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Heteronormativity is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes. Consequently, a "heteronormative" view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles. Heteronormativity is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia.
Origin of the term
Michael Warner popularized the term in 1991, in one of the first major works of queer theory. The concept's roots are in Gayle Rubin's notion of the "sex/gender system" and Adrienne Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality.
In a series of articles, Samuel A. Chambers calls 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. Originally conceived to describe the norms against which non-heterosexuals struggle, "heteronormativity" quickly became incorporated into both the gender and the transgender debate.
Critics of heteronormative attitudes, such as Cathy J. Cohen, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant, argue that they are oppressive, stigmatizing, marginalizing of perceived deviant forms of sexuality and gender, and make self-expression more difficult when that expression does not conform to the norm. This includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, transgender (LGBTQ) people, as well as others such as racial minorities. Heteronormative culture "privileges heterosexuality as normal and natural" and fosters a climate where LGBTQ are discriminated against in marriage, tax codes, and employment. Following Berlant and Warner, Laurie and Stark also argue that the domestic "intimate sphere" becomes "the unquestioned non-‐place that anchors heteronormative public discourses, especially those concerning marriage and adoption rights".
Against gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals
According to cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin, heteronormativity in mainstream society creates a "sex hierarchy" that gradates sexual practices from morally "good sex" to "bad sex." The hierarchy places reproductive, monogamous sex between committed heterosexuals as "good" and places any sexual acts and individuals who fall short of this standard lower until they fall into "bad sex." Specifically, this places long-term committed gay couples and promiscuous gays in between the two poles. Patrick McCreery, lecturer at New York University, views this hierarchy as partially explanatory for the stigmatization of gay people for socially "deviant" sexual practices that are often practiced by straight people as well, such as consumption of pornography or sex in public places.
McCreery states that this heteronormative hierarchy carries over to the workplace, where gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals face discrimination such as anti-homosexual hiring policies or workplace discrimination that often leaves "lowest hierarchy" individuals such as transsexuals vulnerable to the most overt discrimination and unable to find work.
Applicants and current employees can be legally passed over or fired for being non-heterosexual or perceived as non-heterosexual in many countries, such as the case with chain restaurant Cracker Barrel, which garnered national attention in 1991 after they fired an employee for being openly lesbian, citing their policy that employees with "sexual preferences that fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values were inconsistent with traditional American values." Workers such as the fired employee and others, such as effeminate male waiters (allegedly described as the true targets), were legally fired by work policies "transgressing" against "normal" heteronormative culture.
Analysing the interconnectivity of heteronormativity and sexual employment discrimination, Mustafa Bilgehan Ozturk traces the impact of patriarchal practices and institutions on the workplace experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees in a variety of contexts in Turkey, demonstrating further the specific historicities and localised power/knowledge formations that give rise to physical, professional and psycho-emotive acts of prejudice against sexual minorities.
Relation to marriage and the nuclear family
Modern family structures in the past and present vary from what was typical of the 1950s nuclear family. The families of the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century in the United States were characterized by the death of one or both parents for many American children. In 1985, the United States is estimated to have been home to approximately 2.5 million post-divorce, stepfamily households containing children. During the late 80s, almost 20% of families with children headed by a married couple were stepfamilies.
Over the past three decades rates of divorce, single parenting, and cohabitation have risen precipitously. Nontraditional families (which diverge from "a middle-class family with a bread-winning father and a stay-at-home mother, married to each other and raising their biological children") constitute the majority of families in the United States today. Shared Earning/Shared Parenting Marriage (also known as Peer Marriage) where two heterosexual parents are both providers of resources and nurturers to children has become popular. Modern families may also have single-parent headed families caused by divorce, separation or death, families who have two parents who are not married but have children, or families with same-sex 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.
The consequences of these changes for the adults and children involved are heavily debated. In a 2009 Massachusetts spousal benefits case, developmental psychologist Michael Lamb testified that parental sexual orientation does not negatively affect childhood development. "Since the end of the 1980s... it has been well established that children and adolescents can adjust just as well in nontraditional settings as in traditional settings," he argued. However, columnist Maggie Gallagher argues that heteronormative social structures are beneficial to society because they are optimal for the raising of children. Australian-Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville argues that "giving same-sex couples the right to found a family unlinks parenthood from biology". Recent criticisms of this argument have been made by Timothy Laurie, who argues that both intersex conditions and infertility rates have always complicated links between biology, marriage and child-rearing.
