Now that Pride month is over in the U.S. (boo!), all our favorite stores are back on their cis-/heteronormative sales train. Yesterday I passed by some coffee mugs branded with, “Soon To Be Her Mr.” and “Soon To Be His Mrs.” (I’m a Maxxinista for life, but T.J. Maxx sure has some gaudy heteronormative merchandise.)
It’s possible that our neighborhood lady-loving ladies already bought up all of the “Soon To Be Her Mrs.” mugs. It’s possible that queer ladies are just too practical to waste our harder-earned money on novelty mugs. But it’s most likely that the wholesaler or the retailer didn’t think twice about the heteronormativity they were selling.
Heteronormativity and cisnormativity are insidious. In this post, I’ll illuminate why they’re dangerous, where they manifest, and what you can do to help dismantle them.
Our comrades over at The Queer Dictionary have said it best: heteronormativity is the belief or assumption that all people are heterosexual or that heterosexuality is the default or “normal” state of human being. It has deep and historical roots in homophobia, gender stereotypes, and misogyny.
Cisnormativity is the belief or assumption that all people are cisgender: having bodies that align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Said another way, transgender, nonbinary, and intersex folks are not cisgender. Cisnormativity too has roots in many forms of societal oppression.
Before we dig into some of the arenas where cis-/heteronormativity strikes, let’s identify some of the wounds they inflict.
Cis-/heteronormativity tells children that there is one route to normalcy – and that route might not be open to them, their loved ones, or their neighbors.
Cis-/heteronormativity tells queer and trans folks that we are less than, that we are abnormal, that we are “other”. It tells us that we are a societal burden. It stokes the flames of trauma that so many of us carry. It robs us of our right to health and happiness.
Cis-/heteronormativity tells straight and cisgender folks that they are better because they are normal. In the battle for inclusion, those who were born into cisgenderhood or heterosexuality have a fortress to stand behind. Those who weren’t take shelter in vulnerable tents below.
Weapons & Shields
Whether you find yourself on the fortress walls or deep in the trenches, you have a choice about how you react to the cis-/heteronormative forces at work. Consider this your captain speaking.
1. Use the pronoun they when you don’t know someone’s gender.
It’s easy. I promise. You’re already doing it all the time. “If anyone is looking for me, tell them I’m at the beach.” “Everyone can have the flavor of ice cream that they want.”
Saying something like “she or he” is rooted in good intention for gender inclusion, but now that our understanding of gender is breaking free of a binary, it’s no longer accurate. Plus, “they” is a lot less clunky. Hooray for “they”!
2. Never assume the gender of someone’s love interest, partner, or spouse.
When you meet a person and they tell you they have a partner or spouse, don’t assume their partner’s gender. Just keep using the word partner or spouse – or use the pronoun “they.” That person might choose to reveal their partner’s gender or pronouns to you, or they might not. Either way, it’s their choice.
Similarly, if you want to know about a person’s potential love interest, avoid unnecessarily gendering that love interest. Adult family members are sometimes most guilty of this: “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “He seems like he’d make a good husband for you.” (I wish I had a dime for every mother that flat out asked me to marry her son.)
(Side-note: this becomes even more egregious when adults hypersexualize babies and children. Have you ever heard a baby with a penis referred to as a “ladies man” just because it smiled at a baby wearing pink? Yuck. Have you ever heard a baby with a vagina referred to as a “hot catch” because it smiled at a baby wearing blue? Didn’t think so.)
If you really want to know about a person’s love interest, just ask if they’re dating someone. Let them explain the rest and tread lightly. And remember, they might not be interested in sharing, or they might not be interested in dating anyone at all.
If you make a mistake – own it, correct it, and move on. If you feel that an apology is necessary, offer one. More likely, just a correction will do. This might feel awkward, but awkwardness is a small burden to bear for another’s dignity.
3. Ditch the term mom and dad. Use parent or family instead.
I work in education, so this is one I hear a lot. Unless you know the exact makeup of a child (or adult’s) family, check your assumptions. Some kids have one dad. Some kids have two moms. Some kids have step-parents at home. Some kids (me) have grandparents who care for them.
Kids face enough ostracizing from media and other children. Don’t add a pebble to their already heavy backpacks by being lazy with your words. If you really need to know their family makeup or the gender of their parents, ask them or someone else who knows. Chances are, though, you don’t need to know.
4. Avoid arbitrary divisions along the gender binary.
The gender binary is our society’s social and biological division of human beings into one of two genders: male or female. From bathrooms to clothing to writing utensils (seriously – read the Amazon Q&A for a laugh).
Avoid emphasizing the gender binary in your speech and in your actions. Here are some easy substitutions:
- Men and women = people, adults, humans, folks
- Boys and girls = children, kids, friends
- Husbands and wives = spouses, partners, couples, families
And if you’re still prone to fueling the patriarchy through your speech, try these substitutions too:
- Guys*, dudes = folks, friends, team, squad
- Mankind = humankind, humans, people
- God the Father = God
Kicking the gender binary to the curb is tough, but it is possible. Avoiding the gender binary in our actions often requires that we question “the way we’ve always done things.”
Say you’re having a tag sale and are tempted to separate clothing into “men’s and women’s” sections. Could you separate them into “shirts and pants” sections instead?
Maybe you’re a youth group leader organizing a retreat. Take this opportunity to discuss with other leaders what it means if you separate “boys and girls.” What will your imposition of heteronormative fears say to those boys who are gay? Where will the child who is questioning their assigned gender identity sleep? What damage will you be inflicting on others by not evaluating your choices, assumptions, and fears?
*“Guys” has wheedled its way into the American vernacular, and it’s in need of resecting. Though we may use it to refer to people of various genders or defend ourselves behind regionalism, the cold hard truth is that it is a term that means “males.” Therefore, it is no different from using the term “men” to refer to humans. Still not sold? Would you ever refer to a woman wearing a dress and walking down the street alone as a “guy”? Probably not.
5. Validate and raise up queer people.
Looking for stock photos for your church or work slideshow? Find one of a queer couple or an androgynous person. Writing an example for a Facebook discussion? Use they/them/their pronouns for your character. Are you a server at a restaurant? Ask every couple if they’d like one check or two, not just the ones that consist of two women. Just met a guy who referred to his husband? Don’t call his husband his friend or partner – validate his marriage and identity by mirroring the language he used.
Passive and Active Resistance
Friends, consider this your charge: when you encounter cis-/heteronormativity, challenge it. There are two stances you can take.
Engage in passive resistance by responding to cis-/heteronormativity with your own inclusive language or choices. If your coworker says, “We want to sell this product to men and women,” take the reins when it’s your turn to speak, “Yes, we want to sell this product to everybody.”
Engage in active resistance by responding with education and positive peer pressure. “I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it, but when you say we want to sell to ‘men and women,’ we’re leaving out people, like those who are neither men nor women. Really, we want to sell this product to everybody, so let’s use language that reflects that.”
Or if you find yourself in a Bible study on Ephesians 5 (“Wives, obey your husbands…”), take the opportunity to discuss (or research) the cultural context in which Ephesians was written as well as the cultural context in which you are reading it. Pose the question, “What wisdom can all couples (not just heterosexual ones) glean from this passage?”
Are there instances of cis/-heteronormativity that you face regularly? How do you respond to them? Share them with us below in the comments or in a message.
Whether you are passively resisting heteronormativity or actively dismantling it, know that you are making the kindom on Earth closer to that of heaven. Sometimes you and I will stumble. Sometimes we’ll take a hit. I honor your wounds suffered, and I fight beside you.