Heteronormalizing childhood-
the presumed perversion of the queer child

 
_Q-logo-white.png
 
 

“He’s a little bit of a lady’s man, isn’t he?”

A lady’s man. It’s a term that can conjure up many images; the womaniser, the flirt, the overconfident male. In all likelihood, you are thinking of an adult. You are not likely to be thinking of an adolescent, or a child- unless of course, your mind goes to the image of an infant boy who has the reflex to smile at, or acknowledge the existence of a female counterpart of a similar age. I don’t believe I’m alone in stating that I have heard this term and similarly heteronormative phrases used to describe the behaviour of a male so young that he barely has a grasp of human language. Heteronormativity is widespread in the framing and interpretation of childhood social interactions. Any young girl who shares her toys with a boy must, by default, have 'a boyfriend’; we impose romantic themes upon any oppositely-sexed interaction, because there is one continual imposition upon young bodies- that they are straight until proven queer.

 

The inauthenticity of the queer youth identity is a pervasive issue in heteronormative, cisnormative culture, where the childhood default is undeniably assumed to be heterosexuality/cisgenderism, and where any presentation of ‘queer behaviour’ before adulthood is met with disbelief, humour and often revulsion. This is a matter that perhaps is not as openly discussed as it should be, especially when we look at how widespread (or more visible) this self-identification outside of cisgender or heterosexual has become amongst young people- as of last year, a survey in the US found that of all populations that did not identify as cisgender, those aged 13-24 had the highest incidence rate (Herman et al, 2017). The sexualisation of a child’s body through their expression of sexuality, a queering of gender, plays upon pervasive anxieties surrounding the sexual awareness and capacities of an underage body in the ‘postmodern Anglophone west’ (Hawkes & Egan, 2008).

 

This anxiety is evident in the gendered spaces we create for children and the heteronormative impositions those spaces create. Gershenson's (2010) writings on the issue of gender neutral bathrooms makes this evident when they talk of how bathrooms are socially tied to the concept of genitals, and genitals are considered innately sexual within western culture. Thus, in acknowledging that queer children exist, bathrooms become spaces in which children can (in theory) enact sexual behaviour with a member of the same sex, out of the control of parents and carers. The gender segregation of bathrooms, as Gershenson states, is a means through which sex is controlled by the male/female division- but we cannot control the sexuality of a queer child through such spaces. There is revulsion that comes with the accusation of a child being non-heterosexual; i have not yet met a parent who feels comfortable with the notion of suggesting that their young daughter must have a girlfriend if she favours playing with another female in school. This matter is, of course, multifaceted- not only is sexual behaviour being heteronormatively imposed on children who are, by the common social narrative, too young to know their own sexuality yet, but they are also raised in an environment where heterosexuality is sweet and endearing- and queerness is seen as an indication of precociousness and even promiscuity. The queer body is a site of sexual power, that is undeniable- but it cannot and should not be reduced to sexual power alone. In denying queer individuals a narrative in which their childhood experiences were both innocent and healthy, we reframe their existence as inherently deviant.

 

I cannot address this matter without drawing upon personal experience- as a queer person, my first serious relationship in my teens was with a young woman who my own mother intensely disliked and, above all else, considered to be responsible for my “phase”. My coming out was hostile, traumatic and abusive- I lost so much in being non-straight, but was awarded none of the validation of being gay, since I had come out (at the time, to avoid the complex gender discussion that pansexuality warrants) as bisexual. I wasn’t operating under the presumed stasis of 'true' homosexuality, and thus my relationship was an act of obscene dissent against the respectable heteronormative institution that was our household. 


As the relationship with my then girlfriend became violent both physically and emotionally, I remained- with my coming out, the remnants of my childhood had been decimated. There was no going back, the progression from straight child to queer semi-adult was linear and irreversible. My queerness was a transgression against the natural expectations of my maturing, my growth. The presumption of perversion that was imposed upon my body meant that I did not believe I had a safeness, a child-like state of being protected, to return to from domestic abuse. I endured violence because it was the only means through which my queerness could be validated. To leave the relationship would deem my experience a phase- all of the erasure, none of the forgiveness.


I fundamentally and wholeheartedly believe that childhood innocence is lost to queerness- not because the concept of the queer child is an oxymoron, but because in the innate hypersexualisation of queer bodies, we deny LGBT+ youth the right to experience romance, kinship and attraction without framing their experiences as explicit and perverse; perverse against sexuality, perverse against familial expectations of 'child-ness', perverse against the temporal factors we deem necessary to grow a sexual body from a supposedly sexless template. The adult consequences of childhood decisions can be suffocating and stifling, and when we are not granted the time and space to find closure with those experiences, they become indicative of our continual struggle to exist as spectral individuals in a categorical world. Our formative experiences become enduring, continual markers of that which we could not make peace with. In order to preserve the mental health, wellbeing and social security of our queer community, the work starts at day one; where a door is open for queer experiences to be had by young people in safe, supportive environments- environments where one is both authentically queer and authentically a child.

 

Gershenson, O. (2010). The restroom revolution: Unisex toilets and campus politics.
Hawkes, G., & Egan, R. D. (2008). Landscapes of erotophobia: The sexual (ized) child in the postmodern Anglophone West. Sexuality & culture, 12(4), 193-203.
Herman, J., Flores, A., Brown, T., Wilson, B., & Conron, K. (2017). Age of individuals who identify as transgender in the United States. Los Angeles: Williams Institute.