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Heterosexism: The Invisible Menace
Sometimes, when I see a man and a woman walking down the street, holding hands and smiling, several thoughts run through my mind, including:
"GET A [INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE] ROOM!!!"
"FOR [INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE] SAKE, STOP THROWING YOUR RELATIONSHIP IN OUR FACES!!!"
Or, I will entertain the idea of berating the couple on their lifestyle choice.
Why such an extreme reaction, you ask? Because I know that if a gay or lesbian couple walked down the street, they would be harassed or humiliated. Because I know that women alone in public, REGARDLESS OF HOW THEY ARE DRESSED, will be taunted by men who could care less about feminism or basic human dignity. Because I know that no matter how dysfunctional or abusive a heterosexual relationship is, it will still rank above a healthy same-sex relationship or a happily single person.
My aversion to heterosexual couples and their public displays of affection has to do with my antagonism toward heterosexism. The fact that no one questions heterosexuality the way homosexuality or other sexualities are questioned pisses me off. The fact that one can be considered deviant for being anything other than straight and then be harassed for it is distressing. The knowledge that there are laws on the books to keep gays from getting married, all to preserve "the sanctity of marriage", is offensive and unsettling. I could name thousands of reasons why heterosexism sucks, but this essay would probably turn into a book, and in no way am I qualified to handle such a subject in such a long form (though I will come pretty close to doing so with this essay).
Before I go any further, I would like to say that there was a time when I didn't question heterosexuality. Though I felt acute discomfort at the idea of a relationship with a "man", I still went along with the idea that I would get married to one. It was inevitable that I would find a "man", get married, have kids, and shut the fuck up for the rest of my life. I wasn't then, nor am I now, homophobic; I just didn't question the status quo.
However, as with everything else, I woke up. And when I woke up, I got angry. It wasn't just going through verbal abuse from some drunken asshole my mother was with that made me angry. It was watching my mother coddle him and excuse his fucked up behavior. It was knowing that, even if a man was an abusive bastard and a raging alcoholic, a relationship with him was still worth more and had more value in society than being alone or cultivation nurturing relationships -- both sexual and not -- with other women. And, finally, it was knowing that I had no value in society without a dick in me or attached to me. In other words, I only had value as a woman if I was with a man or was born a man in the first place.
As with a lot of things in my life, I didn't have the words back then but I have the words now, and I refuse to shut the fuck up. Heterosexism is an invisible but powerful form of oppression that is hard to pin down and challenge because it is accepted and unquestioned. Unlike other forms of oppression (racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, etc.), heterosexism isn't questioned or challenged at every opportunity. And it should be. It really should be.
What is Heterosexism and Why Is It Important in the First Place?
What is heterosexism in the first place? Jessica Valenti provides a working definition of it in her book Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters:
"...just a quick explanation: "Heterosexism creates the climate for homophobia with the assumption that the world is and must be heterosexual and its display of power and privilege as the norm."
In other words, when you see couples in magazines or TV shows, they're almost always going to be straight. And if they're not straight, a big deal is made out of said couple's being gay. It's not just posited as the norm. When a gay couple kisses in the street, or holds hands, they're rubbing the gay in our faces, but when straight couples do it, it's cool. I'd say that heterosexism is far more insidious than homophobia - because it's more accepted." (p. 233)
Just for clarity's sake, the American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines "homophobia" as:
"Fear or contempt for lesbians and gay men."
With all definitions being laid out, let me say this: heterosexism and homophobia are two different things, but the intent behind both is the same. Neither can exist in separate spheres of influence, but they work together and feed off of one another. Heterosexism sets the stage for homophobia by establishing heterosexuality as the norm and justifying "fear or contempt: of members of the LGBT community. Homophobia, and the hate crimes and harassment that follow in its wake, works in conjunction with heterosexism in that it keeps the closet door closed. For example, if a gay man or lesbian is attacked, then it's their own fault; if they had been straight or had remained in the closet, then they wouldn't have been attacked in the first place.
Now, if heterosexism is so problematic, then why aren't more people talking about it, in the same way folks speak out about racism and misogyny? One answer may come from the introduction to Patricia Hill Collin's work, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. In the following quote, Collins briefly ties racism to heterosexism, or at least relates one to the other:
"Of race, class, gender, and sexuality as systems of oppression, for many people, heterosexism remains the most difficult to understand and, in many cases, to even see as a system of oppression. The approach taken here conceptualizes heterosexism as a system of power that suppresses heterosexual and homosexual African American men and women in ways that foster Black subordination." (p. 19)
Heterosexism isn't as obvious a form of oppression as anti-Semitism or misogyny, so no one really sees a problem with it nor are they aware that heterosexism can be problematic. Unless, of course, you find yourself on the margins of heterosexism's narrow definition. Collins proposes that heterosexism harms both homosexuals and heterosexuals, maybe not in equal measure but they are harmed just the same. Obviously, I don't agree that it harms heterosexuals as much as queer folks, but that's just me. Collins also proposes that there is significant harm done to the Black community due to heterosexism. this later point I both disagree with and agree with, but the reason why comes later in this piece.
Another reason to consider heterosexism oppression and more than a little problematic has to do with bias. In Black Sexual Politics, Collins explains how the assumption of heterosexuality warps research and wreaks havoc on the minds of tweens, teenagers, and young adults who are trying to form their sexual identity:
"In essence, heterosexism and its accompanying assumptions of heterosexuality operate as hegemonic or taken-for-granted ideology that has influenced research of human sexuality. Societal norms that install heterosexuality as the only way to be normal still hold sway. For example, the term sexuality itself is used so synonymously with heterosexuality that schools, churches, and other social institutions treat heterosexuality as natural, normal, and inevitable. ...
...the checkered pattern of research on human sexuality offers a good case for how heterosexism operates as a system of power that negatively affects straight and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students alike. Because adolescents of all sexual orientations are in the process of forming sexual identities, they are especially affected by heterosexism." (p. 37-38)
Science and research are areas where bias should be acknowledged and taken into consideration. The fact that bias regarding heterosexuality, the idea that heterosexuality is normal and that everyone should be involved in it, influences research in human sexuality in general, and allows researchers to neglect the spectrum that is human sexuality. All are affected when researchers focus only on heterosexuality or allows heterosexism to affect how they read research or understand it. When adolescents learn of research, either through pop culture or distorted through other forms of media, the effects can be disastrous. If you want to know why bullying is suddenly such a problem, you can blame at least some of it on heterosexism. Children and teens are only doing what heterosexism demands, which is to police those peers who fall outside of the boundaries of heterosexuality.
Heterosexism is problematic, despite how covert it is. Alone, heterosexism is bad; however, when combined with other forms of oppression, heterosexism can be so much worse. In terms of research that concerns sexuality, heterosexism creates a bias that goes unquestioned. If it is assumed that everyone is heterosexual; that heterosexuality is normal; or, that sexuality and heterosexuality are one and the same, sexuality cannot be studied or analyzed with the fullness that it deserves, and those who fall outside the boundaries of heterosexuality are shut out or never heard from at all.
What Happens When Heterosexism Combines with Another Form of Oppression, Like Racism?
Speaking of heterosexism combining with other forms of oppression, when joined with racism, it can be quite disastrous. As with a lot of what I've written, I can't separate being black and being female. Therefore, I can't (and won't) talk about heterosexism without talking about how it affects black women. Of course, this is just my individual perspective.
But I digress...
In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Patricia Hill Collins draws parallels between how heterosexism and racism operate in terms of maintaining discrimination:
"Racism and heterosexism certainly converge on certain key points. for one, both use similar state-sanctioned institutional mechanisms to maintain racial and sexual hierarchies. For example, in the United States, racism and heterosexism both rely on segregating people as a mechanism of social control. For racism, segregation operates by using race as a visible marker of group membership that enables the state to relegate Black people to inferior schools, housing and jobs. ... For heterosexism, segregation is enforced by pressuring LGBT individuals to remain closeted and thus segregated from one another. ... For another, the state has played a very important role in sanctioning both forms of oppression. In support of racism, the state sanctioned laws that regulated where Black people could live, work, and attend schools. In support of heterosexism, the state maintained laws that refused to punish hate crimes against LGBT people, that failed to offer protection when LGBT people were stripped of jobs and children, that generally sent a message that LGBT people who came out of the closet did so at their own risk." (p. 95-96)
The quote is self-explanatory in that it clearly explains how heterosexism and racism use segregation to maintain discrimination and injustice. However, heterosexism and racism do differ on one key point. Racism requires that Black folks remain visible (and without protection, whether physical or legal), whereas heterosexism requires that LGBT people remain closeted and invisible. If anyone in either (or both) categories defy what is required of them, they will be punished accordingly. For example, if a Black person attempts to live and work quietly, racism will rear its ugly head eventually and punish them, whether for real crimes or perceived crimes. If an LGBT person decides to come out, they can expect to be punished accordingly and have that punishment justified via heterosexism. Though racism and heterosexism may look like two different forms of oppression, they operate in remarkably similar ways. And when they intersect, they can create so much more havoc for those affected.
