What Is Heteronormativity?

Heteronormativity, predicated on the gender binary, is the belief that being heterosexual (which is attraction only to a different gender) is the only normal and natural sexual orientation. Since it is based on the conception that there are only two genders, heteronormativity does not accurately reflect the reality that gender exists on a spectrum and that attraction to only similar genders or to all genders exists and are normal.

Having heteronormative assumptions may lead people to misgender someone (referring to someone with the wrong pronouns).

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Definition of Heteronormativity

Assuming Everyone Is Straight 

By assuming that someone is straight, you’re erasing their sexual identity. Saying that someone is "going through a phase," especially for people who identify as bisexual or pansexual, can be harmful and demeaning because it erases such identities, contributing to a lack of civil rights protections and funding aimed to support such communities.

One example of erasure is the Trump administration's refusal to add questions about gender and sexual orientation in the 2020 Census, which determines allocation of federal funding. This shows how excluding people and denying they exist has material ramifications.

Being bisexual or pansexual means someone is attracted to all genders. Erasing people who identify with these orientations is harmful and hurtful. 

According to a survey, only 48% of Gen Z youths identify as straight, while 65% of millennials identified as straight.

Within heteronormativity are the prejudices of transphobia and homophobia. Transphobia refers to discrimination against transgender people, and homophobia is discrimination against people attracted to people with similar genders.

By assuming that only being straight and cisgender (someone who aligns with the gender associated with their assigned sex at birth) is normal and that everyone identifies that way, heteronormativity reinforces transphobia and homophobia.

Assuming Someone’s Gender

Heteronormativity assumes that the gender associated with a person's assigned sex at birth is how that person identifies. Think of gender reveal parties. Society decides what gender you are—and what color your clothes, bedroom, and toys will be—before you’re even born. Not everyone identifies as the gender associated with their assigned sex at birth, however. 

When a child is born, they are expected to perform heteronormativity. For example, playing with a truck or playing with a doll depending on your assigned gender may be enforced by your parents and how they view your gender. Skewing away from those norms may be worrisome for parents who adhere to heteronormativity. They may struggle with the idea of their son wanting to play dress-up in clothes associated with girls, or may be upset if their little girl wants a short haircut.

A 2020 study looked at 25,000 LGBTQ people between 13 and 25 years old in the United States, and found that transgender and nonbinary youths were incredibly at risk of depression and suicide.

It’s imperative to nurture a child, no matter what their identity may be and how far it strays from heteronormative beliefs.

Assuming Sex Is One Way

Penis in vagina intersource—or PIV—is believed to be the only way to have a sexual intercourse for people who adhere to heteronormativity. This is, of course, false. People can have sex without a penis at all. Sex with one or more people with penises also does not have to involve any penetration. Also, cisgender gay men sometimes have penetrative anal sex.

Having “normal” sex is seen as PIV sex, while all other forms of sex is considered "different" or "abnormal" in a heteronormative society.

Monogamy

Non-monogamous relationships are seen as existing outside of heteronormative relationships. Heteronormative people tend to believe in the security of monogamy (when a person is in a romantic or sexual relationship with only one person) and their idea that these types of relationships have more trust and communication. It’s not wrong to be monogamous, but it is harmful to believe monogamy is superior to non-monogamous practices. 

Non-monogamy

Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for lifestyle choices that exist outside of the traditional monogamy framework. This may include polyamory, where people have several romantic partners, and an open relationship where people in a relationship are sexually involved with more than one person.

Reproduction is key for people who subscribe to heteronormativity and believe that marriage or long-term relationships should result in having a child. Their idea of a nuclear family includes children and a cisgender, heterosexual mother and father. People who aren’t married and aren’t having kids (and could be non-monogamous) are seen as "abnormal" by people who adhere to heteronormativity.

How to Combat Heteronormativity 

We can all take steps to combat the wrong beliefs of heteronormativity:

  • Work on being inclusive. Don’t assume someone’s gender or sexual orientation. Introduce yourself with your pronouns when meeting people to invite them to do so as well, and use gender neutral language to referring to people’s partners before you know about them
  • Be supportive of friends or family who are part of the LGBTQ community. Read up on resources and articles to educate yourself
  • Create a safe space for your friend or family. Make sure they feel like they are in an environment where they can be their authentic self

A Word From Verywell

It's not wrong to be straight, but it is wrong to push heteronormative beliefs on other people, which erases their identity and sexual orientation. Heteronormativity can be found in everyday language. Maybe you're into the same gender. Maybe you don't really know yet. Being inclusive needs to be the new normal. Understanding that gender is a spectrum and sexuality is fluid can benefit society and foster a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.

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  1. Why the Trump Administration Won't Ask About LGBT Americans on the 2020 Census. The Atlantic. March 29, 2017.

  2. Price-Feeney M, Green AE, Dorison S. Understanding the mental health of transgender and non-binary youth. Journal of Adolescent Behavior. Vol 66, Issue 6, P684-690. January 5, 2020. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.11.314