Article for the letter H (Heteronormativity) of the project “Feminism from A to Z” presented by Feminist Chapter

Dear lovely straight people, you are not the center of the world.

Imagine you meet your future colleague for the first time. You only know that she identifies as a woman and that she is married, nothing else. You see her next to the coffee machine and you start the conversation. You get to know her a little, and when you notice that she is wearing a wedding ring on her right hand, you think it’s a great opportunity to get the conversation a bit more friendly and less office-like. And so you ask “how’d you meet your husband?”. She stays silent and walks away. 

Imagine you are a male high school student and decide to meet the school psychologist. The first appointment comes and she starts the conversation with “so tell me, what’s bringing you here?”. You answer that you’re having trouble sleeping and staying focused in class. She starts to investigate the issue by asking you basic questions about your life. Following “what’s your relationship with your parents?” and “how are you doing at school?”, she asks you “and do you have a girlfriend?”. You start crying, and leave the room. 

Imagine you are an average woman going to an administrative office for the renewal of your ID. You are welcomed by an employee who gives you a form to fill out and instructions for the photo you have to take and documents you have to bring. You start filling out the form at home, and you notice that below the “relationship status” box, there is another one. It is written: “if married, husband’s full name”. 

Imagine you are a young gay person in your twenties. You’ve always hidden that you were gay from your parents, because, though you feel like they are progressive, you never know how they may possibly react. You are coming back home for vacation and you decide to finally have the big talk with them. After having them sit around the kitchen table, you say “Mom, Dad, I’m gay”. 

Through these examples, I tried to give you a non-exhaustive account of what “heteronormativity” looks like. Quite a big word to mean something quite simple actually: heterosexuality is very often thought of as “the standard”. To define it in a more formal way, we could say that it is the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm as well as the use of an associated gendered labelling, in individual, social, legal and institutional contexts. We sort of just think of strangers as straight, until proven otherwise, which has repercussions on the way we speak and think (certain expressions, pronouns, or other gendered terms). 

Yes, sometimes, if strangers, acquaintances or even friends are already considered out of the norm based on their looks, there will be no such assumption of heterosexuality. Yes, this used to be even stronger and even more striking when queer people did not come out as much as they are able to today. Still, in general terms, heterosexuality remains the standard. Think of the last example I gave. The very reason behind the need for “coming outs” to exist is because heterosexuality is assumed and expected of other people. In other words, the practice of coming out exists only as a response to heteronormativity. 

Obviously, if someone is straight, what is harmful is not them being straight, or them doing what society expects them to do as a straight person if that is what they wish to do. Instead, it is that these expectations are enforced onto everyone

Heteronormativity has been much talked about and there is growing awareness of it. What I wish to explore in this article is the relationship between heteronormativity and feminism. I will try to look into what heteronormativity’s impact on and relationship with gender inequality is, and the type of feminism it calls for. I will first develop an argument on heteronormativity and the binary as hindrances to feminist realization. I will then continue with an argument on the divisiveness of heteronormativity as an obstacle to feminist unity. I will conclude with an argument on the nature of feminism and the values it tries to put into practice as a reason to fight against heteronormativity. 

So let’s get started, shall we? A preliminary and important remark I wish to make is that feminism can be defined in a myriad of ways, each of which will focus on a particular terminology, relationship with or driving force behind the movement. These disagreements in particular are to be kept in mind throughout my article, but they are not the matter of my concern here. Nonetheless, there seems to be a fair consensus among feminists on the idea that women are oppressed by the structures of society, and that this oppression is precisely what feminism is trying to fight against. Though the terms I use themselves might be contested by some, most of the feminist struggles led today seem to be pushing towards that direction in their actions and demands. Thus, for the sake of clarity (and also because this corresponds to my personal opinion and I get to write the article in whichever way I find most accurate), I will refer to the structures of society as patriarchal

Well starting from that point then, there seems to be a little link between feminism and heteronormativity, as the latter is not linked to men oppressing women. I would reply that it’s a little more nuanced than this. 

Heteronormativity creates this network of mental representations of the stranger and of the “average” person as straight. Women, as much as men, are no exception to this rule, and thus the “average” woman is primarily imagined to be straight. Follows from heteronormativity then, that the non-straight woman is not the norm, she is not a “normal” woman. 

