Sexual orientation and gender identity play a large role in the social stratification structure of the United States. Because we operate under a system of patriarchy, typical gender roles are expected to be kept firmly in place to continue male dominance. Homosexuals, bisexuals, and people who do not fit the gender norm, i.e. transgender and bigender people, upset the dominance of patriarchy. Therefore, from birth we are taught that we are either male or female and must look and act in masculine or feminine ways. We are also taught, both explicitly and through subtle socialization, that the natural, normal and expected sexual orientation is heterosexual. Upholding these expectations perpetuates heterosexual privilege, and, ultimately, male dominance.
To deconstruct the ties between sexual orientation, gender norms and male dominance, let us first examine what patriarchy is. Patriarchy is a social structure in which men have and maintain the dominant power. This means that men, overall, have the highest-paying and most powerful decision-making jobs. They make most of the governmental and business decisions within the country. They have significantly more representation than do women in the most powerful and prestigious social institutions: government, business, law, medicine (as doctors and surgeons), and higher education. (Johnson, 2006; 28) There is an institutional wage inequality between men and women, with women making about 70% of men’s wages on average for the same work. A by-product of this structure is that women are often relegated to being stay-at-home wives and mothers, or working in fields which make less money and have lower social status, such as childcare, elementary school teaching, or secretarial work. (Johnson, 2006; 49) But patriarchy goes beyond what kinds of jobs people have. A male-dominated society also means that men feel they have power or authority over women in personal situations as well as the workplace. This can feed into many disadvantages for women, from rape culture in which sexual violence is considered the right of men and/or the fault of women, to men dominating conversations because they have been socialized to believe that what they have to say is more valuable than anything a woman could contribute. (Johnson, 2006; 28)
So, how do gender identity and sexual orientation play into all of this? Typical gender roles are an essential aspect of maintaining the status quo as it is. Because males are the ones with the power in society, masculinity is defined as being physically strong, authoritative, competitive, emotionally distant, and independent. Femininity, on the other hand, is associated with being physically attractive, physically weak, demure, subservient, emotional, nurturing, and dependent. These roles are essential for upholding patriarchy. So our gender roles are taught to us from birth. Social standards say that sex and gender always must match up: people with male anatomy must be male in gender identity and gender role, and people with female anatomy must be female in gender identity and gender role. (Wolf, 2008) Being male and being female is so much more than whether a person has testicles or ovaries. Our expectations are narrowly defined, from what type of clothes we should wear to whether we should be a Senator or a stay-at-home parent.
However, gender identity is not as directly related to anatomical sex as society would like us to believe. The term “genderqueer” can be used as a blanket term for those who do not fit the male-female gender binary. Transgender people typically identify themselves as the opposite gender to which their sex indicates. There are also a range of other gender possibilities, including bigender, agender, and genderfluid. Bigender people feel that they are two separate genders, and can often switch between both. Agender people do not identify with a certain gender or feel they are gender-neutral. Genderfluid people feel that they can move across the gender spectrum. (Beemyn, 2008) Genderqueer individuals include but are not limited to all of the above categories. All of these are valid ways of being, but they are not accepted or encouraged in the United States. Being either male or female both anatomically and in terms of gender identity is the only acceptable or “normal” option.
Beyond genderqueer individuals, some people simply do not fulfill their gender expectations. It is entirely possible to identify fully as one’s anatomical sex and still not comply with the gender norm. For example, a woman is born with female anatomy and she considers herself a female. However, she prefers to wear men’s clothing, has a short haircut, and is a construction worker. She does not identify herself as being male, but because her appearance preferences and occupation are associated with men, she is not seen to measure up as a “real woman.” There are negative sanctions for not complying with gender standards. These can range from social exclusion to hate crimes. The punishments are more severe for anatomical males who violate the gender norm. Anatomical males who do not identify as men, or who do identify as men but prefer “feminine” styles of dress or personal interests, are considered a threat to masculinity and therefore to male dominance.
