Slurs, Snubs, and Queer Jokes: Incidence and Impact
of Heterosexist Harassment in Academia
Perry Silverschanz &Lilia M. Cortina &Julie Konik &
Vicki J. Magley
Published online: 27 September 2007
#Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007
Abstract Previous research has suggested that overt hostil-
ity against sexual minorities is associated with decrements in
their well-being. However, subtler forms of heterosexism and
their potential effects have been overlooked, heterosexuals
have not been asked how they fare in a heterosexist
environment, and no research has examined whether women
and men might respond differently to heterosexism. Data
from 3,128 northwestern US university students (represent-
ing all sexual orientations) address these gaps. Approximate-
ly 40% reported experiences of heterosexist harassment
(HH) in the past year, and those who encountered both
ambient and personal HH reported worse psychological and
academic well-being than those who encountered no HH.
Similar patterns of findings held for sexual minorities and
heterosexuals, and for women and men.
Keywords Heterosexism .Harassment .Sexual minorities .
College students .Academic outcomes
Heterosexist acts range from anti-gay epithets to violence to
murder. More common, however, are subtle slights and
indignities, such as the treatment of same-sex sexuality as
invisible. Individuals who deviate from traditional mascu-
linity and femininity are particularly vulnerable to hetero-
sexist victimization, so it is often interpreted as a punishment
for violating gender-normative prescriptions (e.g., Kite and
Whitley 1998; McCreary 1994). Put simply by Kitzinger
(2001), “heterosexism...is one of the ways in which strict
adherence to gender role stereotypes is enforced, and gender
oppression maintained”(p. 277).
Past work on heterosexism has concentrated heavily on
behaviors at the more extreme end of the spectrum (e.g.,
Berrill 1992;D’Augelli and Grossman 2001; Otis and
Skinner 1996). We sought to expand this literature by
investigating the nature and correlates of less extreme, non-
physical heterosexist harassment in academia. This study
makes novel contributions by examining both sex and
sexual orientation as potential moderators of the impact of
heterosexist harassment. We also undertook one of the first
examinations to date of heterosexism experienced by not
only lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals but also
heterosexuals, arguing that one need not have a minority
Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
This paper is based on a presentation given at the American
Psychological Association Convention in Toronto, Ontario in
Department of Psychology and School of Social Work,
University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
L. M. Cortina :J. Konik
Department of Psychology and Program in Women’s Studies,
University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109, USA
V. J. Magley
Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut,
Storrs, CT, USA
P. Silverschanz (*)
Substance Abuse Research Center, University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor, MI 48105-2194, USA
sexual orientation to be targeted with such abuse. We exam-
ined these questions using a large-scale survey of university
students-heterosexual and nonheterosexual, female and male.
The Nature and Incidence of Heterosexism
Herek (1990, p. 316) defined heterosexism as “an ideolog-
ical system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any
nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship or
community.”He distinguished between cultural heterosex-
ism (institutionalized favoritism) and psychological hetero-
sexism (harassment against individuals). The latter construct
encompasses a variety of behaviors, including verbal insult,
property damage, theft, and physical and sexual assault
against persons perceived as sexual minorities. Our focus
here is on a subset of these behaviors, which we term hetero-
sexist harassment (HH). HH refers to insensitive verbal and
symbolic (but non-assaultive) behaviors that convey ani-
mosity toward non-heterosexuality. This conceptualization
of HH encapsulates both personal experiences of harassment
and discrimination (directly targeted acts, such as being
called “dyke”to one’s face) as well as ambient experiences
(actions that take place within the environment but are not
directed at a specific target, such as the telling of anti-LGB
jokes that can be heard by anyone within earshot). Con-
sequently, the present study broadens existing conceptu-
alizations of heterosexist victimization to include more
generalized environmental actions which function to create
a climate of negativity toward sexual minorities.
In addition to expanding the range of possible hetero-
sexist behaviors, this study also extends the research by
exploring how heterosexuals can be influenced by this
harassment. Individuals can encounter HH regardless of
their actual sexual orientation, in part because sexual
identities are often invisible (Badgett 1996). In one study,
98% of a random sample of heterosexual college freshmen
reported having heard occasional or frequent disparaging
remarks about lesbians or gay men—a form of ambient HH
(D’Augelli and Rose 1990). Furthermore, heterosexuals are
not immune to being personally mistreated based on a
presumption of sexual-minority status (personal HH).
Heterosexism may be rooted in the enforcement of
traditional gender roles, in that negative attitudes toward
sexual minorities are often linked to perceptions that gay
men and lesbians violate stereotypes of acceptable gender
behavior (Herek 1986; Kite and Whitley 1998; Konik and
Cortina in press). Consequently, heterosexual women and
men who transgress gender norms may have their hetero-
sexuality questioned as a means of reinforcing conventional
masculinity and femininity (Kitzinger 2001). An assump-
tion might be made that they are not heterosexual based
solely on their perceived gender-role nonconformity; thus,
they may be targeted with HH (Fineran 2002). In one study,
10% of heterosexual students reported being verbally
insulted as a result of being perceived as a sexual minority
(Norris 1992). For these reasons, we predicted that both
sexual-minority and heterosexual students will report
experiences of HH on campus (Hypothesis 1a).
Our next hypotheses pertain to the two subtypes of HH.
