September 14, 2011

Homosexuality is conceptualized in modern times as a sexual orientation. Individuals who are oriented toward romantic and sexual relations with members of the same sex are identified as homosexual, whereas those who are oriented toward the opposite sex are labeled heterosexual. These natural variations in human behavior can be found in all cultures throughout recorded history. Moreover, although the focus is typically on sexual behavior, homosexual and heterosexual also pertain to one’s romantic/sexual attractions and fantasies.

Homosexual is also a sexual identity. However, people who define themselves as homosexual have rejected the term because it represents a label imposed from a medically oriented, heterosexual perspective. Instead, gay is preferred—in contrast to straight (describing heterosexuals). Additionally, while gay is an umbrella term that refers to both men and women, many homosexual women prefer to call themselves lesbians.

A number of scholars have taken the position that homosexuality as a sexual identity is a relatively recent phenomenon that emerged in the latter decades of the 19th century out of the convergence of two prevailing social trends. The first was the medicalization of homosexuality by European scientists such as Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Sigmund Freud. The process of studying homosexuality required that scientists define it in concrete terms and in opposition to heterosexuality. The second was the transition from agrarian to industrialized economies in Europe and the United States, which relocated many young men and women from farms to cities. Urban life offered a sense of anonymity and provided unique opportunities for gays and lesbians to meet each other. Although this explains the evolution of homosexual identities in the modern era, it may be naive to consider it a unique development. For example, Plato’s Symposium, written in 387 BC, includes a speech by Aristophanes, which offers what is probably the world’s first recorded theory of sexual orientation. Aristophanes proposes that all human beings were originally similar to Siamese twins. After the gods split them apart, each yearned for his or her lost half. Those who had been male/female thus sought the opposite sex; those who had been male/male or female/female desired the same sex.

Plato’s exceptionally progressive view that positioned homosexuality on equal plane with heterosexuality unfortunately did not persist in history. Instead, gays and lesbians have been the targets of hatred, violence, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. Today, homosexuals are a minority group in the United States and in other societies. However, unlike other minorities, the minority status of gays and lesbians is based on a departure from social norms centered on heteronormativity rather than on ascribed characteristics (see Queer for definition). This has made it difficult for homosexuals to secure, and most importantly maintain, the type of social gains that other minorities have been able to establish. In response to oppression, gays and lesbians have organized to press for civil rights that are currently denied.

In the early 1950s, a group of gay men led by Harry Hay in Los Angeles founded an organization called the Mattachine Society with the goal to liberate homosexuals from persecution. Shortly after, a group of eight women chartered a similar organization for lesbians called the Daughters of Bilitis. Both organizations published magazines—the Mattachine Society, ONE, and the Daughters of Bilitis, The Ladder—which defended lesbians and gays against entrapment, a common occurrence in those times. For example, a 1953 presidential executive order prohibited the employment of homosexuals (and bisexuals) in all federal jobs. The FBI investigated any government employee suspected of homosexual inclinations and in the process set a precedent for firms in the private sector to do the same. This created an oppressive work and social environment, where a mere accusation from an anonymous third party often provided sufficient cause for investigation and subsequent dismissal. Many people lost their jobs with little hope of finding work elsewhere.

When the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis were founded, every state had a sodomy law prohibiting sexual behavior between members of the same sex. Urban police forces routinely raided gay and lesbian bars. They arrested patrons for dancing, holding hands, or simply being there. Newspapers often published the names of those arrested. Jobs were lost; lives were ruined. It was during one such raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, a popular gay nightspot in New York’s Greenwich Village, that a group of gay men and lesbians defiantly challenged the police. Their act of rebellion set off three successive days of police confrontations with progressively larger contingents of protesting gay men and lesbians, an event that is commonly considered to be the spark that ignited the modern gay liberation movement. Each year, gay pride parades and celebrations occur in cities all over the world to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion.

Since then, progress has been slow but steady. Many states have modified sodomy laws so that they no longer apply to consenting adults. Some cities and a few states have added sexual orientation to their civil rights codes to protect gay men and lesbians from job discrimination. Corporations extend benefit packages to the domestic partners of their lesbian and gay employees. In the year 2000, the legislature of the state of Vermont passed an historic law that created a new marital status called Civil Unions for same-sex couples and provided all state law benefits of marriage to couples joined in civil union. No longer hidden in the shadows of society, lesbians and gay men appear on television and in movies, and run for political office. High school students across the United States are forming gay-straight alliances and an expansive web of organizations and institutions exist that sustain a rich social, cultural, and civic life for gays and lesbians. However, violence and discrimination are still widespread. Gay men and lesbians can be denied housing and fired from their jobs in over 30 states with little legal recourse. Despite there being in excess of 2 million gay and lesbian parents in the United States, they still are not allowed to form families through legal, state-sanctioned marriage (with the exception of Vermont residents). Gay and lesbian organizations, along with others focused on civil rights, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace International, are working hard to end the violence and discrimination, and to afford gays and lesbians basic human rights.

SEE ALSO: Gender, Intersexuality, Lesbian, Lesbian ethics, Queer, Transgenderism, Transsexuality

Suggested Reading

  • Chauncy. G. (1995). Gay New York: Gender, urban culture, and the making of the gay male world, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
  • D’Emilio, J. (1998). Sexual politics, sexual communities: The making of a homosexual minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Duberman, M. (1994). Stonewall. New York: Plume.
  • Vicinus, M., Chauncey, G., & Duberman, M. B. (1990). Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past. London: Meridian Books.


Category: H