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Heteronormativity is a term used in the discussion of gender and society, mostly, but not exclusively within the field of critical theory. It is used to describe, and, frequently, to criticize how many social institutions and social policies are seen to reinforce certain beliefs. These include the belief that human beings fall into two distinct and complementary categories, male and female; that sexual and marital relations are normal only when between two people of different genders; and that each gender has certain natural roles in life. Thus, physical sex, gender identity, and gender roles, should in any given person all align to either male or female norms, and heterosexuality is considered to be the only normal sexual orientation. The norms this term describes or criticizes might be overt, covert, or implied. Those who identify and criticize heteronormativity say that it distorts discourse by stigmatizing alternative concepts of both sexuality and gender, and makes certain types of self-expression more difficult.


This concept was formulated for use in the exploration and critique of the traditional norms of sex, gender identity, gender roles and sexuality, and of the social implications of those institutions. It is descriptive of a dichotomous system of categorization that directly links social behavior and self identity with one's genitalia. That is (among other) to say that, because there are strictly defined concepts of maleness and femaleness, there are similarly expected behaviors for both males and females.

Originally conceived to describe the norms against which non-heterosexuals struggle, it quickly became incorporated into both the gender and the transgender debate. It is also often used in postmodernist and feminist debates. Those who use this concept frequently point to the difficulty posed to those who hold a dichotomous view of sexuality by the presence of clear exceptions -- from freemartins in the bovine world to intersexual human beings with the sexual characteristics of both sexes. These exceptions are taken as direct evidence that neither sex nor gender are concepts that can be reduced to an either/or proposition.

In a heteronormative society, the binary choice of male and female for one's gender identity is viewed as leading to a lack of possible choice about one's gender role and sexual identity. Also, as part of the norms established by society for both genders, is the requirement that the individuals should feel and/or express desire only for partners of the opposite sex. In other critiques, such as the work of Eve Sedgwick (an American theorist in the fields of gender studies, and queer theory), this heteronormative pairing is viewed as defining sexual orientation exclusively in terms of the sex/gender of the person one chooses to have sex with, ignoring other preferences one might have about sex.

In a heteronormative society, men and women are interpreted to be natural complements, socially as well as biologically, and especially when it comes to reproduction. Woman and men are necessary for procreation, therefore male/female coupling is assumed to be the norm.

The concept of heteronormativity seeks to make visible the underlying norms or "normal" society. It questions the common and often tightly held notion that only what is statistically typical is normal and good. It embraces the notion (in the philosophy of ethics) that "is does not imply ought."

Heteronormativity and patriarchy

Heteronormativity is often strongly associated with, and sometimes even confused with patriarchy. However, a patriarchal system does not necessarily have a binary gender system, and vice versa — it merely privileges the masculine gender over all others — regardless of the number of others.

Still, heteronormativity is often seen as one of the pillars of a patriarchal society: the traditional role of men is reinforced and perpetuated through heteronormative mores, rules, and even laws that distinguish between individuals based upon their apparent sex, or based on their refusal to conform to the gender roles that are normal to their society. Consequently, feminism can be seen as concerned with fighting "heteronormativity" and the prescriptions it is seen to have for women.

Groups that challenge traditional gender structure

Critics of heteronormativity say that the existence of intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people undermines any fundamental assumption that gender is naturally dichotomous. They believe its problematical justifications such as the appeal to natural law, or certain Christian notions of faith in God's plan or belief in the goodness of Creation.

Many supporters of heteronormativity are aware that these groups exist, and reconcile that with their beliefs by making the "is" vs. "ought" distinction. On the other hand, if what is typical is somehow related to what is good, then the fact that these groups are all numerical minorities may be significant. The issue of choice vs. biological pre-determination is also an important consideration, and supporters and critics often disagree about those facts.

Supporters of heteronormativity may thus consider members of LGBTI people abnormal, diseased, or immoral. The range of possible social responses has and does include tolerance, pity, shunning, violence, and attempts to help members of these groups become more "normal" through compassionate or even forceful means.


