Given the complexities of the social environment in which we currently live, there are a myriad of issues which divide society for one reason or another. Among these, the issue of sexism, or more precisely heterosexism, is prevalent in American society today, whether one realizes it or not. In an effort to identify and better understand heterosexism requires additional research and discussion, which will be presented in this essay through the use of several sources, including literature and film.
To begin, one must fully understand exactly what is meant by heterosexuality as well as how the concept of identifying and separating sexual preferences came about. While there is proof from the beginnings of recorded history of individuals whose sexual preference ranged from the opposite gender to same gender to either gender, the societal differentiation of sexual preferences truly started to emerge in the Victorian era of the 19th century when the concept of sexuality began to be discussed in the mainstream, in a sense coming out from behind the closed doors of the bedrooms of the era (Rothenberg, 2007). At that point, there began to form within “popular culture”, as it existed at that time, a variation between the heterosexual-one who has an erotic/romantic interest in the opposite gender and the homosexual-one who has the same kinds of interests, albeit for the same gender as they. Also, the concept of the bisexual individual came to being-one who has an interest in their same gender and the opposite gender as well. At this point, along with those defined differences, came the accompanying social divides along the lines of sexual preference-and the advent of homophobia, which is to say the opposition to, or even hatred of, homosexuality and homosexuals themselves.
The reasons for homophobia, while in many cases widely speculative, can be explained to a certain extent because of the fact that homosexuality goes against the norms that society determines for the genders. Taking this concept back to a most basic level, one needs to understand how conventional society places people into gender roles quite literally from the day of one’s birth. In most cases, based upon whether the biological designation of a human being is male or female, by the dictates of society, the genders are dressed a certain way, led to prefer games, toys and habits based on their gender, and are treated in vastly different ways as well (Pharr, 1988).
Along with the development of the young person’s gender identity, they are also indoctrinated with belief systems that teach them that any other people who do not behave as their gender roles dictate are somehow less important and are acceptable in terms of being able to be openly ridiculed and persecuted (Pharr, 1988). Although the whole of society, when asked, would say that the use of insulting names or unfair treatment of homosexuals is morally wrong, there also seems to be a sort of unwritten tolerance of what can be called heterosexism, or the belief system and associated preconceptions and behaviors that simultaneously promote the idea of heterosexuality as a superior way of life and homosexuality as inferior and unacceptable in popular society (Rothenberg, 2007).
Within American society, the promotion of heterosexism appears to be widespread, and continuing to be as such with the evolution of society and the continuing increase in the complexity of everyday life. While it would be convenient to simply dismiss this as outright prejudice, it in fact goes much deeper than that. For all of the talk of homophobia being based old fashioned hatred, it also appears to have some roots in fear, which is to say that in the case of heterosexual men, for example, homophobia comes from the fear of the stability of their own masculinity, more than just a resentment of those whose lifestyles differ from theirs (Pharr, 1988).
The struggle between heterosexism and homosexuality in American society is also reflected by art that imitates life, such as in modern film. One key example of this is the 1988 film “Torch Song Trilogy”, which is relevant not only because of the outright plot of the film, but also for the underlying social themes of the film itself.
To briefly summarize the plot of the film, a modern day drag queen deals with life offstage, particularly in the areas of romantic/sexual situations with men and the complicated relationship which he has with his overbearing and emotionally intense mother. On the romantic front, Arnold, the main character/drag queen, finds himself confronted with a romantic interest in a man who proves to be possibly more interested in women than in men. Because of this conflict in the romantic feelings of Arnold’s partner for him, Arnold is greatly conflicted and goes through what can best be called a period of self discovery, trying to understand his lover, himself, and how all of this can be put together to make some sense in a world which seems at this point to make no sense at all. Adding to the confusion and tumult is Arnold’s mother, whose main purpose in Arnold’s life seems at least on the surface to be to antagonize him and to make him feel even more confused and inadequate (Bogart, 1988). However, by looking beneath the surface of the issues and interpersonal relationships and their associated complications in the film, we can see a certain measure of social commentary in “Torch Light Trilogy”.
Overall, what we see in Arnold is someone who must confront their own sexuality and grasp the reality that his sexuality, indeed him being “just the way he is”, goes against the norms of society, but at the same time, he cannot simply change they way he is in the way that one would change their hairstyle or wardrobe as an example. Further, Arnold is perplexed; it seems as to how his partner can so easily switch his sexuality on and off, while Arnold seems trapped in his for better or for worse. Also, in his mother, Arnold sees a heterosexual person who does not exactly appear to be the happiest individual in the world. Overall, what can be seen in “Trilogy” is the complex nature of homosexuality in modern America and the effect that it has on those close to the homosexual individual.
