Talking Back to Heterosexism: A Decade of Lessons Learned

By Jeff Levy

Reprinted from In The Family Magazine, Volume 10, Number 4, Spring 2005, pp. 6-8.

When we talk about homophobia and heterosexism in this country, we frequently think of how it manifests in the socio-political arena. Those words conjure images of self-righteous televangelists preaching that homosexuality is a "sin"; of community leaders defending the Boy Scouts of America's discrimination against homosexuals; and of politicians, including our nation's president, making statements about how same-sex unions damage the "sanctity" of marriage. If only we could escape homophobia by unplugging our televisions and cancelling our newspaper subscriptions. But unfortunately, that's not possible. Discrimination and oppression would still be part of the everyday life of LGBT people.

Homophobia and heterosexism present in blatant, in-your-face experiences, but also in small ways-junk mail from an insurance broker that offers coverage for "your whole family" but they don't mean queer families, the nightly news that doesn't cover LGBT issues of the day. I feel the heavy burden of heterosexism every time I have to fill out a form that asks my "marital status." I have not come across one yet that has a little box to check off for "domestic partner." Just a few weeks ago, a perfectly nice and well-intentioned admissions worker at a health clinic asked me for the name of my next of kin. When I spelled out the name of my partner, she asked: "Is that your brother or father?" I told her he was my partner. She was silent for a moment and then said, "I'm sorry sir, I need a legal next of kin."

During a family gathering, as I talked with my two brothers about how we were dealing with our mother's recent death, one brother spoke about my brother Howard's wife and my dogs as being good emotional supports during our mourning. I stopped breathing. "Wait," I said i n c r e d u l o u s l y. "You just mentioned Howard's wife and my dogs. What about Bill, my partner?" My brother responded without a second thought: "Your relationship with Bill isn't the same as Howard's relationship with his wife."

African American family therapist Kenneth Hardy calls these kinds of alienating experiences "microaggressions." They can have a wide range of effects, from annoyance to sadness to feelings of shock, rage, frustration and fear. When they happen to me, I find that my feelings outrun my ability to articulate to those around me why I am reacting so strongly. Being a therapist has helped me become more mindful of my own reactions and responses to clients' material, and as a more seasoned clinician, I find that exercising that muscle has helped me stay aware of my feelings when I'm faced with conscious and unconscious homophobia and heterosexism.

It's Tuesday and I'm meeting with a group of social workers from a large child welfare agency in Chicago. I've been hired to provide them with clinical supervision so they can accumulate the necessary hours to become licensed. During the 18 months I've been conducting this group, I've come to know and enjoy this group of inquisitive, intelligent and sensitive young professionals. They've talked about personal and professional issues that have impacted their practice, and I have shared some of my own struggles in clinical practice so they can see that therapists keep learning, growing and struggling with our human fallibility throughout our careers. The group has negotiated a relational approach to the supervisory process that has been mutually satisfying. I look forward to our weekly meeting as I come into the room where they are gathered and waiting for me.

I greet everyone and see that we're missing Judy, a 27-year-old social worker. She hurries into the room a minute later. Three of her colleagues greet her with a clamor of questions about her wedding, which took place the previous weekend. "It was unbelievable," she says, glowing. "I actually feel different." I notice the ring on her hand.

"Are you changing your name?" a male colleague asks. "I'm still thinking about it. There's just a lot of paperwork, and anyway I don't want to do it before I get the passport for my honeymoon," she says. I miss the next question as I notice that I am rubbing my own naked left hand, and I'm experiencing a familiar, but wordless, feeling.

"I was at the wedding, and Judy looked beautiful," another supervisee is saying. "My fiance even commented on how hot she looked!"

Stan, a man a few years my junior, launches into a story about his wedding, and then finishes by mentioning the new condominium he and his wife just bought since having their first child. That gets the whole group going, and everyone is talking about their engagements, weddings and births of their children. I am listening to them, and I am paying attention to the constriction in my throat, the hot flush of shame beginning to creep up my arms and neck, my sudden self-consciousness about the fact that I have not contributed to the conversation.