Racism and heterosexism also operate in a similar fashion with regards to the most outdated, unnecessary, and shallow institutions still in existence: MARRIAGE. In Black Sexual Politics, Collins writes:
"Racism and heterosexism also share a common set of practices that are designed to discipline the population into accepting the status quo. These disciplinary practices can best be seen in the enormous amount of attention paid both by the state and organized religion to the institution of marriage. .. a series of laws have been passed all designed to regulate marriage. ... to encourage people to marry within their assigned race, numerous states passed laws banning interracial marriage. These restrictions lasted until the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967 that overturned state laws. The state has also passed laws designed to keep LGBT people from marrying. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman". In all of these cases, the state perceives that it has a compelling interest in disciplining the population to marry and marry the correct partners." (p. 96)
Marriage is an antiquated institution that should have been done away with decades ago. However, when making an argument against changing the definition of a legal union - to expand its meaning, to make it more inclusive - marriage and its "sanctity" provide a handy example. In other words, when people want to maintain the status quo, they cite how marriage will be destroyed to justify their archaic position. Racism and heterosexism were both used at different times to justify outlawing interracial and gay marriages respectively. Any alternative to the "one man and one woman" formula had to be restricted, destroyed, and challenged. The arguments against interracial and gay marriage seem to be similar to those against welfare. If marriage were to change (which it did in terms of race, and is gradually changing in terms of sexuality), undesirables will reap the benefits that were meant for one man and one woman, and no one else, just as welfare is viewed as helping those who are undeserving (mainly those who CAN'T FIND WORK).
Racism and heterosexism operate on a larger scale and influence, one that goes beyond how we view marriage. Collins states in Black Sexual Politics:
"Racism and heterosexism also manufacture ideologies that defend the status quo. When ideologies that defend racism and heterosexism become taken-for-granted and appear to be natural and inevitable, they become hegemonic. Few question them and the social hierarchies they defend." (p.96)
When unchallenged, racism and heterosexism become so much harder to fight. What's frightening is that it becomes acceptable to discriminate against Black folks or harass a gay man or lesbian. What's even more frightening is that "alternative" lifestyles become suspect in the faced of racism and heterosexism. A young Black man in college or a happily single women of a particular age (like those 25 and older) become threats to the social order and must also be suppressed in the same way that LGBT folks need to be suppressed.
Though racism and heterosexism maintain hierarchies, that doesn't mean that they can't be challenged. However, that challenge will not come from those within the acceptable margins of race and heterosexuality, as observed by Collins in Black Sexual Politics:
"In the United States, the assumption that racism and heterosexism constitute two separate systems of oppression masks how each relies upon the other for meaning. Because neither system of oppression makes sense without the other, racism and heterosexism might be better viewed as sharing one history with similar yet disparate effects on all Americans differentiated by race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality. People who are positioned at the margins of both systems and who are harmed by both typically raise questions about the intersections of racism and heterosexism much earlier and/or more forcefully than those people who are in positions of privilege. In the case of intersections of racism and heterosexism, Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people were among the first to question how racism and heterosexism are interconnected. As African American LGBT people point out, assuming that all Black people are heterosexual and that all LGBT people are white distorts the experiences of LGBT black people. Moreover, such comparisons misread the significance of ideas about sexuality to racism and race to heterosexism." (p. 88)
Oppressions may sometimes operate separately, but they generally intersect at some point and become that much more problematic and destructive. For example, Black women must deal with racism and sexism at the same time; they can't afford to deal with oppressions separately. It's called intersectionality, and for more on the subject refer to the works of Kimerberle Crenshaw. This quote also reveals that challenges to racism and heterosexism don't come from those with privilege. Challenges to both systems come from those most harmed by these systems. Not only do racism and heterosexism maintain discrimination, but it leads people to make assumptions about the groups most harmed by these two systems. To assume that all Black folks are straight and all LGBT folks are White, is: 1.) Inaccurate and ignorant; and 2.) Makes the announcement of a Black man or woman as queer that much more powerful.
Racism and heterosexism are believed to operate separately, but have more in common that one might expect. Both systems of oppression abuse the power of the state to uphold and justify discrimination, passing and upholding laws that legalize segregation and narrows the definition of marriage. The effects of heterosexism when combined with other forms of oppression (in this case, racism) are devastating, proving just how dangerous heterosexism is.
How Does Heterosexism Operate Within The Black Community?
If you think heterosexism is awful when combined with racism, you should see how horrible heterosexism is when combined with patriarchy, especially within the Black community.
When it comes to family structure, the Black community is still attached to a partriarchal model, instead of realizing that families can come in different configurations (i.e., single parent, same-sex partnerships, multi-generational, etc.) that are healthier than a patriarchal household. In "Challenging Sexism in Black Life", an essay from the collection Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks reveals the pitfalls of living in patriarchal families:
"Patriarchal families are not safe, constructive places for the development of identities and kinship ties free of the crippling weight of domination. Patriarchy is about domination. ... Even those black folks who continue to believe that the patriarchal family is the only "healthy" model are willing to acknowledge that homes characterized by male abuse of women and children are not more healthy than single-parent families where love abides. Unfortunately, these folks often refuse to see how widespread male domination and abuse is in he home or that patriarchal values promote the use of aggression and coercion." (p. 73, emphasis added)
Heterosexism undergirds a lot of oppression in this society, the most successful one being the one that it has with patriarchy. Heterosexism in this context assumes that a household headed by a man is much more acceptable. Families that fall outside of this model, even though they may be healthier, are unacceptable and denigrated, which is more than justified via heterosexism. Heterosexism justifies patriarchal families in that it assumes that every family is heterosexual, that on one in any family is LGBTQ or otherwise. Put another way, a family is born of one man and one woman, with the man as the dominant party. Heterosexism also promotes and rationalizes patriarchal values and the use of abuse to get what one wants. To be considered "manly" and "masculine", a man should be aggressive - as a matter of fact, HAS TO BE AGGRESSIVE. A woman, to be considered "feminine" must be passive. This aggressive and coercive man should also the head the family, demonstrating for the children the behavior necessary to be successful in this world. I don't have to display statistics or provide anecdotes to prove how harmful this all is.
Despite how harmful patriarchy is and how dangerous heterosexism is when added together with such an oppressive system, Black folks continue to hold onto the idea that a patriarchal family will redeem us. bell hooks notes in "Challenging Sexism in Black Life":
"Since the black men and women are not solving the dilemmas of black life by creating a strong black patriarchy, if many of us could stop clinging to the utopian belief that this is the "answer" to our problems we could all collectively begin to think about different models for social change in black life. Even at its best the patriarchal paradigm as a model for social organization undermines the unity of family and community. Reliance on a single male authority figure is dangerous because it creates a climate of autocracy where the politics of coercion (and that includes violence) are used to maintain authority." (p. 68)
This narrow solution to the problems affecting the Black community diverts attention from the actual solutions. Though excused by heterosexism, patriarchy is more harmful than helpful. Yes, a father can head a household but: a.) this doesn't solve the problems outside of the home such as institutionalized racism, rampant sexism, unchecked misogyny, and unacknowledged classism; and b.) how useful is he to the family if he is an abusive tyrant to the people under his roof? The emphasis on putting Black men at the head of Black families seems more of a ploy to help only (heterosexual, cisgendered) Black men and not the rest of the community. Once again, I don't have to use anecdotes or statistics to demonstrate how damaging this is, no matter how much it is justified by heterosexism.
Black folks still cling to the hope (or wish, or fantasy) that a patriarchal family will heal all of the pain that we have. And heterosexism justifies this hope in that it positions the heterosexual relationship as the only valuable relationship to have (no matter how dysfunctional), and the family that arises from such a union as the only viable and acceptable family structure. I know that I am repeating myself, but it's worth repeating: PATRIARCHAL FAMILIES DON'T SAVE ANYONE. bell hooks, again from "Challenging Sexism in Black Life", states:
"Connected to the utopian hope that the establishment of black patriarchy will heal our collective wounds is our persistent clinging to the trope of the "family" as the only site of redemption. ... The problem lies with the insistence that the redemptive family be patriarchal. It should be more than clear if not from black life then from the experience of white folks, documented in feminist writings, that the patriarchal family presents no model for liberation." (p. 71)
The family doesn't have to be, nor should it be exclusively, patriarchal to be redemptive. FULL STOP. The insistence that the family be patriarchal is troubling, especially coming from a community that never had the chance to have a father lead the family. As we all know, fairy tales aren't real and the fairy tale of the patriarchal family as the only solution to problems within the Black community is the most dangerous fairy tale ever. Even White people have turned away from the patriarchal family structure. for a community that strives to keep up with their White counterparts (whether we want to or not), that's got to mean something.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, despite the stubborn clinging to both patriarchy and the heterosexist notions that underlie it. Patricia Hill Collins uncovers the challenges that arose from within the Black community with regard to sexuality in her book, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism:
"Until recently, questions of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, have been treated as crosscutting, divisive issues within antiracist African American politics. ... This suppression has been challenged from two directions. Black women, both heterosexual and lesbian, have criticized the sexual politics of African American communities that leave women vulnerable to single motherhood and sexual assault. Black feminist and womanist projects have challenged Black community norms of a sexual double standard that punishes women for behaviors in which men are equally culpable. Black gays and lesbians have also criticized these same sexual politics that deny their right to be fully accepted within churches, families, and other Black community organizations. Both groups of critics argue that ignoring the heterosexism that underpins Black patriarchy hinders the development of a progressive Black sexual politics." (p. 88)
The Black community has established its own set of double standards that operate to the detriment of Black women, whether gay or straight. Black gays and lesbians also had to confront heterosexism which causes them to be denigrated and locked within closets. Both groups point to the fact that heterosexism, though it might make one more respectable, does not allow the community to become more progressive in its struggle for equal rights.
