Heteronormativity: What It Is and How It Affects You
As both an affirmative and a systemic therapist, I hold a high value in not assuming any of my clients’ personal struggles with family, relationships, or individual issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, or loss. This means that I do not hold my own personal values as a gay man toward any of my heterosexual clients (and I have had many!). Similarly, as a white male, I do not expect for any of my other clients of different cultures and races to have the same views and perspectives that I do. In the couples work I do, I make it a point to maintain therapeutic neutrality where I make sure to not overidentify with one spouse over the other in order to maintain a non-judgmental environment to facilitate change. All of this encompasses the technique that the therapist needs to live in the here-and-now and be constantly aware of their own biases.
Having said this, the topic of this blog is heteronormativity. Have you heard of this concept and have you ever thought of how it affects you, regardless of what sexual orientation you are? Heteronormativity is defined as the belief system that heterosexuality and binary gender roles are the only norms that exist and can be applied to every individual in society. This belief system is fundamentally flawed and yet is sadly still a widely accepted viewpoint. Regardless of how aware one is of their own beliefs, this detrimental and psychologically damaging imposition applies to everyone. It also affects society as a whole, families and their subsystems, couples and their dyadic patterns, and individuals in their personal growth and mental health.
It is rather easy to think that a non-homophobic heterosexual male or female does not have any part in heteronormative contribution. However, heteronormativity can be manifested both consciously and, more dangerously, subconsciously. Imposing heterosexual views on the LGBT community happens in every situation: work, home, in social settings, etc. It is wise for everyone, regardless of what gender or orientation to not over- or under-assume anyone’s struggles, perspectives, or values. For example, a straight couple telling a gay or lesbian couple to get married is an example of a micro-aggression as this would be imposing a heteronormative view on a minority couple who may not even believe in legal marriage, a largely heterosexual institution that has just recently become legal for same-sex couples. Assuming that an LGBT couple is monogamous is another example of heteronormativity. Without discounting non-monogamous heterosexual couples, it would be wise to assume that not every couple, regardless of their sexual orientation, practices monogamy.
Heteronormativity also exists both outside the counseling room as well as inside of it. Within the LGBT community, heteronormativity can manifest itself through internalized homophobia. As a gay LGBT affirmative therapist, I have seen this rear its ugly head both in the counseling room as well as in some of the relationships I have seen. For those who do not know of internalized homophobia, it is a phenomenon where individuals identify as LGBT and still retain prejudiced, hateful, or shame-based views toward other members of their community. A common example would be a stereotypically masculine gay male, thinking that other gay men can be considered “too gay”. Even though much research still needs to be done on this, this is absolutely a byproduct of the heteronormativity that was imposed on them from their family belief system. In couples, this phenomenon can multiply when one internally homophobic partner thinks that the other partner is embarrassing the relationship by being “too gay”. This can cause reciprocal guilt, shame, hostility, or embarrassment in the other partner being accused.
At the opposite end of the counseling spectrum, heteronormativity can also exist in counselors who have not been properly educated on imposing their own views on LGBT clients. Heteronormative transgressions include telling a trans client that they should date more and not properly utilizing gender pronouns when referring to a trans client. It would be ideal for heterosexual counselors treating the LGBT population to be aware of their own heterosexual privilege and how it could potentially inhibit the therapeutic relationship. It would be especially useful for heterosexual males treating LGBT clients to be aware of their privilege as research indicates that they are less likely to be cognizant than are heterosexual female counselors of how heterosexuality can privilege someone. Contrarily, LGBT affirmative therapists treating heterosexual clients should be aware of their own biases and how therapeutic progress could be compromised.
If readers are still foggy on the idea of heteronormativity as well as its impact, I will speak from personal experience as a gay man. I grew up in a traditional Southern household. As both the only boy in my family as well as an only child, heterosexual pressure from several family members was placed on me to grow up, get married, and have children. Gender norms were also imposed on me, and I was constantly told by family that boys were supposed to act a certain way and were not supposed to do anything or be interested in anything that was too “girly” or feminine. I was expected to participate in masculine activities like basketball and race cars, and I was chastised if I acted too feminine or “not man enough”. This alone was damaging growing up as it ended up affecting my self-worth and relationships. There was a period where I began to lie to myself and try to make myself “straight”, further damaging my relationships. I was not only lying to myself, but to my friends and family.
Having endured this personal struggle of mine, I feel that it is my duty to help not only members of my community who are going through hardships brought on by a heterosexist world but also to my heterosexual allies who want to understand our struggles more in depth. I hope that this blog has been helpful and will assist readers of all genders and sexualities in understanding heteronormativity and its many dangers a little bit more.