It’s About Heterosexism, Silly

Yesterday was IDAHO, the International Day Against Homophobia. I celebrated it here in Lund, Sweden at the Smålands Nation student group and did my Homo No Mo play to a packed house. I head off to Umeå in the North to do another presentation.

Exodus International president Alan Chambers wrote a blog entry in support of IDAHO (no not the US state of Idaho but the actual anti-homophobia day).

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia. And, you might be surprised to learn that I support this effort. Homophobia does exist. Irrational fear of those who are gay or lesbian is a real problem in our culture. While I believe we have come a long way, I still see true homophobia at work each and every day.

He concludes,

So, when it comes to the evils of homophobia, bullying, name calling, hatred and violence where those affected by homosexuality are concerned, I stand with all decent human beings who are fighting and praying for an end to the ignorance and ungodliness that cause them.

This is not the first time I heard an Exodus leader (current or former) speak about the mission to inform and reform the often anti-gay church. No doubt when an Exodus member goes into a church to give testimony of their dramatic deliverence from the gay lifestyle, in addition to depicting in details the horrors of that lifestlye, they do challenge some folks to think about gay people as not simply evil and sinful and worthless dangerous human beings.

Ex-gay leaders have confessed to me that they even experience homophobia at times within the churches they attend and the Christian organizations where they work with lots of straight people who either avoid them all together or treat them differently from “normal” men and women.

I imagine it gets confusing for some of the straight folks in the church when they hear messages about how wild and out of control gay people live in our unsaved state coupled with the exortations to treat LGB and maybe even T people a little bit better. This is especially true when leaders, like Alan, on the one hand state he stands “with all decent human beings who are fighting and praying for an end to the ignorance and ungodliness that cause” homophobic attacks, and on the other hand he publicly opposes hate crime legislation that would protect LGBT people (like it protects people attacked because of their religion.)

While I applaud Alan for taking a stand within the church and using his platform in order to point out the prejudice, fear and hatred that exists, in addition to the mixed messages he sends, I think he is missing the point, but then so many of us do when it comes to these issues. I spoke the other day before the screening of Fish Can’t ‘Fly and began my talk by saying,

Heterosexism has affected me much more deeply than homophobia.

I have never been physically attacked by a homophobe and only on a few occasions been verbally assaulted because I am gay, but I suffer the negative effects of heterosexism everyday. Heterosexism most simply defined is the belief that heterosexuality is the preferred, idealized norm for society and anything other is deviant, weird, dangerous and subversive. The people at Wikipedia put it this way,

Heterosexism is a predisposition towards heterosexual people. A related term is Sexual Prejudice, a negative attitude toward someone because of her or his sexual orientation. [1] This bias is not the same as Homophobia, but rather is the discrimination towards or against non-heterosexual behavior due to a cultural or sociobiological bias. Heterosexism suggests that the basis for this bias is not found in the individual per se but rather has a broader cultural or biological basis that results in weighted attitudes towards heterosexuality over other sexual orientations.

While homophobic attacks happen daily, heterosexism happens by the nano second. A young child gets the message over and over again in books, TV ads, teacher’s examples and even heterosexually paired salt & pepper shakers, that anything other than heterosexual pairing is just not right. Growing up in such a world, with virtually no positive examples of same-sex couples, queer and questioning young people begin to develope a negative sense of self and can even grow quite isolated and suicidal within a society where they do not see themselves reflected or accepted.

Heterosexual privilege in our society makes it clear that some citizens are more valuable than others. This not only affects LGBT folks, but also unmarried heterosexuals, particularly women. McGill University’s Equity Subcommittee on Queer People provides a list of how heterosexual privilege works. Of course most heterosexuals do not see these things as special privileges. They just seem normal. Ah, but if you are not heterosexual (or one practicing heterosexuality in a marriage or other romantic relationship) you sense the significance of these privileges. Here is the list of some heterosexual privileges. Heterosexuals…

  • Show affection in public safely and comfortably, without fear of harassment or violence
    Openly talk about one’s partner and relationships to others without considering the consequences
  • Benefit from societal “normalcy”: the assumption that heterosexual individuals and relationships are valid, healthy, and non-deviant
  • Assume that all people and relationships are heterosexual, unless otherwise known
  • Do not face rejection from one’s family and friends because of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Easily access positive role models and media images for one’s gender identity and sexual orientation
  • Cannot be asked to speak on behalf of all heterosexuals
  • Use gender specific pronouns when referring to one’s spouse or partner without discomfort or fear of reprisal
  • Have automatic recognition of one’s spouse as next-of-kin in emergencies
  • Easily select reading or viewing materials in which heterosexuality is the predominantly reflected orientation
  • Have families similar to one’s own represented in children’s literature
  • Raise children without fear that they will be rejected or harassed by peers because of their parents’ sexual orientation or gender identities
  • Receive support and validation from a religious community
  • Not risk being denied employment, housing, or other services because of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Not be seen as needing therapy to “cure” one’s sexual orientation or gender expression
  • Marry

