Questioning the Assumption of Normality: Cisnormative, Transnormative & More

Libraries worldwide contain dusty manuscripts detailing the finer points of cultural etiquette. While most of these antiquated manuals have been retired to the shelf, contemporary society still maintains unwritten codes of conduct with the pressure of social performance. 

These normative scripts define the social roles and behaviors assumed to be acceptable within any given society. The operant word here is assumed since norms have very little to do with belonging to a statistical majority. What is “normal” in one context may not be common anywhere else. In fact, the assumption of normality is a form of cognitive distortion, whereby an individual overgeneralizes how commonplace their traits are. 

Normative scripts are social value assessments placed on in-group vs. out-group performativity. Anyone who is part of the in-group is perceived as normal and therefore good, whereas anyone who is part of the out-group is perceived as abnormal and therefore bad. 

Because of this, normative scripts reinforce narrow perspectives of self and other, thereby restricting a person’s ability to accept diversity, intersectionality, eclecticism, or social change. This is easy to observe generationally, geographically, and anthropologically since norms differ between age cohorts, regions, and cultures—often resulting in conflict.

Unfortunately, sexual and gender minorities are frequently stigmatized by those who deem cisgender heterosexuality “the norm.” And if that wasn’t enough, the assumption of normality also exists within the LGBTQ+ community, leading to stereotypes about how LGBTQ+ people are supposed to look and behave around each other.

So let’s debunk some of these normative scripts and examine how they impact sexual and gender identity. 

What is Cisnormative?

Cisnormative scripts rely on the premise that cisgender people are “normal” and gender-diverse people are “abnormal.” Being cisnormative is distinct from being cisgender since the first is a viewpoint, and the second is a gender identity.

Cisnormative scripts become transphobic when they demonize or dehumanize trans people. Cisnormative scripts become cissexist when they punish, ostracize, or exile anyone who does not fit the expected gender binary. This intolerance is most evident in the terrible hate crimes inflicted on the trans community, such as the 375 gender-diverse people murdered in 2021 alone. 

Yet the harm of cisnormativity is not always as obvious as cissexist bullying, social harassment, sexual assault, or murder. Consider how children are gently chastised into conformity, and how school uniforms and employee dress codes reinforce inflexible gender roles.  

That said, some cisnormative scripts do permit diversity by viewing gender minorities as unique and therefore special instead of a commonplace occurrence found all over the world throughout history. While it is better to be revered and celebrated than to be shunned and excommunicated, this positive spin is still a form of exceptionalism perpetuating the normal vs. abnormal paradigm. The message “you are good because you are unique” can be just as alienating as “you are bad because you are different.”

Because cisgender people make up most of the population, their cisnormative scripts are rarely questioned, adding the assumption of normality to cisgender privilege. This is apparent in how frequently terms like male and female are used interchangeably with man and woman, respectively, even though sex and gender are very distinct.

Depending on the culture, cisnormative scripts often perpetuate dichotomous gender roles, setting men and women as complementary opposites. If men are framed as stern and logical, then women are framed as sensitive and emotional, and so on. This is where the assumption of normality falls apart since there is a vast diversity of gender roles amongst cisgender populations, informed by race, ethnicity, spirituality, nationality, and heritage. 

Not only are masculinity and femininity performed differently around the world, there are also very diverse cultural interpretations of what it means to be a man and a woman.

What is Transnormative? Examining The Transmedical & Trans Postmodern Scripts

Transnormative scripts present a stereotypic image of trans people and what the trans experience “should be.” Two common scripts often conflict within the trans community.

The transmedical script conceptualizes the trans experience as a transition of sex, hence the term transsexual. Influenced by the evolving diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder, this script seeks to “treat” dysphoria via hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and what was historically called Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). Because of the focus on anatomic sex, there is often a great deal of pressure to pass amongst cisgender men and cisgender women to assimilate into the binary. The essentialist criteria within the transmedical script makes it a gatekeeping perspective.

To compare, the trans postmodern script conceptualizes the trans experience as an affirmation of gender, hence the term transgender. Influenced by Queer and Feminist theory rooted in social constructionism, this script rejects dysphoria as a criteria for gender identity. It often views “passability” as a form of trans erasure. 

Transition is not seen as a requirement, though HRT is presented as a viable option for gender affirmation. To include a broad array of trans and nonbinary surgical options, SRS was relabeled Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS) and Gender Affirmation Surgery (GAS).

Both transnormative scripts have critics and advocates, and both contribute to the unnecessary social pressure felt by gender-diverse people, who may internalize the message that they have to transition, or embrace postmodernism, to be accepted. 

This is problematic since both ideologies originate from Western culture and do not adequately reflect the diverse range of transgender, nonbinary and third gender identities throughout the world. 

What is Heteronormative?

Heteronormative scripts present heterosexuality as “normal” and sexual diversity as “abnormal.” This view has been challenged throughout history by gay rights organizations like the Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as by researchers like Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker. Of late, a 2020 Gallup poll of 15,000 Americans found that 5.6 percent of respondents identified as a sexual or gender minority. This same survey found that 15.9 percent of Gen Z identify as LGBT—a far cry from “abnormal.”

The primary function of heteronormative scripts is to provide etiquette for heterosexual social dynamics. Once again, the assumption of normality falls apart since courtship rituals are relative to generation and culture. Yet heteronormative scripts still perpetuate multiple myths and stereotypes about how straight men and women are supposed to act with each other and in their respective cohorts.

