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  • Ramnit Kaur


A social issue refers to a problem common to many people in a society, which is often a consequence of issues beyond the control of individuals. According to Mills (1999, 6), humans live out their biographies in the context of history and within some historical sequence. Hence, the lives of individuals are made and shaped by the society and “its historical push and shove” (Mills,1959,6). Gender is something that is closely defined by societal conditioning and the manifestations and implications of one’s sexual orientation are acutely defined by societal norms and, in case of deviation from such norms, may lead to the ostracization or acceptance (depending on the sociological context) from/within the society, community or the kinship ties. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines heterosexuality as “relating to or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to or between people of the opposite sex.” Heteronormative is defined, by the Oxford dictionary, as “denoting to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.” Thus, heteronormativity may be defined as the belief that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation. This view is deeply steeped in the assumption of a gender binary (i.e., that there are only two genders that are distinct and opposite). The assumption of such a binary is generally sex-based and perpetuates a set of norms under which people are supposed to fit into, based on the “gender” they are perceived to be born into. Therefore, it can be said that a “heteronormative society” is a society deeply steeped in gender binaries, perception of heterosexuality Gas the “default” form of sexual orientation and societal structures that are/were based in a history of firm (and often, oppressive) gender norms. The social issue to be examined in this essay is the socialization into a gender binary and into an assumed sexual orientation (heterosexual) in a heteronormative society and the resulting consequences.

Social Constructionist theorists such as George Mead, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have long since argued that society and the perceptions of individuals of such society are socially constructed. Mead (1962) states that human beings use a combination of gestures and symbols in order to derive meaning in any social setting; this becomes a social act in which all individuals partake in order to be able to interpret meanings derived by other individuals and therefore construct knowledge of our societal surrounding. Gender is one such social construct that is socialised into forming identities. The hegemonic system of gender includes a binary model of gender identities (man or woman) based on the sex one is born into. This binary notion of sex is based in identifying people as a male or female based on their genitalia. Socialisation borrowed from majorly colonial constructs converts this assumed sex binary into a gender binary where separate (and opposite) roles are assigned to the two genders accepted by society. Hence, men and women are expected to act in different ways by society and are socialised into the roles they are expected to assume. One example of this binary socialisation is the attribution of traits such as assertive, confident and aggressive to men so as to fit them into their traditionally accepted role of the “provider” and “protector” within the traditional understanding of the family and the subsequent expectance of these traits from them. Meanwhile, the opposite traits of timidity, modesty and the disposition to nurture are taught to women in order to fit them into their traditionally expected roles as procreators and caretakers in the family. Heteronormativity is one of the primary causes of the sociological imagination of the gender binary as family/kinship ties are expected to be based on the societally recognised relationships between men and women. Reproductive essentialism is a direct result of this heterosexist hegemony, which leads to gender being determined based on one’s sex.

However, the idea that sex is essentially a biological binary is flawed. Alok V. Menon describes the prevailing idea that gender is “cultural” and exterior, and sex is “biological”, as neglectful of the fact that biological sex is also cultural (Menon, 2020). The argument that sex is not binary is based on three major factors- that external genitalia are diverse, the existence of intersex people, and the variation in chromosomes across human species. Scientific evidence, such as the presence of DSD (disorders of sex development), proves that even sex is a spectrum, rather than being binary with few anomalies; the idea of gender being a binary is automatically debunked. However, it is true that in most societies today, people’s lives and realities are based on the gender they are perceived to be “born into”. Socialisation into one’s gender identity results in the internalisation of societally expected characteristics into the framework of one’s individuality and identity. Around the world, many feminist thinkers have been talking about the oppressiveness of the expectations from the two genders and the need to debunk the stereotypes surrounding the position of men and women in society. The insight into this oppressive system of patriarchy and sexist traditions has led to a gradual but decisive change in the avenues open to men and women in the world today. Even though the oppressive and the gendered socialisation that has been and is being questioned and debunked by feminists over the past centuries is a direct result of heteronormativity, heterosexuality and the binary gender construct were not an area of contention for feminists until the past few decades.

Patriarchy and heteronormativity support and supplement each other to the point that a patriarchal society is inbuilt in heteronormative ideals and vice versa. In her seminal book “Gender Trouble”, Butler (1990,30) argues that gender roles are developed to uphold a patriarchal system in which women’s purpose is to serve as means of reproduction to men, as their mothers, and as their wives. The idea of going beyond the gender binary and exploring genders and sexuality as a spectrum is hence a direct threat to the founding notions of patriarchy. Thus, the majorly patriarchal global world has been actively dismissive of non-binary and transgender identities in the modern world.

