lesbianism is seen as a “phase”, rather than a legitimate sexuality because women are supposedly “destined” to end up with a man.  

Society assumes everyone is straight, even in a fairly “progressive” society. We assume people’s gender identity and sexual orientation until they decide to come out and announce that it. However, it’s not easy or even fully accepted for people to explore their authentic self.

Violence Against LGBTQ+ People

The UK’s National LGBT Survey showed that on average trans people are 22% less happy than cisgender heterosexuals. At least 40% of LGBT people have experienced an incident of harassment or assault in the past 12 months because they’re LGBT.

There aren’t safe environments or forums for people to engage with others and experiment with their identity. One of the biggest issues in the gay community is paedophilia and grooming. Young gay men turn to older gay men for validation, support and security when their families and friends don’t accept them. However, this puts them in a vulnerable position because they become heavily reliant on someone who may have bad intentions. In high-income countries, white cisgender gay men have experienced arguably the most progress and recognition of their identities. But they still face major issues such as this.

Social institutions and policies reinforce heteronormative values. In over 70 countries, homosexuality is illegal. In some of these countries it’s punishable by death or imprisonment.

Heteronormative, heteronormativity, heterosexism, heterosexuality
Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

Heteronormativity has created a political climate that violently discriminates against LGBTQ+ people. Even in the most progressive countries, same-sex marriage has only recently been legalised. In the UK, Parliament introduced the Marriage Act for same-sex couples in 2013.

Politics also massively discriminates against trans people. The world’s biggest sports industries don’t recognise trans identities. There are many examples of legislation against trans people in sports as well as trans people in other environments. Non-binary identities also aren’t legally recognised. People are seen as either “male” or “female” by law.

Multiple US politicians have called for anti-trans genital inspections to ban trans girls and transwomen from sports. This would legislate sexually assaulting young girls that are “suspected” of being trans. Legislations like this are a huge threat to the trans community in every aspect. This reduces people’s identities to their genitals and makes justifies the sexual assault of young girls.

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