Feeling “Othered” in a Heteronormative World

Author’s Note: I’ve toyed around with the idea of releasing this blog for months, partly because it requires my own disclosure and partly because I want to do justice for a community that is so near and dear to my own heart. I also recognize that as a cisgender woman, I have a degree of privilege that has uniquely shaped how I view and interact with the world. However, It only feels natural to release this blog on Baltimore Pride weekend with the intention of continuing to evolve my knowledge of concerns specific to the LGBTQIAP+ community. If I can shed even a speck of light of visibility on the LGBTQIAP+ community, then the price of being vulnerable is well worth the cost.

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When I was younger, I remember watching countless movies and shows about princesses finding their princes.  A pang of disappointment struck my adolescent mind – “I wish that I could marry a princess but since I’m a girl I’ll have to marry a boy”. Now, at the age of 7 or 8, I certainly did not have a grasp on the concept of sexuality. I thought I had to marry a boy – err … a man, because that’s what everybody I knew did.  I had no exposure to queer culture.  Hell – I hardly had exposure to any culture in my middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore suburbia – (Sorry Mom & Dad – I loved your meatloaf dinners).  So, throughout my adolescent and into my adulthood – I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I dated men. 

I unconsciously suffocated my sexuality because it didn’t fit in with how things were supposed to be.  Little inklings of my identity would bubble up from time to time, but I was quick to dispel them. I excused what were most definitely crushes and romantic feelings for other women and dubbed it as “infatuation” and friendships. I found myself inexplicably overprotective of my female friends. I found myself at ease around the few queer people I did know. All the signs – bright neon signs flashing “YOU’RE QUEER”, were dulled by my shades of internalized homophobia. I looked the other way.

Photo by  Wesley Tingey  via Unsplash

Photo by Wesley Tingey via Unsplash

Now, you can only live in your metaphorical closet for so long, but my denial ran so deep, that I didn’t even recognize the emblematic cage I’d locked myself in. I’m rolling my eyes at myself as I think of how cliché my next sentence is about to sound but… That all changed when I met my now-fiancé.  We met through mutual friends at a party. She was charming, funny, and probably had Natty Boh spilled on her goofy cat t-shirt. We both struggle to get that story completely straight but that’s beside the point. The real point is that she opened up my life in ways that I am eternally grateful for.

This blog post isn’t meant to be a coming out story… but I think it’s important for context.  

In about a year and a half, I’ll walk down the aisle to forever (hopefully) join the love of my life. I’ve found that being engaged has heighted my awareness of heteronormativity in our culture. In retrospect, it makes sense that this has been my (and my fiancé’s) experience. However, we have been lucky enough to surrounded ourselves with fellow queer people and fiercely loyal allies for such a long time that I can’t say these occurrences came without surprise. 

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What is heteronormativity anyways?  

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, heteronormativity is defined as “Of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality”.  Essentially, I’m talking about straight culture. However, even this definition of heteronormativity is problematic as it focuses on sexuality alone.

I strongly prefer Celia Kitzinger’s take on heteronormativity, as it is more encompassing of the larger issues at hand:

Ranging from organizational to interpersonal spheres, the presumptions that there are only two sexes; that it is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ for people of different sexes to be attracted to one another; that these attractions may be publicly displayed and celebrated; that social institutions such as marriage and the family are appropriately organized around different-sex pairings; that same-sex couples are (if not ‘deviant’) a ‘variation on’ or an ‘alternative to’ the heterosexual couple. Heteronormativity refers, in sum, to the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is produced as a natural, unproblematic, taken-for-granted, ordinary phenomenon.
— Celia Kitzinger, University of York

Now, you may be thinking something along the lines of… “But gay people are totally accepted these days”. It’s true that progress has been made. A study by Harvard University showed that the more connections subjects made with gay or lesbian people, the more positive their attitudes toward them became — a trend social scientists call “the contact hypothesis.” Today, 61 percent support same-sex marriage, while 31 percent oppose it. Just 15 years ago, those statistics were reversed as 61 percent opposed same-sex marriage, while 31 percent supported it in 2004. However, there’s a difference between “acceptance” and real visibility. 

Photo by  Succurrere  via Unsplash

Photo by Succurrere via Unsplash

Perhaps a certain type of socially-easy-to-swallow queer is generally accepted… but there’s a whole world of identities under the LGBTQIAP+ umbrella that have very little acceptance, let alone visibility.

Any of my close friends would tell you, I love the excuse to celebrate and decorate. There’s no surprise that I’ve been swooning over wedding details since the day she proposed. I eagerly busted through the doors of my first wedding expo only to be hit with a pang of disappointment. There was no visibility for queer folks. It was like queer people didn’t exist in the wedding world. 