The creation of gender binary, when seen in the context of family and kinship organisation, results in heterosexuality being perceived as the default sexual orientation in conventional families. According to the American functionalist Talcott Parsons, a family’s two main functions are primary socialisation and personality stabilisation (Giddens, 2009, 370). While Parsons idea of the nuclear family with gendered division of domestic labour may seem outdated to modern sensibilities, the impact of the role of the family in one’s primary socialisation is undeniable and preeminent. Heteronormativity defines “complementary” roles and behaviours for men and women. Social researchers such as Pilcher suggest that children ascertain appropriate heterogender behaviour by watching and imitating the everyday actions of their parents . In traditional settings, this means asymmetrical masculine/feminine traits are picked up by children from within their family . In this sense, home is where one “learns” to be heterosexual . Murray argues that even in less-conventional households with a working mother, or a stay-at-home father, shifting expectations about hetero-masculine and hetero-feminine behaviour are passed on to kids. Hence, a diversity of heterosexuality can be enacted and transmitted intergenerationally through home . As the child grows up, familial heteronormativity is coupled with the various sociocultural practices (via media, friends, religion etc.) that assert heterosexuality as the only acceptable orientation, hence resulting in them viewing heterosexual relationships as “normal”. Everyone, regardless of their sexual identity (e.g., gay, straight, asexual), is subject to the shaping force of heteronormative instantiations of social and cultural practices. Since hegemonic heterosexuality with assumption of monogamy and marriage is adapted by children via family and the world, they may also normalise homophobia and transphobia if they see it prevalent within family settings, in the media they consume, or in their social structures. This may result in LGBTQIA+ children growing up with internalised homophobia.

Internalised homophobia occurs when a person is subject to society’s negative perceptions, intolerance and stigma toward people with same sex attraction . It results in self-hatred as a result of realisation that they are a socially stigmatised person . This self-hatred can have deep psychological and physical ramifications on queer people, making them more likely to have mental health issues like depression, anxiety or low self-esteem. A study of high school students in Massachusetts between 2005 and 2017 found that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are more than twice as likely to practice self-harm as their heterosexual peers . Internalized homophobia is also associated with a higher rate of internalising mental health problems in a meta-analysis of 31 studies conducted on LGB people on the association between internalised homophobia and mental health (Newcomb and Mustanski, 2010). Research in the journal Health Psychology discovered that queer people are likely to suffer from “minority stress”, which refers to sustained chronic anxiety that minorities or people who are part of stigmatised groups experience from microaggressions, attacks and discrimination of all forms . This study, conducted on gender normative queer people, found that the subjects had a consistent high blood pressure when talking to a person they were told had homophobic views, as opposed to a conversation with a person they construed as not being homophobic . The following quote by the Australian entertainer, Hannah Gatsby, aptly depicts the manner in which social heteronormativity leads to LGBTIQA+ people internalising hate towards themselves - "Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, subhuman, pedophiles. 70 percent! And by the time I identified as being gay, it was too late, I was already homophobic. And you do not get to just flip a switch on that."-Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

With that being said, the social ramifications of heteronormativity and resultant queerphobia are not limited to psychological impacts. Queer, trans and gender non-confirming people are often ostracised from their families, face hate crimes and even illegalisation of their identities in some countries. Homosexuality is criminalised in sixty-nine countries around the world, while countless others mete out discrimination to LGBTQIA+ citizens through discriminatory laws and social practices. LGBTQIA+ people are often cast out as a threat to traditional notions of the family, society and the nation , and hence become open prey to stigma, hate speech and violent crimes. State-based trivialisation of violence towards people who don’t fall into the societal norms is best shown by the infamous The Indian Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019 prescribes two years imprisonment as the maximum sentence for sexually abusing transgender individuals, showing a perceptible lack of gender parity as this is lesser than the minimum sentence for raping a woman. A report submitted by NCAVP (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programmes) found that transgender people are more likely to face intimate-partner violence as a consequence of transphobia . Heteronormativity is further supported through religious ideologies, as many religions encourage traditional gender roles and incorporate explicit heterosexuality (Toorn, Pliskin and Morgonroth,2020, 162). Conversion therapy (a pseudoscientific practice used to “correct” homosexuality) advocated by various churches across Europe, Africa and America, the media campaign in the 80s painting AIDS epidemic as “divine punishment” for gay people, and the use of “corrective rape” by family members to “straighten” their queer children in India , are all examples of normalisation of extreme hatred towards the LGBTIQA+ community in order to preserve some tenets of religion or tradition.

