Posted by on January 6, 2011
Jan 062011

By Amethyst Wonder

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the term “heteronormative” used in at least five different ways. Some people were offended by the thing the term described; some were offended by the term itself. It made me think. So, I did what I do when I can’t stop thinking about something. I decided to write about it.

What it is

Usually, when trying to articulate my concept of something, I start by looking to others’ ideas, sort of as guideposts. I looked up the term “heteronormative” in several sources and noted many of my friends’ comments on the subject.

Probably the most concise definition I found that aligned with my instincts was from WiseGeek.com: The term “heteronormative” is used to describe a culture or belief system which assumes that heterosexuality is the norm.

I, of course, also visited UrbanDictionary.com, which I value because it consists of multiple user entries instead of a single “official” definition. The site offered three suggestions. The first caught my attention: A viewpoint that expresses heterosexuality as a given instead of being one of many possibilities.

Nailing down my personal definition was the next step. I decided that heteronormativity, to me, is the assumption that heterosexuality is either the sole correct orientation (and anything else is deviant, inferior, or simply wrong) or that it is the only existing possibility in a particular context. I stressed for myself that the term applies to the assumption itself, not necessarily the person, institution, or behavior reflecting the assumption.

What it isn’t

Heteronormative does not equal heterosexual.

Criticizing heteronormativity is not straight-bashing.

I encountered some usage of the term that seemed to equate heteronormativity with heterosexuality,

as in, “I’m heteronormative and I keep getting flack for it.” This didn’t make sense to me until I realized that most of the people using the term in this manner were literally using heteronormative(ity) and heterosexual(ity) interchangeably. I don’t believe this is accurate.

I’ll write about straight-bashing another time. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, only that being critical of someone or something for being heteronormative is not an example of it.

What’s the problem?

The problem is not the hetero-, but the -normative. Anything-normativity is dangerous because it’s easy to slide from defining something as normal to defining normal as that thing. Is heterosexuality normal? Of course. But care must be taken not to make everything else, by extension, abnormal. This is what happens much too often and is being criticized. But it’s not always made clear that it’s that extra step that is the offense.

What do we do about it?

Other than being aware of it, I’m honestly not sure. I’m obviously a big fan of talking about these things and of defining your terms. I believe it’s the first step to re-programming ourselves to realize when someone or something is marginalizing a person and their life or experience. But I don’t know what comes after that.

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