Heterosexual Privilege in America
This is the second TNG submission of J. Clarence Flanders.
When I was a sophomore in college I took a course called WGS 111 Women, History, and Culture, which was taught by my academic advisor and mentor, Prof. Michele Plott–who joked the first day of that class that while the course was an introductory course we would be taken on a level 400 work load, which turned out to be true. It was a fascinating course were we covered a wide rage of material from the early days of the Suffrage Movement to contemporary issues that effect women in America and around the world. It was in this course where I was first introduced to Peggy McIntosh’s essay on privilege, and as with most epiphanies I was never the same after I read it and fully understood what it met.
I was reluctant, defensive, and frustrated with what McIntosh was saying initially. When I first read White Privilege and Male Privilege my immediate impression of McIntosh was that she was a self-righteous holier than thou White woman preaching down to fellow Whites and other minorities about how bad White people were. In hindsight I believe my initial reluctance to accept an iota of what McIntosh was saying was an internalized reflex based on my own insistence to believe that we as a society had moved on altogether from the days of Jim Crow and the nightmarish tales of the deep South and soft-prejudice of the North.
Of course it can not be denied that we are much better now; however, what McIntosh was trying to articulate was that there were instances in our society were we allowed privilege, and thus a form of racism and sexism, to remain unchallenged and in some cases perpetuate it.
For whatever reason we are bred and indoctrinated into thinking that we live in the “happily ever after” phase of the issues that plagued the generation before us. Maybe because we would like to think that we are more ideal than the previous generation than we really are or that we like it the way things are and thus convince ourselves that this is how it should be. Or maybe both? In any event what McIntosh aimed to do was alert us that the fight was not over and that there was still a lot of work to do.
McIntosh described privilege has “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that those who benefited from the privilege had no matter what even if they did not want them. She did not think that all the privileges were necessarily bad things, except that they were things that only certain people had; she argued that we should work towards the day that everyone had some of these privileges, for example the privilege to open any newspaper and see someone from your community presented in a positive way or the privilege of never having to be asked to speak for your entire community.
As I began to process what McIntosh wrote I realized that as a gay person I lived in a heterosexual society, I was a stranger in a place I was supposed to call home, in a world where people who were straight benefited from numerous invisible privileges that I, as a gay person, did not. Just as how I as man who benefited from Male Privilege rarely thought about being mugged and raped walking home at night alone in Boston unlike my female friends, many of my straight friends never thought about the possibility of being assaulted when they were in public on a date because of their sexuality. Whereas I would tailor my behavior just to be safe, my straight friend knew that wherever they went they would be at the very least tolerated if not accepted.
It is probably important here that I stop and emphasize the difference between homophobia and heterosexual privilege, as the two are drastically different. Homophobia can be characterized as acts or thoughts that specifically target gay people in the form of discrimination, hate, and prejudice, such as anti-gay laws, gay bashing, or name-calling; whereas heterosexual privilege are everyday experiences that straight people benefit from with no effort on their part, and often unconsciously.
Homophobic actions are arguably much easier to deal with it, as it can simply be dealt with through passing laws ensuring equal protection and following through with it; heterosexual privilege on the other hand is something that is interwoven into the society, to the point that we have to unwind it if we ever wish to put the privilege to rest.
The vast majority of us grew up thinking and often being told that we would grow up to be like Mommy or Daddy: heterosexual parents that raised our own families corresponding to our assigned gender-roles; and so from an early age we are thought to think in such stark terms. Clearly that does not always happen; however, our society still continues to only perpetuate the notion that heterosexual is the fate that awaits us all, and as a result gay people are then grouped together as the proverbial “other”, the abnormal, and the exception. This ultimately fuels much of our fear of things foreign and unknown.
McIntosh argued that the first step in this process was to admit that these privileges existed in the first place, and in 1988 she published her list of examples of White Privilege that she saw in her everyday life. They ranged from the topics that were being covered in the classroom to never having to hypothesize that the reason she or any other White person was being pulled over was because of their ethnicity.
I decided for no reason other than a journey in intellectual curiosity to compile my own list of heterosexual privileges that I witnessed in my everyday life. Initially the list was rather short; however, I circulated it through my group of friends, co-workers, and Prof. Plott, and also did some searches on-line and the list grew. Eventually the list grew to fifty-two separate and distinct examples of heterosexual privilege.
1. I can play a gay or straight fictional character on television or film without a negative response from viewers.
2. I feel comfortable holding hands with my partner in public.
3. As a child growing up I am presented with figures of my orientation, in cartoons, children’s book, and family movies.
4. As a child it is assumed that I will grow up to be heterosexual (Homosexuals must “become” gay and “come out of the closet”).
5. When it comes to information about safer sex and sexual health I do not have great difficulty finding that information, particularly in an educational setting.
