Heteronormativity and Homonormativity in Western Media

From UBC Wiki

Heteronormativity and homonormativity are normative systems that intersect with systems of oppression such as white supremacy, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, cissexism, ableism, sizeism, sexism, and transmisogyny.

What is heteronormativity?

"The Bachelor," also known as one of the most heteronormative reality shows out there.

Heteronormativity is the system and belief that enforces heterosexuality as the default, natural, and ideal sexual orientation. It also separates people into two "distinct" genders (man and woman) based on their assigned sex at birth, and designates "natural" roles and characteristics to people according to their gender identity.[1] Heteronormativity therefore stigmatizes LGBTQIA2S+[2] folks who do not conform to constructed norms of how a sexual citizen should look and act.

What is homonormativity?

The common "face" of the "gay rights" movement.

Homonormativity can be defined at the policing of sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities/expressions within the LGBTQIA2S+ community(ies). It pushes for "increased social acceptance and assimilation"[3] within greater heteronormative society.

In many ways, homonormativity is a form of assimilation and nation-building; it works to conform queer and trans people to "mainstream" (white, cisgender, monogamous, monosexual,[4] middle-class) Western culture, and brings "certain queer people into the form of state recognition."[5] Essentially, it works to create the "ideal" Western citizen and works to make queer people conform to heteronormativity as much as possible. Homonormativity often positions issues such as same-sex marriage and the military as the main issues of the LGBT movement[6] which reinforces a nationalist, monogamous nuclear family narrative.

Homonormativity is rooted in heterosexism, which is a system that privileges normative heterosexual people over people who are queer (or perceived as queer) economically, socially, and politically.[7] Homonormativity pushes "the heterosexist norm" to allow room for "certain deviations,"[8] provided that they stay within the idealized and normalized status quo. Through this limited "liberation," the state or nation creates a notion of tolerance, equality, and freedom, erasing the ongoing heterosexist practices from their narrative.

In short, within homonormativity there is a "central power dynamic among ‘queers’ whereby neo-liberal capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism and racism worked to empower some queer subjects and further marginalize others in the assimilation process."[9] Identities that do not fit this model of the "ideal" queer citizen are then shamed, policed, and underrepresented, especially in Western media.

Hetero/homonormativity and systems of oppression in Western media

Sexuality, (cis)sexism, and (trans)misogyny

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka, and their children
Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club," played by cisgender man Jared Leto (who won an Academy Award for this role).

Cisgender gay men are some of the most represented and privileged queer people within mainstream Western media. Popular queer couples in the media, such as Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, as well as lesbian couples like Ellen DeGeneres and Portia di Rossi, are gender-conforming folks who reinforce heteronormative gender roles within their queer relationships, where one person is more stereotypically "masculine" than their more "feminine" partner.

Most queer women, as well as transgender folks, are erased, underrepresented, and misrepresented within Western media. Media that features queer women and trans folks is extremely rare and considered "alternative." Examples of this are the 1999 cult film "But I'm a Cheerleader," the alternative music group Tegan and Sara, and the TV show "Orange is the New Black."

Although representation of trans people is increasing with shows like "Orange is the New Black" and "Transparent," this representation is rare and not very mainstream. Additionally, while trans character Sophia in "Orange is the New Black" is played by trans actress Laverne Cox, trans women in TV shows like "Transparent" and films like "Dallas Buyers Club" are played by cisgender men, reinforcing the transmisogynistic punchline of "trans women as men in dresses" and underrepresenting trans actors within the industry.

Sexuality and race

Juno and Bleeker
Screenshot from an "It Gets Better" video.

White hetero/homonormativity is used in Western media to reinforce whiteness as the ideal within both heterosexual and queer relationships. Homonormativity allows "certain gay white men to benefit from postindustrial sectors that depend structurally and implicitly upon white supremacy and heteropatriarchy."[10]

Examples of how sexuality and race interact within hetero/homonormative relationships include:

Juno: Juno and Bleeker are the quirky, young white couple; the ideal/preferred teen family. Here you have a white, straight teenage girl who accidentally gets pregnant and has the choice, resources, and privilege to get the support or outcome that she needs. She has a supportive family and father of the baby who want what's best for her, and a wealthy, white, heterosexual nuclear family who wishes to adopt the baby. Even just the fact that she's able to purchase multiple pregnancy tests is a sign of her privilege! She is able to make her own choices and have a happy ending at the end of the movie. Unfortunately this is not the common teen pregnancy experience, particularly for working-class, racialized, queer, and disabled teenage girls who do not have access to a support system, resources, or healthcare. Juno is not a realistic portrayal of teen pregnancy because the "quirkiness" of the movie, along with her immense privilege, erases the struggles of pregnancy that so many marginalized teenagers face. Juno's non-chalant, sarcastic attitude throughout the film is one of the biggest ways that she shows her privilege, in the ways that being pregnant will not affect her as much as the girls who do not have agency over their pregnancy and desires.

Orange is the New Black: This original TV series on Netflix, based on the true story of a woman's experiences in a women's prison, has more heteronormative and homonormative representation of white couples and interracial couples (in this case, a white person and a person of colour) than intraracial couples (people of colour of the same race). This reinforces the idea that a romantic/sexual relationship should consist of at least one white person. Examples from the show include:

  • Piper and Alex, and Nicky and Morello: these white relationships are some of the most developed and primary relationships on the show.
  • Piper and Suzanne: in this relationship, Suzanne is demonized and hypersexualized, whereas Piper is the "innocent" and "rational" half.
  • Taystee and Poussey, and Sophia and Crystal: these intraracial relationships end up not working out or have a lot of conflict, refusing to give these couples a happy ending or developed relationship like some of the white couples get to have.
  • Daya and John: this heteronormative relationship is one of the more developed relationships on the show, which is framed as the "cute" storyline.

