Between the Binary

It’s time to move beyond heteronormativity when dating

(Shelby Criswell)

As a nonbinary person who tends to date other gender-nonconforming people, social interactions involving my partners often lead to lots of questions from those outside of the relationships. I half expect it at this point, but I still tense up when a stranger or a friend of a friend approaches. The conversation goes smoothly at first, then the revelation comes—no, we’re not best friends; we’re together. The clock ticks in my head in a symbolic race toward who will be the first to ask the dreaded question of many queer relationships: “Who’s the boy and who’s the girl?”

This simple question, even asked without malicious intent, can feel invalidating. I know it does on my end. It’s a situation in which I’ve found myself more times than I can count, and in my roughly eight years of dating as an openly queer person, I’ve come to one conclusion: It sucks, and heteronormativity plays a large part as to why that is.

Heteronormativity, a term coined within queer theory, refers to the presumption and privilege of heterosexuality in everyday life. When looking at the most recent statistics for representation of LBGTQ+ people on primetime cable, it’s not hard to understand why so many people would have questions. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that only 8.9% of characters on television shows were LGBTQ+ in 2023—a 2% decrease from the previous year. Even fewer are transgender—let alone in relationships with other trans people. If people never see depictions of non-heteronormative queer relationships in popular culture, how can we expect them to understand the nuances? Representation matters.

It’s no surprise that I, like many others who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, fear going out in public with my partner. In a community like Santa Fe, I’m not as worried about outwardly negative reactions to public displays of affection or, worse, being targeted and attacked for who I am, but I am afraid to be placed into the heteronormative box I’ve tried to run away from since coming out.

University of New Mexico Professor Shinsuke Eguchi, whose research focuses on intersectionality and transnationalism—in order to question and critique the “everyday alteration of differences such as race, gender and sexuality in social interaction and processes”—tells SFR heteronormativity can even trickle down into queer relationships in the most intimate ways, and thus affect our own self-perceptions when it comes to romantic connections.

“When we think about marriage, people always think love is the way to get married, but who’s love is it? It is about a heterosexual people,” Eguchi says. “I mean now, obviously, gay, lesbian and transgender people can get married too. However, those [marriages] are conforming to the idea of heteronormativity by engaging in this system that historically defines one man as a husband and one woman as a wife.”

My reality paints a picture wherein, for presenting femininely, people assume I must be the caretaker of the relationship. I must be “the bottom.” More broadly, heteronormativity plays a part in heterosexual relationships, too—think expected gender roles, sexual dynamics, etc. This becomes even more nuanced when we consider the obvious: I’m a white, queer person living within Americanized ideals of love and sex, and not every person will have the same experiences that I have.

I, for one, acknowledge the privilege I wield in the connections I create. Even with the constant societal pressure of heteronormativity, I face half of what a queer person of color does. For Eguchi, to “colorblind” those differences hinders the road to progress and change in the long run, when they could instead be used to create shared goals and address a system, they say, that ultimately “oppresses all of us.”

“One of the things I reject is that some of the movements tend to say, ‘Oh, we’re all the same at the end of the day. Let’s fight for the same things,’” Eguchi continues. “Actively recognizing and understanding the differences allows us to see there is some sort of shared political dissatisfaction that we experience so that we can actually fight together…so that we could decenter the center.”

I am tired of the idea that there can only be tops and bottoms. I am tired of prescribed gender roles based on a societal norm we just can’t seem to shake. Relationships in any form are personal to those within them. I get to define the connection I’m a part of, and it doesn’t have to be reduced to what’s palatable or understandable for the general public. We need to put an end to heteronormativity. We need to put an end to invasive questions and the assumptions that come with them. Those in queer relationships that don’t meet that standard are valid. We’re normal, too.

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