Heteronormativity is the dominant belief system concerning sexuality that relies on fixed and binary genders, and the certainty that heterosexuality is the norm that occurs naturally, that is, apart from cultural influences. All other sexual relationships are deemed culturally produced (unnatural) and are regulated and defined in relation to heterosexuality, and are thus devalued. In this system, females and males are assumed to be the only appropriate sexual partners. Heterosexism, then, is a systematic social bias, which stems from heteronormativity, in which society rewards heterosexuals (in the form of economic benefits and civil rights) and punishes all other sexualities.

Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”

The first work that specifically addressed a systemic heteronormative bias was Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In this work, Rich critiques four prominent books, the theses of which do not seem to suspect that heterosexuality is imposed on women and, thus, women are not free to choose their sexuality. Although each of the works Rich critiques are feminist and positively received as such, Rich asserts that none seems to recognize that women do not freely choose heterosexuality. Rich asks this question of each text: Would women necessarily choose heterosexuality? Instead, she argues, heterosexuality is compulsory for women—it is not a freely given choice; it is sometimes forcibly, always subliminally imposed through institutionally grounded propaganda. For example, Rich notes that in many works from the field of psychological development, women’s first primary relationships are with women. Some theorists posit that in “normal” development, women turn away from these initial female relationships toward a heterosexual relationship. This turning away is unquestionably presented as a natural life-cycle development with no suspicion of, or investigation into, the cultural machinations that work to produce such a shift. Rich asks why: Why would women “naturally” turn away from positive, nurturing, and supportive relationships?

Departing from the discourse of psychological development, Rich also shows how heteronormativity is an integral component of economic theory. In an analysis of Catherine A. MacKinnon’s study, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Rich emphasizes the connections between heterosexuality and capitalism. In order to receive economic sustenance, women must adhere to a heterosexual matrix. In other words, being a sexually available heterosexual woman is the primary qualification for employment for women. The economic system (Fordist capitalism usually) works to exclude any woman who does not at least pretend to be heterosexual. The theme of “woman as commodity” is one that becomes central in later articles involving the idea of heteronormativity, particularly those by Gayle Rubin, discussed in the following section.

Rich concludes that as long as heterosexuality in women is presumed to be innate, thus natural, lesbian relationships (or any situation in which women reject the social requirements of heterosexuality) are seen as deviant or pathological, or at least considered irrelevant and banal. What is at stake, according to Rich, is the strength and independence that come as a result of women realizing that they have the power to choose their relationships. Indeed, when women cannot choose their own relationships without being demonized, stigmatized, or rendered pathologically deviant, they are deprived of a collective (political and psychic) power and remain dependent, fragmented, or invisible.

Rubin’s “Thinking Sex.”

In her highly influential 1984 article, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Gayle Rubin reveals what has been in plain sight all along: that in Western cultures, sex is (1) valued negatively and is (2) punished on an unbalanced scale as an “especially heinous sin” with the harshest of punishments. Rubin shows that (3) sexuality and sexual acts are hierarchical— married, reproductive heterosexuals are at the top of the pyramid. In this system, heteronormative is good, natural, and blessed. Rubin also observes that (4) there is a false belief of a “domino theory of sexual peril”—if any nonheterosexual, monogamous sexuality is permitted, then anything goes—a slippery slope from nonmonogamous, casual sex to bestiality or necrophilia, for example. Finally, Rubin perceives and illustrates that (5) alternative sexualities are perceived to be destructive to the social fabric.

Rubin offers an analysis of a sexual matrix, which is culturally produced through social, political, and economic institutions, and works to keep heteronormativity in place. Rubin reiterates what Michel Foucault argued a decade earlier, that sexuality has a history. In other words, it is not a naturally occurring force that exists prior to, or apart from, social determinations; new sexualities are constantly produced. What Rubin adds to this conversation is that not only are sexualities produced, but that attitudes about sex (specifically, “sex negativity”) are culturally produced so that heterosexuality sits inside the charmed circle as the only normal and natural sexuality. And although Western cultures tend to see all sexuality as “dangerous” and often view all sex with suspicion, there is one erotic behavior that becomes acceptable: heterosexuality that is monogamous. As both Rich and Rubin observe, sexuality is culturally constructed and is political. It is organized into “systems of power,” according to Rubin, which reward certain sexualities (monogamous heterosexuals) while punishing all others. Again, heterosexism is protected by the all-encompassing conviction that it occurs naturally, apart from cultural construction, is normal (while all else is deviant) and is prescribed and thus blessed by God.

