In this recent exchange on another blog, I realized that my use of the term "heterosexual supremacy" was a cause of confusion. Once in a while I think it's useful for me to do a post just to clarify where I'm coming from.
Heterosexism is a sick belief (or belief structure) that I will sometimes call "heterosexual supremacy. " In its essence, it is a belief in the superiority of heterosexuality over homosexuality, and it typically includes as its inevitable correlates moralistic denunciations of homosexual sex as "intrinsically disordered," etc. In short, it is the position of the orthodox Roman Catholic institution and most conservative religions (that is, religions in the mythic-membership stage of development). See this piece in What is Enlightenment? to learn more about the primary stages of development in religions and cultures.
But isn't it possible to simply deny that one is a heterosexual supremacist by asserting that one's beliefs pertain only to actions, and not to persons? For example, in my recent exchange with a conservative religionist, I observed the comment: "Sex apart from the covenant of [heterosexual, I presume] marriage is sinful. The church teaches this regardless of people's orientation -- so, for instance, heterosexual fornication and heterosexual adultery are sinful." In my book, no. The claim that the views of conservative religionists are heterosexist is not a claim about the motivations of religionists nor about their moral integrity in other areas of life. Good, well-intentioned people can be heterosexists, just as they may be sexist or racist or whatever. The question of whether a view is heterosexist turns simply on an objective analysis of a person's claims about sexuality.
At the mythic-membership stage of development, human sexual behavior is seen as a set of actions that must be performed or avoided in conformance to the mythic order. It is expected that religionists arguing about homosexuality will strive to limit the discussion to actions rather than innate characteristics, because their views have not evolved to a framework where they see sexuality from a perspective that includes and transcends innate sexual identities. That is, they see homosexuals as nothing but disordered heterosexuals. At this level, sexual behaviors are to be judged by a traditional mythic framework (marriage is for one man, one woman, because God said so, case closed). Men are the embodiment of the universal masculine principle, just because they're men. Women are the embodiment of a universal feminine principle, just because they're women. The universal masculine and feminine principles are complementary, therefore sexual behavior is only properly ordered when it is between one man and one woman.
Beyond the mythic-membership ethics of traditional marriage and condemnation of homosexual behavior, there are several more highly evolved stages of consciousness in which homosexuality can be more adequately understood and appreciated. In the rational stage of development there is the emergence of what spiritual teacher David Deida calls the 50/50 Relationship, or Balanced Relationship. At this stage, masculinity and femininity are generally not acknowledged as universal principles; instead, the fundamental equality of men and women is affirmed. Relationships governed by equality and freedom from rigid gender roles are the norm.
To the extent that this style of relationship recognizes masculine and feminine essences at all, they are perceived as potentialities of all individuals, and the goal of individual development is to balance both natures within the self. Men should develop their "feminine side," and women should "empower their inner warrior." Homosexuality is not viewed as a disordered sexual act; rather, it is studied as a more complex phenomenon involving individual and collective biological, psychosexual and cultural aspects. Traditional beliefs about homosexuality are repudiated at this level of consciousness as heterosexism, just as traditional gender roles are repudiated as sexism.
Beyond the 50/50 Relationship there is also a mode of relationship that Deida calls "intimate communion" and claims is characterized by a process of open-hearted surrender to being overwhelmed in love, and sees intimate relationships as the giving and receiving of our deeest sexual, emotional, and spiritual gifts. At this stage of development, universal sexual essences (masculine and feminine principles) are once again recognized. However, unlike the old-fashioned style of relationship, the universal sexual essences are not seen as biologically pre-determined in a simplistic fashion. Instead, the feminine and masculine sexual essences are understood as universals within each person, and the goal is not merely balancing the natures within the self, but bringing forth from within one's own unique gifts and essence. Persons with a predominantly feminine nature must bring out their true feminine core; persons with a masculine nature must bring out their true masculine core; those with a balanced essence, must bring out both.
At this stage of development, homosexuality and heterosexuality are seen as fundamentally similar as manifestations of the core sexual essences; straight, gay, and bisexual sexual identities are also fundamentally similar as identities that are expressions of universal realities. This stage includes and transcends the best aspects of all previous stages--including the 50/50 Relationship stage. Just because someone is a man does not mean they are the universal embodiment of a masculine sexual energies; maybe they are, or maybe they aren't. That's for them to figure out ... to embrace their unique gifts, and give them forth to the world. At this stage of development, heterosexism is still just as despicable as at the previous stage. In fact, at this stage, the peculiar evil of heterosexism is most clearly witnessed for the first time: in privileging heterosexuals over homosexuals, and valuing heterosexual sex over homosexual sex, heterosexism amounts to a denial of the truly sacred nature of sexuality, and the truth that persons of all sexual orientations and identities may come to express their sacred gifts in responsible and sacred manners.
So in sum, it is vital to any discussion of heterosexism to understand how heterosexism is viewed at various main levels of consciousness. At pre-rational stages of awareness, including the mythic structures of traditional religion, heterosexism (like sexism) is not yet recognized. Persons at this stage of awareness view human sexuality as primarily about actions, a matter of knowing which genitals should be placed in which orifice, and what rituals need to be performed in order to sanctify the genital contact within a given mythic order. Christians (or others) at this stage of development will, like Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Olsen in this piece, condemn homosexual sex as intrinsically wrong. At higher levels of consciousness, heterosexism is recognized as an unjustified and irrational privileging of one social group over another (heterosexuals over homosexuals), and as an irrational attempt to understand sexuality by virtue of mythic presuppositions (God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve). Christians at this stage of awareness will frequently advocate liberal or liberation theologies that understand that their traditions have been compromised by sins of sexism and heterosexism. They will advocate reformed or reconstructed theologies that honor the essential spiritual truths of their traditions, properly purified of the sexist or heterosexist elements.
It is my belief that ultimately awareness of heterosexism itself is a passing stage in consciousness development. Beyond the traditionalism of religionists, and beyond the egalitarianism of the liberation theologians, there lies an integral approach that honors sexuality and spirituality in the most encompassing possible way. The ultimate goal is not blurring all distinctions of value among heterosexuals and homosexuals, nor distinctions between men and women, but rather empowering all individuals to give from their sacred sexual essence the unique gifts that they have to give. Christians (and others) at this stage of awareness will recognize value in both the universal sexual essences at work in human nature and in the myriad expressions of those essences in a plurality of gender and sexual identities and relationship styles.