When I was nine, I used to read a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction.
Which, okay, doesn’t sound like the best use of my time, but what else was there to do? Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince had just come out three days after my ninth birthday, and I read it in less than a week. All of the other books I’d read in something of a slow burn binge over the previous two years and it was the first one that I read live, when it came out. Which also means it was the first time I had experienced a drought in Harry Potter content as I waited for the seventh and final book to be released.
This drought left fanfiction. It was 2005 and the golden age of Harry Potter fic, with everyone scrambling to write in-depth, fanciful stories before they were ultimately dashed when the final book came out just two short years later. Every third fic was set in book universe, written trying to fill in gaps and come across discoveries before another author set it into their own narrative.
But I was nine, and I’ve always had a really close relationship with my family, so my mom and I had worked out a rule system for fanfiction. The system was this: 1) No reading fanfiction above a T rating, and even then, use discretion. (This was when fanfiction was on weird, niche sites, separated by intended fandom, and the rating system went K [for kids, or all ages], K+ [for older kids, but still not containing anything that would cause a scandal], T [for teen], and then M and E [for mature and explicit, which I never really understood the difference between].) And 2) If I wasn’t sure about something, just ask my mom if I was allowed.
So there I was, nine years old, in 2005, when I found the tiny, tiny subsect of ‘same-sex pairings’ on the fanfiction archive. By tiny, I mean tiny, with no more than fifty stories in the main section and no more than eleven in the separate ‘femmeslash’ section. And the first thing I did was ask my mom’s permission.
A little bit of backstory: my parents are both northern California liberals. My mother was openly bisexual, and my father was one of those straight white guys who is totally “down with the gays”. These weren’t exactly secrets in the family. So why did I feel, after having grown up with wholly accepting, open, LGB(and, arguably, T) positive parents, that I needed to ask my mother when it came to reading a K rated fanfiction where Harry is making doe eyes not at Ginny Weasley, but at her brother?
That’s the result of heteronormativity.
Even though I grew up much more privileged with my family’s acceptance than so many other kids who would turn out to be LGBT+, there was still something in me that found it inherently more adult, inherently more sexual than heterosexual romance. Looking back at the fanfiction that I couldn’t even bring myself to read even after my mother said it was okay, I don’t think I ever read any all the way through.
This carried over into my actual personal life as well – in middle school, my best friend was a girl with ringlet curls and a soft face like mine, and she told me at the end of seventh grade, “if I were ever going to date a girl, it would be you”. And even though I had conceptually, privately considered liking girls, all I felt about this was sick.
We started dating anyway – or, really, as close to ‘dating’ as a couple of twelve year olds could get – but still, I was being weird about it. I wouldn’t hold hands with her in public; we weren’t out to my father or anyone in the school; possibly the most terrible was that I wouldn’t kiss her and, while I was kind enough to keep this to myself, this was because I didn’t want my first kiss to be with a girl.
(A brief interlude – at nearly fifteen, my first kiss was with a girl, anyway. But we’ll get there.)
At twelve, it seemed like the worst possible thing, for me to kiss a girl for my first kiss. First kisses are important, and at the time, they were something I was going to grow up and tell my 2.5 kids with my cisgender, heterosexual, male husband about. And to tell them that my first kiss had been a girl would be unfathomable.
Heteronormativity and internalized homophobia manifest themselves in different ways for every individual person. Wikipedia defines heteronormativity as “the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes.”
In short, heteronormativity is the normative nature of heterosexuality, and the function of viewing relationships through a lens of heterosexuality. It’s most clearly demonstrated in children’s shows or advertisements with animals or inanimate creatures – how many examples can you think of of animal couples or even something like salt and pepper shaker couples where one was given exaggerated “feminine” features, such as eyelashes, lips, or a bow on top of the head?
Heteronormativity is one of many tools that works to help young kids, even those like me, who had accepting family lives in liberal California, internalize harmful levels of homophobia. It’s present in media or even in everyday interactions. Relatives who ask if you have a boyfriend (or girlfriend, as the case may be) while completely rejecting the other option are displaying heteronormativity. Television shows that display all of a main male character’s potential love interests as women are heteronormative.
It’s not just the lack of representation that breeds this internalized homophobia – it’s also the stigmatization and sexualization. It’s the fact that even though the first gay couple on television was in 1975, the first gay kiss on television wasn’t until 1991, in which a queer woman kisses a straight identified one. LGBT relationships are treated as inherently more adult, inherently inappropriate, and inherently unsuitable for the masses.
What we need to be telling our LGBT youth is not that non-heterosexual love is any more or less sexual or okay than heterosexual love, because, at the base of it, it isn’t. It is the same feeling of love, which we should be promoting more of in our society.
Because when I was five, before all of the socialization and normative culture made me decide otherwise, I was in love with a girl in my first grade class. It was 2002 and her name was Katie and her father drove a motorcycle and I wanted to spend recess and the rest of my life with her. And when I was fourteen, I decided that it was okay to tell my children that my first kiss was a girl because in that moment, my first kiss meant happiness and loving myself, finally.
If the way we learn about ourselves is through loving ourselves and being loved, then perhaps we shouldn’t be teaching our children that there is only one way to love unless we want them to be only one type of person. But with only one type of person, we wouldn’t have the diversity that makes up the Katies of the world, or the writers of golden age fanfiction, or the boy or girl who kisses you and makes you believe in yourself again.