Why heteronormativity is toxic
Mharla Francesca Santiano
Times are changing. It has always been a goal to grow not just as individuals, but also as a society free from manmade identity boxes, ancient mentalities of how a person should act or speak, and ingrained toxic concepts that limit our ever-growing perspectives. Sadly, some of these ingrained toxicities are too difficult to erase from a society’s consciousness. And that includes heteronormativity.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines heteronormativity as the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard for determining normal sexual behavior and that male-female differences and gender roles are the natural and immutable essentials in normal human relations. Hannah Witton, a sexual health and education YouTuber describes this as a concept that “asserts heterosexuality as the only sexual orientation.” In a deeper sense, she also points this out as an “institutionalized way of keeping marginalized people marginalized.” Heteronormativity takes us back and farther away from an inclusive discourse, and eventually, away from an inclusive society.
This idea has begun to worm its way in the early days of our childhood. During these times, everything we learn from school and in our own homes gets registered easily into our minds, and quickly affects how we look at the world. Certainly, it’s not our fault that most of who we consider as parents come in pairs of a man and a woman, but institutions spreading this idea should be blamed if we grow up thinking that parents’ faces are only of a man and a woman.
Recently, I had to answer an information sheet for my little brother. The form already has a template for parents: a mother and a father. I have attended this school since kindergarten, and until now, inclusivity may still not be part of the institution’s goals. Since we don’t belong in the “usual” dynamics of a family, there’s always a silent reminder upon my brother’s head that families come in many forms: a single mother, a single father, two moms, two dads, and everything in between. But going through these forms every year is tiring.
Besides forms, the books that children read at home and school have a much bigger impact. Families are always paired with drawings of a man and a woman as parents. In religion classes, they have to think of two-sentence ways on how to make their mother and father proud. School textbooks have always been under a heteronormative light, giving children the idea that a family is and will always be composed of a man and a woman. A wife and a husband will be etched in their brains as a “normal” set of parents.
They would grow up looking for a partner of the opposite sex to portray a “valid” family as presented in their textbooks — because how could a school textbook go wrong?
Who wears the pants?
Brookyn Reece of An Injustice! emphasized that asking who wears the pants in a relationship is not okay. It’s homophobic, misogynistic, and a bad icebreaker. This question also carries the same annoyance as, “Who pays the bill?” These are all just unfunny iterations of asking who’s the dominant one in the relationship. One shouldn’t ask this question in the first place because it’s no one’s business but the couple’s. Also, no one really asks this to straight couples, right?
Asking who wears the pants in a same-sex relationship does not only invalidate their relationship, but also reinforces the primitive idea that one has to wear pants, one has to be working, or one has to be a “man,” as if couples have to follow a heteronormative mold built from misogyny. Also, asking the same question to a sapphic couple just doesn’t make sense, does it?
Asking two men in a relationship the same question isn’t just absurd, it’s also homophobic. The question asserts that one is valid enough to be a man, at the same time invalidating the other partner’s role in the relationship, making him less of a man; when both are men to begin with — no matter what dynamic the couples prefer to have.
The question also doesn’t sit right with people who identify as non-binary. For some, they have gone through a tedious journey of becoming independent from society’s gender binary. And being asked this question only forces them to put themselves back in a box to give you the answer that you want.
To some, the question and the hundreds of variants it has may just be a “harmless” conversation starter, but it is actually built by toxic assumptions rooted in a heteronormative outlook on life. Reece reminds us, before asking this question (that shouldn’t be asked in the first place): “ask yourself why it’s relevant.”
Detach the norm
These are only a few ways of how heteronormativity is seen and inscribed in the many veins of what makes up the consciousness of our country. Heteronormativity is seen everywhere. It’s seen in clip-arts of a man and a woman during Valentine’s Day. It’s seen in pieces of advice for a married couple, and how it’s assumed that it’s always a wife and a husband. It’s seen in innocent examples of how a family should be, unconsciously creating an illusion for a learning generation.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros is one of the few legislators who strive for inclusivity through the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill. Sen. Robinhood Padilla is also pushing for the passage of a same-sex civil union bill, giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals. Legislative changes are vital, but the same importance should also be carried in educating Filipinos on the wide range of sexual and gender identities, orientations, and expressions.
Representation also does matter and makes a difference when these norms are challenged, and better, non-existent. The iWantTFC series Sleep With Me (2022) by Samantha Lee presents a blooming love between two women with all the angst and yearning in between. In all its six episodes, their sexualities were never questioned. It simply existed — because it’s normal. Changing Partners (2017) by Dan Villegas also erased this norm by telling a story from the perspectives of straight and same-sex couples. And recently, Drag Race Philippines (2022) also does not only give Filipino drag queens and artists a platform to showcase their craft, but also stirs an evolving conversation of gender expression and sexual identity.
It’s true that we have already come a long way to render heteronormativity irrelevant, but there are still undeniable traces of the idea still engraved in daily conversations, unspoken thoughts, microaggressions, and even political decisions. If this idea continues to live on, we are not only hindering ourselves as progressive individuals. We are also hindering a whole nation to reach a status of true inclusivity.