The research conducted and conclusions drawn in considering the intertwined issues of heterosexism and homosexuality have led to a few key points; first, for all of the efforts of society to compartmentalize individuals into sexuality roles based on their biological designation at birth, the physiology of the individual often forms their roles and can overpower what society says is the proper way to conduct one’s sexuality. Moreover, it also appears clear that those who so vehemently hate homosexuals do so because of the fear of something that they do not understand, rather than opposing something that they think they do understand. For the families of homosexuals, there also exists an often confusing dynamic which society basically uses to compel these individuals to discriminate against homosexuals even within their own families. The challenge from this point is for society to come to the realization that gender roles are more biological than motivational in nature, are in fact more related to nature than nurture, and that the proliferation of heterosexism is only a thinly veiled version of homosexual hatred. With these points in mind, perhaps society can better respect gender differences and be the better for it.
PART II- “Reflection Project Essay”
This course has led me to a great deal of reflection and introspection; through the analysis of my own life, social influences in my life, and the social norms that I have witnessed, and continue to witness, for better or worse, have led me to view many of the challenges that I face in my life much like a birdcage; this cage is constructed of very specific bars and serves a very specific purpose.
First, I should explain the validity of my birdcage analogy; I see myself as a bird who, given my druthers, would be able to freely fly about, wherever the wind and my own ambition would take me, all the while singing the sweet song that can only come from the complete peace that comes from total freedom. However, this freedom is made impossible by the birdcage which holds me in place and keeps me from soaring into the clouds.
This birdcage, as was previously mentioned, is made solid by bars that have been specifically constructed and placed in such a way as to make freedom impossible. The first of these bars, indeed one of the largest and hardest bars is made of racial intolerance. As an African-American, I learned from a very early age that I would not always be viewed as an equal to my Caucasian counterparts, and in many situations, would be regarded as being much less than an equal in fact. Because of the fact that my skin is of a much darker color than many other African –Americans, discrimination on racial lines has been all the more acute for me than many others. In my mind’s eye, I can travel back to a recollection when, as a young child, I attended a birthday party for another child, and being the only African-American at the party, let alone having very dark skin, I was ridiculed by the other children, making me feel inferior. As I grew older, this racial difference led me to the belief that I was not as attractive as I could be to the opposite sex, only adding to the discomfort I felt from a racial point of view. Hence, the first bar of my birdcage was solidly forged and locked into place.
The second bar of my birdcage is formed by socioeconomic factors; while I did in fact grow up in a middle class which afforded me many benefits that others in lower classes did not have, such as access to solid education, stable housing, food, clothing and so forth, there was also the feeling that I was in the middle of the “haves and have nots” which led to a certain level of tension and wondering as to where I would eventually end up as an adult. This, in fact, placed another bar firmly in my cage.
The “isms” eventually made up another bar in the birdcage which surrounds me; what is meant by this are such social ills as racism, classism and sexism, which have many far reaching unfavorable consequences for modern society. Personally, also as a woman, the “isms” have at one time or another led to my being outcast from certain areas/opportunities, ridicule as in the case of my childhood experiences that were earlier related, verbal abuse from others in many segments of society, and physical abuse. Also, the “isms” have led me to the assertion, whether accurate or not, that I could someday actually be imprisoned because of my racial and gender differences, thereby taking away my literal freedom as well as my perception of freedom. Classism has in some respects made me feel guilty for the level of economic status I have in society, while others do not possess such a level. These factors have formed yet another bar in the birdcage.
My gender, whether I have taken the time to realize it or not, has seemed to have formed a bar in my birdcage. Because of the mere fact that I am a female, the reality is that society in many instances can look on me as less than favorable in comparison to a male in terms of access to employment opportunities, education, and the like. Even in the 21st century, there are those of narrow mind in society that feel that women should automatically take a subordinate role to that of men, and as such, automatically force women into a role of submission regardless of their qualifications, redeeming qualities, and so forth. Therefore, my gender role has in fact led to yet another bar in the cage that holds me inside.
My birdcage is not in effect a “life sentence”, lest I give that impression; rather, in looking at ways to break free from the cage, it seems that there are certain bars that can be somewhat bent, thereby allowing me to be able to fly free, wherever I may wish. The first bar that can be bent to facilitate an escape of sorts is that of racial intolerance. While it is unlikely that I, as one individual, can eradicate racial intolerance from the face of the earth, I can wage an individual battle against it, by starting with my own circumstances. The people that would hold me back because of my race have no right to do so; with this in mind, I will refuse to submit to these bigoted individuals. As an example, if they close one door of opportunity to me, I will try to enter another door. Ultimately, as a result of my persistence and inner strength, I will be able to achieve my own personal victory against this social scourge.
Once the first bar is bent, others will surely follow; specifically, the bar that represents socioeconomic factors can be pushed aside; once again, while I cannot change my past socioeconomic factors, through hard work and achievement, I can overcome the socioeconomics of my past and provide a more stable future for myself, and possible future generations of my family, which will make an essential difference for countless people long after my life’s journey is complete.
Lastly, while daunting to say the least, I may also be able to bend the bar of “isms”; indeed, this is the most solid of all of the bars, but the leverage from the bending of the other bars may make this possible.
Reflecting back on me, what the birdcage analogy means to me personally is that I can either view past obstacles as something that will keep me confined for life, or challenges to strive for changing to improve my life, my world, and that of others. Ultimately, if every individual sought to do this, the sweeping social change that makes the world a better place could become more of a reality.