Understanding & Challenging Heteronormativity


Heteronormativity is defined as the presumption and privileging of gender conformity. When someone asks you to picture a happy family, who is included in the picture that your brain conjures up? It may look very much like your own family, either now or growing up, or an imagined or experienced family you hoped to have. But take an even closer look at the individual members of the family.

Chances are, you pictured an opposite-sex couple at the center of the family, especially if you were born before the year 2000. However, if you read the article’s title first, you may have purposefully chosen to include a picture of a family without traditional gender roles.

While this exercise is not meant to shame you for picturing what you experienced or was told was “normal” growing up, it does help to illustrate just how deeply held and automatic heteronormative beliefs are within our culture and society. This article will challenge how culture dictates what is considered “normal” and include ways to face up to the system and create change.

It will begin with a definition of heteronormativity and its history before outlining some examples of heteronormativity for you to engage with. Finally, it will end with a discussion of ways to get involved in creating a world where queer people are not only tolerated but accepted and celebrated.

Defining Heteronormativity

Heteronormativity is the assumption within social institutions that straight people and heterosexual marriage are the norm, and anyone that would not classify themselves within these sexual practices should be considered abnormal or other. This means that heteronormative attitudes are the dominant culture that sets the rules for the rest of society and dictate how others should fall in line.

This often confuses and forces acceptance of these norms, even for those who do not identify within those bounds. When a dominant culture does not even consider the possibility of people existing outside the conditions they have created, it can be incredibly harmful to the people forced to conform.

Heteronormative ideals can be created in a person either consciously or unconsciously, which will often change the intent behind the assumptions, if not the effect. When heteronormativity is made consciously, the purpose is frequently hateful and may lead to overt discrimination. People who consciously choose to uphold straight people as the norm are usually doing so out of fear or disdain for LGBTQ identities.

On the other hand, unconscious heteronormativity leads to the assumption that people are straight before even speaking with them, which is less intentionally harmful. Still, it erases the person’s life and experience.

Defining Sexual Orientation

Before we move further, there are a few other terms that we need to outline to ensure that we are starting from the same place in understanding. The first of these is the term “sexual orientation.” A person’s sexual orientation is defined by the people they are attracted to as a part of their romantic life. There are a variety of expressions of orientation, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual. When this variety is discounted, heteronormativity can be harmful because when we assume everyone is straight, we can fail to see the beauty and diversity that love can hold.

Defining Gender Identity

Another term that needs to be defined is “gender identity.” A person’s gender identity is how they choose to express their gender. The sex assigned to the biological organs someone was born with is usually considered a person’s sexual identity, while the way they choose to identify and express gender is their gender identity. This may match the sex they were born with, or it may differ.

If someone’s gender identity matches their sex at birth, they are considered cisgender, while transgender people are those whose identity differs from their sex at birth. Someone’s gender identity may impact their sexual preferences, but one should not assume how one identifies in their own life.

Additionally, traditional gender roles play a significant role in what society deems masculine or feminine, and this can influence how someone views their gender identity. Importantly, to adequately address heteronormativity, we must also eliminate the idea of the gender binary and begin to embrace the many ways we encounter gender expression within the world.

It is more helpful to think of gender as a spectrum, and even if you identify as a cisgender person, understanding that the gender binary is intertwined with traditional gender roles is vital to addressing and combatting heteronormativity.

The History of Heteronormativity

Social theorist Michael Warner first coined the term in the introduction to his book Fear of a Queer Planet in 1991. In this book, Warner explores the idea of starting from a place of queer theory and normalcy over the heteronormative ideas that permeate everything we do. By starting from a place that assumes people are not straight, Warner posits that we would find a new way of looking at social justice and address the various issues we see around us. It is from this book that the idea of heteronormativity and challenging the way that it has permeated our society became part of the discourse surrounding media and human rights.

Warner drew from the work of other scholars, notably Adrienne Rich. Rich believed that heterosexuality was a byproduct of patriarchy and the way culture aimed to place women in a situation inferior to men. By creating gender norms where women need to marry a man to participate in the social hierarchy in any real way, heterosexual marriage became a requirement and the standard for any woman looking to find her place in the world. This idea is known as compulsory heterosexuality, and by making it necessary to marry a man, it negated gay men and lesbian existence.

