Valentines 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.
Recently 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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.