Butler’s Gender Trouble.

Judith Butler’s 1990 publication of Gender Trouble has remained the definitive work to which most gender theorists have responded in one way or another. Butler’s particular addition to the preliminary works on heteronormativity is that gender and sex are not connected in anything but cultural terms, and neither preexists (or exists apart from) history; there is no understanding of sex apart from its cultural creations. Sex does not create gender; gender creates sex. Bodies merely perform masculinity and femininity, which poses as “natural” through bodily markers. This illusory two-sex system (heteronormativity) requires desire to be exchanged only between the binary male/female. Yet, the illusion of binary sexes seems to fix gender (though sex, like gender, exists as a grid); and upon this illusion of two and opposing genders rests heteronormativity, or what Butler refers to as “the heterosexual matrix.” Butler writes, “The institution of compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire” (Butler, 1990, pp. 22–23). All power rests upon this construct: as the designations “male” or “female” become intelligible, no space is left for any other expression of sex; and as these two are deemed as the only two proper expressions of desire, there is only a place for heterosexuality. All other sexualities, then, are aberrant, thus abhorrent.

Warner’s Fear of a Queer Planet.

Also published in 1990 was Michael Warner’s introduction to his edited work Fear of a Queer Planet. It is in this essay that the term “heteronormativity” first appears. Warner articulates (or reiterates) those points that Rich, Rubin, and Butler laid out: “themes of homophobia and heterosexism may be read in almost any document of our culture [which] means that we are only beginning to have an idea of how widespread those institutions and accounts are” (Warner, 1990, p. 6). Following the challenge of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in Epistemology of the Closet, 1990) to require a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition in any effort to study Western culture, the essays in Warner’s book pragmatically illustrate just how heterosexism permeates and is inculcated into every micro or macro aspect of culture. For example, citing the issue of geriatric care, Warner notes that in heteronormativity, care of the elderly tends to go to offspring and spouses, which leaves many elderly gays and lesbians with a “disproportionately high likelihood of neglect” (p. 8). Throughout the book, the writers expose heterosexism in all corners: a homophobic bias in child raising; a tension between “a reproductivist conception of the social,” and homosociality within Marxist theory; and how “heterosexuality” is judicially constructed.

In addition to concretizing the term “heteronormativity,” Warner defends the use of the word “queer” to talk about all that is in opposition to thatheteronormativity. He argues that it is in its very inspecificity (ambiguity) that the term “queer” works. Because “normal sexuality and the machinery of enforcing it do not bear down equally on everyone” (p. 16), “queer” works because it defines opposition broadly, across social, political, sexual, and violentterrains. “Queer” exposes those vast processes of “normalization” as the systemic origins of phobia and queer bashing, as opposed to believing that queer bashing is a result of periodic intolerance and random acts of violence.

Ingraham’s Thinking Straight.

One of the most recent essays that specifically address heteronormative and heterosexism is Chrys Ingraham’s 2005 introduction to her book Thinking Straight. This introduction summarizes those things about a heteronormative culture that have been said already: that heterosexuality is posed as good, natural, and normal and homosexuality is its opposite; that sex (as well as gender) is socially constructed; that the heterosexual norm is institutionally upheld and promoted and all other sexualities are devalued on a descending grid.

