Amidst the guests surrounding her, seven-year-old Claire excitedly looks around at the birthday presents piled in front of her. There’s a great variety of presents, and each brings a smile to her face. But the one present that truly touches her is tucked safely inside a box with transparent plastic on the front, allowing her to see inside. She doesn’t have to open the box before tears start streaming down her face. Inside the box is a Barbie doll, and although Claire doesn’t play with Barbie dolls anymore, this particular doll catches her attention, for its face is covered in pale discoloured patches around the eyes, exactly like her vitiligo.
“She looks just like me!” she cries to her mother.
The above story may or may not be true, but it serves to show how society provides a fixed mould that one must fit into in order to not be dubbed an outsider or a freak. Since childhood, we are fed the idea that anything you do that does not follow the norms of society is forbidden or shameful. Heteronormativity is a concept that is rarely spoken about, but which has such dire consequences on the youth that it is high time we address this issue.
Heteronormativity — the idea that binary gender identity and heterosexual orientation are the norms, or default — is prevalent in current society. People are generally assumed to be either male or female, and straight, although, in the context of Bangladesh, the idea of sexual attraction is so stigmatised that people rarely venture into this topic.
Examples of heteronormativity can be found everywhere around us. Children grow up seeing opposite-sex couples, in real life or in books and films. Parents talk about finding a wife or a husband for their son or daughter respectively, and children are usually forced into unhealthy gender roles.
Products are starkly divided into “for boys” and “for girls”. Pink, glittery razors for women are separated (and usually priced higher) from dark, manly razors, even though they both serve the same purpose. Even something as harmless as Kinder Joy is coloured pink or blue and explicitly labelled to separate them.
Terms and phrases such as “sissy” or “fight like a girl” are thrown around so casually that children learn to form a fixed distinction between male and female which is not only disgustingly sexist, but also marginalises anyone who doesn’t follow binary gender identities.
Since childhood, we are taught to believe that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. The concept of an ideal family — a man, a woman, and their child/children — is embedded thoroughly in our brains, and anything even remotely deviating from this formula is seen as abnormal.
“Marriage and children have been framed as such integral parts of life for girls (and even boys),” says sixteen-year-old Kritika from India, “that girls as young as thirteen get into serious arguments or problems when they (even jokingly) say that they never wish to marry. We aren’t allowed to express our fears about pain or labour without older women guilting us into how it is ‘our duty as women’ and that childbirth is an essential experience for womanhood. This invalidates trans women, lesbians, infertile women, and even women who simply don’t want kids.”
What little sex education is provided in schools or at home is incredibly heteronormative. It ignores all kinds of gender and sexual identities and focuses strictly on heterosexual intercourse. Children need to be able to understand themselves; they have curiosity and questions, and textbooks fail dismally in quenching their thirst for knowledge.
Heteronormativity has severe consequences, especially on young people. Identifying only cisgender and heterosexual as the norm marginalises everyone else and makes them feel like aliens in their own bodies. A young boy growing up in a heteronormative environment may feel like there is something wrong with him if he feels attracted to another boy, or if he feels no sexual or romantic attractions at all.
LGBTQ people may suffer from depression due to social stigma and lack of acceptance, and they are even less likely to seek treatment or help. According to Mental Health America, LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, and engage in self-harm, as compared to youths that are straight.
Heteronormativity is a disease that affects everyone, not just LGBTQ people. Schools need to provide healthy sex education and discuss safe sex for everyone. Books and films with non-binary or LGBTQ characters are crucial to help the youth accept themselves. When asked about what could be done to educate people on this subject, Kritika says that visual media is the best platform and that editors, presenters, etc. should make an effort to include more LGBTQ people on television and mass media forums.
“Bollywood and certain celebrities have such cult followings that the easiest way to kick any social movement into gear is through films,” she says.
As individuals, we can take steps to make sure that people around us don’t feel alienated. The first step you can take, of course, is educating yourself. It’s not difficult to learn about different gender and sexual identities. Crush through those barriers that society has built around you and try to see the world with an open mind. Be supportive of your friends, neighbours, or cousins and let them know that they are not alone.
If you are a parent, make sure, at all costs, to avoid harmful phrases such as “boys don’t cry”. Talk freely to your kids and remember that it is important for them to know about gender and sexuality if they are to live a happy, healthy life. It won’t destroy their innocence. Kids are more accepting than adults and it is only through the influence of society that they learn to be hateful when they grow up.
Kritika insists that there should be more “non-judgemental counsellors, accepting courses, an introduction of gender-neutral bathrooms for non-binary, intersex children, and even sensitivity training for teachers.”
Most importantly, talk about it. Change won’t come if we remain silent. Children are beautiful beings. Sheltering them from the truth won’t do them any good in the long run. Give them books with diverse characters; tell them about LGBTQ historical figures; expose them to the beauty of the world. We must ensure that Claires all around the world know that they are loved and recognised.
Nadira Tasnim is a Harry Potter obsessed math-nerd who loves watching psychology videos in her free time.