2. Queer theory and gender norms

ALIGN defines social norms as:

… the implicit, informal rules that most people accept and abide by. Social norms are influenced by belief systems, the economic context, and sometimes by perceived rewards and sanctions for adhering to (or not complying with) prevailing norms. Norms are embedded in formal and informal institutions and produced and reproduced through social interaction (ALIGN website).

ALIGN defines gender norms as ‘a sub-set of social norms that describe how people of a particular gender (and often age) are expected to behave, in a given social context’ (ibid.). Gender norms often reinforce inequalities between genders, and tightly constrain actions and behaviours. Gender norms are usually thought of in terms of male/female, or masculine/feminine binaries.

The ALIGN community explores the ways in which gender norms can be harmful and discriminatory, and how they can be changed. Social norm theory helps explain why people behave in the ways they do, and puts the focus on communities (Vaitla et al., 2017) and the interplay between community-level and individual behaviour. Social norms are thought of in terms of group dynamics or community beliefs, including beliefs about what others in the community expect a person to do (Mackie et al., 2015). For this reason, individual education or behaviour change may not be enough to change a social practice (ibid.); social expectations have to change as well. Looking at development through a focus on norms helps identify barriers and motivations for change at the community and societal levels. 

How does queer theory discuss gender norms?

Queer theory scholars have developed theories which suggest that gender is fluid, flexible and subject to change. Judith Butler’s work is key to this understanding. She argues that gender is performative – meaning that the performance of gender is what makes gender exist (Butler, 2002). People bring gender into being through gender acts. Such acts are not necessarily deliberate or consciously chosen, but are the repetitive practices that perpetually reproduce gender – for example, wearing make-up, trousers or skirts, or calling people ‘he’ or ‘she’. Butler suggests that gender does not come from a rooted identity somewhere inside us, but that it only exists through our actions, and the actions of others in society towards us. ‘Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed’ (Butler, 1988: 527). This might be thought of as ‘doing gender’ (rather than ‘being’ a gender). Doing gender can be described as ‘the interactional process of crafting gender identities that are then presumed to reflect and naturally derive from biology’ (Schilt and Westbrook, 2009: 442). Gender is performed in relation to gender norms – either in line with them or transgressing them, or somewhere in between. The relationship to a gender norm is what makes the subject intelligible – either as a conformer or a transgressor. 

Queer scholars reject the idea of a stable gender identity. Butler contends that the ‘doing’ and the performance of gender is what constitutes the identity of a given subject. The idea of having a central essential identity is just an illusion, created by our performances of gender. For Butler, gender is not a real ‘thing’, but purely a social construction. This means that gender identity and gender differences are beliefs, compelled and supported by social sanctions. Butler’s idea that gender is a social construction means that gender can shift, is open to contestation, and is not tied to ‘material bodily facts’. A key part of queer theorising is delinking gender, sex and sexuality (Lind, 2009) by showing that these elements do not have a linear relationship to each other based on biology. Perhaps the example easiest to understand is trans people, who are living a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. This disrupts the expectation that gender comes from biology (Schilt and Westbrook, 2009). Another example is a group of lesbian sex workers in Bangladesh, who perform transactional heterosexual sex, but express a lesbian sexuality through their everyday living arrangements, dress code and lifestyle, and see no conflict between the two (Karim, 2018). 

Queer theory also suggests that ‘biological sex’ is discursively constructed, rather than an absolute reality based in biology or nature. This moves beyond the feminist view that sex is biological and gender is social (Felluga, 2011). Theorists have suggested that the way we view gender, gender roles and gender norms dictates the way we view bodies, not the other way around. For Butler, the linguistic (discursive) norms we apply to talk about sex, sex organs and the body themselves create the idea of bodily sex (ibid.). Some theorists thus argue that the idea of male and female bodies with definitively different organs, hormones and chromosomes is an understanding that we have created through language and through the social meanings we inscribe on the body. The way we understand bodies and give them meaning is through the lens of the prevailing culture, time and language. As Zimman (2014: 17) argues:

… bodies are social objects that receive their meaning in the same ways as other cultural signifiers: not from their own inherent properties, but from an always emerging complex web of social meanings and contexts. The ‘femaleness’ or ‘maleness’ of a body part is not natural but imbued with meaning by the discourse of social actors. 

