Heterosexism may generally be understood as an attitude in which heterosexual relationships, social arrangements, and sexual activities are viewed as morally, culturally, religiously, biologically, and/or psychologically ideal, and are thus superior to and rightly privileged over any nonheterosexual option. Another less common usage describes heterosexism as an attitude in which the separation of sex, anatomy, gender, and gender roles into two discrete categories of male and female is assumed to be natural and required for coherent personal identity and social stability, and is influential in analyzing gendered social roles and identities (Butler 1990) and issues of transsexualism and transgendered identity.
In this first and predominant use, however, heterosexism is intended to parallel the concepts of sexism and racism and points toward characteristic prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities, mainly by heterosexuals, but also by self-disapproving homosexuals and bisexuals who have internalized a heterosexist attitude. The ways in which people who evince homosexual desire and behavior are discriminated against include legal inequity (military service prohibition, gay marriage and adoption prohibitions, sodomy laws, career restrictions), social treatment (housing discrimination, job discrimination, public denouncements), and cultural treatment (community invisibility, moral condemnation, stereotyping, greater risk of physical and verbal assault, pressure to stay "closeted," religious condemnation).
While these inequities are examples of discrimination, and in some cases obvious mistreatment, discrimination is not in and of itself unjust. Just discrimination occurs when some property of a person is contextually morally relevant to the decision to treat them differently (e.g., not allowing a blind person to drive), whereas unjust discrimination occurs when some property of a person is not contextually morally relevant to the decision to treat them differently (e.g., not allowing women to vote). The ongoing moral debate then, is about whether some heterosexist beliefs and consequent discriminatory practices are morally justified.
Discrimination as Morally Justified
Heterosexist laws and policies are typically held to be just based on the prior assumption that homosexual sex is immoral and/or that homosexual desire is defective. While heterosexist policies do not automatically result from heterosexist attitudes (one could be libertarian), heterosexist attitudes are a prerequisite for such policies. Though variations exist, there are three main classes of argument for the view that homosexuality is immoral or inferior.
Divine command theory arguments state that morality is determined by the edict of God and that those texts thought to be authoritative indicators of God's will have outlawed homosexual sex. In the historically dominant Judeo-Christian tradition of European and North American culture, the proof texts most often cited are the Hebrew Bible passages concerning creation (Gen. 1–2), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), Gibeah (Judg. 19), the holiness code (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13), and three Christian New Testament passages (Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1–10).
Natural law arguments state that there is an objective moral good and a path toward that good for all creatures depending on the kind of creature that they are. The kind of creatures that they are is typically understood (though not always—e.g., in Aristotle) as the result of God's eternal design, and so natural law is often closely connected to divine command theory. By attending to the visible organization of nature—including our bodies—we can determine what our proper functions and ends are and how we might best achieve those ends. Any actions that do not work toward achieving those aims or that actively block the fulfillment of those aims are immoral or at least not tending toward the moral. The obvious function of sex and sexual anatomy (it is claimed) is reproduction and family unity. Homosexual behavior interferes with these aims (as does other nonprocreative sex) and is therefore objectively unnatural and intrinsically immoral. Homosexual desire is not a behavior and thus not immoral, but by tending toward interference with the proper ends of our bodies is an objectively disordered state.
This approach to the moral condemnation of homosexuality is historically influential and frequent. The argument is present in Plato, who while praising homosexual love as a first step toward the realization of beauty and truth in the Symposium (209a–211c), nonetheless rejects homosexual sex as absent in animals and unnatural in Laws (836c–836e). Aristotle says very little on homosexuality but his emphasis in the Physics on explaining things by reference to their biological purposes is well-matched for the natural law argument that nonprocreative sex is essentially misdirected. He includes pederasty (the Greek tradition of a young man engaging in sex with an older male mentor) in a list of diseased states learned mostly through social custom, including chewing fingernails and eating coal (Ethics 1148a15–1148b30).
