Since California passed last year's anti-gay Proposition 22, several states have followed suit, either seeking to ban gay marriage or to legally define it as a heterosexual institution. The United States (or at least some of it) has just elected a man who opposes gay rights in any form. Meanwhile, several European countries have legalized gay marriages and adoptions by gays. Sexually explicit gay shows like the original "Queer as Folk" are shown on regular TV. Nonetheless, I still wouldn't say we here live in a homophobic society. The real problem is that we live in a heterosexist one.

Heterosexism is different from homophobia; it is expressed by homophobic as well as many "liberal," "pro-gay" people. Yet it gets talked about so little that the word is being underlined by my computer's spell check right now. Basically, it means assuming that most people are straight. So what? Aren't they? Maybe. But what's so tricky about heterosexism is that it generally mandates that everything, not most things, is geared toward a heterosexual mind-set, populace, interest, etc. Everyone and anyone else is marginalized, as are a lot of straight people who aren't interested in this monolithic conception of sexuality.

Heterosexism is an invisible fact mainly because it is the status quo. For most of us, it starts in our own families. We grow up in households where the adults, even if they are not a married male-female couple, are usually engaged in heterosexual relationships. If we are not then taught, told or shown that this is not necessarily the ultimate basis of normalcy, the world soon becomes straight to us – whether or not we ourselves are straight.

Most of us are encouraged in this mind-set by our childhood toys, programs and treatment. Barbies are sold to go with Kens, adults coo over boys and girls when they hold hands, but adults separate boys and boys and girls and girls who are too affectionate. Basically, throughout our childhood, heterosexuality is encouraged, applauded and required, making me wonder if being straight isn't the more "unnatural" thing after all.

These attitudes continue to be fed to us from every aspect of the media. I never saw a movie with anything but boy-girl, man-woman couples in it until I was 17, because most movies with or about gay characters are deemed art movies or gay films, or rated R or NC-17. In other words, straight films are expected to appeal to everyone (following the logic that everyone is straight), whereas gay films could only possibly appeal to those few gay people that possibly exist. Occasionally we get cross-over movies like 1998's "Trick," which treats gay romance in an apolitical manner.

Not that "gay issues" should be necessarily depoliticized – there aren't enough gay or straight people concerned about civil rights as it is – but if homosexuality were always emphasized as what it is (natural), we would not see the need for anti-gay measures. Homophobia would simply not occur to people. When it comes to TV, gay people are rarely shown as main characters unless they fit a stereotype or unless they appear on a program shown later at night with an adult-content rating, which is what happened to "Ellen" in its last season. Of course, "Will & Grace" has since become a prime time hit, but its main characters are never shown being sexual or romantic, as much as they may talk about it.

Meanwhile, a man and a woman lying next to each other in bed is deemed OK for prime time and the whole family on shows like "Friends," which airs at 8 p.m. The heterosexist message is clear: homosexuality is an "adult" topic, a special interest niche, while the presentation of heterosexuality appeals to and is accepted by everyone, even if it's overly sexualized.

Even as a conscious adult, heterosexism is still subtly pressed on me, and, being a college student, my university is sometimes the biggest source of it. Last quarter, I took a Women's Studies class that, while very enlightening, focused almost solely on the ways that men and women can have non-hierarchical relationships, how men can avoid dominating their female partners, etc. It was as if same-sex relationships did not figure into feminist concerns.

In the past two weeks in particular, I was inundated with ads in my university’s newspaper for “Valentines”, and noticed that the only icon of a couple available for a valentines was the silhouette of a male and female. This image not only appeared in the order form, but on its own in the more prominent ads for the valentines. The suggestion was, only heterosexual couples exist, or only heterosexual couples need to be catered to. I guess gays and lesbians have to use the teddy bear icon!

All these things add up to the fact that, overall, people growing up and living in this heterosexist society are not merely shown that homosexuality is wrong, shameful, or embarrassing. They are shown, above all, that it is simply non-existent. Heterosexism precludes the validation of homosexuality as a sexuality, not to mention an accepted one. This tells gay people that they are not part of this society, because, according to the outside world, they simply don't exist.

And what this does to straight people is maybe just as bad – it gives them a skewed, blinders-on view of life. A lot will grow up being homophobic. After all, if you assume the world revolves around heterosexuality, then when you inevitably encounter homosexuality, you necessarily sense something is wrong about it.

Homophobics are not simply created from negative images of gays, but by parents', teachers' and society's refusal to present any images at all. We fear what we don't understand, and then we retaliate against it. Heterosexism, however, also pervades non-homophobic straight people, too. Many hold the condescending belief that, "If I accept gay people, that's fine." But that's not fine. By also assuming most people are straight, by not acknowledging the privilege (better treatment, privacy, general ease of living, etc.) that heterosexism affords someone, or by not taking responsibility for heterosexism, one perpetuates it. And anything that perpetuates it leads to homophobia, homogeny and a generally discriminatory society.

So what can people do about it? For one, change their attitudes. If we (as straight and gay people) care about a diverse and just society, we can't allow our kids to be raised to think that, because Mom and Dad are a couple, only Moms and Dads are couples. We have to realize that it's not just enough to think or to express the opinion that homophobia is wrong, we have to stand up for the fact that homosexuality is right (and a reality). We have to challenge such seemingly innocent instances as when our friends ask a girl if she has a boyfriend, rather than saying, "are you dating someone?"

All this is not to say that homosexuality needs anyone to normalize it, to fit it into the straight world, to say, "hey, it's okay, you're just as good as us." It's heterosexuality that needs de-normalizing, because its over-emphasis has had detrimental and limiting effects on all people in our society. Some aspects of heterosexism can't be helped, like having straight parents or few gay role models, but they can be challenged and questioned.

And some of heterosexism can be changed – like assumptions about what people "are," about what most people are interested in, and, more importantly, about who heterosexism really hurts: everyone.