Sexual Orientation, Identity, and Behavior Homosexuality has been a hot topic for the last fifty or so years, as it has been at various times in the past. There are different theories pertaining to the history of homosexuality. Essentialists say it has existed in all times and cultures, while social constructionists believe that it has arisen only in certain places and eras (ancient Greece, for instance) (Bailey 54). Its social acceptability has varied widely as well. The stigma of non-heterosexuality has faded considerably in the twenty-first century.
Psychology no longer views homosexuality, bisexuality, and transexuality through a lens of pathology, instead recognizing that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgenders (collectively referred to as LGBT individuals) have particular issues related to their minority status and the ways in which they are viewed by American society (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 2). Formation of an identity that is faithful to the self rather than formed according to societal expectations is now encouraged and recognized as healthy.
Nonetheless, many in the heterosexual population are not fully informed about homosexuality and struggle to understand how the needs and outlooks of their LGBT neighbors differ from their own. This paper looks at several aspects of the lives of LGBT individuals, and argues that equal rights for this community have yet to be achieved in this country. Today, the numbers of LGBT individuals in the United States are neither as large as some LGBT supporters would like to think nor as small as some LGBT opponents imagine. According to Gary J. Gates of the University of California School of Law, approximately 3. % of the population, or nine million people, identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, with an additional 0. 3% identifying as transgender (Gates 1). Slightly more adults identify as bisexual than as gay or lesbian, and more women than men state that they are bisexual. Additionally, approximately nineteen million Americans, or 8. 2% of the total population, have engaged in same-sex behaviors at some point in their lives, and 25. 6%, or 11% of the total population, have felt an attraction to the same sex. The boundaries of heterosexuality are clearly not as rigid as has often been proclaimed in the past.
The dichotomous model of sexuality that prevailed throughout history began to change in the late twentieth century. Researchers realized that the model of heterosexuality-or-homosexuality did not include large numbers of individuals whose sexuality was more complicated. As a consequence, [i]n the early 1980s, researchers began to rethink approaches to sexuality. They realized that sexual orientation is more complex than either homosexuality or heterosexuality. . . . [S]exual orientation is a continuum (similar to a spectrum of colors as in a rainbow) that varies in degree, diversity, and intensity. . . Sexual orientation reflects the affectional-erotic attractions and love toward the same gender, other gender, or both genders. It is the combination of an individual’s relative homosexuality and heterosexuality, representing two separate and independent parallel dimensions. This, in turn, makes it possible to view bisexuality as a distinct sexual orientation and identity. (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 4) Sexual orientation includes more than just the sex act. It also refers to emotions, thoughts and fantasies, relationships, and self-identity (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 5).
Attractions (if not basic identity) may change over time, particularly in the case of women. And regardless of sexual orientation, men and women have strong commonalities in sexual behavior; both gay and straight men, for instance, “tend to have a recreational or body-centered orientation” to sex, while both lesbian and straight women “tend to have a relational or partner-centered orientation” (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 6). A study in 1973 by Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith introduced valuable new information into the sexuality discourse pertaining to the importance of forming a health sexual identity.
This study made several illuminating finds: that the pre-teen and teen years are the times when many LGBT individuals “had sexual feelings and experiences . . . that provided the first cues about their sexual orientation” (Garnets and Kimmel, “Adolescence, Midlife, and Aging” 563); that while gay men generally report feeling different from their peers in childhood, bisexual men did not (Garnets and Kimmel, “Debate Concerning the Extent” 26); women tend to “come out” at later ages than men do (Herek, “Why Tell If You’re Not Asked? 253); that “the traditional psychoanalytic formulations concerning family dynamics” as a cause of LGBT sexual orientation “are not viable” (Haldeman 684); and that LGBT individuals who openly embrace their sexual identity have higher levels of “psychological well-being,” while those who do not “may experience significant psychological distress, including impairment of self-esteem” (Garnets, Herek, and Levy 191; Herek, “Why Tell If You’re Not Asked? ” 284). For many, the question of greatest interest is whether sexual orientation is an inborn, biologically determined characteristic, or whether it is a behavioral choice.
