American School Systems and Heteronormativity

Americans have this tendency to call certain days/events “the biggest day of my life” or even “the most important day of my life.” We all know this reference usually corresponds to  wedding days, the day of the birth of their first child, or even the day that one buys their first house or apartment. Many people forget that before these events, senior prom was once considered to be one of the most important and memorable experiences of their life.

Senior prom is solely an American tradition. It is a formal dance, as we know, where students come together for socializing, dancing, and food. This dance is often coupled with alcohol and has a firm reputation as night that is filled with sexual intercourse. While this is all extremely problematic, and I could go on an endless tangent about how this connects with our Sex and Society course material, I wanted to analyze another aspect of senior prom: the pressure of finding a date.

Girls and Boys recognize prom as a time for finding the perfect date to go to the traditional event with. They place major importance on who they bring, and see this as an opportunity to seize their own self status based on who they go with and what group they go in. Many people don’t realize that schools have fixed regulations about dates at senior prom, and though it may be an unspoken regulation, schools expect their student body to abide by the established policy. A policy that stands out, in this respect, is one particular one that is the set by a school district in southeast Missouri. The policy declares that “high school students will be permitted to invite one guest, girls invite boys and boys invite girls.” While this high school’s policy seems a little more direct than other school’s policy, they all essentially rally about the same underlying principle: same-sex couples in a formal setting is just not worth the upheaval that it will spark and students must not go against heteronormative values.


It is extremely noteworthy that this set principle strongly resembles the Federal Marriage Amendment set up by the American system: Marriage is defined as solely a union between a man and a woman.

Many schools use the “violence prevention” argument as a way to justify why they have the set regulation regarding date dynamics. They emphasize that high school students do not have the maturity level to experience the diversity of couples under one roof. While this justification does hold some truth, how do school officials expect to prepare their students for the real world if they only aim to shield their students from reality? In a real world, gays and lesbians are undeniably marginalized and face endless amounts of prejudice but nonetheless they are still apart of the population. In this aspect, school officials must acknowledge this reality and perhaps tailor their senior prom to an environment that most resembles the outside world.

There have been several cases where students have decided to go against the mold of their school policy, and most of these cases only ended in tragedy.

For example, Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba, recently challenged a school policy prohibiting her from bringing her girlfriend as her date to her April 2, 2010 prom. McMillen, who is a lesbian, and the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, urged school officials to reverse the policy both on McMillen’s choice of date and attire. She also wanted to wear a tuxedo to the dance. Instead of fulfilling her commands, school officials believed it would be more appropriate to cancel the prom altogether. In the announcement, the school board encouraged the community to organize a private prom. “It is our hope that private citizens will organize an event for the juniors and seniors. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes anyone.”

Another example is at a high school in a rural Indiana community. Teachers and various students have protested against same-sex couples at prom and decided to voice their opinion after a student began a petition against the fixed traditional prom standards. Residents and officials in Sullivan, a city of about 4,200 near the Illinois border, scrambled to escape the uncomfortable spotlight cast when a teacher supporting the “traditional” prom for Sullivan High School said she believes people choose to be gay and that gays have no purpose in life. Moreover, school officials decided that the prom would no longer be hosted at the conservative school if the masses decide that they would rather have a nontraditional prom experience.

While these examples are only a small portion of the various stories that support this narrative, people must realize the overall theme that schools are illuminating when they attempt to combat gay couples in their prom setting. They are supporting the heteronormative culture that, as we know, makes up just about everything in America. According to a section discussion sexuality in NSS, Heteronormativity is simply 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.

School officials are only enforcing the heternormative culture, that’s already set up by the surrounding society, and this leads to student bodies embracing the discrimination that already plaques gay communities. School officials must stop contributing to the narrative and sending false messages; canceling events altogether appears to be a way to label gay couples as merely unacceptable. The change in discourse and conversations starts from teaching children at young ages. Schools should rally the idea of social acceptance, and support equal rights among all forms of people in order to foster a more accepting and open environment. It is after this shift that students will notice the importance of diversity and gain more social acceptance toward those who are different.

How do you feel that a universal acceptance of gay couples in school will impact society? What about society in the future? Do you feel that this is, one of the many, changes we need in order to see social justice in future gay communities?

3 thoughts on “American School Systems and Heteronormativity

  1. At my high school, people had to submit additional forms to take someone of the same gender to prom. It is unethical to make homosexual students fill out extra paperwork to go to their own school dance because this is heteronomative. Some gay students opted not to go to prom for this reason. I also find the practice of voting on king and queen at prom to be heteronomative. Why can’t we have two queens or two kings? Furthermore, it seems that sometimes homosexuals are an afterthought in society, as people tend to think in terms of normality. In CASA, same-sex sexual assault was only mentioned at the end of the bill, while sexual violence is a large problem for homosexuals. What efforts can we make to help gay people feel more included in society?

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  2. I think the acceptance of homosexuality in the school system will make it better. It will teach the kids to be more accepting of different. This is a great start to seeing social justice in all communities, not just gay communities. Like in the article, “Straight Men” in “NSS” on of the men interviewed identified as heterosexual but did not flaunt it. That way everyone had there own opinions and it stayed away from judgment. I think there needs to be less of an emphasis on labeling and people should just be able to live their lives like they’d like; like in the old days!


  3. Universal acceptance of all couples is something that high schools nationwide should seek to achieve. It should begin at the high school level so that when the students go on to college they are not shocked or intolerant towards homosexuality. As you mentioned, high school should seek to prepare its students for the real world and everything that entails. Thus it is only fair and logical to allow same sex couple to participate in school events just like all the other students are able to. I do believe that homosexuality needs to be normalized all over the nation. Yes, its great that some liberal cities and towns are accepting, but not until every inch of the nation (including the stubborn south) is tolerant toward all sexual identities will the LGBTQI community feel safe.


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