Heteronormativity idealizes only one way to view sexuality, and it NEEDS to change.
Here we are in the age of marriage equality, right? Or are there more things to consider? While I'm happy for the people who want to get married and couldn’t before June 27, 2015, we must keep asking ourselves what equality actually means, and I know our work is far from done.
In the sex-positive, gender-fluid LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex) and feminist worlds, the term “heteronormativity” is frequently used. However, it’s not part of our everyday vernacular and most people have no idea what it actually means. Some mistakenly think that it's synonymous with heterosexuality; it’s not.
I thought it was time to write about it, because whether or not you ever bring the word into your everyday vocabulary, it’s meaningful to understand the concept and how it impacts you. It’s also really helpful if you want to act as an ally to people who are LGBTQI, polyamorous, kinky, or other folks who fall outside of dominant cultural norms.
So what is heteronormativity? Heteronormativity promotes sex, gender and relationship norms. Within these norms, it's assumed that everyone is a man or a woman who will have relationships with someone of the "opposite sex" and play assumed sexual/relational roles.
Society treats these roles and genders as binary, meaning that most people view them as two opposing, distinct genders, rather than seeing gender as a spectrum with many possibilities. We assume men have "masculinity" and women have "femininity."
Heteronormativity normalizes male-female attraction. It's assumed that heterosexuality, monogamy and a host of other sexual norms are central and “normal” for all. Anything that deviates from that is potentially pathologized and marginalized, or “othered.” As in, “Oh wow, you're so different.”
Aligning sex, gender and sexuality with gender roles and relationship expectations is a heteronormative view. Race and class are also part of the idea of heteronormativity, furthering the idea that there's a white middle-class center and everything else deviates from that central norm.
Heteronormativity idealizes a very specific sexuality and social norms that support it. Here are some examples of heteronormativity:
- Making comments to a child that one day they will marry someone of the “opposite” sex.
- The phrase “the opposite sex,” since it divides gender into a male/female binary instead of seeing it as a spectrum that can include genderqueer, trans people, and other gender non-conforming folks.
- Asking a woman if she has a boyfriend or wants to get married, and if not, questioning why.
- Assuming that men play dominant sexual roles, meaning that men are the sexual initiators and women are the sexual gatekeepers.
- Assuming people are monogamous.
- Promoting the idea that women are “feminine” and men are “masculine,” using stereotypes for what masculinity and femininity mean.
- Assuming that serious relationships will lead to monogamous marriage and minimizing other forms of intimate relationship.
- Assuming women will bear children, and in the context of a heterosexual monogamous marriage.
Heteronormativity supports a rigid idea of sexuality, relationships and sexual expression, and it leaves a lot of people out. Within the debate for marriage equality, society promotes a kind of heteronormativity where it removed sex from the debate and “same-sex” or queer couples who want marriage rights were white-washed into a shiny example of how we could assimilate into dominant culture.
If we remove the notion that we actually have sex with each other, we are presentable or palatable for the masses. This desexualization is sex-negative and harmful to all of us.
Now, we're asking, what about polyamorous unions, or what about heterosexuals who choose not to marry? Are those relationships deemed less-than, and will rights shift to only those who do marry? Will we see “domestic partner” benefits erode? Not everyone wants to marry. It’s a heteronormative construct to assume we all do.
Offering social currency and financial breaks to people who marry and people who have children is also heteronormative. For instance, why should single people pay more taxes? And why should non-parents pay more in taxes when they tax healthcare and social service systems less? The system is heterosexist. It assumes heterosexuality, and it's set up to reward it.
It also rewards procreation and diminishes other kinds of sexual expression. Upon hearing my identity, people often ask me what “queer” means. One of my close friends wrote about how when she came out as queer in the 90s, it was about sex and about talking openly and unabashedly about sex. Queer can mean different things to different people, but it isn't synonymous with being gay or lesbian.
I like David Halperin’s early definition: “Queer is, by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Therefore, to acknowledge queerness is not simply to include LGBT rights, but to challenge heteronormativity in all of its manifestations.
For me, it's always been living outside of a dominant norm and being fully who I am as a sexual being, as a woman who plays with her gender, as a person who's attracted to people of different genders, as a poly person and as a kinky person.
Heteronormativity doesn’t make room for those things. I'm queer and that means many things to me. It's a political identity.
If you're up for creating a more inclusive world, challenge heteronormativity. Let’s stop all the assumptions we make about sex, gender and relationships, and stop privileging the narrow expression of sexuality that supports homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and heterosexism. Racism is also woven into these narrow sexual norms.
It will make a better world for all of us and make room for the multiple expressions of sexuality and intimacy that acknowledge sexuality as the dynamic, fantastic, powerful part of us that it truly is.
Challenging heteronormativity doesn't mean being heterosexual, married or "vanilla" is somehow negative; It means that those are just expressions among many and that all of them are equally valid.