One of the most common assumptions about gender identity and sexual orientation is that those who do not comply with gender norms are homosexual. (Wolf, 2008) A man who likes to wear pink and purple clothing and is interested in interior design or fashion, for example, is assumed to be gay. However, that he likes fashion and wears pink tells us nothing about who is attracted to. These assumptions play off of stereotypes about LGBTQ people and cater to homophobia in creating an “us” and “them” distinction which is supposed to be clearly recognizable. The view of sexual orientation in the United States is that everyone is heterosexual unless they explicitly state otherwise, or unless they use “coding” such as style of dress. This assumption is a product both of heterosexism and heteronormativity. Heterosexism is the institutional and ideological domination of heterosexuality as a fundamental element of the structure of patriarchy (Wolf, 2008). Heterosexism is the basis for discrimination against LGBTQ people and the privileges enjoyed by heterosexuals. Heteronormativity, similarly, is the pervasive cultural norm of heterosexuality as the natural and normal sexual orientation, and its promotion in all forms of social institutions and media.
Heterosexism is part of the system of patriarchy. In a heterosexist society, it is assumed that the natural order of things is for men and women to be together in romantic, sexual and marital relationships. Anything other than male-female relationships is considered unnatural and immoral. This maintains patriarchy by keeping men and women in their prescribed gender roles. Homosexuality and same-sex relationships disrupt the hierarchy of the genders by breaking down traditional gender roles. In a same-sex relationship, there is not the patriarchal element of a man having authority over and possession of a woman. This is not to say, of course, that every heterosexual relationship follows a typical gender role pattern or that every homosexual relationship does not. It is simply to say that the mere concept of same-sex relationships threatens the basis of patriarchy because the gender roles necessary for the dominance of men to continue are disrupted. If we become more open to different types of relationships, we will see more possibilities for men, women, and genderqueer people than the heterosexist model which we have been taught. This is a threat to patriarchy, and so those who step outside the gender and sexual orientation norm are deemed unnatural and immoral. Heterosexism forces us to believe that it is only natural and normal to be heterosexual, which in turn forces the belief that male dominance is only natural and normal.
Heterosexism can manifest itself in many ways. One major way that heterosexism operates in US society is with the denial of various rights and protections for LGBTQ people under law. Because same-sex couples cannot be married under federal law, they miss out on many rights and privileges which are afforded to heterosexual married couples, even if they are legally married in their state, due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). There are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status, and because DOMA restricts federal recognition of marriage to opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples are denied all of these. Such rights and privileges include social security benefits, tax benefits, and immigration procedures which are limited to married opposite-sex couples. (Human Rights Campaign) Until 2011, the United States military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibited gay, lesbian, and bisexual military members from being open about their sexual orientation, or else they would be discharged from the military. Until 2013, the Violence Against Women Act did not extend protections to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. Gay and lesbian couples are discriminated against for housing. People can be legally fired for their sexual orientation in 29 states, and for being transgender in 34. (Margolin, 2013) Revealing one’s sexual orientation in the workplace can lead to discrimination and harassment. In social settings, not being heterosexual can result in anything from inappropriate questions and comments, to exclusion, to verbal or physical harassment and assault. In addition, because heterosexuality is the pervasive cultural norm, LGBTQ people do not have adequate or proportionate representation in government, business, or the media.
All of these factors contribute to a heterosexist and sexist society. We cannot separate heterosexism from sexism; they are deeply intertwined. The continuation of patriarchy depends on the continuation of heterosexist ideals, and vice versa. It is typical in the United States for the oppression of various groups to be compartmentalized and marginalized. This is to say, first, that issues of oppression for one group are seen as separate from issues of all groups; and second, that the oppression of non-dominant groups is made to seem like a coincidental collection of trivial, individual issues rather than deliberate institutional inequalities. An understanding of heterosexism and gender norms as an essential element of patriarchy requires an understanding of intersectionality within social stratification. This means that the issues of all groups interact with one another, leading to varying degrees of privilege and oppression for different group members and perpetuating all systems of inequality. We cannot separate the issues of LGBTQ people from the issues of women, nor the issues of people of color from those of LGBTQ people, nor the issues of any non-dominant group from the issues of human beings as a whole. To separate people into groups and deem them important, normal, and deserving of rights or unimportant, abnormal, and not deserving of rights hurts not only the people in the latter groups but society as a whole. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (King, 1963)
Beemyn, Brett Genny (2005). Genderqueer. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture.
Johnson, Allan G. (2006) Privilege, Power, and Difference: Second Edition. McGraw-Hill: New York.
King, Martin Luther Jr. (1963) Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Margolin, Emma (2013). The Fight for ENDA: Think You Can’t Be Fired For Being Gay? Think Again. MSNBC.
Wolf, S. Rowan (2008). Dialectic of Social Inequality.