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Heteronormativity is a term describing the marginalization of non-heterosexual lifestyles and the view that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. Instances of this include the idea that people fall into two distinct and complementary categories (male and female), that sexual and marital relations are normal only when between people of different sexes, and that each sex has certain natural roles in life. The heteronormative view is that physical sex, gender identity, and gender roles should, in any given person, align to either all-male or all-female cultural norms.[1]

The norms that this term describes might be explicit 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 when that expression violates the norm.[2] Individuals not considered heteronormative include homosexuals, bisexuals, asexuals, intersex individuals, people who are transgender, and people who are married to more than one partner such as polygamists.


[edit] Origin of term

The term was coined by Michael Warner in 1991,[3] in one of the first major works of queer theory. The concept has roots in Gayle Rubin's notion of the "sex/gender system" and Adrienne Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality.[4] In a series of articles Samuel A. Chambers has tried to theorize heteronormativity more explicitly, calling for an understanding of heteronormativity as a concept that reveals the expectations, demands, and constraints produced when heterosexuality is taken as normative within a society.[5][6]

Cathy J. Cohen defines heteronormativity as the practices and institutions "that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and 'natural' within society".[7] 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.[8]

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 dichotomous 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.[citation needed] 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.[9]

[edit] Positive views of heteronormativity

Despite the views of many LGBT theorists, some view heteronormativity as beneficial for society. Conservative commentator and National Review contributor Maggie Gallagher has argued that social structures deemed heteronormative in queer theory are optimal for the raising of children.[10]

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. [11]

[edit] The heteronormative nuclear family in the present

The family structures observed today can often vary significantly from what was typical in the 1950s. Some[who?] 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).”[12] 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 artificial insemination, surrogate mothers, and adoption, families do not have to be formed by the heteronormative biological union of a male and a female. Due to this, the meaning of heteronormativity and family change more into an outlook of the future. Since more heterosexual people are not remaining in marriage and more homosexuals are demanding marriage recognition, there could be a drastic change in what is considered a “heteronormative family.”[citation needed]

[edit] Heteronormativity in the present

In the present, heteronormative society, women are more able to go to work along side their 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.[citation needed] 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 uncomfortable with non-heterosexuals’ lifestyles, some[who?] are beginning to realize the hardship non-heterosexuals suffer in a heterosexual-driven society. Lesbians would sometimes shroud their lifestyle under the banner of Boston marriage, not discussing the sexuality in their living arrangements. 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).”[13]

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),”[14].

[edit] Social and political manifestations of heteronormativity

There are many things that are often pointed at to illustrate the concept of heteronormativity, both historically and in contemporary society. For example, the American commercials for E-harmony Internet dating website and Valtrex genital herpes medication feature only heterosexual couples.

[edit] Intersex people

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

[edit] Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people

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.[15] In some cases homosexuals were forced to undergo sex change treatments to "fix" their sex or gender: in Europe during the 20th century,[16][17] and in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.[18]

[edit] Transgender people

Transgender people often seek sex reassignment therapy, thereby violating the assumption that only unambiguous female or male bodies exist. They may not develop a gender identity that corresponds to their body; in fact, some never develop one that is plainly male or female. Often, they do not behave according to the gender role assigned to them. Some societies consider transgender behavior a crime worthy of capital punishment, including Saudi Arabia[19] and many other nations. Yet the stereotype that transgender people are not accepted in non-western nations is not entirely accurate- The Cuban and Iranian governments now both fund gender affirmation surgeries for trans people within a heterosexist model[citation needed] (i.e. only those people who will be heterosexual in their identified gender), while trans people in the United States continue to fight for medical coverage of their gender-related surgeries. In other countries, certain forms of violence against transgender people may be tacitly endorsed when prosecutors and juries refuse to investigate, prosecute, or convict those who perform the murders and beatings (currently, in some parts of North America and Europe.[20][21] Other societies have considered transgender behavior as a psychiatric illness serious enough to justify institutionalization.

