Sex & Gender

growing up queer: a brief lesson on hetero- and homonormativity

March 5, 2013

If growing up a Black kid listening to “white” post-hardcore and screamo music in suburban northern Virginia didn’t make me feel odd enough, I too had to cope with the social consequences of my sexuality and effeminacy. Constantly bombarded with remarks on my mannerisms, the feminine inflections in my voice and the way I ran in gym class, I realized that something about me was contradictory to preconceived notions of what a Black male “should” be. When I came to college I learned the term heteronormative.

Words by Justin Allen, AFROPUNK Contributor*

Heteronormativity describes the social constructions from which we draw our understandings of what is “normal” and “abnormal” in relation to gender and sexuality. Heterosexual, cisgender, monogamous relationships are prioritized in relation to queer identities and alternative relationship structures. This is evident, for example, in the exclusion of discussions of queer relationships from public school sex education and in gender-segregated bathrooms. Marriage, too, is idealized as the “appropriate” goal to which said relationships should aspire. Heteronormative structure is upheld by a fulfillment of the gender role requirements of male and female to which queer identities are contradictory. Men pay for meals on dates with women, they get married, they have kids, fathers are the protectors, mothers are the nurturers; but what about trans people, gay men, lesbians, masculine women, feminine men, asexual, bisexual, intersex and polyamorous people? What about people that don’t want to get married, people that just want to date, people that get married but don’t want kids? What about everyone else?

While these terms and their definitions may seem lofty, breaking such gender roles can carry severe consequences for those who do not fit them. I understood this growing up, even before I was exposed to startling stories and statistics of violence and institutionalized prejudice against queer people. I would change the way I spoke, the way I walked, the way I gestured to conceal my effeminacy, from my peers so to stop them from investigating my sexuality and from myself so to prove that I could overcome it—that I could be “normal” if I really wanted to be.

My junior year of high school I stopped hiding, but prescribed to another structure for which I only recently learned a word. Homonormativity describes the assimilation of queer people to heteronormative structures and ideas. This is most discrete in masculine-feminine depictions of gay couples —nearly always white and cisgender— on mainstream television, such as Kurt and Blaine on Glee, and most obvious in the fight for marriage equality in which gay couples seek to assimilate to an institution that is inherently unequal in its exclusion of non-married people from certain rights. Homonormativity is the desire of certain queer people to conform, an effort often tied to privilege. Issues such as the disproportionate number of queer homeless youth and the criminalization of HIV-positive people, for example, are less publicized than issues surrounding gay marriage, a movement of which cis, white, gay couples are most often the faces.

I don’t find these terms necessary in understanding the different dynamics of our society, I should specify; they illuminated these dynamics for me, but there are different ways to understanding these issues. This article isn’t to suggest non-conformity as necessary, either, but rather the necessity of a society in which fluidity is acceptable, in which true equality is not obscured by an agenda in which heterosexual, cisgender identities are still centralized. No one should hide or be hidden because of the prioritization of certain identities over our own. And while the aforementioned terms require much closer attention, especially in relation to the power structure amongst race, gender and many other different forms of privilege, one purpose of this post is to create a conversation about the complexities of the contradictions many people’s identities present to preconceived societal ideas. Something any reader of AFROPUNK, I’m sure, knows plenty about.
I leave you with Grace Jones:

* Justin Allen on Twitter: @justn_a