Why are we heterosexuals? Do we choose to be heterosexuality or do we need to fit into it? I would rather opt for the second option through heteronormativity. Heteronormativity dictates our lives, socially, economically, culturally. It is sacred as a social norm and we find ourselves bounded by it.
Learning heteronormativity from an early age
The question of the lover arises from a very young age. Many examples from everyday life illustrate the first steps in (compulsory) heteronormativity. Personally, I don’t remember being asked this question, but I had observed in my entourage that little girls who fall in love are only in love with little boys.
Heteronormativity is a process that we learn from an early age and is connected with the question of gender, a question that can be articulated in a more or less aggressive setting.
I remember one day, on holiday, I was with my cousins. One of my cousin, aged between two and three years old, was having fun wearing heels, as he thought it was funny. And then panic broke out and he was immediately asked to take off the shoes. Such panic reflects the fear that he might become homosexual, or that he might identify with a gender other than the male gender, through the wearing of shoes categorised as feminine. It also reflects the fear of going outside the framework that norms our societies, the fear of marginalization, affecting already black communities at many levels.
Heteronormativity embodies the idea that institutionalised heterosexuality is the norm for legitimate social and sexual relationships. It is a social norm encompassing a set of behaviours and social structures to be adopted and aimed at regulating gender roles, gender identity and sexual orientations. Hence, heterosexuality is considered a normal and natural sexual orientation. People are categorised as men and women and take on so-called gender-appropriate roles. For example, occupations like plumbing and carpentry will be regarded as more masculine. When it comes to gender, people who are categorized as men and women will identify themselves in the binary frame. We learn all these things mechanically as it is considered as ‘normal’.
Hetero-normativity is sanctified by the representation of the nuclear family, a family symbolising the complementarity between men and women, contributing to the sustainability of humanity. ‘Assuming that the heterosexual aspect of biological reproduction can be explained in this way, it is undoubtedly more difficult to account for the heterosexual aspect of social organisation.’ ‘Freud intended to illustrate how heterosexuality is the result of a very difficult psychological apprenticeship, which is built up from the earliest childhood.’
A social conception believed to be natural, but over time built, among other things, in education, if we look at the French context and co-education. The aim of co-education was simply to avoid the spread of non-heteronormative behaviour. Co-education by itself is not enough, it goes hand in hand with a binary vision of gender. Everyone is attracted to the opposite sex and identifies within the binarity, i.e. either as a girl or a boy. Differences are then created at the pedagogical level. The handicraft lessons, valuing manual work, give the opportunity to schoolboys and schoolgirls to learn about DIY and to schoolgirls about cooking and sewing.
School becomes a medium for training in heteronormativity over time and excludes issues related to gender and non-heteronormative sexualities. The school curriculum makes them invisible, based on the following arguments: it is a personal and age issue and is not suitable for children and adolescents.
How do we measure heteornormativity?
An heteronormative attitudes and beliefs scale as been created by Dr. Janice Habarth, from the Californian Paolo Alto. The scale is divised into 2 parts:
- Beliefs about gender and normative behaviour.
- Expectations about gender roles in relationships.
Essential Sex and Gender Subscale
- Masculinity and femininity are determined by biological factors, such as genes and hormones, before birth
- There are only two sexes: male and female
- All people are either male or female.
- Gender is the same thing as sex.
- Sex is complex; in fact, there might even be more than two sexes.
- Gender is a complicated issue, and it does not always match up with biological sex.
- People who say that there are only two legitimate genders are mistaken.
- Gender is something we learn from society. Normative Behaviour Subscale
- In intimate relationships, women and men take on roles according to gender for a reason; it is really the best way to have a successful relationship.
- In intimate relationships, people should act only according to what is traditionally expected of their gender.
- It is perfectly okay for people to have intimate relationships with people of the same sex.
- The best way to raise a child is to have a mother and a father raise the child together.
- In healthy intimate relationships, women may sometimes take on stereotypical ‘male’ roles, and men may sometimes take on stereotypical‘ female’ roles.
- Women and men need not fall into stereotypical gender roles when in an intimate relationship.
- People should partner with whomever they choose, regardless of sex or gender.
- There are particular ways that men should act and particular ways that women should act in relationships.
The heteronormative attitudes and beliefs scale has been used in many studies to demonstrate how non-heterosexual people respond to a heteronormative culture at work, adapted internationally as in the Italian context or in the highschool environment.
An oppression of individual liberties under heteronormativity
Heteronormativity oppresses individual freedoms and is therefore problematic.
The supposed distinction between men and women, assigning them in roles and tasks that come naturally for them. ‘Heterosexuality is defined as gender relations, structuring not only sexual life but also the division of labour and domestic and non-domestic resources ’. (Van Every, 1996 ; Ingraham, 1996). Housework is likely to fall to women, more involved roles and the distinction will be institutionalised. In France, maternity leave is provided for in the Labour Code and set at 16 weeks. Paternity leave is currently 11 days. In Denmark, maternity leave is set at 18 weeks and 2 weeks for the paternity one. In Luxemburg, maternity leave is set 20 weeks and 2 weeks the paternity one. And the examples go on and on. The gap between paternity and maternity leave has an impact on their salaries as it is among the reasons that justify such inequalities.
In sexual life, women are expected to submissive and sexual intercourses sexual intercourse is expected to be more in accordance with the male’s sexual desires. Heteronormativity guide our behaviours and thoughts. Getting into a monogamous couple, getting married, having children should be the right thing to do for everyone.
Heteronormativity also feeds all forms of LGBTphobia (homophobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, transphobia, to name a few). In the study Gendered Heteronormativity: Empirical Illustrations in Everyday Life, female university students outside the heteronormative setting either face homophobic jokes (for boys) or are advised about their femininity (for girls).
Legislation on LGBTQIA+ rights differ from country to country. Such legislation embodies the difference between normality and non-normality and thus invisibilises non-heterosexual people through the dominance of the heterosexual model. Dominance is expressed through the influence of hetero-normativity on LGBTQIA+ communities by conforming to it through monogamous marriage, one of the fundamentals of the heterosexual couple. It thus separates the ‘good homosexual’ or ‘normal gay’ from the ‘dangerous queer’.
Other forms of oppression are justified through physical and verbal violence. Heteronormativity codifies our way of life, our way of thinking, our social norms. It restricts us in our social roles and contributes to the marginalisation of LGBTQIA+ communities.
‘Gender transgression threatens the privileges that men derive from heterosexuality; for women, it leads to an assessment of their sexual desirability and availability to men. Understanding how gender and institutionalised heterosexuality work, and that both are socially constructed, can guide our action to dismantle them’ and thus participate in the de-exclusion of LGBTQIA+ communities and the normalisation of LGBTQIAphobic practices.
It’s time for us to question our heterosexuals privileges and positions
It is our duty to question heteronormativity, the traditional model of the nuclear family, gender binarity, if we want to avoid contributing to a repressive structural LGBTQIAphobic system. Let us not forget that this system feeds suffering on many levels, mental, physical, psychic, as we are reminded by the death of Fouad in France, a transgender student who committed suicide.