Sexual orientation is one of the less visible aspects of a person and consequently we may not even know that someone we are interacting with is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Because of the stigmas attached to having a sexual orientation that is other than heterosexual, many choose not to share their sexual identity in our culture. Along with fear for personal safety and discrimination in housing and employment, the fact that in some states same sex sexual activity is illegal keeps individuals in hiding.
In an effort to promote equality and safety, many men and women have taken the risk of becoming visible in order to gather together and increase their power to fight the discrimination that affects them in many ways. While issues of privilege are now more recognizable with regard to sexual orientation, heterosexual individuals may still be biased with regard to whether or not lesbians and gays deserve the rights and protections they are seeking. Because they have the power to shape public policy, these biased views can greatly compound the lack of privilege that exists. Consider some of the ways that a lesbian woman, gay man or bisexual person is affected by being in this underprivileged group:
- Heterosexuals can comfortably and safely talk about their relationships with opposite sex partners where gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual individuals often censor their discussions, choosing their pronouns carefully.
- Heterosexuals can easily work as teachers or with children in other capacities where many people still argue that children aren't safe with gay men or lesbian women because they are always looking for new "recruits."
- Heterosexuals can legally marry their opposite sex partners where gay or lesbian couples may live together but with few exceptions are not allowed to legally marry.
Assumptions about the normalcy of heterosexuality and the difference of homosexuality are so deeply ingrained that to look at heterosexuality the way society looks at homosexuality can be quite illuminating.
As an example, consider the following sample of questions from the Heterosexual Questionnaire (Rochlin, M., 1989).
- What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
- When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?
- Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?
- Is it possible your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
- If you have never slept with a person of the same sex, is it possible that all you need is a good gay lover?
- Do your parents know that you are straight? Do your friends and/or roommate(s) know? how did they react?
- Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can't you just be who you are and keep it quiet?
- Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?
To read more select the Heterosexual Questionnaire.
Although we are unable to assess the number of gays, lesbians, and bisexual people in our culture due to their fear of being stigmatized, we must be conscious that there are probably people who have differing sexual orientations in our daily lives. It is up to each of us to be sensitive to this fact and the ways in which heterosexuals enjoy privilege over this population. When we think critically about this, the privilege is obvious and ranges from freedom to walk down the street holding hands without fear of violence to the ability to build a family with a long term partner.