"Thank god," a 30-something woman says, "that my children and I are covered under my husband's health insurance." My pulse is racing as I flash on how vulnerable I felt two years ago when I wasn't able to get health insurance because my partner's place of employment did not offer domestic partner benefits and I was deemed "uninsurable" on my own for ridiculous reasons.

Someone notices the time and says, "Hey, we better get started," and now the group looks at me, unaware that anything is wrong. They have no idea that during this seemingly harmless conversation among friendly people, I have been wracked with unpleasant but familiar feelings -powerlessness, shame, exclusion and a creeping sense of rage. I function on auto pilot and start the meeting while I try to sort through my wellspring of emotions. I realize that these nice straight people have no conscious awareness that their casual attitude toward entitlements that are actively denied to me, my partner and my community actually causes me pain. A part of me feels small and petty for being angry with them. I know they can't read my mind. They can't know what I experience if I haven't told them.

As my heartbeat slows to normal, I realize how rich this material is for all of us, as human beings and as mental health professionals. Surely there will be times when their clients will experience similar reactions to their unconscious privileges of race, gender, national origin, class, physical ability, age, body size, as well as sexual orientation. Becoming aware of social injustice in the therapy room is an incredibly valuable experience, and as their supervisor, I want this group to cultivate that awareness. But I accept that I can't do it in the moment--not before I have sorted through and metabolized my own reactions to this conversation. I don't want the conversation to become about me or my personal agenda, as if I am saying that straight people are not allowed to talk in front of LGBT people about weddings, children, anniversaries and health insurance. I do, however, want to address issues of privilege, oppression, and social injustice as they manifest in our clinical work. This is my role as their supervisor.

The price we pay for silence is the slow erosion of our own sense of entitlement. We lose our certainty that we deserve equal rights, equal respect, fair treatment. A lot has changed in the past 10 years for LGBT people, and I can chart those changes in my own inner experiences as a gay man and as a gay social worker.

Ten years ago, when In the Family was first published, I was a social worker in the child welfare field. For the five years prior, I was experimenting with coming out at work. My previous experience in the child welfare system taught me that it was not professionally safe to be out. Among my colleagues, there was rampant prejudice and misconceptions about gays. My supervisor, not knowing I was gay, shared his views with me that gay men were HIV-infected, sexually obsessed perverts, and were likely also to be child abusers. Just after I was hired to work at a child welfare agency, this supervisor confided, "I would never hire a homosexual to work with these kids."

The closet was suffocating, but I believed it was necessary for professional survival. So I remained silent, but inside, those comments burned. I blamed myself and I relived those moments in my head on my way home and late into the night and the next day and the next. Was I a coward? Why couldn't I push the words, "I'm gay" out of my mouth? We had several openly gay kids in our care. I admired their bravery as they weathered the taunts of their peers and the derisive comments of the adult staff. I wished I had the courage to be as out and as proud as they were. I felt like I was letting them down by not being out and serving as a positive role model in a context in which they had very few, if a n y, adults to whom they could relate.

Curiously, in those days I was often in the company of colleagues who spent significant time discussing their engagements, weddings, children and other heterosexual entitlements, but my reaction was markedly different than the one I had this year. In 1995, I didn't feel entitled to share those privileges. It's not that I would have said, "I don't deserve them" if asked. It's that I never expected to be able to marry, to adopt a child, to be out to and celebrated by my extended family and my partner's extended family and our colleagues, neighbors and strangers on the street. expect my elected officials to fight to overturn homophobic laws and enact new laws that would make me an American citizen with rights equal to all other citizens. I didn't think about these things in any organized way. The lack of privilege just felt like fact. "This is how the world is," I remember thinking. "This is what I will not have." And in the bleakest of moments, although not in any conscious or cognitive way, I experienced the reason I would not have these things as more about who I was than about discrimination by a heterosexist society.

