Understanding Heteronormativity

What it is and why it sucks (and not in a good way)

Anything wrong with this picture? No? Keep reading…

Certain buzzwords have come into vogue in recent years, making their way from research studies and university lecture halls into everyday parlance. Admittedly, it’s mainly been ‘woke’ individuals who use these words correctly and contextually. However, it’s time that all of us start understanding certain words and the concepts attached to them.

It’s even more important to understand how these ideas filter into our everyday lives: how we consciously — or more frequently inadvertently and subconsciously — bring concepts such as heteronormativity to life without realizing their full, damaging extent.

So what exactly is heteronormativity? How does it differ from something like homophobia?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:

Of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.

However, this definition is rather limited and tends to focus specifically on the sexuality component of heteronormativity. This makes intuitive sense as the word seems to refer to a difference in heterosexuality vs. homosexuality, implying that heterosexuality is in some way superior or normal. In reality, heteronormativity’s reach goes far beyond sexuality alone. An expanded definition from scholarly literature gives us a more well-rounded understanding and starts to unpack the idea further:

Ranging from organizational to interpersonal spheres, the presumptions that there are only two sexes; that it is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ for people of different sexes to be attracted to one another; that these attractions may be publicly displayed and celebrated; that social institutions such as marriage and the family are appropriately organized around different-sex pairings; that same-sex couples are (if not ‘deviant’) a ‘variation on’ or an ‘alternative to’ the heterosexual couple. Heteronormativity refers, in sum, to the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is produced as a natural, unproblematic, taken-for-granted, ordinary phenomenon.

Using this expanded definition, we see that heteronormativity affects diverse facets of our everyday experience. Heterosexuality becomes not only a form of sexual expression but also the foundation upon which societies are built, thereby coloring all aspects of life.

Any deviation or challenge to this foundation is either seen as pathological and unnatural or at the very least, an acceptable variation that is not deemed exactly equal to heterosexuality.

In the most extreme cases, certain societies have laws expressly prohibiting forms of homosexual contact with consequent punishment, which could extend to a death penalty. Death by stoning or other equally gruesome methods are potential fates for homoseuality in certain countries. Thus, the perceived aberration of homosexuality (and deviation from what is seen as the norm—heterosexuality) is punished in the most extreme manner possible.

How about this one?

However, the form of heteronormativity I’d like to focus on here is much subtler in nature: it’s the type of taken-for-granted assumptions many of us have rummaging around somewhere in our thoughts about what is acceptable and what is not; what we think of as ‘normal’. It is pervasive and may be more dangerous than overt heteronormativity in that it appears to be innocent and is not as easy to identify.

This type of heteronormativity is most often seen in contexts where homosexuality may be accepted, even protected under the law, and where LGBTQ individuals have rights and privileges similar to those of straight people — all the ingredients for equality. At least on the surface that is.

These heteronormative assumptions lurk deep within our subconscious and mean that true equality remains largely inaccessible.

And it affects all of us: gay and straight, liberal and conservative, religious or not. Only those who are aware of its effects and insidious nature are able to gain some freedom of thought. This quotidian heteronormativity is more challenging to detect because we are desensitized to it; this is precisely why it poses such a great danger.

As queer scholar Celia Kitzinger states:

While LGBT activists are campaigning against blatant oppression and overt discrimination, at the same time all around us a heteronormative social fabric is unobtrusively rewoven, thread by thread, persistently, without fuss or fanfare, without oppressive intent or conscious design.

Going back to the earlier question: how does heteronormativity differ from homophobia? They are definitely related: homophobia is heteronormativity’s more outspoken, boisterous and occasionally aggressive cousin.

Homophobia tends to be more active and conscious: it manifests as fear, hatred or discomfort around LGBTQ individuals. Most people who are homophobic tend to be aware of it even if they will not openly admit this to others. All of the LGBTQ-related phobias, such as homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, are intimately linked to heteronormativity. In this sense, heteronormativity underlies these more outward expressions of prejudice or discrimination. Subtler forms of homophobia may be more accurately captured under heteronormativity.

So how do these heteronormative assumptions operate and why are they so dangerous? Some readers may have this refrain in their minds at this point:

Straight people do make up the majority of the population, so would it be that bad to make assumptions based on this?
LGBTQ individuals are the minority; why do we need to focus on changing our thought patterns to suit them?’

