Despite progress on many fronts, heteronormativity still weighs heavily on LGBTQ people
'You come out multiple times a day, every day, for the rest of your life'
This piece was originally published on September 17, 2020.
Like many couples, soon after Anna Davis and Jozee Ormerod got engaged, they were eager to seek out options for a wedding registry. But instead of the excitement of choosing where future guests would pick out bedding, kitchenware and other trinkets to outfit their new home, they found the experience off-putting.
Davis recalls how a woman running the first registry they sought out kept commenting on their "double wedding." They had to keep clarifying they were marrying one another.
"She was so taken aback and she couldn't understand the fact that we were marrying each other, but having a double wedding seemed like much more of a logical route," Davis said.
The experience was soured and left them wondering whether their whole wedding planning process would be one of "weird looks and long explanations," as Davis put it, instead of celebration.
Davis and Ormerod knew they were living in a heteronormative world, but it wasn't until this point that they really felt the sting of it. The reminders continued when they couldn't find non-gender-specific wedding decorations or invitations.
"It would be like going to the store and you want Corn Pops, but you can never find Corn Pops; it's always the off-brand Corn Pops. It works, it cuts it, but it's not exactly what you wanted," said Ormerod.
"There's a lot of settling — a lot of making do or DIY-ing something to make it suit your needs, even if it isn't quite all the way there," Davis added. "It's hurtful in a way to have to do that when the option isn't available to you."
During Davis and Ormerod's lifetime, Canada has seen major strides in LGBTQ rights and inclusion. Since the 20-somethings from Saskatoon were born, same-sex marriage has been legalized, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and the Public Service Superannuation Act extended survivor pension benefits to same-sex couples. But still, heteronormativity — that heterosexual relationships are considered the norm — continues to shape how LGBTQ couples are treated in their everyday lives.
"That affords heterosexual people in our society a sense of privilege as they move through the world — that there's a default assumption that the way they live, the way they love and the way they understand their relationships are normal," said Claire Carter, an associate professor of gender, religion and critical studies at the University of Regina. "By default, that means those who are not heterosexual don't feel normal and are often ostracized or isolated within society."
Claire Carter describes the history of heteronormative privilege:
Carter said heteronormative privilege shows up in everyday conversation. Take, for instance, how some straight people don't hesitate to ask private, intimate questions of those who identify as LGBTQ, from how they conceive a child to their 'coming out' story.
"A lot of straight people don't understand. They think, 'You come out once, it's done,' but you come out multiple times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. That's what it's like living in a straight, heteronormative culture," Carter said.
For every new person she meets, Davis said "it's like starting from square one."
"You're always trying to suss out: 'Is this person safe to have this conversation with? Am I going to be hurt? Am I going to be judged? Am I going to be accepted?'"
Oftentimes, the couple finds themselves using pronouns to drop hints to people rather than outright explaining to them that they're in a same-sex relationship.
"Instead of being like, 'Well, actually, I'm gay,' it's easier to be like, 'My partner does this, she works for the university' — that kind of thing," Davis said. "Sometimes, it's just an easier transition into those conversations or a gentler correction."
When the couple bought a house together this summer, they made it a priority to deal exclusively with experts in the local LGBTQ community to dodge the unavoidable questions about their non-existent male partners.
Not much has changed
"I wasn't as optimistic as some, but if someone had told me that this would have been the state of the world in 2020, I would have been horrified because I did think things would be further ahead," Jean Hillabold said.
Hillabold and her wife, Mirtha Rivera, have been having those awkward conversations with strangers since they first became a couple in 1989.
"One time, someone called me from an insurance company and wanted to know when she could talk to the man of the house, and I go, 'Well, there's no men in here' — because you had to be careful in those years not to say anything," Rivera said. "He kept saying to ask [my husband] to call him. Finally, I said, 'No, I am living with a woman and she's my partner.'"
Rivera and Hillabold first met when the two were working at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre in the 1980s. However, it wasn't until later on when they attended a ladies-only dance with some friends that they became an item.
In the years that followed, Rivera left her husband — with whom she has remained cordial — and moved into a house with Hillabold and all of their kids, creating a five-person blended family.
Although they surrounded themselves with people who supported them, Rivera said it wasn't always that way. And even today, she noted, it's impossible to escape all of the hurtful heteronormative comments.
Whether she corrects people still ultimately comes down to safety: "Our generation of gays and lesbians, people our age, we still have in our minds somewhere that, 'I have to be in the closet and I have to — what I call — straighten up, so I'm not a target,'" Rivera said. "If there's nobody there to back me up, then I leave it alone. I choose my battles — but that shouldn't happen."
Putting in the work
Carter said there are concrete things that can be done to begin chipping away at heteronormative privilege, such as diversifying forms or applications, and adding LGBTQ issues and history to school curriculums.
On top of that, she emphasized there's a need for deep reflection.
"I do think it's on all of us as a society to try to understand the ways we make assumptions about people that can be very hurtful and harmful, and try to imagine what it would be like to experience things differently," Carter said. "That burden should not be on the oppressed to do the educating to their oppressors."
Ormerod agrees that education is key, but said finding safe spaces for uncomfortable conversations is also crucial.
"A lot of people don't feel comfortable because they don't want to offend people because we're in this world of cancel culture. If somebody asks a question that somebody else doesn't like, they blast them all over social media," she said.
Davis and Ormerod describe what living in a non-heteronormative world looks like for them:
Rivera said LGBTQ people need more "accomplices" than allies in the fight for true equality.
"Allies go, 'OK, I'm an ally, I'm going to sit here quietly' — when, no, I want you to be open and I want you to challenge those people. And sometimes we need to challenge our own friends and our own families," she said. "We're so afraid of being uncomfortable and challenged, but we're not uncomfortable enough to cause pain to others."