And then there is the question of forming these families, the simple act of meeting a man in order to form a relationship from which a family will miraculously spring. In Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, co-authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., illustrate some of the difficulties faced by Black women in search of a husband:
"Unfortunately, Black women are dealing with a stacked deck. Because of the high rates of homicide, suicide, and imprisonment among African American men, the ration of Black adult heterosexual women to men is skewed, and much more dramatically than in the general population. Black women outnumber Black men roughly 19 to 17, and they live seven years longer on average. Moreover, more Black women than Black men are in the labor force, and there's evidence that unemployment and underemployment affect Black men's willingness to marry and stay wed." (p. 208-209)
With all of theses statistics standing in the way of a Black woman (and only Black women because relationships only consist of one person now) finding and keeping a relationship, I find it appalling that Black women are then expected to lower our standards in our search for love. There is no consideration given to staying single, especially when it comes to Black women. It's either be with a man - AND ONLY A MAN - or be ridiculed for your perceived sexual preference. Also, I find it disheartening that Black women can't find Black men to marry, and that Black men won't do more to make themselves more appealing as mates. In other words, and this has been said before, Black men and their issues are causing Black women and the rest of the community to suffer.
Yet and still, even with all of the questions of the Black patriarchy; the statistics that reveal what truly affects Black women's relationships; and, the challenges that have been made to the heterosexism that underlies all of this, it wasn't enough to save the life of Sakia Gunn. Patricia Hill Collins recounts what happened to this young woman, as well as what actually led to her death, in Black Sexual Politics:
"On May 11, 2003, a stranger killed fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn who, with four friends, was on her way home from New York's Greenwich Village. Sakia and her friends were waiting for the bus in Newark, New Jersey, when two men got out of a car, made sexual advances, and physically attacked them. The women fought back, and when Gunn told the men that she was a lesbian, one of them stabbed her in the chest. ...
She lacked the gendered protection provided by masculinity. Women who are perceived to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are routinely approached by men who feel entitled to harass and proposition them. Thus, Sakia and her friends share with all women the vulnerabilities that accrue to women who negotiate public space. ... Like African American girls and women, regardless of sexual orientation, they were seen as approachable. Race was a factor, but not in the framework of interracial race relations. Sakia and her friends wee African Americans, as were her attackers. ... But the immediate precipitating catalyst for the violence that took Sakia's life was her openness about her lesbianism. Here, homophobic violence was the prime factor. Her death illustrates how deeply entrenched homophobia can be among many African American men and women, in t his case, beliefs that resulted in an attack on a teenaged girl." (p. 114-115)
This was no interracial attack with a young Black woman attacked by a White man. This was intraracial, and a young Black woman was murdered by a young Black man. Sakia Gunn rejected the advances of her attackers and died for it. Don't be surprised if you've never heard this story in the news. Within the community, when Black women are attacked by Black men -- or raped, murdered, or harmed in any way - the community tends to close ranks, protecting the men and chastising the women for speaking out in the first place. Gunn's death is the end result of the combination of patriarchy and heterosexism.
Heterosexism, especially when married to patriarchy, has disastrous consequences, particularly within the Black community. Heterosexism validates the formation of the patriarchal family and the exclusion of LGBT folks and women from progressive action, as well as from being heard at all (this last statement will be explained more thoroughly in later sections). The death of Sakia Gunn is but one example of what can happen when heterosexism and patriarchy are allowed to operate without limits. The quest to keep Black women occupied with the idea of marriage - regardless of the statistics that say otherwise, that show the difficulties of finding a suitable Black man for a partner - is another example of heterosexism in action.
How Does Heterosexism Affect Men in General, and Black Men in Particular?
In answer to this question, if a man is straight, heterosexism doesn't pose any threat to him at all.
But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.
As a (relatively) young Black woman, I have always felt that men, especially Black men, would always be heavily favored over me. That a mother would prefer to have a son over a daughter, or that a relationship with a man would always be favored over being single or forming nurturing relationships (both sexual and not) with other women. I still believe this to be true, and I blame heterosexism for this fact.
As you can probably tell by now, I blame heterosexism for A LOT of things.
Why would I blame heterosexism? If heterosexual relationships are the norm (which is how they are presented and don't let anyone tell you any different), then as a woman, all I'm supposed to be concerned with is "men". If heterosexual relationships are the standard and the goal, then all I'm supposed to give a shit about is how to catch and keep a "man". This robs me of the chance to truly get to know myself and may (and has) caused me to abandon good friendships with other women that may be healthier for me. In other words, I'm supposed to abandon everything and everybody in pursuit of heterosexual relationships.
This kind of obsession spreads to the bedroom. I am expected to abandon my own needs and desires in favor of satisfying all of the desires of the "man" I'm sleeping with. I don't get to make demands; I'm supposed to derive all of my pleasure from giving him pleasure. Obviously, I refuse to participate in such garbage and would rather be tortured half to death and have bamboo shoots stuck underneath my finger - and toenails than submit and become some asshole's personal whore. Women are demanded to sacrifice masturbation within the confines of a relationship, the one thing that allows a woman to know what turns her on and what doesn't. In Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, Betty Dodson, Ph.D., states:
"Many women are afraid the suggestion of masturbation will make their partners feel sexually rejected, and women have traditionally been conditioned to protect the male ego." (p. 26)
In an effort to protect the male ego, women are forced to keep their mouths closed about what really turns them on. This kind of silence can bleed over into the way a woman is treated within the relationship outside of the bedroom (which I will comment on plenty in the next section). Men, on the other hand, can feel free to denigrate their female partner's body, clothing, hair, make-up, and sexual performance with no regard to how HER ego may suffer under such an onslaught. The choice seems to me to be that woman can die alone or die slowly in a relationship because she is hiding her feelings to protect his.
Heterosexism props up the male ego, as well as the sexual double standards that are still operating today, putting women at great disadvantage and risk. As Dodson notes in Sex for One:
"In spite of a sexual revolution, the Pill, and the women's movement, the sexual double standard is still alive and well. Men continue to have social approval to be sexually assertive, independent, and experienced, while women are expected to be sexually passive, dependent, and inexperienced. Fixed in nonsexuality and a supporting role, most women seek security rather than new experiences and sexual gratification." (p. 36)
A lot has changed, but so much more remains the same. Actually, I believe that time is moving in reverse, with more emphasis on women being submissive and passive, and less emphasis on women protecting themselves via birth control and a strong emphasis/insistence on condom use. This kind of standard forces women who are not normally passive to either suffer through name calling or become more passive to be more attractive to the opposite sex. Men, however, can be just as aggressive, assertive, and obnoxious as they wish, enjoying experiences (both sexual and not) that women are deprived of, giving them the upper had in relationships.
Heterosexism also positions women in only one of two places: the virgin or the whore. Besides respectability politics, nothing has torn me up more than this dichotomy, ever since I learned about it at the age of seventeen. And to know that men subscribe to this dichotomy, hoping to find a woman who can manage both (i.e. "a lady in the streets, cook in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom"), makes me even more skeptical of men as human beings capable of complex emotions. In short, you can't have complex emotions if you deny those same qualities to others. Let a woman, particularly a Black woman or other woman of color, make a similar demand of men and watch how quickly she is dismissed as high maintenance and impossible. Men don't have to deal with the balancing act of being sexy but not slutty. As Dodson writes in Sex for One:
"The most insidious part of this system is that we women end up accepting the male definition of "normal" female sexuality. We are taught to maintain the two sexual views of women - Madonna or Whore - by socially ostracizing all nonconforming women. When we put down masturbation and over displays of healthy female sexuality, we embellish our pedestals to become the next generation of the Keepers of Social Morality." (p. 37)
A report was just released that exposes this very thing and the fact that this kind of conditioning starts young. Men don't have to deal with the Madonna/Whore complex, buy they do get to define its parameters, as well as what is considered "normal" female sexuality. Men wouldn't stand for being placed into one of only two categories. The key sentiment in this quote is that women become complicit in this stupid game. I hate to say this, but women often uphold patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, putting women down who express their sexuality honestly. I should know; I used to be the kind of person who attacked other women. I am still in the process of unlearning this and placing my anger where it needs to be.
