Heterosexism and Homophobia

views updated

Heterosexism and Homophobia





Heterosexism and homophobia are two related forms of oppression that can exist alongside or interact with race and racism. Heterosexism can be defined as a system of power that privileges heterosexual (“straight’’) people on the basis of their sexual or affectional orientation, while homophobia can be defined as prejudice, discrimination, or violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or intersex (LGBTQQI) people on the basis of their sexual or affectional difference from heterosexual people. Like racism, sexism, classism, caste prejudice, xenophobia, ageism, and other oppressions, heterosexism and homo-phobia share a common root: namely, the exercise of social domination based on a negative evaluation of social difference.

Heterosexism and homophobia uphold racism in three key ways: (1) by exacerbating the negativity directed at people who are already subject to racism (for example, gay black people); (2) by strengthening the existing social tendency to create hierarchies based on difference (for example, tacitly ranking black heterosexuals above black LGBTQQI people, or privileging white gay men above black gay men); and (3) by providing additional avenues of discrimination or violence for already vulnerable populations and thus confounding the source of discrimination or violence (such as the routine imprisonment or frequent assault of homeless black transsexuals).

Both heterosexism and homophobia can pertain to prejudice, discrimination, or violence against people on the basis of their gender presentation and its conformity to social norms in addition to prejudice, discrimination, or violence against LGBTQQI people and related systems of power. Thus, heterosexism and homophobia encompass virtually all forms of oppression that relate to physical sex, sexuality, sexual behavior, sexual orientation, sexual preference, affectional preference, sexual identity, gender identity, gender role, and gender expression, particularly when any of these fall outside what society deems normal or traditional. As such, heterosexism and homophobia often intersect with sexism in addition to race and racism.

Heterosexism and homophobia denote a broad general spectrum of experiences that involve negative, unfair, or discriminatory treatment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression. Other terminologies that have been used to encompass this spectrum include homo-negativism, homoprejudice, gay-bashing, gay-baiting, and hate crimes. Although hate crimes have been the subject of much public discussion and policy development in the United States and globally, researchers agree that there are many forms of negative behavior directed toward LGBTQQI people that fall outside the definition of hate crimes due to their subtler, more informal, or less overtly violent nature. Both survey data and anecdotal reports suggest that the majority of LGBTQQI people have been the target of negative behavior directed at them as the result of their sexual orientation or gender expression. In addition, both research-based and personal accounts indicate that experiences of heterosexism and homophobia have often been compounded by forms of discrimination related to race, gender, class, nationality, culture, religion, ability status, age, or other vectors of social difference.

Intersectionality refers to the fact that various identities and oppressions overlap and interact. For instance, the experience of being white and gay may differ from the experience of being black and gay; the experience of being a lesbian of East Indian descent from a Hindu community may differ from the experience of being a lesbian of East Indian descent from a Muslim community; the experience of being a transgender person living in poverty may differ from the experience of being a wealthy transgender person. While there are commonalities to the LGBTQQI experience, there are also significant differences based on unique aspects of individuals’ identity and social location. Even within groups of people claiming the same identity and sharing the same social location (black Christian middle-class lesbians, for instance), there are differences in experience and perspective based on personality and personal history.


Heterosexism and homophobia, like all forms of oppression, may be expressed at the individual, collective, or institutional levels of society. Furthermore, heterosexism and homophobia, like other forms of oppression, may be reflected in attitudes and feelings, behaviors and practices, cognitions (including beliefs and stereotypes), policies and laws, and even material or symbolic culture. For example, an individual may hold a homophobic feeling, “I don’ t like gay people,” possess a heterosexist belief, “Same-sex couples shouldn’ t marry,” or enact a homophobic act, such as physically assaulting a man who dresses like a woman or a woman who dresses like a man. Groups of people, such as members of a church or a clique in school, may promote homophobic attitudes, as “Homosexuality is evil” or “Trannies (transsexuals) are rejects’’; practice heterosexist discrimination, for example, barring homosexual individuals from positions of visibility or leadership in the church, such as the ministry; or engage in homo-phobic violence, such as vandalizing the locker of a student known to be a lesbian.

Social institutions, such as schools, jails, hospitals, or public welfare agencies, may develop heterosexist or homophobic policies that prevent LGBTQQI people from enjoying the same rights or privileges as heterosexual or gender conforming people. For example, schools may place on detention or expel same-sex student couples who hold hands or kiss, but not different-sex student couples who do the same thing. Furthermore, schools may tacitly discourage or explicitly disallow students of the same sex from attending a prom together, while similar disincentives or prohibitions are not placed upon students of different sexes. Jails may prevent condom distribution because of a desire to not condone or even not acknowledge same-sex sexual activity. Hospitals may deny visitation or consultation rights to the same-sex partner or children of a patient. In other cases, patients are rejected from care on the basis of their presumed sexual orientation or non-traditional gender expression, a particularly common problem for transgender people. In some cases, stereotypes linking LGBTQQI people to HIV/AIDS interfere with access to medical care.

