Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

Can I confess something? I’ve been a sexual rights activist for many years and am deeply immersed in the research undertaken by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, yet still I sometimes struggle to explain to the uninitiated what ‘heteronormativity’ means and why it is an incredibly important concept for those of us working in international development. It is a slippery concept to grasp hold of and gain an understanding of, but I feel it needs dragging out of academic spaces into the realities of our everyday lives.

Simply put, heteronormativity is a term that describes a fixed assumption in society that people fall into two distinct genders, each with natural roles and behaviours – and the subtle and unspoken ways in which how the world is organised on these lines to the exclusion of any other way of conceiving of it. These very specific understandings of ‘natural’ sexuality or gender roles are quietly written into the fabric of our institutions and relationships in ways that can be exclusionary, limiting and discriminatory.

Why is unmasking heteronormativity useful?

The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has consistently argued that the heteronormative nature of much of the development industry impacts upon people’s experiences of their sexuality and that sexual rights remain integral to central development concerns such as poverty and well being. The norms and ideologies that underpin and shape development policies and funding priorities are rarely interrogated because for most people, they remain innocuous and common sense. This neglect can therefore result in ineffective policies that fail to reach those most in need and can in many cases actively constrain their rights.

As a consequence, the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has just launched an online guide to heteronormativity on ELDIS to encourage a greater focus on the perils of ignoring heteronormativity in development interventions.

My colleagues Kate Hawkins, Georgina Aboud and myself have brought together a concise guide to the concept, its usefulness for development thinking and the ways in which it impacts upon gender, LGBT rights, economic justice, health care, human rights and law. We’ve also collected some key publications together on the topic for those wanting to explore it further, alongside research materials that show how it has proved useful in the field.

How we’ve used it in IDS work recently?

As part of the current theme of work around sexuality and poverty that IDS and a number of our partners are leading for DFID, we have had cause to use a critique of heteronormativity as a methodological lens to examine how poverty alleviation policies in a variety of areas such as education, housing, disability and family law are shaped by restrictive norms around sexuality and gender identity. It has enabled us to clearly view the hidden assumptions, the silences, exclusions and discriminatory practice that ensure that these policies remain ineffective in bringing marginalised communities out of economic poverty.

We hope that this new ‘unpacking/unmasking heteronormativity’ resource guide goes some way towards helping you and your networks identify ways in which normative assumptions around sexuality and gender can be identified and addressed in your context too. If you can think of ways in which we can make it even more useful, please don’t hesitate to contact me to give your feedback.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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3 Responses to Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all

  1. As a student of Development Practice, I find the implications of this article highly pertinent and intriguing, in regard to both the theoretical models of development I am exploring in coursework and the projects I hope to work on in the field. I am very much in agreement with the idea that entrenched heteronormativity in development interventions causes real damage in the lives of the poor and marginalized. I read through the linked “resource guide” and was further intrigued by the note that methods of analysis focusing on “households” and “families” can reinforce the exclusion of sexual- and gender-non conformers as well as cisgender heterosexual people living in other arrangements for any number of reasons. However, I am curious about what practical methodological tools and schemes would be useful in data collection for development analysis that do not reinforce this exclusion. Do you know of more resources for practitioners on just how to conduct a more inclusive form of data collection? Thanks for the great article, and the thought provoking materials.

  2. […] sexuality into policy: One of the most effective tools we’ve been using at IDS recently is heteronormativity – the assumption that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation – as a fr… to examine how policies that should allieviate poverty make presumptions about populations and […]

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