I was sitting in my Chinese class one day, when I realized just how insidious heteronormativity truly is, even on a campus like Mount Holyoke. No, really. Here's what happened.
On the projector in front of us, there was an English sentence that the class, together, was to translate into Mandarin. It referenced a man who was married, but we had not yet learned the verb “to be married”. Instead, the teacher directed us, translate it non-literally. Translate it to say that he has a wife.
A man with a wife.
I cringed internally and said nothing. I remained silent because I am used to it, I remained silent because I have spent years bracing myself against the unthinkingly hurtful comments made by those around me. It starts from a young age; I’m five or six years old and hear my grandparents saying, “I bet when you grow up, you’ll have boys coming out of the woodwork for you!” and a little later hearing that dreaded question, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
it implied that my future had to include a male significant other. Did that mean that if I wasn't in a hetero- relationship, that I had no future? At the very least, that is the conclusion that I, however unconsciously, came to.
I internalized heteronormativity– the worldview that heterosexuality is inherently the most natural, normal, assumed sexuality– so deeply that even as I developed harmless, and later intense crushes in girls, it didn’t occur to me that these crushes were even real. I was entirely used to thinking of “real” crushes as heterosexual, and this was reinforced by popular culture. From Katy Perry’s song “I Kissed a Girl”, which trivializes lesbian relationships, to the sexualization and fetishization of gay men in the media, the only representation of non-hetero relationships was stereotyped and skewed.
No one wants to be a stereotype. I think that, along with many other things, that was part of the reason that it took me so long to “come out”, even to myself. I, of course, never wanted to be a fetish, a stereotype, and I didn’t want to engage the sort of superficial “experimental” relationship that Katy Perry sang about. By the way the media talked, and still talks, about relationships that aren’t hetero, this is what they say.
I learned that I “had” to have a boyfriend, one of whom would later become my husband, in order to have a relationship at all. This had me convinced, for years, that I never wanted to get married at all– I later learned that I do, in fact, want to be married someday. To a woman, probably. Just because I’m not going to fall in love or have a committed relationship with a man, doesn’t mean I’m barred from doing so forever.
Still, this took me a long time to realize. I’m sure that deep down, I’m still realizing it, day by day. But this is why something as seemingly-harmless as a question of “do you have a boyfriend” or the translation of “being married” to “in a heterosexual union” is not harmless at all. It reinforces toxic assumptions that I and other have swallowed for too long. Something that stunted my ability to conceive of healthy, happy relationships for myself. Something that caused me years of self-hate and confusion that I have had to unlearn.
Casual heteronormativity is something that straight people may practice, and may even more often ignore. They don’t notice it because it normalizes something that they’d normally do anyway. But for me, and others like me, these simple incidents are a troubling reminder of a society that alienates an intrinsic part of who I am, and is still trying to turn me into someone I am not.