At the time I was writing this essay, same sex marriage in the United States had been legalized for a few months. I noticed that people were starting to lose their passion for advocating for gay rights because, to them, the fight had already been won. As someone who has close friends who identify as gay, I wanted to talk about how there is still a social stigma attached to the LGBT community. I thought a great way to do this was to define the term “heteronormativity,” a term many people may not be familiar with, to explain its importance in how we treat issues surrounding sexual orientation in our society, and to give specific examples of how even the smallest things we think of as normal are harmful to the members of this community.
Some focuses I included were religion, subtle forms of prejudice, and microaggressions. Religion was the best place to start because it provided a framework for how prejudice and microaggressions can take place. I thought using the example of anti-gay religious ideology would help the reader understand how and why society collectively perpetuates heteronormativity. Next, I talked about prejudice and microaggressive behavior. My intention was to identify examples of heteronormativity we may not think of as harmful and to explain how they affect gay individuals. I concluded this section with the thoughts and experiences of a friend of mine who faces the impacts of heteronormativity first-hand in hopes of helping the reader understand just how important it is to learn about this. I then wrapped everything up with some final ideas of how we can work to eliminate the stigma. My objective by ending on this note was to help the reader comprehend that even though same sex marriage is legal, all the topics that were introduced in this essay are proof that the fight is nowhere near over.
The Harmful Impacts of Heteronormativity
In the past few months, we have seen massive triumphs in the movement for equality. Same sex marriage has been legalized in all fifty states and representation for the gay community is at its highest. Although, many people don’t realize that work still needs to be done for equality to be accomplished on a social level. Many people stand behind the belief that gay marriage, adoption, or the lifestyle of being gay in general challenges traditional values America has held on a pedestal since our nation’s founding. These values lead to stereotypes, discomfort, or overall hatred for individuals who identify as LGBQ. The social perception of the gay community stems from heteronormativity partially rooted in religious values, which has an impact on how LGBQ individuals are treated in school and the workplace, as well as how these individuals perceive their own identity.
Modern society, as well as societies well before our generation, epitomizes and encourages relationships strictly between men and women, which is the idea of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is defined as “the privileging of heterosexuality” (Hylton 68). This can be seen in popular culture by opening a book, turning on the radio, or watching a movie in which the majority of relationships depicted are between a man and a woman. This ideology is also seen through certain religions, such as Christianity, where homosexuality is highly discouraged. A study on undergraduate students identifying as Protestant Christian reveals that the majority of participants held generally negative views towards different aspects of gay rights, the two most negatively received being gay male marriage and gay parent adoption. The lack of positive association to these moral concepts and the generally neutral association to more simple concepts, such as job discrimination, “may indicate a perception that the issue of job discrimination was less threatening … where as the other measures involved mention of sexual acts (laws) and potential perceived threats to the ‘traditional family’ unit” (Wolff 214). The findings in this study are an example of how religion contributes to heteronormativity, which can be damaging to “out,” “closeted,” or questioning individuals alike, whether people fully recognize it or not.
An example of harmful behaviors towards the LGBQ community is how the topic of gay issues are perceived in an academic environment. Findings in a study done by Hylton show that most participants, who were lesbian and bisexual social work students, encountered subtle forms of prejudice, which can be traced to the idea of heteronormativity. Hylton explains the discomfort that was reported:
Participants observed that faculty members and peers often appeared to be uncomfortable
in discussing LGBT issues or interacting with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. This
discomfort was reported to be particularly problematic in the classroom…One
participant noted that a professor’s discomfort with LGBT issues would not only
negatively affect specific discussions, but also influence the overall comfort with issues
of sexual identity experienced by students. (73)
Although the study reported that most participants’ sexual orientations were tolerated and accepted by peers, the underlying uneasiness in these scenarios is a form of heteronormativity. Although someone interacting with an openly LGBQ individual may think nothing of it, their internalized discomfort, as shown in the study, can manifest in how these people are treated and also has an effect on how comfortable they feel. In a study done by Nadal et al., one of the eight themes found through interviewing LGBQ youth was the “use of heterosexist terminology,” such as the nonchalant use of the words faggot and dyke. Other themes include “assumption of universal LBGT experience,” an example being the belief that gay men can’t play football, and “denial of the reality of heterosexism,” which is one of the most important themes that everyone needs to realize. This quote from the study explains its importance:
…in an aforementioned incident where a woman compared a gay male participant to a flamboyant character from the Will & Grace, he reacted to her negatively and pointed out her microaggressive behavior. In response, she denied that she was being heterosexist and instead claimed she was paying him a compliment…these defensive statements may be degrading and hurtful to the recipient of the microaggression who experiences such microinvalidations regularly. (Nadal 249)
Another example in how these underlying opinions manifest is how they sometimes lead to errors in preparing workers to work with gay patients. In a different study including LGBT physicians, “56% said that medical school was not at all helpful, 50% said that residency training was not at all helpful, and 30% found continuing medical education to be not at all helpful” in training them to work with patients with minority sexual orientations or genders (Eliason 1362). In fact, the percentages of participants who experienced no content in separate LGBT areas during their education and training experiences was as high as 79%, with bisexual content being the highest compared to lesbian and gay male content. Some other statistics found include that 34% of participants have witnessed prejudiced care towards LGBT patients and 27% have witnessed prejudice against an LGBT employee. Although these numbers have been higher in the past, they still prove to be an issue on how these groups are viewed and treated in a work environment.
