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Heterosexism: What is it and why does it matter?

This week I am struck by a desire to talk a little more about a kind of oppressive attitude that we don't always think about - heterosexism. Comments on my recent blog post led me to consider that there isn't awareness about how heterosexism, even when it seems benign, impacts everyone in our culture.

Heterosexism is the culturally established belief that heterosexuality (attraction to the opposite sex) is "normal, natural, and morally superior," and consciously or not, it leads to prejudicial attitudes and actions against people who are not heterosexual. Like other prejudicial, socially ingrained attitudes (i.e., sexism, ageism, ableism, racism, etc.), there are oppressive, sometimes dire, consequences to those who do not identify in the socially "preferred" category. To those who are heterosexual, it may not seem as though this oppression exists, but it does. Oppression can be a range of experiences, from not getting a job because of how one presents, to being excluded from social situations or family functions based on one's choice of relationship partner or style, to being physically assaulted because someone is gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer. These experiences have an impact on the health and functioning of LGBTQ* people over the course of their lives, and can lead to long-lasting damage, fear, and low self-worth.

Oppression has led to centuries of political and social struggle, as we've seen with feminist, anti-racist, and pride movements. What is often left unseen or unexplored is how heterosexism impacts all people, not only those who do not identify as heterosexual. Similarly to the way in which men are impacted by misogyny (i.e., forced into a socially-prescribed set of behaviours that may or may not fit them and paints them as an enemy), heterosexual people are not immune to heterosexist attitudes. Below I go into some of the ways heterosexism impacts us all.

Self-awareness: I've heard a lot of arguments against homophobia that center around the argument of choice. A common heterosexist attitude is that people who are LGBTQ* are choosing to live a lifestyle that is immoral, unnatural, or unacceptable. The argument against is that straight people just know they are straight, and don't choose it any more than LGBTQ* people do. This is true - we are born who we are, and we love who we love. However, there are a vast number of people (myself included) who didn't even know about their sexuality, who weren't given the freedom or opportunity to think they might not be strictly heterosexual. It doesn't change who we are, but it means that we spend more painful years trying to figure out why we don't fit in to the prescribed way.

Heterosexist beliefs and attitudes create a script for us when we are growing up, through media (e.g., TV shows portraying primarily portraying straight, monogamous, white couples), how our families talk about sexuality and their future expectations for us (e.g., "One day when you grow up to have a wife/husband and kids"), and even in our education about sexuality in school (e.g., sex education focused on pregnancy and heterosexuality). When heterosexual is the assumption, and there are few chances to see or experience different kinds of relationships and lifestyles, it becomes a challenge to identify what possible choices one does have. Think of the myriad of gay men who, in the early 20th century, were under such extreme pressure and risk of violence, that they married women, had children, and carried on according the the heterosexual script, without ever truly fulfilling their desires or coming to know themselves. If straight is the only option, how do we process and understand it when we have a desire for someone of the same sex, or no desire for anyone at all?

It's a black-and-white trap: One of the primary cognitive distortions (an irrational way of thinking) is "black and white" or binary thinking. Rarely is anything simply black-and-white, all-or-nothing. Most things exist on a continuum, and human sexuality is no different. Alfred Kinsey was one of the first to identify that sexuality was not simply gay or straight, man or woman. In the 1950s, he established the Kinsey Scale of sexuality, which broke down sexual interest and behaviour on a continuum from only interested in/sexual with the opposite sex, to only interested in/sexual with the same sex. Since then, research on human sexuality continues to show that sexual interests and behaviours exist on a wide spectrum, based on many more factors than simply what kind of genitalia someone has. Heterosexism tells us that there is straight, which is seen as the correct, normal, or natural way, and there is homosexual, which is seen as a small minority of people who have something wrong with them. It ignores all of the people who rest in the middle - who are bisexual, who are mostly straight but fell in love with someone of their same sex, who are mostly gay but found themselves interested in someone of the opposite sex, who are asexual and not interested in anyone at all, or who are pansexual and don't care what the sex or gender of the other person is. It's truly irrational to assume that all people exist in either one or the other category.

It perpetuates gender and relationships stereotypes: Heterosexism is not only about sexuality - it also impacts ideas of gender and relationship styles. Imagine the Norman Rockwell paintings that portray the perfect North American family - a husband who works and provides for his family, a wife who maintains the house and takes care of children, a son and a daughter, each being raised to fit their gender perfectly. It is not wrong for a family to exist in this way, and for some people it works perfectly. The truth is, however, that few families do look like this. There is no exact "man" template that all men need to fit, and there is no exact "woman" template that all women need to fit. You might have a daughter who likes sports and a son who likes to wear pink. These are all socially-prescribed ideas about how a family should be, but they are not the reality of what most families are. If you are not heterosexual, you automatically deviate from the socially-prescribed ideas of what a family should be. In fact, it becomes more difficult to adopt a child (despite a lack of evidence that there are negative effects to children raised by same-sex parents), and it was a challenge to even establish marriage equality in North America, But what makes a family healthy? In my work I've seen families of all different arrangements and styles, and they all share similar issues and concerns, regardless of whether they fit the Norman Rockwell "perfect" family.

It impacts how doctors, therapists, and other professionals treat you: Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, there continues to be an ingrained belief that homosexual, transgender, bisexual, and queer people are somehow "disordered." We all carry these biases to some degree, and they manifest as internalized shame, in public policy and health attitudes, and even in the work of therapists and counsellors. In fact, there has been a lot of work towards depathologizing homosexuality, but despite almost 50 years of work, these attitudes persist because heterosexism is so ingrained in our culture. The impact? Therapists, doctors, and other professionals, no matter how well meaning they are, are missing crucial information about the experiences and lives of their patients, and the care they provide simply isn't as good as it could have been.

So what can we do about it? First, we all need to carefully consider our own biases - cultural, religious, ethnic, sexual. We need to recognize that ingrained attitudes about how things should be do not necessarily reflect how things actually are, and serve to pit groups of people against each other. We need to read more and get a broader understanding of what it truly means to be human. Second, we need to talk about our thoughts, attitudes, and opinions about what is actually choice, and what is determined by our culture and our ingrained beliefs. Finally, we need to protect those who end up hurt as a result of heterosexism, to consider how it impacts our public policy, and to question the "norm."


Drescher, J. (2015). Out of DSM: Depathologizing homosexuality. Behavioural Science, 5(4), 565-575.

Bieschke, K.J., Perez, R. M., & DeBord, K. A. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Clients. Washington: American Psychological Association

#heterosexism #LGBT #gender #mentalhealth #therapy #straight #gay #gayaffirmativetherapy #LGBTQA #health #family #socialjustice

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