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Expressions of heteronormativity and homonegativity in local cultures

Anne presenting her paper on Same sex sexualities &gender diversity in Pretoria South Africa

Background
Despite leading psychiatrists and psychologist removing homosexuality from the list of mental illness, great challenges in accepting and accommodating homosexuals continue to be experienced. Emerging issues in scholarship imply that old approaches are rendered ineffective while the new approaches are not effectively communicated or practiced creating gaps in understanding sexual orientation.

My research on the challenges facing homosexuals globally revealed that counselors are unable to offer effective counseling to homosexuals due to numerous challenges they face paused by the social, legal, political, ethical, accepted and understood moral order of society, a contention supposedly supported by history and affirmed by religious doctrine.

In all social contexts individual choice is controlled and influenced to a greater or lesser extent by society. Such control extends from significant life stage milestones, such as whether individuals should marry or remain single, to everyday mundane practices including the choice of clothing or food. Such control eventually creates the tendency to react in a certain way to a particular situation as if it was natural (Douglas 1970).

We often perform ‘appropriate’ sex roles as defined by our culture unconsciously and without a stated and explicit contract agreement with our culture. This results in extensive patrolling and surveillance of gender behaviors of individuals and rewards for conformists and punishments for non-conformists. It means that one should behave as a man or woman in order to fit into performative category. Not fitting into a defined male or female category is perceived as abnormal, deviant or unhealthy and as morally, physically and psychologically damaging for the performing individual and the society at large. In most societies, heterosexuality is the dominant way of expressing sexuality and masculinity/femininity and those men/women outside of it are stigmatized and discriminated.

This presentation explores the sexual lives of sexual minorities and the personal and social conflicts that arise as they attempt to both live up to societal expectations and manage their sexual desires. It explores how over-riding heteronormativity structures influence their perception and understanding of sexuality and masculinity/femininity.

What is Heteronormativity and how does it impact our life and sexuality? How does it differ from normativity?

What is Heteronormativity?
Heteronormativity refers to norms and values that structure gender and sexuality thereby maintaining high premium on compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy or cultures and belief systems which assume heterosexuality is the norm.

It reveals the expectations, demands, and constraints produced when heterosexuality is taken as normative within a society.
The difference between normativity and hetronormativity is that normativity refers to general rules as to what people should or should not do in their daily lives while heteronormativity defines what people should or should not do in the area of sexuality and gender.

One of the most obvious impacts of heteronormativity is the marginalization of people who do not fit within heterosexual norms, such as homosexuals and people who do not identify with commonly-held ideas about sexuality and gender.

What is masculinity and how does it impact our life and sexuality?

• Distinction between sex and gender.
• Sex is what the body is- male or female.
• Gender is everything that is not limited to the body; it is a complex of behavior, mental qualities, and personality characteristics-everything
• We say that someone is masculine, a real man, or a feminine, a real woman, a lady.
• Masculinity is having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness& toughness.
• Femininity is having qualities traditionally ascribed to women as fragile, receptive, submissive and none domineering; interestingly women are observed in their role performance in the society as child bearing, being submissive to the husband.

Masculinity vis a vis Femininity
Maleness and masculinity are not the same thing (distinction between facts of biology and masculine identity). The same case applies to Femaleness and femininity.

Simply being an adult male/ female is not enough; one must in addition be a man or woman, which means more than simply having a male body or a female body. A male can be praised for acting like a man, or blamed for not being manly.
Masculinity/Femininity helps determine how the men/women are expected to behave, how they can reproduce and emulate its characteristics in their daily lives and internalize it when they go through a lengthy socialization process.

Understanding how heteronormativity shapes men’s perception and understanding of masculinities is vital for achieving sexual health and safety (Connell 2005).
Further, in a bid to achieve gender equality, there have been some shifts away from focusing only on women to also understanding the role and importance of men and masculinity (Silberschmidt 2005). The theme of masculinities, however, is one of the least researched subjects in Africa (Ouzgane and Morrell 2005).

Among some it conflates the idea of being a man to being tough or aggressive in everyday life and in expressions of sexuality. Indeed masculinity is often expressed and experienced through sexuality (Sorrel and Raffaelli 2005).