Men also benefit from heterosexism in terms of monogamy. Men aren't confined to monogamy, though they may complain bitterly that they are. As long as they don't sleep with other men, what they do outside of their relationship is perfectly acceptable, even understandable. And if he is cheating, the woman he is cheating on is probably at fault. When Betty Dodson conducted a bodysex workshop for men and asked how they felt about monogamy, they said the following:
"Most of the heterosexual men said they believed in monogamy, but during the discussion that followed, I discovered that none of them practiced it full time. When I asked how they would feel if their lovers and wives fooled around occasionally, only one man thought it would be fine. For him, monogamy or "faithfulness" was for insecure people, it had nothing to do with love. One of the gay men, George, thought monogamy was never meant for men; it was for the protection of women. I told him I thought it protected men. A monogamous wife not only ensured the paternity of his children, but she also had no chance to make sexual comparisons, which protected her husband from any feelings of inadequacy." (p. 112)
And I am fully expected to comply with this BULLSHIT. How demeaning.
Anyway, this quote says a lot about how heterosexism benefits men. There is the double standard: The men in this workshop believed in monogamy, didn't practice it, and would probably go murderously insane if they found out their partners had cheated. Then there is the male ego. Dodson hits the nail on the head when she stated that monogamy protected men more than women. It would probably kill a man to know that his lover, girlfriend, or wife had cheated with someone who was bigger and better than they are. Monogamy, to me, has nothing to do with insecurity, as stated by one of the men quoted. It has to do with keeping a promise to your partner to "forsake all others", if we want to get technical. It's a promise to your partner that you won't screw around on them. It's about keeping your word and making sure your actions match them. In other words, if you love someone, you don't cheat on them, NO MATTER HOW BORING YOU THINK THE SEX HAS GOTTEN! If you claim that there is no one else for you but the person you're with, then act like it. KEEP YOUR DICK IN YOUR PANTS! Oh, wait ... Men don't have to observe any of this.
Black men really benefit from heterosexism, as long as they are heterosexual. Because there appears to be so few suitable Black men available for marriage and relationships, they rarely have to change their sexist attitudes. The ball is in their court, no matter how much they claim and complain otherwise. In "Feminism: It's a Black Thing", from the collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks takes note of the wool that gets pulled over everyone's eyes in the presence of a successful Black man. All is not what it seems:
"There is no evidence that suggests patriarchal black males who are successful in the arena of work, who are not in prisons, who are not committing crimes on the street, are more humane in their relationships with black females or less powerful males than unsuccessful black males whom society deems dysfunctional and/or criminal. There is plenty of evidence to substantiate the reality that black men who have obtained class power, status, and privilege, like their white counterparts, often dominate females in assaultive coercive ways to maintain sexist power." (p. 92)
Just because a Black man has avoided the pitfalls of jail, homelessness, and criminality doesn't mean that he is less sexist or abusive. To search for a Black man with all the markers of success may lead to a relationship just as abusive and destructive as a relationship with a Black man without all of the trappings of triumph. Put another way, Black men can hide behind their achievements, pretending to be so progressive, while still visiting violence upon the women (yes, I said women) they are involved with.
Black men can also reject the writings of gay men, lesbians, and feminist writers and be considered more masculine for doing so. bell hooks takes note of this is in "Feminism: It's a Black Thing":
"Throughout the history of black male presence in the United States, masculine physical prowess has been one of the few arenas where they are perceived as heterosexuals. Negative representations of lesbians and gay men abound in black life, precisely because they create a context of fear and condemnation that closes off the possibility that black heterosexuals will study and learn from the critical thinking and writing of black homosexuals. Much of the compelling critique and challenge to black male engagement with sexist thinking, with patriarchy, exists primarily in the work of gay black men. If straight black men never seek this literature and/or repudiate it, they deprive themselves of life-affirming and life sustaining discussions of black masculinity. Homophobic thinking and action is a barrier that often prevents black males and females from choosing to learn about feminist thinking." (p. 92-93)
For a Black man to question the limits of masculinity takes a lot of courage and a willingness to learn about someone who is different from the rest of us. Black men rarely engage in such questioning and are rewarded for doing so by the systemic patriarchy that hangs over all of our heads. Black men don't have to engage in feminist thinking or critique either, which would require learning about the experiences of women within this society. And why should the challenge the status quo? Heterosexual Black men benefit from a system that puts them above gays, lesbians, and women. The world is theirs.
That last point may not have been clear, or as clear as I would like it to be. What I meant to say is that Black men, though persecuted in other ways, don't suffer under heterosexism (unless of course they identify as LGBT). Black men actually stand to benefit from such a system.
Okay. Moving on.
An example of Black men being persecuted and rewarded at the same time is rap music. People may condemn the lyrical content of rap music, but record sales tell a different story. Of course, that story has changed, but bell hooks explains this phenomenon in "Feminism: It's a Black Thing":
"The production and dissemination of rap music hat perpetuates sexist and/or misogynist thinking, that condones the assertion of male domination over females by any means necessary, is a site of cultural production where black males are alternately punished and rewarded for this conduct. ... Ultimately, the positive response to sexist and/or misogynist rap music (fame, wealthy) reinforces the reality that these attitudes and values will be rewarded in this society." (p. 93-94)
Of course I am aware of the whitewashing of hip-hop/rap in recent years. All of the racial implications that arise with white rappers emerging as headlining artists over their black counterparts is subject enough for another essay. What I am concerned with now is how rap music feeds into the feedback loop that is heterosexist thinking. Rap music is strongly heterosexist and Black man in this field (or any other form of entertainment) are rewarded for being pigs, demeaning gays and lesbians, and being disrespectful toward women. As a fan of rap music, I am often appalled at what I hear (and rarely am I shocked by anything anymore). It's the assertion of male power that is so prevalent in rap music that causes Black men to be both persecuted and rewarded within rap music. And yet, will all of the controversy created by rap music, nothing has really changed in terms of gender representation. Sure, there have been some notable changes, but nothing long-lasting.
Men don't suffer under heterosexism in the same way that women do. Because they are the ones to pursue and the ones to have a relationship with, all of the rules favor them and their desires. Though Black men are penalized in other areas and suffer tremendously under racism, if they're heterosexual, they benefit greatly under heterosexism. As I stated at the top of this section, I don't believe that men suffer all that much under heterosexism.
The Symbol for Female
How Does Heterosexism Affect Women in General, and Black Women in Particular?
Women feel the brunt of heterosexism, not men. As a woman, as a woman fast approaching thirty; and, as a Black woman, I feel the pressure to hurry up and start a family, preferably with a "man". My own feelings about relationships (i.e., that the pair should be equals; that violence of any kind, be it verbal or physical, is unacceptable, etc.) are irrelevant. The pressure to settle, to lower my standards for a partner, to avoid experimentation and follow the bullshit script set before me, is always present in the back of my mind. Especially as I watch friends, neighbors, and celebrities my age getting married. As a Black woman, I feel the strain much more keenly, as well as the stress of making myself into some more feminine (and, thus, acceptable) version of myself, despite the fact that I'm not. And, while maintaining an appropriately feminine style and carriage, I am also supposed to "hold it down", be "the rock" of my family, be the "strong Black woman" that is expected of me. In other words, as a Black woman, I once again feel the (ridiculous, unrealistic, unhealthy) imperative to work twice as hard only to receive half as much, not complain about any of it, and look good doing so.
I'm sure that women feel the same pressure I just described to varying degrees. In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Patricia Hill Collins details what it means to be an appropriately heterosexual woman:
"Being appropriately heterosexual constitutes another important benchmark of hegemonic femininity. In a context of male dominance, heterosexual men's access to women's bodies as sexual partners constitutes an important component of hegemonic femininity. Appropriately feminine women should be married to heterosexual male partners and dedicated to pleasing them. Women's actual sexual behavior within the sanctity of heterosexual marriage is less important than adhering to male-defined norms about who controls women's sexuality. Sex workers, women who control their own sexuality and who take money for sexual favors, and lesbians, women who reject heterosexual male partners, are judged as being less feminine women. When it comes to the male prerogative of access to women's bodies and sexuality, sex workers and lesbians both behave like men because they (and not men) control their own sexuality." (p. 197-198)
Women can abandon the idea that their sexuality is theirs to own and enjoy (or not) if they want to be considered appropriately heterosexual. Evidently, men (and ONLY MEN) are supposed to enjoy women's sexuality. Talk about heterosexism. Lesbians and sex workers are considered less feminine and desirable than women dedicated to pleasing men and men only. It's obvious that the idea of the prostitute and the idea of a woman having sex with another woman are more appealing than the reality. A woman who owns her sexuality FOR HERSELF is less attractive to the opposite sex. As I stated before, heterosexism is more concerned with heterosexual relationships, so men's desires and definitions are much more important than women's reality. A woman who steps outside of the role that has been assigned to her can expect to be silenced and ridiculed.
Black women don't fit this definition in a variety of ways. Black women are never taught to adhere to these standards. In her essay, "Challenging Sexism in Black Life", bell hooks explains why. On page seventy of the collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, hooks asserts:
"Most black females have not been socialized to be "women" in the traditional sexist sense - this is, to be weak and/or subordinate. Had we been socialized this way historically, most black communities and families would not have survived. Other traits were needed so that we could enter the workforce, head families, if need be act as providers and protectors. In an oppositional manner, black females learned these traits while also learning ways to be feminine, to act subordinate (not surprising many of us do not choose to be subordinate), depending on the social context. More than ever before, black females today are concerned with issues of femininity even though most of us cannot lead lives where our primary focus is on how we look, what we will wear, and how well we submit to male authority."
