University of Vermont

Traylor/"Catalysts for Progress: The Student Affairs Educator's role in the Prevention of Heterosexism on Campus"

Catalysts for Progress: The Student Affairs Educator's Role in the Prevention of Heterosexism on Campus

Elizabeth A. Traylor

Ideally, educational institutions ought to be environments supportive and celebratory of all differences. In striving to create such a community on a college campus or university campus, it is important to acknowledge factors that hinder and prevent their existence. This paper will define heterosexism and homophobia and examine their manifestations on campus. Research and literature concerning the ways heterosexism affect all members of the community will be presented. It will explore issues of concern as well as a comprehensive plan for student affairs professionals involved in the prevention and/or eradication of heterosexism on campus.

Student affairs educators have a responsibility to ensure that all campus community members have adequate and equitable support, protection, education, and opportunities. They are not effective in their roles if they fail to support and enhance the educational experience of each student. Ten percent of the general population is estimated to be non-heterosexual (Jennings, 1994). Thus, it can be assumed that approximately 10% of college students are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The prevalence of homophobia and heterosexism on campuses impedes the service offered to at least one tenth of the student body.

This paper will define heterosexism and homophobia and examine their manifestations on campus. It will explore issues of concern for student affairs professionals as they try to eradicate and prevent oppression on campus. A comprehensive, innovative plan for educators committed to the prevention of heterosexism and homophobia on campus will be presented.

The Root of the Evil: Heterosexism and Homophobia Defined

Celia Kitzinger (1995) explained that it is important to consider the language one chooses when talking about heterosexism because language reflects personal attitudes as well as a political climate. Ann Pelligrini (1992) argues that "in language lie the assumptions of a culture, its rules of conduct, what it will acknowledge as possible and permissible" (p. 43). This paper uses the terms "homophobia" and "heterosexism" throughout; therefore, it will first examine their interpretations.

Most people understand the term homophobia to be negative feelings or prejudices against gay people (Jennings, 1994). Many theorists object to the use of the term homophobia to describe hostility toward gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered (GLBT) individuals (Herek, 1995; Kitsinger, 1995). Gregory M. Herek summarizes these arguments:

First, it is linguistically awkward; its literal meaning something like "fear of sameness." Second, antigay prejudice is not truly a phobia; it is not necessarily based on fear; nor is it inevitably irrational or dysfunctional for individuals who manifest it. Third, using the term homophobia can easily mislead us into thinking of antigay prejudice in exclusively individual terms, as a term of mental illness rather than as a pattern of thought and behavior that can actually be adaptive in a prejudiced society (p. 321).

Because of these arguments, some prefer to use other terms and phrases to refer to the oppression of GLBT individuals and groups. Such terms include: "heterocentrism" (Kitsinger, 1995), "homo-negative attitudes" (Ross, 1995), "anti-gay/anti-lesbianism" (Kitsinger), and "heterosexism" (Blumenfeld, 1992; Chan, 1995; Herek, 1995).

Heterosexism is a commonly used alternative. Heterosexism is the "ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community" (Herek, 1995, p. 321). Herek explains that heterosexism exists on two distinct levels: cultural and psychological. Cultural heterosexism "pervades societal customs and institutions" (p. 322). According to Herek, cultural heterosexism endures in our society in the form of the lack of legal protection of GLBT individuals from anti-gay discrimination, anti-sodomy laws in many states, the lack of legal recognition of same sex relationships, and the exclusion of gays from the military. Psychological heterosexism is the "individual manifestation of cultural heterosexism" (p. 322). Psychological heterosexism is present in feelings and expressions of hatred or disgust of GLBT individuals. In its most dangerous form, psychological heterosexism is expressed through verbal and/or physical violence toward persons believed or suspected of being GLBT.

Recognizing Heterosexism on Campus

Paula Rust (1995) argued the existence of heterosexism by explaining that if this was not a heterosexist society, GLBT individuals would not have to go through a coming out process. When in doubt of whether or not heterosexism exists on a campus, one should try to envision what a campus free of heterosexism would look like.

On a campus free of heterosexism approximately one in ten students, faculty, staff, and administrators could be openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. GLBT individuals could be openly affectionate and verbal in their relationships. Others would not stare at same sex couples embracing or holding hands. There would not be traditional proms or other "opposite-sex-only-couples" social events. Benefits would be equitably extended to the families and partners of GLBT university personnel. Campus community members would have few, if any, gender stereotypes. There would be much less violence and verbal assault in general and far fewer hate crimes. All orientations would be celebrated rather than merely tolerated or as foci of discrimination.