In the last 10 years, the social debates around same-sex marriage and GLBT families began to wake me up to what I was missing, and what I should start demanding as my right. The multicultural movement of the early 1990s got me thinking about the privileges I do have as a white, middle-class, well-educated, able-bodied man. My consciousness about privilege and oppression expanded so that I understand where I'm powerful and can use that power to be an ally to those who have less power, and where I'm disempowered. The issues of the last decade-adoption, surrog a c y, alternative insemination, civil unions, domestic partner benefits, and same-sex marriage-have made it glaringly clear to me just how deep-rooted homophobia and heterosexism are in our society. It still amazes me that many educated, well-informed straight people still will say things like, "I thought you guys could get married in Massachusetts, Canada and Vermont." They have no idea that the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Bill Clinton, means that states do not having to acknowledge same-sex unions from other jurisdictions. Some refer to the presence of Will and Graceon primetime as evidence of gays having "arrived." They have no idea of the alarming statistics on hate crimes perpetrated on LGBT people.

Thursday rolls around again, and I impatiently wait for the group to get settled in their seats. I tell them we're going to do a little exercise, and I hand out note cards and ask each supervisee to write one of their identities on each of the note cards. They look confused as to what I'm up to. But they put their heads down and start scribbling. I do it, too. We place our note cards in front of us and go around and read out the identities we wrote for ourselves. As each one names an identity, I ask questions about the level of privilege they believe each identity carries. Some are considerable: maleness, whiteness, education, money. Other identities carry less privilege: person of color, non-Christians, non-heterosexuals, immigrant. We talk about how we can feel privileged in some contexts, but oppressed in others. Now that I've gotten them to start to think about the privileges they do and do not have, I move the discussion to how our identities impact our social work practice.

I ask them to describe objects they keep in their offices that assert their identities and their privilege. Gordon, an African American man in his thirties, describes a picture that sits on his desk of himself with his wife and child. He says he thought it might make his clients feel comfortable and safe with him knowing he's a husband and a father. He hoped the child welfare mothers he works with who lost their children because of abuse and neglect would feel like he "really understood" their bond with their children. Now, he says, he's wondering if this photograph may seem to them more like representations of his privilege (education, marriage, economic stability) and might be distancing his clients from him. He questions the appropriateness of the picture and decides to ask his clients about their reactions to it.

Felice, a twenty-something, white female social worker begins to wonder about the map of the world that she keeps in her office in a therapeutic day school for troubled urban teenagers. On this map she's identified all the places in the world where she has traveled. She asks the group if they think having the map in her office highlights her privilege and puts distance between herself and the young people she serves.

Sam, a 24-year-old white social worker who, after some deliberation, came out as gay to the supervision group, describes his recent conversation with an adolescent client who identifies as gay. Sam shares that he is not out to the boy because he believes it would "raise too many issues for the client," and also confesses that he doesn't know whom else the client would tell. He says he has given it some thought, and decided that his sexuality is not his client's business. I talk about how clients walking into other social workers' offices and see pictures of husbands, wives and children, or wedding rings on the fingers of their therapists. They make assumptions about sexual orientation. Sam talks about how frustrating it is not to be able to be casually out about being gay, the way straight therapists can be casually out about being straight.

This seems like a good time to share why I initiated this exercise. I take a deep breath. It's still hard, even after more than a decade of steeling myself to talk about these things. I note the change in my breathing; my heartbeat speeds up. But I plunge in. I talk about what happened for me the week before, listening to their friendly conversation and feeling like an outsider. I talk about how it taught me that what some perceive as "normal" entitlements are unreachable dreams for others. I admit that I had to push myself to address this directly with them because of my history with both privileged and oppressed identities. The room is very quiet. They are listening respectfully, for which I am grateful, and I think they understand what I'm saying. We end the session with more questions than answers. We certainly end with a greater sense of discomfort. Awareness can do that. But I have faith that as they cultivate sensitivity, they will start embracing this new way of connecting with others across all of our many identities and differences.

I have never truly considered myself to be an activist, but last week I realized that is exactly what I am. Ten or more years ago, I would have been silenced by oppression. Today, while I still struggle with old feelings of shame and stigma, I have found ways to raise awareness about privilege, and work on my own awareness about my own privilege. In some small way, I am enacting change. If each of us does this, even in small ways, then perhaps 10 years from now we will be living in a more equitable, compassionate and just society.