Heterosexual privilege in higher education

True equality can only be accomplished if all teachers, of all sexual orientations, talk about sexual minorities and use the experiences of LGBT lives to illustrate curricular content in class.
Eric Anderson Matthew Ripley
6 February 2012

While decreasing homophobia is an uneven social process, considerable legal and social progress has occurred for sexual minorities in the UK in recent years. Highlighting the depth of these changes, new OfSTED guidelines now compel schools to actively promote the inclusion of sexualities. Government directives even recommend doing this through both discussing gay history and introducing students to gay role models.

This improvement has had a palpable effect on schools and universities. In his book, The Decreasing Significance of Homophobia, Mark McCormack shows that rather than gay students being marginalised, it is instead homophobia that is stigmatized among British youth. 

This finding is reflected within our research on a group of 18-year-old incoming university students. In this study, we surveyed over 200 students about their attitudes toward homosexuality. Results showed that 97% indicated strong support for homosexuality. However, we desired to know whether these students might not implicitly marginalise homosexuality through a processes of privileging heterosexuality - something known as heteronormativity. We therefore designed a novel form of classroom-based research. 

The experiment saw an openly gay sociologist, Professor Eric Anderson (now at the University of Winchester), teaching a ten-week sport history class. Here, Professor Anderson specifically used examples that featured the lives of both heterosexual and homosexual people within the context of the lecture. Two researchers, sitting at the back of the room, independently coded these examples.

‘Straight’ was coded, for example, if he said: 

“Tom and Jennifer wanted to bring their kids to a football game but couldn’t get in, as the tickets were too expensive.” 

Examples were coded ‘gay’ if he said:

“Tom and Tony wanted to bring their kids to a football game but couldn’t get in, as the tickets were too expensive.”

Immediately following the weekly lecture, the two (openly straight) researchers interviewed six students (three male and three female). In total, 32 students were interviewed: all were unaware of the nature of the study.

Results from the interviews show that students overwhelmingly over-estimate the frequency of gay examples used in lecture. Consequently, they underestimated the frequency of straight examples. 

When provided with an example of what classified as a gay or straight example, and then asked how many times the lecturer used each, one student said, “I would say 10 to 1 gay. I really like the class, but all the lecturer ever talks about is gay!” Most students echoed this view. “It would be like 6 to 1. You can’t deny that it’s just gay, gay, gay with him.” 

On average, the students believed that the lecturer used more gay examples than straight examples at a ratio of 4 gay to 1 straight. However, the coding of examples found that the actual ratio was 2 gay to every 3 straight.  In other words, the students in this experiment were unable to recognize and/or recall examples where heterosexuals were invoked, while overly estimating the number of gay mentions.

Students were also asked about the Professor’s use of heterosexuals or homosexuals as part of the content of a lecture. Discussing the experiences of gay men in sport was classified as ‘gay content’ while discussing the use of sport to help prevent teenage pregnancy was classified as ‘straight content.’ Here, students rarely assessed that the Professor spoke about heterosexuality at all. Most insisted that content was exclusively gay when the instructor actually spoke more frequently about heterosexuality.

Given these findings, it is perhaps no surprise that despite general fondness for Professor Anderson, the majority of students both saw him as ‘the gay lecturer’ and felt that he always spoke about ‘gay stuff’ and never about straight.

So why did these students so drastically overestimate gay and underestimate straight? We conclude that, although highly inclusive of sexual minorities, the students nonetheless are used to inadvertently privileging heterosexuality. Contemporary British society is so heavily saturated with heterosexuality that people fail to see ‘straight.’ It is this privileging of heterosexuality that permits thousands of straight couples to hold hands in a park unnoticed while a gay couple receives attention for the same act. In other words, heterosexuality is normalized to the point of invisibility.


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