The well being of the household was much more important than how one looked and dressed. The fact that Black women were socialized to be tougher and assertive actually saved families and possibly the community. However, this no-nonsense socialization has made Black women undesirable, even to Black men. Now, Black women appear to be playing catch up, being advised to over-emphasize femininity to a dangerous degree. And the overabundance of books by Black men detailing how to catch a man (and the lack of a response to such literature) shows that the Black community supports this kind of feminization of Black women.
There is also the matter of catching a husband and upholding the archaic institution of marriage. In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins describes why marriage and family are so important in identifying an appropriately feminine and, thus, heterosexual woman:
"Another marker of hegemonic femininity concerns the significance of work and marriage in assessing income and wealthy. The higher the status of a woman, the less likely she is to work, and the more likely she is to be married and have access to income generating property. Her job is to run the family. Moreover, the behavioral norm of female submissiveness counsels married women to become mothers. Motherhood within family and male authority not only becomes another behavioral marker of whether a woman is appropriately submissive to male authority, it becomes essential to the economic survival of the heterosexual, nuclear family. Women may not earn salaries, but they produce legitimate heirs for the intergenerational transmission of property. There are definite class dimensions of hegemonic femininity - women should seek out good marriages that will provide them economic security. Therefore, women's true femininity remains contingent on their legally sanctioned relationship to men." (p. 198)
The use of marriage for financial security is as old as time, and it's nice to see that the Middle Ages didn't completely die away. There is also the hypocrisy of a woman using her vagina to gain financial security. How is sex work morally repugnant but marriage is "the right thing to do"? It amounts to the same thing doesn't it? Within the quote there is the suggestion that women should sacrifice producing their own income within the confines of marriage. This kind of action may put women in a dangerous situation. God forbid she ends up in an abusive and controlling marriage. How can she escape with no income of her own?
Black women defy this rule, too. In the same section of Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins explains how:
"Black women have had great difficulty "catching" wealthy men to marry, sharing their material assets, and passing on marital property to their children. Because the family structure of African Americans has diverged from social norms, achieving this benchmark of hegemonic femininity has been virtually impossible. The financial necessity that sent Black women to work outside the home since emancipation enabled various patterns of female authority and subordination to emerge within African American families. In essence, Black women were not financially subordinated within African American families and communities and, as a result, were deemed to be less feminine because they had to work. ... Because they were employed outside the home and brought home their own independent income, they seemingly usurped Black male authority within Black families." (p. 198-199)
Black women have often had to become wage earners and breadwinners due to Black men's inability (or disinclination) to find and/or keep a job. Because of this, Black women don't fit the norm for femininity, though there is a push to do so now. Then there is the matter of "catching" a wealthy husband. A White woman wanting a rich husband often goes unchallenged. A Black woman asking for the same quality is quickly dismissed as a "gold-digger" and materialistic.
Black women are also attacked in other ways. In the essay from Killing Rage: Ending Racism titled "The Integrity of Black Womanhood", bell hooks describes what can happen when an unmarried Black woman has children, but not the income to take care of them:
"In her excellent work The Rising Song of African American Women insurgent black woman intellectual and activist Barbara Omolade offers a critical analysis of [the] assault on black womanhood both from within the black community and without in her chapter "It's a Family Affair", pointing out that 'black women who do need welfare are subjected to a system whose implicit assumption that it's a crime for men not to support women and children and for women not to force men to support them. That system blames Black women for 'allowing' men to impregnate them without the benefit of marriage or money. Welfare policies confuse the economic issue of how to support a family with the personal issues of sexuality and procreation, and this confusion shapes the perception of Black female-headed households as lacking men rather than money.'" (p. 83-84)
The way Black women are judged by the welfare system is due to heterosexism. A truly feminine woman would get married before having children, to make sure that the intergenerational transfer of wealth meets with no interference. Consequently, Black women on welfare are assumed to not meet this standard, even if they are actually married. This quote also reveals how the welfare system in this country acts as another mechanism that punishes those who don't conform to heterosexist standards. By attacking and changing welfare, the state hopes to not only push who they see as lazy into a non-existent workforce, they also push people into marriage.
There is also the matter of what happens to a woman's psyche with regard to heterosexism. I propose that there is a certain mental shift that happens when living in this heterosexist society. In bell hooks' work, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, the author briefly tackles what it means to be a "male-identified woman":
"Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than women, who could always see things from a male perspective." (p. 96)
A woman can't truly be a feminist and be involved with men in any meaningful way, this quote suggests. Heterosexism for women requires that women only be concerned with men's opinions, then adjust their behavior and appearance accordingly. There is not room for REAL problems and concerns such as pay parity, women's health, access to affordable birth control, and media representation of women. The male-identified woman is perhaps the most desirable to the opposite sex in that they don't call men on their bullshit and their privilege, and the dangerous consequences that arise from letting both go unquestioned. On a more personal note, I have been guilty in the past of being overly male-identified. I am still close to many women who are male-identified, and it saddens me when the conversation turns to one that seeks to explain away deplorable male behavior (rape, sexual harassment, street harassment, etc.) by trying to see things from the male point of view.
On the next page of Feminism is for Everybody, hooks then provides her definition of the term "woman-identified woman":
"Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy." (p. 97)
The woman identified woman may be the key to unseating both patriarchy and heterosexism. Heterosexism and patriarchy both require women to be in subordinate positions to men, to think only of men and their needs. The woman-identified woman doesn't adhere to this, showing concern for herself and (hopefully) the women around her. Heterosexism and patriarchy also require women to compete with each other for desirable men (or just men in general). The woman-identified woman probably wouldn't engage in this behavior either, as it would mean putting the concerns of men at the top of the priority list. If women became more woman-identified, heterosexism and patriarchy wouldn't stand a chance.
The environment created by heterosexism is a dangerous one. The air is heavy with the threat of unprovoked harassment. This is especially true for Black women. I can count at least three incidents involving men who have felt it their right to approach me in the street. The more naïve me ACTUALLY THOUGHT THIS WAS OKAY. The more "mature" me (if "mature" is a word that can still be used to describe me) is lucky that none of these encounters turned violent. I managed to kill the guys with kindness instead of them killing me. I'm not the only one who has faced street harassment. In her essay "Piropos", from the compilation Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts, author Ayana Byrd describes the indignation that arose in her when confronted with street harassment and the male privilege that underlies it:
"During the time I was with her [Phyllis Weinberg, the author's fourth grade teacher] student, I drove everyone around me crazy demanding answers for why a man could wield such power over a woman's body and behavior, yet she couldn't reciprocate. "Things were different back then", was the popular rely from my parents and other adults. And I believed it until a few years later, as I walked to the train and had to endure whatever was being said by the men I'd pass. From what I could see, a woman still didn't have a whole lot of control over what a man, any man, could say about her. ...
If these men got to act however they wanted, then I wasn't going to censor my behavior. ...
I was more than a little scared. Because as much as I believed that no random guy had the right to tell me what nice hips I had, I also know that if they felt comfortable with that, they also might feel at ease putting their hands on me or cussing me out in public." (p. 24-25)
Heterosexism combined with privilege creates a hazardous environment for women and girls in general, and for Black women and girls in particular. There is no line for this kind of harassment. If a man is allowed to SAY whatever he wants to any woman in sight, then it is a short step toward DOING whatever he wants to any woman in sight. And there is no recourse for the women being harasses. She will either encounter victim blaming when she tries to explain what happened (i.e., what was she saying/wearing/doing at the time of the incident?); or she can expect violence - either verbal or physical - from the man she rejects.
And then there is respectability politics and its ties to heterosexism. If a woman, regardless of who she is or her job, expects to be respected, then she will dress accordingly. If she decides to wear something short, form-fitting, or sexy, then she can expect to be treated disrespectfully. And this standard is determined by men and runs the gamut from being arbitrary (on a good day) and plain ridiculous (on a bad one). In her essay "Ho Gear", also from the collection Naked, Beverly Smith relates what happened to her when she began to dress more provocatively:
"But believe it or not, even though I dressed like this, it was really tough for me to deal with catcalls and men thinking they could say whatever they wanted to me. I've gotten into fights because a guy touched by butt in a club. I never considered dressing differently, because why should I have to? This is my body, I can showcase it however I want. Just because I'm wearing this does not give anyone the right to touch me. Just because I'll be the first say "ho gear" doesn't mean I was a ho." (p. 59)
Beverly Smith, as well as any other woman who decides to, has the right to dress however she wants without being harassed about it. FULL STOP. However, heterosexism allows men to comment on how the women around him dress, since, apparently, women only dress for the attention of men. Since the end result of heterosexism is a legally sanctioned union with a "man", then he has the right to comment and appraise any woman he sees fit to. There is also, besides respectability politics, the belief that how one dresses determines their character. For example, if you dress like a thug, then you must be one. In Smith's case, because she dressed like a "ho" (which could mean anything), then she must've been one. It couldn't have been further from the truth, but that didn't matter to the men who catcalled and touched her.