We predicted that, among sexual minority students, those
experiencing HH would be more likely to report personal
HH than ambient HH (Hypothesis 1b). Individuals willing
to identify themselves as non-heterosexual may be more
likely to be hassled openly by insensitive others, as has
been found in the workplace literature (Badgett 2003;
Croteau and Lark 1995;Waldo1999). However, the
converse might be true for heterosexuals. Personalized
hostility is not typically elicited by the heterosexuality of an
individual in the way that it can be by someone’s non-
heterosexuality, especially those who are “out”about their
sexual orientation. Moreover, perpetrators might assume
that a heterosexual audience is not opposed to hearing
heterosexist remarks, and may be more likely to express
ambient HH. Consequently, among heterosexuals who
experience HH, we expected a higher percentage to report
ambient HH than personal HH (Hypothesis 1c).
Effects of Heterosexist Harassment
Past research on heterosexist victimization has focused
mostly on incidence and prevalence rates, with less atten-
tion to effects of such hostility on individuals. Minority
stress theory asserts that socially marginalized groups,
including sexual minorities, can experience mental and
physical health problems resulting from negative social
environments created by stigma, prejudice, and discrimina-
tion (e.g., Fischer and Shaw 1999; Gee 2002; Harrell et al.
2003; Kessler et al. 1999; Meyer 2003; Williams et al.
2003). For example, experiences of anti-gay discrimination
were linked to higher scores on measures of psychological
distress in a gay male community sample (Meyer 1995).
Though there have been no prospective studies examining
the consequences of heterosexist harassment, longitudinal
research in the parallel domain of sexual harassment has
found that these declines in well-being follow, not pre-
cede, victims’harassment experiences (Glomb et al. 1997;
Munson et al. 2000).
There is also empirical support for negative consequen-
ces associated with experiences of sexual-minority stress in
the workplace, as Ragins and Cornwell (2001) found that
LGB employees who reported more discrimination related
to their sexual orientation also held more negative job and
career attitudes. Another study showed that sexual minor-
ities’workplace encounters with heterosexism were linked
with lower health and well-being (conceptualized as greater
anxiety and depression, lower life satisfaction and physical
180 Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
health) and greater occupational dysfunction (operational-
ized as greater organizational withdrawal, lower satisfaction
with work, coworkers and supervisors; Waldo 1999).
While sexual-minority stress has been studied in com-
munity and workplace contexts, there has been scant
research on this topic in college populations, comprised of
younger people in a life stage where they are developing
their adult beliefs and attitudes. One study asked LGB
students to rate the offensiveness of written scenarios that
represented “subtle heterosexism”(Burn et al. 2005). We
located only one report that examined psychological
correlates of heterosexism experienced by college students
(Waldo et al. 1998), which focused on antecedents and
consequences of victimization among self-identified sexual-
minority students. The authors concluded that diminished
self-esteem, greater psychological distress, and suicidality
were associated with reports of greater victimization based
on sexual-minority status. The study included many types
of personal victimization (from verbal threats to sexual
assault) but did not ask about ambient HH as we have
conceived of it. The authors also did not address academic
outcomes or other institutional considerations in their study,
factors which may also be associated with well-being.
Finally, they did not inquire into the experiences of hetero-
Waldo et al. (1998) acknowledged that their study was
limited by relying on a small snowball sample of sexual-
minority students located through campus social organiza-
tions, thus it was likely biased toward students who are
more “out”about their sexual orientation. These partic-
ipants might also have been more politically active than
non-participants (for example, choosing to respond in hopes
that survey results would influence positive policy changes
for sexual minorities). The sampling method might not
have reached students who conceal or are unsure about
their sexual identities, and it purposefully excluded hetero-
sexual students. The present study builds on Waldo and
colleagues’work by examining associations between HH
and well-being in a student sample that reflects a broader
spectrum of sexual identities, ranging from completely
lesbian or gay to completely heterosexual. We also examined
associations among a variety of academic variables (aca-
demic respect, instructor relations, social acceptance, school
avoidance)—in addition to mental health-related variables
(depression, anxiety, problems from substance use)—and
HH. To our knowledge, no heterosexism research to date has
examined this range of psychological and organizational
correlates in settings beyond the workplace.
Following the logic of minority stress theory, we expected
to find poorer well-being among sexual-minority students
who experience HH on their campus. More specifically,
psychological and academic functioning should decline as
sexual-minority students face additional types of HH.
Support for this argument comes from studies in the clinical
psychology literature, documenting effects of multiple
stressors, victimizations, and traumas (e.g., Banyard et al.
2001;Folletteetal.1996; Green et al. 2000). For example,
in a study of 16,000 adults nationwide, Pimlott-Kubiak and
Cortina (2003) documented more depression, substance use,
and health impairment among people who had experienced
multiple forms of lifetime interpersonal aggression (includ-
of single forms of abuse. Educational functioning was also
compromised by double victimization (sexual harassment
and assault) in graduate and undergraduate women at a large
university (Cortina et al. 1998).
Little prior research has investigated how anti-gay
hostility affects the well-being of heterosexuals. In addition
to being directly targeted themselves due to gender atypi-
cality or mistaken presumptions about their sexual orienta-
tion, heterosexuals who are sensitive to minority issues in
general might also empathize with sexual-minority students
who must struggle to succeed in a heterosexist environment
and could become distressed at abuses directed at valued
peers. Providing qualitative evidence, Norris (1992) reported
that one heterosexual respondent who overheard frequent
anti-gay language said, “I find this behavior very offensive,
and in fact become depressed when it occurs”(p. 89).