Every vendor I’d approach would reference my non-existent groom, which was followed by awkward clarification that in fact we were two brides, and then we were given some sort of reassurance that whatever company or service they represented “has worked with a gay couple before!”  I appreciated their attempts to repair, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling skeptical. I wasn’t prepared to support businesses that viewed gay couples as an afterthought.  I also wasn’t prepared to give up on my vision of what our celebration could be.

 
Photo by  Ben Rosett  via Unsplash

Photo by Ben Rosett via Unsplash

 

Thus, I began my quest to find queer-friendly vendors. Some I found through popular wedding vendor catalog websites, like The Knot, which provides some businesses with a special seal confirming that the institution is LGBTQIPA+ friendly. Others, I found more organically.  The Grammercy Mansion, which is known for being super queer-friendly, hosted a wedding open house. I could hardly contain my excitement and signed us up. As we mingled with vendors and browsed displays, we ended up in front of a photographer’s stand. Her dark and moody photos drew me in instantly. We chatted for a bit about wedding nonsense, and when the conversation drew to an end she handed us a pre-made goodie bag.  Inside the tote bag, which printed with “ENGAGED AF” on the front, was two wine glasses that read, “Hers” and “Hers”.

I remember thinking, “FINALLY SOME VISIBILITY!  SOME REPRESENTATION!  SOMETHING OTHER THAN BEING AN AFTERTHOUGHT!”  She was the first person we hired for the wedding.  While her beautiful photos and quirky personality definitely drew us in, it was her intentional inclusivity that sealed the deal. Side note, if you are looking for a super talented LGBTQIAP+ friendly & affirming photographer, Lisa Robin is the one for you.

This surge of joy caused me to question why more representation wasn’t readily available.  

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As it turns out, my disappointments do not stand alone. According to Kathryn Hamm, Wedding Wire Education Expert & Diversity and Inclusion Specialist,

Photo by  Charisse Kenion  via Unsplash

Photo by Charisse Kenion via Unsplash

“Though most couples (LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ) may be seeking personalization there are also LGBTQ couples who still embody some of the needs and objectives of the early wedding pioneers. They are brides and grooms and bridegrooms who may use their own labels and be struggling to get their needs met because the mainstream market isn’t serving them. For these couples, rather than focusing on how to serve two brides or two grooms, the larger question is one of intentional service to support the couples who have a much more expansive (often non-binary) representation of their gender expression or sexual orientation.

Photo by  Marcie Douglass  via Unsplash

Photo by Marcie Douglass via Unsplash

Genderqueer and other non-binary couples, according to “LGBTQ Weddings in 2018: A Study of Same-Sex and Queer Identified Couples,” share a “strong fear of rejection” based on their sexual orientation or gender expression. Sixty-one percent (61%) of transgender and non-binary identified couples and 44% of same-sex couples remain wary. Significantly, 100% of married trans/non-binary identified couples (p. 38) are concerned about “religious freedom” laws that allow service providers to refuse to serve LGBTQ couples (compared to 88% of married same-sex male couples and 96% of married same-sex female couples).”

Katherine Hamm then encourages wedding vendors to both consider and educate themselves about the LGBTQIAP+ community, “when wedding professionals have the opportunity to serve a queer-identified couple, it is important to expect a deeper line of questioning and a higher expectation of understanding about the politics surrounding same-sex marriage, the queer community, and gender identity and expression. Know that historically marginalized couples may be slower to trust the process, having been mistreated, misgendered or misunderstood previously in their planning process.”

Thankfully, my search for queer-affirming vendors has led to me to some truly gifted professionals, like Lisa Robin and Julie Partidge, along the way. This experience also has given me a platform to educate others on the importance of both representation and visibility for potential LGBTQIAP+ clients.

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Photo by  Chris Johnson  via Unsplash

Photo by Chris Johnson via Unsplash

I remember being a child and feeling devastated when I couldn’t find my name on a souvenir key chain because “Noelle” isn’t quite as common as “Sarah” or “Emily”. If you have a unique name, you probably know what I mean. Instead of my name, I might have gotten lucky and found an “N” initial, or something generic like “Cool Kid”. But it’s not the same. No one thought about my name. It wasn’t as marketable. Less people would need a “Noelle” keychain. But man, did that sting.

Of course, this is a silly example fueled by the once held frustration of a pre-adolescent child. However… I think it illustrates my point perfectly. A lack of recognition and representation hurts. It sends a bold message… “We don’t Think About You!”, or perhaps more concerning, “You’re not worth it!” As adults, this message is difficult to swallow. It causes me to think about the queer kids who are caught in a seemingly endless wave of confusion about their identities and where they fit into this world. Visibility is important.

Why is visibility Important? 

