The norms that this term describes might be overt, covert, or implied. Those who identify and criticize heteronormativity say that it distorts discourse by stigmatizing some forms of sexuality and gender, and makes certain types of self-expression more difficult. Heteronormativity alludes to the idea that everyone a person sees in society is assumed to be a heterosexual, as this is the “normal” way in which people view each other. Individuals not considered heteronormative include homosexuals, bisexuals, intersex individuals, people who are transgender, and people who are married to more than one partner such as polyamorists.
In the article “Charting a Path Through the ‘Desert of Nothing,’” authors Karen Lovaas and Mercilee M. Jenkins describe a world in which heteronormativity prevails, “Heteronormativity assumes, for example, that there are two sexes and therefore two genders (Lovaas and Jenkins 98).”
This alludes to the idea that there is no room for anything in-between genders and each gender is concretely defined. “Heteronormativity then requires that all discussions of gendered identity and opportunity be framed strictly in terms of this dichotomy, forcing gendered actors to be labeled as either ‘women’ or ‘men,’ regardless of the identification that the actors might give themselves (Lovaas and Jenkins 98).”
Cathy J. Cohen defines heteronormativity as the practices and institutions "that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and 'natural' within society". Her work emphasizes the importance of sexuality as implicated in broader structures of power, intersecting with and inseparable from race, gender, and class oppression. She points to the examples of single mothers on welfare (particularly women of color) and sex workers, who may be heterosexual, but are not heteronormative, and thus not perceived as "normal, moral, or worthy of state support" or legitimation.
Heteronormativity has been used in the exploration and critique of the traditional norms of sex, gender identity, gender roles and sexuality, and of the social implications of those institutions. It is descriptive of a binary system of categorization that directly links social behavior and self-identity with one's genitalia. That is to say (among other things) that, because there are strictly defined concepts of maleness and femaleness, there are similarly expected behaviors for both males and females.
Originally conceived to describe the norms against which non-heterosexuals struggle, it quickly became incorporated into both the gender and the transgender debate. It is also often used in postmodernist and feminist debates. Those who use this concept frequently point to the difficulty posed to those who hold a dichotomous view of sexuality by the presence of clear exceptions -- from freemartins in the bovine world to intersexual human beings with the sexual characteristics of both sexes. These exceptions are taken as direct evidence that neither sex nor gender are concepts that can be reduced to an either/or proposition.
In a heteronormative society, the binary choice of male and female for one's gender identity is viewed as leading to a lack of possible choice about one's gender role and sexual identity. Also, included in the norms established by society for both genders is the requirement that the individuals should feel and express desire only for partners of the opposite sex. In the work of Eve Sedgwick, for example, this heteronormative pairing is viewed as defining sexual orientation exclusively in terms of the sex and gender of the person one chooses to have sex with, ignoring other preferences one might have about sex.
Despite the views of many queer theorists some view heteronormativity as beneficial for society. National Review contributer Maggie Gallagher has argued that social structures deemed heteronormative in queer theory are optimal for the raising of children.
Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville is in agreement with this perspective. In her view non-heteronormative views of marriage and familial relations would be unnatural as they would disconnect parenthood from its biological basis.
Heteronormativity is often strongly associated with (and sometimes even confused with) patriarchy. However, a patriarchal system is not necessarily restricted to a binary gender system; it merely privileges the masculine gender over all others, regardless of the number of others.
Still, heteronormativity is often seen as one of the pillars of a patriarchal society: the traditional role of men is reinforced and perpetuated through heteronormative mores, rules, and even laws that distinguish between individuals based on their apparent sex or their refusal to conform to the gender roles that are considered normal to their society. Consequently, feminism can be seen as concerned with fighting heteronormativity and the prescriptions it is seen to have for women.
The family structures observed today can often vary significantly from what was typical in the 1950s. Some might argue that heteronormativity is a term of the past due to our ever-changing world and how in and outside of the media people are living with and experiencing a different type of family, one that is based outside of the norms of a nuclear family. According to Amy Benfer’s article, “The Nuclear Family Takes a Hit,” she specifies how our present society is beginning to shift from the past. “Everything has changed: In the past three decades the rates of divorce, single parenting and cohabitation have risen precipitously (Benfer).” Modern families may have single-parent headed families caused by divorce or separation, families who have two parents who are not married but have kids, or families with same-sexed parents. With the evolution of families, a couple does not have to be strictly a male or female in a relationship in order to have a child. With advances such as artificial insemination, surrogate mothers, adoption, etc, many families do not have to be formed by the heteronormative biological union of a male and a female in order to have a child. Due to this, the meaning of heteronormativity and family change more into an outlook of the future. Since more and more heterosexual people are refusing to or are not able to stay together in a marriage and more and more homosexuals are fighting for their right to be married, there could be a drastic change in what we consider to be a “heteronormative family.”
In the present, heteronormative society, women are more able to go to work along side her male counterparts. It is normal for a woman to marry a man and have children with him and take some time off in order to raise her children. A heteronormative male in today’s society still makes most of the money, but also helps out a lot more with taking care of the children. The gap between male and female roles is starting to diminish, but there still is some separation between what is more normal for each gender.
