Heterosexism

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I previously posted my worries about the glossary entry for the word 'gay' in Elizabeth Meyer's Gender, Bullying, and Harassment. I'm worried about the following entry also, for several reasons:

Heterosexism: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people. Also, the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality or prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

The first thing to notice is that this is a disjunctive definition. It lists three different things, any of which it will count as heterosexism. This isn't problematic in itself. There are plenty of words that can apply to a number of different things. Some of them are due to plain old ambiguity, e.g. the word 'bank' can mean a financial institution or the sandy shoreline alongside a river. More often a term can refer to several phenomena that all fit under the same category.

What might generate more of a problem is when a term is defined to refer to a number of different phenomena that are sufficiently different and should not be confused with each other. This isn't necessarily a problem, though. For instance, there are plenty of things the word 'homicide' can refer to, and they've of a pretty diverse sort. A homicide could be a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, or it could be an unplanned violent killing in the heat of an argument. It could be criminal but accidental manslaughter, or it could be excusable self-defense. In all cases, someone has been killed, and thus it counts as a homicide, which etymologically and in actual contemporary usage simply means the killing of a person by someone else.

Where it becomes more problematic is if the word you choose to use for this is loaded in such a way that its very usage carries the sense that anything it applies to is equally wrong. This is a new enough term that I think it's fair to say that people who are using it as Meyer does are in fact in the process of coining the term and determining its meaning by how it's used. The fact that it's deliberately a parallel with words like 'sexism' and 'racism' is important here. I suspect Meyer, and those whose consensus she wants to represent in her glossary of how such terms are used, wants all three things she lists to be seen as serious as racism and sexism are. The problem is that a case can be made that they're not. Let's separate the different meanings.

A: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people
B: the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality
C: prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

It seems to me that anyone satisfying meaning A is engaging in pure evil, but meanings B and C can range over a wide enough range of things that they don't belong in the same category at all. Some of that wide range is clearly morally problematic (perhaps stemming from something like what meaning A is getting at). Some of it is simply a matter of empirical discovery, but some of it involves moral judgment.
Consider the official Roman Catholic view, for instance. Priests in the Roman Catholic Church take a vow of celibacy. They're not allowed to have sexual relationships with anyone, whether male or female. If they were not priests, they would still think it wrong to engage in heterosexual sex outside of marriage or homosexual sex at all. Nevertheless, they welcome gay people into the priesthood, and they don't make the mistake of thinking someone is likely to be a child molester simply because the person is gay. It's pretty clear to me that they don't denigrate and devalue GLB people, even though they have a bias against homosexuality when it comes to recognizing gay couples as morally legitimate. Whatever you might think of the practice of not recognizing a gay union as a legitimate marriage, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it's far, far worse morally speaking to treat gay people as inhuman and without rights of any sort than it is simply to presume that heterosexuality is better than homosexuality. The Roman Catholic Church, at least officially, recognizes this, even if there might be some members who do not.

That separates A and B already. An act that clearly demonstrates the kind of bias in sub-definition A is much worse than merely satisfying sub-definition B. I can think of lots of other ways of satisfying sub-definition B that range across a huge spectrum. Someone might think heterosexuality is better than homosexuality for a number of reasons. It could come from a natural law theory, as it does for Roman Catholics. They see heterosexuality as natural and more fitting with humanity than homosexuality. Depending on how the natural law theory goes, that might be taken to imply that something about homosexuality is morally wrong (as it does for Catholics). But it might not. Michael Levin, for instance, thinks homosexuality is unnatural because he doesn't think it fits well with evolution's purposes, which presumes a certain set of controversial views about evolution and the purposes of organisms in the evolutionary scheme, but it is a view that's out there, and it does strike me as a sort of natural law view that takes heterosexuality to be superior to homosexuality for some natural purpose, and what I've read of Levin didn't give me the impression that he thinks there's anything morally bad about being gay or engaging in gay sex (although he does think it's natural for heterosexuals to dislike or being uncomfortable around gay people).

