On heteronormativity

The societal bias confines and harms all of us.

Bronwyn Miller

Heteronormativity: It’s the $10 word of the day.

Since the publication of James Castle’s column entitled “Diversity advice for university instructors” on Feb. 18, I have heard a number of sentiments expressed about the suggestions he proposed in order to affirm non-heterosexual students in our classrooms. Some people believe the ideas Castle discussed, such as incorporating non-heterosexual examples in class and using more neutral terms like partner instead of husband or wife, are insignificant. They marked his suggestions as “nitpicky” and “over the top,” claiming that such “trivialities” do not propagate oppression.

But rejecting these ideas because they do not individually appear to be the magical be-all, end-all to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender alienation illustrates a lack of understanding of the actual issues at play. Castle offered not only specific suggestions but, as I saw it, encouragement to take a moment to acknowledge and hopefully challenge the “standard practices” and the norms we live among every day. His column was a revelation of the heteronormativity that pervades our classrooms.

I realize that is a 17-letter, frightening word. Don’t lose me. Heteronormativity is defined as a cultural bias resulting in unconscious, automatic assumptions that heterosexuality is universal and natural. Relations between one man and one woman are seen as the “normal” form of sexuality so that any other forms of sexuality or gender are posed as abnormal. Heterosexuality is considered the standard for “legitimate” identity and results in an internalized set of expectations about gender and sexuality.

Disney movies, advertisements, “his and hers” gift sets and two explicitly labeled bathrooms. Our society is teeming with cultural products that value the privilege of heterosexuals and cisgendered people, or those individuals whose self-perception of their gender matches their sex. Anyone who does not meet these heteronormative expectations is unseen.

Heteronormativity is everywhere. Yet at the same time, it is invisible, hiding behind our acceptance of “just the way it is” as “how it should be.” We are guided to believe in conventional binaries; we are to understand that people are either male or female, should be with people of the opposite sex and should comply with social expectations of masculinity and femininity. After years of digesting heteronormative messages, the ideals are so embedded that we often take them for granted.

As the reactions to Castle’s column illustrate, it can be scary and threatening to acknowledge heteronormativity. It is easier to get defensive than to recognize the problematic tendencies that we can perpetuate, even when we mean well.

Intention is important, but it’s not everything. We have the honor of attending college, and with that we have a responsibility to be educated. For many of us, that means recognizing our privilege in a world that showers us with legitimization for our identity. Consider the people who might not be afforded that luxury and are confronted with the exact opposite. Then, consider what it might mean, for example, to see the JCPenney ad featuring two dads after being bombarded exclusively by media representations that depict a relationship that doesn’t include you for your entire life, or like Castle suggested, to engage with a classroom example that includes a hypothetical someone who happens to share your transgender identity. Each of these situations puts a dent in the foundation of heteronormativity, the institutionalized ignorance that imprisons all of us, and that is by no means being “nitpicky.”