Silence on queer issues perpetuates heterosexism
Miller Library was decorated with rainbow colors during this year's Pride Week.
- Transgender surgeon speaks
- Students gather for Trans Day of Remembrance
- Film screening of "The Transformation"
A few years ago, a female student went to the Garrison Foster Health Center because she was not feeling well. In trying to determine the source of her illness, the nurse asked whether or not she was sexually active. The student said she was, and the nurse then declared that the girl needed to take a pregnancy test.
"No, I don't," she said.
"Yes, you do," the nurse replied.
The student said she knew she wasn't pregnant, but the nurse continued to insist that she take the pregnancy test. Finally, the girl told the nurse that she was gay; she was having sex with a girl and there was no risk of pregnancy.
Heteronormativity is the societal construction that defines heterosexuality as the normal or desired sexual orientation. This belief deems all other sexual preferences as "abnormal." Closely related to this concept is heterosexism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "discrimination or prejudice against homosexuals on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation."
As Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Brooke Campbell puts it, "Heterosexism is the extremely powerful ideology that penises and vaginas belong together."
"As an ideology," she says, "heterosexism sustains a system whereby rights and benefits (both tangible and intangible) accrue to folks who seem to fall in line with an illusory gender binary channeling penises toward vaginas and vice versa."
For Jess Acosta '11, "Heterosexism is the air we breathe and the water we swim in and the fabric of how everything we do and understand each other is portrayed. Every interaction that we have in our society, I believe, is structured around heteronormative and heterosexist relationships. Everything is coded in that language."
Acosta is on the steering committee of The Bridge, the College's gay-straight alliance.
Many people agree that the College is incredibly heteronormative. Everyone is considered straight until they 'out' themselves. Sexuality is rarely a campus-wide topic of discussion, and queer students on the Hill find the silence on the issue to be oppressive.
Ruth Doherty '10 comes from Maryland, where she sensed the quietness over homosexuality as a hostile silence. Here at the College, she says that the silence is an accepting silence; most people are gay-friendly. However, she points out, given the very nature of silence, it's an uncomfortable climate for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students. It was unclear at the outset that, for the most part, the campus is OK with homosexuality.
"People here are not bigots," Acosta says, "but I think that the silence is louder than some of the nasty things. I think that some people on this campus wish that some of the people who have homophobic thoughts would just say them instead of just being silent and reinforcing the silence. Because if the bigots would just shout, all of the people who are not narrow minded, who I think are a majority, would speak up and be like 'this isn't OK.'"
Many gay students have found circles of friends and small communities in which they feel at home with their sexuality'but the College as a whole does not provide that sense of comfort.
Both Doherty and Pat Adams '13, who is also on the steering committee of The Bridge, are members of the crew team. They say that they have found the crew team to be a very accepting community.
"Me being out and on the crew team has not been an issue at all; it's been great, actually. But before I cleared [my sexuality] up, the assumption [that I was straight] was still there," Adams says.
"Colby is a very tolerant student body, but not very welcoming," Adams says.
However, Acosta points out that, "tolerance...is the most dirty word in the English language'.You tolerate herpes, you tolerate illness, you don't tolerate a fellow human being. To say 'I have to tolerate you' implies that there is something wrong with me. It's very sick in the way that it characterizes other people, and I don't think we should settle on that."
Lisa Arellano, assistant professor of American Studies and WGSS, says, "Heternormativity is the logic embedded everywhere'.Normativity is about everything. It's about who even gets to be. If you're not normative, often the very idea of your humanity is questioned."
Doherty provides a good example of how pervasive heterosexism is. If you are straight and you don't think that heterosexism is a big deal, she says, try pulling out a piece of gay literature like a magazine or a book and leaving it out in a public space. When people ask you about it, tell them what it is and see how you feel. And then imagine how you would feel if you had to face that every day. That, she says, is how gay people feel all the time.
When Question One passed in November, repealing the gays' rights to marriage, no campus-wide discussions were organized, the Hill was silent. Arellano says, "Most intellectuals on queer things understand that marriage is complicated. That being said, the ballot in November was personally painful for queer people in a way that it wasn't for straight people, I think. Most queer people that I know just felt rightly and accurately as if they'd been kicked in the gut. It just sucks to be hated on. I don't really know what else to say. And I don't think that straight people feel it in the same way. That's heterosexism--the extent to which straight people didn't get how painful that day was, that they didn't stop by to [talk]. That's a moment when many of us felt the difference for what it's like to live as a queer person."
One way to be more conscious of heterosexism is to be careful about the language you use. Heather Pratt '11 is a WGSS major, and she spends a lot of time talking about the concept of heterosexism and heteronormativity. She says that as a heterosexual she has a privileged position in society. She tries not to assume heterosexuality when she is talking with her peers by using gender-neutral language. For example, asking a girl if she is dating anyone, rather than asking if she has a boyfriend, allows room for differences and expresses that you are open to different sexual orientations.
Also, Acosta says, don't stare if you see a homosexual couple. "I feel like I'm a zoo animal sometimes. I can't hold hands with another woman without people staring at me like I'm a large hippopotamus at the zoo or something."
"Sexual diversity is as complex and as rich and as variant as cultural or racial or ethnic diversity," she says. "True inclusiveness is that you really allow people to be themselves and to do what lets them feel fulfilled."
"If we can make the world safe for bright colors and men in thongs, we can make the world safe for anybody."