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Heteronormativity is considered a very abstract concept by some but it has serious implications for international development. The term heteronormativity grew out of “Queer Theory” and is the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and any other form of sexual desire, expression or relationship is ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’. It is underpinned by the assumption that there are only two sexes, men and women, which exist in a binary. Heteronormativity structures institutions like marriage, and this produces a set of ideas and ideals about how sexuality should be organised. Analysing heteronormativity enables us to see how particular understandings of sexuality and gender get to be embedded in and woven through the very fabric of our institutions and everyday lives in ways that are powerful, discriminatory and exclusionary.

Within development there has been research, policy and practice which has offered an analysis of the impact of heteronormativity or challenged bad practice. A desire to question and disrupt seemingly ‘common sense’ positions on gender and sexuality have driven, or been prompted by, work on women’s empowerment, sexual rights and HIV.

(Image credits: astadiego/ Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Sex, Gender and Development: Challenging Heteronormativity
Demonstrating for gay rights
M. Henley / Panos Pictures
If development really did justice to the diversity of people’s social and sexual identities, livelihoods and living arrangements, how would it be different to the approaches we see today? What would be done differently? How can practitioners, activists, academics and policy actors concerned with challenging oppressive gender and sexuality norms work together to loosen development’s “straightjacket”? This photo booklet offers insights on these questions with a range of quotes from activists, theorists, and international organisations. These include analyses of existing sex and gender norms, how the development industry colludes with these, and alternative ways of thinking and acting on these issues.

Why does heteronormativity matter?

Few policy makers or practitioners would actively wish to cause the kind of miseries, inequities and exclusions that can come about as a consequence of development’s heteronormativity. More . . .

Gender, masculinities and women’s empowerment

Feminist thought has contributed a great deal to our understanding of heteronormativity – particularly through theorising on the concept of patriarchy, and work to challenge beliefs about the natural superiority of men over women. More...

Economic justice and donors

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements, particularly in developed countries, have not always considered the intersections between social and economic class and sexuality. More...

Human rights and law

Legal rights can be a useful tool for challenging heteronormativity. Over the last decades, we’ve seen a wave of liberalisation of previously restrictive legal regimes sweep across Latin America and Asia granting sexual rights and recognition. More...

Health and HIV

Heteronormativity prevents access to decent health care for many people. Work on HIV has sometimes challenged heteronormativity particularly when it has been led by trans women, men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers all of whom are vulnerable to HIV infection. More...