Ingraham adds to this discussion by observing that there is something else at work here other than merely a heterosexual will to power; it is yet to be seen what is gained or lost in the recent Western social acceptance of gay marriages (which shows that “sex” really is not the issue—the integral part seems to be that there are [only] two individuals, and these two divide work by a pseudo-gendered system). Ingraham makes it clear that by looking strictly at heterosexuality (and other sexualities) primarily through a sexual lens, all other factors of human relationships (intimate, platonic, or formal) are rendered secondary. She writes, “In other words, as we socially and culturally create sexual behavior identities as organizing categories, we elevate relations of the body above all other terms for human interaction—mind, heart, soul, values, and so on” (Ingraham, 2005, pp. 2–3). The newfound acceptance of same-sex, monogamous couples (what Lisa Duggan terms “homonormativity”) indicates that sex really is not the true determinate of “right” or “wrong” sexuality, but rather the pay-offs tend to be economically grounded. The mainstream presence of the “good” gay, according to Ingraham, is an indication that the economic system has discovered the gay marketplace (p. 6). Once, but no longer, an economic necessity for women, the institution of marriage (and the $35 billion a year wedding industry) turns toward the “marketing of romance” (p. 6). Heterosexuality becomes less compulsory; Ingraham claims that “the gradual codification of gay and lesbian rights and the growing awareness that benefits and rewards distributed on the basis of heterosexual marriage are inherently undemocratic has led to an erosion of heterosexual supremacist beliefs and practices” (p. 7). In response to this recent loosening of the heterosexual grip, major institutions (such as state and religion) are re-securing what has historically been their power base, as evidenced by a heightened amount of activity on their parts. Because of these “dramatic changes occurring in institutionalized heterosexuality” (p. 10), Ingraham calls for a critical study of heterosexuality.

Ingraham’s observations are right in line with Foucault’s: that power sustains itself by creating, policing, and controlling (rather, attempting to control) sexualities through the social institutions of religion, medicine, psychology, judiciary, and economics. Within this most recent shift that Ingraham describes, it is unclear what is being produced: Is it a reimagining of heterosexuality that allows the inclusion of same sex couples? Or is it a reimagining of homosexuality that allows it to be viewed as stable, natural, and normal, and defines it over and against the trans other? It appears to be both. What this shift reveals is that “sex” is not the hinge pin; it is gender. Nonetheless, homosexuality’s “moving to center” is problematic, according to Judith Halberstam, Lisa Duggan, and Susan Stryker, among others.


The construction of the term “homosexuality” in relation to the dominant term “heterosexuality” renders the two inextricable; their interdependent relationship until more recent times has been one of opposites. Yet, as the two become coalesced under a new “homonormativity,” there opens a space for new others.

The first use of “homonormativity” is usually attributed to Lisa Duggan in “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.” Duggan defines it as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a semi-mobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan, 2002, p. 50). However, in the introduction Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam declares that, “female masculinity is generally received by hetero- and homo-normative cultures as a pathological sign of misidentification and maladjustment” (Halberstan, 1998, p. 9). Halberstam’s understanding of, and her focus on, homonormativity are subtly different from Duggan’s. For Duggan, homonormativity is a neoliberalist strategy by which gays and lesbians seek inclusion into the status quo. By accepting heteronormative constructions of male and female, and mimicking normal lifestyles (marriage, parenting, home ownership), gays and lesbians move toward the center of Rubin’s “charmed circle” (Duggan, 2002, p. 153).

Halberstam, on the other hand, recognizes that any expression of a gender that does not matchthe physical body is disparaged equally within both heteronormative and homonormative contexts. The move to the center by some gays and lesbians creates an even greater chasm between gender normativity and the queer community—particularly the “gender queers,” those who choose to perform a gender that appears to be at odds with their bodies—or as Susan Stryker’s descriptive “those individuals who lived in one social gender but had a bodily sex conventionally associated with the other” (Stryker, 2008, p. 146).

Both Duggan and Halberstam see homonormativity as a doomed strategy; it affords civil rights to some, yet this strategy is a superficial and temporary fix. Homonormativity results in reiterating the gender roles that anchor heteronormativity to power (even though the connections to bodies may seem to be more lax) and regularly punishes “those who fail to do their gender right” (Butler, 1990, p. 140) The sociopolitical fallout is an even greater degree of marginalization for trans communities. Julia Serano, a trans activist, sees this move to the center by gays and lesbians (and the subsequent disassociation with the trans communities) as a calculated political strategy; by excluding the “most deviant” from thepublic face of the gay liberation movement, gays and lesbians could make the case that apart from sexual orientation, “we are just like everyone else” (Serano, 2007, p. 355). This is homonormativity, and it was/is a highly successful strategy in terms of securing civil rights, gaining positive public visibility in mass media, and a reduction in (though not an eradication of) gay bashing, among other things.

