Heteronormativity is a topic I’ve been grappling with lately for my novel, because stopping to think about how pervasive it is breaks my brain a little bit. Picking the strings of heteronormativity from the world I’m building and my narrative voice is a challenge… Some things are just really hard to pin down and define when you’re entirely used to them.
So, after running across this LGBT Buzzfeed article by chance on my Facebook feed, I took some notes and attempted to organize my thoughts. These are my own views but I’m always open to more perspectives and input, so comments are very welcome.
According to Wikipedia, heteronormativity “is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life.” So basically, being attracted to the opposite gender and having relations with someone of the opposite sex is “normal” and anything else is “deviant” at worst, “other” at best. The worst is obviously homophobic, and the best is a passive kind of homophobia that can sometimes camouflage in with the best of intentions. Keeping the former out of my writing is easy but the latter is harder. What even is it?
It’s when people ask me if I have a boyfriend, with no awareness of the possibility that I might have a girlfriend or be in a genderqueer relationship. It’s that after I came out as queer, the regular teasing white noise from my parents about giving them grandchildren someday dropped way down. It’s the general lack of “other” couples in the media that aren’t just the punchline of a joke, although that’s getting better. It’s that if I mention my orientation there’s usually this pressing sense that I’m making a big deal of it — and since I’m not comfortable with spotlights and I am a white cis woman, it never really comes up in conversation without a nudge from me. I can fly under the radar, and I know not everyone has that privilege.
As a writer, I write what I know and I try to imagine and write the opposites of what I know. I don’t know a world where gay marriage can universally just be called marriage, or where sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t reasons to openly hate and hurt people, but the optimist in me can imagine it. It’s more difficult to imagine the absence of all the little “othering” things that seem innocuous on their own, but subtly add up to something toxic and depressing. Because flying under the radar means an invisibility where many people assume you’re straight and cisgender unless “a bomb of queer signifiers blows up in their face” (x), and I’m not naive enough to think that struggle with invisibility hasn’t affected me.
“Even when you’re an open-minded person, and you’re not trying to come from a place of bias or prejudice, or perpetuate stereotypes, it’s difficult to train yourself out of culture…” ~ JAS
Removing the little biases from my work is a surprisingly personal thing. Here’s an example, which isn’t exactly heteronormativity but still related: in the first draft of my novel there are Sorcerers and Sorceresses. They’re different names for the same kind of magic user, and if I want a world that doesn’t have a patriarchy or gender binary then why do I have this distinction in title based solely on gender? My partner had to point this out to me because I didn’t even notice the inconsistency in my own thinking. I also did it with Enchanters and Enchantresses, but interestingly not with Witches, Magicians, or Hedge-Witches — those three I already considered gender-neutral titles. As I re-think some aspects of the story, I’m not examining this fictional world so much as I’m examining myself.
Introducing my characters and portraying them throughout the narrative is another aspect to this complicated thought-process. I don’t want to emphasize their queerness so much that it reinforces heteronormative expectations, but I also don’t want them to be so under the radar that they’re assumed straight by default. If they live in a world where public declarations are unnecessary, how do I set that up for an audience living in a world where those declarations still are?
Every person has their own version of “the closet.” There is no universal in or out because it’s a “lifelong series of strange and shifting negotiations.” (x) When I came out in college, family and pre-college friends aside, it was in a small, super liberal environment where it wasn’t a big announcement at all. It didn’t become the only thing about me in the eyes of my peers.
That’s the sweet spot I want to hit in this story. But like I said, that was a small environment and an eye-opening exception to the rest of my life that I needed in order to gain perspective. I want this whole world to be like that: accepting, non-judgemental and with true freedom to be one’s self. Where there are exceptions and hateful, prejudiced ways of thinking that still occur, I want the majority of people to react negatively and shut that kind of behavior out of their homes and communities.
As more people examine things like sexuality and gender expression for themselves, the “coming out age” has lately started to drop. It makes sense that as these topics open up and become discussed at an earlier age, more young people are claiming a sort of TBD fluidity. That’s not necessarily indecisive. They should take time think about it, examine themselves for who they are and what they want, and definitely question if what they’re told they should want is what will actually make them happy.
Basically, labels are hard. Trying to move away from heteronormativity by identifying as “not 100% straight” is a start but still places itself by using heterosexuality as a reference point. I do believe that we’re inching toward losing the binary (straight vs gay, sexual vs. asexual, man vs. woman, masculine vs. feminine) and that eventually the labels we have won’t be tied to a linear spectrum.
Language evolves all the time, and as much as I sigh at the fact that emojis are starting to creep into the dictionary that’s just a part of it. Our labels will have to evolve with us too. I’ve added Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts to my “To Read” list because I hear it discusses that sort of thing.
In the meantime, I’d like to know what you think. How do you introduce a world that has fundamental cultural differences from the world your readers live in? How do you find the balancing point between the differences going unnoticed and beating readers over the head with them?
Specifically how might you introduce a world where everyone is expected to examine their own labels, not just the “others”?