What Is Heteronormativity?

Tips to combat heteronormativity

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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What Is Heteronormativity?

Heteronormativity is the assumption that everyone is straight. It's the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are always between one man and one woman and that heterosexuality is the only normal way.

History of Heteronormativity

The word heteronormativity was coined in 1991 by queer literary critic and social theorist Michael Warner. Some of the inspiration for the term was based on an essay by Adrienne Rich called "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in which Rich theorizes that heterosexuality isn't the natural instinct of all people, rather a cultural institution that makes women inferior to men.

In 1868, Karl Maria Kerbeny defined the terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual." However, it's important to note that heteronormativity existed long before these terms were defined. Heteronormativity has been the dominant display in both the imagery and storytelling of man/woman couples and the nuclear family, as the standard way people are assumed to be.

Examples of Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity presents in numerous different ways. These are a few examples of how heteronormativity is displayed.

Media Representation

In the past few years, there has been a big push for TV shows, movies, and advertisements to better represent how diverse the human population is. Heteronormativity presents in media as the default couples who are always shown as straight couples. The reality that queer people have to fight to be shown as examples of how couples can look clarifies how dominant heteronormativity is in our society.

Queerness As Confusion

When people come out as gay or bisexual, they are sometimes told they're going through a phase. The people they tell may assume that they aren't really sure of themselves or their sexuality. The idea that any sexual preference that isn't heterosexual may be a phase is heteronormative because it assumes that all people are straight, and anyone who isn't is just confused.

Impact of Heteronormativity

The idea that being straight is the only normal way to put people in a box—and excludes those who don't fit into it—is problematic for several different reasons.

It's Homophobic

When people only see examples of straight couples, it promotes the idea that there is something abnormal about not being straight. In truth, equivalents of same-gender relationships exist throughout the natural kingdom, and it isn't abnormal. It's a natural part of life.

However, only showing straight couples as the norm gives the message that it isn't OK to be attracted to people of the same or similar genders. It also gives the message that such people don't exist, which is entirely untrue. This is a homophobic message and one that is emotionally harmful to people of all sexual and romantic identities besides heterosexuality.

It Contributes to Poor Mental Health

For LGBTQIA+ adolescents, the difference between having a family who accepts them as they are and having a family who doesn't can be a matter of life and death. Many studies show how key family and community acceptance is to one's emotional well-being and how the risk of depression and suicide are elevated in situations where a child doesn't feel accepted.

In addition to being treated equally by their peers and families, representation is also vital to good mental wellness. When people see themselves represented in their culture, they feel like they are a part of it. When all people see heteronormative examples of life, it can create mental wellness challenges that they otherwise would not have.

It Leads to Bullying

The bullying of LGBTQIA+ children often takes a major toll on their emotional health. When all children see is a representation of straight people, it leads them to incorrectly believe that there is something inherently wrong with children who don't fit into that box.

Heteronormativity encourages bullying because it promotes a singular, specific vision of how people should look, behave, and think, and it makes any person outside of that box a target.

It Rewards Discrimination

How heteronormativity rewards discrimination is very similar to how it promotes bullying. Giving adults the impression that anyone who isn't straight and cis is abnormal sets them up to have a harder time moving forward in life. This includes everything from being passed over for a job promotion to receiving substandard health care, both of which are major issues LGBTQIA+ people face.

When society behaves as if there is only one acceptable way to be, that prevents individuals from strengthening and enhancing the lives of anyone outside of that paradigm. Heteronormativity rewards discrimination by creating an exclusive club in which only straight, cis people belong.

Expanding Your Worldview

Heteronormativity is a major driving force in our culture. As you can see, though, it's a highly problematic one that hurts all people who aren't straight.

Because heteronormativity functions on the presumption that everyone is straight and cis, the most helpful thing you can do to not harm others through it is to not assume things about them.

When you meet someone, ask for their pronouns rather than use the ones you assume they use. Ask if they have a partner, instead of asking a person you think is a woman if she has a boyfriend or husband. Tell people how you identify, rather than making them guess or assume.

These simple gestures make people feel included and welcomed instead of attacked. Heteronormativity may be a strong ideology, but it's an old-fashioned one that causes harm. Small actions on everyone's part help us attain an equal society.

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2 Sources
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  1. Warner M. Introduction: Fear of a queer planetSoc text. 1991;(29):3-17.

  2. Rich A. Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existenceSigns. 1980;5(4):631-660.