Moreover, research on the related construct of workplace
sexual harassment has demonstrated that “bystander stress”
and “ambient harassment“are related to job dissatisfaction,
health impairment, and psychological distress among
employees who are not direct targets of harassment (Glomb
et al. 1997; Schneider 1996). Importantly, these negative
correlates of ambient sexual harassment (of women) ex-
tended to both female and male bystanders (i.e., people who
witnessed or overheard the sexual harassment but were not
themselves targeted), as they reported more negative out-
comes (Miner-Rubino and Cortina 2004; Richman-Hirsch
and Glomb 2002). Likewise, Whites reported greater stress
when they perceived higher levels of discrimination against
Hispanics in their work unit (Gutierres et al. 1994). Because
they may experience bystander stress as a result of ambient
HH (in addition to the potential for experiencing personal
HH), we predicted that psychological and academic well-
being would be lower also for heterosexuals when they
reported multiple forms of HH.
In the current study, we examined both psychological
and educational outcome variables. Depression, anxiety,
and substance abuse have been commonly used as out-
comes in research with both college students and workplace
samples, and these variables have been related to college
success (Brackney and Karabenick 1995; Svanum and
Zody 2001). Students’educational success depends also
on the context of and attitude toward their education (Tinto
1993), including their sense of school and social “inclu-
Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191 181181
sion”and “exclusion”(Benjamin et al. 2003; Harrist and
Bradley 2002). We therefore focused on academic well-
being in terms of students’relationships with instructors,
sense of being respected academically, sense of social
acceptance, and frequency of school-avoidant behaviors.
These educational constructs are reasonably comparable to
those commonly used in workplace research, such as
satisfaction with supervisors and coworkers, the sense of
being recognized for one’s work, the sense of being
ostracized, and work withdrawal behaviors (i.e., work
avoidance). We expected that students who had experienced
both ambient and personal HH would report lower psy-
chological well-being (i.e., more depression, anxiety, and
problems with substance use), and lower academic well-
being (i.e., lowered sense of academic respect, poorer rela-
tions with instructors, less social acceptance, and more
school avoidant behaviors) than those who experienced
only one type of HH, and the latter group would have lower
well-being across all domains than those who reported no
HH at all (Hypothesis 2a).
However, given that sexual orientation is a facet of
identity that typically has more salience for sexual minori-
ties (Eliason 1996) we also predicted that experiences of
heterosexism would have greater effects on sexual-minority
students, compared to heterosexuals. In other words, sexual
orientation should moderate the impact of HH, such that
sexual minorities show worse consequences than hetero-
sexuals (Hypothesis 2b).
Past research suggests that experiences of HH might also
vary by sex. Kite and Whitley’s(1996) meta-analysis found
that heterosexual men consistently exhibit more negative
attitudes toward sexual minority persons and behavior than
do heterosexual women. For example, although men
reported hearing considerable harassment of lesbians and
gay men on one campus, they did not think it was very
serious and failed to empathize with the targets (D’Augelli
and Rose 1990). Female students, faculty, and staff at
another campus perceived a more negative climate for
sexual minorities than did males in all groups (Brown et al.
2004). Given the general insensitivity shown by under-
graduate men toward heterosexism, in contrast to women’s
concern and empathy for targets of HH, we predicted that
women would also directly experience HH more negatively
than men. In other words, we also expected sex to moderate
the impact of HH, with women showing worse outcomes
than men (Hypothesis 2c).
In summary, we predicted that not only sexual-minority
students but also heterosexual students would report HH
(Hypothesis 1a), that sexual-minority students experiencing
HH would report more personal HH than ambient HH
(Hypothesis 1b), and that the heterosexual students who
experienced any HH would report more ambient than
personal HH (Hypothesis 1c).
We also hypothesized that students experiencing both
ambient and personal HH would have worse psychological
well-being (more anxiety, depression, and problems with
substance use) and academic well-being (lower academic
respect, instructor relations, and social acceptance; and more
school avoidant behavior) than students who experienced only
ambient HH, and that the latter would show lower well-being
than students who experienced no HH (Hypothesis 2a).
Finally, we predicted that these outcomes would be worse
for sexual-minority students than heterosexuals (Hypothesis
2b) and worse for women than for men (Hypothesis 2c).
The data were collected at a small public university in the
northwestern US, where despite a lack of statewide LGB-
protective legislation, the school’s non-discrimination pol-
icy expressly prohibits discrimination based on sexual
orientation. We invited all students with current addresses
on record to complete a “Respectful Climate Survey”if they
were: (1) degree-seeking, (2) age 18 or older, and (3) enrolled
at least half-time. Of these 8,172 students, 3,347 participated,
yielding a 41% response-rate (typical for lengthy surveys
of sensitive topics, e.g., Hinrichs and Rosenberg 2002;
Schneider 1987). We excluded 219 surveys from analysis
due to extensive missing data (i.e., over 50% of the survey
was blank, or the HH scale items were not responded to),
resulting in a final sample of 3,128.
Demographic characteristics of the sample closely
matched those of the overall student body. The sample
was 49% female and 82% undergraduate, with a mean age
of 23 years. On average, these students had attended the
university for slightly over two years, and 36% lived on
campus. Ninety percent identified as White/European
American; 5% identified as Asian American or Pacific
Islander; just over 2% identified as Hispanic American; 1%
identified as Native American or Alaskan Native; and just
under 1% identified as Black/African American. Eighty-
nine percent of the sample self-identified as “completely
heterosexual”(n=2,777). Eleven percent described their
sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or between
bisexual and heterosexual; we collectively refer to this
group as “sexual minority”(n=351).
