Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships.[1] It can include the presumption that other people are heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm[2] and therefore superior.

Although heterosexism is defined in the online editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as anti-gay discrimination or prejudice "by heterosexual people"[3] and "by heterosexuals",[4] respectively, people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias, and can form a part of internalised hatred of one's sexual orientation.[5]

Heterosexism as discrimination ranks gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual minorities as second-class citizens with regard to various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality in many of the world's jurisdictions and societies. It is often related to homophobia.


While the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary notes first use of the term heterosexism as having occurred in 1972, the term was first published in 1971 by gay rights activist, Craig Rodwell.[6]

Etymology and usage

Similar terms include "heterocentrism" and "heterosexualism".[7] Although the well-established term heterosexism is often explained as a coinage modeled on sexism, the derivation of its meaning points more to (1.) heterosex(ual) + -ism than (2.) hetero- + sexism. In fact, the word heterosexualism has been used as an equivalent to sexism and racism.[8]

Given this lack of semantic transparency, researchers, outreach workers, critical theorists and LGBT activists have proposed and use terms such as institutionalized homophobia, state(-sponsored) homophobia,[9] sexual prejudice, anti-gay bigotry, straight privilege, The Straight Mind (a collection of essays by French writer Monique Wittig), heterosexual bias, compulsory heterosexuality[10] or the much lesser known terms heterocentrism, homonegativity, and from gender theory and queer theory, heteronormativity. However, not all of these descriptors are synonymous to heterosexism.

Contrast to homophobia

Homophobia, a form of heterosexism, refers both to "unreasoning fear of or antipathy towards homosexuals and homosexuality"[11] and to "behavior based on such a feeling".[12] Heterosexism, however, more broadly denotes the "system of ideological thought that makes heterosexuality the sole norm to follow for sexual practices".[13] As a bias favoring heterosexuals and heterosexuality, heterosexism has been described as being "encoded into and characteristic of the major social, cultural, and economic institutions of our society"[14] and stems from the essentialist cultural notion that maleness-masculinity and femaleness-femininity are complementary.

Researcher, author, and psychology professor Gregory M. Herek states that "[Heterosexism] operates through a dual process of invisibility and attack. Homosexuality usually remains culturally invisible; when people who engage in homosexual behavior or who are identified as homosexual become visible, they are subject to attack by society."[8] Furthermore, in interviews with perpetrators of anti-gay violence, forensic psychologist Karen Franklin points out that "heterosexism is not just a personal value system, [rather] it is a tool in the maintenance of gender dichotomy."[15] She continues by saying that "assaults on homosexuals and other individuals who deviate from sex role norms are viewed as a learned form of social control of deviance rather than a defensive response to personal threat."[15]

Parallels and intersections

It has been argued that the concept of heterosexism is similar to the concept of racism in that both ideas promote privilege for dominant groups within a given society. For example, borrowing from the racial concept of white privilege, the concept of heterosexual privilege[16] has been applied to benefits of (presumed) heterosexuality within society that heterosexuals take for granted. The analogy is that just as racism against non-white people places white people as superior to people of color, heterosexism places heterosexual people or relationships as superior to non-heterosexual ones. In trying to rebut this premise, some commentators point to differences[17] between the categories of race and sexual orientation, claiming they are too complex to support any generalizations. For example, "trainer on diversity" and consultant Jamie Washington has commented, although heterosexism and racism are "woven from the same fabric" they are "not the same thing".[18] Some American Conservative leaders such as Rev. Irene Monroe comment that those who suggest or state "gay is the new black", as in a cover story of The Advocate magazine,[19] exploit black people's suffering and experiences to legitimize their own.[20] Nonetheless, a study presented at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology 2009 Conference shows that heterosexist prejudice is more pervasive than racism.[21]

Heterosexism can also intersect with racism by further emphasizing differences among arbitrary groups of people.[22] For example, heterosexism can compound the effects of racism by:

  • promoting injustices towards a person already facing injustices because of their race
  • establishing social hierarchies that allow one group more privilege than other groups.

Likewise, racism can allow LGBT people to be subjected to additional discrimination or violence if they belong to or are considered a part of a socially devalued racial category.[23] Some of the privileges afforded to people falling into the categories of white people and (perceived) heterosexuals include, but are not limited to, social acceptance, prestige, freedom from negative stereotypes, and the comfort of being within the social norm and thereby not being marginalized or viewed as different.[24]