The true cultural power of the "against nature" argument, however, flourishes with the development of medieval Christian moral doctrine in St. Thomas Aquinas. Heavily influenced by Aristotle, he asks what the natural end of sex is and answers that it is procreation. As such, all sexual activity that has no chance of resulting in procreation is "contrary to right reason," contrary to the "natural order," and a lustful vice, a category which includes masturbation, bestiality, homosexuality, and any sort of sex even between men and women that occurs "by not observing the natural manner of copulation" (Aquinas, 1920 188.8.131.52). This view is currently reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that: "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law" (CCC n2357). The natural law approach has been influential in legal matters, including Blackstone's famous and formative Commentaries on the Laws of England, which the U.S. Supreme Court appealed to in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) in upholding the legality of sodomy laws. Justice Burger wrote: "Blackstone described 'the infamous crime against nature' as an offense of 'deeper malignity' than rape, an heinous act 'the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature,' and 'a crime not fit to be named'" (Bowers v. Hardwick ).
Not all natural law arguments say homosexual acts must always be immoral, but leave room open for the position that such sexual expression can be genuine goods for the homosexuals involved, even though same-sex relationships do not achieve the natural ideal. The analogy here is often to adoption. Ideally, parents raise and love their own biological children, but adoption may still be a genuine, lesser, good for the actual persons involved in actual situations (Cahill 1995). This view does not treat homosexuality as a neutral variation in human nature, like left-handedness, but rather as a deficit or disadvantage. Finally, there are secular variations of a natural law-style argument against homosexuality that avoid religion or concepts of intrinsic morality but retain the disease or disadvantage model. Sigmund Freud views a homosexual orientation as a stalled development resulting in sexual narcissism (Ruse 1988). Taking an evolutionary and Aristotelian approach, Michael Levin (1984) views homosexuality as abnormal and homosexual sex as a misuse of sexual organs, likely to result in endemic unhappiness, making it prudentially, but not intrinsically bad. As such, it is legitimate for a society to formally discourage and refuse to legitimize homosexuality—a position which crosses over into the social harm category of argument.
Social harm arguments state that homosexual activity damages individuals and society. As such, the state may legitimately discourage or criminalize homosexuality as a measure of public self-protection. While proponents of social harm arguments often begin with divine command or natural law convictions, the arguments themselves, as empirically based, stand independently. Many social harm arguments take as a starting point certain empirical claims about homosexual psychology, including that homosexuals are pedophiles (sometimes conflating the categories altogether), are unstable, are promiscuous, are disease-ridden, are depressed, and actively recruit others (particularly children) into their lifestyle.
Some arguments are more sociological than psychological, arguing that altering the historical social norms that have governed gender and family structures, such as permitting gay marriage or adoption, will confuse our notions of families, will traumatize children's understanding of parental roles, and will erode heterosexual families. For example, John Finnis argues that because homosexual relationships are immoral, incapable of actualizing mutual devotion, and harm the personalities of its participants, they are "deeply hostile to the self-understanding of those members of the community who are willing to commit themselves to real marriage" and are "an active threat to the stability of existing and future marriages" (1994, p. 515). As such, the political community has a "compelling interest" in discouraging and criminalizing homosexual sex. Finally, there is the slippery slope argument that once an institution as sacrosanct as heterosexual family and marriage is fundamentally altered, there will be no principled way to prevent the legalization of polygamy, bestiality, pedophilia, or incest.
Discrimination as Morally Unjustified
Defenders of the morality of homosexuality begin with the claim that individuals have a prima facie interest in pursuing their own goods as they interpret them and that such pursuit should not be denied without just reason. The first approach then to claiming that heterosexist beliefs and policies are unjust is to contend that all the arguments that defend the permissibility of heterosexism are unsound.
