Heterosexual assumptions in verbal and non-verbal communication in nursing


  • Gerd Röndahl PhD RN,

  • Sune Innala PhD,

  • Marianne Carlsson PhD

Gerd Röndahl,
Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Section of Caring Sciences,
Uppsala Science Park,
SE-751 83 Uppsala,
E-mail: gerd.rondahl@pubcare.uu.se


Aim.  This paper reports a study of what lesbian women and gay men had to say, as patients and as partners, about their experiences of nursing in hospital care, and what they regarded as important to communicate about homosexuality and nursing.

Background.  The social life of heterosexual cultures is based on the assumption that all people are heterosexual, thereby making homosexuality socially invisible. Nurses may assume that all patients and significant others are heterosexual, and these heteronormative assumptions may lead to poor communication that affects nursing quality by leading nurses to ask the wrong questions and make incorrect judgements.

Method.  A qualitative interview study was carried out in the spring of 2004. Seventeen women and 10 men ranging in age from 23 to 65 years from different parts of Sweden participated. They described 46 experiences as patients and 31 as partners.

Findings.  Heteronormativity was communicated in waiting rooms, in patient documents and when registering for admission, and nursing staff sometimes showed perplexity when an informant deviated from this heteronormative assumption. Informants had often met nursing staff who showed fear of behaving incorrectly, which could lead to a sense of insecurity, thereby impeding further communication. As partners of gay patients, informants felt that they had to deal with heterosexual assumptions more than they did when they were patients, and the consequences were feelings of not being accepted as a ‘true’ relative, of exclusion and neglect. Almost all participants offered recommendations about how nursing staff could facilitate communication.

Conclusion.  Heterosexual norms communicated unconsciously by nursing staff contribute to ambivalent attitudes and feelings of insecurity that prevent communication and easily lead to misconceptions. Educational and management interventions, as well as increased communication, could make gay people more visible and thereby encourage openness and awareness by hospital staff of the norms that they communicate through their language and behaviour.