This idea of being a deviant woman becomes blatant when we present non-straight women. Be it a coworker, an artist you’ve heard of, a scientist or a politician, whenever they will be presented, their sexual orientation will be mentioned. “She’s a lesbian activist”, “she’s an asexual representative”, “she’s a queer song writer”, “she’s a bi model”, all sound pretty familiar, we have all pretty much heard similar things in our lives. This is in no way an absolute rule, no one will systematically add the precision. But it might happen, and the fact that it does often happen tells us something about our perception of what it means to be a woman and how queerness fits (or rather, does not fit) into this perception.

You might observe that mentioning queerness is actually a rather positive move towards a better representation of queer women. I would agree with you, yet I would ask you the following question. Have you ever heard “she’s a straight …” or “she’s straight” as a detail worthy of particular attention whenever a woman was presented to you? Chances are that you have not, and this is a sign that the mention of sexual orientation, more than an enhanced representation, also represents the reinforcement of social control by pointing out and pointing at the difference between those women. 

Heteronormativity is the reason behind this. “Unconventional” sexual orientation being a detail that has to be mentioned makes queer women appear so different from straight women that they are just part of their own category. The assumption that anything other than heterosexual is not the norm thus turns the entire individual into some deviant being that can only be best defined by this one characteristic. And so, the deviant woman becomes the queer person. In other words, because these women are not straight, and particularly so if they are gay, they end up being excluded from womanhood and femininity. 

Another example of this exclusion from womanhood due to heteronormativity is the “typical” and stereotypical representation of queer women (which is by the way, still representative of the way many people think of the latter): short hair, leather jackets, rather brawny, assertive, rude, (over)confident, wearing no jewellery and no makeup whatsoever, wearing dark clothes, having tattoos, and so forth. In a word, they are very often seen as, imagined to be or typically portrayed as masculine. It is the perception of non-straight women as “not real women”, the idea that they must have become some twisted in-between on their way to eternal damnation. Likewise, queer men are feminized and excluded from manhood. This can also be observed on the basis of other factors such as race: black women are often masculinized as well, which excludes them from the mental representation of the “normal woman”. 

In the end, heteronormativity contributes to the creation of a mental image of (“normal”) women as only straight women and (“normal”) men as only straight men. Women and men are in this way seen as “complementary”, and most significantly, opposed. Indeed, heteronormativity added as an additional layer to the gender binary, encourages people to see the social world through the lens of two categories: straight men and straight women. This further encourages people to see gender opposition in every social interaction, and this constant gender opposition is precisely what lays the groundwork for patriarchy. 

If queerness was not only better accepted but also incorporated into the “norm” (or better yet, if that norm itself was to be destroyed), the expectation of women and men as opposed and mutually exclusive categories would be weakened as well, and the structures supporting patriarchy would be fragilized as well. 

But in the world we live in, queerness is far from being accepted. Consequently, heteronormativity reinforces the gender binary by making it more all-encompassing, wide-ranging, and absolute. Yet the gender binary is precisely the separation and social structure on which patriarchy relies. That is why, heteronormativity indirectly strengthens patriarchy, and is one of the logical adversaries of feminism. As such, current feminist movements should address heteronormativity, still very much of a current phenomenon, because not addressing it ultimately only makes patriarchy a fiercer and more resilient opponent to beat. 

On top of this already quite striking assessment, something all the more obvious is to be remarked. It is my belief, and I think more importantly, the belief of most feminists that feminism (as much as any other social struggle/movement really) is about coming together, and especially about women coming together. 

We have concluded that heteronormativity separates women in categories. It opposes “normal” (straight) women and “deviant” (non-straight) women by casting aside, marginalizing and often even shaming the latter. Well, if heteronormativity cuts ties between women, how are they supposed to come together? Differences between the two categories, though crucial to bear in mind (in order to keep track of privilege in all its forms and intersectionality), get dramatically overemphasized, which divides feminists more than it unites them around their common experiences as women. Straight women start creating queer-exclusionary “feminist” movements for instance. They might start feeling resentment towards queer women on the grounds that the latter are only making their struggle harder. They might feel like queer women “have it easier” or “don’t suffer quite as much”, sometimes specifically because queer women are seen as more masculine. 

Besides laying out in very clear terms what privilege means, such manners of thinking are based on fundamental misapprehensions. Queer-exclusionary “feminism” is a divisive fraud seeking the advent of another system of oppression, in which the most privileged women have managed to switch sides only by crushing their less privileged counterparts. Feeling threatened because queer women break the monolithic image of what being a woman represents is counter-productive and selfish. Feminism should not be about the defense of a monolithic image of womanhood because the latter is precisely what constrains and burdens women in so many ways. This fiction is exactly what patriarchy has wittingly created to keep women subordinate to men. What better solution to make women appear inferior to men than essentializing the whole social group as pure, weak, fragile, and overemotional? 

