The Cult of Heteronormativity

valentine-gift-valentines-day-giftsValentines day is the ultimate holiday for romantic stereotypes; which is why now, more than ever, its time for us to start considering the effects of living in a heteronormative society. As a cisgender woman, dating someone of the opposite gender it is easy for me to fall into the trap of ignoring how cookie-cutter our society has become. However, this is the Exactly the reason why it is important for me to be aware of my privilege, and work to share that privileged with others.

What is heteronormativity?

Turn  on the TV, look in a magazine, read a newspaper, go out and by a book, look at the billboards on the street.. as you do this look for relationships, of the romantic sort, and note what they’re made up of. How many of those relationships are between two people of the same sex? If you found even two, I’d be incredibly surprised. Even more importantly, how many of the gay relationships that you saw were presented as something typical, rather than serving the purpose of proving a point, or acting as the “token gay couple”? Not many, I’d be willing to bet. In fact, even single gay or lesbian characters are a rarity on television these days.

blog_tvRecently I watched a documentary, called Color Adjustment, that dealt with the marginalization of African Americans in the prime time media (a marginalization that still occurs, on a lesser scale than it once did, to this day.) Heteronormative marginalization is similar to the marginalization in this documentary, in the sense that most television programs do not include gay characters, or represent them in a realistic and un-stereotyped way when they do bother to include them.

In terms of pure statistics:

[Gay and bisexual] characters accounted for 2.6 percent of all the regular characters in TV series, up from 1.1 percent last year and 1.3 percent in 2006, according to the study, released Monday.

There were no lesbians among the regular characters, according to GLAAD. But there are five bisexual women, including the characters of Callie Torres and Erica Hahn on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

This issue extends far beyond the media, however; it seeps into our daily lives, be it conciously or subconsciously. By adopting a heternormative outlook on life we cast a whole group of people into the category of “other” which is deeply upsetting and highly problematic.

Why does this need to change? What problems does it cause?

Since gay and lesbian men and women do not fit the mold of this heternormative society, they are often overlooked or even feared by those who view them as something foreign and other; people who are rarely represented, or given a voice in mainstream society.

Heteronormativity is a large amount of the reason behind prejudice against homosexual individuals. Fear of the unknown is natural in most people; what this exculsion of gay portrayals in the media does is encourage many people to remain ignorant to homosexuality, it keeps the homosexual lifestyle an “unknown” and therefore, something to be feared. This encourages stereotyping, homophobia, and unwarranted hatred.

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In addition, the focus on heteronormative programming leaves many gay and lesbian individuals feeling marginalized and outcasted by society. Take a second, and just imagine turning on the television and having to search and search to maybe see a single character that you could identify with in terms of sexuality,  which is a vital of one’s personal identity. As I have said before, I am privileged enough to have never had that experience, but I can’t imagine it would feel good at all.

This sociological outcasting of the homosexual lifestyle can cause a great deal of unnecessary stress for individuals who are struggling to define their own sexual identity. In a society where being straight is considered the norm, it can be scary to come out to friends, family, and the world as someone who is not straight, who does not adhere to the norm. Its obvious that homosexuality is not something to be ashamed of, or something bad… if we can acknowledge this then why can’t we begin to adapt our society and our thinking to include all sexual identities (straight, gay, bisexual, and so on) into the norm. It certainly would make it a lot simpler for many people to embrace who they are!

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Heteronormativity also reinforces stereotypes about gay and lesbian individuals, since the typical homosexual character within the media is usually portrayed in a way that falls right in line with them. Take Will and Grace* or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy for example, both are positive in the sense that they help bring homosexuality into the mainstream, but negative since they do so in a stereotypical way that harms those who are gay. For instance, thanks in part to Queer Eye, most people assume that gay men are innately stylish and fashionable when, in reality, an interest in style has nothing to do with one’s sexual preferences.

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How can I support this change?

Tune in to shows that present fair portrayals of gay and lesbian characters, especially shows that do not make the storyline revolve around their sexual preferences and allow these characters to have other storylines and personality traits! This article talks about a few of those shows as well as the struggle that activists groups go through to get more representation of homosexuality in the media.The more viewers they get the more likely they will be to stay on the air and continue to make progress in this issue.

TV Gay Characters

I’m happy to see one of my favorite shows, House, mentioned on the merits of  Thirteen who, in addition to being bisexual, is a talented doctor and deals with many complex issues through out the show.

Write to the television stations (especially major ones like ABC, NBC, Fox, etc.)  and commend them on the progress they have made so far, while encouraging them to go farther yet and include more non-stereotyped homosexual characters on their shows, doing the same things heterosexual characters do including in engaging in relationships, platonic friendships, having sex, having families… it’s important to recognize how much more work needs to be done, in addition to commending progress.

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Be conscious of heteronormative thinking in your own life. Don’t assume everyone is straight, for instance, when you first meet them and avoid employing  mental “tools” like gaydar to categorize people – its time we realize that there are no traits that indicate sexual preference aside from, dating and engaging in sexual activity with one of the two sexes.

