Thirty-six states have now legalized same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has just announced that it will decide by June whether all 50 states are required to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Last week, the jewelry store Tiffany & Co. ran its first ad featuring a gay couple. Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL draft pick, just became engaged to the man he kissed on television last year. The 2014 Boston Pride Parade drew a record 25,000 individuals into the streets. It would appear as though our country’s attitude toward same-sex relationships is changing. It might even seem as though same-sex relationships are seen just the same as opposite-sex relationships.
Unfortunately, no matter how some news headlines make it seem, same-sex couples and relationships are still far from being seen in the same way heterosexual relationships are. A culture of heteronormativity is pervasive in the lives of Americans.
Heteronormativity is not only the assumption that heterosexuality is the most common sexual orientation, but it is also the belief that heterosexuality is normal while other sexual orientations are seen as “other.” Despite the fact that an overwhelming amount of Americans identify as heterosexual or straight, there’s a value judgment present that equates homosexuality with wrongness. Being labeled as an “other”, socially, means more than being different. “Otherness is fundamentally about cultural denigration and exclusion,” sociologist Steven Seidmen said. Though you might consider yourself very open and liberal about sexuality, you could be perpetuating heteronormativity in covert ways. By considering your sexual experiences, your identity, and your actions the norm, you isolate and ostracize other sexual orientations.
For example, the way sex education is taught in many United States public schools is overwhelmingly heteronormative. Many districts’ abstinence-only curriculums preclude open discussions about sexuality, and even then, only focus on relationships between a man and a woman. Even in an environment that promotes abstinence, there is an assumption that boys and girls must learn how to be safe when interacting with the opposite sex, but there are no lessons about how to be safe when interacting with the same one. The oversight of sexual health for individuals who want to be in same-sex relationships can leave many without the proper knowledge.
This idea of otherness extends to the ban on gay American men from donating blood. Implemented at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration dictated that this law was merely a precaution. However, under the rule, a heterosexual woman who has a sexual history with AIDS-infected partners is allowed to donate after a year of abstinence. Until recently, a gay man could not donate at all, no matter his health or sex life. This rule sends a message that heterosexual sex is safe, acceptable, and normal. It says that anyone participating in anything other than heterosexual sex is participating in a promiscuous sexual act, laced with danger. Though the FDA announced has reversed the lifetime ban in favor of a one-year abstention period, their contribution to a damaging culture of heteronormativity cannot be reversed.
The fetishization of gay sex in the media also further contributes to this problem. When Samantha from Sex and the City tells her friends she had anal sex, her friends gasp, giggle, and smirk. From their perspective as heterosexual females in a heteronormative culture, anal sex is seen as a scandalous sexual experience. The same laugh and eroticism is suggested in the film Jennifer’s Body, when Megan Fox—once again, a heterosexual, attractive female—says she’s “not even a back-door virgin” and her co-star gapes. These two scenes perpetuate an antiquated perspective fueling both the modern exoticization of anal sex, and thus the otherization of same-sex relationships.
Viewing gay sex as some “other” sexual encounter that is erotic due to its deviance separates it from the norm and labels it a fetish. Exacerbating this problem is the way straight individuals talk about their own same sex encounters or fantasies. Oftentimes heterosexuals will talk about these experiences as if they are somehow remarkably different from their other sexual encounters, like these are more scandalous. But that one time a straight individual had a same-sex encounter doesn’t count as some glorified kinky escapade. It counts as sex, and it should be seen no differently from the rest.
It might seem like no big deal. A comment here or there about how crazy gay bars are or how hot it would be to see two girls make out. But if your sexual orientation and experiences were continually being seen as alternative and “other,” it would probably be an easy thing to internalize, but a hard thing to ignore. Let’s be conscious of our heteronormative culture. Ignorance doesn’t have to be a norm too.