When a standard, such as heteronormativity, is set, people may feel isolated if the idea of “normal” is not what they practice. As far as those who do not assimilate with the heteronormative view, they may feel that their status is put on the line. If a gay man or lesbian woman is in a relationship with another person, society usually refers to him or her as a lover or a life partner, and not a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a husband or wife. Even while society understands that everyone is not a heterosexual, it still has trouble identifying what is proper with non-heterosexuals. It is unnatural in American society for a male to speak of a male friend as a boyfriend for the fear of one thinking he is gay, although for females it is more natural for them to refer to a female friend as a girlfriend without any connotation of her being a lesbian. While some are still uncomfortable with non-heterosexual’s lifestyles, some are beginning to realize the hardship non-heterosexuals suffer in a heterosexual-driven society. With the ever-changing world, society has become more sensitive to non-heteronormative ways of life and understands how painful it can be for a person who is not heterosexual to live in this society. It can be a very harmful thing and might also lead to certain hate crimes and an imminent feeling of not belonging. Yolanda Dreyer quotes this harm; “Heterosexism leads to prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence. It is driven by fear and hatred (Dreyer 5).”
Mainstream American media has recently produced entertainment that is not directly related to heterosexuals. The 2005 movie, Brokeback Mountain shared an atypical love story in a heteronormative culture. Not a story of stereotypical feminine gay men, but a story of two men who fell in love with each other and felt that they had to keep it a secret in order to uphold their reputations. Boxofficemojo.com claims Brokeback Mountain was at the top of “the most impressive box office performances of 2005.” The site’s authors Brandon Gray wrote, “More than just a movie of the moment, this picture resonated after posting the biggest per theater average for a live action movie on record (Gray),”.
Intersex people have biological characteristics which are ambiguously either male or female. If such a condition is detected, intersex people are almost always assigned a gender shortly after birth. Surgery (usually involving modification to the genitalia) is often performed to produce an unambiguously male or female body, with the parents', not the individual's, consent. The child is then usually raised and enculturated as a member of the assigned gender, which may or may not match their gender identity throughout life or some remaining sex characteristics (for example, genes or internal sex organs).
Some individuals who have been subjected to these interventions have objected that, had they been consulted at an age when they were able to give informed consent, and then they would have declined these surgical and social interventions.
Gender theorists argue that gender assignment to intersex individuals is a clear case of heteronormativity, in which biological reality is actually denied in order to maintain a binary set of sexes and genders.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual behavior is commonly disapproved of in many societies, both socially and legally. Many argue that this is because it challenges the heteronormative position that sexual relations exist primarily for reproductive means. If sex cannot be suppressed so far as to at least disappear from the public view, then the notion is said to be encouraged that gay men are not really "men", but have a strong female component (and vice versa), or that in a non-heterosexual partnership there is always a "male" (active) and a "female" (passive) partner. This has in some cases gone so far that homosexuals were encouraged (in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s) or even forced (in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s) to undergo sex change operation to "fix" their sex or gender.
Certain restrictions on the ability of transgender people to obtain gender-related medical treatment have been blamed on heteronormativity. (See the article on transsexualism.) In medical communities with these restrictions, patients have the option of either suppressing transsexual behavior and conforming to the norms of their birth sex (which may be necessary to avoid social stigma or even violence), or adhering strictly to the norms of their "new" sex in order to qualify for sex reassignment surgery and hormonal treatments -- if any treatment is offered at all. These norms might include dress and mannerisms, choice of occupation, choice of hobbies, and the gender of one's mate (heterosexuality required). (For example, transwomen might be expected to trade a "masculine" job for a more "feminine" one -- e.g. become a secretary instead of a lawyer.) Attempts to achieve an ambiguous or "alternative" gender identity would not be supported or allowed. Some medical communities, especially since the 1990s, have adopted more accommodating practices, but many have not.
Many governments and official agencies have also been criticized as having heteronormative systems that classify people into "male" and "female" genders in problematic ways. Different jurisdictions use different definitions of gender, including by genitalia, DNA, hormone levels (including some official sports bodies), or birth sex (which means one's gender cannot ever be officially changed). Sometimes sex reassignment surgery is a requirement for an official gender change, and often "male" and "female" are the only choices available, even for intersex and transgender people. Because most governments only allow heterosexual marriages, official gender changes can have implications for related rights and privileges, such as child custody, inheritance, and medical decision-making.
However, this criticism represents a view that those who describe current social structures as heteronormative wish to undermine the fundamental assumption that sex and gender are naturally dichotomous. Another concern of critics is that challenges to heteronormativity render moot any justifications for heteronormative social structures, such as the appeal to natural law or certain religious notions. Such people may actually consider departures from the heteronormative structure (e.g., LGBTI -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) as abnormal, diseased, or immoral. Therefore, when social structures are described or criticized as being heteronormative, this may be seen as a challenge not only to the structures themselves, but to the underlying religious and philosophical justifications for the normality and the appropriateness of those structures.
Responses from those with heteronormative attitudes to individuals and groups who depart from heteronormative experience may range from tolerance, pity, and shunning to attempts to help members of these groups gain normalcy through compassionate, forceful, or violent means. Events which have brought the idea of heteronormativity more into the foreground of social discourse, such as the Jada Pinkett Smith speech, do not necessarily represent such treatment. Ms. Pinkett Smith's comments were not necessarily homophobic in that they did not represent active criticism of LGBTI people. However, her comments were heteronormative in that they made the assumption that normal relationships are only those which occur between a man and a woman. Critics that describe her speech as heteronormative stated, "Our position is that the comments weren’t homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships.
Drifting Bodies and Flooded Spaces: Visualizing the Invisibility of Heteronormativity in Tsai Ming-Liang's the River
Sep 22, 2008; I will continue to be interested in people who are blue-collar, marginalized and subjugated, and document their lives. --Tsai...