Treatment of left-handedness offers a window into LGBTQ discrimination

Treatment of left-handedness offers a window into LGBTQ discrimination

Looking back over the past half century or so, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex, asexual, and queer folks have fought for and earned many of the rights and privileges they had not seen previously, though the struggle for full equality has far yet to travel.

Oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes in which each spoke represents one of the virtually endless systems of oppression. The wheel’s rim holds and connects all the spokes together. In this way, the rim represents the elements of oppression that the spokes, the numerous forms, have in common.

Some social movements battle for one spoke’s extraction from the larger wheel, while others work for the removal of many spokes. Though these movements learn from those that have gone before, and while they follow similar stages in their evolution and progression forward, throughout history each social movement has advanced at its own pace and at its own time.

History teaches valuable lessons regarding how dominant groups have represented “minoritized” groups for the purpose of maintaining domination and control. This was expressed through myths, defining, stereotyping, marginalizing, scapegoating, and by other means. By comparing and contrasting forms of oppression during different points in time, we find interesting and poignant connections.

So what, for example, do same-sex sexuality and trans* identities have in common with left-handedness? Though comparing handedness, sexuality, and gender identity might seem akin to comparing artichokes, jet planes, and oil paintings, by so doing we see many striking connections. For one, societies have transformed the meanings of value-neutral characteristics into morally significant “facts.” Let’s determine what other connection we can find.


Estimates suggest that one out of 10 people is left handed. In fact, this number probably holds true for all places during all times. This means that there are approximately 32 million left-handed people within the United States today alone.

Left-handed people have existed throughout the ages in all cultures, in all races, in all social classes, and in every country. Even the earliest cave drawings show left-handed figures.

Though it may seem obvious, it is not always easy to determine who is left-handed. Some people, for example, use different hands for different activities. Former President Gerald Ford used his left hand to write while sitting, and his right hand to write on chalkboards while standing. Some people can successfully manage with either hand. In fact, it is probably true that most people are not exclusively right- or left-handed. Many people, though, define their handedness in terms of whichever hand they use the most, especially in writing. Nevertheless, people in general exhibit a great variety of hand skills covering a broad continuum between exclusive left to exclusive right handedness.

Though you might not think your friend or mother or classmate is all that weird because they are left-handed, such tolerance or support has not always been the case. In fact, for centuries, left-handed people were viewed with scorn and even, at times, with fear.

People often justified this disparagement with references to religious texts such as the Bibles, both the Jewish Bible and Christian Testaments, though primarily the Christian Testaments, which consider “the left” as the domain of the Devil, whereas “the right” as the domain of God. For this reason, Jesus told his followers to “not let they left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3).

Jesus also described God’s process for separating good from evil in the Last Judgment: “…the King [shall] say unto them on His right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….’ Then shall He say unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels….’” (Matthew 25:32-41).

Early Christians applied these categories so strictly that they even held that the saints, while still infants, were so holy that they would not suckle from the left breasts of their mothers.

Not only does the Bible condemn left-handedness, but so did a number of ancient societies. The ancient Greeks and Romans shared this attitude as well. For example, the philosopher Pythagoras argued that left-handedness was synonymous with “dissolution” and evil, and Aristotle described good as “what is on the right, above, and in front, and bad what is on the left, below, and behind.” The Romans further reinforced these beliefs by standardizing the right-handed handshake, and in Western countries alphabets favor right-handed people in being written from left to right.

Later, in the Middle Ages, left-handed people were sometimes accused of being witches sorcerers, or as fathered by the Devil. The present-day wedding custom of joining right hands and placing the gold ring on the third finger of the left hand began with the superstition that doing so would absorb the evil inherent in the left hand.

Even our terminology reflects anti-left-hand bigotry. Words like “sinister” (“left” in Latin) and “gauche” (“left” in French) suggest a moral evil or physical awkwardness associated with left-handedness. Their opposites, however, “dexter” (“right” in Latin) and “droit” (“right” in French) mean “skillful,” “artful,” “clever,” “correct,” “adroit,” or “lawful.” In fact, the English word “left” comes from the old Dutch word, “lyft,” meaning “weak” or “broken,” whereas “right” derives from an Anglo-Saxon word, “riht,” meaning “straight,” “erect,” or “just.”

The term “ambidextrous” literally means “being right-handed on both sides.” Phrases like “left-handed compliment” are insults to left-handed people.

What “righties” usually take for granted often involves awkward adjustments for “lefties.” Most tools and utensils and most packaging of products are designed for the ease of right-handed people. These include scissors, power saws, corkscrews, sewing machines, and even gum wrappers. Left-handed pilots have not been allowed to sit on the right side of the cockpit to reach the controls in the center, even though to do so would make it easier for them.

And writing from left to right accommodates right-handed people, which forcing left-handed people to make difficult adjustments.

This brings to light the realities of right-hand privilege, which includes unearned advantages bestowed on right-handed people that often are invisible to those who have them.

Any difference from the norm receives more attention from researchers. Some theorists believe that left-handedness is biological, citing studies that suggest that left-handed people are dominated by the right side (hemisphere) of their brain. Others, though, dispute this view by arguing that the correlation does not hold in many cases.

Some evidence shows that left-handedness may be genetic – that it is inherited – since there is a higher statistical probability that two left-handed parents will have a left-handed child. Others maintain that left-handedness is a result of an imbalance in the mother’s hormones while the fetus is developing in utero. Other researchers seriously dispute this.

In addition, some investigators believe that some infants show a distinct preference for one side over the over as early as the second day of life.

Some social scientists argue that left-handedness is environmentally determined and may be a form of mimicking or copying of the behavior of another left-handed family member by the developing child. And some people argue that left-handedness is a choice as opposed to being biologically determined.

Others maintain that hand orientation is influenced both by heredity and environment, citing possible genetic factors that are then modified by cultural influences. Still others say that left-handedness is pathological as a result of trauma to the brain or stress to the mother during pregnancy.

Why does this matter anyway? Well, it matters to some who believe that left-handedness is intrinsically evil or unnatural. This attitude has led many theorists to propose tactics for changing an exhibited hand preference. They have urged parents to encourage young people to emphasize their right hands, especially in writing.

In some schools, teachers have tied young students’ left hands and arms behind their backs, or made them sit on their left hands to promote use of the right hand. This treatment often resulted in emotional outbursts, speech impairments such as stuttering, reading problems, and other learning disabilities. Some left-handed people have tried to conceal their hand orientation and to “pass” as right-handed to fit in and to avoid social sanctions.

As other minoritized groups, left-hand social movement activists cite examples of famous members of their group throughout history including Alexander the Great, Judy Garland, Gerald Ford, Marilyn Monroe, Ben Franklin, King George VI, Jimi Hendrix, Babe Ruth, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Lefty Gomez, Henry Wallace, Queen Victoria, and many others.

In fact, the left-handed artist, Michelangelo stuck it to the Catholic Church for its anti-left-hand condemnations, that when he painted the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, he portrayed God giving life to Adam through Adam’s left hand.  

So, while we could continue in this story, did you come up with any parallels to heterosexism and cissexism?

I want to thank Diane Raymond for her assistance on this article.

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