Heteronormativity: An Introduction

**This essay was originally submitted for ‘SOC203: Introduction to Social Theory’ in September 2012 at The University of Wollongong**

Heternormativity is a concept that looks at heterosexuality as a “normative notion”. This means that heterosexuality is asserted as the ‘correct’ or ‘right’ sexual orientation to have in society. This norm has been constructed in every aspect of society, from politics, media and the workplace to our culture, arts and religions. Originally termed by Michael Warner in 1991, this concept was derived from ‘queer theory’, which explores the notion of sexuality as a social construct. Though the term was only recently coined, as shown through its connection to queer theory, it is clear that heteronormativity has had a place in society throughout history. Heteronormativity has also received critiques, as it contradicts other theories, such as the ‘queer heterosexual’ theory.

Queer theory is the notion that sexuality is not biological, but instead a social construct that has been shaped by our history and culture. This theory makes it possible to assume that there isn’t a ‘correct’ or ‘true’ basis for homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexual and so on. These labels were created to help us understand and classify why people lead different types of lifestyles. Terms such as ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’ are examples of this need to classify. In fact, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are relatively modern terms, developed from understandings of sexuality and gathered throughout history (Sullivan 2003).

It is important to look at the beginnings of different sexual orientation labels. For example, ‘sodomy’ was originally a term, derived from Britain in the 1800’s, to describe sexual acts without the purpose of recreation. These acts were considered ‘unnatural’, much the same way homosexuality is still regarded under heteronormativity, whereby it is considered a deviation of the norm. the reason for using sodomy as the term for these acts was that a label hadn’t been created in society yet. For example, a German woman by the name of Katherina Hetzeldorfer was trialled in 1477 for committing ‘acts against’ nature’, as she lived with and had a sexual relationship with, a woman. With the label ‘lesbian’ not yet socially constructed, the court was unable to name Katherina’s ‘crime’ other than an act against nature, as it was considered an ‘act’, not a sexual orientation (Sullivan 2003).

The notion of these ‘acts’ then became, as described by Foucault (1980), considered a “Personage”: an expression of an inherent identity. Author of “A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory”, Nikki Sullivan, also explained that “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (P4). This explains the shift from these ‘acts’ being viewed as ‘unnatural’ to the new idea that is was part of an individual’s nature. This, in turn, created the notion of a different sexual orientation as being possible.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was the first to use labels for sexuality. He developed the words ‘Urning’ (which would later mean homosexual) and Dioing (which would later mean heterosexual) from ancient Greek Gods connected with the sexual orientations (Sullivan 2003). When these labels were first derived, Dioning was considered the most common and natural orientation. With these labels, though there wasn’t a conceptual term for it, heterosexuals were considered the ‘norm’ and homosexuals were deemed an abnormality. Looking at the experiences and understandings of sexual orientation throughout history, it is possible to understand where heteronormativity derived from, and how it has maintained roots in society today (Sullivan 2003).

A strong aspect of heteronormativity today is the focus society has around sexual orientation when it comes to homosexuality. Joanne Martin, a professor specialising in cultures of organisation, has developed a theory that we assume we’re in a sexually neutral society, rather than considering we live in one that is dominated by heterosexuals (Martin 1992). This is because homosexuality is all too commonly silenced and because of this, sexual orientation is irrelevant for heterosexuals but a defining point for homosexuals. For example, in the mainstream media, there are a dominant number of depicted heterosexual relationships, reinforcing the notion that they are the norm. on the other hand, depictions of homosexuals within the media are often stereotyped and frames them as a collective group as ‘flamboyant’, expressing a love for fashion and as having feminine characteristics. Lesbians are also stereotyped to have masculine qualities, such as having a preference for sports (Blinkley & Stossel 2006). Placing homosexuals into stereotypes only reinforces their marginalisation within society and allows for the consciousness around their sexual orientation. This same consciousness doesn’t seem to exist when it comes to heterosexuals, which further establishes heterosexuality as the ‘norm’.

Even the term ‘coming out of the closet’ feeds into heteronormativity as it “entails acknowledging the centrality of heterosexuality” (Spargo, “Foucault and Queer Theory” 1999). That is to say, everyone is assumed to be heterosexual until they declare otherwise. This not only reinforces heterosexuality as the dominant orientation, but also further marginalises those who haven’t ‘outed themselves’ (Spargo 1999).

Focusing on the workplace, “Heteronormativity and Silenced Sexualities at work” author Reingarde explains that “coping strategies” for those who struggle to ‘come out’, in order to manage their heternormative world. They would withhold all personal information about themselves, talk about their friends “gender-neutrally”, or invent a “heterosexual life” (Reingarde 2010). This once again reinforces the notion of heterosexuality as the dominant sexual orientation.