A campus climate such as this seems almost impossible to achieve given current anti-gay sentiments at many institutions. It is through this vision that one can see just how heterosexist most of our campuses really are and how much further they still have to grow to end oppression on campuses.

Of all the manifestations of heterosexism, hate crimes (acts of violence or intimidation aimed at a target person or group) against GLBT students and staff are the most easily recognized. Increased visibility of GLBT student groups on campuses in recent years has resulted in more frequent anti-gay harassment activities and violence (Berrill, 1992b). Statistics and volumes of personal accounts indicate that the problem is a widespread one across institutions (Berrill, 1992a). Within the year 1989, 1,329 anti-gay incidents were reported to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force by students from a sample of 40 colleges and universities (Berrill, 1992a, p. 260). If one considers the total number of United States colleges and universities, and the increase in visibility of GLBT students since 1989, one can only imagine the present national statistics of anti-gay violence. One researcher has suggested that hate crimes against GLBT students are so prevalent that they have become a familiar part of college life for GLBT individuals (Berrill, 1992b). Most of these incidents involved verbal or physical harassment, death threats, intimidation, and vandalism (Berrill, 1992b). Unfortunately, there are thousands of anti-gay hate crimes which occur on campuses each year. It is unjust that students invest thousands of dollars annually in their educations and are victims of blatant acts of hatred.

Homophobia's Pervasive Harm

Hate crimes inevitably cause some level of physical or psychological harm to the victims. In addition to physical injuries, victims of hate crimes often experience sleep disturbances, headaches, diarrhea, uncontrollable crying, increased use of substances, and interpersonal problems (Garnets, Herek, & Levy, 1993). Such symptoms can be detrimental to a student's academic performance, social involvement, interpersonal relationships, and overall college success. Perhaps less obvious to observers is the harm homophobia can cause to the entire university community.

Homophobic attitudes can pressure all heterosexuals to treat homosexuals badly. Phillip Brian Harper (1992) compares slavery to homophobia by suggesting that white slave owners who had previously been known as kind, caring people were transformed into fierce, hateful oppressors because of social pressure to abuse African Americans. Harper contends that the oppressors are

dehumanized as well as the oppressed. This research suggests that on a campus where overt actions of homophobia occur frequently, more people may be influenced to participate in it than usual. In such environments, homophobic behavior becomes tolerated and perhaps even the norm.

Homophobia and heterosexism instill fear in all university community members, no matter what their sexual orientation. Violence and discrimination affects those perceived to be GLBT, not only those who openly identify as such. Many heterosexuals have been victims of anti-gay attacks and many more fear such assaults (Vasquez, 1992). While all acts of violence are horrifying, the effects of homophobic violence are frighteningly invisible and pervasive.

Homophobia hurts campus communities by establishing rigid gender roles to which students and staff must adhere or else risk being labeled GLBT and potentially attacked. Because of rigid gender stereotypes, students may be dissuaded from joining non-traditional clubs, sports, and organizations (i.e. women on the rugby team; men as cheerleaders), or may choose majors or careers based solely on gender expectancies (i.e. women as teachers and nurses; men as doctors and engineers).

Fear of being identified as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered individual may inhibit many aspects of all students' lives. Close interpersonal relationships are limited to the opposite sex. Same sex relationships are expected to be non-physical especially for men (no hugging, touching, or kissing). Physical contact is limited to the opposite-sex and often in sexual relationships. This could lead to sexual involvement without critical thought or emotional attachment. Diane Elze (1992) found that many young people have premature heterosexual sex in an effort to "prove their heterosexuality" or to disprove their homosexuality (p. 97). Seventy-six percent of these youth do not use contraception consistently thus putting themselves at risk for pregnancy, venereal disease, and AIDS (Elze). Institutional homophobia can result in a lack of discussion and education about lifestyles of sexual minorities. Thus, the costs of homophobia on campus are potentially life-threatening to us all.

Helps and Hindrances (But Not Barriers) to Prevention Efforts

As with any form of oppression, when working to end heterosexism individuals must first consider their own fears, attitudes, and beliefs. Many will probably find that they harbor personal heterosexist feelings. Recognition of these attitudes is extremely important to anti-oppression work. Once they can recognize them in themselves, they can begin to identify them in other individuals as well as in institutions. They can help others to move beyond their homophobic ideas and practices and become allies and advocates for GLBT students, faculty, and staff.