Standing against name calling and violent acts against homosexuals (as we are known by some) sounds like a good thing for a religious leader to do. But when a leader like Alan Chambers also stands against hate crime legislation and marriage equality for lesbian and gay people, it reveals the hollowness of his words.

True, compared to folks like say, James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, Alan Chamber’s words sound progressive and thoughtful, but words without actions, just like faith without works, and all sorts of fine sounding words without love are really dead, clanging, clashing gongs that do no more than distract and confuse and contribute to the problem.

UPDATE: Do you want to see heterosexism in action? I just read some comments over at Alan’s blog, and Mike Ensley, the assistant to Exodus’ Director of Student Ministries, wrote

The fact is, heterosexuality is innately superior. Only heterosexual partners enjoy the complimentary aspect of their physiology, and only they can produce children.

This post has 10 Comments

  1. Jox on May 18, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Hear! Hear! Thanks Peterson. A friend of mine had a problem watching ER with the lesbian couple and said she didn’t need to see that kind of thing on TV but she doesn’t seem to have a problem with “normal” sex scenes between unmarried couples.
    PS I do hate the word “normal” :0)

  2. Heath on May 18, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    I totally agree with you about heterosexism being much more damaging than homophobia.

    The city I live in is pretty liberal (even in Texas!), so most people don’t really care if you’re gay. But even then, I feel still feel awkward about it, and like I have to watch everything I say when I’m out in public. I work with a lot of straight boys, and they’re always saying things to me like, “ohhh, isn’t that girl hot?” and I never quite know how to respond :-

  3. Jonathan on May 18, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    Ahhh Peterson…you hit the nail on the proverbial head! Thanks for this amazing bit of commentary!


  4. alex resare on May 19, 2007 at 7:32 am

    So now I might be silly because I am not going to comment on the heterosexism but on how you seem to think that people against homophobia can’t oppose hate crime legislation.
    I might agree if someone strongly advocates for hate crime legislation protecting some groups but not LGBT-folks but I am not at all certian that laws protecting one or 20 special groups is good to have. I thing that it might stand against a hugr democratic principle – that everyone should be the same inface of the law. If there are hate crime laws that covers religion, sexuality and gender expression there still are hundreds
    of factors that hate-filled persons might get stuck on. I think hate crime is a problem but to limit the crimes regarding religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, skin color or something makes so many hate crimes fall out of the range of that law. I want everyone to be protected against hate crimes and if I get assaulted because I am gay and my sister gets assaulted because of how she dresses I think the problem is the hate and not only the hate towards my sexuality. Because of that I am opposed to the very limited hate crime laws that only protect some citizens and not opposes hate crimes in large. Does that opinion make me in the same gang as Alan and am I too a person that confuses folks in church?

    (sorry for the long post, I have nothing to do. Everyone in the house is sleeping so I have to sit quiet and try to pass some time)

  5. Steve Boese on May 19, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Well put, P…

    When I read Alan’s post the first time the inconsistencies jumped right out at me… it took me longer to figure out what was getting under my skin about his approach.

    It finally occurred to me that I was hoping for a glimpse of humility, or encouragement of the same in others, but not seeing it.

    I can’t pretend to free of bias. I’m not always empathetic, fair-minded, or thoughtful. Avoiding those sorts of potholes is essential to my values, but that’s far different from living in high-minded places 100% of the time.

    It would mean something to me, even with the muddling of basic terms and concepts, if Alan could use IDAHO as an opportunity to model a bit of soul-searching. In quiet, reflective moments of prayer, is he seeking God only for a soldier’s strength, and verbal weapons for subduing political adversaries? I have to believe there he is no 2-dimensional stick figure, that he recognizes his own failures and shortcomings like I do mine.

    That’s not the message I got from his post, though.

  6. Peterson Toscano on May 19, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Alex, being one of the people fast asleep in the same house as you worked quietly, I have only just seen your comment. Yawn! Stretch! Oh, dear it is only 11 in the morning 🙂

    In an ideal world we have no need for hate crimes protecting some who are specifically targeted because of their race, religion, sex, abilities (or perceived lack thereof) or sexual orientation and gender presentation.

