When people come out, these days at least, it is seen as a time for celebration, affirmation, and love. But why is coming out even a thing? I mean, when was the last time you saw someone come out as straight? There is a presumption of heterosexuality in our culture, which means that everyone is straight until proven otherwise. [For another take on coming out, see my discussion at the beginning of Episode 7.]
On the one hand, this is understandable and rational. After all, most people are straight, at least in the sense that they do not consider themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual. (The ratios have been changing though, as more and more people identify in different, non-normative ways, but that is a different issue entirely.) So if most people are straight, why shouldn’t we assume that someone is straight unless we have reason to believe otherwise?
My Dear Grandmother
Let me start with an example. Shortly after I came out, or more accurately shortly after my grandmother found out—it’s not as if I had a coming out party to which she was invited—she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have kept asking you when you were going to get married and have kids.” She was an incredibly loving, accepting, and affirming woman, but this example highlights a number of important (and inaccurate) stereotypes.
First, she assumed I was straight. But on top of that, she assumed that straight people get married. She assumed married people have kids. As the matriarch, and particularly as she accumulated her years, she was very interested in the growth of her family. I was her oldest grandchild, so I was the first she turned to to start the next generation. Anyway, with all those assumptions about heterosexuality come the other assumptions. Gay people don’t get married or have kids. They are just as valid, we like to think, but they are still, somehow, less.
Presumption of Heterosexuality
So this is all part of heteronormativity. Either you’re normal—you are straight, you have a family, you have kids—or you’re different. We love our deviants, but there’s no hiding the fact that they’re different as long as heteronormativity is a significant force.
Heteronormativity is the pressure to be normal, and being normal means being heterosexual. As long as this force is part of our social fabric, then anyone who is not normal in this way is different. They have to explain themselves. They have to come out. They have to justify their difference. And they may have to defend themselves against the various assumptions that would have them be seen as “less” in some way.
Presumption of Sexuality
One of the most interesting parts of heteronormativity is not the hetero- part of the sexual norm, but the -sexual part. We are presumed to be heterosexual, which also means we are presumed to be sexual. What is the significance of this? Well, of course we are all sexual beings to some degree, but sexual normativity is what takes the assumption of heterosexuality to the assumption that you will get married and have kids.
What happens when you get into your thirties and you’re still not married, you’re not popping out spawn? Something might be wrong. Of course in the past couple decades a child-free lifestyle is becoming much more acceptable in the United States and other “Western” countries, but it used to be that a thirty-year-old unmarried woman was cause for drastic action (or maybe even giving up hope). Quick! Marry the next guy that looks at you before it’s too late!
Or maybe you’re lesbian. Which is totally OK… but if that’s the case, quit pretending! Come out already! (Is it really OK? And who’s doing the pretending?)
Save the Children
On the other side of the age spectrum, we like to pretend that kids are not sexual. At least that’s what we say out loud. But the presumption of heterosexuality requires young boys to be trained for their future of doing whatever heterosexual young men do… they are trained to be dominant, to assert their privilege over women, to demonstrate their sexual prowess through a high “body count.” (Wow I hate that expression!) But not too high.
Likewise, young girls need to learn to be appropriately attractive to boys, to be polite and desirable and all the other things required of heteronormativity.
Domination of the Patriarchy
As you can see, heteronormativity goes hand in hand with patriarchal thinking. To be heterosexual is also to be part of patriarchal culture. All these assumptions about sexuality are tied together.
The cultural assumption, then, is that everyone is heterosexual. But part of that, or in addition to that, everyone is expected to desire sex in the same way, at roughly the same age, and to act on those desires in socially accepted ways (like getting married and having kids).
Scholars have seen this compulsory fact, and heteronormative pressures as a whole, as a tool to suppress deviance, to equate difference with deviance, and to punish or exile those who fail to comply.
What Does it Matter?
The way we talk about sex matters. The assumptions we make about sex have an effect on people. By assuming that someone is heterosexual, we “otherize” sexual difference. That is, being different becomes a big deal, it becomes something that differentiates people. Less normal becomes less. Different becomes deviant. Those who violate heteronormativity become outsiders. Others. Not part of “us.”
When people are excluded by being labeled “different,” we’ve seen what happens. Mental health suffers. Depression, anxiety, and suicide rates go up. In short, people hurt. People get hurt.
Who I Shag is None of Your Business
When it comes down to it, sexuality really shouldn’t matter. Most of the time it doesn’t have any valid reason to be part of a discussion. To use myself as an example: Who I shag is none of your business. How I shag is none of your business. Whether I shag is none of your business. Unless, of course, if we’re going to shag.
So why do we expect people to come out?
If someone wants to be proud of their sexuality, if they want it to be part of their public identity, then that’s great. I don’t have any complaint about that. But when someone feels compelled to make it public because otherwise they’re seen as hiding something, or not being honest, then maybe there’s a problem.
When was the last time someone came out as a person who likes mushrooms on their pizza? If they did, did anyone pay attention? Probably not, nobody cares. And if someone likes mushrooms but didn’t come out, nobody’s going to be mad at them. Because honestly, unless you’re going to eat pizza together, it’s none of your business.
But sex is special, isn’t it?
Sex is controlled in a way that other things are not. Other preferences are usually no big deal. Other parts of our identity, they’re either hidden or they’re a non-issue. For the most part. Right? Like how tall you are, what color your hair is, those things don’t usually come up in conversation. Sure, some things might be more obvious than other things, but when it comes down to it, who cares? But if you like the wrong kind of people… That changes everything.
You see this most notably with celebrities, I think. Paparazzi go crazy over a juicy tidbit about someone’s sexuality. You don’t usually see them making a big deal about what someone ate for lunch or whether they’re 5’10 ro 6’2. I mean, some people write stories about anything, but they just don’t make headlines in the same way as a story about sex.
I Love Harry Styles
That’s why I love Harry Styles. He’s notorious for not giving into paparazzi and other pressure to disclose secrets about his love life. His response? “It’s ‘Who cares?’ Does that make sense? It’s just, ‘Who cares?'”1 He actually clarified that he’s not intentionally keeping secrets from people. It’s more like he’s being noncommittal, possibly because he hasn’t even given it that much thought himself. Like, not even he cares.
And I love that. It’s so freeing. For sexuality to be a non-issue, not even for himself. He can just be himself, do what feels right, what is fun in the moment. If he wants to be in a relationship with a girl, or go on a date with a guy, or wear a dress, it just doesn’t matter. Fantastic.
Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world were like that?
Thanks for listening.
- Carter, Terry Jr. 2019. “Harry Styles Was Asked About His Sexuality In A New Interview And His Response Is Surprisingly Honest.” December 14, 2019. BuzzFeed.