In practice, this can be seen through many scientific studies showing that the boundaries between ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies are much more blurred than usually thought. Intersex people have bodies that defy easy categorisation as male or female (Zimman, 2014). And in psychology, as Richards et al. (2016) observe, the overlap between ‘men’ and ‘women’ is always greater than any difference between them. 

These ideas lead towards an understanding of gender, sex and sexuality that is not binary or identity-based. To move these ideas into the development sector, the goal is not just about LGBT inclusion in development, but about fundamentally changing the precepts of development to operate with a much wider understanding of gender and sexuality, including removing heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity and cisnormativity in the development sector

Like most social programmes, organisations, and actions in wider society, activities in the development sector tend to assume that most people are heterosexual (Puri, 2010). The structures and institutions within development and society also work to normalise, naturalise, support and privilege heterosexuality above other forms of sexuality. Together, these assumptions and institutions are called heteronormativity. 

Heteronormativity operates on the assumption that there are only two sexes, which are binary opposites (Eldis, n.d.), and privileges the interaction between these two ‘opposite sexes’ as the best form of sexuality. Similarly, cisnormativity is the assumption and upholding of cisgender as the norm (or normal) way of life. As Schilt and Westbrook (2009) argue, the binary gender system is a heterosexist one, which privileges masculinity and straightness over femininity and queerness. Development actors have usually assumed that the subjects of development are heterosexual and cisgender, but have recently begun to break down this assumption (Gosine, 2015). 

Thinking about heteronormativity can help us understand how heterosexual norms structure access to resources (Jolly, 2011), through a process which excludes many people. Development interventions organised around families and households often conceive these as consisting of a male head of household, monogamous opposite-sex couple, their children, and perhaps the couple’s parents (ibid.). Similarly, reproductive health interventions almost exclusively focus on cisgender women, overlooking the specific needs of transwomen, transmen, and non-binary people. In a study in Cuba, lesbian and bisexual women said that preventive sexual and reproductive health care failed to account for their same-sex relationships, meaning that the care they received was inadequate and sometimes unhelpful (Browne, 2018). Heteronormativity theory helps us to examine these issues and understand how heterosexual norms – especially around gender and the family – structure both society and development interventions. 

As well as excluding LGBTQI people, heteronormativity imposes a restrictive, ethnocentric model of sexuality onto all peoples. Studies have shown, for example, that the criminalisation of homosexual acts was largely introduced by British and French colonial powers in the territories they controlled, and that legacy has largely gone unchallenged. Along with legal frameworks, social norms repressed indigenous and alternative sexualities, forcing people to conform to a particular cis-heteronormative lifestyle (Weerawardhana, 2018). As Gosine (2015) argues, the current form of heteronormativity worldwide is specifically tied to colonial rule and contemporary geopolitical arrangements. This model of heteronormativity does not only affect LGBTQI people, but can also stigmatise sexuality between women and men (Jolly, 2011). For example, under certain circumstances and in certain contexts, sex before marriage, polyamorous relationships, interracial relationships and sex work have been construed as ‘problems’ under conservative interpretations of heteronormativity (ibid.). 

There has been a great deal of attention to gender and development over the past few decades, but the discourse continues to focus on cisgender and heterosexual women, given the understanding of gender as a cisnormative binary (Weerawardhana, 2018). There has been very little critical reflection within development institutions about how heteronormativity might shape policy or how policy might uphold heteronormativity (Eldis, n.d.). Queer theorists have been making these arguments for some time, but do not appear to have gained traction, with few if any development actors changing their approach (Mason, 2018). 