The effects of heteronormativity are evident within queer circles as well. With relative acceptance of queer sexual identities and legalisation of gay marriage in many parts of America and Europe, heteronormativity continues to manifest itself via homophobic/transphobic rhetoric in the LGBTQIA+ community. Heteronormativity presents itself in gay and lesbian households in the form of performance of traditionally “masculine” or traditionally “feminine” gender roles by members of same-sex couples and agreement with negative stereotypes about the community, i.e., internalised homonegativity (Toorn, Pliskin and Morgonroth, 2020,161). The transphobia of cisgender queer communities is also a deep-seated result of the gender conformity demanded by heteronormative societies. In America, this started with black trans women and drag queens, who had been highly instrumental in the gay liberation movement in the U.S., being actively dismissed by their gay and lesbian co-protesters, with the example of drag queen Sylvia Rivera being booed of the stage at a liberation march in 1973 and shunned by lesbian women holding the stage. The hegemony of American gay rights movement by white cisgender individuals at the cost of the exclusion of trans people and people of colour is a clear example of a lack of intersectionality within the gay rights movement.

Common approaches to combating heteronormative ideology are focused on reducing sexual orientation and gender identity prejudice (Toorn, Pliskin and Morgonroth, 2020, 163). This can be done via challenging gender norms, giving space to queer voices in the media and governance, and through legislations that challenge state-endorsed heteronormativity ranging from including options for “alternate” genders in legal documents to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in countries that still illegalise homosexual relations. The world has lately seen some progress in these aspects. A study by Charlesworh and Banaji (2019) showed that between 2007 and 2016, U.S. respondents’ explicit and implicit prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation showed change toward attitude neutrality (Toorn, Pliskin and Morgonroth, 2020, 161).This shift corresponds to legal changes across the world, with many countries around the globe adopting stronger anti-hate crime and discrimination laws and procedures over the past decade (e.g., Albania, Cuba, Georgia, Mexico, Nepal, and South Africa), decriminalizing homosexual relations (e.g., Mozambique and Palau), and even implementing national plans of action to tackle discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals (e.g., Brazil, France, South Africa, and Uruguay) (Toorn, Pliskin and Morgonroth, 2020, 161).

While the predominant social structures in the world remain heteronormative, more so in some countries than in others, the past few decades have seen a phenomenal change in the acceptance and emergence of new gender and sexual identities. This has resulted in people, especially teens and millennials, actively questioning the gender norms they have been socialised into, resulting in a destabilisation of gender norms and the subsequent emergence of a world where people are more willing and able to question their assigned gender or sexuality. The fluidness that has characterised this questioning of heteronormativity has led to people being more comfortable in choosing relatively new labelsfor their sexuality (like pansexual, omnisexual and demisexual) and gender or to choose not to label their sexuality/gender orientation at all. For instance, Phillip Hammak points out that when he came out in the 1990s, it was during the binary paradigm of gender and sexuality in the US. People were seen as either a boy or a girl, gay or straight. However, in a short period of three decades, in his research as a gender and sexuality specialist, Hammak found out that young people were more often identifying with non-binary labels of gender and sexuality.71% of the queer teens he included in his study, identified on a non-binary sexual identity label such as pansexual, bisexual or queer, all of which include attraction to a wide spectrum of genders. Nearly a quarter of the sample identified as genderqueer i.e., they identified as neither male nor female. This shift is seen as a positive shift that may lead to a culture of collective appreciation for the differences between people.While some countries, such as third world countries like India, have a long way to go when it comes to dismantling gender prejudices and homophobia, the presence of social media has made the budding but active queer rights movement much more accessible to people who may otherwise live in an exceedingly conservative, gender/hetero-normative settings. This presents a definitive hope for a future that may well, slowly but steadily, be moving away from heteronormative structures, including the gender binary and associated prejudices. The popular Gen-Z social-media catchphrase “The future is non-binary” sums up this hope for a movement towards a non-cis-heteronormative future.

Cover Image: Will Hanson / The Baker Orange

About the author: Ramnit is a first-year student pursuing a BA-LLB degree at Jindal Global Law School. She is passionate about academic research, gender justice and LGBTQIA+ rights

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