The survey began by addressing very general issues (e.g.,
demographics, academics, well-being), and the HH ques-
tions did not appear until the middle of the survey. Thus,
182 Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
students were not primed to think about issues of hetero-
sexism or harassment before describing their psychological,
physical, and educational well-being. Past victimization
research has emphasized the value of this approach, which
reduces biased responding and does not require participant
insight into event–symptom relations (e.g., Resnick et al.
1993). For potential correlates of HH, we examined students’
mental health, school avoidance behaviors, and perceptions
of the academic climate. Scores for each variable were
represented by the means of the underlying items, unless
We asked participants, “How do you define your sexual
orientation?”and offered five response options: (1) com-
pletely heterosexual, (2) mostly heterosexual, (3) bisexual,
(4) mostly lesbian/gay/homosexual,and(5)completely
lesbian/gay/homosexual. Students were dichotomously cod-
ed as either completely heterosexual (response option 1) or
sexual minority (response options 2, 3, 4, or 5). One may
wonder whether the “mostly heterosexual”students might
be best grouped with the “completely heterosexual”students.
To test this possibility, we conducted analyses comparing
“completely”heterosexuals (n=2,777), “mostly”heterosex-
uals (n=252), and all others (n=99). We found that on all
outcome measures, the “mostly heterosexual”group was
significantly different from the “completely heterosexual”
group, but nearly indistinguishable from the other sexual
minorities. Thus we combined the “mostly heterosexual”
students with the other sexual-minority students for all anal-
yses reported in this paper. Given their small numbers
compared to the “completely heterosexual”group, “mostly
heterosexual”students represent a clear minority on campus.
To assess experiences of heterosexist harassment,we
adapted five items from Waldo’s(1999) Workplace Hetero-
sexist Experiences Questionnaire to fit a university setting.
Following the stem, “During the past year, has any University
faculty, staff, administrator or student...”, three items gauged
ambient HH [“Told offensive jokes about lesbians, gay men
or bisexual people (for example, ‘fag’jokes)”;“Made crude
or offensive remarks about gay people (for example, saying
they’re ‘sick’)”;“Called someone else homophobic names
(like ‘dyke,’‘fence-sitter,’‘faggot,’etc.) in your presence”],
and two assessed personal HH [“Called you a ‘dyke,’
‘faggot,’‘fence-sitter’or some similar slur”;“Made homo-
phobic remarks about you personally (e.g., saying you were
abnormal or perverted), regardless of your sexual orienta-
tion”]. Response options for each item were never,once or
twice,andmore than once or twice. Because data on both
subscales were highly skewed, we created a dichotomous
variable for each (1=any experience of that type of HH,
Participants completed the anxiety and depression subscales
of the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis and Melisaratos
1983), widely used to assess psychological distress in the
general population. This measure asked them to indicate
the extent that each of a list of symptoms (e.g., “feeling
no interest in things,”“feeling tense or keyed up”) had dis-
tressed them during the previous seven days, on a scale from
0(not at all )to4(extremely). Extensive psychometric eval-
uations support the reliability and validity of this measure,
including strong correlations with relevant MMPI subscales
(Boulet and Boss 1991;DerogatisandMelisaratos1983;
Derogatis and Savitz 2000). In our sample, Cronbach’salpha
was .86 for the six-item depression subscale and .79 for the
six-item anxiety subscale.
To assess problems resulting from substance abuse,we
drew five items from Boyd and McCabe’s(1999) Student
Life Survey. These items assessed impairment due to the
use of substances (including alcohol), as indicated by such
behaviors as missing a class, getting into a heated fight, or
performing poorly on a test. Students indicated how
frequently in the past year they had experienced each
behavior “as a result of drinking and/or other drug use,”on
a scale from 1 (never)to4(6+ times). Cronbach’s alpha for
this scale was .79.
To assess global perceptions of the academic environment,
we drew items from the General Campus Climate scale,
developed by Cortina and colleagues (1998). Specifically,
five social acceptance items measured the sense of “fitting
in”or feeling interpersonally comfortable on campus (e.g.,
“I have found the atmosphere at this university to be
friendly”; Cronbach’sα=.70). Perceptions of respectful
treatment in the academic setting were assessed with five
academic respect items (e.g., “When I try to speak up in
class, I am sometimes interrupted or ignored”(reverse-
coded); α=.73). The six-item instructor relations subscale
assessed students’perceptions of positive relationships with
faculty and instructors (e.g., “I feel comfortable approach-
ing my instructors for advice and assistance”;α= .79).
Responses to all items fell along a seven-point scale (from
strongly disagree to strongly agree).
School avoidance was assessed using an eight-item
instrument developed by Ramos (2000). Patterned after
measures of organizational withdrawal (Hanisch and Hulin
1990,1991), this scale assesses behaviors that effectively
Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191 183183
disengage students from educational activities. Respondents
described how frequently in the previous semester (1=almost
never to 7= almost always) they had done such actions as
arriving to class tardy, making excuses to get out of class,
and thinking about quitting school altogether. Cronbach’s
alpha for this scale was .76.
