'Heterosexism' is what we all need a cure for

By Kevyn Jacobs
January 1996

I read an editorial in a conservative magazine awhile back, in which the columnist lamented being accused of homophobia.

He felt homophobia was an inaccurate description of himself. "A homophobe," the author said, "is someone who fears or hates homosexuals. I neither fear nor hate homosexuals, so I must not be a homophobe. However, I do object strongly to homosexual activity on moral, ethical and religious grounds."

The author went on to say that homophobia is an irrational fear. "Our opposition to homosexuality is based on very rational and logical grounds," he said.

I have to agree with the author -- he is correct in saying he is not guilty of homophobia.

He is guilty of heterosexism.

Heterosexism is a relatively new term in the ongoing evolution of our language. Heterosexism is the belief that heterosexuality is better than homosexuality, that homosexual relationships are not as valid as heterosexual ones.

Heterosexism also refers to the institutional enforcement of this belief -- that is, the everyday things that give "special rights" to heterosexuals but deny equal rights for homosexuals.

Here are a few examples of the privileges ("special rights") institutional heterosexism gives to heterosexuals:

In Marriage Rights, heterosexuals are allowed to marry the person they love. Homosexual couples cannot. Heterosexual couples are entitled to receive all of the benefits that the government and the private sector can give to married couples: Government recognition of the relationship, joint property rights, tax breaks, joint insurance, inheritance rights, power of attorney, hospital visitation rights, exemption from testifying against your spouse in court. Homosexual couples don't get any of these, and when they demand them, they are accused of wanting "special rights."

In short, heterosexism says that a heterosexual pairing is a legitimate relationship, but a homosexual one isn't -- homosexual pairings are "just for sex."

In Custodial and Adoption Rights, a heterosexual couple can legally adopt a child. A homosexual couple cannot. In fact, in many jurisdictions, heterosexist laws make being in a homosexual relationship grounds for having your children taken away from you "for their own good."

This happened recently to Sharon Bottoms, a mother in Virginia whose child was stolen away from her because a heterosexist judge didn't approve of her lesbian relationship.

Heterosexism tells people that "since heterosexual relationships are better, we need to keep children away from homosexuals. If you expose children to homosexuality, they will become homosexual themselves." Of course, the evidence shows this is not true -- most children raised in homosexual households end up being heterosexual.

In Job Security, heterosexuals have the "special right" of knowing they won't be fired from their job because of who they love. But guess what -- heterosexism means that a person in a homosexual relationship can be fired for this at any time -- and usually without legal recourse.

Most people don't realize that in Kansas, you can fire a homosexual just for being a homosexual. And there is nothing that person can do about it.

In addition to these institutional benefits granted to heterosexuals, there are a few social ones that I think should be mentioned:

In Personal Security, heterosexual couples can walk down the street holding hands without fear of being beaten for it. Homosexual couples cannot, and if they are attacked, they are blamed for "flaunting it" or "bringing it on themselves."

In Inclusion, heterosexism allows heterosexuals to see themselves represented in TV shows and movies, ads, magazines and entertainment.

Homosexuals are usually not presented in these media as being in a couple, much less as being in a legitimate relationship and part of society. Homosexual relationships are invisible -- and encouraged to stay that way by heterosexists.

This is the reason so many homosexuals feel the need to "come out" and proclaim their sexuality to the world -- to destroy that invisibility that they feel forced into.

In other words, if heterosexism didn't make people uncomfortable about homosexuality, homosexuals wouldn't need gay pride parades and "in-your-face" queer visibility. Being publicly out lets other homosexuals know they are not alone in a heterosexist system.

These are all examples of how heterosexism affects heterosexuals and homosexuals in their daily lives. They all give special privileges to heterosexuals. They are all damaging to gay people. And they are all hated by the people they hurt.

But to say these are all examples of homophobia would probably be inaccurate. They aren't homophobic -- they are heterosexist.

Laws and rules against homosexuals may be very logical and sound, if you believe that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones.

They're not necessarily guided by fear of homosexuals, but instead by the idea that it is better for someone to be in an opposite-gender relationship than a same-gender one, and therefore heterosexual relationships should be encouraged while homosexual ones are discouraged.

I have noticed a lot of mainstream use of the word 'homophobia' lately, and I think that some of the criticism leveled against its use is justified. The overuse of the word "homophobia" by many gay-rights advocates to describe anyone who opposes homosexual issues has led to an incorrect usage of the word. It is not accurate to call someone who opposes homosexuals a homophobe if, in fact, they sincerely believe that their opposition is based on logical reasoning instead of fear.

Perhaps it is time to start naming opposition to homosexuals for what it is, instead of what it isn't. Joe Six-Pack may be a homophobe, because he fears what is new and unknown to a good ol' cute boy from Longford, where they never talked about homosexuals. But you can be sure that someone like Pat Robertson or John Hart doesn't oppose homosexuals because of homophobia -- they have thought the issue out and believe that they are supporting the correct position. A position that is based on the notion that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones -- heterosexism.

Heterosexism is the position that we need to attack. Because no one should have the right to tell another person whom they are allowed to love.

Kevyn Jacobs is a sophomore in art at Kansas State University. From January to December 1995, Jacobs wrote a queer-themed column in the Kansas State Collegian. The columns are being reprinted in Oasis in chronological order with permission of the author.
General information: Jeff Walsh
Design and HTML: Jase Pittman-Wells
©1996 Oasis. All Rights Reserved.