Heteronormativity posits heterosexuality as the dominant sexual orientation and deems it normal.  Heteronormativity alludes to the idea that everyone a person sees in society is assumed to be heterosexual, as this is the “normal” way in which people view each other.  Heteronormativity maintains the notion that heterosexuality is the norm and everything else becomes the other. According to Carbado (2004), the normalization of heterosexuality is only achieved through the marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, two-spirit and people who do not label their sexual identity.  Heteronormativity is the framework in which heterosexism operates and works to maintain heterosexist power and privilege. Yolanda Dreyer believes, “heterosexism leads to prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence. It is driven by fear and hatred (Dreyer 5).”[1]


Heteronormativity describes the processes through which social institutions and social policies reinforce the belief that human beings are heterosexual and fall into two distinct sex/gender categories: female/male and woman/man (Queen, M., Farrell, K., & Gupta, N., 2004). Heteronormativity supports dominant socially constructed gender roles. As an ideology it reproduces the belief that the female/male and woman/man dichotomies exist in order to fulfill complementary heterosexual roles.  This alludes to the idea that there is no room for anything other than heterosexual female/male and each gender is concretely defined. “Heteronormativity then requires that all discussions of gendered identity and opportunity be framed strictly in terms of this dichotomy, forcing gendered actors to be labeled as either ‘women’ or ‘men,’ regardless of the identification that the actors might give themselves (Lovaas and Jenkins 98).”[2]



Discussion of term

The term Heteronormativity was coined by Michael Warner in 1991,[3] in one of the first major works of queer theory. The concept has roots in Gayle Rubin's notion of the "sex/gender system" and Adrienne Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality.[4] In a series of 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.[5][6]

Cathy J. Cohen defines heteronormativity as the practices and institutions "that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and 'natural' within society".[7] Her work emphasizes the importance of sexuality as implicated in broader structures of power, intersecting with and inseparable from race, gender, and class oppression. She points to the examples of single mothers on welfare (particularly women of color) and sex workers, who may be heterosexual, but do not prescribe to dominant female gender roles, and thus not perceived as "normal, moral, or worthy of state support" or legitimation.[8]

Heteronormativity has been used in the exploration and critique of the traditional norms of sex, gender identity, gender roles and sexuality, and their social implications.

Heteronormativity and Patriarchy

Heteronormativity is often strongly associated with (and sometimes even confused with) patriarchy. Patriarchy describes any society where males as a category have social advantages over women, with men in control of the political, economical, and ideological spheres (Naiman, 2004). Heteronormativity normalizes dominant gendered behaviour.  Dominant gendered behaviour is constructed and normalized by patriarchy. These ideologies create hierarchies within sexual orientation and gender, placing and privileging heterosexual males above all others.

Heteronormativity maintains gender roles by determining and prescribing masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics to males and females. Through socialization, these gendered behaviors are assigned and normalized. Dominant gender roles are monitored and reinforced by some institutions such as schools, families and religions.

Constructing “the other” within heteronormativity

The term “cultural imperialism” in Young’s (2000) article Five Faces of Oppression emphasizes the process of othering.   According to Young (2000), “to experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it as the Other.” (p. 44). Cultural imperialism in Young’s work is relational to the concept of heteronormativity.

Any individual or community that identifies outside of the dominant notions of heterosexuality is then thought of as the ‘other’ in society. Within heteronormativity the other includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, two-spirit and people who do not label their sexual identity.  The process of othering renders others as invisible and excluded because of the differentiation from the dominant norm.

Challenging the idea of heteronormativity

Challenges to the label "heteronormative" may result from a belief that the description of a structure as heteronormative implies that the normative structure is inherently wrong. 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 principles or justifications for the normality and the appropriateness of those structures.


  1. ^ Dreyer,Yolanda. “Hegemony and the Internalisation of Homophobia Caused by Heteronormativity.” Department of Practical Theology. 2007. University of Pretoria.5 May 2008 [www.up.ac.za/dspace/bitstream/2263/2741/1/Dreyer_Hegemony(2007).pdf.]
  2. ^ 1. Lovaas, Karen, and Mercilee M. Jenkins. “Charting a Path through the ‘Desert of Nothing.’” Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. 8 July 2006. Sage Publications Inc. 5 May 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?isbn=1412914434>.
  3. ^ Warner, Michael (1991), "Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet". Social Text; 9 (4 [29]): 3-17
  4. ^Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5:631-60, 1980.
  5. ^ Samuel A. Chambers, ‘Telepistemology of the Closet; Or, the Queer Politics of Six Feet Under’. Journal of American Culture 26.1: 24-41, 2003
  6. ^ Samuel A. Chambers, "Revisiting the Closet: Reading Sexuality in Six Feet Under, in Reading Six Feet Under. McCabe and Akass, eds. IB Taurus, 2005.
  7. ^ Cathy J. Cohen. 'Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queen: The radical potential of queer politics?' in Black Queer Studies. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Duke UP, 2005. 24
  8. ^ Cathy J. Cohen. 'Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queen: The radical potential of queer politics?' in Black Queer Studies. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Duke UP, 2005. 26

Additional References

Carbado, Deven (2004). Men, feminism and heterosexual privilege. In L. Heldke & P. O’Connor (Eds.) Oppression, Privilege and Resistance: Theoretical Perspectives on Racism, Sexism and Heterosexism (pp. 401 – 405). New York: McGraw Hill.

Naiman, J. (2004). How societies work: Class, power and change in a Canadian context. Toronto: Thomson Nelson.

Queen, M., Farrell, K., & Gupta, N. (2004). Part one: Interrupting heteronormativity. In M. Queen, K. Farrell, & N. Gupta (Eds.), Interrupting Heteronormativity (pp. 1 – 12). New York: Syracuse University.

Young, I. M. (2000). Five faces of oppression. In M. Adams (Ed.), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (pp. 35 - 49). New York: Routledge.


See also