Heteronormativity in Popular Culture

Heteronormativity has been embedded in popular culture for much of the last century. However, the idea of a family has often shifted. Before the early 20th century, most people lived in multigenerational households and considered everyone family. This shifted as the country industrialized and more people moved to cities, where such large definitions of family could not fit in small apartments or survive on factory salaries.

Suddenly, the idea of the nuclear family became the goal or standard, with a couple and their children defining the family. When someone got married, they moved out instead of welcoming others in. It was also during this time in the United States and many European countries that male homosexuality was considered a crime, and lesbians did not exist in popular culture. By shifting to the nuclear family during a time when any sexuality outside of heterosexuality was not accepted, heteronormative behavior became the standard.

The Harm of Heteronormativity

While we have touched on many of the reasons that heteronormativity can be harmful to everyone, but is important to consider the impact that the privilege assigned to heterosexual couples has on queer people and queer culture. This section will look at the specific harms to ensure that you understand why challenging and confronting heteronormativity is important.

Forced Identification

Because people tend to assume that people are straight and that their gender matches their sex, this often forces LGBT people to identify themselves to others, possibly without knowing if the other people are safe for them. This happens frequently when people ask young people if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend or when someone assumes pronouns, and trans people are forced to correct them. While straight people do not need to identify themselves to other groups in their everyday lives, gay people often will. This can be harmful to mental health and cause a person to be in danger.

Cultural and Religious Harm

For some people, their families, cultures, or religions will not acknowledge or accept their sexuality or gender identity. This can cause immense harm by separating people from the people who are supposed to support and care for them and will often cause significant mental health harm. As many social theorists have asserted, failure to be accepted by family or other communities will impact how people interact with the world and make young people feel broken.

The Gender Binary Does Not Exist

Assuming that everyone falls on one side of a binary is harmful and completely erases the existence of transgender people. As we discussed before, gender is often expressed as a spectrum, and many people will find themselves in a more fluid or non-binary identity than people will often realize. Heteronormativity describes people as only male or female, which is simply not true. Identity is incredibly personal, and assigning options as the other is harmful to physical and mental health.

It also completely ignores the existence of intersex people, who are born with markers for both sexes and whose parents need to decide which markers to keep, which may or may not align with the expression they choose later. Intersex people demonstrate that even biological sex does not exist in a binary and can take on other forms. By assuming the binary, you can harm those whose identity you discount.

Same-Sex Couples Exist

Assuming that everyone is straight is a product of heteronormativity, and it is harmful to people who identify otherwise. While heterosexual people are usually in the majority, it does not mean that it is not normal to be attracted to the same sex or multiple genders. When you assume that someone is straight, you can make it more difficult for someone to be honest and live fully in who they are. By acknowledging and celebrating same-sex marriage and relationships, you can help everyone feel included. By refusing to do so, you can cause harm.

Access to Health Care

Medical care, unfortunately, reinforces heteronormativity, and heteronormativity influences care choices. In many places around the country, transgender people do not have access to affirming care, either in health care or mental health. This is an insidious form of harm that impacts many people. Sexuality and expression should not be a determining factor in the care that a person receives.

There are many other ways that heteronormativity can impact and harm everyday life for queer people. Heteronormativity causes harm based on sexuality alone, and it takes conscious work to ensure that you are not reinforcing the ideas.

Examples of Heteronormativity

To continue to understand heteronormativity, it may be helpful to consider some examples of how you may run into heteronormativity in everyday life. The examples of heteronormativity below can outline some ways that you may notice when heteronormative actions are at the center.

Male or Female Options

The next time you fill out a form, check to see if there are any options outside male or female under the gender option. This is a very common form of heteronormativity, and although more places are choosing to include a nonbinary option for gender, it is still uncommon in many places.

Having to Come Out

One of the most significant ways that culture affirms heteronormativity is in the process of coming out. Only those who are not heterosexual need to come out to their friends or family, creating a situation where anything but heterosexuality is abnormal and needs to be addressed. By assuming that people are straight or cisgender unless they come out, we reinforce the idea that their identity requires sharing and identification. When we approach sexuality through a fluidity and spectrum lens, it helps people feel confident in sharing their relationships, regardless of what they look like.