The imperatives of policy, which needs to target large groups of people based on identifiable characteristics, mean that it can be hard to bring queer insights into development. Additionally, the gender binary continues to have social meaning for most people – LGBTQI people included – as it structures many economic, social and political opportunities, and can give meaning to personal identities. The challenge for development practitioners is to acknowledge and utilise insights from queer theory to improve gender norms for all people, while working within the practical constraints of development interventions. 

LGBT rights and queer theory 

LGBT rights have become increasingly visible and acknowledged worldwide, often due to LGBTI activism (Eldis, n.d.). There has been a shift towards LGBTI inclusion, both within societies and within the development sector, recognising LGBTI people as a marginalised group in need of support and protection. While sexuality and gender identity used to be considered private issues, they are now part of mainstream development agendas. Development interventions for LGBT people (notably, usually only LGBT, not queer or intersex) are often rights-focused or health-focused, drawing on narratives around inclusion, sameness, equality, anti-discrimination and, recently, the aim of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ‘leave no one behind’. However, this version of LGBTI issues is not rooted in insights from queer theory; indeed, queer theorists have raised many complexities about taking a rights-based approach. 

Many queer scholars caution against an identity-based rights activism, suggesting that an uncritical identity politics can be unhelpful and sometimes even counterproductive (Gosine, 2015). In order to be recognised, one has to assume an identity which is recognisable. For most people, this means self-identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but this can be an essentialising identity category that restricts freedoms. The rights-based framework relies on identity politics and minority rights models, using frameworks and terms that originated in the global North, tied to particular manifestations of neoliberal capitalist economies (ibid.).

For people who do not define themselves in relation to a gender binary or in LGBTI terms, they may find their identities erased, misrepresented and misunderstood (Lind, 2009). People who fall outside the internationally recognised categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex can thus be invalidated. Those who do identify with these categories often have to fit themselves into stereotypical ideas of what LGBTI means in order to be socially and politically recognised as such. 

For example, in Bangladesh, a group of female sex workers who had personal relationships with women and transactional relationships with men had a debate about the term ‘lesbian’, deciding in the end to call themselves shomopremi, meaning ‘to love the same’ (Karim, 2018). They chose to emphasise the love aspect of their relationships rather than the sexual, following more general norms in Bangladesh, which de-emphasise women’s sexuality (ibid.). A second group of sex workers chose to use the English term ‘lesbian’ because it benefited them materially through international recognisability and attachment to LGBT groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and funding (ibid.). Their internal organisational documentation in Bangla language used a different word to describe themselves (nari-premi; women-loving women). This example shows that people may use strategic essentialism to claim a lesbian identity when it benefits them, even though they may not hold that identity as a central part of their being. It also highlights the power and influence that global North development language and models have over ordinary people’s lives. We do not yet know what the repercussions might be of narrowing genders and sexualities into a single specific framework and language, but queer theorists suggest this could be a dangerous path. 

The normalisation of LGBTI categories as rights-bearing citizen identities risks further marginalising people who do not identify with any of those categories. For example, the legalisation of a third gender category in India may have improved the status of hijras, but potentially discriminated against transgender women (Gosine, 2015). Trans women stated that they did not want to be renamed ‘other’, like the hijras, and that the new category undermined their own campaigns for equal recognition as women and not as a separate category (ibid.). It may prove difficult to balance the needs of policy-makers and development actors to have specific, clearly identifiable groups of people to work with, against the queer rejection of identity labels. Practical ways around this problem might include: decolonising the language of sexuality and gender work to include more local nomenclatures; working with self-identified community groups rather than looking to fund ‘LGBT’ groups; increasing the use of gender-neutral language throughout the development sector; and encouraging the engagement of local leaders on ‘sexuality issues’ rather than ‘LGBT issues’.

Book traversal links for 2. Queer theory and gender norms

Browne, E., 2019, Gender norms, LGBTQI issues and development: a topic guide, ALIGN, London UK