In striving to create a sense of community on a college or university campus, it is important to acknowledge factors that detract from and destroy such communities. Why is there anti-gay/anti-lesbian violence and victimization within a community which is supposed to be composed of mutually-supportive students? Karl Hamner (1992) uses Tajfel and Turner's (1986) social identity theory to explain that individuals desire positive self-esteem and that their self-esteem is related to the way their group is evaluated relative to other groups. Students can build up their own self-esteem by promoting their group's identity and differentiating it from other "out groups." Hamner explained that establishing a positive group identity depends "at least as much on denigrating an out group as on lauding one's own in-group" (p. 181). Therefore, achieving positive self-esteem often involves discrimination and violence toward another group or member of another group. Many students denigrate and discriminate against GLBT students in order to create an increased negative evaluation of gays and to further differentiate themselves from the gay out-group. This differentiation results in greater self-esteem for the perpetrator. Perhaps gay and lesbian bashing is still so prevalent on college campuses because GLBT communities are the vulnerable out-group. Peers tolerate and reward anti-gay violence and victimization by continuing to negatively view GLBT students and positively view heterosexual students.

Many administrators fear significant changes in policies and practices because of potential loss of financial support from alumni and other donors, declining numbers of student applicants, and generally negative public image. Because of this fear, some administrators deny the existence of a problem and, therefore, do not act to eliminate heterosexist beliefs and practices. Some point out GLBT clubs and organizations as evidence of non-heterosexist practices. Some deny that GLBT students even exist on their campuses. Through such practices, institutions deny the pain of GLBT individuals. They fail to acknowledge heterosexism as an oppression worthy of their advocacy.

Some argue that increased visibility of GLBT individuals will reduce homophobia (Pharr, 1988). The more openly GLBT individuals heterosexuals know, the less they will stereotype and/or discriminate against homosexuals. This theory is probably true; however, the risk GLBT students experience while coming out on campus must not be minimalized. The risks are currently so high that most GLBT students do not come out, which leads to continued invisibility. GLBT faculty, staff, and administrators are also invisible because they fear job loss, discrimination, and more. Further, they do not speak out as advocates for GLBT students because they "know the reactions they'll get on their campuses and in society at large" (Tierney, 1992, p. 42).

Each of these issues is of great concern for those striving to prevent and eliminate heterosexism from institutions. These concerns are not necessarily barriers, however. William Tierney (1992) explains that there are three root problems contributing to heterosexism on campus: bigotry, ignorance, and silence. In educational institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, such bigotry and ignorance is inappropriate and must not be tolerated. Student affairs educators have a responsibility to promote the educational missions of institutions by working to remove these sentiments from their campus environments.

Prevention of Heterosexism in Higher Education: What Student Affairs Educators Can Do

Obtaining an Institutional Commitment to Education

In order for heterosexism to be prevented and/or eliminated from a campus environment, there must first be a commitment across the institution from the powerful policy-making administrators to the students. The entire campus community must understand what heterosexism is, how it manifests itself in the university community, and the harmful effects of the oppression on GLBT and heterosexual individuals. Once there is a shared understanding of the oppression, as well as a commitment to eliminate it from the campus, the community can begin to work on creating an environment free of heterosexism. With a few vocal and committed students, faculty, and administrators discussions can begin. Initially, the only commitment necessary is a willingness to learn.

Launching a War Against Oppression

Once the university community is willing and committed to learning and changing education can begin. It is important to not only speak about heterosexism but all forms of oppression. Pelligrini (1992) explained that oppressions are all interconnected and "particular manifestations of oppression" cannot be treated in isolation (p. 54). Oppression involves a power structure which must be destroyed. Education about oppression in general as well as individual forms of it must occur.

Educating Students

Education for students must occur on several levels. A diversity component should be implemented in the required curriculum. The diversity component would include specialized courses about oppression, specifically heterosexism, as well as diversity elements threaded through all courses. The Division of Student Affairs should facilitate programs and activities on a regular basis celebrating diversity at which all students will be encouraged to participate, and possibly be rewarded for their involvement.

As was discussed earlier, self-esteem could be extremely important to the elimination of hate crimes and anti-gay harassment on campus. Rather than merely reacting to hate crimes with strict penalties, prevention efforts should focus on proactive, self-esteem building activities. Self-esteem building programs for all students should be implemented throughout college years-from the new student orientation through graduation.

