Within development there has been research, policy and practice which has offered an analysis of the impact of heteronormativity or challenged bad practice.
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.
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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. Nor would they wittingly support and sustain policies and practices that perpetuate this discrimination. But all too often this is the result of the status quo. Same sex desiring and gender non-conforming people are perhaps the most obviously effected. Their failure to abide by society’s regulations can lead to marginalisation and poor access to economic opportunities, health care and housing. They may be prevented from having the kind of family life that they desire. In many settings they can be placed in grave danger of violence, both from their communities and from the state. The activism and analysis provided by these communities have provided us with new ways of visualizing sexual rights provide new pathway to empowerment. The debilitating impact of heteronormativity is not confined to those within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Not all expressions of heterosexuality are socially sanctioned, some are vilified, others prohibited, others still forced out of visibility. Single people experience enormous social pressure to marry in many, if not all, societies. Living alone and pursuing non-cohabitating sexual relationships, enjoying sex with themselves or being asexual is not a viable option for people in many contexts. In some countries extra-marital sex, or adultery, is punishable by death. In many others those that do not conform can be ostracised. The dominant forms of heterosexuality come to be a source of oppression for us all, whatever our sexual preferences and expressions.
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. Yet sexuality is considered a trivial issue by some feminists. Other believe that is solely the preserve of white, middle class women. Feminists working on women’s empowerment have also done less work on how gender norms impact upon men and ‘other genders’. The surge of interest in recent years in men and masculinities within international development has provided new and enlightening ways of looking at the intersections between colonialism, class, ethnicity and gender and how they impact upon sexuality.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism and identity politics have led to a greater visibility of homosexuality and challenged the development sector to acknowledge same sex desire. However, even LGBT politics have not always challenged heteronormativity. Indeed, some gay and lesbian cultures replicate and reinforce strict gender norms, policing their own behaviour, with violent, racist and homophobic results for those who do not conform to particular conceptions of ‘LGBT’.
Understanding the power and impact of heteronormativity may provide new opportunities to create alliances amongst these sometimes disparate groups.
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. Yet for poorer people struggling to combat poverty, it is counterproductive to think of sexuality as something that does not link to their economic wellbeing.
There are many intersections between sexuality and the economy. If you are poor you can be more vulnerable to sexual rights abuses. Richer people may have more to lose in terms of social status if they refuse to conform. In some countries, such as China, access to social housing is dependent on being in a heterosexual marriage, in other places LGBT people may find it difficult to find work in the formal employment sector. There is a need to further explore the ways that conformity and non-conformity might affect access to education and income generating opportunities.
International development donor policy and the funding that follows from it can influence the ways in which heteronormativity plays out in different settings. There is very little critical reflection on how heteronormavity shapes the direction of policy or how the enforcement of this policy might reinforce those norms which undermine efforts to recalibrate sexual and gender relations.
Economic and poverty reduction policy and programming that fails to acknowledge the diversity of family and kinship relationships may not reach potential beneficiaries who do not conform to particular norms around gender and sexuality. Development interventions and research which are explicitly organised around ‘families’ and ‘households’ may fail to reach people who live in same sex couples, as single people or in broader kinship or occupational groups. This may entrench marginalisation and discrimination.
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. At the same time, we’re now witnessing mounting state-sponsored repression of same-sex sexualities in Africa. In recent years some bilateral and philanthropic donors have expressed more of an interest in the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender LGBT people. But ‘legal’ approaches can also be potentially damaging if they are not sensitively handled. For example, the UK Government’s announcement in 2012 that it was considering tying aid to LGBT rights records led African Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) activists to publish a statement in which they laid out their opposition to this course of action.
Often people have to name themselves and adopt an identity, such as Men who have sex with men (MSM) or LGBT, in order to negotiate with powerful institutions and secure rights protections.This can have negative unintended consequences. For example, for some people who do not comply with heteronormativity, invisibility or being able to exist under the radar is a preferable strategy to one that demands visibility and labeling. Others have pointed out that rights discourses can reinforce and regulate rather than disrupt negative norms related to gender and sexuality.
There can also be positive outcomes. For example by adopting a legal approach that relates to labour rights, sex workers have found debates moving away from who sex workers are and instead focusing on how they can work safely and productively. Similarly, recent United Kingdom legislative changes related to trans people has led to increased transgender recognition and rights including issuing birth certificates, although some argue this strategy has reinforced gender normativity.
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. It has provided entry points for discussions about the policies and politics that help shape the ways in which society constructs gender and sexual orders. Whilst many people are understandably uncomfortable with using a biomedical or disease framing to talk about gender and sexuality, work on HIV has provided an opportunity to help understand other ways to have sex, have relationships and live our lives.
Conversely, HIV policy and practice has rewarded conforming behaviour and punished those who deviate from the norm. For example, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) stipulated that grantees explicitly opposed sex work and that they did not provide or advocate for safe abortion services. Grantees who were unwilling to accept these conditionalities often lost their funding. Furthermore PEPFAR ushered in an era of abstinence-only education for young people which was contrary to the evidence base.
Feminists’ advocacy for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights policy and programming has helped reshape the way that women’s health was viewed. It has often challenged harmful norms around the role of women and led to a reprioritising of their wellbeing in global health agendas. Yet all too often the women’s health agenda has reduced women to their role as mother and failed to adequately challenge the social norms related to gender which make women vulnerable to ill health.
Same sex desiring women and trans, gender queer and intersex people can struggle to access the healthcare that they need and they are rarely prioritised in development interventions (except in relation to trans women and HIV). Few doctors and health care programmers are trained on trans issues during their formal education and most reflect the values of their communities in their practice. In some settings self-treatment with hormones is common which can lead to complications associated with mis-dosing and unsafe injection practices. In other cases trans people may resort to informal and private health care providers, for treatments to modify their bodies, at considerable cost with variable outcomes. Intersex people may be assigned a gender at birth and their genitals and hormones may be altered without their consent.