Where Logic Meets Love

Is Heteronormativity Always Bad?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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Is Heteronormativity Always Bad? | Faith Permeating Life

Mike asked me an interesting question the other day: "Is heteronormativity always bad?"

Then he clarified, "I mean, if something is heteronormative, does that automatically make that thing bad?"

To address this, let's first define heteronormativity, and then use a few analogies about cultural gender messages to explain why these are actually two different questions.

Heteronormativity is, essentially, the assumption that all people are straight. It's a worldview -- or messages that communicate a worldview -- in which people of less common sexual orientations (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, etc.) are non-existent. Heteronormative statements talk about all men as being attracted to women, all women as being attracted to men, and all couples as being male-female pairs.

There's a difference between homophobia and heteronormativity. Homophobia, unlike heteronormativity, acknowledges the existence of LGBQ individuals, but does so in a negative way. People speaking in a homophobic way are actively saying either hateful or blatantly false things about LGBQ people, whereas people speaking in a heteronormative way are not talking about LGBQ people at all -- they're talking as if such people did not exist.

Heteronormativity is a problem in the same way that using male words to refer to all genders is a problem. Yes, it's true that a gay man can mentally substitute "men" where a speaker talks about men being attracted to "women," just as a woman can mentally substitute "she" for the supposedly generic term "he" in a textbook. But this puts the burden on a less-privileged group to constantly adapt and reframe language created for a privileged group, when it is little burden on the speaker or writer to simply be inclusive: "women or men," "he or she."

Heteronormativity also creates confusion. When an event is advertised for couples, and all the text and pictures refer to opposite-sex couples, it's unclear whether same-sex couples would not be welcome, or if it simply didn't occur to the organizers to be more inclusive in their advertising. If a high school hosts a "girls ask the guys" dance, does that mean that girls aren't allowed to ask female dates, or that the school is just calling the dance what it's always been called without considering non-opposite-sex pairs?

Or think of another kind of event in which people are paired up, such as speed dating or ballroom dancing. A speed dating event is generally organized to have women rotate through a series of men or vice versa, yet without remembering that not everyone is straight, it might not even occur to the event organizers to either advertise the event as "for men seeking women and women seeking men" or else create a way for men seeking men or women seeking women to participate. For dance lessons, which tend to have traditional gender assignments built into the parts, I've seen instructors divide up the room into "men" and "women," but I've also had instructors direct "those who want to learn the men's part" and "those who want to learn the women's part" to opposite sides of the room.

But to go back to Mike's question: Does this mean an event or a person is bad because they are heteronormative?

Does it make that dance instructor a bad person because they divided the room into men and women, and it didn't occur to them to be inclusive of same-sex couples or, for that matter, those who don't fit the gender binary?

Let's look at another parallel to gender to answer this question.

There's something you may have heard of called the Bechdel test for fiction, most commonly applied to film. The test is an extremely simple one: A work of fiction "passes" the test if it 1) includes two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. Yet, if you take any individual movie, it is likely to fail the test.

There is probably a very good reason that the movie fails the test. And it doesn't mean that it's a bad movie by virtue of failing the test. Plenty of Oscar-winning movies fail the test, and nobody's arguing that they're bad movies. But the point of the Bechdel test is not to place a "good" or "bad" label on any particular movie.

Rather, by stepping back and looking at the larger pattern -- that a large number of movies fail what should be a very simple test -- we learn something about our cultural narratives about gender. We understand better what stories aren't being told, and we can begin to imagine the influence that might have on gender biases that are entrenched in our day-to-day interactions. We start to realize that even what we might consider "strong" female characters tend to interact primarily with men, perhaps being the token tough women on a team of police officers or superheroes. We ask what messages we might be communicating to the young girls in our culture about their relationships to men and to women.

The point of discussing heteronormativity not to slap "good" or "bad" labels on people, events, speeches, or anything else. It's to recognize that people who are not straight and couples who are not opposite-sex tend to be ignored, forgotten about, and excluded, whether purposely or not. This is most definitely a problem if we care at all about acknowledging the existence -- the personhood -- of people who may be different from us. (I say this to LGBTQ folks as well; I spend a lot of time in and around this community and sometimes it's not clear if allies are welcome at particular events, as sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. And when they are, such as when I found out I could attend the GCN conference, it's still possible to be made invisible when all allies are assumed to be parents or siblings of LGBTQ attendees.)

Most troubling is that structures of privilege are reinforced by using language that excludes or ignores an underprivileged group. Heterosexual people like myself are not only generally free from ridicule, rejection, and violence as a result of our sexual orientation, but we also live in a world in which being straight and being with an opposite-sex partner are the defaults. Thus it generally requires no adjustments, awkwardness, or misunderstandings to go about our daily business of dating, filling out forms, listening to people talk about attraction or marriage, or many other things I can't even think of because they're not obstacles for me. (For more on privilege, see the Privilege 101 page.)

As with the Bechdel test, there may be very good reasons for something to be heteronormative -- e.g., a speed dating event that would get too cumbersome accounting for a wide variety of sexual orientations -- but there also may not be. Privilege persists most often because it is unexamined, as those who have it don't need to be aware of it to go about their life. When we become aware of and understand heteronormativity, we can start questioning situations to see whether inclusiveness is possible. If you go back through my archives, you may notice that my language around relationships has become more inclusive as I've recognized that even what I say about my own marriage can be applied to more than other opposite-sex marriages. And it usually doesn't take more than a few extra words or substituting one word ("spouse") for another ("partner") to achieve that inclusiveness.

Is something "bad" by virtue of being heteronormative? Not necessarily. Is heteronormativity a problem that perpetuates privilege structures and marginalizes a group of people? Absolutely.

What's something you read, heard, or attended recently that was heteronormative? Could it have been made inclusive? How?


  1. What I find interesting is how the prominence of heteronormativity (or any other type of privilege) can change with a shift in the culture of a time/place. For example, here in New York, where the LGBT community is much more visible and mainstream, you are more likely to find those speed-dating events tailored to different orientations, or dance classes divided into groups of leaders and followers rather than men/women.

    Nevertheless, there's still a long way to go, even in NYC. One example in particular springs to mind: musical theatre. You're generally more likely to find a gay man than a straight one in this field, but most roles, especially the "leading-man" type of classic musical theatre, are of straight characters.

    1. It's encouraging to hear that some places are farther along in avoiding heteronormativity than what I've experienced. I think Whoville in general is actually more progressive than most in this way, but the conversation Mike and I had was in relation to certain campus events that are still based on heteronormative models (e.g., having female students vote for their favorite male student, auctioning off dates with groups of male students to group of female students) and because it's a Catholic campus that can make it more challenging to be more inclusive (though apparently objectifying men is OK?).

      That's an interesting point about the gay/straight ratios in musical theatre. I wonder if trying to balance that out with more gay male lead characters would then mean fewer lead female characters for the straight female actors? I guess maybe we could just work on having fewer plays and musicals that revolve around romantic relationships in the first place :)

    2. I definitely think there's enough room in theatre (at least as an art), and of late there are more LGBT characters and roles overall. However, theatre and musical theatre also are in the business of selling tickets, and even though many writers may be gay, the works that will bring in the paying audiences in the current climate still heavily tend towards the heteronormative.

    3. That's true -- people like to see themselves reflected in the characters they watch (which is both why it's important to have a diverse range of characters, and why they will continue to mostly reflect the majority). As perfectnumber628 noted on another recent post, though, using "this is what the public will pay for" can perpetuate problematic trends toward stereotyping, lack of diversity, etc.


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