Julie Fish (2006: 7) describes heterosexism as follows:
While sexism refers to the privileging of men over women and racism refers to the privileging of white people over black people, heterosexism refers to the privileging of heterosexuality over homosexuality and its assumed normality. The term seeks to draw attention to the ways in which heterosexuality is inscribed in institutions, cultural practices and everyday interactions.
A similar term used to describe prejudice and discrimination against non-heterosexuals that most people are probably more familiar with is ‘homophobia’. Unlike sexism and racism, the term homophobia implies that there is something psychologically different or unique about people who display prejudice towards or discriminate against lesbians and gay men (i.e. they have an irrational fear of homosexuality). While fear might play a part in prejudice against non-heterosexuals (e.g. heterosexual men’s hostility towards gay men might, in part, be due to fear of having their own masculinity questioned), homophobia is a problematic term because it locates the problem within particular individuals (‘homophobes’) rather than within the fabric of our society and culture.
Heterosexism can take many forms, including overt forms of verbal and physical harassment, discrimination against same-sex couples by individuals, to more institutional and subtle forms of discrimination. Heterosexism is evident in cultural (including religious) ideologies which present heterosexuality as more natural, normal and morally superior to non-heterosexuality. It also includes more subtle forms of marginalisation that manifest themselves in cultural practices and mundane heterosexism (Peel, 2001) that is evident in everyday interactions and normative assumptions.
Some people argue that with the legal rights and protections that LGBT people in the UK and many other Western countries have achieved that the significance of homophobia is in decline. However while the lives of some lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have improved not everyone has benefited equally. There are still many countries in which homosexuality is criminalised or where living openly as a gay man or lesbian can be dangerous and even in the UK and other Western countries heterosexism is still a part of many of our everyday experiences. Children get bullied in schools for being gay, young gay people are still taking their own lives because they can’t see a positive future for themselves, being ‘out’ is still incredibly difficult for many, including those from working class, non-white and religious backgrounds.
Please tweet your everyday experiences of heterosexism (#everydayheterosexism) to help document the scale and nature of the problem in all its forms.
Fish, J. (2006) Heterosexism in health and social care. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Peel, E. (2001) Mundane Heterosexism: Understanding incidents of the everyday. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24(5), 541-554.