Sometimes masculinity can mean the male desire for heterosexual intercourse, And not living up to ‘masculine’ expectations could lead men not to see themselves or feel like ‘real’ men (Kimmel 1987 cited in Silberschmidt 2005).

Likewise, sexuality in general and the issue of heteronormativity and masculinity in particular is ‘barren’ field in many parts of the world and Africa in particular .In Kenya, like many other societies, ‘hegemonic masculinity is defined as exclusively heterosexual’ (Connell 2005:162) and as will be shown below masculinity, self-esteem and social position of MSM is under threat.

Didi Herman, Bad Girls Changed My Life": Homonormativity in a Women's Prison Drama
This play explores representations of sexuality in a popular British television drama. The author argues that the program in question, Bad Girls, a drama set in a women's prison, conveys a set of values that are homonormative. In other words, unlike other mainstream television products that may have lesbian or gay characters within a prevailing context of heteronormativity, BG represents lesbian sexuality as normal, desirable, and possible. At the same time, BG reproduces dominant understandings of social relations in other areas, particularly around race. The broader significance of the series lies in its impact on viewers' lives, its nonconformity with dominant "gay market" images, and its significance as a space within popular culture from which meanings of gender and sexuality can be contested.

Discursive Themes of Homonormativity in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
In a period of more complex and numerous portrayals of homosexual characters in
prime time television, scholars have expressed concern about ostensibly enlightened portrayals that ultimately reinforce culturally dominant themes of heteronormativity. This study is a critical investigation of the reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as a site of queer discourse that both challenges and reassures dominant perceptions of homosexuality. Despite the assertion of homonormative themes in this more sophisticated version of gay lifestyles, this study finds that the program, on balance, reinforces heteronormative themes and dominant heterosexual power roles. The apolitical power granted to the Fab 5 is of an aesthetic nature, permitting them to induce primarily cosmetic change justified by consumer rhetoric.

Using the concepts of heteronormativity and masculinity, this presentation seeks to understand the personal conflicts and concerns experienced by homosexuals in 5 selected urban towns in Kenya who ‘fall outside’ of heteronormativity

Findings/Responses
• Response from Ken from Nairobi“ Many a times I feel I am more of a woman than a man”:
… Even if I wanted to leave with a man, I can’t because I am not a girl so it is just not possible. My conscience can’t allow it even if I wanted to. It troubles me a lot. This kind of life has its pleasures and pains you know. It is a sin according to the Bible and besides it is not our culture and this depresses me. It is not in our culture for a man to have sexual intercourse with another man, this is a fact. So that troubles me, I sometimes think I am more of a woman than a man. So that kind of thought troubles my mind and sometimes I feel like committing suicide...
Fact
• The fact that he was penetrated challenged his understanding of masculinity and his fundamental belief about man’s role as active initiator of sexual activity.
• By saying “it is not in our culture for a man to bend down for another man”, he implied that a receptive role is unmanly and woman-like. When he lends himself to sexual intercourse as a passive partner, this role puts him in the role of the female and it is not in line with common cultural understandings of his society.
• In a way, he created association between penetration and masculinity arguing that a passive position is unmasculine.
• His narrative demonstrates how penetration is a central framing device in the construction of masculinity and femininity.
• He reflected how his sexuality is against culture and in conflict with his social presence as a man.

