The Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch Lecture Series started a little differently Wednesday afternoon: instead of running through a typical PowerPoint presentation telling students how they should feel about heterosexuality, Courtney Jacob D’Allaird, assistant director of Intercultural Student Engagement and Coordination for the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at the University of Albany, challenged students to come up with their own definition.
D’Allaird said taking the time to nail down exactly what “heterosexuality” is during the lecture, titled “Racism, Sexism, Classism and Heterosexuality, Have we ever really talked about it?”, is important part of understanding its impacts on society. While it is common to discuss what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ community, they said, people rarely discuss what it means to be heterosexual.
“It literally creates no place for anything else to exist. In heterosexuality this is the world, there are males and females and they’re attracted to each other. End scene.” D’Allaird said. “If we only use heterosexuality as a lens to view the world, we lose everything else.”
Gathered around a large whiteboard, students jotted down their stream of thought associations with words like classism, heterosexism, colonialism and other loaded terms. In the end, the class agree on one definition for heterosexuality: “attraction to the opposite sex between traditionally male and female people.”
This framework is often accompanied by the assumption that a man’s chief goal should be sex and that women, on some level, exist to service that need, D’Allaird said. That may seem simple enough, but on a societal level it can result in a myriad of issues.
“In our culture in the United States, you’re not just labeled male or female in the world, you’re also now on a trajectory. You’re not just going to be male, but you’re going be masculine. You’re not just going to be female, but you’re going to be feminine. These are not equal trajectories because our culture favors men,” they said.
This imbalance of power is evident throughout daily life in everything from our clothing to the language we use, D’Allaird said. If you went out to eat with a group of friends, for example, the waiter would only address the group as “ladies” if everyone present appeared to be female, while all it takes in a single male to justify calling a group “guys.” Alternatively, they said, females are welcome to wear pants while males can face violent repercussions for wearing a dress or skirt in public.
These vastly different situations stem from a single underlying idea evident everywhere from racial segregation to colonialism, D’Allaird said: that being feminine is somehow degrading, and that everyone should aspire to masculinity.
“We have a default on the masculine, not only in pronouns, but what professionalism is. Power and masculinity are often wrapped up,” D’Allaird said. “Who we see as crossdressing are very specific. Women and girls can be tomboys, but do we have janegirls for guys? ‘He’s just a janegirl, he’s like the purple teletubby, he just likes to carry a purse.’ We don’t have that.”
Wanmin Li, a 7th-semester marketing major, said D’Allaird’s explanation helped demonstrate how men and women are treated differently in everyday life.
“I know there’s a hierarchy, but I didn’t notice all of it before,” Li said.
Trying to force LGBTQ people into this heterosexual framework can also result in serious consequences, D’Allaird said. The emphasis on gender essentialism leaves little room for transgender people, for example, and hypersexualizes those of many orientations.
“That’s the water we swim in when we talk about heterosexuality,” D’Allaird said. “We have to be able to see how we are recreating this if we are going to create a more equitable society.”
Kimberly Armstrong is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.