Coined in 1991 by Michael Warner, a social critic, the term heteronormativity refers to pervasive and invisible norms of heterosexuality (sexual desire exclusively for the opposite sex) embedded as a normative principle in social institutions and theory; those who fall outside this standard are devalued. The concept is useful in attempting to understand the assumptions upon which heterosexuality rests, and in showing how and why deviations from heterosexual norms are subject to social and legal sanctions. For example, heteronormativity assumes a belief in dimorphic sexual difference (there are two sexes), biological essentialism (male and female functions are essentially different), and mimetic sex/gender relationship (psychosocial traits follow anatomy). Those who deviate from these assumptions of the gender binary by openly preferring romantic partners of the same sex, by changing from one sex to another, or by violating heterosexual norms in other ways, are marginalized. They are considered by many societies to be mentally defective and morally inferior, and they are subject to street violence, discrimination in employment, and withdrawal of social acceptance. These sanctions force conformity to sexual norms.
The term heteronormativity is itself controversial because it suggests to some a condemnation of those who espouse heterosexuality, or of those who oppose non-heterosexual behavior based on religious or moral beliefs. Some have suggested that it is used to enforce liberal orthodoxy. This is correct to some extent, in that the concept of heteronormativity focuses on the exclusivity of heterosexual norms. Thus, the concept implies criticism of those social conservatives who disapprove of non-heterosexual behavior. This criticism is justified to some degree because it is often difficult for those in the majority, heterosexual culture to realize the extent to which their culture routinely pervades society and constantly creates and enforces norms that marginalize nonheterosexual behavior. Normative heterosexual culture pressures all to conform, or at least to hide their differences, because those outside the norms are perceived as “strange.” The normative culture also erases the extent to which it makes heterosexuality an issue. Because heterosexuality is the order of things, it seems as if nonheterosexuals make an issue of their sexuality, but heterosexuals do not. The gay American writer and radio host Michelangelo Signorile writes about the pervasiveness and invisibility of heterosexual norms:
These heterosexuals don’t realize that they routinely discuss aspects of their own sexuality every day: telling coworkers about a vacation they took with a lover; explaining to their bosses that they’re going through a rough divorce; bragging to friends about a new romance. Heterosexual reporters have no problem asking heterosexual public figures about their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends or children—and all these questions confirm and make an issue of heterosexuality. The ultimate example of making an issue of heterosexuality is the announcements in the newspapers every Sunday that heterosexuals are getting married. (Signorile 1993, xvii)
SEE ALSO Gender; Sexual Orientation, Determinants of
Signorile, Michelangelo. 1993. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Warner, Michael. 1991. Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet. Social Text 29 (4): 3–17.
Jillian T. Weiss