Finally, please stop saying “That’s so gay” and start calling out people’s prejudice when they do say it. It may not seem like a big deal but small, negative associations that phrases like “that’s so gay” create can be really offensive to those who are gay, and generally take away from the struggle to create more tolerance worldwide.

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* I’ve seen interesting critiques of Will and Grace, by the way, that comment on the platonic paring of Will and Grace as well as Jack and Karen and how that paring subconsciously drives home the fact that, gay or straight, none of them are happy without a “partner” of the opposite sex. I doubt this was a message the producers and writers intended to portray, but I find this a highly valid and interesting point nonetheless.

This article was very hard for me to write, and I really wish I had another opinion I could add to this – the voice of someone who has actually experienced the pitfalls of heteronormativity in their own life. I feel like this is such an important issue, and I really hope I did it justice… but please feel free to add your own voice in the comments or even write up a companion piece that I can run if you have something else to say… as always, I’ll credit you however you’d like if you write something up to be posted.

14 thoughts on “The Cult of Heteronormativity

  1. I just came across this article. Well written. I completely understand and agree with you. I’m hoping for the day when lesbian primetime tv characters are commonplace.

  2. I can’t believe there has only been one other comment on this article besides mine!
    I couldn’t agree with you more! Heteronormativity consumes our daily lives. Our culture is completely tunnel-minded and will always be if we don’t start eliminating our unconscious bias views. I certainly never considered heteronormativity to be an issue until I took the time to look around and realize I live in a culturally bias bubble. How can anyone who has been placed in the “other” category feel comfortable fitting in when our entire society is designed for heterosexual couples?
    Those who are unaffected by our cultural norm do not take the time to make any changes that will allow our cultural to mold into a more accepting environment. We are far from where we should be but hopefully one day everyone (lesbian, gay, transgender, straight, etc) can live in an unprejudiced society.
    Thank you for publishing your views on how morally wrong heteronormativity is.

  3. I agree with everything you have said, except couldnt help but notice, you were very adiment that you are NOT gay and have NEVER been gay, you mentioned it at least 2 times! Maybe it would have been more comforting for a reader to not establish your sexuality? It could come across slightly contradictory to what you are saying. Just a thought. Good points though.

  4. I understand your concern and, actually, its fairly ironic because in the years since I have written this I have actually come out as queer (in real life and on this blog).

    I do feel that it is important for me to point out in this piece that I am a cisgender woman dating a cisgender man, however, because my privilege does affect my ability to be able to talk about this issue. Since I did not grow up strongly identifying as queer the heteronormativity in our society didn’t hurt me growing up in the same way that it has hurt other people in the queer community.

    I don’t see it as contradictory for me to identify I suppose, because the statement that I intend to make with that identification is simply that I accept others for who they are, just as I am accepted for who I am. Plus, I do think it is important to keep the privilege that I have in mind during this piece, because it can color my understanding of things… I put it in here mostly because I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to invite the opinion of people who have been affected more by heteronormativity.

    Does that clear things up at all?

  5. I am absolutely sick of hetronormative society. Every advert on tv which has no need to sell straight sexuality does. I am not repulsed by it just really frustrated with the constant day to day battle of having it in my face. And having to ‘prove’ myself as a lesbian women within society. You hear alot of people say ‘ I dont mind gay people i just dont want it shoved in my face’ Well how the hell do you think the lgbt community feels about hetrosexuals . Get off my TV stop shoving your sexuality in my face. hetronormative society should be abolished. FACT.

    • Well said! 8D I’m sick of people telling me that they “tolerate” my “lifestyle choices”. There is nothing to “tolerate,” I’m gay, I’ll be getting a boyfriend/husband instead of a girlfriend/wife… GET OVER IT! I completely agree with you! If we have to be force fed all the hetero stuff then they should have to get over themselves and let us be! Equality is equality jerks!

  6. Nicely written! I very much agree, I’ve been trying to find a show that makes being gay completely normal and it is hard to find (even on outTV!). Their sexuality is usually shown as a plot device and it hardly ever ends in a “happily ever after” ending that heteros have. I personally would love to see more gay men just being people, not “gay” not “men” just regular people with the same issues everyone else in the world has. There have been some amazing lesbian movies that give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside but it seems like us gay men can never find our own happy ending (I’ve only found two movies that ended well). This heteronormativity has made me incredably depressed in the past and made it so I almost felt like I didn’t stand a chance at happiness and definitely didn’t deserve to… so this needs to stop.

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  10. The whole problem is though being homosexual isn’t normal at all! If it was the norm then God would’ve created us like that and it wouldn’t be considered a sin. So why should we be bring all this up on tv for our kids to see it as a norm if its not? We should be teaching them that its normal to have a mother and father.

    • Holy fuck, read a book that isn’t the Bible; I’d recommend one on grammar and following it up with a biology or neuroscience textbook. Homosexuality exists in hundreds of other species; homosexuality is 100% genetic; homosexuality was evolutionarily advantageous; we evolved out of the ocean; there were gay Apostles; “mother” and “father” are myths.

  11. It’s… not… a lifestyle, though? That term carries the connotation of choice, which being queer is not. Being vegetarian is a lifestyle, being vag-etarian is not.

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