Surveys were completed via the internet during February
and March, 2002. This timing avoided potential disrup-
tions and stresses associated with the beginning and
ending of semesters. Using implementation procedures
suggested by the Tailored Design Method for internet
surveys (Dillman 2000), eligible students received advance
emails alerting them to an upcoming survey, followed by
invitation letters via first class US mail, with a follow-up
thank-you/reminder postcard and email message. Finally,
students who had not yet responded after three weeks
received a second reminder postcard. All communications
included the university letterhead and were signed by the
university president. These contact materials contained
instructions for creating a code to enter a restricted-access
website, where the professionally designed survey could
be completed. Students were assured that their identities
would be kept confidential, that identifying information
would not be stored with survey responses, and that
university officials would never have access to any of
their data. As a participation incentive, opportunities to win
gift certificates were offered.
Means and standard deviations for all study variables
appear in Table 1, organized by sex and sexual orienta-
tion. Correlations by sexual orientation appear in Table 2,
and correlations by sex appear in Table 3. Examining the
Pearson’srvalues among the study variables by sexual
orientation, 79% were statistically significant at the p<.001
level, though many rvalues were small. This high level of
significance among variables may be due to the large sample
size. Statistically significant correlations ranged in magni-
tude between −.060 (for ambient HH and academic respect
for heterosexuals) and .669 (for instructor relations and
academic respect for sexual minorities). Eight percent of
the intercorrelations for heterosexuals represented “large”
effects (equivalent to a Cohen’sd≥.80), and for sexual
minorities, 28% of the intercorrelations represented “large”
effects (Cohen 1988;seeTable2).
Examining intercorrelations by sex, 92% of the correla-
tions were significant at the p<.001 level, although many
rvalues were small, again likely due to the large sample
size. Eleven percent of the correlations for women repre-
sented large effects; for men, 22% represented large effects
(equivalent to a Cohen’sd≥.80). The range of statistically
significant correlations was from −.057 (for ambient HH and
Table 1 Means and standard deviations of study variables.
Sexual minority Heterosexual Sexual minority Heterosexual
n=190 n= 1351 n= 158 n= 1419
.53 .50 .36 .48 .56 .50 .39 .49
.19 .39 .03 .18 .35 .48 .09 .28
.96 .75 .74 .68 .90 .85 .59 .59
1.03 .88 .75 .76 1.14 .99 .66 .71
1.28 .42 1.28 .46 1.44 .63 1.31 .49
5.32 .97 5.39 .87 5.18 .99 5.38 .89
4.93 1.12 5.06 .99 4.94 1.14 5.0 1.01
5.10 1.06 5.47 .95 4.95 1.08 5.35 .97
2.05 .80 1.90 .79 2.35 1.13 1.99 .79
HH= heterosexist harassment. This variable is scored dichotomously, such that 0= no experience of behavior in this category, 1=experienced at
least one behavior in this category.
0=not at all;4=extremely.
1=never; 4=six or more times.
1=strongly disagree; 7=strongly agree.
1=almost never; 7=almost always.
184 Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
instructor relations for men) to .685 (for depression and
anxiety, also for men; see Table 3).
Of the 3,128 respondents to the HH scales, 41% reported
some experience with HH on campus during the prior
year. This included 39% of the heterosexual students (n=
1,077) and 57% of the sexual minorities (n=195). This
supports Hypothesis 1a, which predicted that both hetero-
sexual and sexual-minority students would report encoun-
ters with HH.
Within each sexual orientation group, we conducted
nonparametric chi-square analyses of participants who had
experienced any HH, to examine Hypotheses 1b (sexual-
minority students would report more personal than ambi-
ent HH) and Hypothesis 1c (heterosexual students would
report more ambient than personal HH). The first was not
supported —sexual-minority students who had experienced
HH reported similar levels of ambient and personal HH [53%
and 47% respectively; χ
(1, n=195) =.62, n.s.]. However,
Hypothesis 1c was supported by the data, with more
heterosexuals providing reports of ambient HH (84%) than
personal HH (16%) [χ
(1, n=1077) = 501.60, p<.001].
As a follow-up, we also conducted supplementary chi
square analyses of HH type by sexual orientation. These tests
demonstrated that sexual minorities reporting HH were
more likely than heterosexuals to describe personal HH [χ
(1, n=1272) = 98.64, p<.001], but the groups did not differ
on likelihood of reporting ambient HH [χ
n.s.]. Similar analyses by gender revealed that, among HH
victims, men compared to women were more likely to
report personal HH [χ
(1, n=3202)=38.74, p<.001],
though the reporting of ambient HH was similar [χ
To create a variable to indicate type of HH experience, we
categorized respondents into three groups. The first group
Table 3 Intercorrelations among study variables for full sample by sex.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
1. Ambient HH
–.387 .137 .104 .169 .129 −.096 −.029 −.057
2. Personal HH
.257 –.156 .179 .128 .125 −.180 −.072 −.084
3. Anxiety .171 .130 –.685 .202 .315 −.287 −.221 −.173
4. Depression .166 .102 .658 –.231 .372 −.369 −.327 −.242
5. Substance problems .186 .035 .164 .171 –.414 −.026 −.159 −.108
6. School avoidance .129 .095 .269 .303 .321 –−.216 −.405 −.274
7. Social acceptance −.126 −.180 −.304 −.362 .045 −.225 –.543 .508
8. Academic respect −.101 −.136 −.228 −.315 −.121 −.355 .555 –.643
9. Instructor relations −.094 −.104 −.157 −.230 −.089 −.250 .486 .605 –
Correlations for female students (n=1550) are below the diagonal; r>|.05|=p< .001.