Lastly, social media campaigns like "It Gets Better" primarily represent white queer folks and white allies who are mainly speaking to white queer kids (the campaign rarely covers issues that specifically affect queer youth of colour).

Capitalism and homonationalism

Capitalism and sexuality

Capitalism plays a large role in how sexualities are represented and treated in mainstream Western society. Heidi Nast (2002) says that media images are often tied to profiteering and marketing, rather than to realistic portrayals of a broad spectrum of [queer] lives.[11] An example of this is the Pride parade, which receives large media coverage by both straight-dominated and queer-centered media outlets. Because of this attention, corporations are often looking to sponsor or have a float in the parade, hand out Pride flags and souvenirs with their logo(s) on them, and/or decorate their building(s) to make them "gay-friendly."

Expensive queer-centered clubs and events, especially around Pride week, marginalize poor queer folks by making it inaccessible for them to attend and celebrate their identity(ies). The "ideal" queer citizen is therefore someone who is able to afford these expensive and corporate Pride events and contribute to capitalist practices that "support gay rights."


Homonationalism can be defined as "the idea that LGBTQs the world over experience, practice, and are motivated by the same desires, and that their politics are grounded in an understanding that ties 1) the directionality of their love and desire into a stable identity and 2) that stable identity into the grounds from which one speaks and makes political claims."[12]

Homonationalism "arises whenever settler colonialism is naturalized in [Western] queer projects."[13] Essentially, homonationalism is a neoliberal idea that simplifies and homogenizes queer and trans identities/experiences, producing the hetero/homonormative representations of LGBT folks that we see in Western media today.

When issues such as same-sex marriage and the military are positioned as the main issues of the LGBT movement[14] within Western media, it erases the intersectional issues that racialized, feminine, trans, Indigenous, poor, fat, and disabled queer people face on a greater scale than white, middle-class, able-bodied cis gay men face, such as homelessness and familial abuse. Positioning marriage and the military as the issues that all queer people are fighting for reinforces a nationalist, nuclear family narrative and erases who has access to "rights" such as marriage in the first place.

Colonial hetero/homonormativity

Two-Spirit Indigenous peoples.

Colonialism runs rampant within mainstream Western media representations of queer and trans people. For one, the ways in which we think about gender and sexuality are very Westernized, and erase the unique identities and experiences of Indigenous peoples. The vast majority of mainstream Western media lacks representation of Indigenous peoples, and especially queer, trans, and Two-Spirit Indigenous folks. Media-heavy LGBT events and activisms such as the Vancouver Pride Parade take place without acknowledgement that they are on unceded, traditional, ancestral, and occupied Indigenous lands, which further erases Indigenous folks from hetero/homonormative narratives. All of this continually centralizes "White gay male sexualities and desires … [marginalizing] non-homonormative sexual and gendered identities.”[15]

My main foci for this section will involve the lack of representation within both straight and queer couples in the media and the lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous lives/experiences within social media campaigns, such as the It Gets Better movement.

Sexuality, ableism, and sizeism/fatphobia

Mike & Molly
Mitchell and Cameron of "Modern Family"

Representations of hetero/homonormative couples are often able-bodied, thin people. There is a severe lack of disabled and fat folks in Western media portrayals of heteronormative and homonormative relationships. While the TV show "Mike and Molly," centers around the relationship a "fat" couple, and the TV show "Modern Family" does have representation of a fat gay man, they conform to the rest of the hetero/homonormative "ideals" of a white, monogamous, middle-class, nuclear family lifestyle.


  1. End Racism & Homophobia in the Gay Community. (2012, February 23). Heteronormativity [Blog post]. Retrived from http://endracismandhomophobia.tumblr.com/post/18107395091/heteronormativity
  2. LGBTQIA2S+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and identities that reach beyond this acronym.
  3. Podmore, J. (2013). Critical commentary: Sexualities landscapes beyond homonormativity. Geoforum 49: 263-267.
  4. Goodman, J. (2013, October 15). Barriers to Non-Monosexual Identities. Huffpost Gay Voices. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-a-goodman/barriers-to-non-monosexual-identities_b_4061334.html
  5. Troster, A. (2011). Unlikely Bedfellows: The Harper Government and Homonationalism. M.A. Research Paper. University of Ottawa: Canada.
  6. Conrad, R. (2014). Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
  7. Harek, G. (1990). "The Context of Anti-Gay Violence: Notes on Cultural and Psychological Heterosexism." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 5(3): 316-333.
  8. Troster, A. (2011). Unlikely Bedfellows: The Harper Government and Homonationalism. M.A. Research Paper. University of Ottawa: Canada.
  9. Podmore, J. (2013). Critical commentary: Sexualities landscapes beyond homonormativity. Geoforum 49: 263-267.
  10. Nast, H. (2002). "Queer Patriarchies, Queer Racisms, International." Antipode 34(5): 874-909.
  11. Nast, H. (2002). "Queer Patriarchies, Queer Racisms, International." Antipode 34(5): 874-909.
  12. Mikdashi, M. (2011, December 16). Gay Rights as Human Rights: Pinkwashing Homonationalism. Jadaliyya. Retrived from http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3560/gay-rights-as-human-rights_pinkwashing-homonationa
  13. Morgensen, S. (2010). Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities. GLQ, 16(1-2): 105-131.
  14. Conrad, R. (2014). Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
  15. Giwa, S., & Greensmith, C. (2013). Challenging Settler Colonialism in Contemporary Queer Politics: Settler Homonationalism, Pride Toronto, and Two-Spirit Subjectivities. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 37(2): 129-148.