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Heterosexism is a term that applies to a system of negative attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships.[1] p. 13 It can include the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm[2] and therefore superior. Although heterosexism is defined in the online editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as anti-gay discrimination and/or prejudice "by heterosexual people"[3] and "by heterosexuals"[4], people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias. Nonetheless, heterosexism as discrimination ranks gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals as second-class citizens with regard to various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality in the majority of the world’s jurisdictions and societies.



Etymology and usage

Similar terms include heterocentrism and heterosexualism.[5] Although the well-established term heterosexism is often explained as a coinage modeled on sexism, the derivation of its meaning points more to (1.) heterosex(ual) + -ism than (2.) hetero- + sexism. In fact, the portmanteau word heterosexualism has been used as an equivalent to sexism and racism.[6]

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,[7] sexual prejudice, anti-gay bigotry, straight privilege, The Straight Mind (a collection of essays by French writer Monique Wittig), heterosexual bias, compulsory heterosexuality[8] or the much lesser known terms heterocentrism, homonegativity, and from gender theory and queer theory, heteronormativity.

Heterosexism vs. homophobia

Homophobia refers both to "unreasoning fear of or antipathy towards homosexuals and homosexuality"[9] and to "behavior based on such a feeling".[10] Heterosexism, however, denotes the "system of ideological thought that makes heterosexuality the sole norm to follow for sexual practices"[11]. As a bias favoring heterosexuals and heterosexuality, heterosexism has been described as being "encoded into and characteristic of the major social, cultural, and economic institutions of our society"[12] and stems from the essentialist cultural notion that maleness-masculinity and femaleness-femininity are complementary.

Researcher, author, and psychology professor Gregory M. Herek states that "[Heterosexism] operates through a dual process of invisibility and attack. Homosexuality usually remains culturally invisible; when people who engage in homosexual behavior or who are identified as homosexual become visible, they are subject to attack by society."[13] Furthermore, in interviews with perpetrators of anti-gay violence, forensic psychologist Karen Franklin points out that “heterosexism is not just a personal value system, [rather] it is a tool in the maintenance of gender dichotomy.”[14] She continues by saying that “assaults on homosexuals and other individuals who deviate from sex role norms are viewed as a learned form of social control of deviance rather than a defensive response to personal threat.”[15]

Parallels and intersections

Using the term heterosexism highlights the parallels between antigay sentiment and other forms of prejudice, such as racism, antisemitism, and sexism.

Gregory M. Herek, researcher, author, and professor of psychology at UC Davis., [16]

It has been argued that the concept of heterosexism is similar to the concept of racism in that both ideas promote privilege for dominant groups within a given society. For example, borrowing from the racial concept of white privilege, the concept of heterosexual privilege[17] has been applied to benefits of (presumed) heterosexuality within society that heterosexuals take for granted. The analogy is that 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. In trying to rebut this premise, some commentators point to differences[18] between the categories of race and sexual orientation, claiming they are too complex to support any generalizations. For example, "trainer on diversity" and consultant Jamie Washington has commented, although heterosexism and racism are "woven from the same fabric" they are "not the same thing".[19] Conservative leaders such as Rev. Irene Monroe comment that those who suggest or state "gay is the new black", as in a cover story of The Advocate magazine,[20] exploit black people's suffering and experiences to legitimate their own.[21] Nonetheless, a study presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology 2009 Conference shows that heterosexist prejudice is more pervasive than racism.[22]

Heterosexism can, also intersect with racism by further emphasizing differences among arbitrary groups of people.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]

As a set of beliefs and attitudes

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.[26] 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, natural law, appeals to authority, or popular beliefs, but others consider to be conventional wisdom or sociobiological knowledge can include, among others, the following:

Inside of Save Our Children's brochure, showing a collage of headlines connecting homosexuality to pedophilia; the flap opens to reveal 17 headlines and parts of newspaper stories.
  • Non-heterosexual persons should keep ther sexual orientations private (i.e., they should remain "closeted").[1] p. 15
  • A person can choose his or her sexual “preference” and, as a result, homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a current fad. See also: lesbian and bisexual chic
  • 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.[17]
  • "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve (or Madame and Eve)" and similar essentialist cultural notions that maleness-masculinity and femaleness-femininity are complementary;
  • Homosexuality being wrong, ungodly, and against nature, it is therefore a sin, evil or subhuman.[1] p. 18
  • Views identical or akin to Anita Bryant's notorious statement during her Save Our Children campaign (See campaign brochure image at right):
"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.[1] p. 109

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.[27]

Heterosexism affects the family in several ways. For example, in most jurisdictions, same-sex marriage is not allowed, so non-heterosexual persons must remain unmarried or enter into heterosexual marriage.[28] Many jurisdictions also deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples, including custodial and adoption rights for children, Social Security benefits, and automatic durable power of attorney and hospital spousal rights[28]

As discrimination

Explicit or open discrimination

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

Implicit or hidden discrimination

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


Heterosexism causes a range of effects on people of any sexual orientation. However, the main effects of heterosexism are marginalization, and anti-LGBT violence and abuse.