Heterosexism can put women, especially Black women, in danger within relationships. Because Black women are the furthest from the heterosexual female standard - one that requires submissiveness to and dependence on men - they must go much further than is safe to prove themselves worthy; to catch a man; and keep a husband. In Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, co-authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., spell our the contradictory messages Black women receive regarding their behavior, both within a relationship and society at large:
"Black women often get mixed messages about how they should behave in their relationships with men. On the one hand, many feel pressed to excel educationally and career-wise, raise children single-handedly, and over-function for their male partners, but there are often countervailing pressures to submit and yield to Black men and to make sure they never eclipse a boyfriend or spouse. It is a stark manifestation of the yo-yo paradox. They are compelled to take charge yet also pressured to be docile to defeat stereotypes that they are less ladylike than other women, to bolster the egos of Black men, and to adhere to society's general codes about the roles of women versus men." (p. 213)
Black women are supposed to over-function, to overachieve, but not do either to the point where Black men are left in the background. There is no middle, and the middle that exists is a precarious one. It's not so much about balance as the false appearance of balance. Heterosexism is costing Black women their health as well as their sanity. Our lives are about doing everything for everyone, especially your boyfriend or spouse, but never truly shining so that your man doesn't feel threatened. It's enough to drive you nuts.
Submissiveness is often overly emphasized when the conversation turns to how Black women should behave. What is never brought up, or rarely offered as a counter argument, is the fact that such submissiveness in the presence of a man can be dangerous. Though required by heterosexism, submissiveness can prove hazardous to Black women. The authors of Shifting detail why:
"...gender bias still creeps into Black couples' relationships. ... Since being a man is often defined as being in charge and being in control, and since Black men are so often denied this opportunity, they sometimes turn to relationships to realize this aim. And Black women at times collude with this solution, shifting out of the way at home so their partner can feel empowered. Yet our research shows that Black women sometimes shift so much that they endure emotional or physical abuse. The silencing of the self, as we discussed in an earlier chapter, can lead to depression. And submissiveness can put Black women at risk for contracting deadly sexually transmitted diseases, like AIDS. A diminution of the self, a lack of self-assertion - in other words, too much shifting - can kill." (p. 210)
Black men benefit greatly from heterosexism, as I mentioned earlier in this essay. They can visit their pain, frustrations, and failures upon the bodies of Black women without much consequence. As a matter of fact, an entire initiative may be fashioned around them to the detriment of Black women and girls, such as My Brother's Keeper. On the other had, Black women are supposed to be passive and do all they can to uplift and empower Black men, even if the efforts prove futile and the still end up in abusive relationships or in danger of contracting STDs/STIs from their partners. It appears that the most Black women can do is dodge and accommodate, but never fight back and never speak up. On a side note, I find it amazing and disgusting that the community is so quick to defend and uplift Black men, yet reluctant to protect the women and children from the wrath of Black men who turn violent when met with frustration. Is a man really worth putting your life on the line for? According to the precepts of heterosexism, it's snag a man or be harassed and heckled for being single.
Making oneself more vulnerable, dependent, and submissive for a man sounds just as ridiculous as you think it does. It is downright risky. Shorter-Gooden and Jones explain why in Shifting:
"Ironically, while many Black women feel pressured in relationships to be less independent in relationships and self-reliant, being more needy and dependent can at times leave them feeling at risk. It can be a no-win situation, both for those who are used to taking control at work and in other areas of their lives, as well as for those who have exposed their vulnerabilities in the past only to be taken advantage of." (p. 217)
Being vulnerable and showing those vulnerabilities is an already uncomfortable feeling, and an action that can indicate to an abuse that you are open for business. Women can't win in this area, no matter how they play it. If you're used to taking control, you may feel like a fraud by downplaying this assertive part of your personality. If you're passive, you can find yourself reluctant to step forward when the need arises, even if that means being taken advantage of in the long run. Notice that men don't have to worry about being vulnerable or toning down their personalities. They can be complete bastards and still find a mate. They can damage a relationships and be assured that: 1.) they will never have to face what they've done; and, 2.) there will always be people - laypeople, experts, or the man on the street - who will try to make BOTH partners claim equal responsibility for HIS actions. Women will, and can always be expected to be, blamed for the actions of men and the harm that they can cause. Wow, feminism has really brought us into the future, hasn't it?
The message to Black women is loud and amazingly clear. In Shifting, the authors state this message very clearly:
"The message that Beverly, Ethel, and Shirelle hear from too many Black men is that if they were less accomplished, they'd be more appealing." (p. 221)
Black men, though they complain otherwise, dictate what is attractive in Black women. And, as far as I can tell, a less accomplished Black woman is a more attractive one. Just like the interview subjects named in the quote, I have also gotten this message, as well as the one about being a high achiever and doing "twice as much to get half as far". It sickens me, pushing and pulling myself in every direction to adhere to such messages, and doing so has taken more out of me than can be quantified. The way I see it, I'm supposed to do less for myself to be appealing to a Black man who has nothing of his own and no intention of trying to get something? GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK!!
As I mentioned in the introduction, I know that any relationship with a man - no matter how abusive - is more acceptable and valued than a relationship (whether sexual or not) with another woman or keeping to oneself. The pressure to enter into a heterosexual relationship is caused by heterosexism, which can lead to the necessity to maintain an already doomed relationship. In Shifting, Hones and Gooden illustrate what can happen to Black women when they defer to and stay with abusive partners:
"Some Black women, because of pressures to defer to and accommodate men, stay in abusive relationships, putting themselves at risk for emotional and physical injury or even death. Other women put their lives at risk when their difficulty asserting themselves with men means that they say yes to sex when they really mean no or when they don't insist on the use of safer-sex practices. Some of these women get pregnant when they're not ready, and are left to raise a child alone, Other women contract sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Submission, which is often touted as a virtue in women is actually a vice when it means that women are not able to take care of, protect, and defend themselves. Submission to an abusive or uncaring partner can be among the most dangerous of shifts." (p. 224-225)
These are just a few examples of the path of destruction left by men but supported by heterosexism. Women are victimized repeatedly when they believer that any man, though he may be abusive, is better than no man. Submission can spell certain death for Black women, but this concern is ignored when heterosexism enters the picture. A woman is supposed to adhere to all the standards regarding correct female/feminine deportment, though doing so could mean putting herself at risk. And that goes double for Black women. Once again, men are absolved of any responsibility in a relationship, particularly an abusive one. They can spread disease, beat up women and children, have children with a woman who is unprepared for a child, and take no responsibility for the destruction that may (and usually does) follow.
On an exceedingly and highly personal note, heterosexism has ruined sex for me. Maybe it's the imposition of the Madonna/Whore complex. It could be the thought that the only sexual experiences (or any experiences, for that matter) that have any weight are those that occur with men, and that any pleasure derived outside of this particular requirement is considered false, deviant, and even unfortunate. Quite possibly, it's the fact that my sexuality is only to be bargained with but never enjoyed. Whatever the reason, sex has been ruined for me, thanks to heterosexism. I can feel the clock being moved back to a time before the Pill, and that clock is moving that much faster within the Black community. I am more than aware of the stereotypes surrounding Black women's sexuality, that we're either oversexed or completely asexual. However, I don't believe that being respectable and adhering to the rigid, ridiculous, and outdated precepts of heterosexuality will defy these stereotypes. Stated another way, I am taking (small) steps toward owning, accepting, understanding, and exercising my sensuality in the ways that I see fit.
But I know that I have a long road ahead, a road that could echo that traveled by Betty Dodson, Ph.D., author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving. Early in the text, Dodson, describes the messages she received regarding "appropriate" sexuality and the ways to enjoy it:
"I am, however, typical in most other respects. I was subjected to the same barrage of sex-negative conditioning we all get. I was made to feel hat I should get all of my sexual pleasure from my lover's penis, not from his had or his mouth, and certainly not from my hand by myself." (p. 12)
Heterosexism coupled with sex negativity is dictated to women from a ridiculously early age. Sexuality with a note of dependency is also dictated to women, the idea that a woman has to resort to the penis (AND ONLY A PENIS) for pleasure. Sexually independent women threaten the status quo.
And the combination of sex negativity and heterosexism can come from the most unlikely places. Dodson writes in Sex for One:
"Coming from the Bible Belt in Kansas, I knew very well where the church and conservative moralists stood. But when I moved to New York at age twenty, even my open-minded friends thought masturbation was a second-rate substitute for "the real thing". That was in the 1950s. My only source of sex information was marriage manuals and random bits of Freudian psychiatry. When I finally made it to the couch, my therapist and I had the same romantic image - mature sex was having vaginal orgasms from intercourse within a meaningful relationship." (p. 12-13)
One would assume a place as diverse and progressive as New York would be more responsive to alternative sexual practices. Dodson disproves this theory with her own experiences. Therapy isn't free from bias. If a therapist is caught adhering to heterosexist notions, the entire profession needs to be overhauled or discredited, then done away with completely. I find it depressing that mature sexuality in a woman is determined by her association with a penis, not by her own standards and desires.
When marriage is factored in, you can expect the situation to worsen. Dodson details how the traditional marriage and the guidelines for it impacts sexuality. I have mostly highlighted how this combination influences women:
"The reality of traditional marriage and the romantic image of sex are a stormy combination. Couples unwittingly play power games with unstated rules and unwritten agreements. ...
