April, or better known as Gaypril, is a celebratory month of activities dedicated to Cornell’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The activities range from social gatherings such as the monster party ball and hosting Israeli pop/rock singer Ivri Lider, to social impact events aimed at raising awareness. In the spirit of Gaypril, today’s enlightenment is focused on heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a term invented in 1991 to describe any of a set of lifestyle norms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary gender (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation and marital relations are only between a man and a woman.” After reading, one may feel such language is oppressive, marginalizing and stigmatizing to sexuality and gender. But more to the point, heteronormative values make self-expression more difficult when that expression doesn’t conform to the “norm.”
This impact of this type of oppression and confined mind set is closely examined in the Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others by John Elia and Mickey Eliason. The authors do justice in bringing to light the impact of how heteronormative values have carried their way through the education system and impacted a century of generations. One lesbian student’s high school sexual education experience was better summarized “[that] love was heterosexual; marriage was the ideal … straight love and romance were beautiful.” This student, like many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-identified (LGBTQ) students has been excluded by the education system — an institution that fosters leaders of tomorrow and teaches truth. As a result of this exclusion, LGBTQ youth often feel disillusioned and begin to question their existence in society.
The example above shows how heterosexism is embedded within an institution like education. Established in the early 20th century, the U.S. sexual education system’s purpose was merely to reduce venereal diseases, and promote heterosexuality with “proper” sexual expression all within the confines of marriage. This traditional Victorian operation carried its way through the 21st century and has continued to be contentious and harmful to LGBTQ youth. This power dynamic has promoted heterosexism and enabled heteronormative values to persist on into adulthood, causing discrimination against those who do not subscribe to such norms. This exclusion has pushed LGBTQ issues into the margins and has systematically erased them altogether. Heteronormative culture has granted privileges and discriminated against LGBTQ employment, marriage and tax codes. It is anti-democratic in a pluralistic society to focus on only one narrow subset of value systems.
Heteronormative values are not only exercised in the education system, but rather in other institutions like government, health and business. Heterosexism is very well embedded into the fabric of society that deconstructing its teachings of such narrow values is quite daunting. However, we have seen slight progress such as New York’s redefinition of marriage and the repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Each of us is entitled to our own values; however, when these values justify your oppression of other groups, it is simply unjust. It is unethical to assume someone’s sexual orientation, especially when today’s sexual landscape is crowded with new terms such as “metrosexual” and “bromance.” What were once strict and binary heterosexual norms, are beginning to loosely tie with homosexuality.
As we progress further into the 21st century, we, as educated individuals, need to be more critical of our demeanor and ensure our decisions and daily interactions are inclusive. Ignorance is unacceptable and no longer an innocent plea.
Ruben Ortega is a junior in the School of Hotel Administration. She may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.