But you might even take a more moderate view. Even if you find nothing morally unproblematic about homosexuality, and even if you think there's nothing unnatural about it, you might think it's less conducive to one key purpose human beings should want for ourselves, which is to perpetuate ourselves. It's true that gay people can help raise their relatives' children, in which case they're helping some of their DNA be perpetuated, and a gay couple or single gay person can adopt a child, which helps the next generation continue. I'm not trying to diminish that. Nevertheless, if this purpose is the only purpose you're considering heterosexuality does happen to fulfill it a little bit better. Recognizing that is already heterosexism, according to Meyer's definition, since it means you're taking heterosexuality to be superior to homosexuality in this respect. You don't have to think there's anything unnatural about it or morally wrong with it to think such a thing. Yet it's being put under a term that's designed to capture the moral wrongness of all that it applies to.

There's another unproblematic recognition of heterosexuality as superior. Most straight men aren't going to get as much sexual satisfaction out of a sexual relationship with a man than they are out of a sexual relationship with a woman. Many are disgusted at the very idea of anal sex with another man, for example, and they're certainly not sexually attracted to men. So for the majority of the male population heterosexual sex is superior to homosexual sex. This is probably true of women as well, but I'm not in as strong a position to comment on that. Now it's true that the reverse is true for gay people. That doesn't touch my point. All I'm saying is that for a significant percentage of the population (by far the majority) heterosexuality is superior purely in the sense that it is their preferred means of sexual satisfaction. I can't see any reason why a gay person might find that problematic (unless they accept the pretty radical claim that all heterosexual sex is rape, in which case I'd have to take a few steps back to deal with that claim).

So here are at least four ways of satisfying sub-definition B.

B1: There are those who think heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality in a way that leads them to make fun of gay people, along with people they might wrongly believe to be gay or to be acting gay, or even to cause such people physical harm. The kind of superiority they mean is the kind the KKK has in mind when they say whites are superior to blacks or the kind meant when you hear that men are superior to women from a serial rapist who takes delight in forced sexual submission of women merely because they're women.

B2: There are others who think heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality because they think homosexuality isn't part of God's design.

B3: There are those who think it's against nature in some other sense.

B4: Then there are those who just plain think there are certain purposes for which it's not as good, some of which are nearly uncontroversial even among those who are pretty far to the left on these issues.

Yet all of these satisfy sub-definition B, but there's a world of difference between some of these, and there's a world of difference between all of them (except the first, of course) and the kind of bias that satisfies sub-definition A.

We haven't even gotten to sub-definition C yet. It says any kind of discrimination based on any of these things (things in sub-definition A and B) is heterosexist.

C1. So you've got the real gay-bashers who dislike gay people so much that they like to bash their heads in. They choose the targets of their assaults based on their bias as in sub-definition A.

C2. Then there are those who for religious reasons want to worship in a way that's faithful to their own religion, which teaches the superiority of heterosexuality in sense B2. So they believe it is immoral to engage in homosexual sex, and they restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, for example, or they prevent gay people who are sexually active (as opposed to gay people committed to celibacy) from taking certain jobs involving official ministry responsibilities.

C3. There are those that take B2 much further, though. There are those who insist that they not be prevented from refusing to rent their property to a gay couple. There are those who insist that the federal government should be able to refuse to hire a gay person merely for being gay or that a private individual who accepts B2 should be able to refuse to hire gay people. There are those who want to keep openly-gay people from serving in the military. There are those who want to allow hospitals to continue denying visitation rights in the hospital to gay partners. This is based on B2, as C2 is, but it seems to me to be a very different kind of discrimination with very different purposes, and whatever you think of the moral issues with C2 it's hard to deny that a stronger burden of proof should be met to extend B2's justification of C2 into the kinds of secular things involved in C3.

