June 8, 2011

What Is Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

Sexual minorities continue to be the targets of sexual orientation discrimination, which results in negative economic and health consequences.

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The legacy of discrimination in the United States is as old as the oft-cited value that “all men [and women] are created equal.”  Despite efforts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists to advance laws to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as early as the 1950s, local and state governments have only started to acknowledge and criminalize sexual orientation discrimination within the past few years.  In fact, only 21 states currently ban sexual orientation discrimination, and no such federal law exists.

What Is Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

Sexual orientation discrimination is any kind of unjust or unfair treatment on the basis of an individuals’ sexual orientation or sexual identity.  Given their marginalized status in society, such discrimination is faced almost exclusively by sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual people); however, some studies of reports of sexual orientation discrimination have found that a very small number of heterosexuals report such discrimination (see for example the National Survey for Midlife Development in the United States).

Sexual orientation discrimination happens in many ways and in different institutions.  However, there are three main types (or levels) of sexual orientation discrimination:

  • Interpersonal sexual orientation discrimination: this occurs at the individual level.  That is, one person or a small group of people discriminate against another person or group of people.  This often occurs in the workplace, for example, as unfairly firing or denying a job or promotion to a person because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
  • Organizational sexual orientation discrimination: this occurs at the organizational level.  Typically, this occurs when a company or organization has formally or informally set or enacted a rule to treat one sexual orientation group differently (i.e., worse) than another group.  For example, some organizations and businesses have received negative media attention for explicitly firing, denying jobs to, or business and services to sexual minorities.  The US military’sDon’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits armed service people from publicly acknowledging a non-heterosexual identity, has recently received a great deal of political and media attention.
  • Structural sexual orientation discrimination: this occurs at the structural or societal level.  This form of discrimination exists in laws, policies, and macro-level values and practices that privilege one group (heterosexuals) over another (sexual minorities).  An example of this type of discrimination that is a current hot topic is the banning of same-sex marriage in most US states and at the national level.  Structural sexual orientation discrimination is related to, or sometimes called, heterosexism, the set of attitudes and behaviors which value and normalize heterosexuality, while keeping homosexuality and bisexuality invisible or treating them as inferior or deviant.  For example, most (heterosexual) parents raise their children automatically assuming they are heterosexual, keeping invisible or demonizing homosexuality and bisexuality.

When most people think of discrimination, they typically focus on an individual’s unfair treatment of another (interpersonal discrimination).  However, it is important to recognize all three levels of sexual orientation discrimination and the impact they have on the lives of sexual minorities.

The Consequences Of Sexual Orientation Discrimination

While there are many ways that sexual minorities are harmed by sexual orientation discrimination, two consequences of such discrimination have received a great deal of attention by researchers and even in the media: sexual orientation health and pay disparities.  Here, at Kinsey Confidential, we have covered the way anti-LGBT harassment, violence, and discrimination produces higher rates of mental illness, psychological distress, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among sexual minorities compared to heterosexuals.  Researchers have also documented that structural discrimination, including banning same-sex marriage, has similar harmful effects on the health and well-being of sexual minorities.

Similarly, researchers have found sexual minorities to receive lower incomes than heterosexuals, especially among men, arguably because of sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.  For example, sociologists Amanda K. Baumle and Dudley L. Poston, Jr. recently published an article documenting significantly smaller incomes of gay and bisexual men compared to (married) heterosexual men.  Interestingly, lesbian and bisexual women report significantly larger wages than heterosexual women.  Whereas gay and bisexual men receive smaller incomes than married heterosexual men, but not unmarried cohabiting heterosexual men, Baumle and Poston concluded that the pay gap between gay and bisexual men and heterosexual men is at least partly due to access to marriage/denial of same-sex marriage (a form of structural sexual orientation discrimination).  They also found that the sexual orientation pay gap was slightly smaller in states that ban sexual orientation discrimination.

Does Sexual Orientation Discrimination Hurt Straight People?

Is it possible that a heterosexual person can be the victim of sexual orientation discrimination?  Some might argue yes.  As I noted earlier, some heterosexual people report being discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.  And, there are some who have reported being the victim of an anti-heterosexual hate crime.  But, given their privileged status in society, heterosexuals are rarely victimized by interpersonal sexual orientation discrimination, and likely never harmed by organizational and structural sexual orientation discrimination.  In general, sexual minorities are the targets of such discrimination at all three levels.

But, indirectly, heterosexuals are hurt by discrimination against sexual minorities.  For example, the friends and families of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are indirectly affected by the economic and health consequences of sexual orientation discrimination.  This may include having to support a sibling who has been fired because she is bisexual, or paying for one’s child’s hospital bills after being hospitalized after an attacked at school by homophobic bullies, or the distance a gay friend always keeps up because he does not fully trust heterosexuals after his parents rejected him because of his sexual identity.  At a broader level, the privileging of heterosexuality over homosexuality and bisexuality means behaving in ways that confirm one’s heterosexual identity, namely in terms following of strict gender norms, to avoid the assumption that one is lesbian, gay, or bisexual (and, thus, facing harassment or discrimination).  Indeed, it is beneficial to society as a whole to eliminate sexual orientation discrimination, as well as all other forms of unjust treatment.