Heteronormativity is the body of lifestyle norms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a "heteronormative" view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles.[1]

Origin of the term

Michael Warner popularized the term in 1991,[2] 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.[3]

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.[4][5] Originally conceived to describe the norms against which non-heterosexuals struggle, "heteronormativity" quickly became incorporated into both the gender and the transgender debate.[6]


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.[1][7] This includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, transgender (LGBTQ) people, as well as others such as racial minorities.[6][7] Heteronormative culture "privileges heterosexuality as normal and natural" and fosters a climate where LGBTQ are discriminated against in marriage, tax codes, and employment.[7]

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.[8] 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.[7]

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.[7]

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),[7] were legally fired by work policies "transgressing" against "normal" heteronormative culture.[7]

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.[9]

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.[10] In 1985, the United States is estimated to have been home to approximately 2.5 million post-divorce, stepfamily households containing children.[11] During the late 80s, almost 20% of families with children headed by a married couple were stepfamilies.[12]

Over the past three decades rates of divorce, single parenting, and cohabitation have risen precipitously.[13] 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.[13] 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 or separation, 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. Heteronormative culture "privileges heterosexuality as normal and natural" and fosters a climate where LGBTQ are discriminated against in marriage, tax codes, and employment.[7]

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.[14] However, conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher argues that heteronormative social structures are beneficial to society because they are optimal for the raising of children.[15] Australian-Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville argues that "giving same-sex couples the right to found a family unlinks parenthood from biology".[16]


Intersex people

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.[17] 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.[18] 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).[19]

Transgender people

The transgender people who seek sex reassignment therapy fall under the transsexual demographic underneath transgender umbrella term. 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[20] and many other nations.

In some cases homosexuals were forced to undergo sex change treatments to "fix" their sex or gender: in Europe during the 20th century,[21][22] and in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.[23]

In some countries, including North American[24] 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).[24][25][26] Other societies have considered transgender behavior as a psychiatric illness serious enough to justify institutionalization.[Citation needed]

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.[6] 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.[27] 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.[6]


Homonormativity is the assimilation of heteronormative ideals and constructs into LGBTQ culture and individual identity. The term was used prominently by Lisa Duggan in 2003,[28] 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 trans people.[29] 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 heterosexist and racist.[30] Duggan asserts that homonormativity fragments LGBTQ communities into hierarchies of worthiness. LGBTQ people that come the closest to mimicking heteronormative standards of gender identity are deemed most worthy of receiving rights. LGBTQ individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy (transsexuals, transvestites, intersex, bisexuals, non-gender identified) are seen as an impediment to this elite class of homonormative individuals receiving their rights.[28]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. "Charting a Path through the 'Desert of Nothing.'" Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008
  2. Warner, Michael (1991), "Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet". Social Text; 9 (4 [29]): 3–17
  3. Adrienne Rich, 'Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence' Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5:631-60, 1980.
  4. Samuel A. Chambers, 'Telepistemology of the Closet; Or, the Queer Politics of Six Feet Under'. Journal of American Culture 26.1: 24–41, 2003
  5. Samuel A. Chambers, "Revisiting the Closet: Reading Sexuality in Six Feet Under, in Reading Six Feet Under. McCabe and Akass, eds. IB Taurus, 2005.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Weiss, Jillian Todd (2001). "The Gender Caste System: Identity, Privacy and Heteronormativity" (PDF). Tulane Law School. Retrieved on 2007-02-25. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 Krupat, Kitty (2001). Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance. U of Minnesota Press, 268. ISBN 0-8166-3741-5. 
  8. Rubin, Gayle. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Vance, Carole. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (1993)
  9. Ozturk, Mustafa Bilgehan. "Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Exploring the Experiences of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Employees in Turkey, Human Relations, August 2011, 64(8), 1099-1118
  10. Coontz, S. (1992)
  11. Coleman, M., Ganong, L. H., & Goodwin, C. (1994). "The presentation of stepfamilies in marriage and family textbooks: A reexamination". Family Relations 45, 289–297.
  12. Coleman, Ganong, & Goodwin, 1994.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Benfer, Amy. The Nuclear Family Takes a Hit, June 7, 2001
  14. Michael Lamb, Ph.D.: Affidavit – United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (2009)
  15. Maggie Gallagher (2003-09-04). Why Marriage Matters: The Case for Normal Marriage. Testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Property Rights Hearing: "What is needed to defend the Bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act of 1996?". Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. Retrieved on 2012-05-22.
  16. Margaret Somerville – In Conversation
  17. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
  18. Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
  19. Wilchins, Riki. 2002. 'A certain kind of freedom: power and the truth of bodies – four essays on gender.' In GenderQueer: Voices from beyond the sexual binary. Los Angeles: Alyson Books 23–66.
  20. Saudis Arrest 5 Pakistani TGs
  21. The Unkindest Cut | The science and ethics of castration
  22. Turing, Alan (1912–1954)
  23. Gays tell of mutilation by apartheid army
  24. 24.0 24.1 Frye, Phyllis (Fall 2000). "The International Bill of Gender Rights vs. The Cide House Rules: Transgender people struggle with the courts over what clothing they are allowed to wear on the job, which restroom they are allowed to use on the job, their right to marry, and the very definition of their sex". William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 7: 139–145. 
  25. "OUTfront! Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered Human Rights:"Battybwoys affi dead" Action against homophobia in Jamaica",, May 7, 2004. Retrieved on 4 June 2010. 
  26. 'Disposable People'
  27. Sydney Morning Herald, March 18, 2010, Chi Tranter, "Norrie's 'ungendered' status withdrawn",
  28. 28.0 28.1 Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack On Democracy. Beacon Press, 2003.
  29. Stryker, Susan. 2008. "Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity". Radical History Review. (100): 145-157.
  30. Griffin, Penny. "Sexing the Economy in a Neo-liberal World Order: Neo-liberal Discourse and the (Re)Production of Heteronormative Heterosexuality." British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9.2 (2007): 220–238. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. MCTC LIBRARY. 30 June 2009.


  • Benfer, Amy. "The Nuclear Family Takes a Hit." 7 June 2001. 5 May 2008 [1].
  • Dreyer,Yolanda. "Hegemony and the Internalisation of Homophobia Caused by Heteronormativity." Department of Practical Theology. 2007. University of Pretoria.5 May 2008 [2].
  • Gray, Brandon."'Brokeback Mountain' most impressive of Tepid 2005."Box Office Mojo, LLC. 25 February 2006. 7 May 2008. [3].
  • Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. "Charting a Path through the 'Desert of Nothing.'" Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008 [4].
  • Peele, Thomas. Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture. 2001 Boise State University. 5 May 2008. [5].
  • The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey." 7 May 2008. 7 May 2008. [6].

Further reading

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