A subset of heteronormativity is the concept of heteronormative temporality. This ideology states that the ultimate life goal for society is heterosexual marriage. Societal factors influence adults to search for a partner of the opposite sex to engage in heterosexual marriage with the goal of having children through the traditional nuclear family structure. Heteronormative temporality promotes abstinence only until marriage. Many American parents adhere to this heteronormative narrative, and teach their children accordingly. According to Amy T. Schalet, it seems that the bulk of parent-child sex education revolves around abstinence only practices in the United States, but this differs in other parts of the world. Similarly, George Washington University Professor Abby Wilkerson discusses the ways in which the healthcare and medicinal industries reinforce the views of heterosexual marriage in order to promote heteronormative temporality. The concept of heteronormative temporality extends beyond heterosexual marriage to include a pervasive system where heterosexuality is seen as a standard, and anything outside of that realm is not tolerated. Wilkerson explains that it dictates aspects of everyday life such as nutritional health, socio-economic status, personal beliefs, and traditional gender roles.
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Intersex people have biological characteristics that are ambiguously either male or female. If such a condition is detected, intersex people in most present-day societies are almost always assigned a normative sex shortly after birth. Surgery (usually involving modification to the genitalia) is often performed in an attempt to produce an unambiguously male or female body, with the parents'—rather than the individual's—consent. The child is then usually raised and enculturated as a cisgender member of the assigned sex, which may or may not match their emergent gender identity throughout life or some remaining sex characteristics (for example, chromosomes, genes or internal sex organs).
The transgender people who seek sex reassignment therapy fall under the transsexual demographic underneath the 'transgender umbrella'. They may not develop a gender identity that corresponds to their body or a gender identity that is plainly male or female. Transgender people may not behave according to the gender role imposed by society. Some societies consider transgender behavior a crime worthy of capital punishment, including Saudi Arabia and many other nations.
In some cases homosexuals were forced to undergo sex change treatments to "fix" their sex or gender: in some European countries during the 20th century, and in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.
In some countries, including North American and European 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). Other societies have considered transgender behavior as a psychiatric illness serious enough to justify institutionalization.
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 by adhering strictly to the norms of their "new" sex in order to qualify for sex reassignment surgery and hormonal treatments. Attempts to achieve an ambiguous or "alternative" gender identity would not be supported or allowed. 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. For governments which allow only heterosexual marriages, official gender changes can have implications for related rights and privileges, such as child custody, inheritance, and medical decision-making.
Homonormativity can refer to the perceived privileging of homosexuality or the perceived assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into LGBTQ culture and individual identity. The term is almost always used in its latter sense, and was used prominently by Lisa Duggan in 2003, although transgender studies scholar Susan Stryker has noted that it was also used by transgender activists in the 1990s in reference to the imposition of gay/lesbian norms over the concerns of transgender people.
Matthew Brim, professor of queer studies at the College of Staten Island, states that "[g]ay people have this pressure to act straight, [...] If you’re a gay man, and you like men, as a gay man you still have to be masculine. All of the other norms besides whom you’re attracted to [biology and gender identity] could still stand. Gay guys who do this are rewarded." He adds that: "[p]erhaps the largest problem with homonormativity is that many people see it as winning." In discussing this, Jason Flores says, in the "College" section of USA Today, that "In essence, the gay men who were born feminine and display characteristics typically assigned to females are considered lesser than other gays because two of their norms (whom you’re attracted to and gender identity) are already not lined up. Homonormativity dictates that the most worthy in the LGBT community are those that come the closest to mimicking heteronormative standards."
According to Penny Griffin, Politics and International Relations lecturer at the University of New South Wales, homonormativity upholds neoliberalism rather than critiquing monogamy, procreation, and binary gender roles as inherently heterosexist and racist. Duggan asserts that homonormativity fragments LGBTQ communities into hierarchies of worthiness, and that LGBTQ people that come the closest to mimicking heteronormative standards of gender identity are deemed most worthy of receiving rights. She also states that LGBTQ individuals at the bottom of this hierarchy (e.g. bi/pan people, trans people, non-binary people, people of non-Western genders, intersex people) are seen as an impediment to this class of homonormative individuals receiving their rights. For example, one empirical study found that in the Netherlands, transgender people and other gender non-conforming LGBTQ people are often looked down upon within their communities for not acting "normal." Those who do assimilate often become invisible in society and experience constant fear and shame about the non-conformers within their communities.
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The dominance of a homonormative culture in Parades subordinates male heterosexuality to male homosexuality.
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- Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack On Democracy. Beacon Press, 2003.
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- Flores, Jason (January 28, 2013). "Viewpoint: My fight against homonormativity". college.usatoday.com. USA Today. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
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- Robinson, Brandon Andrew. 2012. "Is This What Equality Looks Like?: How Assimilation Marginalizes the Dutch LGBT Community." Sexuality Research & Social Policy 9(4): 327-336. DOI: 10.1007/s13178-012-0084-3
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- Jillian Todd Weiss: The Gender Caste System – Identity, Privacy, and Heteronormativity
- Recent academic article on legal challenges that have been made to the heteronormativity of marriage
- "Heteronormativity and the European Court of Human Rights" examines heteronormativity in the context of human rights and judicial decision making