These “coping strategies” can be shown through an interview involving the lives of three different gay men, all of who believed homosexuality was wrong because of their Christian upbringings (Schaffer 2010). Haydn, 29, is a homosexual man currently living with his wife and two daughters as he tries to assimilate the ‘normal’ heterosexual life. He is hoping to reach a point where he will be able to forgo his attraction to men, stating that he feels “gay sex acts are sinful” (Schaffer, Hungry Beast, 2010). In fact, Haydn turned to religion as he thought it could “save him” (Schaffer 2010).

Alternatively, Anthony, 59, denied his sexual orientation until he turned 40, fell in love with a man, and was “forced to face reality” (Hungry Beast 2010). Living as a preacher for 22 years, Anthony “tried everything to be heterosexual” (Hungry Beast 2010). This included investing in a marriage for 20 years, turning to god, counselling and even an exorcism.

Ant Menchetti, 33, now lives with his boyfriend with whom he is in a long-term relationship. When he was younger, Ant was sent to ‘gay conversion camp’ as he “didn’t feel comfortable being gay” (Hungry Beast 2010) and his parents didn’t want their son to be gay. In this camp, Ant was given a list of causes for his homosexuality; a severed bond between father and son being the core reason (Schaffer 2010). The father and son ‘cause’ was a belief also shared by Haydn as a reason for his homosexuality. This notion of a ‘cause’ further establishes homosexuality as a deviance from the norm and adds negative connotations towards being gay.

These three men are example of heteronormativity within society, as they believe they cannot be gay as it is offensive to god and is a wrongful lifestyle. Religion has helped to embed heterosexuality as the normal sexual orientation to have, right down to their foundation of procreation as the sole purpose of sexual acts. This has also infiltrated institutions within society; further alienating marginalised sexualities and maintaining heterosexuality as dominant. For example, the current laws stating marriage as something between a man and a woman; a law that forbids a gay couple to have their relationship lawfully recognised is a strong indication of homosexuality as beneath or unequal to, heterosexuality (Syvret 2010). This lack of equality is the direct result of a heterosexual dominant society.

A critique of heteronormativity ties in with the ‘queer heterosexual’ theory, which is a concept linked to feminism that allows for men and women to act out of their gender types. It also revolves around the notion of sexual orientations being more than just homosexual or heterosexual. The ‘queer heterosexual’ theory explores the concept of heterosexuals mixing with homosexual behaviours and/ or lifestyles and vice versa. Therefore, those involved with this theory are critical of heteronormativity as a concept as it groups heterosexuals and homosexuals as polar opposites (Kitzinger; Wilkinson 1994).

Heteronormativity is a term used to show how heterosexuality as a ‘norm’ creates other sexual orientations to be considered as deviant. Stemmed from the queer theory, heteronormativity is a social construction, as are the sexual orientations involved. As shown by the case study involving three separate men, media stereotypes and institutions excluding homosexuals, it is clear that this term is extremely relevant in today’s society. There are also critics of heteronormativity theory, arguing that is defines sexual orientations as either homosexual or heterosexual and excludes the possibility of both coexisting.

References:

 

Spargo T, 1999, Foucault and Queer Theory, Postmodern Encounters, available at: http://monoskop.org/images/b/bb/Spargo_Tamsin_Foucault_and_Queer_theory_2000.pdf

 

 

Sullivan N, 2003, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory, NYU Press. Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0b95f96qd8kC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=%E2%80%9CA+Critical+Introduction+to+Queer+Theory%E2%80%9D,+Nikki+Sullivan&ots=Nj8D1jVC6S&sig=TsMV7A2sFk0vFNtvnJXgQrfGLaA#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CA%20Critical%20Introduction%20to%20Queer%20Theory%E2%80%9D%2C%20Nikki%20Sullivan&f=false

 

Reingarde J, 2010, Heteronormativity and Silenced Sexualities at Work, Vytautas Magnus University, 1 (1), available at:

http://vddb.library.lt/fedora/get/LT-eLABa-0001:J.04~2010~ISSN_2029-4573.N_1_1.PG_83-96/DS.002.1.01.ARTIC

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About intersectionalalien

Hi hello people of earth/space/cyberspace, intersectional alien here. I’m still trying to figure out my place on this earth. I like intersectional feminism, feminism in popular culture, LGBTQ+, refugee rights, veganism, mental health, nihilism, travelling, unlearning institutional conditioning, good tunes and consuming and creating stories.
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One Response to Heteronormativity: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Culture of Proof and LGBTQ+ refugees | charmaine lily

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