Assuming Choice or Phase

When gay people come out, there may also be the tendency for straight people around them to assume that their sexuality is a choice or phase that they will outgrow or change. This is harmful to the people who are coming out by discounting or brushing aside their identity. Identity is often not a choice, so we must learn to avoid hoping or thinking that people will change because we may not understand them.

Media Representation

One of the most prevalent examples of heteronormativity is the way that families are portrayed in media. Think of the television shows, movies, and books that you consume. Most of this media will portray a male and female couple at the center of a family. This reinforces the heteronormative standards and does not allow young people who have other expressions and identities to see people like them in popular culture.

This is also true when there are queer people included in media but only to be included for the statistics without a genuine connection to the story. This is the idea of the token queer couple, where the participants are only a part of the story for the show or book to look inclusive. It also happens when there is a lot of talk about the couple being queer, as if to call it out rather than being inclusive.

Proper media inclusion will highlight LGBTQIA couples without the episode being about inclusion or acceptance. By including lesbian or gay people in media without needing to have a conversation about their relationship, all identities and preferences will be included and seen as standard.

Wedding Traditions

Another common way that heteronormativity is present in everyday life is when we look at the wedding industry. While many vendors choose to be more inclusive with their language by not assuming a bride and groom will be a part of the ceremony, many still have rooms coded with masculine and feminine features or fail to acknowledge the variety of expressions of love.

When you look at wedding traditions as a whole, the very ceremony seems to place heterosexual couples on a pedestal, and other forms of love are not celebrated the same way. Many traditions are centered around the bride or groom and their parents, and same-sex couples may be assigned specific roles to make them fit.

Finally, society seems to place marriage above many other milestones. When you are married, you often have a registry where people gift you items to set up a home, which often causes unmarried people to feel as if their accomplishments and lives are of little importance to other people. Placing marriage, which for many years was unattainable and illegal for anyone but straight couples, as one of the most significant milestones in life will cause harm to those who are not married.


One of the most dramatic examples of heteronormativity is found in having and raising children. This can start when a couple chooses to try and have a child. Because same-sex couples will need medical intervention to conceive, they are often met with prejudice and harm, whereas a straight couple may be welcomed and encouraged. There is also an added expense that is usually not covered or covered well by insurance. It makes it significantly more difficult for LBGTQIA couples to expand their families.

Ideas to Challenge Heteronormative Culture

Now that we have an established understanding of heteronormativity and the harm it causes through the ways it presents itself, it is crucial to find ways to combat it in our everyday lives. The following examples are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are some ideas to help you identify and address heteronormative behaviors when you run into them.


If you are starting on this journey, one of the best things you can do is to educate yourself on queer theory and the ways that homophobia and transphobia impact society. There are many resources out there. However, it is essential to ensure that you are learning from members of the queer community, adequately compensating them for their work, and never assuming it is their job to educate you. Find prepared resources and learn how to engage with the community respectfully as an ally.

Share Your Pronouns

One of the best ways to begin creating safe spaces for all identities is to make a habit of sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself. Making it a common practice will make it easier for those around you to let you know their pronouns so they can be identified correctly. It is a simple gesture that can help avoid people feeling the need to out themselves and give people the space to feel safe doing so.

Practice Assuming People Are Queer

Because heteronormativity assumes that everyone is straight, the opposite is to assume that everyone is queer until you are corrected. This can feel strange because of how engrained heteronormativity is, but with practice, it can help you flip your assumptions on your head and begin to see the world through a more equitable lens. By doing so, you will begin to shift the other parts of your assumptions and shift your language.

Be Gentle but Consistent with Yourself

As you begin to address your biases and thoughts, it can feel overwhelming, and you will inevitably mess up at some point. When you mess up, you need to acknowledge your mistake and correct it quickly, but you also need to not dwell on it or make it about you. This is a new process for many people, and the willingness to continue to learn and be able to be corrected when we assume incorrectly will continue to create a more equitable world moving forward.

To learn more about heteronormativity, cultural norms, and conflict resolution, contact ADR Times!

Emily Holland
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