Communication Strategies: How Not to Talk Like a Heterosexist/Homophobe

Unlike sexist language, heterosexist or homophobic language is still very much with us and it should prove useful to identify some of the ways we can avoid talk that puts down gay men and lesbians. As with sexist language, much of this will be familiar and yet it may help to review some of the commonly offered suggestions.

Heterosexism exists on both an individual and an institutional level. Individual heterosexism consists of attitudes, behaviors, and language that disparage gay men and lesbians and includes the belief that all sexual behavior that is not heterosexual is unnatural and deserving of criticism and condemnation. These beliefs are at the heart of antigay violence and gay bashing. Individual heterosexism also includes such beliefs as the notions that homosexuals are more likely to commit crimes than are heterosexuals (there’s actually no difference) and to molest children than are heterosexuals (actually, child molesters are overwhelmingly heterosexual, married men). It also includes the belief that homosexuals cannot maintain stable relationships or effectively raise children, beliefs that contradict research evidence.

Institutional heterosexism is easy to identify. For example, the ban on gay marriage in most states and the fact that at this time only a handful of states allows gay marriage is a good example of institutional heterosexism. Other examples include the Catholic Church’s ban on homosexual priests,
and the many laws prohibiting adoption of children by gay people. In some cultures homosexual relations are illegal (for example, in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Singapore); penalties range from a “misdemeanor” charge in Liberia to life in jail in Singapore and death in Pakistan.

Heterosexist language includes derogatory terms used for lesbians and gay men. For example, in one survey in the military showed that 80 percent of those surveyed heard offensive speech about gay men and lesbians and that 85 percent believed that such derogatory speech was “tolerated”. You also see heterosexism in more subtle forms of language usage; for example, when you qualify a professional—as in “gay athlete” or “lesbian doctor”—and, in effect, say that athletes and doctors are not normally gay or lesbian.

Still another form of heterosexism is the presumption of heterosexuality. Usually, people assume the person they’re talking to or about is heterosexual. And usually they’re correct, because most people are heterosexual. At the same time, however, this presumption denies the lesbian or gay identity a certain legitimacy. The practice is very similar to the presumptions of whiteness and maleness that we have made significant inroads in eliminating.

Examine your own language for possible heterosexism and consider, for example, if you do any of the following:
<  use offensive nonverbal mannerisms that parody stereotypes when talking about gay men and lesbians. Do you respond to gay couples with the “startled eye blink”?

<  “compliment” gay men and lesbians by saying that they “don’t look it”. To gay men and lesbians, this is not a compliment. Similarly, expressing disappointment that a person is gay—often thought to be a compliment, as in comments such as “What a waste!”—is not really a compliment.

<  make the assumption that every gay or lesbian knows what every other gay or lesbian is thinking.  It’s similar to asking a Japanese person why Sony is investing heavily in the United States.

<  rely on stereotypes. Saying things like “Lesbians are so loyal” or “Gay men are so open with their feelings,” ignore the reality of wide differences within any group and are potentially
insulting to all groups.

<  overattribute. This is the tendency to attribute just about everything a person does, says, and believes to the fact that the person is gay or lesbian? This tendency helps to activate and
perpetuate stereotypes.

<  forget that relationship milestones are important to all people? Ignoring anniversaries or birthdays of, say, a relative’s partner is resented by everyone.

As you think about heterosexism, recognize not only that heterosexist language will create barriers to communication but also that its absence will foster more meaningful communication: greater comfort, an increased willingness to disclose personal information, and a greater willingness to engage in future interactions.

In addition to avoid heterosexist language, consider these suggestions. Gay is the preferred term to refer to a man who has an affectional orientation toward other men, and lesbian is the preferred term for a woman who has an affectional orientation toward other women. [“Lesbian” means “homosexual woman,” so the term lesbian woman is redundant.] Homosexual refers to both gay men and lesbians, and describes a same-sex sexual orientation. The definitions of gay and lesbian go beyond sexual rientation and refer to a self identification as a gay man or lesbian. Gay as a noun, although widely used, may be offensive in some contexts, as in “We have two gays on the team.” Because most scientific thinking holds that sexuality is not a matter of choice, the terms sexual orientation and affectional orientation are preferred to sexual preference or sexual status (which is also vague). In the case of same-sex marriages—there are two husbands or two wives. In a male-male marriage, each person is referred to as husband and in the case of female-female marriage, each person is referred to as wife. Some same-sex couples—especially those who are not married—prefer the term “partner” or “lover”. Whether married or not, your uncle’s gay partner is also your uncle in the same way that your heterosexual aunt’s husband is your uncle. Your sister’s lover is your sister-in-law (though in many cases, the “in-law” is not technically accurate, it is the more culturally sensitive form to use) in the same way that your heterosexual brother’s wife is your sister-in-law.


Clemens Rettich said...

What I said to my network: Language is a tricky thing. Especially when it betrays the more subtle forms of prejudice we carry with us, or when we perpetuate a stereotype in words even when we think we are 'above that kind of thing'. A good article that outlines some of the less obvious ways we perpetuate homophobic attitudes.

Unknown said...

In terms of heterosexist language, we need to be broader than controlling what people call our own relationships, in fact I find that a very minor part of my life. People who don't relate well to my marriage don't really bother me.

What really galls me is that the ordinary framing for all negative interactions is "prison sex" or male-on-male rape: From "screwed" and its dozen synonyms and metaphorical decorations like "tearing you a new [hole]" to just "being a [penis]", to "sucks", to the new and more vile usage of "bitch" for an unwilling inferior, our intimate acts are degraded by being projected onto the way straight men would experience them negatively.

We know these are not about women, because if we step back half a pace we know women like sex, including oral sex, these things are generally said by men to men, and when women say them or have them said to them, we cast them in a male role.

Bartrand Russel said...
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