Interrupting Heteronormativity in Research

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“Heteronormativity has an impact on every aspect of the research process because it is so deeply embedded in our society’s assumptions about relationships, gender, and roles,” said Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart, invited panelist for the UNC Diversity in Higher Education Seminar, titled, “Interrupting Heteronormativity in Research.” The seminar, held in February, was the second in a three-part seminar series hosted by Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and was co-sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Center at UNC.

Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart, Associate Professor, Bowling Green University

Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart, Associate Professor, Bowling Green University

Lazarus Stewart also shared, “Interrupting heteronormativity in my research has involved asking about a participant’s sexuality instead of assuming it based on what gender pronouns they use if they reference a romantic involvement and challenging survey data that make heteronormative assumptions about family structure.”

The moderator, Professor Holning Lau from the Law School at UNC, started out by asking the four panelists—Lazarus Stewart (Associate Professor, Bowling Green University), Dr. W. Roger Mills-Koonce (Associate Professor, UNC-Greensboro), Travis Albritton (Social Work, UNC-CH) and Dr Terri Phoenix (LGBTQ Center, UNC-CH)—to describe what heteronormativity is and how it affected their lives and their research.

“Heteronormativity,” says Terri Phoenix, “is the term used to describe policies, institutions, or practices that operate from a heterosexist framework. Heterosexism is the societal and institutional privileging of heterosexuality as the norm; it is also the assumption of heterosexuality as the default.” An example of heteronormativity is the expectation that, unless indicated or commented on, everyone is heterosexual and should look, dress, and behave according to traditional gender ideals. These expectations, demands, and constraints can be oppressive and stigmatizing and can marginalize members of our community whose expressions are broader than society’s narrow definitions. Many institutional and governmental policies contain language that make households headed by same-sex partners are ineligible.

“When asked by someone how old my daughter is,” commented Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart, “and I responded fifteen, I got the typical response, ‘uh oh, boy trouble!’ This person automatically assumed that my daughter wanted to date boys.”

Dr. W. Roger Mills-Koonce, Associate Professor, UNC-Greensboro

Dr. W. Roger Mills-Koonce, Associate Professor, UNC-Greensboro

Heteronormativity expands into family structures as well. Modern family structures vary significantly from the typical examples of the early twentieth century’s nuclear family when divorce became more common in mid-century. Single-parent households and families with same-sex parents are prevalent in American society.

Dr. Lau then expanded the conversation into how heteronormativity has an impact on research and how it affects the research conducted by members of the panel.

The seminar created a space for participants to ask questions to the panel while also allowing the panel to engage each other. “There was a lot to learn during the seminar on heteronormativity,” says Donna Bickford, one of the seminar’s participants, “from the ways in which heteronormativity functions as an invisible system of power and is entangled with other systems of power, to the ways in which it makes certain populations invisible to researchers and negatively impacts the ability to develop adequate data sets for research projects, to the ways heteronormativity impacts the curriculum and student experiences in our classroom.”

Diversity Education at Carolina

Serving as an innovative thought center for sharing and creating knowledge related to diversity research and promising practices, the Diversity Education and Research Center (DERC) provides diversity education and training opportunities for individuals, educators, non-profits, corporations, and other organizations; is a virtual portal for diversity-related professional development offerings, research, and data, and serves as an information hub for diversity resources and news.

For more information about diversity education or workshops, please visit: http://diversity.unc.edu/derc or if you have a suggestion for a seminar topic, please contact Sharbari Dey, education program coordinator at diversity@unc.edu.

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