Defining: Heteronormativity

Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.

Define It:

Heteronormativity is the normalization of heterosexuality, or sexual attraction between a man and a woman. Heteronormativity says that being heterosexual—or straight—is normal, and it should be assumed that everyone everywhere is straight unless openly stated otherwise.

Explain It:

Heteronormativity is everywhere, from literature to music, from movies to television, from art to history, to societal institutions, to everyday life. Heteronormativity dictates that heterosexual is the default sexuality. The straight default setting on our society can really start to mess with our heads.

As queer youth, we see heterosexuality on display everywhere we go. We see it in advertisements, we see it in music videos, we see it on the big screen. In order to see our own queer identity in print, art, and media, we have to actively seek it out. While representations of our LGBTQIA identities in print, art, and media are getting better and more common, they have not always been easy to find. In fact, throughout history, we have had to use coded language and coded imagery to avoid censorship and find our identities in a sea of heterosexuality.

Because being straight is seen as the norm, queer identities are often disregarded and heterosexuality is forced on children from a very young age (Hello, “Chick Magnet” and “Sorry Boys” onesies!). Age-appropriate playground behavior by young children is given heterosexual undertones by adults inappropriately sexualizing innocent actions. “Oh, little Johnny is just flirting with little Suzy.” “Is that your girlfriend, little Billy?” Many queer adults had some idea of their queer identity from a young age, but because of heteronormativity we were not able to explore or fully develop our own identities until we are much older.

Not only does heteronormativity normalize being straight, it also privileges those that identify as straight over LGBTQIA folks. Our societal institutions—marriage, education, hospitals, the legal system, and many more—give more power and rights to those who are straight. Even small things, like the way forms are written (husband/wife, mom/dad) normalize straight couples. Having to scratch out “husband” on a form and write “wife #2” is a small but painful dig at our identity and our relationships. It’s just another way to say that we’re not normal, we’re not the default, we are other.

Debunk It:

Don’t assume identities

Heteronormativity is very pervasive, and it can be hard to not assume people's identities. But we should still push against the norm and do our best to avoid assumptions. When meeting a person for the first time, we can use inclusive language to allow a person to express their own identity in their own way. For example, using “significant other” or “partner” instead of “boy/girlfriend” or “husband/wife” language is more inclusive, gender-neutral, and allows the other person to claim their own identity.

Make room for queer media

Because heterosexuality is the norm, we have to actively seek out queer media. By advocating for a wide variety of identities represented in print, art, and media, we can use our voices and our choices to push for more queer representation in mainstream media. Watching TV shows like One Day at a Time or movies like Love, Simon as a family is a small and easy way to introduce queer identities to the whole family.

Learn queer history

The LGBTQIA community has always been here. We may not have had a seat at the table before, and our identities were pushed to the margins, ignored, or covered up all together, but we have always existed. We have a rich and important history that should be studied and included in the historical narrative of the world. Check out our Pride Month series, Know Your Queer History, for a 3-part history lesson on influential LGBTQ activists, artists, and politicians throughout history!

Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!

Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer teacher in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently leads the after-school GSA at the high school where she teaches, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into amazing adults. Sara has also created workshops on LGBT Issues in Schools and LGBT Curriculum in Social Studies and has presented these workshops to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.