Findings/Responses
• Other informants have experienced sleepless nights doubting their ability to perform as a man and demonstrate male competence when they wanted to date women& the kind of counselling they receive. Bob from Mombasa is a typical example:
…When I won her confidence and acceptance after a year or so of getting to know her, what really scared me was the thought of what if I couldn't satisfy her in bed? Would I even know how to do it with a girl? And I was really worried about this. I have a few friends who are nurses and we are very close. I asked them about this. And they said it would be all right and all I have to do is convince my self I can do it. I did not tell them that I was gay, Automatically to them I am a heterosexual. So they tried to convince me that all was well and said I can do it if I convince myself I can do it. My body wasn't really comfortable with it I guess because I was more attracted to men than women….It never worked. I had sex with a woman, she conceived and this was a relief to me….I was a man which I really needed but it never worked out. We parted ways and now I have a male partner though my family members have no clue of this. There was no pleasure being close to this woman I just wanted to look like any other man in the eyes of society.
Fact
• The above narrative implies how Bob panicked by the thought of dating a woman, and how he was mis counseled by nurses that with time he would perform.
• By engaging in sex with a woman, he was able to prove his masculinity and answered a very important question in his life (as he put it).
• It gave him a sense of masculine pride he badly needed.
• This story also suggests that Bob sees himself as ‘gay’ but questions whether he is a man at all and part of his motivation to have sex with a woman is to explore his masculinity.
• The expectation in many societies is that anatomy determines gender identity and sexuality and people are expected to conform naturally or without exerting any effort.
• In a society where sex is often supposed to occur mostly between a man and woman, sexuality – in the mainstream social sphere - is all about heterosexuals.
• In this context many of the MSM involved in the study described unsuccessful attempts to stop themselves having sex with men. The homosexuals confessed that they are misunderstood by society and counselors are of little help because they don’t understand them.
• When asked about their first homosexual feelings, most respondents said they discovered these feelings and an understanding of ‘homosexual’ when they were children (see Tadele 2008).
• Despite their perception of homosexuality as ‘natural’ rather than ‘nurture’, many respondents clearly wish to renounce homosexuality and join heterosexual community.
Another interviewee Mary had this to say;
• Mary 25 years old from Nakuru a lesbian had this to say.
……Since I was a kid I have never liked the company of men. I have never had a boyfriend and have never thought of sleeping with a man. How can you do something that you have no feelings for? So even if I wanted to sleep with a boy, I just can't.
• One of the things that homosexuals have in common is that they have had and continue to have and pursue experiences and desires that are not always in line with majority views of what is right, acceptable or ideal, but with a lot of tension, worry and distress.
Fact
• The above accounts clearly show ‘the effects of social norms governing sexuality and the dissonance between lived experience and society’s expectations (Cornwall and Jolly 2006:2).
• They maintained that their families would not leave them to remain bachelors or spinsters.
• Thus, marriage is perceived as an inevitable (desired or not) in order to find meaning in life and conform to heteronormativity.

Counseling challenges
• The mistake that most of us make to correct sexuality is that we compare the anatomy, physiology and experiences of straight and gay people in hopes of discerning what influences sexual orientation. Majority of the counselors are homophobic thus ill prepared to handle homosexuals. They end up making the counselee believe their sexuality is an abnormality and so must change.
• During their training they were made to believe that homosexuality is a vice so should be shunned.
• Very few clergy are prepared to counsel the LGBTI community because of their interpretation of the bible.
• Counseling teachers in schools are told that homosexuality is a vice that should be shunned so this is the message passed on to the children
• Politicians are busy guarding their ‘culture’ and numbers back to power so they have to demonize homosexuality if they want to stay in power.
• Living with homophobic families, friends and neighbours was one of the biggest challenges for all informants.
• All of them perceive that it is absolutely necessary to hide their sexuality, and some of them even pretended to pass for heterosexuals.

Is Sexual Orientation a Choice or a Given Disposition?
• Is sexual orientation as many believe a moral or lifestyle choice-was your sexual orientation your choice?
• Are heterosexuals those who have chosen wisely? Are homosexuals simply misbehaving heterosexuals?
• The persistence of one’s sexual attraction to either men or women suggests that sexual orientation is for most if not for all as enduring disposition. So what determines our disposition?

Creating limited space for openness

• Yet, doing this aroused suspicion from their families, friends and neighbours regarding their sexuality.
• One informant George expressed his wish to stop having sex with men and join the heterosexual community. He confided repeatedly that anal sex with men is more enjoyable and satisfying than vaginal sex.
• He acknowledged how difficult it is to stop having sex with men, and expressed his wish to quit.
• However it is unclear whether he will for overwhelming heteronormativity of his social context had triggered personal dilemma, tension and unhappy feelings and a desire to abandon male-to-male sex in the future.
Mable from Eldoret also seems to be experiencing a lot of tension between her desire and normative expectations. She said that she wanted to get married and have children like any other woman. Asked how she could get married and have children, given that she is not attracted to men and after admitting that she cannot fathom the idea of having sex with a man, she gave the following response:….At the end of the day I am a woman, and I also have what nature has given to every woman. I mean if you arrange things and asked any man to get married, he would, no matter what. And I will too. Well, I guess I will have a very weak desire at least and I guess I will learn. I have the same vessel as any other woman and I will learn how to use it with men. I have just to fit in society.
• She suggested that she was born as a woman and as such should have the natural capacity to have sex with a man, thereby essentializing sexuality.
• Her story offers insights into deeply unhappy person for not conforming to dominant heteronormative expectations.
• She knows that she is sexually attracted to women and much less so to men, but that does not appear to change her strong wish to marry a man.
• This means that she wanted to behave as a woman in order to fit into performative gender category.