There are two very important reasons why combatting heteronormativity is crucial…

The first is that where you stand on an issue such as this (whether you’re gay, straight or somewhere in the middle) is reflective of how much you value true equality and social justice. Racism, sexism and all other social ills do not simply disappear of their own accord over time without focused awareness and action.

The second reason is that heteronormativity affects all of us negatively, regardless of our sexuality. Yes, it may be true that life is easier if you accord with heterosexist norms. But that does not mean it is better; it is merely lived in an unexamined and unquestioned manner.

Heterosexism’s privileged position needs to be challenged for these reasons.

Seeing a pattern?

Becoming more alert to the myriad ways in which heterosexism operates in daily life may not always be as easy as it seems.

There are the obvious heterosexist pitfalls:

  • automatically assuming a child has a ‘mom’ and a ‘dad’,
  • asking a woman about her ‘husband’,
  • not questioning depictions of families or couples in advertising,
  • showing slight shock when you learn that an individual you believed to be straight is actually gay and so forth.

But there are also the much subtler forms of heterosexism that might be harder to distinguish.

I recently had this conversation with a very progressive and socially-aware gay friend about a guy we had met earlier that day:

Me: I thought Zach was quite cute actually. I suspect he might be gay.
Friend: He’s definitely not gay. What makes you think that?
Me: Hmm, not too sure. Nothing in particular. I just think he could possibly be gay.
Friend: No, no. That’s just wishful thinking. No way he’s gay.

Zach is typically masculine in appearance and demeanor (even typing that makes me shudder but it’s important to mention in this instance). He also happened to be in a position of power that is traditionally associated with males. Was this why my friend thought he couldn’t possibly be gay?

This seems like quite an innocent everyday exchange. However, going beneath the surface in this instance is quite revealing. Considering that my friend is gay and rather open-minded when it comes to most topics, it’s almost inconceivable to assume that he would be swayed by heterosexist ideals. However, this short exchange reveals that he could not possibly accept that Zach was gay.

This makes no logical sense unless we are to believe that sexuality is immediately and always discernable based on specific traits alone. Equally, I could not explain why I thought he might be gay; however, my assertion in this instance at least entertained the notion that disparate sexualities exist and therefore they could be a possibility in any given situation.

The assumption here is that an individual is gay or straight based on typical masculine or feminine qualities.

The heteronormative nature of this exchange becomes more transparent if you substitute ‘straight’ for ‘gay’ in this instance. This type of heteronormativity comes up anytime you think an individual could not have an alternative sexuality because of reason X, as though this were not within the realm of possibility. He’s a boxer so he couldn’t be gay, she’s so feminine no way she’s lesbian… And on and on.

While these may be fairly obvious heteronormative examples that are quite easy to debunk by providing proof of the gay boxer, this type of thinking is incredibly pervasive and powerful and informs much of our thinking.


Another dangerous aspect of heterosexism is when it operates in individuals and communities that you would think have some level of immunity to it. The LGBTQ community is a prime example of this and it is where the term internalized homophobia stems from.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s nearly impossible to escape heteronormative assumptions regardless of your sexuality. When LGBTQ individuals inwardly aspire to heteronormative ideals of ‘perfection’, the following is often evident: low levels self-esteem, never feeling good enough, attempting to ‘fit in’, adopting hypermasculinity or hyperfemininity in order to be accepted and seen as ‘normal’, trying to ‘pass as straight’ and severe discomfort with outward or ‘garish’ displays of homosexuality.

That’s better! Or is this just two random dudes sitting side-by-side?

Within the LGBTQ community, this has resulted in fracturing and divisiveness: ‘straight acting’ gay men want nothing to do with effeminate men who would sully their perfect heteronormative cover by association. This often manifests in comments such as: ‘It’s great to have Pride celebrations but is it necessary to be so flamboyant? Why do they have to draw so much attention to themselves?’ or ‘This is why gay men will never be accepted, a few camp ones ruin it for everyone else.’ While this aspect of heteronormativity tends to apply more to gay men than other factions within LGBTQ spaces, it is evident across the board.

The tide has definitely begun to turn when it comes to greater general awareness of concepts such as heteronormativity. It is much more conceivable today to accept diverse sexualities, challenge preconceived notions, and entertain the immense diversity out there then it was even a few short decades ago.

However, there is still much to be done. The first three images in the post are from a search for the word ‘couple’ on Unsplash, the last one is from a search for ‘gay’; I think they speak for themselves.

If we fail to challenge our own damaging heteronormative assumptions daily, we run the risk of perpetuating them in little and large ways indefinitely.