Intersexual people have biological characteristics which are not unambiguously either male or female. If such a condition is detected, intersexual people are almost always assigned a gender at birth. Surgery (usually involving modification to the genitalia) is often performed to produce an unambiguously male or female body, without the individual's consent. The child is then usually raised and enculturated as a member of the assigned gender, which may or may not match gender identity throughout life or some remaining sex characteristics (for example, genes).

Some individuals who have been subjected to these interventions have objected that had they been consulted at an age when they were able to give informed consent then they would have declined these surgical and social interventions.

Gender theorists argue that gender assignment to intersex individuals is a clear case of heteronormativity, in which a biological reality is actually denied in order to maintain a binary set of sexes and genders.

Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual behavior is strongly disapproved of in many societies, both socially and legally. Many argue that this is because it challenges the heteronormative position that sexual relations exist purely for reproductive means. If it cannot be suppressed so far as to at least disappear from the public view, then the notion is said to be encouraged that gay men are not really "men", but have a strong female component (and vice versa) and/or that in a lesbian or gay partnership there is always a "male" (active) and a "female" (passive) partner. This has in some cases gone so far that homosexuals were encouraged (in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s) or even forced (in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s 1) to undergo sexual reassignment procedures to "fix" their sex or gender.

Transgender people

Transgendered people:

  • often seek gender reassignment therapy, thereby violating the assumption that only unambiguous female or male bodies exist.
  • do not develop a gender identity that corresponds to their body; in fact, several never develop a gender identity that is plainly male or female.
  • often do not behave according to the gender role assigned to them, even before transitioning. This is especially true for trans men, but also many trans women.
  • often identify as gay or lesbian after transitioning, and are often lumped together with homosexuals relative to their birth sex, although that is almost never correct. While some trans men did identify as lesbians for a time (although this is still a minority), trans women who identify as gay men are very rare.

Some societies consider transgender people's behavior a crime worthy of capital punishment, including Saudi Arabia, and many other non-western nations. In other countries, certain forms of violence against transgender people may be tacitly endorsed when prosecutors and juries refuse to investigate, prosecute, or convict those who perform the murders and beatings. (Currently, in parts of North America and Europe. [1] [2]) Other societies have considered transgender people's behavior as an psychiatric illness serious enough to justify institutionalization.

Certain restrictions on the ability of transgender people to obtain gender-related medical treatment has been blamed on heteronormativity. In medical communities with these restrictions, patients have the option of either suppressing transsexual behavior and conforming to the norms of their birth sex (which may be necessary to avoid social stigma or even violence), or adhering strictly to norms for their "new" sex in order to qualify for gender reassignment surgery and hormonal treatments (if any treatment is offered at all). These norms might include: dress and mannerisms, choice of occupation, choice of hobbies, and the gender of one's mate (heterosexuality required). (For example, trans women might be expected to trade a "masculine" job for a more "feminine" one - e.g. become a secretary instead of a lawyer.) Attempts to achieve and ambiguous or "alternative" gender identity would not be supported or allowed. Some medical communities, especially since the 1990s, have adopted more accommodating practices, but many have not.

Many governments and official agencies have also been criticized as having heteronormative systems that classify people into "male" and "female" genders in problematic ways. Different jurisdictions use different definitions of gender, including by genitalia, DNA, hormone levels (including some official sports bodies), or birth sex (which means one's gender cannot ever be officially changed). Sometimes gender reassignment surgery is a requirement for an official gender change, and often "male" and "female" are the only choices available, even for intersexed or transgender people. Because most governments only allow heterosexual marriages, official gender changes can have implications for related rights and privileges, such as child custody, inheritance, and medical decision-making.


  • Jillian Todd Weiss: The Gender Caste System - Identity, Privacy, and Heteronormativity The article can be found online: [3]

See also


  1. Paul Kirk "Apartheid army forced gay soldiers into sex change operations".

*Some information provided in whole or in part by http://en.wikipedia.org/