“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” “Marriage has always been between one man and one woman!”  Such are the arguments that often spew from the mouths of those who oppose the validity of non-heterosexual lifestyles.  These statements, along with countless others, aim to show that heterosexuality is the only proper mode of human existence.  While these people have various sources to back up their claims, they often use sacred texts or anecdotal evidence about the perversion of other sexual modes. The arguments stem from something deeper than the text or story in question. At the heart of the matter lies the mentality that heterosexuality is the “right way” to pursue sexual desire; all other modes of living are perverse or in some way Other.  This view of human sexuality is known as heteronormativity, and it has effects in all aspects of life.  Heteronormativity has cast a long shadow of oppression for anyone who does not fit the heterosexual mold, such as gay men, lesbian women, bisexual persons, effeminate straight men, butch straight women, transgender persons, and countless others. While this mentality has been horrifyingly harmful to so many, a queer approach to human sexuality may offer up a hope for liberation.

As noted above, heteronormativity is the view that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of sexual expression; all other forms are to be seen as somehow anathema.  Heteronormativity is part of a cultural matrix that aims to govern sexual and gender norms. According to Judith Butler, this matrix holds that “certain kinds of ‘identities’ cannot ‘exist’ – that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not ‘follow’ from either sex or gender.”[1]  The heteronormative viewpoint insists that there is some sort of connection between a person’s physical sex and his or her sexual desires; in essence, a person should only have desire for people of the opposite sex.  Such a stream of thinking is often based on a structuralist conception of identity and law. The argument here is that “there is a universal structure of regulating exchange that characterizes all systems of kinship” and relations.[2]  With regard to sexual desire, physical sex governs sexual attraction, plain and simple.

Heteronormative thought thrives on the simplicity of binary approaches to sex, gender, and desire.  To think in binaries is to think only in terms of two possible categories: things are black or white, right or wrong, male or female. There are no grey areas, no moral or ethical uncertainties, and certainly no other kinds of gender expression.  Binary-based thought also affects views of human sexuality: A person is either heterosexual, or they are not.  With a strict adherence to this binary view of sexuality, it’s easy to see how heteronormativity can become oppressive.  If non-heterosexual people are Other in a deviant or unacceptable way, then it becomes a matter of principle to legislate against their rights and wellbeing.  Out of the sexual binary, anti-marriage laws, bathroom bills, and laws that cast non-heterosexual acts as capital offenses develop.  Even if a person with a heteronormative outlook is more “progressive” (e.g. they do not see non-heterosexual persons as deviant or damned), they may still think in binaries when it comes to sexual expression. Such persons may not want to harm or oppress non-heterosexual people, but they may still make assumptions showing their preference of heterosexuality.  Such biases can be expressed by simply talking about how a little baby boy is going to be very handsome and “get all the ladies” when he grows up.  This kind of language assumes the boy will be heterosexual.  If it turns out he is not, the language could become hurtful or problematic for him as he matures..  Heteronormative binary thought processes and their expression are thus harmful in any number of ways.

From where does this hurtful and ultimately oppressive mentality come? Surely, no one sets out with the intention to turn non-heterosexual persons into second-class citizens.  It is very likely that this is true.  Yet heteronormativity has deep roots.  Going beyond Structuralist thought and binary worldviews, one can see that heteronormative thought has a wide range of sources.  Most notable are biblical passages appearing to support the notion that sexual desire is meant to be oriented toward people of the opposite sex.[3]  There is a plethora of passages that can be used in this way. For now it suffices to focus on a few that are commonly used.  Many interpreters turn to the creation narratives of Genesis to argue that human sexual desire was intended to flow from man to woman, woman to man, from the very beginning.  For instance, Genesis 1:27 reads: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NRSV). Commenting on this passage, Claus Westermann notes: “Every theoretical and institutional separation of man and woman, every deliberate detachment of male and female, can endanger the very existence of humanity as determined by creation.”[4]  According to this interpretation, any expression of sexual desire that does not follow heterosexual guidelines is not only Other;  it is downright cataclysmic!  Such interpretational thoughts have been around a long time. Turning to Genesis 2:24 (wherein man and woman are said to become one flesh) and going back to the fourth century C.E., one can find Augustine averring: “That is what generally happens in the human race. There is no other way to view its plain, historical sense”[5]  These sorts of interpretations, trailing across the centuries, seem to make it clear that God’s will is a heteronormative one. What then are we to do?

Perhaps there is hope for deconstructing heteronormativity in a queer understanding of sexuality.  First, it is important to note that “heterosexual” as a category has only existed for a brief period of human history.  The word “heterosexuality” itself was only introduced to the English language at the very end of the nineteenth century C.E.[6] With this etymological history in mind, it is quite plain to see that heteronormativity cannot have been the standard “from the beginning.”  Further, one can call on queer readings of biblical texts to get a broader understanding of Scripture as it relates to the issue of sexuality. For example, with reference to Genesis 1 & 2, there are numerous interpreters who see the text not as a call for heteronormative sexual expression but rather as an acknowledgement that human beings are intrinsically social creatures, and that social and sexual desires are part of our God-given existence.  These kinds of interpretations break the heteronormative mold by allowing for other kinds of sexual expression to be equally as affirmed as heterosexuality.  When coupled with queer understandings of human sexuality that see all forms of sexual expression as part of a spectrum, rather than a binary, such interpretations fling the doors open for all consensual forms of love and desire to be affirmed. Further, an understanding of the constructed nature of sexuality can also help on this front.  If “the heterosexual original” is “utterly constructed,” then the binary itself is ultimately broken beyond repair.[7]  Sexual desire becomes a liberated part of human nature rather than being oppressed under the boots of heteronormativity.


An anonymous student

[1] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 24.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] The use of “sex” is intentional here: Exegetes who turn to these passages for support of heteronormativity would likely never allow for gender and sex to be separate concepts.

[4] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 160.

[5] Augustine, “Two Book on Genesis Against the Manichaeans 2.13.19,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. Andrew Louth (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 71.

[6] The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., s.v. “heterosexuality.”

[7] Butler, Gender Trouble, 43.