Heteronormativity touches far more aspects of our lives than simply marriage. I think that most people, myself included, make well-intentioned, yet ignorant assumptions based on the heteronormative society we live in.

Photo by  Jason Leung  via Unsplash

Photo by Jason Leung via Unsplash

We assume that children have a “mom” and a “dad”. We tell little girls to play like princesses, while boys get to be rough and tough in the mud. We ask women about their boyfriends and men about their wives. We don’t give second thought to the depictions of heterosexual families that we encounter in real life or in advertising. Sometimes, we even feel appalled when we learn that someone that we assumed was straight, was actually gay. We assume feminine women must be interested in men. We assume masculine men are solely interested in women. The list goes on.

As a queer person who presents in a feminine manner, I have to “come out of the closet” every single time I meet someone new. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone awkwardly fumble over their words to mutter out something along the lines of, “Oh, well you don’t look gay”. You can imagine my delight when I found the Do I Look Gay Yet? clothing line, Instagram and Facebook pages. The plot thickens when I have to explain that I identify as pansexual or queer, rather than as a lesbian.

While these assumptions seem innocent, and certainly not intended with malice, they do contribute to a larger problem. When we fail to hold ourselves accountable to combating these heteronormative microaggressions, then we perpetuate the problem. It’s a ripple that turns into wave. 

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What Can You Do?

  1. Stop making assumptions.

    Is it easier to assume that everyone subscribes to the confines heteronormative of our society? Yes. But is it better? Hell no. This bring me to my second point…

  2. When in doubt… or even when you’re not in doubt…ask questions.

    “Not sure on their pronouns? Ask. Want to know about their evolving relationship with their sexuality? Ask. They told you they are considered several different names but aren’t sure which one they like? Ask what they are and offer to call them by one name one day, then another the next to see what fits. Just always ask. As long as it genuinely comes from a place of love, asking a newly-out friend is the best solution because it might also give them new things to think about. If this is a [relationship] you want to keep, you need to ask your loved one lots and lots of questions, then follow-up by checking in to see if they still like their answers.” - Liam Lowery 

  3. When you ask questions, be sure to be polite.

    Don’t ask trans people about their bodies, how they have sex, what their genitals are like, etc.  It’s rude & objectifying & quite frankly…none of your business.  It can be helpful to think about whether you would ask these questions of a cisgender person.

  4. Utilize gender neutral language

    If you are unsure of the correct pronoun to utilize, rather than assuming what you think someone’s pronoun may be, you can utilize gender neutral language. The pronoun “They” can be utilized to describe a singular person or a multiple people. Instead of saying “boyfriend”, “girlfriend”, “husband”, or “wife”, you can say “partner”, or “significant other”.

  5. Listen.

    If someone is willing to attempt to explain their gender or sexual orientation with you, listen to them. Take in the information. Make a conscious effort to use their correct pronouns. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and try to consciously apply their correct pronoun in the future. It happens to the best of us. Remember, it is not anyone’s job but your own to educate yourself on these topics, so if someone is willing to teach you, respect them and listen.

  6. Get a basic understanding of lgbtqiap+ terminology

    It’s difficult to use ignorance as an excuse these days, as we have millions of untapped resources at our fingertips. Use that smart phone, tablet or computer and google it. Unsure of where to start? Check out these helpful websites:

    -The LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary

    -The Human Rights Campaign Allies Page

    -The LGBTQIA Resource Center Ally Tips Page

    -The GLAAD Tips for allies of transgender people page

    Alternatively, you could enroll in a LGBTQIAP+ ally education program such as the Trevor Ally Training. Additionally, many universities offer complimentary ally training programs for students, faculty and staff.

  7. Understand that sexual orientations can be fluid and identities can change and develop.

    Understanding your gender and sexuality in a world that is vastly heteronormative can be confusing and difficult. Also, we are ever-evolving beings. It’s okay if someone identifies differently than they did once before.

  8. Remember your influence

    If you are a cisgender person, be aware of the role you can play as an ally. As a cisgender person, you inherently have a degree of privilege. Remember that the way you talk about trans people (e.g., using the right pronouns) influences how others perceive us & can make a difference in whether we feel safe/comfortable.

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Meet the Author : Noelle Benach, LGPC

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Noelle Benach is both a therapist and office manager at Space Between Counseling Services. Noelle works with individuals and premarital / pre-commitment couples as they muck through the challenges of modern day relationships, stressors, and challenges. She is particularly passionate about working with members of the LGBTQIAP+ community, young adults, new parents, creatives and professional caretakers.

When Noelle is not in the office, you can likely find her strolling through local festivals & events, sipping coffee at one of Baltimore's many delightful cafés, traveling and tasting new foods, spending time outdoors with her fiancé and their corgi, or listening to the latest episode of her favorite true crime podcast.