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Heterosexism is a term that applies to attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the "norm]" and therefore superior. People of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes. As a predisposition toward heterosexuals and heterosexuality, heterosexism has been described as being "encoded into and characteristic of the major social, cultural, and economic institutions of our society."[1]


Etymology and usage

Similar terms include heterocentrism and heterosexualism.[2] Although the well-established term heterosexism is often explained as a coinage modeled on sexism, the derivation of its meaning points more to (1.) heterosexual + -ism than (2.) hetero- + sexism. In fact, the portmanteau word heterosexualism has been used as an equivalent to sexism and racism.[3]

Given this lack of semantic transparency, researchers, outreach workers, critical theorists and LGBT activists have proposed and use terms such as institutionalized homophobia, state(-sponsored) homophobia,[4] sexual prejudice, anti-gay bigotry, straight privilege, The Straight Mind (a collection of essays by French writer Monique Wittig), heterosexual bias, compulsory heterosexuality[5] or the much lesser known terms heterocentrism, homonegativity, and from gender theory and queer theory, heteronormativity.

While heterosexism is sometimes confused with or eclipsed by the word homophobia, heterosexism refers to a bias toward heterosexuality, while homophobia refers to antipathy toward homosexuality (or gay men and lesbians).

Parallels and intersections

The concept of heterosexism is similar to the concept of racism in that both ideas promote privilege for dominant groups within a given society. Just as racism against non-white people places white people as superior to non-whites, heterosexism places heterosexual people or relationships as superior to non-heterosexual ones. "Straight-acting" gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people, who project themselves as or are perceived as heterosexual, are also privileged by heterosexism. Borrowing from the racial concept of white privilege, the term "straight privilege" has been applied to benefits of heterosexuality within society that heterosexuals take for granted.

What's more, heterosexism can intersect with racism by further emphasizing differences among arbitrary groups of people. For example, heterosexism can compound the effects of racism by:

  • promoting injustices towards a person already facing injustices because of their race
  • establishing social hierarchies that allow one group more privilege than other groups.

Likewise, racism can allow LGBT people to be subjected to additional discrimination or violence if they belong to or are considered a part of a socially devalued racial category.[6] Some of the privileges afforded to people falling into the categories of white people and (perceived) heterosexuals include, but are not limited to, social acceptance, prestige, freedom from negative stereotypes, and the comfort of being within the norm and thereby not being marginalized or viewed as different.[7]

Heterosexism as a set of beliefs and attitudes

See also: Religion and homosexuality, Homosexuality and psychology, Sexual orientation and medicine, and Social attitudes toward homosexuality

Individual and group level

Heterosexism as a set of beliefs and attitudes relies on a core tenet according to which homosexuality and bisexuality do not normally exist and, as such, constitute illnesses or deviant behaviors. Within a heterosexist ideology or mindset, the concept of sexual orientation is rejected or deemed irrelevant. A set of more nuanced heterosexist views, which some may consider faith, dogma, universal truths, appeals to authority, or popular beliefs, but others consider to be conventional wisdom or sociobiological knowledge can include, among others, the following:

  • A person can choose his or her sexual “preference” and, as a result, homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a current fad.
  • The attitude that gay men aren't "real" men or lesbians aren't "real" women because of the socially pervasive view that heterosexual attractions or activities are the "norm" and therefore superior.
  • Homosexuality being wrong, ungodly, and against nature, it is therefore a sin, evil or subhuman.
  • Views identical or akin to Anita Bryant's notorious statement during her Save Our Children campaign:
"As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children."
  • Because of their lifestyle, homosexuals do not have families with children, so they undermine the survival of the human race. (natalism)
  • Homosexuality is an affectional or mental disorder or simply a social ill, therefore, it can be cured or stamped out. If it is not eradicated, it will lead to social disintegration and societal collapse.
  • Homosexuals can be converted back to heterosexuality through religious conversion or conversion therapy.

Institutional level

As well as comprising attitudes held by an individual or a social group, heterosexism can also exist as the expression of attitudes within an institution. As a result, schools, hospitals, and correctional facilities can act as a showcase for heterosexist attitudes in various ways. First, schools may implement these attitudes and ideas through unequal and inconsistent disciplinary actions. One such example is meting out harsher punishment to a same-sex couple violating the school ground rules while allowing a heterosexual couple to pass with an easier and more subtle disciplinary action for an equal or identical violation. Also, hospitals may limit patient visiting only to immediate family, i.e. relatives, and exclude same sex partners.[8]

The marriage model of opposite-sex marriage is heterosexist in that it does not recognize any type of same-sex couple or any sexual orientation other than a heterosexual orientation. For example, one man and one woman can marry regardless of either person’s sexual orientation. More specifically, in those jurisdictions in which marriage is limited to opposite-sex couples, a gay man or a lesbian woman is not allowed to marry a member of the same sex yet can marry a member of the opposite sex.

