Causes, Problems, And Solutions Of Heteronormativity In The United States

Heteronormativity is a ubiquitous force within the culture of the United States. From the overarching concept of compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity influences nearly every facet of life such as personal identity, mass media culture, and professional life. However with conscientousness and education, researchers are currently striving to find ways to change that.

1. Are the majority of us even really ‘straight’?

By Luminage Photography (Own work) [http://CC-BY-3.0 (creativecommons.org)], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Linda Napikowski in an About.com article, “The phrase “compulsory heterosexuality” originally referred to the assumption by male-dominated society that the only normal sexual relationship is between a man and a woman.” Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” analyzes how much of heterosexual behavior is enforced through a patriarchal society upon women. According to Rich, ‘acting’ heterosexual is required to reduce the chances sexual harassment in a woman’s life. Engaging in lesbianism is viewed as a threat to male access to female sexuality. Therefore, lesbianism is discouraged at any opportunity and erased in history. This takes away much of women’s agency to define and identify as their true sexuality, whether it be lesbian or any other than heterosexual.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader. By Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 131-41. Web.

2. The influence of heteronormativity extends into other sexual identities and how we as a society perceive them.

Ludovic Bertron from New York City, Usa - Flickr: 70313016@N08

Heteronormative values in the United States often negatively affect not only gay and lesbian sexualities, but others as well. In “I Don’t Know If She Is Bisexual or If She Just Wants to Get Attention”: Analyzing the Various Mechanisms Through Which Emerging Adults Invisibilize Bisexuality”, Milaine Alarie and Stéphanie Gaudet explain how, much like the lesbian continuum, bisexuality has been overlooked by history and is discouraged due to its rejection of both heterosexuality and monosexuality (which is a key part of heterosexuality.) Bisexuality is commonly misperceived by a heteronormative society, which often disallows bisexuals to choose their own identity. Another sexual identity that is shafted by heteronormativity is asexuality. In a Daily Kos article titled “Asexuality 101: The invisible orientation”, it is explained that a person’s agency to define their own sexual identity is once again denied. Due to their lack of sexual and/or romantic attraction to others, asexuals are bullied and often sexually harassed - even threatened with ‘corrective rape’. Rejection of opposite-sex and same-sex sexual interactions is a complete rejection of many heteronormative concepts, and is therefore met with discrimination.

Alarie, Milaine, and Stéphanie Gaudet. “”I Don’t Know If She Is Bisexual or If She Just Wants to Get Attention”: Analyzing the Various Mechanisms Through Which Emerging Adults Invisibilize Bisexuality.” Journal of Bisexuality 13.2 (2013): 191-214.

3. Our perceptions of each other’s sexuality affect our actions.

By Lucas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Heteronormativity is important for several reasons - for one, it affects how we perceive and act around others. In a study analyzed by Stina Ericcson in “Heteronormativity in First Encounters: An Interactional Analysis”, it is shown that speech implying homosexual behavior in an average conversation is constructed as negative and as something much different from heterosexual behavior. Moreover, Ericcson mentions that heteronormativity has ‘interactional costs’ like hiding a non-heterosexual identity or correcting assumptions constantly throughout a conversation. An article on SucceedSocially.com illustrates several ways in which non-heterosexual people may be discriminated against in social settings. Having to constantly inform others of their sexuality, if they are presumed to be straight, can be stressful and awkward for many people. LGBT people may also fear discrimination if they choose to correct another person’s assumptions about their sexuality or gender.

Ericsson, Stina. “Heteronormativity in First Encounters: An Interactional Analysis.” NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 19.2 (2011): 87-104.

