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What does "Heteronormative" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “heteronormative” is used to describe a culture or belief system which assumes that heterosexuality is the norm. Heteronormativity can take a number of forms, and it is often very subtle and pervasive. One of the most obvious impacts of heteronormativity is the marginalization of people who do not fit within heterosexual norms, such as homosexuals and people who do not identify with commonly-held ideas about sexuality and gender. Many activists in a variety of social groups have worked to combat heteronormative behavior.

In a society with heteronormative values, all people are assumed to be heterosexual. Most such societies also have a binary view of gender which divides people up as either male or female. Many such societies also have specific ideas about gender roles and what sort of activities are appropriate for each gender. In addition, it is common for alternative sexual practices to be viewed as abnormal, even when they take place in a heterosexual context.

For people who do not identify as heterosexual, such as gays, lesbians, asexuals, and bisexuals, it can be frustrating to live in a heteronormative society because assumptions are constantly being made about human sexuality in such societies. People who are not heterosexual may also be the victims of prejudice, and sometimes they are deliberately targeted with laws aimed to suppress their sexuality. Anyone who engages in alternative sexual practices, even if he or she is heterosexual, may also be marginalized by a heteronormative society.

Heteronormativity also has a profound impact on gender identity. Intersexuals, transsexuals, genderqueers, and other people who explore different aspects of gender may find it difficult to navigate in society. For example, most heteronormative societies only have boxes for “male” and “female” on administrative forms, forcing people who do not identify with these genders to pick one, or to enter into a prolonged discussion about the issue. People may also struggle with things like which pronouns to use, and how to respond to curious people.

People can fight heteronormative behavior in a number of ways. For example, rather than assuming that heterosexuality is universal, people can operate under the assumption that there are a range of sexual identities and orientations, and that rather than jumping to conclusions about others, they should wait for more information. People may also choose to reject traditional ideas about gender roles.

All sorts of people are interested in the study of heteronormative thinking and its impact on society. Feminists, for example, are often fascinated by the traditional ideas about gender roles and appropriate behavior, while gay activists try to make gays and lesbians more visible in society to contradict the idea that most people are heterosexual. Psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists are also interested in heteronormativity and how it influences the people and cultures they study.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon994077 — On Jan 12, 2016

I just came here from a post on Everyday Feminism which talked about the dangers of Homonormativity. I suppose anything that is considered normal is dangerous to some people.

By anon977412 — On Nov 11, 2014

@anon312887: Heterosexuality and heteronormativity are two different things. Heterosexuality is a sexual orientation, while heteronormatvity is a very bad and oppressive ideology.

In a (forced) heteronormative society, stemming from history, people were (are?) taught to behave in ways that you were seen as "supposed" to behave. Such as in the past, sexual behavior was controlled. This led to make people believe there are "right" and "wrong" sexual behaviors. This is wrong. It's actually about consent, not "regulation". See: Deviations from Gayle Rubin, it's about controlling the behaviors of sexuality.

See, it's all about behaviors. Anti gays especially in the past didn't care about how a person felt inside, only cared about (forced heterosexuality) behaviors. Anti gays mistakenly believed that actions determine sexual orientation. Anti gays are wrong; it's all about intent, not actions.

Sexual orientation is intrinsic, does not determine actions, behaviors, thoughts, etc. But we are historically led to believe to behave in certain ways to be "accepted" in society, in terms of sexuality. such as the forced heterosexuality, and the notions with it.

By anon324174 — On Mar 08, 2013

Society works against gender ambiguity and/or transgression against typical gender roles. And that's the society we sadly live in. Society lives within construction, barriers, categories and a lust for power-assigning essentialism to reality-(woman is female so she is feminine etc). We live in a phallocentric society-and phallocentrism reality is based on the binary. I say to all those deluded individuals out there-I feel sorry for your inability to see outside of what's thrown in your face-your reliability on the 'bible' or other written scriptures-with the story of Adam and Eve to guide your argument and to reaffirm your delusions, ignorance and hatred. The bible is a huge story book. Ambiguity is the threat because it does conform-it is not detectable-and therefore creates fear-forcing humanity to create binaries.

By anon312887 — On Jan 09, 2013

So saying the being heterosexual is not the norm when about 97 percent of the world in heterosexual is stupid and biased towards a minority. So because about 3 percent of the world is in a relationship that is not heterosexual, those of us who are have to cower to the minority?

By anon312687 — On Jan 08, 2013

Let's see. What's next? I'm waiting for the nature worshipers to chime in about how plants and trees and robins and field mice and geckos are all just waiting for emancipation from their natural boundaries. There's got to be oppressed homosexual salamanders that can't wait to come out of the closet and be free, free free!

By anon305110 — On Nov 24, 2012

I may point out the story isn't exactly "fictional", and to be honest, saying so can be interpreted as an insult to its culture, including deeming it "stupid because it's religious", as both have no relation. Such devotion to science can be stupid, too.

It's more about only using secular sources. For example, males are born with some organs, females with others -- born with them -- and changing them is unnatural.

By anon278529 — On Jul 07, 2012

No, anon. The bible is a collection of tales handed down from people who thought the sun and stars revolved around the earth, that the earth was flat and was about 200 miles long by 100 miles or so wide. It is not a reliable source of scientific data. Superstition and ignorance, yes. Reliable fact, no.

By anon258343 — On Mar 31, 2012

So according to you, anon163178, every couple today must be perfect examples of them? Sure, every couple today is of same race and opposite sex, named Adam and Eve, the Eves gave birth to two sons named Cain and Abel. The Cains murdered Abel. See where that argument falls apart? We're not all Adam and Eve, and that story is merely fictional anyway.

By anon163385 — On Mar 27, 2011

Not everyone bases their lives on fictional stories. Sorry anon163178 but the rest of us have opened our eyes.

By anon163178 — On Mar 26, 2011

Read the Bible: Adam and Eve, Male and female. No male-male or female -female.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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