When it comes to performance, heteronormativity relies on cisnormativity. While sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct, many stereotypes about sexual orientation are based on gender expression. If a cisgender man presents as masculine, he is perceived to be straight; if he presents as feminine, he is perceived to be gay. If a cisgender woman presents as feminine, she is perceived to be straight; if she presents as masculine, she is perceived to be a lesbian. 

Gender expression has no actual bearing on a person’s sexuality, yet the script is promoted in literature, media, and everyday social interactions.

Heteronormative scripts become homophobic when they demonize or dehumanize sexual minorities. Heteronormative scripts become heterosexist when they punish, ostracize, or exile anyone who is (or is perceived to be) a sexual minority. 

The harmful psychological impact of this ripples across all sexual orientations. Sadly, members of the LGBTQ+ community not only endure the trauma of this heterosexism, they often have to process their own internalized homophobia. In turn, heterosexuals may live in fear of straying from the heteronormative, thereby continuing the cycle of restrictive behavior. 

What is Homonormative?

Homonormative scripts stereotype gay and lesbian identity by relying on cisnormativity and in-group vs. outgroup rivalry. To provide some historical context, invisible minorities at risk of persecution had to develop ways of flagging each other, albeit through fashion, body language, voice inflection, or lingo. When this script feels natural to a person, it’s easily integrated into their sense of pride. Yet if it feels too performative, a person may feel alienated or inadequate, like they’re “not gay enough,” or like the script itself is cliché and two dimensional.

Because of the need for belonging, visibility, and self-affirmation, the gay and lesbian community generated several body-image stereotypes, including (but not limited to) twinks, twunks, fairies, bears, otters, butch studs, bois, baby dykes, dykes, and lipstick lesbians. 

Some may view these labels as a form of body positivity, while others may view them as another form of categorical social pressure. A heavy-set gay man with a beard may not want to be associated with bear culture but feel like it’s expected of him. Not every lesbian with short hair resonates with the word butch.

Beyond this in-group subdivision, homonormative scripts primarily focus on gay white liberal men, excluding multiple tiers of the LGBTQ+ community. Lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, omnisexuals, polysexuals, asexuals, and aromantics are often pushed out of the spotlight, erased, or made to feel invalid or unimportant. Likewise, gay and lesbian BIPOC are often excluded by homonormative scripts that do not reflect their race or ethnicity, or completely whitewash LGBTQ+ history.

When interacting with straight people, homonormative scripts can also serve as a defense mechanism since some heteronormative societies will tolerate socially approved stereotypes that don’t reach above their social class. Consider the fondness straight media has for the gay hairdresser, the fabulous yet platonic bestie, or the butch carpenter stereotype.

What is Queernormative?

Just as homonormative scripts provide a template on how to be read as gay, queernormative scripts provide a template for being read as queer and sexually alternative. To be clear, there is no “queer look” since queer is a broad, inclusive label for anyone who doesn’t fit the hetero or cisgender mold. However, since people naturally like to identify themselves, queer image scenes have created many LGBTQ+ archetypes.

Though the queer community and the gay community intersect, they are independent of each other, and not everyone who identifies as gay relates to the term queer. Some even find it offensive. 

Specifically, the queer community stems from Feminist and LGBTQ+ counterculture, which is why people who identify as queer tend to challenge social norms pertaining to sex, sexuality, and gender identity. This can lead to the expectation that one has to be an androgynous gender bender, gender rebel, or gender outlaw to be read as queer, though this isn’t the case. While there are many punk, goth, emo, and glam rock stars who pioneered some of the most iconic gender-bender fashions, they are not uniforms.  

Additionally, because Queer culture challenges the gender binary, it decouples values and behaviors from gender expression. In other words, masculinity doesn’t have to be a synonym for strength and stoicism, any more than femininity has to be a synonym for elegance and nurturance. 

Yet the queernormative script can sometimes adopt binary constructs of its own, inadvertently transplanting these values to butch and femme, top and bottom, dom and sub, and kink and vanilla dynamics. For example, a person may feel unburdened by gender roles or the limits of gender expression yet still feel pressured to initiate, engage, or lead because they’re a top or a dom. 

Likewise, some queer people can feel the pressure to be sex-positive, sexually experimental, and open to polyamory, even if they’re not, because of the unspoken social pressure to be “open-minded.”  

Conclusion: Rethinking Normative Scripts

Belonging does not require conformity, yet it’s not uncommon for people to desire in-group status because of the inherent desire for recognition and acceptance. In that moment, the assumption of normality is set in motion, as people compare themselves to each other to gain approval via performativity. Yet normality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the social consequences of being abnormal can be staggeringly high.

Instead of trying to fit in by reducing uniqueness or erasing identity, belonging can be cultivated by accepting and empowering diverse voices and personal narratives. On an individual level, the more one experiments with self-affirmation, the more likely one is to encounter people who accept one’s authenticity. Acceptance and belonging are established via connection, not emulation or adherence to “the norm.”

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Alex Stitt is a nonbinary author, queer theorist, and licensed mental health counselor living in Hawaii. As a proud Queer Counselor, they work to educate professionals in the mental health field interested in working with LGBTQ+ populations. Their textbook, ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide, demonstrates how to apply Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to gender self-actualization.