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Heteronormativity is a term used in the discussion of sexual behaviour, gender, and society, primarily within the fields of queer theory and gender theory. It is used to describe (and frequently to criticise) the manner in which many social institutions and social policies are seen to reinforce certain beliefs. These include the belief that human beings fall into two distinct and complementary categories, male and female; that sexual and marital relations are normal only when between two people of different genders; and that each gender has certain natural roles in life.

Thus, physical sex, gender identity, and gender roles should in any given person align to either all-male or all-female norms, and heterosexuality is considered to be the only normal sexual orientation. The norms this term describes or criticises might be overt, covert, or implied. Those who identify and criticise heteronormativity say that it distorts discourse by stigmatising alternative concepts of both sexuality and gender and makes certain types of self-expression more difficult.


The term was coined by Michael Warner in 1991 in his Social Text article, “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet” (Social Text, 1991; 9 (4 [29]): 3-17.), one of the first major works of queer theory. The concept can probably be traced back to the work of Adrienne Rich and her notion of compulsory heterosexuality. In a series of recent articles Samuel A. Chambers has tried to theorize heteronormativity more explicitly, calling for an understanding of heteronormativity as a concept that reveals the expectations, demands, and constraints produced when heterosexuality is taken as normative within a society.

It has been used in the exploration and critique of the traditional norms of sex, gender identity, gender roles and sexuality, and of the social implications of those institutions. It is descriptive of a dichotomous system of categorization that directly links social behavior and self-identity with one’s genitalia. That is to say (among other things) that, because there are strictly defined concepts of maleness and femaleness, there are similarly expected behaviors for both males and females.

Originally conceived to describe the norms against which non-heterosexuals struggle, it quickly became incorporated into both the gender and the transgender debate. It is also often used in postmodernist and feminist debates. Those who use this concept frequently point to the difficulty posed to those who hold a dichotomous view of sexuality by the presence of clear exceptions — from freemartins in the bovine world to intersex human beings with the sexual characteristics of both sexes. These exceptions are taken as direct evidence that neither sex nor gender are concepts that can be reduced to an either/or proposition.

In a heteronormative society, the binary choice of male and female for one’s gender identity is viewed as leading to a lack of possible choice about one’s gender role and sexual identity. Also, included in the norms established by society for both genders is the requirement that the individuals should feel and express desire only for partners of the opposite sex. In the work of Eve Sedgwick, for example, this heteronormative pairing is viewed as defining sexual orientation exclusively in terms of the sex and gender of the person one chooses to have sex with, ignoring other preferences one might have about sex.

In a heteronormative society, men and women are interpreted to be natural complements, socially as well as biologically, and especially when it comes to reproduction. Woman and men are necessary for procreation, therefore male/female coupling is assumed to be the norm.

Heteronormativity and patriarchy

Heteronormativity is often strongly associated with (and sometimes even confused with) patriarchy. However, a patriarchal system does not necessarily have a binary gender system, and vice versa; it merely privileges the masculine gender over all others, regardless of the number of others.

Still, heteronormativity is often seen as one of the pillars of a patriarchal society: The traditional role of men is reinforced and perpetuated through heteronormative mores, rules, and even laws that distinguish between individuals based on their apparent sex or their refusal to conform to the gender roles that are considered normal to their society. Consequently, feminism can be seen as concerned with fighting heteronormativity and the prescriptions it is seen to have for women.

Defence of heteronormative structures

Heteronormativity is a way of describing social structures built around a certain gender model. Challenges to the label may result from a belief that the description of a structure as heteronormative implies that the normative structure is inherently wrong. One of the most common criticisms of the concept of heteronormativity is that it is politically correct. A well-known recent example of this was a March 11, 2005, FOX News story which referred to the debate over a heteronormative comment made by actress Jada Pinkett Smith at Harvard University as “politically correct nuttiness”. [1]

This description of a term as political correctness may be applied for a number of reasons. When used as a criticism, it often implies that the use of such carefully chosen wording and terms is a form of repression of speech, although this implies that the articulation of important concepts is prevented or hindered by politically correct regulation of speech by intellectual elites.

However, the basic fear that this criticism represents is that those who describe current social structures as heteronormative may wish to undermine the fundamental assumption that sex and gender are naturally dichotomous.

Critics may also fear that those who challenge heteronormativity render moot any justifications for heteronormative social structures, such as the appeal to natural law or certain religious notions. Such people may actually consider departures from the heteronormative structure (e.g., LGBTI — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) as abnormal, diseased, or immoral. Therefore, when social structures are described or criticized as being heteronormative, this may be seen as a challenge not only to the structures themselves, but to the underlying religious and philosophical justifications for the normality and the appropriateness of those structures.

The possible responses from those who subscribe to heteronormativity to individuals and groups who depart from heteronormative experience range from tolerance, pity, and shunning to attempts to help members of these groups gain normalcy through compassionate, forceful, or ultimately even violent means.

