“A Hearty Welcome: Removing Hetero-sexism from our Church Culture”

I was invited to offer a workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford in Mississippi as part of their seeking to become designated by our denomination as a Welcoming Congregation.  In talking with the leadership in what had been covered, it became apparent that there was a need to discuss heterosexism.  My process in putting this workshop together included exploring what our Unitarian Universalist Association had in their resources on their website. To my surprise while the website ( http://www.uua.org/re/youth/identity-based/queer/47416.shtml) acknowledged the word heterosexism there was very little on the website in terms of resources on heterosexism. And so began my journey to find what exactly was out there.  So what follows here are some resources I found and some of the things that I used or created in putting together a workshop on heterosexism.

I began the workshop with passing out a Heterosexism Scale.  It was not a perfect scale because some of the questions assumed the person taking the test was heterosexual. But taken as a tease to begin the thinking process and used as a personal self awareness of how pervasive heterosexism is, this test was effective. I did not ask for participants to share their scores as that was for them, but I did ask for participants to share if they were surprised by anything that was on the test.  Discussion was good and it served to set the tone for the journey we were beginning. I purposely had the test be the first piece of the workshop before doing any icebreaker because I wanted people to have a sense of where they may be regarding heterosexism.  Source: Heterosexism Scale created by Celeste Bowman, CASAC of the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services in New York State

I followed this with an icebreaker asking for their name and one thing taught as a child about gender roles. For example I was taught that boys do not cry.  I purposely had the icebreaker follow the test because I wanted people to have a sense of where they may be regarding heterosexism.

Then I introduced two definitions:

Homophobia v Heterosexism

Homophobia:    The American Heritage Dictionary (1992 edition) defines homophobia as “aversion to gay or homosexual people or their lifestyle or culture” and “behavior or an act based on this aversion.” Other definitions identify homophobia as an irrational fear of homosexuality

Heterosexism:  The system of oppression of persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender based on homophobia/ transphobia. It includes these three components:

  • The assumption that all people are heterosexual.
  • Prejudice and discrimination against persons who are LGBTIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Asexual)  based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexual orientation and therefore preferable.
  • Systemic display of homophobia in societal institutions, laws, and policies by excluding the needs, concerns, and life experiences of persons who are LGBTIA.

Examples of Heterosexism:

  • Assuming that everyone you meet is heterosexual.
  • Assuming that everyone has or is interested in having an opposite-sex partner.
  • Assuming that all mothers and fathers are heterosexual.
  • Assuming all sexually active women use birth control.
  • Assuming that all unmarried people are “single,” while in reality they may have a same-sex partner.
  • Assuming all children live in families with a male-female couple in parental roles.
  • Using language that presumes heterosexuality in others, such as husband or wife, instead of gender neutral language such as partner.
  • Using official forms which allow only for designation as married or single.
  • Denying equal employment benefits to people with same-sex partners (i.e. spousal insurance).
  • Omitting any discussion of persons who are LGBTIA as part of educational curricula.

This definition and examples comes from the Safe Zone training manual at Duke University.

I handed out a more detailed sheet on heterosexism that gives examples in several categories: Family, Education, Healthcare, Workplace, Legal System, and Media.  This handout was adapted from two sources:

Adapted from  © Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007  AND James Madison University in Virginia

We discussed the legal aspects of heterosexism and pointed out that while the US Supreme Court ruling on Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 struck down sodomy laws it did not remove sodomy laws in many states.  For example Mississippi’s law is still on the books and is unenforceable as it pertains to homosexual behavior but it is still considered criminal behavior.

 The legislation is MS 97-29-59. Unnatural intercourse

Every person who shall be convicted of the detestable and abominable crime against nature committed with mankind or with a beast, shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for a term of not more than ten years.

Because this law is still on the books the law can and will influence other laws and interpretations.  “Mississippi sexuality education law dictates that if homosexuality is taught, it must be presented as ‘unnatural and dangerous’ and be discussed within the context of Mississippi’s law outlawing sodomy.”

Source: http://www.abstinenceworks.org

It also influences Judges decisions in custody cases. “A Mississippi court used the state’s sodomy law to justify denying custody of a boy to his gay father, despite the fact that the court also found that the father would provide better care because the boy’s stepfather was physically abusive to his mother.” http://www.thetaskforce.org/issues/nondiscrimination/sodomy

This example shows how heterosexism is institutionalized.  My use of the example of Mississippi was because I was talking to a congregation in Mississippi.  However, there are some 13 states where Sodomy was struck down by the Lawrence v Texas US Supreme Court case but the laws were not repealed which means they are still on the books and still influences the writing and enforcing of other laws pertaining to Sexual Minorities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodomy_laws_in_the_United_States

For example in Alabama, where I am currently living, former (now re-instated) state Chief Justice Roy Moore denied a lesbian mother custody of her child based on the state’s sodomy law stating, “Common law designates homosexuality as an inherent evil, and if a person openly engages in such a practice, that fact alone would render him or her an unfit parent.” Moore also wrote approvingly of the state’s right to imprison or even execute homosexuals.

