Because our world has certain expectations for men and women, including that they will be attracted to one another, we as a people are prevented from getting to know ourselves and our desires without this standard invading our thoughts and feelings.
To understand our world, let’s take a look at one that’s supposed to be far different from ours.
The 100 is a science fiction television show in which the creators have repeatedly said sexuality just doesn’t matter. In this post-apocalyptic Washington DC, no one asks if you’re gay, straight, or bi, you simply engage in whichever relationships suit you. This is one of the best things about The 100, but it also ignores the way that compulsory heterosexuality has dictated how we think about romantic and sexual relationships, and thus underestimates the effect that this supposition would have.
The 100 has thus far depicted one bisexual character, two lesbians, and one gay male couple. This is set up against at least nineteen heterosexual characters. It could be that some of those who have been presented as straight thus far are actually bisexual, but judging by what’s been on screen so far, this seems to be the ratio.
The number of LGB characters that The 100 represents is far higher than most other shows, but if we’re truly to assert that in this world no one type of relationship is given vaunted status over another, then we need to examine how that would actually function.
One of the ways that compulsory heterosexuality acts on us is to give us a model of what is expected of us based on our gender. From the moment you’re born and sometimes before, other people have told you what to like, what to stay away from, and who to be. You can’t help but absorb, and oftentimes mimic, these assumptions about you. Societal expectations and pressures play an immense role in how people live their lives and perceive themselves, even when they live in direct opposition to them. This is a world we inherited, not one we created for ourselves.
In other words, the way we live right now isn’t necessarily the ‘natural’ way of things. We were told that this is ‘reality’, and we make it so.
In a world where people were never taught that the best relationship is a romantic one between a man and a woman that produces children, would our sexual and romantic relationships look pretty much the same as they do today? Would we still have a huge number of monogamous heterosexuals (however much they fail at that first part) with a minority of other sexualities? In our current world, it is impossible to tell because we are all taught that romance between a man and a woman is considered natural and preferable.
No one has to tell us this. It is presented as a ‘given’ and any feelings or thoughts that do not conform to that standard are automatically dismissed. For instance, oftentimes people are told that just because they have a sexual attraction to members of the same sex, that doesn’t make them gay. If we lived in a world where it didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, would we need to say something like this?
Unlikely. This sentiment exists because we want to give people hope that they don’t have to be gay just because they have certain feelings. If people weren’t worried about being gay, and all of the trouble that comes along with it in our current society, they would be free to choose whichever relationships they like.
If the basic premise that sexuality is not a contentious issue were true: no one would suffer overt punishments like physical harm, exile from their family, or other insidious punishments. No one would be subtly encouraged through financial incentives (such as marriage) or societal pressures to conform to the ‘best’ relationship. In addition, being considered outside of ‘the norm’ is, in and of itself, a punishment, a social ostracization, and were heterosexuality not presented as ‘normal’, but instead just one of many choices, that would dissolve as well. Self-censure that prevents pursuing ‘deviant’ desires would not exist.
The 100 removes all of these more obvious harms that come to gay people in a heteronormative world, but ignores how compulsory heterosexuality enforces itself by encouraging everyone to disregard their own feelings.
Science fiction imagines a world far removed from our own, but we bring our own unconscious assumptions into these worlds. If no one’s sexual or romantic preferences were scrutinized, shamed, or dismissed, then I would posit that we would have many more relationships of all kinds, same sex, polyamorous, casual but not ‘bad’ relationships, and more.
This isn’t meant to pick on The 100 (which is, by most accounts, far ahead of other shows in depicting anything other than heterosexuality at all), but to illustrate how compulsory heterosexuality grows in the very roots of our thinking.
So hey, I’m not saying that no story should ever include a romance between a man and a woman. Unless I find a rainbow to some magical gay utopia somewhere, I doubt I’ll ever see that day anyway. All I’m saying is that we should think about it a little more, unpack a little cultural baggage, and in the process, be a little less predictable in our storytelling.
Anansi is the pseudonym of a writer who knows that if she uses her real name to talk about subjects like this he’ll get his head handed to him faster than Vito Corleone put the horse’s head in that idiot pervert producer’s bed.