Correlations for male students (n=1578) are above the diagonal; r|.05| −|.06|=p<.05, r|.061| −|.08| = p< .01, r> |.08| = p<.001.
HH= heterosexist harassment; 0 = no experience of behavior in this category, 1=experienced at least one behavior in this category
Table 2 Intercorrelations among study variables for full sample by sexual orientation.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
1. Ambient HH
–.282 .137 .121 .183 .122 −.093 −.060 −.075
2. Personal HH
.495 –.092 .098 .097 .091 −.145 −.073 −.092
3. Anxiety .134 .139 –.666 .147 .245 −.266 −.207 −.155
4. Depression .100 .139 .659 –.178 .316 −.346 −.305 −.222
5. Substance problems .128 .083 .322 310 –.366 .023 −.120 −.082
6. School avoidance .129 .155 .413 .366 .403 –−.190 −.363 −.252
7. Social acceptance −.148 −.244 −.332 −.374 −.087 −.360 –.545 .497
8. Academic respect −.075 −.188 −.288 −.400 −.287 −.482 .578 –.618
9. Instructor relations −.077 −.106 −.185 −.309 −.217 −.333 .514 .669 –
Correlations for sexual-minority students (n=341) are below the diagonal; r|.12| −|.14| = p< .05; r|.14| −|.16| =p<.01, r>|.16|=p< .001.
Correlations for heterosexual students (n=2,772)are above the diagonal; r<|.07|=p<.01, r> |.07| = p< .001.
HH=heterosexist harassment; 0 = no experience of behavior in this category, 1= experienced at least one behavior in this category.
Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191 185185
contained the 1,699 heterosexual and 144 sexual-minority
students who did not report any encounter with HH during
the previous year (i.e., response of “never”to all items). In
group two were those who had experienced at least one
ambient HH behavior, but no personal HH at all (906
heterosexuals, 103 sexual minorities). The third group
consisted of respondents who reported both ambient and
personal HH (157 heterosexuals, 88 sexual minorities).
Due to the small number of participants who had experienced
personal HH without concomitant ambient HH, (about 1%
each of heterosexuals, n=14, and sexual minorities, n=4), we
excluded this “personal HH only”group from all subsequent
To test Hypotheses 2a, 2b, and 2c, a 2× 2 × 3 between-
subjects multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA with
post-hoc Tukey HSD tests) was performed on the seven
dependent variables representing psychological well-being
(anxiety, depression, substance use problems), and academic
well-being (school avoidance, academic respect, social
acceptance, and instructor relations). Independent variables
were sex (female, male), sexual orientation (sexual-minority,
heterosexual), type of HH (none, ambient only, both ambient
and personal), three two-way interactions, and one three-way
interaction. Because this analysis is comprised of seven tests
and because of the large sample size (with its attendant high
statistical power), we sought to reduce the possibility of Type
I error. Therefore we used a Bonferroni-corrected p-value of
.007 to determine significance in the results of the analyses
To create a balanced design for the MANOVA, we took
random samples of approximately 100 cases from the four
cells with greater than 400 cases (heterosexual women and
men reporting no HH and ambient-only HH). The cell sizes
then ranged from 35 (sexual-minority women reporting
both ambient and personal HH) to 118 (heterosexual men
reporting both ambient and personal HH), with an average
across all 12 cells of 74 cases per cell. The subsample of the
data used to test Hypotheses 2a, 2b, and 2c thus included
190 sexual-minority and 246 heterosexual women, and 151
sexual-minority and 298 heterosexual men (total n= 885).
All significant findings are reported below.
Hypothesis 2a stated that students experiencing no HH
would fare better than those experiencing ambient-only
HH, and that the group scoring the worst on all seven
dependent outcomes would be those who experienced both
ambient and personal HH. The multivariate test supported
this hypothesis [F(14, 1704)=6.51, p<.001, η
did each of the univariate tests for the seven outcomes (all
ps<.001; Fs from 8.96 to 25.32; η
s ranging from .020 to
.056). For six of the seven outcomes (anxiety, depression,
academic respect, social acceptance, instructor relations,
and school avoidance), the post hoc Tukey HSD compar-
isons revealed significant differences between the ambient +
personal HH group and the ambient-only group, and
between the ambient + personal HH group and the no-HH
group. The no-HH group, however, was statistically indis-
tinguishable from the ambient-only HH group on these six
outcomes. By contrast, for problems with substance use, the
group reporting no HH was significantly lower than the other
two groups, which were statistically indistinguishable from
one another. Figure 1displays means for these outcomes
(standardized for display purposes), showing a clear pattern
of decreased well-being as a function of more types of HH.
Hypothesis 2b predicted that sexual-minority students
would experience worse well-being than heterosexuals as
they reported more types of HH. To support such a
moderation hypothesis, a significant interaction between
sexual orientation and HH would be needed. However, the
multivariate test for this interaction was not significant
[F(14, 1704)=.41, n.s.].
Hypothesis 2c, which predicted that women would
experience worse well-being than men as they reported
more HH, would also require a significant interaction term,
this time between sex and HH. The interaction between sex
and type of HH, however, was also not significant [F(14,
The current study explored experiences of heterosexism in
academia, focusing on the nature, incidence, and correlates
of this mistreatment. Results converged on the conclusions
that heterosexist harassment (HH) takes different forms, is
experienced by not only sexual-minority but also hetero-
Fig. 1 Standardized means for each well-being variable by type of
heterosexist harassment (HH) experienced.