Against the divine command argument, frequent intrareligious criticism says that scriptural passages are often mistranslated (there being no term in either Hebrew or Greek for constitutional homosexuality as we know it), are misread out of context (the holiness code being instructions on ritual practices rather intrinsic morality or referring only to rape or prostitution), that the choice to enforce sexual regulations over other equally weighted ritual regulations are examples of prejudicial selectivity, or that biblical texts are not infallibly authoritative. The frequent extrareligious response is that divine command theory is false in the first place and thus such texts have no special moral authority, or at least that in a free society, religious beliefs are not state-enforced and thus have no special legal authority.
Against the natural law argument, critics argue that organs and sex may have more than one end (Mohr 1988), that natural and unnatural do not equate with good and bad, that there is no logical implication from the ways things are to the ways things ought to be (the is/ought distinction), that animals are no guides to our behavior (Boswell 1980), that homosexuality is in fact natural and does occur among animals (Bagemihl 1999; Roughgarden 2004), and that homosexuality may be evolutionarily adaptive and antihomosexual discrimination may explain any unhappiness better than sociobiology (Murphy 1987).
Against the social harm argument, critics point out that numerous psychological studies have shown most of the heterosexist claims to be false—homosexuals are not more likely than heterosexuals to be pedophiles, they do not seek to convert heterosexuals, sexually transmitted diseases are as likely to occur in heterosexuals who engage in unsafe sex, and that any promiscuity is both exaggerated and as or more likely to be the result of social marginalization as an intrinsically homosexual trait. Slippery slope arguments, in addition, falsely assume that we will be unable in the future to distinguish the consensual, harmless sexual activity between rational adults (in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships) from the sorts of harmful abuses present in bestiality, incest, and pedophilia (Corvino 2005).
For all these reasons, defenders of the morality of homosexuality claim that proponents of heterosexism fail to meet the burden of proof that would justify heterosexist attitudes and policies. In a positive vein, they also argue that homosexuality is simply a normal, if minority, variation among human traits with widespread historical and cross-cultural representation, that homosexual relationships can actualize mutual devotion and other human goods in distinctive ways, and that citizens' interest in liberty and pursuit of their own good outweighs any state interest in promoting only procreative relationships. This last argument weighed heavily in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision overruling the tradition- and natural law-defense of Bowers v. Hardwick. The court stated: "The fact that a State's governing majority has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice, and … individual decisions concerning the intimacies of physical relationships, even when not intended to produce offspring, are a form of 'liberty' protected by due process."
Relation to Homophobia
Heterosexism is a relatively new term with a contested relationship to homophobia, a term popularized by George Weinberg (1972). The latter concept came to be used widely, and often interchangeably, with heterosexism to refer to any prejudice or morally negative attitude toward homosexuality, often with highly polemical intent. However, homophobia originated as a quasi-psychiatric term that emphasized the irrational hatred of homosexuals (Pharr 1988). This usage has been criticized as failing to adhere to the clinical symptomatology of true phobias (Richmond 1998) and for individualizing a problem that is better understood as a political and institutional phenomenon (Kitzinger 1989). It has been argued that homophobia is a phenomenon best understood as an extreme projection of background heterosexist attitudes that are themselves strongly shaped by background assumptions concerning gender identity (Hopkins 1996). In any case, heterosexism appears to have become the more dispassionate term of choice for describing an attitude that privileges heterosexuality.
See also Aristotle; Feminism and Continental Philosophy; Feminism and the History of Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Social and Political Philosophy; Philosophy of Sex; Racism; Sexism; Thomas Aquinas, St.
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Bagemihl, Bruce. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.
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Kitzinger, Celia. "Heteropatriarchal Language: The Case Against 'Homophobia'." Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics 5 (1989): 15–20.
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
Levin, Michael. "Why Homosexuality Is Abnormal." Monist 67 (2) (April 1984): 251–283.
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Murphy, Timothy F. "Homosexuality and Nature: Happiness and the Law at Stake." Journal of Applied Philosophy 4 (2) (1987): 195–204.
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Richmond, Janice P. "Homophobia: An Evolutionary Analysis of the Concept as Applied to Nursing." Journal of Advanced Nursing 28 (2) (1998): 362–369.
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"Heterosexism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/heterosexism
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