Heterosexism as discrimination

Explicit or open discrimination

This type of heterosexism includes anti-gay laws, harassment based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; negative stereotyping, discriminatory language and discourse, and other forms of discrimination against gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals such as:

  • Hate speech, terms of disparagement, hate mail, death threats, Murder Music
  • Scapegoating, mobbing, witch-hunts, moral panic; using gay men and homosexuality as a folk devil for the AIDS pandemic.
  • Negative portrayals or stereotypes of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals solely as villains, the butt of jokes, objects of curiosity. This can occur on television and in movies as well as in jokes between friends or among co-workers.
  • Using the gay panic defense in assault or murder cases.
  • Sodomy laws when enforced almost exclusively against consenting, adult, same-sex partners. See also: Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas
  • In some countries where homosexuality is criminalized, such as Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, offenders may receive the maximum sentence of capital punishment. See also: Paragraph 175
  • Discrepancies in age of consent laws in which legal sexual activity between members of the same sex is set at a higher age than that for opposite-sex partners. See also: Morris v. The United Kingdom
  • Adoption bans against either same-sex couples or gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals. See also: LGBT adoption
  • Proposals or legislation to prohibit equal rights protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation, particularly with regard to health care, housing, and employment.
  • The institution of opposite-sex marriage and reserving the right to marry strictly for opposite-sex couples via explicit definitions or through bans on same-sex marriage such as “marriage protection acts” or “defense of marriage acts”;
  • Also, the above restriction even when same-sex couples have access to civil unions that are either analogous to or not on a par with marriage;
  • Reserving civil unions strictly for opposite-sex couples;
  • Barring gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from serving in the armed forces or from working in the education field; this can include policies such as the U.S. military’s “Don't ask, don't tell” policy or Lech Kaczyński and other conservative Polish politicians’ stance to exclude gay men and lesbians from entering the teaching profession. See also: LGBT rights in Poland
  • Organized opposition to equal rights for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals (LGBT rights) and same-sex couples; labeling such equal rights and privileges as "special rights" or the "Gay Agenda";
  • Referring to a suspected criminal's homosexuality or bisexuality when in analogous situations there is no mention of a suspect's heterosexuality.

Implicit or hidden discrimination

This form of heterosexism operates through invisibility, underrepresentation, and erasure. It includes:

  • Lack of portraying LGBT people in advertising to the general public;
  • Censorship of LGBT characters, themes, and issues in works of art, literature, entertainment; see also "Sugar Time" episode of Postcards from Buster
  • Exclusion of historical and political figures’ and celebrities’ homosexuality or bisexuality; their portrayal as heterosexuals;
  • Complete avoidance of mentioning these people and their positive contributions particularly in news media;
  • In the context of sex education or professional advice, referring only to opposite-sex partners when discussing female or male sexual attraction and activity;
  • Total silence on LGBT issues at school or work or absence of their discussion in a positive light;
  • Implementation and use of content-control software (censorware) to filter out information and websites that focus on LGBT topics and issues;
  • Postal censorship and border control or customs seizure of publications deemed obscene solely on the basis of them containing LGBT-related material even when they contain no erotic or pornographic material; see also Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium
  • Work environments that tacitly require gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals not to reveal their sexual orientation via discussion of their relationship status while heterosexuals can discuss their relationships and marital status freely;
  • At public libraries or bookstores: rejection, removal or destruction of LGBT-themed books (e.g. Jenny lives with Eric and Martin), films, and posters;
  • Refusal to include LGBT parented families at school events or to represent such family diversity in school curricula; see also anti-bias curriculum;
  • Coercive or forced sex reassignment surgery on gay men and lesbians. For example, many Iranian gay men and lesbians must turn to sex-reassignment surgery as a strategy to avoid persecution and a death sentence; transsexuality and being transgender are not outright forbidden in the Qu'ran. See also: LGBT rights in Iran
  • Forced disappearance, damnatio memoriae, ostracism, shunning, and other forms of social rejection geared towards making LGBT people personae non gratae.

Effects of heterosexism

The main effect of heterosexism is the marginalization of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals within society. Heterosexism has led to stigmatization and persecution of not only these people but also those of other sexual diversity such as transgender, and transsexual people. Along with violence against LGBT people, homophobia, lesbophobia, and internalized homophobia, heterosexism continues to be a significant social reality that compels people to conceal their homosexual or bisexual orientation, or metaphorically, to remain in the closet in an effort to pass for heterosexual.

Where marriage rights are heterosexist, i.e. exclusive to opposite-sex couples, all same-sex couples, be they gay, lesbian, straight or mixed, are prevented from enjoying marriage’s corresponding legal privileges, especially those regarding property rights, health benefits, and child custody. Moreover, such limitation prevents same-sex couples from receiving the inherent social respect of marriage and its cultural symbolism. In turn, for lack of institutional or religious legitimization, gay and lesbian sex can be viewed as inferior or undesirable just as non-procreative and pre-marital sex are targets of sex-negativity.

In culture

On singing duo Romanovsky and Phillips' album Be Political, Not Polite, the song "When Heterosexism Strikes" discusses possible actions in response to example cases of heterosexism. (lyrics)

See also


  1. Dines, Gail (2002). Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. ISBN 076192261X.
  2. Corsini, Raymond J. (1992). The Dictionary of Psychology. ISBN 1583913289.
  3. Gregory M. Herek. "Definitions: Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Sexual Prejudice".
  4. International Lesbian and Gay Association. "State-sponsored Homophobia"
  5. LGBTQ on-line encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture
  6. (2008) Heterosexism and Homophobia. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2, 1-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Gale Virtual Reference Library:
  7. Simoni, J. M. & Walters, K. L. (2001). Heterosexual Identity and Heterosexism: Recognizing Privilege to Reduce Prejudice. Journal of Homosexuality, 1(1), 157-173. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from Google Scholar:
  8. Heterosexism and Homophobia. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2, 1-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Gale Virtual Reference Library:

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