186 Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
sexual individuals, and has a negative impact regardless of
sex or sexual orientation. Here we discuss these findings
and their implications.
Incidence of Heterosexist Harassment
Hypothesis 1a predicted that sexual-minority, as well as
heterosexual students, would report experiences of HH. Not
surprisingly, a high percentage of sexual minorities (58%)
faced HH on campus, but so did a substantial number of
heterosexuals (39%). Among sexual-minority victims, similar
proportions experienced ambient HH (53%) versus personal
HH (47%). This finding is contrary to Hypothesis 1b, which
predicted that more personal than ambient HH would be
reported by sexual minorities. In contrast, Hypothesis 1c
predicted more ambient than personal HH for heterosexual
victims. This hypothesis was supported, with 84% of victim-
ized heterosexuals describing ambient HH and 16% report-
ing personal HH.
These results confirm that a sexual-minority identity is
not a prerequisite for encountering heterosexism, as nearly
forty percent of heterosexual students reported some
exposure to HH during the previous year on campus.
Though some of the HH reported by heterosexuals may
have been intended as “joking”or “kidding around,”other
factors may sometimes drive the behavior, including
punishment of individuals who fail to conform to rigid
gender roles. One important area for continued research is
the motivations behind HH. Franklin (2000) found that
perpetrators of anti-gay behaviors (from name-calling to
assault to murder) were most often men with traditional
attitudes toward masculinity. Surprisingly, the most com-
mon motivation for their actions was peer acceptance, not
anti-gay attitudes. It would be useful to determine the
motivations of those who express HH (which is arguably
less extreme than most of the behaviors studied by
Franklin), as a way of locating entry points for intervention
to decrease their expression.
These findings extend the previous literature on anti-
LGB victimization, which had primarily focused on more
extreme forms of hostility and violence (D’Augelli 1992;
Herek 1993; Norris 1992; Rankin 2003). Similar to the
concepts of “everyday sexism”(Swim et al. 2001), and
racial microaggression (Sue et al. 2007), less extreme forms
of HH represent more commonplace acts that may or may
not be meant to intentionally harass others but neverthe-
less convey hostility, insult, or derogation toward sexual-
minority persons. We expanded the scope of the construct of
heterosexist abuse to include ambient heterosexist harass-
ment, which has been largely overlooked in past research.
Perhaps in an academic climate characterized by increased
diversity training (e.g., Finkel et al. 2003) and concerns
about political correctness, campus communities are grow-
ing less tolerant of obvious and personally-directed forms
of HH, while ambient HH lives on beneath public scrutiny.
Correlates of Heterosexist Harassment
In addition to exploring the prevalence of HH on campus,
we examined how psychological health and academic well-
being varied as a function of HH experiences. Hypothesis
2a predicted that students who experienced both forms of
HH would have poorer well-being than those who
experienced only ambient HH, and those reporting no HH
would have better outcomes than the other two groups. The
multivariate test for type of HH experienced was significant
(with an effect size of η
=.051), as were the univariate tests
for each individual outcome. The effect sizes for these
outcomes ranged from η
=.020 to η
significant though small effects (an additional 2% to 6%
of variance explained by HH experiences). However, the
post-hoc Tukey HSD tests revealed that for six of seven
dependent variables, only the group experiencing both am-
bient and personal HH showed lower well-being compared to
the other groups. For the seventh variable (substance use
problems), the other two groups were both statistically differ-
ent than the no-HH group.
Our expectation was that those reporting ambient-only
HH would also have significantly lower well-being than
those reporting no HH, and though the bar graphs of HH
type by outcome exhibit this trend (see Fig. 1), these group
differences were not statistically significant. Perhaps our
five-item HH measure did not adequately assess the range
of HH experiences. With an expanded instrument, we might
have captured additional behaviors that would differentiate
the no-HH and ambient-only groups across our outcome
variables. It is also possible that the context in which
heterosexist remarks are made is related to the effect that
those behaviors ultimately have on an individual’s well-
being. For example, anti-gay joke-telling or name-calling
may be perceived as “male bonding”(by those not targeted)
in a sports team or fraternity setting and not be associated
with distress, whereas the same behavior in a classroom
might be experienced as hostile. Future work could include
questions about the context in which HH occurred and the
emotional impact it had on targets, in order to tease out
these possibilities. Nevertheless, it appears that the combi-
nation of experiencing both ambient and personal HH
relates to consistent downturns in important domains of
Hypothesis 2b, predicting that sexual orientation would
moderate the impact of HH, with sexual minorities showing
worse effects than heterosexual students, was not supported
by the multivariate test. Because the effects of a hetero-
sexist climate on heterosexuals have not been previously
examined, this finding highlights that heterosexual identi-
Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191 187187
fication does not shield individuals from heterosexist
harassment and its association with negative outcomes.
Because heterosexual students experiencing HH over-
whelmingly reported ambient rather than personal HH
(84% and 16%, respectively), it is possible that our results
can be explained by bystander stress. In other words,
heterosexual students tended to suffer from overhearing
others make negative remarks about sexual-minority peo-
ple. Rather than sexual-minority students being the only
ones to experience negative effects of HH (explained by
minority—and perhaps also bystander—stress) and hetero-
sexual students remaining unaffected, the similar outcomes
for each group may reflect distinct but parallel mechanisms.