4. Heteronormative societal values also affect how people mold their own identity to fit them.

“UK GLF 40th anniversary reunion” by Fæ - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution http://3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - commons.wikimedia.org

Just as non-heterosexual identities may cause others to perceive those who hold them as ‘different’, those who hold them may feel that way and be forced to act as a different identity. In “Countering Heteronormativity: Exploring the Negotiation of Butch Lesbian Identity in the Organisational Setting”, Helen Woodruffe-Burton and Sam Bairstow analyze how this occurs in the workplace. Butch lesbians, who identify with more culturally masculine clothing and styles, often must adapt to a femme look, which is more traditionally feminine. The paper cites many examples of women who adopt a feminine identity only to get a job during an interview; otherwise, they fear they would be discriminated against due to their non-heteronormative identity. In this, heteronormativity is oppressive. Furthermore, the concept of ‘straight-acting’, which refers to gay men who act in a typically masculine manner, further illustrates this. In an article on Advocate.com, author Dave Stalling states “…internalized homophobia is a common ailment among we gays brought up in a heterosexually-dominated society full of absurd myths and misconceptions about “masculinity” and “manhood.” When gay men are forced to adopt a traditionally masculine identity not out of their own agency, they are adapting to society’s heterornomative views.

Woodruffe-Burton, Helen, and Sam Bairstow. “Countering Heteronormativity: Exploring the Negotiation of Butch Lesbian Identity in the Organisational Setting.” Gender in Management: An International Journal 28.6 (2013): 359-74.

5. Mass media is no exception to the ubiquity of heteronormativity.

By Evert F. Baumgardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mass media is one of the most prominent mediums through which heteronormativity is displayed. In “The Sexy Issue: Visual Expressions of Heteronormativity and Gender Identities in Cosmopolitan Magazine” by Michael J. Saraceno and Rachel B. Tambling, a study comparing images found in magazines found a significant bias towards heterosexual depictions over homosexual ones. Non-heterosexual images were much less prevalent than expected. When non-heterosexual imagery is displayed, it’s displayed in a condescending manner - e.g., a woman kissing another woman as the magazine article criticizes her behavior. Magazines also display men and women in heteronormative-matching roles, as either masculine or feminine. Movies, another component of mass media in the United States, also heavily promote heteronormative values. Lily Rothman of Time.com reports that in a study by GLAAD, only about 17% of movies in 2013 had an LGBT character. Moreover, only 7% of these characters were depicted in a positive manner. Mass media and pop culture is a key contributing source in the perpetuation of heteronormative views.

Saraceno, Michael J. and Tambling, Rachel B. “The Sexy Issue: Visual Expressions of Heteronormativity and Gender Identities in Cosmopolitan Magazine” The Qualitative Report 18.80 (2013) 1-18.

6. Heteronormativity is ubiquitous and is an underlying theme in even permissive sexual settings.

In some places, one might not expect heteronormativity to be as prevalent due to their nature - but it is. In “Doing Gender, Doing Class: The Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs” by Mary Nell Trautner, it is shown how women working in strip clubs are commercialized heterosexuality - primarily there for consumption by men. Trautner also reports that at many clubs in the city she was in, women customers were only allowed in if they were with a man, which discourages non-heteronormative behavior. Similarly, in an article on Vice.com, gay author Brian Moylan visits a ‘straight’ strip club. He is then denounced by a female stripper when he states his sexuality by referring to his boyfriend. Although strip clubs are considered to be a sexually free place, they still promote heteronormative views while degrading other sexual identities and gender roles.

Trautner, Mary N. “Doing Gender, Doing Class: The Performance of Sexuality in Exotic Dance Clubs.” Gender & Society 19.6 (2005): 771-88.

7. “One is not born a bride.”

Public Domain CC0

Perhaps one of the most influential sources of the prevalence of heteronormativity in society today is the importance the United States places on weddings. In “One Is Not Born a Bride: How Weddings Regulate Heterosexuality”, Chrys Ingraham analyzes how the anticipation of a fairy-tale wedding that many young girls are raised to have is basically compulsory heterosexuality. Being married to a man in a feminine, white, ‘pure’ dress is made out to be a crucial step towards living a normal, happy, satisfactory life. In this way, heteronormative views are imposed upon children at an early age. In an article on Literatico.com, Blair McVicar explains how heteronormativity relating to marriage and being a bride or groom throughout an individual’s childhood reinforces gender roles and denies them agency to define their own sexuality. Heteronormativity may largely remove a person’s choice in regards to one of the biggest moments of their life.