It’s one thing to know of the struggles these people face, but it is eye-opening to actually hear of them first-hand from someone who experiences them on a daily basis. To learn about this topic more directly, I spoke to a good friend of mine, Elizabeth, who identifies as asexual. People who are asexual do not experience attraction to others. To some people this may be a simple concept to grasp, but others may have internalized assumptions, which contributes to the heteronormative culture we live in. “For a while I just kind of kept saying I was straight,” Elizabeth explains. “Like, people would ask me, and I would be like ‘Yeah, I’m straight,’ because…that’s what everyone else was. But, on the inside I was like, ‘I don’t think I am.’” Elizabeth realized that she was asexual fairly quickly, so she didn’t have a long period of feeling confused. “If I had not found out about it, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve forced myself into more relationships with guys that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with.” She believes that there is a threat to asexual people, but it’s more of a “psychological” threat than physical. “I tried coming out to one of my friends as I was just beginning to learn about what asexuality was, and she obviously had not heard of it, ‘cause she was like ‘Oh, so you’re like a plant?’ ‘cause she thought I was joking.” Along with being called a plant, she says that asexual people are also associated with innocence. “We often get kind of perceived as naive, when that is obviously not true, ‘cause maturity is not just sexual maturity, it’s being responsible. And so, because…people assume that asexual people either don’t want sex or something, like, we kind of get infantilized…or seen as childish, which I don’t like.” Representation for asexual people is something Elizabeth believes could have a big impact on how asexual people feel about themselves. “We are only one percent-ish of the population, but that is millions of people, and so when there are millions of people who are experiencing the same thing, it can be harmful not to have that representation, ‘cause if you go your whole life thinking that you’re the only person who feels this way, you feel very isolated.” Representation, to her, is an important factor of acceptance; she believes that seeing only straight couples being depicted in media “kind of gets overused…just seeing the same love story over and over again gets kind of redundant.”
Elizabeth has not yet told her family that she is asexual–only some of her closest friends know—but she’s happy with the acceptance she’s received so far. One group of friends she came out to continued on their conversation right after, as if nothing had happened. “I was like, ‘They didn’t explode! They didn’t be like, ‘That’s not a thing!’ and it was just kind of nice just, like, how everything just continued as normal, ‘cause to them it was normal…just knowing that you are valid and that people care about you, it’s just, that is a psychological thing that we all need…being accepted at least in this aspect of who I am was almost life changing, really.” The main piece of advice Elizabeth wants to give to asexual youth coming to terms with their identity is “knowing that you are not broken, you are valid. What you are experiencing is normal. People always confuse ‘normal’ and ‘common,’ like, just because something is more common than something else doesn’t mean that it is any less normal.”
In conclusion, heteronormativity expressed through religion, in school, and in the workplace is more common than people might think. To completely eliminate the underlying stigma associated with identifying as LGBQ, there are a few things that need to happen. One thing is getting rid of assumptions. It is harmful to assume everyone around you is heterosexual until proven otherwise. This forces heteronormativity further into people’s minds. Stereotypes are also damaging; the idea that lesbians and bisexual girls are sluts and only want sex, that gay boys are feminine and sassy, and that asexual people are naive or “plants” are only a few negative associations I see all the time. Another step is more representation of these people. As simple as more TV shows about explicitly bisexual characters or as major as the first lesbian Disney Princess, even one story can make millions of people feel more comfortable with themselves. Finally, more acceptance overall. It doesn’t stop at same-sex marriage; in fact, it goes much deeper than a law that was legalized less than one year ago after almost 240 years of our country being established. It includes all of the topics that were addressed, and it starts with each and every person, no matter their sexual orientation, taking a look at themselves and asking if they truly accept these people for who they are.
Eliason, Michele J., Suzanne L. Dibble, and Patricia A. Robertson. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgender (LGBT) Physicians’ Experiences in the Workplace.” Journal of
Homosexuality 58.10 (2011): 1355-1371. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.
Doyle, Elizabeth. “Asexuality and Heteronormativity.” Personal interview. 24 Oct. 2015.
Hylton, Mary E. “Heteronormativity and the Experiences of Lesbian and Bisexual Women as
Social Work Students.” Journal of Social Work Education 41.1 (2005): 67-82. Web. 18
Nadal, Kevin L., et al. “Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: ‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’ For
Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth.” Journal Of LGBT Youth 8.3 (2011): 234-259. Web. 2
Wolff, Joshua R., et al. “Evangelical Christian College Students and Attitudes Toward Gay
Rights: A California University Sample.” Journal of LGBT Youth 9.3 (2012): 200-224.
Web. 19 Oct. 2015.