6. I can feel comfortable talking about my sexual practices with the majority of my peers.
7. Growing up I have an ample supply of role models I can look up to.
8. Even if I am part of a social minority group (specifically ethnic or religious) I will have role models of my orientation to look up to.
9. My orientation is accepted by all mainstream religions and all governments.
10. My relationship is recognized and rewarded by all mainstream religions and governments.
11. I can find adult entertainment on television for me to watch which features my orientation.
12. My assumed sexual practices as a heterosexual are accepted by society.
13. I don’t have trouble finding people like me to hang-out with.
14. Whenever someone meets me in public they assume I am heterosexual.
15. If am I ever brought up in the media there is never an issue with my orientation.
16. Historical figures of my orientation never have their orientation neglected, omitted, or disputed from their historical legacy.
17. My heterosexuality is not an aspect of my life, or a lifestyle, just a fact about myself.
18. Whenever I go out in public I can be sure that I am not the only person of my orientation.
19. I will not feel stupid if I assume someone is of my orientation, even if they are not.
20. In public I feel safe as the majority.
21. I can assume that I will not be assaulted because of my sexuality.
22. People will not make fun or ridicule me because of my sexual orientation.
23. I know that when the mainstream media makes reference to men or women, they are referring to men and women of my orientation, unless specifically mentioned as homosexual men and women.
24. I can turn on the television or open the pages of any mainstream newspaper and see my orientation represented in a positive light.
25. I know when people of my orientation are rewarded it is not because of their sexual orientation.
26. I can be sure that children of my orientation will be given curricular materials of their orientation.
27. I can be sure people of my orientation do not have to worry about heterophobia in society.
28. I know that children and teens of my orientation will have teachers that will be tolerable and accepting of their orientation, as well as employers, doctors, etc.
29. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my orientation.
30. I am not expected to be a representation of my orientation.
31. If I declare that there is sexual orientation prejudicial situation at hand my orientation will lend me more creditability than a person of one of the other orientations.
32. I can choose to ignore the writings or materials of people of other sexual orientations, and there be no negative consequences.
33. I can worry about homophobia and not be seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
34. If my day, week, or year is going badly I don’t have to wonder if it is so because of issues relating to my orientation.
35. I can think over many options: social, political, imaginative, or professional, without wondering whether or not a person of my orientation will be accepted, or even allowed.
36. I can be open about my sexuality on the Internet (Myspace, Facebook, or other social networking sites; or other things online) and not worry about any possible repercussions.
37. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical assistance my orientation will not work against me.
38. I will never experience of social rejection, such as a fraternity, social club, or family, because of my orientation.
39. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to reflect my orientation, in a positive light.
40. I can safely display my affection for my partner or openly speak about my sexual orientation wherever I travel.
41. I don’t have to tailor my travel plans to consider my orientation.
42. My orientation is not topic or discussion for politicians.
43. I will never have to specifically seek out heterosexual establishments to be around others like me.
44. I will never have my heterosexuality used for a reason not to feel comfortable living with me, being on an athletic team, or being assigned to the same group project for a class assignment.
45. I will never have to think about how my orientation will affect me while I am in school.
46. I do not have to explain how or why I am heterosexual, or when I realized that I was.
47. I can display photos of my partners on my desk without fear or embarrassment.
48. People do not assume that I am experienced in sex, because of my sexual orientation.
49. People do not ask me why I made my choice to be public about my sexual orientation.
50. I am not accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation; and thus a potential danger to others.
51. I did not grow up with games that attack my sexual orientation (i.e., Fag Tag or Smear the Queer).
52. I am never asked to speak for everyone who is heterosexual.
After I had compiled them all together I realized two things: (1) the monumental challenge before us, (2) and the leaps and bounds that we have made already. Many of these privileges (#1, #3, #5, #7, #10 in particular) are being broken down as gay people become more integrated into the main fabric of our society. There is still clearly much work to be done; however, the fact that we can see progress being made is an indicator that we are getting there.
I would prefix the list underscoring the point that much of this is geographic, as those of us in more progressive areas might live in an area where heterosexual privilege is not as pronounced in our immediate environment, whereas it might be different for others in more socially conservative areas of the country/world. This of course underscores the fact that as gay people how well we are situated in any particular environment is not as akin to how heterosexual people are situated across the country/world.
Tackling this privilege in our society is tremendously difficult, because it requires those that benefit from the privilege not only to accept that it exists but also actively seek to bring it down; merely admitting that it does exists only goes so far, but stops short of actually solving the problem. For those that benefit from the privilege dismantling the system as is it might come across as against their best interest, because currently they are the benefactors of the system as is.
Our challenge therefore is to articulate why we would all be better off in a society where the ‘good’ privileges are shared amongst everyone, gay, straight, male, female, etc; and not just a select group, and the bad ones removed altogether.
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