    As many opponents of hate crime legislation often say, we already have laws to prosecute people who commit violent crimes.

    The hate crimes do something more. They send a message, a message that some people do not want to send. They send the message that some people in our society have been unfairly treated and targeted simply because of who they are.

    People of color, people with disabilities, women, etc have been harmed by both institutional discrimination as well as personal attacks simply because of something to do with their identity.

    Governments can send a message that certain behaviors and attitudes are wrong, ugly and not acceptable. It does not take the right of speech away in the USA; that is sacred. People still can legally say all manner of ugly things against women, people of colors, Jews, Christians, etc. But it is not as easy or acceptable as it used to be. The tide has changed and people won’t put up with that sort of thing.

    By having hate crime legislation, our government publicly states that a certain group of people have been unfairly treated and are especially vulnerable. In hopes of stemming that tide and changing people’s attitudes, laws can be passed that say it is especially bad when you attack this group because of who they are.

    Is it perfect? No. We still have rampant racism in America, especially in the form of skin privilege, but some outrageous behavior that was seen as normal, is now seen as outrageous. This is not because of our cultural evolution or spiritual maturity. It is because government has stated that some behaviors will not be tolerated because they are just plain ugly and wrong.

    But at the heart of it many people who oppose these laws for LGBT people really have a problem with this part of it. They do no want to see equity when it comes to LGBT people. They do not want the public tide to turn to be accepting and affirming. They want to maintain the heterosexual hegemony–heterosexism.

    Using the Bible in very much the same way that segregationalists did in the 1950’s and 60’s (and even 70’s), anti-gay spokespeople revert to slander and fear mongering in hopes of keeping society trapped in ignorance and intolerance.

    Even opponents to hate crime legislation try to prove that an elite group is vying for “special rights” with the inference that if gay people get these rights, straight people will lose theirs. The church will lose its power and we will go to hell in a hand basket (most likely a fashionably designed and tasteful hand basket designed by the gay minister of culture).

    But even without Alan’s stand against hate crime legislation, his opposition to marriage equality and Exodus’ and their partner Focus on the Family’s insistence of only telling stories about gays and lesbians that show us as perverted, out of control, godless, sexual animals (read some of their testimonies to see what I mean), who want to overtake America and cause the downfall of a godly nation, they directly contribute to the irrational fear and violence and hatred and discrimination towards lesbian women, gay men, bisexual men and women and transgender men and women.

    It is not enough to say you stand opposed to homophobia. You have to do something to stop it. If not, in the words of St. Paul, at best you are “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” At worst you are culpable. Or to use Bible language, you have blood on your hands.

  7. alex resare on May 19, 2007 at 10:37 am

    “The legislation against hate crimes do something more. They send a message, a message that some people do not want to send. They send the message that some people in our society have been unfairly treated and targeted simply because of who they are.”

    I am afraid that hate crime legislation sends another message, that some people in our society are abnormal and needs special treatment. That not everyone should be equal.

    Another problem with hate crime legislation is that hate is a feeling and a thought and to try to legislate against thoughts and feeling is the wrong road for me. We can never ever makes laws that breeds compassion. The solution to discrimination is not moral messages through legislation but moral messages from people to people. Compassion can be learned and felt between human beeings, not through legislation.

    But other than that; hear, hear!

  8. Peterson Toscano on May 19, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Alex, sadly, this has not always been the case in the US. It took a huge legal fight, (by activist judges initially) along with the work of many tireless activists, to begin to get the country to take race issues in America seriously.

    What happened was that as the public began to debate various laws, the ugliness (and the beauty) of the American people came out and was captured in photographs and on TV. Perhaps at the end of the day, the law is not nearly as important as the debate it forces and the attitudes it reveals.

    Ideally we would not need these laws if people chose to be open to love and mercy and humanity. Things one would imagine a person would learn in church and school and home.

  9. Peterson Toscano on May 19, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Now Alex, before you respond, we really should get out of the house and enjoy Stockholm while we can. What profits a man if he wins the whole argument yet loses a day of Stockholm together.

    And that is flawless logic. If you don’t agree, I will prove it when we when we go out for a fika.

  10. Daniel on May 19, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Excellent post, I’d add we even go so far as to assume children are heterosexual and treat/tell them as such saying things such as “when you get married to a girl one day bla bla bla.”

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