The Problem With Heteronormativity
The term “Compulsory Heterosexuality” was coined by prominent Feminist poet and writer Adrienne Rich in her popular 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In the essay, she argues that heterosexuality is not “normal” or even inherent to humans and that women actually do better by having relationships with other women. She further suggests that men have benefited most from male/female relationships and have therefore created a society where, to maintain their access to women, the male/female sexual relationship is normal and natural and anything outside of this is abnormal and unnatural.
What does heteronormative mean?
Firstly, it is important to note that the need to challenge heteronormativity is not a challenge to heterosexuality.
In most places in the world, heteronormativity is the default structure in society. It's the assumption that all sexual/romantic/family relationships are between 1 man and 1 woman. We see this everywhere, from adverts, religion, education and language to even access to healthcare in some places. It also assumes that gender binary and that everyone is heterosexual.
To understand how heteronormativity is just one very narrow way of constructing a society, we have to first understand what ‘Identity’ is and how we construct it Our identity is made up of our Sexuality, Gender Expression, Gender Identity, and Sex Characteristics.
Your sexuality is who you are/are not attracted to. This is further split into sexual and romantic attraction. Sexuality is what we are sexually attracted to, people that make you aroused. Romantic is of course, who you are romantically attracted to. The two are not binary and can be mutually exclusive. Heteronormativity assumes that if you are a man you are automatically sexually and romantically attracted to women.
Your gender expression is how you present yourself to the world. This is not tied to your genitals but includes things like how you dress, talk, styling, etc. So for example, a very heteronormative idea is that men have facial hair and women do not. We know that that is not true and women have been shamed and have had their femininity questioned when they do not remove their facial hair.
How you choose to identify yourself is totally independent of your sex characteristics or how choose to express yourself. Quite simply your gender identity is who you know you are inside. No one can tell you how you feel. This may be fixed throughout your life or be fluid and/or interchangeable, for example, you may live your life as a woman, have always felt like a woman and are pretty sure you always will. Alternatively, you may feel like neither (or feel like both) male or female or even something that lies outside of that gender binary.
Your sex characteristics are the physical traits you were born with and include genitals (vulva, penis, reproductive systems), chromosomes, hormones, and secondary characteristics such as breasts and body hair. Again, these are not binary, you could have a Vulva and Testis along with breasts and an Adam’s Apple. This refers mainly to Intersex people, though the spectrum of what makes a person intersex is so broad it’s hard to estimate just how many people fall into that category.
People whose sex characteristics align with their gender expression and identity are called Cis gendered. This is part of heteronormativity, as we assume that everyone feels that their sex characteristics and gender identity align, and with that, they are also heterosexual.
How can heteronormativity be harmful to the LGBTQ+ community?
When we decide that something is ‘normal’ and/or ‘natural’, it's fair to say that anything sitting outside of those boundaries becomes unnatural and abnormal. Anything abnormal or unnatural is shunned and pushed to the outskirts of society. Basing a society on the notion that everyone fits into a cis-gendered heterosexual box will not only exclude a large portion of people but can also become harmful and even dangerous for them.
In 2021 it is still illegal to be Gay, Bi or Trans in many countries, with punishment ranging from prison time to even death. According to a YouGov poll of over 5000 LGBT+ people in the UK; “One in five LGBT people (21%) have experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Whereas two in five trans people (41%) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months ”
Whereas an article published by Forbes, there are over 350 reported murders of Trans people in 2020.
It has also been reported (School Report) that up to 45% of young trans people have missed school or lessons from fear of bullying and discrimination.
Some traditional stereotypes/deeply-held beliefs associated with heteronormativity in society
Men don’t cry or show emotion. A heteronormative society expects men to be "strong", "tough", and "a leader". Any sign of emotions is a weakness and men do not ask for help. Creating such rigid gender stereotypes has made it difficult for a lot of men to reach out for help when they are struggling, which in turn has led to a high number of male suicides. According to the World Health Organisation, suicide makes up half of all violent male deaths in the US.
Women should want to have children and are then expected to be the main caregiver to their children. As we’re understanding and dismantling older notions of what it means to be in a heterosexual relationship, society is finding that many women are choosing to have kids alone, later in life, or none at all. We’re also finding with the rising cost of living, many people are choosing to have fewer children and become a 2 income household (both partners going back to work soon after having children).
What can you do to help change this culture?
Do not assume anything about a person based on their visual representation.
Question and dissect your own bias.
Become an ally.
Acknowledge and understand your own privilege. Use it to help others if you can.
Respect and use people's gender pronouns. In fact, try asking people what their pronouns are when first meeting and sharing yours.
Keep on educating yourself by actively listening and reading. Be responsible for your own education.
Speak up or intervene when you see something wrong, though only when it’s safe to do so. If you do not feel safe you can support the victim by taking down notes, times and dates and reporting the incident to an authority (at work to your HR team or to the police).
Believe lived experiences
Find out more about What It Means To Be Heterosexual