One of the most insidious sexpectations is heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the belief that it is normal for people to be one of two distinct and complementary genders (man or woman), be heterosexual, and follow a particular life pathway with specific gender-determined roles (marriage and babies, providers and caregivers, etc.).
A heteronormative view therefore involves the alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles. Although some would say we have made great progress since the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties in terms of acceptance of gender and sexual diversity, heteronormativity is the reason same- sex-oriented people still have to “come out” – because it is assumed that they are straight until they do so.
GENDER BINARY AND GENDER ROLES
Gender binary is the practice of only recognising two distinct genders: man and woman. It is essential to heteronormativity because the scripted gender roles are based on the distinctions of man and woman. If the genders weren’t opposite and completely separate, it would be much harder to define men as better in the business and provider roles and women as better in the domestic and caregiver roles.
From the moment that the nurses give female babies a pink blanket and male babies a blue blanket, expectations are set on us about how we should dress, feel, think, dream and be. Boys “should” play with cars and girls “should” play with dolls. Boys are more active and aggressive; girls are more gentle and kind. Boys are more spatial and girls more verbal. Boys use the men’s public bathrooms and girls use the women’s. A pilot is a man … and I’ll bet you pictured a female nurse in the description above!
Although there are some commonly found hormonal and brain development-related gender differences in young children, the differences are small and human brains cannot be categorised into two distinct classes of male brain or female brain (Joel et al., 2015). As such, most of these presumptions are rooted in heteronormativity and the behaviour and development that little boys and little girls show are largely due to “nurture”: the environment they grow up in and life experiences they are encouraged to have.
If you identify as cisgender – where your personal identity corresponds with your birth sex – then you are, physically at least, in line with heteronormative expectations. You may, however, come into conflict with these expectations if you perform gender in a way that does not subscribe to the patriarchal gender roles or stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. For example, if you are a man who is not into ball- sports, cries in sad movies or wears high heels, or a woman who is a construction worker, shaves her head, or doesn’t like children, you will more than likely have to justify or explain your preferences at some point in your life, and probably multiple times.
In response to this conflict with heteronormative expectations and the resulting rejection and ostracism they experience, some people choose to identify as “gender fluid” – not allowing themselves to be defined at either the male end or the female end of the gender spectrum. Some prefer to adopt a genderless identity, calling themselves “gender neutral”.
Transgender men and women identify as the gender opposite to the one they were assigned at birth because it better represents their identity.
‘From as early as I can remember I’ve always felt different. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but I just didn’t feel entirely like a boy. I was cross-dressing in my sister’s clothes. I loved playing with her and her dolls. Eventually I went on the internet and typed in “boy feels like girl” and the result that came up was “transgender”.’ – Ashleigh
Very few of us question our gender assumptions. Gender is one of those sexpectations that get passed off as “normal” or “natural” and internalised as objective “truth”. Therefore, particularly if we have a cisgendered identity, we may be vulnerable to minimising gender-dissonant parts of ourselves and being relatively gender-diversity insensitive when relating to other people. For example, a cisgendered man might suppress the desire to get a mani-pedi or make fun of himself when he gets one in an effort to excuse this gender-dissonant behaviour. Friends of this man may also ridicule and tease him for his well-groomed hands and feet.
The exception that proves the rule occurs with people who look stereotypically gender “queer”. Because they look “queer”, our heteronormative assumptions are broken and most people will be cautious of assuming their gender preference. However, just because someone looks like a “normal” guy, does not mean that they don’t prefer to use the pronouns she/her.
Outside of gender-binary sexpectations we also get gender roles. Ideas of male and female roles are in every part of our culture. In the simple act of dining out we encounter them multiple times. Imagine you are a waiter at a prestigious restaurant serving a male and a female dining together. Who would you offer the wine list to? The bill? If you didn’t know already, who would you guess ordered the steak and beer? And who the cocktail and salad? Even queer folk report that they experience gender-role assumptions placed on them because of their perceived masculinity or femininity.
‘My partner usually gets the cheque placed in front of her – she is very androgynous-looking whereas I am more feminine. People think that because she looks like “the man” in the relationship she is the one that pays and makes all the financial decisions.’ – Cath
EXERCISE: GENDER-BINARY SEXPECTATIONS
Which of these things do you associate with females and which with males?
Burping, Snoring, Rescuing, Finance, Ballet, Nanny, Emotional, Screwdriver, Boxing, Garbage collector, Flowers, Extreme sport, Secretary, Facial, Shopping, Leg hair, Diamonds, Handbag, Millionaire, Love songs, Anger
- What interests, roles, feelings, clothes, activities and abilities do you have that are in line with the heteronormative expectations ascribed to your birth sex?
- What interests, roles, feelings, clothes, activities and abilities do you have that are dissonant from the expectations ascribed to your birth sex?
- How open are you with the parts of you that don’t meet heteronormative expectations of your birth gender?
- Have you ever felt shamed/pressured/judged in these areas?
- Have you ever teased someone or made jokes at their expense for gender-dissonant behaviour or preferences?
- If you are in a relationship, are you aware of falling into any “natural” gender roles around things such as the division of labour?