This finding thus may be a contribution to the growing
literature on bystander stress, and further research is needed
to determine whether this is the case.
Another consideration for the significant associations
between experiences of HH and well-being for heterosexuals
is whether they were being “punished”for deviating from
traditional gender roles. Though personal HH rates were low
for heterosexual students, ambient HH could be elicited from
others by the presence of someone who appears or acts in
ways that seem counter to typical gendered expectations.
Questions about whether others perceive the respondent as
“gender-typical”or not could be included on future surveys,
to investigate the possible role of gender policing. Examin-
ing motivations of perpetrators of HH could also help
explain its wide prevalence.
Because college women have consistently been found to
have more positive attitudes toward sexual-minority per-
sons and issues, Hypothesis 2c predicted that women may
feel more distress or alienation when encountering HH.
However, the multivariate interaction test was not signifi-
cant, providing evidence that HH affects women and men
in similar ways. Nonetheless, further research is needed to
determine whether parallel psychological mechanisms are
involved, given that men are more dismissive of minority
sexual orientations. Could women be experiencing bystand-
er stress, while men are exhibiting distress resulting from
threats to masculinity, even if not their own? Future studies
might inquire into the specific nature of the HH encountered
(e.g., was it directed at a specific individual? did it disparage
females or males?) to investigate this potential for difference.
We have demonstrated for the first time that negative
psychological and academic correlates of HH extend
beyond sexual-minority persons to include their heterosex-
ual counterparts. Furthermore, we found that differences in
associated outcomes between the two sexual orientation
groups, as well as between the sexes, are insignificant. This
consistent pattern of HH outcomes indicates that an
institutional environment in which anti-LGB remarks and
jokes are present may have negative implications for the whole
campus community, regardless of sex or sexual orientation.
This suggests that the harms of heterosexist victimization are
more widespread than once believed and may have a
troublesome influence far beyond harm to any direct targets.
Strengths, Limitations, and Conclusion
One strength of this study is the number of sexual-minority
students identified in our sample. A comparatively high
percentage of respondents (11%) self-reported that their
sexual orientation was something other than “completely
heterosexual.”In past surveys of student bodies, smaller
proportions identified as non-heterosexual (e.g., 4.1% in
Waldo’s 1998 random sample of 1,927 students at a large
Midwestern university). We attribute the larger percentage
in the current study to our offering five response options to
assess sexual orientation, similar to the seven-point sexual
orientation scale of Kinsey et al. (1948). Our measure
included a choice that fell between exclusively heterosexual
and bisexual, and this might have appealed to students who
had experienced limited same-sex sexual contact, were
questioning their sexual orientation, or for other reasons
were reluctant to categorize themselves as strictly hetero-
sexual (Green 1998). Had the item been limited to less-
nuanced response options (e.g., “I would describe myself
as: (a) heterosexual (b) gay or lesbian or (c) bisexual,”as in
Waldo 1998), they might have answered “heterosexual”for
lack of a better choice. Additionally, our use of “mostly
heterosexual”avoided using any words associated with
sexual minority labeling, allowing respondents this option
without suggesting to them that they were identifying
themselves with a possibly stigmatizing label, such as
“bisexual”or “partly gay/lesbian.”
An additional strength is that the study design might
have overcome some of the sampling biases that are
apparent in previous work, where investigators recruited
participants from sexual-minority community events and
membership lists of gay rights organizations. (e.g., Ragins
and Cornwell 2001; Rankin 2003; Waldo 1999). By con-
trast, in the present study, the survey was advertised gener-
ically as a study of “respect on campus,”and virtually all
students were invited to participate. None of the survey
announcements or invitations discussed sexual orientation.
Moreover, our sample demographics were similar to the
overall student body. For these reasons, we feel confident
that this study did not disproportionately attract “out”or
activist sexual-minority respondents, nor any particular
subset of heterosexual respondents.
188 Sex Roles (2008) 58:179–191
However, like any research, this study also has its
limitations. Owing to the cross-sectional nature of the data,
causal interpretations must remain tentative until confirmed
with longitudinal or experimental research. For example, it
is possible that students’dissatisfaction and distress led
them to perceive more harassment, rather than vice versa.
Additionally, because our data consist exclusively of single-
source, self-report measures, supplementing these data with
records from the university registrar or health center, as well
as peer, professor, or counselor ratings, would strengthen
future work on this topic.
Though prior research had largely overlooked ambient
HH, we found that this form of heterosexist hostility is
quite pervasive and argue that it warrants continued study,
as do less extreme forms of personal HH (such as being
ignored because of one’s sexual orientation). In the future,
it will be important to expand measures of heterosexism to
explore the full range of behaviors in these domains.
Although the brevity of our HH scale has practical advan-
tages (being quick and easy for respondents to complete),
there are more facets of ambient and personal HH than we
captured with our adapted scale (for example, we did not
inquire about encounters with anti-LGB graffiti, or receipt of
harassing or disparaging email). Future studies might also
examine issues related to bystander stress, such as whether
having LGB friends or acquaintances are factors that in-
crease distress, as well as inquiring into the context of and
motivations for the hostility. Finally, because we docu-
mented that the connection between HH and well-being is
not limited to the relatively small percentage of individuals
who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, future research
should continue investigating heterosexist victimization as it
affects individuals of diverse sexual orientations.
Acknowledgement We are grateful to our respective labs at the
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project. Special thanks to Kathi Miner-Rubino for her suggestion that the
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