Susan Stryker (2008) elucidates Serano and Halberstam’s critique of homonormativity in her article “Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity.” She notes that even in the early 1990s, she and other transgender activists realized thatnon-transgendered gays and lesbians, who base their identity politics on heteronormative gender roles, “often had more in common with the straight world” than they did with gender queers (p. 146). The problem is, according to her, homosexuality is a category of sexual orientation based upon heteronormative notions of gender; in fact, all of the sexualities (hetero, homo, bi) depend upon this dominant gender binary of man and woman, which trans folks then problematize by queering the relationship of “sexed body and gendered subject” (p. 147). In other words, the trans person could claim an identity of male or female, or resist this binary altogether. In addition to misconstruing transgender as a type of gender, homonormative persons, claims Stryker, tend to misconstrue transgender as a sexual orientation that takes the form of a desire or a fetish. Rather, she thinks that “trans” is more a modality than a category—one that would be better aligned with concepts such as race, or class—groupings that can intersect at any point, any type of sexual orientation or gender.

Homonormative gay and lesbian strategies “queerify” the transsexual to set up their own boundaries of normality. Riki Anne Wilchins says it clearly: the gay movement lost its soul when it went from “we are queer, we are worthy of human rights,” to “being gay is just as good as being straight” (Wilchins, 1997, p. 69). She asks, that for an identity, such as gay, or straight, or transgender, “to be visible and distinct, how many other complex and unnamed identities have to be silenced and erased?” (p. 61). Homonormativity, as does heteronormativity, must take on an “other” for its own survival, since it has now been taken into service of heteronormativity. The “other,” the opposing part of the binary, becomes the gender queer, or transgendered/transsexual person.

Heterosexism and Cissexism.

Closely related to heteronormativity, heterosexism would be the way that a heteronormative worldview is manifested within social contexts. If it is assumed that heterosexuality is the norm, that it occurs naturally, or is divinely blessed or sanctioned, then it is also assumed that those persons who identify as heterosexual would receive more benefits, rights, rewards, and be looked upon favorably, in general. Everyone, then, who does not claim to be heterosexual is perceived as and treated as a second-class citizen, and is discriminated against in every level of social encounters (legal, medical, religious, etc.).

At the institutional level, heterosexism is evident in the fact that in most cities, same-sex couples cannot legally marry one another; they cannot adopt children together or have equal custodial rights as heterosexuals; they do not have hospital spousal rights (if hospitals give power of attorney or decision-making power to closest relatives, the same-sex partner can be [legally] excluded from visitation or critical health care decisions); they do not have rights of survivorship to shared property.

Like sexism, racism, or classism, heterosexism depends upon the assumption that there is a “normal,” thus superior, way of being. And those who view themselves to be in the better of any of the previously mentioned binaries do not see the privilege society grants them: there may be an assumption that those in the lesser binary do not deserve the same rights and privileges (this seems to be most evident in racism and in heterosexism) or they are ignorant (or in denial of) their own privilege.

Cissexism, a more recent term, which is becoming more pervasive in studies of gender and sexuality, is defined by Serano as: “The belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals (i.e., people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned)” (Serano, 2007, p. 12). As with heterosexism (and racism, classism, and sexism), privilege is invisible to the dominant group, and basic privileges are denied to the “lesser” group, in this case, non-cissexuals (transsexual/transgender persons). Since Western social arrangements depend upon heteronormativity (there being two, and only two, sexes that occur naturally), cissexuals’ privilege tends to occur on a more personal level (in addition to institutional biases). For example, to some this may seem to be a trivial matter, but transgendered persons are often denied equal access to public restrooms or department store fitting rooms. However, this ostensibly slight discrimination is critical: all of Western culture stands upon a two-sex system. The one way this system is concretized (made “real”) is through the separation of the physical, naked body in public space (restrooms and dressing rooms). If there is any intrusion into the fantasy of a “two sexes and two genders” system, the center cannot hold. It is no coincidence, then, that violence against trans persons is extraordinarily high, which appears to be connected to the very high occasion of suicide attempts: One in twelve of all trans persons will be physically assaulted—one in eight if you are a trans person of color (Dunbar, 2006, p. 323–337) According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ 2012 report (NCAVP), this rate is one and a half times larger than non-trans LGB persons. In addition to the constant threat of physical violence, the attacks on transsexual persons are, predictably, economic. According to key findings of the 2009 report of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, transgendered people have double the rate of unemployment than the population as a whole; 97 percent of the 6,450 respondents reported harassment on their jobs; 15 percent exist below the poverty level at an income of less than $10,000 annual income. These statistics attest to all the ways that a culture, whose existence depends upon heteronormativity, will punish those who fail to do their gender right.

