Not quite over the rainbow


Over the past decade, many countries around the globe have adopted stronger anti-hate crime and discrimination laws and procedures (e.g., Albania, Cuba, Georgia, Mexico, Nepal, and South Africa), leading to greater visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community. As one recent example, the US Supreme Court ruled less that a landmark civil rights law protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination, no longer making it legal to fire workers for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in all states. While the ruling is a long-sought and unexpected victory for the LGBTQI+ equality movement, it also brings into focus the long road ahead. The unexpectedness of the victory exemplifies the unrelenting and insidious nature of heteronormative ideology that permeates our societies, and not just the United States. In fact, about half of all LGBTQI+ individuals in the EU report personal experiences with discrimination or harassment based on their non-heteronormative identities, with over 25% of them having experienced violence, and about two thirds feeling compelled to hide their identities to avoid prejudice and discrimination.1 Even in the Netherlands, widely recognized as a pioneer in LGBTQI+ rights2,3, 30% of LGBTQI+ individuals report experiences of discrimination and/ or harassment1 , and LGBTQI+ teens face, on average, four times as much bullying as heteronormative teens.4 Heteronormativity at work Heteronormativity refers to the belief that there are two separate and opposing genders (man and woman) with associated natural roles (masculine and feminine) that match their assigned sex (male and female), and that heterosexuality is a given.5 Heteronormativity is not only descriptive in that people are assumed to be cis-gender and heterosexual because this characterizes the majority of people, it is also prescriptive in that people are often supposed to be cis-gender and heterosexual. Heteronormative beliefs have far-reaching consequences; Blatant and explicit prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity is far too common, but there are also more subtle and implicit ways in which heteronormativity negatively affects the lived experiences of LGBTQI+ people. In the work domain, for example, heteronormativity manifests in the belief that sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated to the workplace while the prototypical worker is thought to be cis-gender and hetero and can share details about their private lives without social penalties.6 Hence, LGBTQI+ employees are accepted at work if they conform to the heteronormative majority (e.g., by concealing their sexual orientation and gender identity) but they cannot be their authentic selves. Why is heteronormativity pervasive and persistent? Heteronormativity not only exists in the collective minds of people but is also ingrained in the very fabric of our social, legal, economic, political, educational, and religious institutions. This pervasiveness Prof. Dr. Jojanneke van der Toorn, Leiden University THE UNRELENTING AND INSIDIOUS NATURE OF HETERONORMATIVE IDEOLOGY Not quite over the R ainbow “Heteronormativity not only exists in the collective minds of people, but is also ingrained in the very fabric of our social, legal, economic, political, educational and religious institutions” 19 For further information, visit or email [email protected] For further information, visit or email [email protected] 20 and persistence is not surprising when considering that heteronormative beliefs are propagated through socialization and other widely held ideologies (such as certain religious beliefs) and are prevalent among both cis-hetero and LGBTQI+ individuals. From birth, children are raised with the heteronormative notion that that there are boys and there are girls, and that each have distinct ways of thinking and behaving. Developmental research has demonstrated that children’s gender attitudes are influenced by the sexual orientation of their parents and their parents’ gender ideologies, and even more so by the extent to which their parents’ division of labor conforms to normative gender roles.7 Parents with more traditional gender role attitudes were also found to more frequently engage in attempts to change the gender-nonconforming behaviors of their children to fit in with societal expectations for gender.8 Beyond the early formative years, heteronormative ideology is further bolstered by common representations in both the media and people’s immediate social environment, and reinforced through interactions with significant others and peers.9,10 Heteronormativity is further supported through religious ideologies, as many religions encourage traditional gender roles and incorporate explicit heterosexism (at least with regard to sexual acts between men11). In line with this, research has consistently shown religiosity to be related to heteronormative attitudes and beliefs such as prejudice against sexual and gender minorities.12.13 Because heteronormativity is propagated through socialization and other widely held ideologies, it is even prevalent among LGBTQI+ people themselves. Social psychological research has found that gay men and lesbian women show a weaker tendency than heterosexuals do to implicitly favor members of their own group over those in other groups, and to sometimes even agree with the negative opinions that society has about their group (referred to as internalized homonegativity). The strength of heteronormative socialization is powerfully illustrated in this quote from one-person show Nanette by the Australian entertainer Hannah Gadsby14: “Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, subhuman, pedophiles. 70 percent! And by the time I identified as being gay, it was too late, I was already homophobic. And you do not get to just flip a switch on that.” How can we combat heteronormative beliefs? Given that the expression of heteronormativity is pervasive, persistent and interwoven into the processes and culture of institutions, combatting it is a real challenge. These challenges are compounded by the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity prejudice is increasingly subtle.15,16,17,18 Common approaches to combating heteronormative ideology are focused on reducing sexual orientation and gender identity prejudice. A review of the literature suggests that promising interventions are those aimed at evoking empathy and perspective taking toward sexual and gender identity minorities, or at developing alliances between minority and majority members (such as Gender-Sexuality Alliances in High Schools16). However, most interventions are neither based on research nor scientifically evaluated for their effectiveness.16 If we want to effectively reduce sexual orientation and gender identity prejudice, we need prejudice-reducing interventions that are robust across time and contexts and address both blatant and subtle forms of prejudice, as well as their underlying mechanisms. We also need to change the context. In the workplace, a good starting point would be question the apparent distinction between the private and the public realm when it comes to sexual For further information, visit or email [email protected] 20 21 For further information, visit or email [email protected] orientation and gender identity. The LGBTI+ networks have an important role to play here. They are uniquely placed to provide a safe space for LGBTI+ employees, facilitate alliances between LGBTI+ employees and their ally colleagues, and advocate for structural changes in the organization (e.g., at the policy level). While organizations tend to implement identity blind policies which focus on equal opportunities for employees by providing the same measures across the board. However, there are indications that in order to create an inclusive climate, identity conscious policies which focus on specific groups of employees are most effective.19 But organizations should not underestimate the power of the context; even if they’re doing everything right to create an inclusive climate within the organization, their employees are still affected by the broader environment too. This is especially important in countries where there is a hostile societal environment.