Heteronormativity: What It Means and Why It's Harmful, According to Experts

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In 1991, social theorist Michael Warner coined the term “heteronormative” to describe the idea that heterosexuality is the default, and therefore superior, expression of sexuality. These days, people are increasingly ditching this belief system. Here’s a closer look at what heteronormativity is and why many experts say it’s so problematic.

What does heteronormative mean?

“The word heteronormative describes a way of thinking that sees heterosexuality as the proper and/or normal form of relationships, Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of You Can’t Fix Them—Because They’re Not Broken: A Sustainability Guide for Tired Helpers and Healers, tells Health. “Heteronormativity sees only two genders and says relationships are between two opposite-sex people,”

At the core of heteronormativity is a dichotomous understanding of sexuality (i.e. a person is either heterosexual or homosexual) and gender (a person is either a man or a woman). On top of that, there’s another layer—that these things are perpetual, and unable to change.

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The harm in heteronormativity

The view that all relationships are between cisgender, heterosexual people is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s an untrue assumption. As Eckler points out, there have always been non-heterosexual relationships and an acceptance of more than two genders throughout history and all over the world.

Beyond that, heteronormativity by definition excludes LGBTQ+ people. “So many of our structures are based on this assumption—everything from laws and greeting cards to forms at the doctor’s office,” Eckler says.

Heteronormative culture can reinforce homophobia and heterosexism (discrimination in favor of opposite-sex relations). “Heteronormativity also underlies discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA people because it views them as ‘abnormal’ and/or erases them,” Eckler says.

Heteronormativity leaves out other forms of sexuality and sexual expression, Gigi Engle, SKYN sex and intimacy expert, certified sex coach, sexologist, and author, tells Health. For starters, it excludes queer people, gay people, bisexual people, trans people, and those who don’t fall on a gender binary. “It’s exclusionary and presumptive,” Engle says. And by relegating those who fall outside of a heterosexual dynamic as “other,” it alienates, causes stigma, and could possibly incite violence.

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Heteronormativity is everywhere

Engle believes that it’s only through awareness and constant questioning of the status quo that we can see any real change in terms of heteronormativity as the default. “Awareness is key to making the world a more inclusive place for people of all sexualities,” she says.

Challenging heteronormativity needs to begin with the recognition that it’s in every facet of our culture, including pop culture. Think about movies, TV shows, music videos, and books—it’s still rare to see relationships that aren’t within a heterosexual binary. “This leaves out so many people and makes them feel like they aren’t normal,” Engle says. “Keeping an eye on our media consumption can help us be better equipped to stave off the trappings of heteronormative ideas IRL and help us all be more inclusive.”

“Being able to identify heteronormativity helps remind us that there are many kinds of people and many versions of relationships,” Eckler says. “Once we’re aware of it, we can work to be more inclusive in our structures and our language.”

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How to be anti-heteronormative

Reflecting on the language you and others use is a great place to start, Eckler says. “We can avoid gendered language when asking someone about relationships,” she explains. For instance, instead of asking “Do you have a boyfriend?” ask “Are you seeing anyone?”

“We can also look at how we talk about gender, remembering not to assume anyone’s gender and pronouns based on appearance,” Eckler adds.

According to Engle, the best way to be anti-heteronormative is to listen to people who are not heterosexual. “We need to be willing to re-educate ourselves, accept the biases that we may have (however subconscious), and be open to changing,” she says. “We need to be open to change and also to hearing criticism so we can adapt our behaviors to be more inclusive.”

Perhaps the hardest part of challenging heteronormativity is to call out friends and family when they propagate heteronormative, exclusionary ideals. “We need to be courageous,” Engle says. “We don’t need to attack anyone, but we do need to be willing to step up and be an ally to those who are minorities in this world.”

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The mental health burden of heteronormativity

One report published in 2018 found that 52% of LGBTQ+ people had experienced depression in the last year, and that they face discrimination in health care settings. Also, 41% of non-binary people had harmed themselves in the last year. And many of the respondents reported feeling anxious and isolated.

“Heteronormativity compounds that feeling,” says Eckler. “It’s also challenging and exhausting to have to explain yourself.”

If you can relate to this, talking with other LGBTQ+ people and trusted friends or family can help relieve some of your distress. There’s also a growing body of LGBTQ+ therapists and ally therapists out there, if you need professional help. For urgent support, get in touch with a crisis hotline, such as Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860), Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386), and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

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