Challenging everyday heteronormativity
I have lost count of the number of times that we’ve been told that the Troll is ‘going to break a lot of girls’ hearts when he gets older’ or that ‘all the girls at nursery will need to watch out for this charmer’, or, more recently, at the drop-in nursery we attend, that ‘he’s already found himself a girlfriend’ when another parent saw him happily playing in the sandpit with one of the girls. All these are examples of heteronormativity in action.
Heteronormativity is the idea that binary gender identity (male or female), attraction and relationships between one man and one woman, and penis in vagina sex, are the norm, and that every other form of sex and sexuality is either not normal, or at least not as normal as this. It makes the assumption that people are cisgender (identify with the gender they were born with) and that they are heterosexual, ignoring the myriad of other sexual orientations that exist on the spectrum of human sexuality.
Heteronormativity is a problem because if you are not a cisgender heterosexual, as the Troll might not be, you are constantly confronted with the idea that you are not normal, that who you are and what you do is strange or wrong, leaving you feeling excluded, marginalised, or having a significant part of who you are ignored.
I wasn’t always as conscious of this problem or the need to tackle it. A couple of years ago (in what feels like another lifetime now), I attended a seminar organised by the Norwegian Humanist Association with lots of interesting talks and discussions on how to talk about love, life and everything else with teenagers. One talk in particular, Åse Røthing’s on teaching sexuality in the classroom, really stuck with me, and genuinely changed how I think and talk. I’m much more conscious of avoiding being heteronormative when I teach, and ever since the Troll came along, I have been even more acutely aware of just how pervasive heteronormativity is.
Heteronormativity breeds systemic privilege for straight people. This heterosexual privilege checklist is an thought-provoking (and sobering) list of everyday things that heterosexual people can count on or not even have to think about on a daily basis, which non-heterosexual people must regularly confront. This heterosexuality questionnaire highlights how ridiculous heteronormative thinking is and how hard it can be on people who are not heterosexual.
Heterosexual people don’t have to explain why they like the people and things they do (or don’t); they don’t have their masculinity or femininity questioned; they don’t get told ‘it’s just a phase’; they are represented in the media without being reduced to crutches and stereotypes; their sexuality isn’t the totality of who they are; their sexual orientation isn’t used as a pejorative; perhaps most depressingly of all, they aren’t criminals according to the laws of 74 countries for just being who they are.
Whatever the Troll’s gender and sexual orientation is and ends up being, I never want him to feel any of those things. It should go without saying that I want him to be happy and secure in who he is, and that I hope he’s able to prioritise having positive relationships and open communication (and when he’s old enough, pleasurable sex) over 'being normal' or worrying about not being normal.
The banal, mundane nature of comments like ‘he's going to break a lot of girls' hearts when he gets older’, which I am sure are always well meant, show just how ingrained heteronormative thinking is in society. Each time it happens with the Troll, I have to take a deep breath and assess whether or not it is the time and place to call the person out on it. Almost always, I decide it is, and my usual response is to butt in as quickly as possible and say, in what I hope is my unconfrontational tone, ‘or boys’. Sometimes I get a knowing, apologetic nod, sometimes it’s a confused 'what the hell are you talking about' look; other times it just gets glossed over. Each time, though, I hope that I planted a little seed in that person's mind that might get them to examine their unconscious prejudices, just like Røthing did for me.