It is a cultural commonplace that there are two and only two genders: male and female. While some have argued that there is actually only one gender (man being the norm, woman being the one who is ‘not-the-norm’) and used it as a basis for explaining patriarchal mistreatment, it seems more accurate to say that there are more than ‘just’ two genders; that the ‘heteronormative binary’ (normalization of heterosexuality) is not only inaccurate, but actively hurtful to large groups of people -those who fall ‘in between’ or ‘outside’ that binary.
This theory gives rise to some crucial questions one must ask: Do we look at gender as a spectrum? How many genders are there? Where does sex come into the picture?
To understand the answers to these questions, we need to first understand what heteronormative binary is. The heteronormative binary is a very fancy way of saying “two genders”. Basically, it refers to the idea that there are only two genders (man and woman), and that being one means NOT being the other. It states that sexual and marital relations are only fitting between people of opposite genders. Consequently, a ‘heteronormative’ view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles. Heteronormativity is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia.
There are many books and poems about and on gay love and same-sex relationships. You have sections from “Leaves Of Grass” by Walt Whitman, “Crush” by Richard Siken, “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, “Prayers for Bobby” by Leroy Aarons, “Chelsea Boy” by Craig Moreau, and “Queer Dog” by Gerry Pearlberg, among several others. Then why is the heteronormative view, which is clearly discriminatory, so prevalent in our society?
The fault lies somewhere, among other things, in the education system as well. The books in our schools define gender according to the heteronormative binary. There is no literature about same-sex love or marriage in high schools and colleges, but there are numerous ballads and stories on straight couples and relationships. So our youth is taught to think ‘straight’– the ideology of heteronormativity – and they grow up thinking that all love and relationships are heterosexual, and that homosexual behaviour (as it is not conforming to the ‘norm’) is abnormal.
This leads to ignorance about LGBTQ individuals which is transformed into insensitivity towards them. It then leads to rights violation, and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. This might be why Celia Kitzinger has described heteronormativity as “the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is produced as a natural, unproblematic, taken-for-granted phenomenon.”
The idea of ‘normal’ is not just for gender but also for sex. Intersex people, for example, have biological characteristics that are ambiguous – neither ‘typically’ male nor female. If such a condition is detected, intersex people in most present-day societies are almost always assigned a ‘normative’ sex shortly after birth. Surgery (usually involving modification to the genitalia) is often performed in an attempt to produce an unambiguously male or female body, with the parents’—rather than the individual’s—consent. The child is then usually raised as a cisgender member of the assigned sex, which may or may not match their emergent gender identity throughout life or some remaining sex characteristics (chromosomes, genes, or sex organs).
Once we have realized the fact that heteronormativity is one of the most significant realities of adolescents’ day to day experiences and interactions in school, school is the first place to start with – to challenge these concepts, and to introduce ‘alternative’ perspectives, stories and narratives.
Both teachers and students should be invited to interactive sessions and/or workshops on heteronormativity and homophobia to sensitize them, and to initiate discussions around alternative sexualities, genders, and relationships. School counselors are well positioned to reach out to individual students, teachers, and the school community for the same goal. Schools should have zero-tolerance for sexuality-based bullying and discrimination.