Public welfare agencies may fail to recognize same-sex unions or parental relationships, thus denying access to certain benefits or programs that would be available if the clients were heterosexual. For example, non-biological mothers whose same-sex unions dissolve may lose custody of their children or even visitation rights despite strong bonds between them and their children and years of child-rearing. LGBTQQI individuals who live in poverty may be faced with additional challenges. For instance, transgender individuals often have a hard time finding placement in gender-segregated facilities for the unhoused; queer people who are fired from their jobs on the basis of sexual orientation or who experience other forms of discrimination often cannot afford the legal expenses of a civil suit.

Heterosexism and homophobia exist in law as well. For instance, laws that bar same-sex partners from marriage or civil union disallow lesbian and gay couples from a number of rights and privileges that different-sex couples can take for granted, such as tax benefits, insurance benefits, property rights, inheritance rights, adoption rights, visitation rights, and immigration rights. These laws also disadvantage different-sex partners who choose not to marry, although such couples are not subject to

the extra stigma and unique vulnerabilities attached to homosexuality in homophobic and heterosexist societies.

Heterosexism and homophobia abound at the level of material and symbolic culture, most evident in the mass media and everyday social practices. For example, heterosexual couples are common on television, in movies, and in advertisements, whereas homosexual couples are rare. The experiences of heterosexual couples are normalized and presented in great diversity, whereas the experiences of homosexual couples tend to be presented as pathological or comedic departures from the norm. For example, heterosexual couples from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, socioeconomic classes (rich, poor, middle class), and religious communities (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) are frequently observed, unlike their lesbian or gay counterparts. (Notably scarce for both groups, however, are interracial, intercultural, or cross-religious unions and families.) Furthermore, individuals whose relational style or preference does not conform to the couple model—for example, people with multiple partners, people in open relationships, polyamorous or polygamous people, or people who are celibate by choice—are rarely represented, or, when they are, are treated as spectacle rather than normalized. The cumulative effect of these depictions is to perpetually reinscribe the notion that heterosexuality and traditional gender expression are normal and good, while homosexuality and non-traditional gender expression are abnormal and bad—producing what Adrienne Rich has termed “compulsory heterosexuality” (1986).

Even language encodes heterosexism and homophobia. In English, there are more words (most of them pejorative) to describe gay men than straight men and lesbian women than straight women. Conversely, there are few words that suggest the possibility of genders other than (or in between) male and female, excluding and minimizing the lived experiences of transgender and inter-sex people. It has been argued that the dearth of terminology and the lack of articulation of categories to reflect people’s lived experience of their own gender and sexuality is partially responsible for contemporary phenomena like the down-low, in which men who appear straight and maintain relationships with women engage in secret homosexual sex while rejecting the label gay. While other forms of homophobia and heterosexism certainly contribute to this phenomenon, the absence of an appropriately diversified discourse about gender and sexual expression is likely an important factor.

Finally, social practices like gender-reassignment surgery (in the case of intersex children), gender reassignment therapy (in the case of transgender or intersex individuals who are diagnosed with gender identity disorder), and reorientation therapy (also known as reparative therapy, conversion therapy, or RT—designed to change homosexuality into heterosexuality or asexuality) further invalidate and render invisible the reality that not all people fit into the sexual, gender, and relational categories on which mainstream society has historically relied.


Perspectives on homosexuality, homosociality, gender role, and gender expression have varied across time and culture. Cultures vary with regard to how they define and label sex and gender, and not all cultures devalue same-sex sexual expression. Additionally, virtually all cultures have witnessed historical changes in how they define and label sex and gender as well as the value or stigma they place on same-sex sexual expression. While biological sex, gender expression, gender role, sexual or affectional orientation, and gender or sexual identity are all technically independent of one another (that is, capable of existing in a virtually infinite number of combinations), most societies package these variables in predictable ways and attach value to social scripts that contribute to heterosexism and homophobia.

For example, in the West, male bodies have typically been associated with masculine gender expression, certain “male” social roles, sexual attraction to or interaction with women, and straight identity. In numerous societies, however, particularly historically, latitude has existed for male bodies to be associated with feminine gender expression or female social roles, and/or sexual interaction with males and females. As Walter Williams has shown, a number of societies, from Native American to Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and African have defined valued gender statuses of this nature, often linked to special statuses within the larger society (1986). In many cases, these statuses have been associated with unique spiritual abilities or responsibilities. While seemingly less common, similar roles for female-bodied or intersex persons have also existed. Many societies have defined what are known as third-sex or third-gender statuses, some naming as many as six unique and identifiable sexes or genders based on different combinations of body (male, female, or intersex), gender role (male, female, or transgender), sexual orientation or behavior (homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual), and other factors (spiritual, ritual, or preferential).