Educating Non-Student Campus Community Members

Non-student university community members also play a significant role in defining the climate of the campus. Therefore, education of faculty, staff, and administration is an essential component to any prevention plan. All personnel should be encouraged and, perhaps, required to examine and challenge their own personal homophobic attitudes and beliefs by attending workshops, conversation hours, and inservices; reading selected articles on the subject of heterosexism and homophobia; and becoming active members of committees and task forces. Incentives, rewards, and recognition should be offered to those employees demonstrating a commitment to ending oppression on campus. Liaisons from every department or office should be selected to share information and ideas as well as to ensure accountability to defined standards.

Establishing a Common Language

Because a culture's language reflects its assumptions and rules of conduct (Pelligrini, 1992), the university community should be educated about appropriate and inappropriate language. A respectful, inclusive language should be learned and utilized by all. Inappropriate language must be challenged and persons using such language should be educated.

Challenging Rigid Gender Role Expectations

One recognizable manifestation of heterosexism on campus is rigid gender role stereotypes. Students, staff, and administrators should be encouraged to challenge traditional gender expectancies. Role models can be an effective means of influencing students. Professional recruitment efforts of the institution ought to focus on bringing both genders to all disciplines and departments. Support services and recognition should be offered to individuals breaking gender boundaries. Breaking down traditional gender role expectancies is one way of reducing the level of heterosexism which is pervasive on campuses.

Colleges and universities can demonstrate their value of women and men in all disciplines by establishing target levels of male/female enrollments in all areas. For example, the engineering school would strive to be composed of at least 30% women or the school of education would attempt to enroll at least 30% men. Career fairs and information sessions can initiate interest in students who would not typically consider such a career because of traditional gender stereotypes.

Establishing Expectations and Maintaining Accountability

Every member of the college community ought to be informed of behavioral expectations upon entrance into the community. Each new student or staff member should be provided with a statement and contract of non-discrimination and institutional values (i.e. diversity on all levels). Signing this contract could be a prerequisite to entrance or employment at the college. This contract should define expectations and consequences for non-compliance with such expectations. A clear process for accountability should be outlined and communicated in written form.

Building Community

Prevention efforts must focus on building a sense of community and interdependence. Campus community days, group service projects, buddy programs, and other campus-wide team building events are excellent methods for building unity and allegiance throughout campus.

All campus community members should feel safe and secure in their educational environment. One way such a safe and secure environment can be achieved is through demonstrated institutional support by recognition of GLBT relationships and provision of benefits to partners and families. Encouraging GLBT faculty, staff, and administrators to come out is one way to provide role models for GLBT students. Visibility of GLBT individuals would increase and, therefore, homophobia would probably decrease (Pharr, 1988).

Creating Advocates and Allies

The university has an invaluable opportunity to impact significant social change. Staff must go beyond the immediate campus environment to educate the larger community. Alumni and other community members should be encouraged to participate in campus educational and celebratory events. Prevention must start long before students arrive at college as heterosexism is pervasive throughout the world. Therefore, campuses ought to serve as advocacy centers by encouraging and rewarding political and social justice efforts beyond the immediate campus limits.


All manifestations of oppression are extremely harmful to college and university communities. Homophobia and heterosexism are harmful to not only gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students but also to all heterosexual individuals. Student affairs educators must be aware of the many subtle and overt ways in which campus communities are being destroyed because of homophobic and heterosexist practices and sentiments of faculty, staff, and students.

Student affairs educators have a responsibility to serve all students. It is critical to the development of the national student body that they examine and evaluate the effectiveness of their service. Educators should first reflect on their personal attitudes. They cannot effectively identify or initiate progress within campus communities until they understand themselves. Next, they must implement anti-heterosexism plans for students and staff. They must investigate institutional policies and extract heterosexist ideals from their core. Lastly, they must strive to be advocates and allies for GLBT students. Student affairs educators have an incredible opportunity to influence a new generation of humanity. Let them utilize their opportunity to create advocates and allies for the future and to serve as catalysts for progress to the prevention of heterosexism.


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Ross, M. (1995, June). Acculturation, social supports, and life events stressors in gay men. Presented at the Vermont Conference on the Primary Prevention of Psychopathology: Prevention of Heterosexism and Homophobia, Burlington, VT.

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Beth is a 1993 graduate of Loyola College in Maryland with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. Currently, Beth is a second year HESA student at The University of Vermont and works for the Department of Residential Life.

Last modified July 29 2002 11:48 AM

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