I introduced an exercise that was created for college students. The exercise has more to do with gender roles but I used this exercise to not only discuss gender roles but also to discuss the history of pink and blue being designated for specific genders and used this exercise to also introduce microaggressions.

A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said,
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”


This led to an important discussion on how capitalism markets heterosexism and gender differences. It was in the 1940’s when pink was re-classified for girls and blue for boys.  And I pointed out that photos of boys in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had them wearing white dresses and long locks of hair.  These were considered gender neutral clothing for ease of diaper changes and cleaning.  it wasn’t until a boy was about 6 years old that his hair was cut short and he wore knickers. Keep in mind the changes that were occurring in the world after World War I,  Freud was arguing for heterosexual expressions of sex for pleasure instead of being for procreation only and denouncing homosexual expressions as effeminate and deviant. Factories were once again booming and needed to find ways to sell their wares. Suffragists were fighting for women’s right to vote. Lots of changes were taking place that were causing a divide between what was feminine and what was masculine behavior in ways that were not brought to the surface before.

Exercise: Straight sculptures 20 minutes

Ask for two volunteers to come to the front of the room. One volunteer will play a 10-year old girl, the other a 10-year-old boy. Distribute pink and blue sticky note labels to the rest of the participants. Instruct the rest of the group that they are now responsible for “training” the children to act in their appropriate gender roles, and especially to handle themselves so that they will never be suspected of being lesbian (the girl) or gay (the boy). Students can act the part of older brothers/sisters, parents, coaches, teachers, and so forth. The task is for the male students to write their instructions on post-it paper for the “boy,” and for the female students to do so for the “girl.” When they have prepared their paper, they take turns, one at a time, in affixing their notes to the appropriate character’s arms, sleeves, or shoulders, explaining the instruction in the tone of voice appropriate to the part they’re playing (“parental voice” for parent, for example).

Instructions can include any of the following, and other things participants can think of:

  • • Colors of clothing you wear
  • • Type of clothing you wear
  • • Hair color/arrangement you choose
  • • How to sit in a chair
  • • How to walk
  • • Voice you use to talk
  • • Things you talk about
  • • Jewelry you wear
  • • Appropriate athletic activities
  • • Appropriate subjects to do well in
  • • Kind of car to be seen driving
  • • Appropriate jobs/careers to train for
  • • How you greet other people of your gender
  • • How you show affection to other people of your gender

Have participants complete the exercise. Then, have each of the two volunteers take turns walking into the room, pulling up a chair, sitting down, and saying hello to the class, doing their best to enact and obey all of the instructions that have been attached to them. Encourage them to have fun, exaggerating their roles if they wish.

At the close of their performance, stop the action and have each actor say how it felt to act out this role—funny, odd, uncomfortable, “normal,” &c.

Have everyone applaud the actors. Have participants break into mixed-gender triads or groups of four. Have participants take turns answering the following questions:

  • • What ways do I act or dress, or avoid acting or dressing, in order to keep from being called “gay,” “fag,” “butch,” or any other names that might identify me, even in fun, as lesbian or gay?
  • • What ways am I limited, or what does it cost me, to have to do these actions?

Return everyone’s attention to the full group. Have a few share what they notice in their own experience regarding these questions: what does it cost participants to protect themselves from being identified as gay/lesbian? What is the fear about being so identified? Who are they most likely to be afraid of? Remind participants to speak for themselves, not referring to what other people in their small group said.

This exercise worked well over all. Because most of the participants were older than the exercise was originally designed, the discussion questions did not take well because most of the participants were no longer concerned about being called gay or queer.  But this exercise did bring up the topic of peer pressure their children are feeling in schools to conform to heterosexist rules and how they might encourage their children to be who they are.

Telling the two volunteers how to act in this exercise is an example of being microaggressive. So the other benefit of this exercise was to introduce the notion of microaggressions.

“Micro-aggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” (Microaggressions in Every Day Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation by Derald Wing Sue)

I gave additional examples from the website microaggressions.com

“Oh, you’re dressing like a lady today. You should keep that up. You make a much better girl.”Nurse where I work to me, a 22 year-old who identifies as male. Makes me embarrassed about my body, afraid, sad.

“LGBT people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than normal people.”  A lecture on suicide prevention at UCLA.

“Of course I love you, I just prefer the straight part of you to the gay part.” My ex-girlfriend after telling her I’m bisexual.

“My mom says she is okay with my sexuality but doesn’t want me to tell anyone else in case I change my mind”. Age: 16

“Stop acting like a princess! You’re acting like a princess!! Ooh… little princess… boo hoo.”Parents talking to their crying, four-year-old son.