Events which have brought the idea of heteronormativity more into the foreground of social discourse, such as the Jada Pinkett Smith speech, do not necessarily represent such treatment. Ms Pinkett Smith’s comments were not homophobic in that they did not represent active criticism of LGBTI people. However, her comments were heteronormative in that they made the assumption that normal relationships are only those which occur between a man and a woman. Critics that describe her speech as heteronormative stated, “Our position is that the comments weren’t homophobic, but the content was specific to male-female relationships.” [2]

Social and political manifestations of heteronormativity

There are many things that are often pointed to to illustrate the concept of heteronormativity, both historically and in contemporary society.

Intersex people

Intersex people have biological characteristics which are not unambiguously either male or female. If such a condition is detected, intersex people are almost always assigned a gender at birth. Surgery (usually involving modification to the genitalia) is often performed to produce an unambiguously male or female body, without the individual’s consent. The child is then usually raised and enculturated as a member of the assigned gender, which may or may not match their gender identity throughout life or some remaining sex characteristics (for example, genes or internal sex organs).

Some individuals who have been subjected to these interventions have objected that had they been consulted at an age when they were able to give informed consent then they would have declined these surgical and social interventions.

Gender theorists argue that gender assignment to intersex individuals is a clear case of heteronormativity, in which biological reality is actually denied in order to maintain a binary set of sexes and genders.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people

Lesbian, gay, bisexual behaviour is strongly disapproved of in many societies (bisexual behaviour is more frequently tolerated historically and in many societies), both socially and legally. Many argue that this is because it challenges the heteronormative position that sexual relations exist purely for reproductive means. If it cannot be suppressed so far as to at least disappear from the public view, then the notion is said to be encouraged that gay men are not really “men”, but have a strong female component (and vice versa), or that in a non-heterosexual partnership there is always a “male” (active) and a “female” (passive) partner.

This has in some cases gone so far that homosexuals were encouraged (in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s) or even forced (in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s) to undergo sexual reassignment surgery procedures to “fix” their sex or gender.

Transgender people

Transgender people often seek gender reassignment therapy, thereby violating the assumption that only unambiguous female or male bodies exist. They may not develop a gender identity that corresponds to their body; in fact, some never develop one that is plainly male or female. Often, they do not behave according to the gender role assigned to them, even before transitioning; this is especially true for trans men, but also many trans women.

After transitioning, transgender individuals often identify as gay or lesbian, and are often lumped together with homosexual people (relative to their birth sex), although this is almost never correct. While some trans men did identify as lesbians for a time (although still a minority), trans women who identified as gay men are very rare.

Some societies consider transgender behavior a crime worthy of capital punishment, including Saudi Arabia and many other non-western nations. In other countries, certain forms of violence against transgender people may be tacitly endorsed when prosecutors and juries refuse to investigate, prosecute, or convict those who perform the murders and beatings (currently, in some parts of North America and Europe [3] [4]). Other societies have considered transgender behavior as a psychiatric illness serious enough to justify institutionalization.

Certain restrictions on the ability of transgender people to obtain gender-related medical treatment has been blamed on heteronormativity. (See transsexuality) In medical communities with these restrictions, patients have the option of either suppressing transsexual behaviour and conforming to the norms of their birth sex (which may be necessary to avoid social stigma or even violence), or adhering strictly to the norms of their “new” sex in order to qualify for gender reassignment surgery and hormonal treatments — if any treatment is offered at all.

These norms might include dress and mannerisms, choice of occupation, choice of hobbies, and the gender of one’s mate (heterosexuality required). (For example, transwomen might be expected to trade a “masculine” job for a more “feminine” one — e.g. become a secretary instead of a lawyer.) Attempts to achieve an ambiguous or “alternative” gender identity would not be supported or allowed. Some medical communities, especially since the 1990s, have adopted more accommodating practices, but many have not.

Many governments and official agencies have also been criticized as having heteronormative systems that classify people into “male” and “female” genders in problematic ways. Different jurisdictions use different definitions of gender, including by genitalia, DNA, hormone levels (including some official sports bodies), or birth sex (which means one’s gender cannot ever be officially changed).

Sometimes gender reassignment surgery is a requirement for an official gender change, and often “male” and “female” are the only choices available, even for intersex or transgender people. Because most governments only allow heterosexual marriages, official gender changes can have implications for related rights and privileges, such as child custody, inheritance, and medical decision-making.


  • Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5:631-60, 1980.
  • Michel Warner, ed. Fear of a Queer Planet. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Samuel A. Chambers, ‘Telepistemology of the Closet; Or, the Queer Politics of Six Feet Under’. Journal of American Culture 26.1: 24-41, 2003.
  • Samuel A. Chambers, Revisiting the Closet: Reading Sexuality in Six Feet Under. In Reading Six Feet Under. McCabe and Akass, eds. IB Taurus, 2005.
  • Chrys Ingraham, The Heterosexual Imaginary: Feminist Sociology and Theories of Gender, Sociological Theory, July 1994
  • Jillian Todd Weiss, The Gender Caste System – Identity, Privacy, and HeteronormativityThe article can be found online.

See also