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.[citation needed] These norms might include dress and mannerisms, choice of occupation, choice of hobbies, and the gender of one's mate (heterosexuality required).[citation needed] (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.[citation needed]

Many governments and official agencies have also been criticized as having heteronormative systems that classify people into "male" and "female" genders in problematic ways.[citation needed] 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).[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

[edit] Controversy about the concept of heteronormativity

Challenges to the label "heteronormative" may result from a belief that the description of a structure as heteronormative implies that the normative structure is inherently wrong. One of the most common criticisms of the concept of heteronormativity is that it is based on a purported desire to be politically correct. An example of this was a footnote to a March 11, 2005, opinion article by Scott Norvell of FOX News which included a segment on a controversy over comments made by actress Jada Pinkett Smith at Harvard University, describing said controversy as "politically correct nuttiness".[22] Such criticism implies that the use of such carefully chosen wording and terms is a form of repression of speech, and that the articulation of important concepts is prevented or hindered by politically correct regulation of speech by intellectual elites.[citation needed]

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."[23]

[edit] References

  1. ^ 1. Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. “Charting a Path through the ‘Desert of Nothing.’” Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?isbn=1412914434>.
  2. ^ 1. Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. “Charting a Path through the ‘Desert of Nothing.’” Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?isbn=1412914434>.
  3. ^ Warner, Michael (1991), "Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet". Social Text; 9 (4 [29]): 3-17
  4. ^ Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5:631-60, 1980.
  5. ^ Samuel A. Chambers, ‘Telepistemology of the Closet; Or, the Queer Politics of Six Feet Under’. Journal of American Culture 26.1: 24-41, 2003
  6. ^ Samuel A. Chambers, "Revisiting the Closet: Reading Sexuality in Six Feet Under, in Reading Six Feet Under. McCabe and Akass, eds. IB Taurus, 2005.
  7. ^ Cathy J. Cohen. 'Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queen: The radical potential of queer politics?' in Black Queer Studies. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Duke UP, 2005. 24
  8. ^ Cathy J. Cohen. 'Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queen: The radical potential of queer politics?' in Black Queer Studies. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Duke UP, 2005. 26
  9. ^ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet.
  10. ^ http://volokh.com/posts/1129824556.shtml
  11. ^ http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkecentre/events/2007events/MSomerville_InConversation.asp
  12. ^ 3. Benfer, Amy. “The Nuclear Family Takes a Hit.” Salon.com 7 June 2001. 5 May 2008 http://archive.salon.com/mwt/feature/2001/06/07/family_values/index.html.
  13. ^ Dreyer,Yolanda. “Hegemony and the Internalisation of Homophobia Caused by Heteronormativity.” Department of Practical Theology. 2007. University of Pretoria.5 May 2008 [www.up.ac.za/dspace/bitstream/2263/2741/1/Dreyer_Hegemony(2007).pdf.]
  14. ^ 7. Gray, Brandon.“‘Brokeback Mountain’ most impressive of Tepid 2005.”Box Office Mojo, LLC. 25 February 2006. 7 May 2008. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=2012&p=.htm.
  15. ^ Divergent beliefs about the nature of homosexuality
  16. ^ The Unkindest Cut | The science and ethics of castration
  17. ^ Turing, Alan (1912-1954)
  18. ^ Gays tell of mutilation by apartheid army
  19. ^ Saudis Arrest 5 Pakistani TGs
  20. ^ Remembering Our Dead
  21. ^ SPLCenter.org: 'Disposable People'
  22. ^ FOXNews.com - Heteronormative Harassment, No Ladies Allowed - Blog | Blogs | Popular Blogs | Video Blogs
  23. ^ The Harvard Crimson :: News :: Pinkett Smith’s Remarks Debated

[edit] Bibliography

  • Benfer, Amy. “The Nuclear Family Takes a Hit.” Salon.com 7 June 2001. 5 May 2008 [1].
  • Dreyer,Yolanda. “Hegemony and the Internalisation of Homophobia Caused by Heteronormativity.” Department of Practical Theology. 2007. University of Pretoria.5 May 2008 [2].
  • Gray, Brandon.“‘Brokeback Mountain’ most impressive of Tepid 2005.”Box Office Mojo, LLC. 25 February 2006. 7 May 2008. [3].
  • Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. “Charting a Path through the ‘Desert of Nothing.’” Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008 [4].
  • Peele, Thomas. Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture. 2001 Boise State University. 5 May 2008. [5].
  • The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” 7 May 2008. 7 May 2008. [6].

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

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