In Nigeria, heteronormativity is the socially acceptable norm; simple and short—I’d say everywhere in the world really, but I haven’t been anywhere else so Nigeria. There is literally no room for anything outside of this standard, and anything that appears remotely different from this prescribed norm is either an unnecessary call for attention, a comedy skit or some spiritual attack or curse or whatever colourful terms religion chooses. With this deep societal conditioning impacting us daily, it should be no surprise that within the LGBTQIA+ minority, these heteronorms come into play.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, heteronormativity is defined as ‘denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.’ This term was coined by Queer theorist Michael Warner in 1991 “to illuminate the privileging of heterosexuality in social relations, which relegates sexual minorities to a marginal status position.” By the dictionary definition, heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the default setting for sexual orientation; meaning that romantic and sexual relations can only exist between a man and a woman. Man and woman, ergo the gender binary; which stays serving as the foundation for heteronorms, woven into every inch of our existence as people are still defined on male and female terms.
“There are pervasive stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, that define how we are all supposed to act, dress and speak and they serve no one. Anyone who defies these so-called norms becomes worthy of comments and scrutiny, and the LGBT community knows this all too well.”
– Ellen Page, Human Rights Campaign, 2014
When your perspective of the world is heteronormative, your view is coloured by the point where biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles meet. Your comprehension of, and interaction with society and people hinges on expectations measured through the lens of masculine and feminine; what those labels denote for those who identify by them, and your perception of who falls into those labels. The implications of heteronormativity in society go beyond just sexual and romantic relations; the expectations of society through this lens cover gender identity, gender roles, and sexuality. These expectations are fed to us from a very young age via socialisation practices dominant in any society. In my country Nigeria, we have heteronorms fed to us via traditional and cultural standards of living, religion, school, and mainstream media—norms that are defined within the confines of the male/female dichotomy (a.k.a the gender binary). For example, when the thought of marriage comes to the mind of the average Nigerian, the image that pops into their head is a man and a woman tying the knot. There is no room for (the possibility of) otherwise; this is buttressed by media via movies, cartoons, music videos, advertisements for any and everything—it is all drenched in the gender binary upon which heteronormativity stands. In school, the history we are taught about our culture has little to no mention of same-sex activities or trans* people; religion says marriage is a constitution upheld by members of opposing genders and cries damnation for the souls of those who are found doing otherwise.
From the earliest moments of learning and socialisation, our cognition is pressed with images, ideologies, and concepts centred on heteronorms presented to us as the standard to aspire to. As men, as women, a certain path is laid out and we are told that true success in life is only achieved when we walk these paths to the best of our ability. There is little to no room for outliers; if and when outliers present themselves, they are met with uproar and discrimination and an urgency to return to the status quo. These heteronormative standards go as far as what jobs one can aspire to and/or deserve, what type of clothing one should wear, what places one can go, how many partners one can have at a time, how long one’s hair should grow, when one can start living alone, whether or not one can have body hair, to what colours a person is allowed to wear—as a man or woman. Heteronorms dictate the tiniest aspects of our societies today and though the work of shattering these false norms seems cumbersome and futile? It is being done and causing a much-needed change too!
“Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding knows in one way or another that her stigmatisation is intricated with gender. … Being queer … means being able, more or less articulately, to challenge the common understanding of what gender difference means.”
– Michael Warner
Bearing in mind the weight of heteronorms on the average person from birth, it is easy to see how we bring these behaviours into the LGBTQIA+ community, and practice them in our spaces—as queer, gay, lesbian, transgender, non-binary, etc. I wish it were not the case but it is in fact, true. A dear friend and mentor of mine used to say to my partner and me jokingly; “I don’t want to see or hear that one of you is sagging tomorrow oh!” We would laugh it off with words of assurance that none of that would happen with us (my partner is femme and I am androgynous but pass as femme). Her warnings were not a joke; as the ED of a renowned LBQ NGO in Nigeria, she has the benefit of working with a large population of community members and has seen firsthand how couples change certain parts of themselves to fit into heteronorms in same-sex relationships manifests—her reference to clothing being one of them. When we see two people who identify as women and lesbian in a relationship, there is this knee-jerk need to establish who is the man and the woman—not necessarily gender-wise now. I often hear this (irritating) question, “So, who is the man?” The ‘man’ is usually whoever does what is considered masculine in the relationship—the one that has more money or dresses more masculine; the one who initiates sex more; and/or exhibits masculine mannerisms, etc. Well, here is a friendly reminder for us all:
THERE IS NO MAN IN A LESBIAN RELATIONSHIP!
Mirroring heteronormativity is why two studs (stud = masculine-presenting lesbian) in a relationship is not as ‘appealing’ as a stud and a femme in a relationship. This stud/femme versus femme/femme lesbian outline helps push the hyper-sexualisation of women narrative more; where the idea of two femmes is more appealing and welcoming than two studs. This is a very common phenomenon cishet men encourage when they applaud two sexually involved feminine presenting women but want to beat up two gay men. In the eyes of the average person, the masculine-presenting person/stud is the man, while the femme is the woman. Apart from sexual and romantic matters, we subscribe heteronorms to gender within the community when we see a ‘femme’ presenting non-binary person and can’t reconcile their supposed ‘masculine’ clothing with their physical appearance. The same applies to a person with beards and a flat chest wearing a skirt, nail polish and heels. A masculine-presenting lesbian is expected to dress more masculine all the time, wearing boxers and sports bras because lace and frilly things are for the ‘woman’, the femme. As community members, we inevitably mirror heteronorms when we apply the standards of gender roles in our community; the very same gender roles that are carved out of the gender binary.
IRONIC because heteronorms is the very thing we are against by existing and living as queer people.
Considering that everything has been neatly cut into a male/female dichotomy and fed to us from such an early age, the expectations are automatic when we face beings and bodies that exist outside these norms. And I understand how this can be inevitable because we were socialised from a young age to expect certain behaviours from certain persons. These norms also affect us individually especially when we find ourselves as the outliers, and the need to fit in outweighs our need to exist freely and true to ourselves initially—until awareness happens and in cases of internalised homo/bi/trans*-phobia, is overcome. Heteronorms put pressure on us mentally, emotionally and physically when we think of how to navigate this world and our respective societies.
Heteronormativity is going to be around for a long time because as a people globally, so much of our societal structure rides on the precedence of the gender binary. Until heteronorms are eliminated, we will continue to pass down the expectations they come with to our future generations—erasing the existence of queer bodies. Until we have a world where you are seen for who you are, not what you look like, how you dress or who you choose to love? We are far from being free.