In another game the poor woman is responsible for the man's erection. She does oralsex to get him hard and remains focused exclusively on his pleasure. He gets on top and does what feels good to him, and she accommodates him, going into her act of passionate sounds to excite him all the more. He comes, she fakes it, and he dozes off holding her in his arms. She's happy because she has pleased him, and she loves the closeness. He's happy because her response has proved he's a good lover, and he loves her loving him." (p. 16)
This quote sounds like a romantic description of an exchange between a prostitute and a customer. The sad part of is that this exchange can occur between two people who "love" each other and are in a committed relationship. And a woman playing this game for stability?! Sounds like prostitution to me. This passage not only disgusts me; it also angers me. It's like there is an unseen force controlling the moment.
Oh, yeah. It's called heterosexism.
A woman is supposed to do all she can to sexually satisfy the man she's with, though that may mean faking her own pleasure to bolster his ego. How sickening.
And the way heterosexism divides women... Don't get me started. Let's just say that conditioning starts early. As Dodson notes in Sex for One:
"Being in an all-woman group on a regular basis connected me to lost childhood memories. In my youth, I always had close girlfriends whom I loved. But I'd been systematically diverted from loving girls as I grew older and socially rewarded when I loved boys. As a grown woman, I know there was always a potential sexual implication when women were together on a regular basis, and the world lesbian terrified me. I had enough problems without being a sexual deviant." (p. 46)
I, too, have been diverted away from same-sex connections, both sexual and not. I have also encountered the same message Dodson did, the one about social rewards connected to interaction with "men". There is also a certain amount of shaming involved. A woman who hangs out with other women, who identifies more readily and easily with other women rather than men, is automatically assumed to be a lesbian. The questions and harassment attached to the assumption leads women to abandon woman-identification and to dismiss her female friends. Basically, if you don't want to be considered a lesbian, forsake all of your female friends and get a man in your bed. I find it shameful that a woman can't be with anyone - man or woman - or alone without judgments being made about her sexuality.
Heterosexism wreaks havoc on the lives of women, its precepts keeping women tied to men who could abuse them in various ways and face no consequences. In the lives of Black women, heterosexism is that much more dangerous, requiring Black women to become more submissive and passive as well as maintaining the "strong Black woman" caricature of being independent and overfunctioning. Black women, in their (futile) pursuit of Black men and relationships in general, must prove that they are just as feminine as their White counterparts, putting them in dangerous situations that can lead to abuse and can cause a woman to contract STDs, the most dangerous of which being HIV. In terms of sex and sexuality, heterosexism ruins it completely. The attachment to the penis encouraged by heterosexism denies women their sexual agency, as well as maintains the tired sexual games that do nothing but benefit the ego of the man.
How Does Heterosexism Impact Relationships?
How can a relationship flourish under heterosexism? It's obvious that I believe that it can't. With men benefiting from such a system and women suffering under it, how can any relationship be healthy? Others may feel differently, going so far as to claim I am overly sensitive and overreacting, but I stand by what I say.
Let's take the much beloved but horribly outdated institution of marriage, for example. Though upheld as good for everybody (and the only legitimate way of being considered an adult), marriage is incredibly exclusionary. Couples comprised of one man and one woman are glorified as the standard, no matter how unhealthy and dysfunctional the relationship may be. This, to me, is caused by heterosexism.
And the politics of marriage destroy sexuality, or at least affect it negatively, as Betty Dodson notes in Sex for One:
"I began to understand how the politics of marriage had affected my sexuality. Although I said I married for love, I had really bestowed my gift of sex in exchange for economic security. Because I lived in a society that didn't give equal pay to women, I was unconsciously bargaining with sex for marriage -- still the best deal for women. Whether I was saving sex for my prince, freely bestowing it on my lover, or granting exclusive rights in marriage, I was doing business with sex. When the female genitals have economic value instead of sexual value for women, marriage becomes a legal form of prostitution. It's no wonder that some wives feel like underpaid hookers and some husbands feel like overworked johns." (p. 15)
To do business with sex as a sex worker is morally wrong and detestable, but to do business with sex as a wife is morally correct and permissible, even admirable? So it's more acceptable to bargain with sex for marriage than for money directly? No wonder marriage is losing favor with my many citizens in America; it's is an example of sexual hypocrisy. To be a whore for your husband is okay, but to be a whore in a brothel is wrong. A marriage starts out as a relationship between two adults, then an arrangement between two spouses, then a business arrangement similar to that of a hooker and a john. Ain't love grand? How is love supposed to flourish in this environment? It doesn't. Thanks to heterosexism, a husband can treat his wife like a whore and she has to take it because: 1.) It's a part of her wifely duties to be napkin into which her husband ejaculates; and, 2.) In this country, women still don't receive equal pay for equal work. For me, this is why relationships with men can only lead to destruction and can NEVER be mutually beneficial. If I have to negotiate with my body, it would make more sense for me to enter into sex work than to get married.
Despite all of this, however, the structure of heterosexual relationships and heterosexism itself have been questioned. In Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, bell hooks recounts what happened when feminism went radical:
"When feminist movement was "hot", radical lesbian activists constantly demanded that straight women reconsider their bonds with men, raising the question of whether or not it was possible for women to ever have a liberated heterosexual experience within a patriarchal context." (p. 87)
It was time to question bonds with men, and radical lesbian activists were the first (and perhaps the only) ones to do so. I have often wondered the same thing and have come to some sort of conclusion. I don't believe that women can have any meaningful or healthy relationships with men. We still live in a society that is patriarchal, one that seeks only to serve the needs of males, and that puts women under constant threat of danger, even from men she knows and may be intimate with. However, because of heterosexism, women will continue to seek out men for relationships but will never be willing to question why.
hooks then states the following:
"The degree to which lesbian partnership was as good or better than heterosexual bonds was usually determined not by both parties being of the same sex but by the extent of their commitment to breaking with notions of romance and partnership informed by a culture of domination's sadomasochistic assumption that in every relationship there is a dominant and submissive party." (p. 87)
I both agree and disagree with this statement from hooks. I agree because to be in a lesbian relationship (or any relationship outside of accepted heterosexual norms) does not necessarily mean that one is free of the dominant/submissive paradigm of relationships. Unfortunately, a lot of women remain loyal to this relationship model to a more grave degree than men, whether they are LGBT or not. Some women drag heterosexism into a lesbian relationship, and that is quite unfortunate and depressing. Yet, I also disagree with hooks. To see two women, or two men, in a loving relationship directly contradicts what heterosexism has taught us. women are supposed to compete with one another, not fall in love and commit to one another. In this alone, by choosing same-sex relationships, lesbians and gay men break with notions of what a "real" relationship can and should be.
Heterosexism turns relationships into nothing more than sophisticated versions of hooker/john transactions. Since men and women are supposed to be together, and you really can't negotiate with your personality or intelligence, women have to use their vaginas to snag a husband then use it to keep a husband happy. However, though it may seem a futile exercise, heterosexism, and the dominant/submissive model of heterosexual relationships, as well as heterosexual bonds between men and women were challenged and questioned by radical feminists during the second wave of the feminist movement.
How Does Heterosexism Impact the LGBT Community?
So far, I have focused on how heterosexism combines with other types of oppression; how heterosexism impacts women, men, and heterosexual relationships; and, what heterosexism is why it's important. In other words, I have focused only on the ways that heterosexism impacts those least thought to be impacted by it, in addition to how it affects certain groups in particular.
For this section, I will try to do my best to focus on how heterosexism impacts the LGBT community. For example, I have pulled some passages from Patricia Hill Collin's Black Sexual Politics that deal with heterosexism specifically, though it compares heterosexism to racism describing the similarities between the two. Just a disclaimer before I continue.
Okay, here we go.
Mostly, as I stated before, I have focused on how heterosexism affects heterosexual men (mostly to their benefit) and women (mostly to their detriment), as well as the harm done to Black women and relationships. In this section, I can't overstate how harmful heterosexism has been to the LGBT community. The rest of us, more or less, accept heterosexism without question. We assume the appropriate roles and go on with our lives. But what if you knew that you weren't heterosexual? What if, as you grew up, you realized that the rules had been established to keep you out of the public eye, to shut down any attempt to come out of the closet, and actually put you in danger of coming out in the first place? This is what heterosexism does to the LGBT community, with the help of the state and passé stereotypes, of course.
In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, Patricia Hill Collins parallels the ways that racism and heterosexism operate within this society. As I mentioned at the top of this section, I have chosen to focus on the way heterosexism has worked its way into the state and produced a series of laws that seek to keep LGBT folks from coming out and leaving them unprotected if they do:
"For heterosexism, segregation is enforced by pressuring LGBT individuals to remain closeted and thus segregated from one another. ... In support of heterosexism, the state maintained laws that refused to punish hate crimes against LGBT people, that failed to offer protection when LGBT people were stripped of jobs and children, and that generally sent a message that LGBT people who came out of the closet did so at their own risk." (p. 95-96)
It can be painful to assume that you are the only one with a problem, that you are the only one who feels the way you do. Via state action and ordinances, LGBT folks are forced into such a state. There is also the fact that gays and lesbians are denied state protection when they are fired or brutally attacked for coming out. No other group, whether a racial or religious minority, is denied this kind of protection. And then something strange happens. The state is discriminating against its own subjects, yet in order to demand any kind of protection (regardless of how minimal that protection may be), LGBT folks must out themselves and face the consequences of doing so before they receive any kind of protection.