Societies have varied on (and scholars continue to debate) whether sex, gender, and sexual orientation are natural and fixed (the essentialist position) or arbitrary and historically constituted (the social constructionist position). Many societies have maintained religious doctrines or cosmologies (creation stories) explaining how gender, sex, and sexuality came into being and what are the acceptable variations. At the same time, a great deal of evidence suggests that homosexual behavior and variations in gender expression have always existed across all known societies. How societies have interpreted and explained homosexuality and gender variation, as well as the value societies have placed on these practices, has varied over time and across subpopulations within societies. Each of these perspectives has different implications for how heterosexism and homophobia manifest in society, as well as how each is combated.


In the early 2000s, the rights of LGBTQQI people are the subject of debate and activism. Rights for homosexual and gender variant people are being linked with the larger human rights discourse. Activism focuses on gaining recognition, visibility, and rights, as well as parity in the representational realm, whether political, economic, or symbolic. Since the 1960s, marches for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, also known as pride marches, have become increasingly common around the globe, although LGBTQQI organizing continues to be risky in many countries. In 1996, South Africa achieved international renown by becoming the first nation in the world to incorporate LGBT rights into its national constitution.

In 2007, same-sex marriage was legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa. Additional countries that recognize civil unions include Andorra, Argentina, Australia (Tasmania only), Brazil, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, same-sex marriages or civil unions are recognized to some degree in the states of California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, although this acceptance is highly contested at the national level. At the same time that advances in LGBTQQI rights are taking place, however, anti-gay backlash continues to occur, threatening safety, well-being, and justice for LGBTQQI people around the world. Because LGBTQQI people are whole persons and not just embodiments of sexual orientation or gender expression, anti-heterosexist and anti-homophobic activism targets the elimination of all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and violence in society.

SEE ALSO Feminism and Race; Gay Men; Lesbians.


Beam, Joseph, ed. 1986. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Boston: Alyson.

Bell, Alan P., and Martin S. Weinberg. 1978. Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Curray, Paisley, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, ed. 2006. Transgender Rights. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

D’Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. 1988. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Duneier, Mitchell. 1999. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1997. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Graupner, Helmut, and Phillips Tahmindjis, eds. 2005. Sexuality and Human Rights: A Global Overview. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.

Greene, Beverly, ed. 1997. Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Among Lesbians and Gay Men. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harvey, Andrew, ed. 1997. The Essential Gay Mystics. San Fransciso: HarperSanFrancisco.

Hemphill, Essex, ed. 1991. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson.

Herek, Gregory M., and Kevin T. Berrill, eds. 1992. Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Leong, Russell, ed. 1996. Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. New York: Routledge.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Mason-John, Valerie, ed. 1995. Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out. London: Cassell.

Murray, Stephen O. 1995. Latin American Male Homosexualities. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

———. 2002. Pacific Homosexualities. Lincoln, NE: Writer’s Club Press.

———, and Will Roscoe, eds. 1997. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York: New York University Press.

Patton, Cindy, and Benigno Sanchez-Eppler, eds. 2000. Queer Diasporas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Peterson, K. Jean. 1996. Health Care for Lesbians and Gay Men: Confronting Homophobia and Heterosexism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.

Pharr, Suzanne. 1988. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Inverness, CA: Chardon.

Phillips, Layli. 2006. “Deconstructing ‘Down Low’ Discourse: The Politics of Sexuality, Gender, Race, AIDS, and Anxiety.” Journal of African American Studies 9 (2): 3–15.

Potgieter, Cheryl, ed. 2006. “Homosexuality.” Agenda 67. Available from http://www.agenda.org.za. Special issue of the South African feminist journal on African homosexualities.

Preves, Sharon E. 2003. Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Ratti, Rakesh, ed. 1993. A Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience. Boston: Alyson.

Rich, Adrienne. 1986. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In Blood, Bread, and Poetry, 1979–1985. New York: Norton.

Roscoe, Will. 1998. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Roscoe, Will, and Stephen O. Murray, eds. 1998. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Rothblum, Esther D., and Lynne A. Bond, eds. 1996. Preventing Heterosexism and Homophobia. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Savin-Williams, Ritch C., and Kenneth M. Cohen, eds. 1996. The Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Children to Adults. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Seidman, Steven. 2003. Beyond the Closet. New York: Routledge.

Smith, Barbara. 1998. The Truth that Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds. 2006. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Warner, Michael, ed. 1993. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Williams, Walter. 1986. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon.

Layli Phillips