Heterosexism is a term that desribes the social fabric of our society. A heterosexist society makes two assumptions: everyone is heterosexual and everyone belongs to one of two genders.
Children are taught heterosexuality and gender conformity from a young age. These components of heterosexism are built into our language and behavior. For example, the Disney Channel is generally approved of by parents for their children. The shows feature boys dating girls, and girls who fight with each other over boys. On the other hand, jokes are made about the prospect of two males marrying each other, or males dressing up as women. Cologne, and perfume commercials feature good smelling heterosexual couples kissing with fresh breath.
Gender expectations are everwhere. When Michelle Obama speaks, her appearance is often the focus. Michelle Obama is an accomplished professional, yet her merits are hardly discussed. Commercials for laundry detergent portray women loving their job as stay-at-home mothers. Beer commercials feature men on a tropical beach with women in bikinis.
There is nationwide controversy over whether to teach children about LGBT people in schools. Anti-gay advocates espouse that teaching children about sexuality and gender is harmful. By the time children are three years old they are able to identify their gender, by the time they are five or six, they know which toys are ‘appropriate’ for which gender, and they know age appropriate versions of how babies are made. When little boys play with trucks, nobody gives it a second thought. When little boys play with dolls, families may express concern.
Heterosexism does not intend to be malicious. Elementary school plays featuring children dressed as the opposite sex are humorous. However, some humor sacrifices peoples’ well being, even if it does not intend to.
Heterosexism both impacts and limits everyone. Women talk about being limited because of society’s focus on beauty and appearance. Men talk about how difficult it is to think, feel, or act outside masculine expectations. Challenging heterosexism does not mean that heterosexual, gender conforming people will suddenly disappear. On the contrary, challenging heterosexism’s limitations will result in happier, healthier individuals and stronger relationships.