What Will the Future of Heterosexism Look Like?

07/04/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

During the past several years, we as a society have moved from a place where openly homophobic jabs were acceptable to one where people who express anti-LGBT sentiments are increasingly not considered part of polite society. But do the increasing acceptance of homosexuality and the Supreme Court ruling striking down a key part of DOMA mean that anti-LGBT prejudice is on the way out the door? Not exactly. Just like racism and sexism are alive and well in 2013, I suspect the same will be true for heterosexism several decades from now. While racism, sexism, and heterosexism are all very different and often intersect with each other, the way that prejudice operates -- changing from overt to covert as society as a whole becomes more accepting -- has some striking similarities.

Consider the fact that while few people today would admit to holding racial prejudices, racism is still a problem. Be it treating minority individuals with suspicion based upon stereotypes, or a workplace that is less likely to hire and promote minority employees, subtle racial prejudice is commonplace. Likewise, sexist prejudices are often not blatant. If a Fortune 500 company actually said, "We will pay female employees less than male employees," there would be an outcry, but it still happens all the time; it's just that companies do not announce, and are sometimes unaware of, their prejudiced practices.

That appears to be the trajectory we're on with homophobia and heterosexism, too. Sooner or later, nondiscrimination laws will prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations in all 50 states. At the same time, polling suggests that a higher percentage of people will indeed believe that homosexuality is natural and acceptable. But it won't be everyone, and while overt homophobia will likely be increasingly unacceptable, there will still be people who hold prejudiced views about LGBT people. Rather than risk their jobs or be labeled as bigots by others, these people may find other ways to express their prejudiced beliefs, such as giving special scrutiny to the behaviors or work performance of LGBT people, or through microaggressions, which are small acts of hostility that add up.

In fact, we're already seeing a move away from blatant homophobia. The rhetoric of the anti-marriage-equality movement has shifted during the past several years from an emphasis on moral disapproval of homosexuality and, as George Takei put it, the "ick" factor, to a less explicitly anti-gay myth about the traditional definition of marriage and claims that all children need a mom and a dad. Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage and a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, has repeatedly expressed concerns that the expansion of marriage equality means that people who voice support for a one-man-and-one-woman-only definition of marriage will be viewed as bigots. She's right about that, but that does not mean that people like her will suddenly become tolerant and accepting. Rather, many people with prejudiced views will find ways to express their beliefs that do not result in adverse consequences for themselves.

Merely predicting what the future of heterosexism will be doesn't accomplish much, but there is a lot we can glean from it. Having an idea of what heterosexism might look like down the road can help us call out subtle prejudice and lead us to look for ways to better address anti-LGBT microaggressions and implicit (unconscious) attitudes. Indeed, this may be challenging; people who hold racial and gender prejudices are often unaware of these prejudices, and the same could become true (if it isn't already) as heterosexism becomes less blatant. But it is worth being aware of what future prejudice might look like. Heterosexism will be alive and kicking in 20 or 30 years, but how we address it can impact just how forceful it will be.