A posting on the subject of heterosexism on the Christian blog Parableman got me thinking. In it the author objects to the conflation apparently at work in a book by Elizabeth Meyer between attitudes that express a) a bias that denigrates gay people; b) a presumption of heterosexual superiority; c) prejudice, bias or discrimination based on either of a) or b).
Whilst the author of the posting is resolutely opposed to a), he regards b) and c) as potentially more problematic and, at any event, to be morally distinguishable from a). The up-shot of this is that the uses suggested for the term "heterosexism" by Meyer are far from equivalent to each other and thus that the blanket term in question might well be less morally useful than it first seems.
Prior to examining the specific arguments here, and disregarding whatever case Meyer may or may not be making, I should first state that the term "heterosexism" despite having an ugly look and being pretty difficult to say (since it is so close simply to "heterosexual" and "heterosexuality") is, nonetheless, in many respects an improvement on "homophobia". Whilst homophobia expresses well the notion that there is active hatred of gay people that is being expressed by many people it tends towards the view that such hatred is an expression of a kind of pathology, thus in a sense moving it out of the realm of moral condemnation to a kind of failing that is instead one of having fallen victim to a sort of sickness. In not having this connotation and in having the proximity invited to "racism" and "sexism" the term "heterosexism" is a distinct improvement on "homophobia".
The first and least obvious point being made against the three claims brought together here under the heading "heterosexism" is against the assumption that there is something inherently "wrong" in b). The reason why this is presented is due, I think, to the point I made above, namely, that the term "heterosexism" has the signal disadvantage that it implies to many hearing it that the problem is with heterosexuality itself. So, the poster over at Parableman wants to say that there's nothing wrong in saying heterosexuality is "superior" in some sense since all you might mean by saying that is either a) that it's better for you (since you are heterosexual) or b) that it's better for some things (e.g. a simpler way to lead to the production of off-spring). This kind of point is not, despite what the guy at Parableman thinks, really a very good one. Take, by analogy here, the cases of racism and sexism. In those cases b) would be mirrored by the claims that b1) white people are superior to other races or b2) men are superior to women. The case of b1) is pretty obviously offensive and it is hard to imagine anyone trying to motivate on similar grounds to those alleged to make b) potentially alright. What about b2)? It's true that, if what you meant in that case was something like men are generally physically stronger than women you wouldn't run into an argument, but that, quite evidently, isn't what would be meant in making the assertion and nor can one imagine anyone ever seriously suggesting it would be. So what it would really mean, like the similar racist claim b1), would be a moral, intellectual or general civilizational claim of superiority. And that would be pretty clearly offensive. Just as clearly it is the analogy with this that is at work in the point being made by alleging that b) is a moral fault.
The first reason, then, for supposing that b) is less "wrong" than a) and c) doesn't exactly hold up well. The next point that is made by Parableman is a slightly different one where a sliding scale is introduced with the suggestion that the term "heterosexism" is too broad to recognise the kind of slide needed. So, to use the case given in the posting, the fact that Catholics (or any other religious denomination) don't want to recognise gay marriage isn't sufficient to condemn them in the same terms as those who would allow no kinds of rights at all to gay people and would wish to treat them in ways that were absolutely inhuman. Again, imagine here the analogy with the cases of racism and sexism. So, there are some people who we call racists who treat people of other racists with absolute inhumanity and others who "only" want to assert that they should be given inferior facilities and an unequal place in the general society. Surely the first is much the worse and the second doesn't really deny all rights as such? It's only necessary to present the comparison to imagine what the response here would be. A similar case with regard to women in the case of sexism is obviously relatively easy to construct. In one sense, clearly there are differentiations here and no one would wish to deny them, but the suggestion that the second set of people don't wish to denigrate the group that they are discriminating against is false. This kind of suggestion was in fact made just this week in the UK where a Catholic charity took a case to court because they didn't want to allow gay couples to adopt children that their agency was in charge of. The spokesperson for the charity stated that this didn't mean he wished to denigrate gay people or deny them rights. But the charity does denigrate gay people in its actions and does deny them rights, rights, for example, to care for children and adopt them. Again, imagine a charity that said it wouldn't allow black or yellow people to adopt children from it but that this didn't mean it was denying them rights. Would anyone find this acceptable? Or a charity that denied that men could adopt children as only women had nurturing skills? This case further shows that the use of doctrines that purport to recognise the "dignity of the human person" whilst denying equal treatment are morally objectionable in just the same way as doctrines that promoted a notion of "separate but equal" with regard to race.
The next point made by Parableman concerns the different kinds of motivations that might lead someone to a view like b) with a suggestion that these might produce different kinds of moral evaluation. So, some evolutionary psychologists allege that homosexuality is "less good" at such things as perpetuating the species. In fact, this kind of claim is simply empirically false. The only basis for it would have been that there is only one way to ensure reproduction takes place but everyone knows that this is untrue so that there is no effective need now for heterosexual coitus in order for children to be produced even though this is evidently a much "simpler" way to achieve the purpose in question than any others. It's a gross exaggeration of the writer over at Parableman, however, to suggest that this is the main purpose of heterosexuality. The numbers of times heterosexuals copulate compared to the numbers of children produced is pretty clear evidence of that!
The suggestion that others make is that homosexuality is not part of "God's design", a view that, in its hubristic comprehension of the nature of that alleged design, is, frankly, breathtaking. Based on a couple of random passages from certain selected Scriptures whose status is, in any event, far from secure for most of us, it hardly merits consideration as the basis for a moral view, let alone a legislative one. The implied suggestion that those adopting it are somehow in a "better" moral class than childish or brutal gay-baiters is one I simply can't see.
The final suggestion of the piece is that you could, for example, be a Christian who didn't want bullying of gay people and hence opposed a) and c) but still wanted to affirm some version of b) and were, perhaps, sullied by being associated in the definition with people with whom you wished to have nothing in common. Again, there are nice parallels here. So, some racists don't want bullying of other races or necessarily support laws against other races but they do think their race superior to others. Isn't it unfair to tar them with the same brush? I'll leave that to readers to decide!