• James from Kisumu also seemed to be living with deep concern and anxiety with his hidden sexuality, and wished to be ‘cured’ before his background might inadvertently be revealed by some misfortune…..I know my family very well, they wouldn’t want to have any thing to do with me if they knew I was gay. And if something terrible happened to me, I don't think they would be willing to burry me. They would be very disappointed if they knew, they would curse me it will break their heart. And I don't want to see that happening and I pray to God to cure.
Fact
• One of the things my informants have in common is that they have had and continue to have and pursue experiences and desires that are not always in line with majority views of what is right, acceptable or ideal, but with a lot of tension, worry and distress.
• The above accounts clearly show ‘the effects of social norms governing sexuality and the dissonance between lived experience and society’s expectations (Cornwall and Jolly 2006:2).
• They maintained that their families would not leave them to remain bachelors or spinsters.
• Thus, marriage is perceived as an inevitable (desired or not) in order to find meaning in life and conform to heteronormativity.
• Living with homophobic families, friends and neighbours was one of the biggest challenges for all informants.
• All of them perceive that it is absolutely necessary to hide their sexuality, and some of them even pretended to pass for heterosexuals.
• Yet, doing this aroused suspicion from their families, friends and neighbours regarding their sexuality.
• They said that gender typical behaviours and interests had subjected them to family scrutiny regarding their sexuality.
• When asked whether there is any one or someone from their family/friends/neighbours who knew or suspected anything of their sexual practice, some informants responded affirmatively.

Findings
• Very few clergy are prepared to counsel the LGBTI community because of their interpretation of the bible.
• Counseling teachers in schools are told that homosexuality is a vice that should be shunned so this is the message passed on to the children
• Politicians are busy guarding their ‘culture’ and numbers back to power so they have to demonize homosexuality if they want to stay in power.
• Some informants reported that, instead of talking to them and confronting them directly, some families/neighbours strike conversations about gays in order to give “corrective lessons” indirectly.
• In Kenyan families, talking about sexuality with children is taboo, and not talking about sexual orientation of children should not come as a surprise. Thus, parents seemed to have preferred to broach the issue of homosexuality indirectly instead of confronting the reality directly.

Conclusion
Evidently this research is entangled in homonormative and heteronormative elements, which allows us to venture the world of homosexuals. This research allows homosexuality to be presented as a normal and unremarkable choice, and frequently leads into discourse that presents heterosexuality as banal.

Yet, this homonormative premise is constantly contradicted by storytelling devices by the interviewee, which serve to subtly restore heterosexuality as the primary discourse.
Also the gay community remains a political, since they are never provided by the society at large with the power to renegotiate their status and social position. Space is what is wanting.
• On numbers: Little percentage but what should we do with this? Should the 1% left handed persons in our society be corrected?
On the incomplete of science: The causes of sexual orientation are just beginning to be understood

• Science rightly interpreted has much to offer: As people of faith in the past have allowed science to inform their understanding the physical universe, so scientific findings may today inform our understanding of sexual orientation.

• Science can’t resolve value questions: We still have to decide whether to regard a homosexual orientation as a normal variation as we did with left handedness or as an abnormality to be corrected.

References

Atkinson, C. (2003, August 4). Marketers warm up to gay audience. Advertising Age, 74
(31), pp. 4, 26.

Herman, D. (2003). “Bad girls changed my life”: Homonormativity in a women’s prison
drama. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20 (2), 141-159.

Shugart, H. (2003). Reinventing privilege: The new (gay) man in contemporary popular
media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20 (1), 67-91.

http/:www.sex.sagepub.com

Steele, J. E. (1997). Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t explain: Unofficial sources and television
coverage of the dispute over gays in the military. Political Communication, 14 (1), 83-96.

Kielwasser, A. P., & Wolf, M. A. (1992). Mainstream television, adolescent
homosexuality, and significant silence, Critical Studies in Mass Communication,9 (4), 350-373.

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