C4. Then there are the kinds of discrimination that should seem uncontroversial or at least not controversial in terms of the bias itself. For instance, a straight man considers only women when he seeks a romantic or sexual partner. Someone wants to get married purely for the purpose of reproducing and considers only people of the opposite sex to help achieve that purpose (and if you think that's not the usual purpose of marriage, you're considering a very small sample; this has traditionally been the main purpose for marriage in many societies, and many men have married for reproduction while having other relations for enjoyment or love, sometimes other women but sometimes young boys, as happened frequently in ancient Greece).

Or perhaps the Allies in World War II want to infiltrate the Vichy government's top echelons, so they send an agent in to engage in romantic liaisons in order to find information. Since the people they need information from are men and mostly straight men, they discriminate against lesbians and gay men and choose agents who are female and straight for this purpose. There may be moral problems with the entire mission, but if so they don't have anything to do with any discrimination against gay people. For the purpose of this mission, heterosexuality is superior. They thus hold to B4, and they discriminate on that basis.

Then there are scientific studies. Someone might be trying to see if certain brain conditions are more common among straight men. They might want to see how straight people react to a concocted scenario where they're treated the way gay people are treated, or they want to see how easily self-identified straight men will respond sexually to male bodies. This involves discrimination, and it's discrimination that's based on a version of B4, since being straight qualifies them for the purpose of the study, where being straight is superior for their purposes than being gay. Yet that discrimination seems morally unproblematic.

I've long been arguing for more precise distinctions when it comes to this sort of thing. Some people strongly detest views like B2 and discrimination like C2. Others defend it. Lumping it under a term like 'heterosexism' decides the issue linguistically and through a kind of language-bullying, which is ironic given that Meyer's book attempts to address sexuality-related bullying. I prefer to engage in moral argument to resolve such issues, and I think there's room in society for teaching that views like B2 and acts that privately discriminate in a like-minded organization in ways like C2 don't justify discrimination of the C3 sort, while reserving extremely harsh criticism for A and B1. Then B4 and C4, which almost everyone would recognize as completely unproblematic, are being tarred by the term merely because they involve discrimination based on something already wrongly tarred as heterosexist.

Unfortunately, I'm not the kind of person who is good at coming up with positive proposals, never mind creative and catchy terms like those who first started using terms like 'heterosexist' and 'heteronormative'. But I'm pretty good at recognizing problems when I see them, and I think there's something problematic about how Meyer is defining this term. She's certainly not alone. Most people who actually use that term would use it similarly to how she does. I think it leads to a failure to make proper moral distinctions (and perhaps results from such a failure to begin with). It allows controversies to become disguised as being about something that they're not about, where the two sides are talking about completely different issues. Worst of all, it assigns already-loaded terms of moral condemnation that define something in the minds of all hearers as bad without engaging in the argumentation needed to establish such a thing and without recognizing that it alienates allies on issues like A and B1 and turns them against efforts to stop such things.

Meyer's book is about bullying. Most evangelical Christians I know who hold to B2 and C2 would be all for her attempts to decrease bullying of any sort, including bullying based on sexual orientation. I wonder if she's doing her cause a disservice by these expansive definitions that, while expressing her view accurately, are going to turn potential allies against her. I suspect she would feel like she's abandoning the larger cause by being silent on issues like B2 and C2. But she largely is silent on those issues, which is something I consider a virtue of her book. She ignores something that she really doesn't need to address to deal with the bullying issue. Whether someone believes same-sex marriage should be allowed isn't really tied up with whether they think the kids in their child's class should be allowed to call their kid a fag for being less good at sports. If she felt the need to express her larger view somewhere in the book, she could do so while acknowledging that those who disagree with her on that should still recognize the value of fighting against anti-gay bullying, and she should support them in that endeavor even if she disagrees with their other commitments. I found very little in the book that might cause the kind of alienation I'm talking about here. But I found this glossary definition so striking given the overall avoidance of the issue throughout most of the book that it was hard to resist commenting.

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