Why Heteronormativity Is Harmful, And 5 Proactive Steps We Can Take

by Chris Tompkins
Originally Published: 
A group of kids sitting sitting on the floor with their hands up in a classroom
monkeybusinessimages / Getty

Last month while at an educational event, I spoke on a panel with an elementary school teacher who has two decades’ worth of experience. What I appreciated hearing was the recent revelation she had about heteronormativity in the classroom: Even though she is a supportive and affirming mother of an LGBTQ child, it had never occurred to her that the questions she asked her students and the examples she used in the classroom always put forth a heteronormative perspective. It wasn’t until she recently ran into one of her former students—now in high school and openly gay—that she realized how important it is to not make assumptions when teaching children.

Not everyone is straight or cisgender. Yet, we live in a heteronormative world, and many students spend their days in classrooms that are extensions of the world outside them. Through everything from pop culture to K–12 materials, the messages children receive inside and outside the classroom come from a heteronormative worldview.

Just the other week, I was at the grocery store with my 8-year-old nephew. We were waiting in the checkout line, and a woman at the register complimented his brown eyes and long eyelashes. She told him, “You’re gonna be trouble for the ladies. I’m sure all the girls have a crush on you.” It’s a seemingly harmless and sweet comment, but if you scratch beneath the surface, the message could be harmful.

As we walked away I thought about how when I was 8 years old and knew I was gay, comments like that were part of the reason I hid in the closet. How did she know my nephew wasn’t gay? Further, not all girls will have a crush on him.

Teachers have a responsibility to not make assumptions about their students’ identities—and that includes their sexual orientations and gender identities. To effectively do so, it is important to consider the following key points:

– No matter who you are or where you come from, there are certain collective societal messages we subconsciously learn growing up. They formulate our beliefs and it’s our belief systems that become the lens through which we interpret the world. Building an awareness of our implicit biases is key to interrupting heteronormative thinking.

– Beneath heteronormativity lies homophobia and transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia are multi-layered and can mean consciously or subconsciously believing being LGBTQ is “bad,” “wrong” or “less than” being straight.

– Biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression cannot be equated. This is vitally important to understand when dealing with youth.

– Not communicating is still communicating. When teachers do not have LGBTQ-inclusive curricular materials or lesson plans, they are still sending a message to their students.

– Heteronormativity perpetuates the closet, and the closet is a hotbed for shame.

Dr. Brene Brown, who researches shame and vulnerability, argues that shame-prone children are more likely to commit suicide, drop out of school, engage in high-risk sexual behaviors and experience increased drug use. During her keynote address at the 2017 SXSW EDU Conference, Brown spoke to an audience full of teachers about shame and the negative impact it has in the classroom. She shared how learning is inherently vulnerable and if students can’t be vulnerable, it’s impossible for them to learn.

For LGBTQ youth in the closet, it isn’t possible to be vulnerable without first feeling safe.

As educators, it’s not enough to support gay marriage and be an ally for the LGBTQ community. We have to go a step further and stop heteronormativity from taking root in our classrooms.

Here are five proactive steps:

1. Consider that at least one child in your class is LGBTQ.

2. Be inclusive and incorporate LGBTQ examples in your teaching and classroom discussions.

3. Show support by having LGBTQ-related books, signage, stickers, or resource materials.

4. Create an open, safe and affirming space.

5. Be vulnerable, ask questions, and have authentic conversations.

By incorporating these steps and not making assumptions, we can help keep children out of the closet. Being outside of the closet is the only place appropriate for a child to learn, feel safe and thrive.

This article was originally published on