“Oh my god! Will you be my new gay best friend? We can go shopping for clothes!” A straight, female coworker to me upon learning that I, a male, had a boyfriend.  I said, “No” and walked away, confused. I don’t have any interest in shopping or clothing, much less being a “gay best friend.” It makes me angry that just by coming out, I can instantly be transformed into a romantic comedy stock character even when someone had seen me as a real person prior to knowing that I’m gay.

“Bisexual people don’t exist. Gay people just say that so they can walk down the hall with a girl holding hands.” Kurt on Glee, a seemingly gay friendly show. Made me feel TIRED.

Group Discussion:   We have been discussing the effects of heterosexism on LGBT people, but what are the effects on Heterosexuals?  Martin Luther King said something along the lines of when one group is oppressed we are all oppressed.  How does heterosexism oppress heterosexuals?

I had the group discuss this for a bit and then closed the discussion with some quotes from this resource on the topic, especially highlighting those not mentioned.

Detrimental Effects of Heterosexism & Homophobia on Heterosexual People
Taken from Diversity Works, Pelham, MA

“We often think only of how heterosexism and homophobia are hurting LGBT people. However, this oppression also limits and harms members of the dominant group, heterosexuals. The most effective heterosexual allies have recognized that it is in their own self-interests to interrupt heterosexism and homophobia.

  • Limited cultural exposure perpetuates myth and mystery about LGBT persons.
  • Lack of information causes heterosexuals to live with a false, distorted reality.
  • Codes of behavior determined by homophobia impose rigid patterns of interaction and relationship among heterosexuals.
  • Close friendships between men and between women are limited by fears and not valued as highly as cross gender relationships.
  • Deep love, support, and nurturing is assumed to be available only from the other sex.
  • Contact between women and men is always sexualized. Other forms of friendship and intimacy are not recognized as options.
  • Heterosexuals consciously and unconsciously modify and restrict their own self-expression to avoid being targeted as gay or lesbian.
  • Behaviors that do not conform to traditional gender roles are suspect.
  • The full range of individuality is squelched.
  • Contact with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people is avoided, depriving us of their friendship, the appreciation of LGBT people, and the dispelling of our socialized ignorance.
  • We are kept ignorant about friends and family members who may not be out as an LGBT person. Distance and fear are maintained in these relationships.
  • Fully appreciating and loving our own bodies is limited by our socialized fears of homosexuality.”

We also discussed in detail What is Heterosexual privilege?

Privilege is the overall unearned advantages and rights that systematically empower certain groups over others. Heterosexual privileges are the benefits gained automatically by being heterosexual that are denied to homosexuals. It can also be the benefits an LGBT person gains by claiming heterosexual identity and denying homosexual / transgender identity.

We closed the workshop with the beginnings of what we can do next specifically as a congregation.  I posed this as a group discussion:

Group Discussion:  How can I contribute to a Homophobia/Heterosexism free environment? What would we need to do as a congregation to create a heterosexism free environment?

The workshop participants discussed this by also including what they are currently doing that helps create a heterosexism free environment. Such as the two bathrooms in their building are not gender designated but open to all.

I used the following to highlight areas that might not have been mentioned:

· Be non-judgmental. Sexual orientation and gender identity is not something to be judgmental of or ashamed about. Be supportive and open to listen to friends no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity.

· Remember that it is not possible to assume someone’s sexual orientation based on what you perceive it to be. Assuming that everyone is heterosexual “unless you know otherwise” or assuming someone who is “acting gay” is homosexual puts people into specific roles that create certain stereotypes about people. It can be hurtful to assume one’s sexual orientation.

· Engage in inclusive practices. Create work, study and living environments in which gender and sexual diversity are included, modeled and valued.

· Be mindful of the language you use with others. One of the main ways heterosexism thrives is through language. Saying things such as “that shirt is gay” or “that guy throws like a girl” could be offensive to others. Use words that are gender inclusive like partner instead of wife, boyfriend, etc.

Speak up against teasing, harassing, slurs, comments that you witness against those who do not fit in with gender roles or heterosexual characteristics. Silence condones and encourages such behaviors.

· Educate yourself. If there are things you don’t know or understand about LGBQ issues, do some research, ask questions or contact a group that deals with these issues.

 Source: GenEq is a department within Campus Life & Leadership, http://cll.berkeley.edu Last updated 02/06/2008

The workshop went well. People seemed energized by the discussions and empowered to  begin to ensure a heterosexist free environment. If you would like me to present this workshop to your congregation please feel free to contact me. It will be an evolving piece of work.  It was clear that this was only the beginning of a deeper and broader conversation to be had within this congregation.   Blessings,

One Comment

  1. This was a wonderful and enlightening workshop! So thankful to UUCO for letting me sit in and to you for the presentation.

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