The exercise of state power can be best seen in, you guessed it, marriage. Not only is marriage outdated, sexist, and ridiculous, it is mostly controlled by the state then presented as the best deal available. In Black Sexual Politics, Collins explains how heterosexism exercises its power via regulations regarding marriage:
"Racism and heterosexism also share a common set of practices that are designed to discipline the population into accepting the status quo. These disciplinary practices can best be seen in the enormous amount of attention paid both by the state and organized religion to the institution of marriage. ... a series of laws have been passed, all designed to regulate marriage. ... The state has also passed laws designed to keep LGBT people from marrying. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman." In all of these cases, the state perceives that it has compelling interest in disciplining the population to marry and marry the correct partners." (p. 96)
All of us are fed the line about marriage being all about love and that we should only marry those whom we love. Yet, when some of us actually try to marry the person we love - whether they are the same sex, as in this quote, or a different race - the state steps in to stop us. The state is actually reaching into the homes and bedrooms of its citizens, and telling them that their sexual preferences are incorrect and inappropriate. The state then upholds heterosexual unions as the only unions worthy of recognition by the state and the tax breaks that accompany that recognition.
Heterosexism doesn't just come at the hands of the state, and the power that it wields. Because LGBT folks are denied their humanity in a variety of areas, they are also denied a platform to speak of what they go through. It's hard to speak out when stereotypes have denied you your humanity and stolen the impact your words may have had. Just ask a Black woman. As bell hooks notes in "Feminism: It's a Black Thing" from the collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism:
"Throughout the history of black male presence in the United States, masculine physical prowess has been one of the few arenas where they are perceived as heterosexuals. Negative representations of lesbians and gay men abound in black life, precisely because they create a context of fear and condemnation that closes off the possibility that black heterosexuals will study and learn from the critical thinking and writing of black homosexuals. Much of the compelling critique and challenge to black male engagement with sexist thinking, with patriarchy, exists primarily in the work of gay black men. If straight black men never seek this literature and/or repudiate it, they deprive themselves of life-affirming and life-sustaining discussions of black masculinity. Homophobic thinking and action is a barrier that often prevents black males and females from choosing to learn about feminist thinking." (p. 92-93)
You fear what you don't understand. Because homosexuality (or any sexual preference that is not heterosexuality) is made to be deviant and frightening, the voices of those within that community are demonized and silenced. Imagine how much further the Black community would be along the path to true liberation if the opinions and perspectives of gay men and lesbians had been accepted within the community. What gay men and lesbians have to say about patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny might save the rest of us and ease the wounds that have gone untreated for so long. Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different result. The Black community is driving itself insane by repeatedly emphasizing the formation of patriarchal families and respectability politics, and believing that these are the only two ways to solve issues in the community. Also, besides women, gay men have also challenged patriarchy and the limits it places on masculinity. This is vitally important if the goal is to save Black men (which appears to be the only goal that matters). However, as I stated before, the Black community has been more than reluctant to engage in and learn from LGBT men and women.
Also heterosexism poses a constant threat to LGBT folks, especially women, particularly queer women of color. I know that I sound like a busted record, but I can't repeat myself enough. the need for men to maintain their power and keep women in their place via street harassment is a very real need and can have deadly consequences for those on the receiving end of catcalls. In her essay, "Femme Invisibility", from the collection Naked, Lani Madhubuti states:
"And when I walked in the heterosexual world, I secretly cursed my femme invisibility. It's funny how the morning's sexy would become the nighttime's naked. When it was warm and the catcallers got bolder, I felt exposed and nearly hysterical. I wanted to appear off-limits and tough, like the women I found so attractive. At the same time, I knew my femme invisibility shielded me from a different, violent kind of harassment. I'd remember fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn, the Newark, New Jersey, teenager who was stabbed to death for telling and twenty-nine-year-old man that she was a lesbian and not interested. My innate femininity kept the power dynamics between me and these men intact. My femme invisibility didn't disrupt their sense of normalcy, so they didn't need to attack me to make their world all right again." (p. 142)
Thanks, heterosexism. Now women have to walk around the egos, tempers, and violence of men in order to be safe, as evidenced by a study conducted regarding young women and how they think sexual violence (in all its forms) is completely normal. It's as if Madhubuti has to rationalize the catcalls and comments she receives from the immature pigs she passes in the street. She knows that this type of aggravation visited upon her would be made so much worse if they knew what her sexual preference was. It's a shame that street harassment exists at all. What's worse is that any violence that may result from such harassment is more than justified by heterosexism. A relationship is supposed to be one man and one woman, and if a man must resort to vulgarities and physical threats to make sure this equation remains in tact, so be it.
Madhubuti mentions the tragedy of Sakia Gunn as the threat that hangs over her own head like the sword of Damocles. Madhubuti knows that one wrong move, one wrong reaction, and she could end up murdered in the street the same way that Gunn was. Patricia Hill Collins in Black Sexual Politics also mentions the loss of Sakia Gunn, as well as the factors that contributed to her death:
"On May 11, 2003, a stranger killed fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn, who, with four friends, was on her way home from New York's Greenwich Village. Sakia and her friends were waiting for the bus in Newark, New Jersey, when two men got out of a car, made sexual advances, and physically attacked them. The women fought back, and when Gunn told the men that she was a lesbian, one of them stabbed her in the chest. ..
... the immediate precipitating catalyst for the violence that took Sakia's life was her openness about her lesbianism. Here, homophobic violence was the prime factor. Her death illustrates how deeply entrenched homophobia can be among many African American men and women, in this case, beliefs that resulted in an attack on a teenaged girl." (p. 114-115)
In this particular section, Collins offers several factors contributing to the death of Sakia Gunn including age and gender privilege (Gunn was a teenaged girl out with her friends at the time of her murder). I have chosen to focus on the fact that Gunn was a lesbian who refused the advances of the men who approached her. Heterosexism contributed to Gunn's death as well. The fact that two men approached Gunn assuming she was straight, then reacted in anger when they found out otherwise, demonstrates how deeply entrenched heterosexism is in this society. By the way, her killer was never found. In other words, had the precepts of heterosexism not been so strong in this culture, Gunn may have lived. If the imperative of heterosexual contact and relationships were not so intense, the young men who attacked Gunn and her friends wouldn't have done so in the first place If homosexuality (or other sexualities) were not judged as deviant and dangerous, Sakia Gunn would not have been killed so viciously.
Heterosexism puts the LGBT community under and unwanted spotlight and in unnecessary danger. They are both demonized and policed by the state either through lack of protection or excessive regulation, seen most clearly in the legislation surrounding marriage. The power of the state is not the only site where LGBT folks are demonized and dismissed. Their work and words are also rejected, especially within the Black community. The work of authors like James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, and Audre Lorde are windows into a more progressive vision that no one wants to look through, thanks to inaccurate stereotypes and unfounded fears surrounding queer sexuality. The danger that heterosexism puts the LGBT community in is one that must be navigated and negotiated constantly. One wrong move and someone could wind up dead.
All of what I have written leads me to one question: Can heterosexism be defeated?
Usually, I am pretty optimistic about various forms of discrimination being away with and challenged. In this case, with heterosexism, I feel no such optimism or hope. Though rarely mentioned out loud, heterosexism is accepted without question in this country and is becoming that much more pronounced as times worsen in America. I see no coalitions forming, no laws passing to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and little to no progress made toward true equality. You may believe that times have changed, but I see only more backlash around the bend. Just as there is no cure for cancer, I see no cure for heterosexism.
-Valenti, Jessica. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2007. p. 233
-Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Rutledge, 2005. pp. 197-198, 198, 198-199, 19, 37-38, 88, 95, 95-96, 96, 114-115.
-hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End Press, 200. pp. 87, 96, 97.
--. "Challenging Sexism in Black Life". Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 68, 70, 71, 73.
--. "The Integrity of Black Womanhood". Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. p. 83-84.
--. "Feminism: It's a Black Thing". Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 92, 92-93, 93-94.
- Byrd, Ayana. "Piropos". Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts. Eds. Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon. New York: Perigree, 2005. pp. 24-25.
-Smith, Beverly. "Ho Gear". Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts. Eds. Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon. New York: Perigree, 2005. p. 59.
-Madhubuti, Lani. "Femme Invisibility". Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts. Eds. Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon. New York: Perigree, 2005. p. 142.
-Jones, Charisse and Kumea-Shorter Gooden, Ph.D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. pp. 210, 208-209, 213, 217, 221, 224-225.
-Dodson, Betty. Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving. New York: Three Rivers Pres, 1996. pp. 12-13, 12, 15, 16, 26, 36, 37, 46, 112.
-"Homophobia". The American Heritage Dictionary and Thesaurus. 2005.