July 07, 2020

Dismantling Heteronormative Assumptions

By Nolan, Friend

The world has been shaped through a heteronormative lens. Gender binary and heteronormativity narratives constantly seep into the collective consciousness of our society. From a young age, we are told about the clothes we can wear, the toys we can play with, and the colors we should like based on a sex assigned at birth. We see hatred directed at the queer community fueled by misinformation and cyclical toxic learned ideas and behaviors. All of this, and so much more, oppresses queer identities and suppresses thoughts of being different, of residing outside of this heteronormative lens. Furthermore, stepping out of the heteronormative lens often results in one’s true identity never being fully seen or recognized, and that is an exhausting weight to carry. From an individual perspective, we all need to assess our assumptions to unlearn heteronormative narratives that cause harm to nonbinary, transgender, gay, lesbian, pansexual and queer identities.

Say a couple is walking down the street holding hands. They have a child with them. They appear to follow the “traditional” expectation of man and woman that has been reinforced for hundreds of years. The normalized assumption is that they are a heterosexual couple, and one uses the “he” series and the other uses the “she” series for pronouns. Assuming this to be true causes more harm than it may seem at first glance. One or both individuals could identify as nonbinary and actually use the “they” pronoun. One or both individuals could be transgender. One or both of them could identify as a gender that their appearance doesn’t seem to match based on your heteronormative expectations. One or both could be bisexual or pansexual. In all these cases, assuming they are a heterosexual couple causes harm and an erasure of their identity.

People’s identities are complex. We also need to understand how the intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities affects someone’s experience while limiting stereotyping and assuming aspects of someone’s life without listening to their stories. As a queer person with a disability, I can speak from experience that my particular intersection has been incredibly challenging to navigate, and I’m still excavating myself as an adult, trying to undo the binary and heteronormative narratives I was taught through just existing as well as rebuild my self-esteem from constantly being put down by peers and adults growing up because of my disability. The two parts of my identity are inseparable. I didn’t have people telling me being queer is okay, and though my spouse and I still use the pronouns we were given at birth, we are still in a queer marriage because of my sexual identity. Assuming otherwise erases part of who I am.

Understanding the existence of heteronormativity in our society, how it is reinforced all around us, and the complexity of gender, sexual and intersectional identities are all important frameworks to start dismantling the normalization of heterosexuality in our society. We need to fully embrace our communities and the people in them, including the youth we serve, the mentors and staff. Working towards dismantling heteronormative assumptions can be challenging, but it is necessary in order to demand equity and to create a true sense of belonging for all who step through the thresholds at Friends of the Children–Portland.