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 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.

Marginalization also occurs when marriage rights are heterosexist. More specifically, when marriage rights are 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.

Anti-LGBT violence and abuse

Yolanda Dreyer, professor of practical theology at University of Pretoria, has claimed that “Heterosexism leads to prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and violence. It is driven by fear and hatred (Dreyer 5).”[33] Along the same lines, forensic psychologist Karen Franklin explains violence caused by heterosexism toward both men and women, regardless of their sexual orientations:

[T]hrough heterosexism, any male who refuses to accept the dominant culture's assignment of appropriate masculine behavior is labeled early on as a "sissy" or "fag" and then subjected to bullying. Similarly, any woman who opposes male dominance and control can be labeled a lesbian and attacked. The potential of being ostracized as homosexual, regardless of actual sexual attractions and behaviors, puts pressure on all people to conform to a narrow standard of appropriate gender behavior, thereby maintaining and reinforcing our society's hierarchical gender structure.”[34]

Another form of heterosexist violence as social control that most often targets lesbian women is corrective rape: a gang rape of a lesbian to "cure" her of her same-sex attractions. A notorious example from South Africa is the corrective rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, LGBT-rights activist and member of the women's national football team.[35]


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. ^ a b c d e Jung, Patricia Beattie; Smith, Ralph F. (1993). Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791416968.  
  2. ^
  3. ^ accessed Oct 9, 2009
  4. ^ accessed on Oct 9, 2009
  5. ^ Corsini, Raymond J. (1992). The Dictionary of Psychology. ISBN 1583913289.
  6. ^ Gregory M. Herek. "Definitions: Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Sexual Prejudice".
  7. ^ International Lesbian and Gay Association. "State-sponsored Homophobia"
  8. ^ LGBTQ on-line encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture
  9. ^ homophobia "". 2008. homophobia. Retrieved 2008-01-29.  
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Dines, Gail (2002). Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. ISBN 076192261X.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Franklin, Karen (1998). "Inside the Minds of People Who Hate Gays" Retrieved May 29, 2008:
  15. ^ Franklin.
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b Johnson, Allan J. (1997). The Gender Knot. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 149. ISBN 1566395194.  
  18. ^ Reasons 'Why Gay is NOT the New Black', accessed Aug 30, 2009
  19. ^ Issues of race and sexuality discussed, Susquehanna Crusader Online, accessed Aug 29, 2009
  20. ^ Gay is the New Black, accessed Aug 30, 2009
  21. ^ Gay is NOT the new Black, accessed Aug 29, 2009
  22. ^$/division-of-occupational-psychology/prejudice-study-finds-gay-is-the-new-black.cfm Prejudice study finds gay is the new black, accessed Sept 3, 2009
  23. ^ Tatum, Beverly (1997). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?. Basic Books. pp. 21–22.  
  24. ^ (2008) Heterosexism and Homophobia. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2, 1-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Gale Virtual Reference Library:
  25. ^ 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:
  26. ^ Johnson, Allan J. (1997). The Gender Knot. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 17. ISBN 1566395194.  
  27. ^ Heterosexism and Homophobia. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2, 1-4. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Gale Virtual Reference Library:
  28. ^ a b Adams, Maurianne; Bell, Lee Anne and Griffin, Pat (2007). "Appendix 9H". Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2 ed.). Routledge. ISBN 041595200X.  
  29. ^ Garnets, Linda; Kimmel, Douglas C. (1993). Psychological perspectives on lesbian and gay male experiences. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231078846.  
  30. ^ ACLU: Free Speech, Free Expression and Prom
  31. ^ [Aaron Fricke decided he wanted to go to his senior prom with Paul Guilbert. His principal wouldn't let him. "Who are you taking to the prom this year?"]. ACLU. 31 December 2000. Aaron Fricke decided he wanted to go to his senior prom with Paul Guilbert. His principal wouldn't let him.. Retrieved 21 December 2009.  
  32. ^ Gordon Moyes
  33. ^ Dreyer,Yolanda. “Hegemony and the Internalisation of Homophobia Caused by Heteronormativity.” Department of Practical Theology. 2007. University of Pretoria.5 May 2008 []
  34. ^ Ibid
  35. ^ Kelly, Annie (12 March 2009). "Raped and killed for being a lesbian: South Africa ignores 'corrective' attacks". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-03-14.  

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