Ingraham, Chrys. “One Is Not Born a Bride: How Weddings Regulate Heterosexuality.” Introducing the New Sexuality Studies. By Steven Seidman, Nancy Fischer, and Chet Meeks. 2nd ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. 303-07.

8. Heteronormative sexual education in the school system may perpetuate potentially harmful views of sexuality.

“Condom nation” by Original uploader was Bpenn005 at en.wikibooks - Transferred from en.wikibooks; transferred to Commons by User:Adrignola using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - commons.wikimedia.o

Another reason for the prevalence of heteronormativity is the education system of the United States. In “Sex Education and the Promotion of Heteronormativity” by Tanya Mcneill, the author analyzes how information reinforcing gender roles and heterosexual behavior is circulated throughout a curriculum. In one pamphlet read by Alabama students cited in the article, homosexuality is said to be unnatural and students with homosexual attractions are urged to ‘seek help.’ Marriage is an important part of sexuality, which is emphasized to be heterosexual only. This is further enforced as a healthy, desirable family is also taught to be heteronormative, with a mom and a dad. In a Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) article, several heteronormative sexual education tactics are explained. LGBT sexual encounters are often either ignored or attached to negativity. Heteronormative sexual education is overbearingly influential - this imbalance can lead to unsafe sexual practices and more misconstrued notions regarding non-heterosexual behavior.

Mcneill, Tanya. “Sex Education and the Promotion of Heteronormativity.” Sexualities 16.7 (2013): 826-46.

9. Families of many different types are often negatively affected by heteronormative views in the United States.

By Melinda [http://CC-BY-2.0 (creativecommons.org)], via Wikimedia Commons

Non-heteronormative families consisting of gay or lesbian couples, children, etc. are often oppressed by heteronormative values, which do not perceive them as a true family unit. In “Same-Sex Couples, Families, and Marriage: Embracing and Resisting Heteronormativity” by Jason J. Hopkins, Anna Sorensen, and Verta Taylor, the authors explain the “social, legal, and economic inequalities” faced by alternative families. In many states, gay couples do not have a legal right to be recognized as in a relationship, which provides medical, property, and other benefits. In some states, adoption of children by same-sex couples is still not legal. In a survey, it was found that many less Americans perceive an unmarried or same-sex couple with children as a family than a heterosexual married couple with children. A legal guide by attorney Linda E. Wasielewski further explains the significant legal difficulties a non-heterosexual couple may face - since only one parent can be the legal guardian of a child in a same-sex family in most states, the other parent has no legal right to the child in case of emergency. Heteronormative values in the United States significantly hinder the happiness and well-being of LGBT families.

Hopkins, Jason J., Anna Sorensen, and Verta Taylor. “Same-Sex Couples, Families, and Marriage: Embracing and Resisting Heteronormativity.” Sociology Compass 7.2 (2013): 97-110.

10. Despite the near-universal presence of heteronormativity, there are many ways for institutions to be more inclusive.

Challenging Heteronormativity at the University of Tennessee

In the video above, typical college attitudes and behavior towards and about LGBT individuals are displayed. Several students cite examples of being reprimanded for uprooting heteronormative ideas, or being fearful of expressing their sexual or gender identities due to potential discrimination. Many heteronormative assumptions can be broken and remade to be more inclusive of queer identities. In “Transcending Heteronormativity in the Classroom: Using Queer and Critical Pedagogies to Alleviate Trans-Anxieties”, Karen E. Lovaas, Lina Baroudi, and S. M. Collins explain how heteronormative views can be discussed and challenged in a higher education setting: “The aim is for the students to realize the social constructedness of belief systems.” Students are educated on LGBT identities by an instructor who uses case studies, exercises, discussions, etc. to introduce misunderstood non-heteronormative ideology. The methods introduced by the authors have received positive feedback by many students and hold potential to be used to challenge heteronormative views in not only academia, but many structures within the United States, such as the workplace, neighborhood, and government.

Lovaas, Karen E; Baroudi, Lina; Collins, S. M. “Transcending Heteronormativity in the Classroom: Using Queer and Critical Pedagogies to Alleviate Trans-Anxieties.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 3.6 (2002) 177-189.

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