It is precisely in diversity that the feminist movement can find its strength and best arguments. Women are all so unique and in many ways differ from each other, yet they have all experienced the same fear walking home alone, they have all felt the same social obligations when removing their hair, they all know that if they don’t want to be insulted, called out or assaulted in the streets, they can’t wear whatever they want. That is why differences in sexual orientation should not be a reason for the feminist movement to be divided. And that is why heteronormativity is an utter danger to feminism. What one would easily consider as harmless assumptions of one’s sexuality, or even statistical speculations, are actually a massive hindrance to feminism and its efforts. 

Lastly, I would like to explain why the fight against heteronormativity should, in my humble opinion, be part of the feminist struggle because of feminism’s core values. So far, we have considered heteronormativity as an enemy of feminism purely because it directly or indirectly impedes its enterprise. Yet, as I brought to your attention in my introduction, heteronormativity is also a problem of its own, creating a form of oppression and suffering that is independent from gender identity. We can and we should acknowledge that heteronormativity by itself is harmful to non-straight communities in general, regardless of their gender. Thus, I wish to highlight why, even if heteronormativity had no impact on gender inequality and the resilience of patriarchy (which we have demonstrated to be false), it would still be a problem that feminism should, to me, address and tackle. 

So why should feminism care about the harm that heteronormativity directly causes to non-straight people? Why should feminism care about an issue that does not directly involve or revolve around patriarchy? Well, an outstanding and unchallenging response I could provide is that systems of oppression, which include both patriarchy and heteronormativity, are not only interconnected but also interlocked. As such, fighting only against patriarchy leads nowhere, because we cannot get rid of one oppression without getting rid of all its equivalents. This is what the Combahee River Collective identified in their statement issued almost half a century ago, and thus, I refer you to it if you wish to find further and, sure enough, better explanation than I could provide myself. 

Still, in a more detailed way, we shall try to provide a slightly different answer to those questions by diving into the nature of feminism. What do feminists fight for? Some will say equality, others justice, some will say freedom, and others the annihilation of patriarchy. In the end, as I prior pointed out, there seems to be a conscious move toward the same end that we cannot quite put words on, or agree upon verbally, because words bear too many connotations and cannot begin to describe the tyranny that feminists are trying to put an end to. This unspoken objective is not shared by all women, be it expressed by many sets of words, or imagined as an idea. Still, if there was nothing to put an end to, millions of women would not be fighting relentlessly worldwide. 

This thing that feminism is trying to end the reign of is what I personally refer to as oppression. Injustice, lack of freedom and choice, inequality, violence, suffering, it means all those at once. And if feminists are fighting against it because it is not tolerable, then it seems only logical that beyond gender oppression, the struggle should encompass other forms of systemic oppression, based on race, religion, and sadly the list goes on, including sexual orientation. If feminism fights against gender oppression but ignores heteronormativity, what is it of all those values it supposedly cherishes and all those ideals it is trying to achieve? Or in a more concrete way, how can any feminist fight against the oppression of women because of all the suffering and violence patriarchy causes, and be indifferent to a lesbian, pansexual, bi person being murdered because of their being queer? In simple terms, heteronormativity as an observable form of systemic oppression is contrary to the values feminism defends. In that sense, cisnormativity and its impacts on feminism should also be discussed, as it would not only bring new points to consider but also bring nuance to many of the sometimes willingly simplistic conclusions I have drawn here.  

In any case, I am not implying that feminism is all about actively fighting against all forms of suffering throughout the world. Caring about every social cause in the world is impossible, and being active for one social cause is already quite draining. I am not implying either that every single feminist should individually fight for and support every social cause that could possibly be led. 

What I do mean though, is that collectively, as a movement, feminism should stand for the end of systemic oppression in general, which means putting an end to all its interlocked forms and shapes, of which gender has perhaps become the most mediatized. (The definition of oppression is once more up to debate, but that is to be discussed at a different time). And thus, creating a version of feminism that ignores, neglects or brings down some other women because they do not fit into the norm is emptying feminism of its substance. Such “feminism”, beyond being cruel and self-interested, makes no sense and is self-contradictory. Women are so much more than and should not be reduced to their gender identity only, even though it is what unites them best. Understanding and considering the diversity that womanhood encompasses in terms of experiences, identities, and opinions is fundamental to the creation of an inclusive and all the more impactful struggle. 

By Thomas Birken

Featured image: Photo By Mercedes Mehling

Author: Le Dragon Déchaîné

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