Heteronormativity: What Is It, and Why Is It Harmful?
BY AVNI MISHRA '23
In January, former Dance Moms star and current influencer Jojo Siwa announced that she is part of the LGBTQ community and has been in a loving relationship for several years. The revelation surprised many on the Internet, despite Siwa suggesting that she was not exactly a cookie-cutter heterosexual in her TikToks. Given her young demographic, Jojo Siwa coming out is definitely a significant milestone in queer education for children. Despite the support she received, opposition also flooded in. Enraged parents declared they would forbid their children from watching her content. Some were in disbelief that Siwa was anything but straight. As these individuals halted support for the star under the prenotion that she identified as straight, it begs the question: why did we assume any differently?
Heteronormativity, the assumption that heterosexuality is “normal,” has stood unchallenged for centuries. This ideology prevents queer individuals, especially queer children, from validating their identities, as their identity deviates from the norm. Many people, allies included, fail to recognize that this normalization exists, making it especially difficult to combat.
Heteronormativity starts young,with obvious examples of it present in how we talk to children about sexuality. People do not realize that any comment about romantic relationships sends a message about sexuality. Children’s clothing, for example, often contains quips about future relationships, such as “Sorry boys, I’m not allowed to date!” on girl’s clothing and “Future ladies’ man” on boy’s clothing. This assumes that the child is romantically attracted to the opposite gender and suppresses the possibility of an alternative. Further, adults sometimes ask their children whether their opposite gender friend is their significant other. While these comments seem insignificant, they communicate that heterosexuality is the default. In reinforcing heteronormativity, even accepting parents may create environments where children are too scared to come out.
The double standard in response to queer representation also promotes heteronormativity. Adults often discourage queer representation in children’s media to “protect” their children from sexually suggestive media. This argument falls through when considering how both queer and heterosexual relationships are shown to children. For instance, outcries rose when people shipped two male characters of the recent Disney Pixar film, Luca, deeming it inappropriate to portray minors as romantic partners. However, the two characters, Luca and Alberto, are thirteen and fourteen, around the same age as Aang and Katara from Avatar: the Last Airbender when they share an onscreen kiss in the series finale. Aang and Katara’s relationship, though much more explicitly suggestive, received little to no retaliation, further enforcing the notion that heterosexuality is more acceptable to show to children, while homosexuality is dirty or overly sexual.
Along with confronting heteronormative standards in daily life, queer children face the additional hurdle of coming out to friends and family. On the surface, it seems obvious that a child needs to clarify their sexual identity to the world—how else are they expected to know? But closer examination examining reveals a critical truth: children are forced come out because they are assumed to be heterosexual. By declaring their sexuality, an individual corrects this assumption. However, the possibility of confusing or disappointing others by “deviating” from the norm deters many from being honest about their identities to themselves and others. Dismantling the default of heterosexuality, would obviate the need to come out.
All in all, heteronormativity creates hostile environments that make it difficult for queer people to live comfortably. It’s especially harmful because allies and even LGBTQ+ people may internalize these beliefs and allow hate into deceptively safe spaces. But people can resist societally engrained homophobia: whether it be through affirming queer identities to others or donating to charities like The Trevor Project, every fight for queer lives is a fight for normalizing queer identities.