Heterosexism and Homophobia

How Homophobia Hurts Us All

By Warren J. Blumenfeld, Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992

You do not have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)—or know someone who is—to be negatively affected by homophobia. Though homophobia actively oppresses LGBT people, it also hurts heterosexuals.

Homophobia:
  • Inhibits the ability of heterosexuals to form close, intimate relationships with members of their own sex, for fear of being perceived as LGBT

  • Locks people into rigid gender-based roles that inhibit creativity and self-expression;

  • Is often used to stigmatize heterosexuals; those perceived or labeled by others to be LGBT; children of LGBT parents; parents of LGBT children; and friends of LGBT people.

  • Compromises human integrity by pressuring people to treat others badly, actions that are contrary to their basic humanity.

  • Combined with sex-phobia, results in the invisibility or erasure of LGBT lives and sexuality in school-based sex education discussions, keeping vital information from students. Such erasures can kill people in the age of AIDS.

  • Is one cause of premature sexual involvement, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Young people, of all sexual identities, are often pressured to become heterosexually active to prove to themselves and others that they are "normal."

  • Prevents some LGBT people from developing an authentic self identity and adds to the pressure to marry, which in turn places undue stress and often times trauma on themselves as well as their heterosexual spouses, and their children.

  • Inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. We are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

By challenging homophobia, people are not only fighting oppression for specific groups of people, but are striving for a society that accepts and celebrates the differences in all of us.

Identifying Heterosexism: Actions and Thoughts that Belie Heterosexist Attitudes

Stereotypes and assumptions are at the root of heterosexist attitudes, simplifying the diverse LGBT community and often disempowering them. The following actions and thoughts are manifestations of these attitudes.

Oversexualization
  • Assuming that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are only sexual beings rather than complex people who have, among other significant features, a non-homosexual orientation.

  • Assuming that every same-sex attraction is sexual or potentially sexual for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals.

  • Assuming that a lesbian, gay man, or bisexual is probably interested in you sexually, regardless of your sexual orientation.

  • Interpreting everything lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals do in terms of their sexuality.

  • Avoiding touching them or being too close, or being scared of them in general.

Denying Significance, Personally
  • Commenting that "it doesn't matter to me that you are LGBT." A basic part of someone's identity and sense of self should matter; it just shouldn't matter negatively.

  • Expecting people to avoid talking about being LGBT. Expecting them not to talk about their partners or relationships.

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Denying Significance, Politically
  • Criticizing LGBT individuals for "making an issue" of their sexuality. For example, commenting, "I don't care what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms, but don't tell me about it."

  • Not understanding that in our culture, which is alternatively oblivious to LGBT individuals, or dangerous for them, sexuality is already a political issue.

  • Not seeing that heterosexuality is politically supported by giving legal, financial, and emotional privilege to heterosexual relationships while legally denying LGBT individuals involved in same-sex relationships housing, jobs, and child custody.

Labeling Homosexuality/Bisexuality a Problem
  • Diagnosing homosexuality/bisexuality, talking about cures or causes, which assumes that it's not normal and fine. A bisexual, lesbian, or gay man may need special support and/or counseling around issues of being non-heterosexual in this culture; however, the problem is heterosexism, not bisexuality/homosexuality.

Making Invisible
  • Assuming that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise.

  • Always asking women about boyfriends, and men about girlfriends.

  • Assuming that marriage is everyone's goal.

  • Keeping bisexuality/homosexuality invisible by not making it safe for people to be "out" or by excluding people who are "out" from visible positions where they might provide positive role models for younger LGBT individuals.

  • Denying that bisexuality exists.

  • Assuming that heterosexism doesn't exist because you can't see it.

  • Considering heterosexism less significant than other oppressions.

Generalizing
  • Assuming that one LGBT individual represents all of them.

  • Conversely, completely separating one LGBT individual you know personally by saying, "You're OK: you're not like the rest of them." Overassserting Your Heterosexuality

  • Rushing to talk about your relationship when you meet an LGBT individual to make sure s/he knows you are heterosexual.

  • Avoiding behaviors or dress that might cause suspicion that you are not a "real man" or a "real woman."

  • Avoiding touching or close friendships with people of the same sex.

  • Excusing other heterosexual people's heterosexist jokes or comments.

Expecting to Be Taught
  • Putting the burden of responsibility for educating and working for change on the LGBT individual.

  • Forcing LGBT individuals to always to take all of the initiative in "coming out."

  • Not making openings for people to "come out" by acknowledging in conversations the possibility of non-heterosexual relations.

  • Becoming upset if every LGBT individual is not always patient about educating you.

Misdefining Bisexuality/Homosexuality
  • Confusing bisexuality with non-monogamy.

  • Assuming that bisexuals are fickle or promiscuous.

  • Assuming that lesbians hate men.

  • Assuming that LGBT individuals want to "convert" heterosexuals.

  • Trying to help someone "go straight."

  • Thinking of bisexuality/homosexuality as a phase.

  • Assuming that lesbians' and gay men's orientation is in reaction to a bad heterosexual experience.

Adapted from University of Southern Maine's "Safe Zone Project" by Gregory M. Weight, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Office, University of Delaware, March 2000