The intense amounts of violence and economic punishment are “logical” extensions of a belief thatthe trans person’s gender is “fake” because it does not occur “naturally” and is not connected to the sex that the trans person was born with (Serano, 2007, p. 13). Thus, according to a dominant heterosexist/cissexist ideology, transsexuality is unnatural, deviant, and against God’s order, which, therefore, removes divine blessing and sanctions violence against it. Serano points out that this belief that a gender is inauthentic if it cannot be connected to one’s sex is naïve. She writes, “We make assumptions every day about other people’s genders without ever seeing their birth certificates, their chromosomes, their genitals, their reproductive systems, their childhood socialization, or their legal sex. There is no such thing as a ‘real’ gender—there is only the gender we experience ourselves as and the gender we perceive others to be” (p. 13).

Heteronormativity and Biblical Studies.

If the power of heteronormativity resides in its unquestioned status of “normal,” and its unchallenged place at the foundation of a sexuality that is “good” and “blessed,” the buttress of the whole façade is Bible translation and interpretation. Only in the last few decades have scholars initiated a critique of the heterosexism that permeates all Bible reception since the nineteenth century. The burgeoning field of Queer Biblical Studies has produced compelling scholarship, which seeks to show the heteronormative biases that punctuate biblical interpretation. For example, as one reads Genesis, apart from the example of Rebecca and Isaac, where does one actually find one man married to one woman? Apart from the purity codes of Leviticus, where does one find a clear condemnation of homoeroticism in the Hebrew Bible? How should one understand the place of Ebed-Melech (Jer 38:7), an Ethiopian eunuch (intersexed perhaps) who rescues Jeremiah and is blessed by God? Indeed, a prominent (and dominant) reading of the relationship of God to Israel (and later, Jesus to the church) is one of husband and wife, the groom and the bride. Yet, ironically, as queer readers point out, the “people” of Israel, and the “church” are also presented in masculine terms (as are God and Jesus). Thus, if one holds on to that metaphor of marriage, both examples are same-sex marriages. As postmodern readers of the Bible suggest, the reader makes meaning. Heteronormativity is not in the text, waiting to be discovered; the interpreter, or reader, brings the assumption of heteronormativity to the text, and uses the text to justify heteronormativity.


Like the air we breathe, heteronormativity and heterosexism are pervasive yet invisible; it is an assumed and unquestioned notion that there are only two naturally occurring and opposite sexes, and each is, naturally, attracted to the other. This heterosexual desire is created and blessed by a deity. These assumptions then dictate that there are, indeed, only two genders. Hence, any and every expression of gender that does not “match” one’s assigned physical sex is rendered deviant; any sexual desire not directed to one’s opposite sex is aberrant. This aberrance is interpreted as sin or as unnatural, which justifies punishment and violence against sexual and gender “queers.”

Heteronormativity is a culturally produced ideology, justified and maintained institutionally through religious beliefs, economic and political systems, medical classifications, psychiatric diagnoses, and judicial processes. The dominant premise of heteronormativity permeates every detail of someone’s life: love, marriage, aging, death, reproduction, property ownership, leisure time, and so forth. Only in recent times has the “natural” occurrence of heteronormativity been challenged, and with this recognition has come a chipping away of the mighty fortresses of heterosexism. Through academic studies of heterosexuality and through the visibility and increased activism of sexual and gender queers, more and more are questioning the presumed natural, divinely blessed, and normal status of heterosexuality.




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Teresa J. Hornsby