What is heterosexism?

Heterosexism is the false belief that heterosexuality is the only correct sexuality and is superior to homosexuality. It is used to justify the fear of, discrimination against, or hatred of people who have or are perceived to have a same-sex sexuality or relationship.

Homophobia is another term that you may be more familiar with since it is commonly used in place of heterosexism. Some have realized homophobia is an inaccurate term because it makes LGBT+ discrimination a phobia, or something that cannot be helped.

Following this line of thinking, it has been suggested that it would be better to use heterosexism, which is specifically defined as discrimination against homosexuals based on the belief that heterosexuality is the only right sexual orientation.

Accordingly, related words such as biphobia or transphobia could be conveyed with the terms monosexism (the belief that single-sex attraction is superior to bisexuality) or cissexism (the belief that cisgender individuals are superior to transgender and nonbinary individuals).

At the time of publication, homophobia, and other related “phobia” words, are still in popular use, and so you might see them used throughout this guide.

However, it’s important to be accurate and intentional about our language, so the words heterosexism, monosexism, and cissexism will be used as the primary words to describe discrimination against the queer community.

What does this type of discrimination look like?

Discrimination against the queer community takes many forms.

Derogatory language, jokes, and insults may be used against queer people. Also, queer individuals are often discriminated against by the government and by businesses, as well as individuals.

For example, LGBT+ people can be denied housing or fired from their jobs because of their identities, and queer couples can be barred from adopting children or getting married, in addition to business owners refusing service to queer people.

Queer people also experience discrimination in healthcare and a lack of protection from hate crimes. 

Physical violence is another avenue of discrimination, from queer youth being physically bullied by classmates in school to the disproportionate rate of fatal violence that transgender people experience.

What is internalized oppression?

The heterosexist ideas and messages that exist in our society are sometimes believed by those in the LGBT+ community.  LGBT+ individuals internalize these negative attitudes towards themselves with significant damage to their self-perception. 

This is referred to as self-prejudice, internalized oppression, or internalized homophobia, and it can be very harmful to the well-being of queer people.

What does internalized oppression look like?

Internalized oppression shows up in many ways.  Queer people might try to change their sexual orientation or gender identity or simply deny their LGBT+ identity. 

Internalized oppression can lead to poor self-image, making individuals think poorly of their self-worth and body image.  It can also impact the relationships queer people form, making it less likely that they will have positive long-lasting relationships. 

This type of negative self-image fosters shame, anger, and fear.  Sometimes, it can contribute to serious issues such as mental health struggles, substance abuse, and risky sexual behaviour.

Additionally, some queer people might participate in discrimination, bullying, and violence against other queer people, often out of a desire to distance themselves from the LGBT+ community or out of self-hatred for their own LGBT+ identity.

How can I get help with these issues?

No matter what form it takes, nobody deserves discrimination because of their sexuality or gender identity. Learning about internalized oppression is important so that you can recognize it in yourself and work to overcome it.

The negative attitudes about the queer community are not accurate and you do not have to believe them, but they can be difficult to overcome. If you or someone you know is struggling with any of these issues, please reach out to others for help.

The Resources tab in the main menu hosts a collection of campus resources for queer people looking for support from other queer people in our community, as well as online communities both regionally and nationally that can help provide support as well.

If you’re feeling depressed, suicidal, or just need someone safe to talk to right now, The Trevor Project serves young people 24/7 through a hotline at 1-866-488-7386, through text messaging by texting START to 678678, and through computer instant messaging through their website which can be accessed here.

While on campus, look for the Safe Zone symbol on the office doors of faculty and staff.  This symbol indicates that the individual has gone through Safe Zone training and wishes to be an ally and advocate for the LGBT+ community.

The ETSU Safe Zone symbol.

ETSU’s discrimination and harassment policy includes “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”  If you experience or witness discrimination or harassment on campus, you can discuss reporting options with a couple of people:

Students can contact Michelle Edwards who is the Assistant Equity Compliance Officer and Acting Title VI/Title IX Coordinator in the University Compliance office, and she can be reached by email at edwardsmf@etsu.edu or by phone at 423-439-8543.

Or, students can talk with Dr. Michell Byrd the Dean of Students in the Student Life and Enrollment office, and she can be reached either by email at byrdt@etsu.edu or by phone at 423-439-4210.

For employees reporting discrimination or harassment, you can contact Diana McClay, Director of Employee Relations in the Human Resources office by email at mcclayd@etsu.edu or by phone at 423-439-6125.

How can I help stop discrimination?

There are many ways we can all contribute to help stop discrimination.  Even a few small acts can make a big impact.

  • Think critically about negative attitudes towards LGBT+ people; don’t assume these negative ideas are true
  • Interrupt jokes or other comments that discriminate against the queer community
  • Be mindful of language; there are many words used to talk about the queer community, try to educate yourself about as many terms as possible (Check out the Terminology tab in the main menu above to get started!)
  • Connect with community members; if you’re queer, find others you can help support, and if you’re straight, serve as an ally
  • Educate yourself about the queer community and then share that knowledge with others


ETSU Safe Zone

ETSU University Compliance

Planned Parenthood. “What is Homophobia?”

Revel and Riot. “Internalized Homophobia.”

The Trevor Project

Frost, David M., and Ilan Meyer. (2009). Internalized Homophobia and Relationship Quality Among Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals, Journal of Counseling Psychology.