This distinction is important because “crucial moral answers” depend upon resolution of the question (Bailey 51). For instance, the choice argument lies behind the reasoning that allows legal discrimination against LGBT individuals to take place, while the congenital argument could lead to the search for a “cure,” or even to the abortions of unborn children who are discovered, in utero, to be gay (Garnets and Kimmel, “Debate Concerning the Extent” 26). Biological determinism in regard to sexual orientation has been expressed in several modes, all of them controversial in some respect.
As Bailey points out, all human behavior—including learning—originates in the brain, and therefore is biological in nature (52). An inescapable genetic influence is not necessary for a valid biological explanation of homosexuality or bisexuality, nor does the idea of “learning” homosexuality preclude the involvement of a biological process. It is also the case that homosexuality may be innate without necessarily being genetically-caused. Bailey gives an example of this possibility by proposing a scenario in which “massive androgen injections given prenatally to a female fetus altered her sexual orientation” [Bailey 54].
The cause, in this case, would be biologically innate, but would not be genetic. There are other biological theories of homosexuality as well. For me, the neuroendocrine theory is one of the most influential of these. This theory posits that the neuroendocrine structures of straight women’s and gay men’s brains are similar (Bailey 55). Of particular interest are the “composite brain images of people in the four categories shown indicate demonstrable changes in brain structure and function related to sexual orientation (Kelly 345). Another theory that has caught the popular imagination is the genetic explanation of homosexuality. This theory postulates that there may be a gene (or genes) for homosexuality, and poses an interesting question, as stated by Bailey, “How have [the homosexuality] genes resisted elimination by the inevitable engine of natural selection? ” (Bailey 67). In other words, why have the processes of evolution not eradicated a characteristic that is clearly detrimental to the species, since individuals who mate only with their own sex cannot reproduce?
Under the theory of evolution, a gene for homosexuality is an unlikely (although not impossible) prospect. Other theories propose psychosocial reasons for homosexual identities—nurture rather than nature. Freud concluded that “same gender sexual inclinations result from a variety of difficulties in passing through the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. (Kelly 342)” Psychosocial Models are behavior based models of sexual orientation that assume sexual identity is a learned behavior, a choice made by the individual due to psychological and social influences (Haldeman 683).
This view is behind the rationale (usually either religiously or psychologically based) of most conversion therapies, which claim to be able to turn homosexuals or bisexuals into heterosexuals through various types of treatments. Psychological therapies are based on one of two assumptions: that “homosexuality results from an arrest in normal development or from pathological attachment patterns in early life;” or that “homosexuality stems from faulty learning” (Haldeman 684). Psychoanalysis, or aversive stimuli conditioning, are the usual forms of treatment in this type of therapy.
Religious conversion therapies rely mostly on scriptural exhortations, counseling from supposedly reformed homosexuals, and prayer. In either case, Haldeman reports that “evidence for the efficacy of sexual conversion programs is less than compelling” (Haldeman 688). Whether or not psychosocial factors are influences in LGBT sexual orientation, they definitely affect LGBT individuals’ lives. The effect carries over to LGBT culture—although those who attempt to define an overarching model for this culture are likely to run into difficulty.
It would be simplistic to assume a unified model of “gay culture”; LGBT individuals are as diverse as any other segment of society. What virtually all have in common, however, is membership in a stigmatized community, one whose members must make the agonizing decision whether or not to reveal their sexual orientation to the world. From the closeted schoolteacher who decides not to “come out” for fear of losing his or her job, to the most flagrantly gay drag queen or king, the question of self-identity is not as simple to LGBT individuals as it is to heterosexuals.
In a society in which everyone is “presumed heterosexual” until announced otherwise (Rust 227), anyone who is not heterosexual must grapple with identity and cultural questions that those in the mainstream seldom consider. Any examination of gay culture cannot ignore the stereotype of gay men as engaging in high-risk sexual behavior—and the concomitant subject of HIV/AIDS in the gay community. When the disease first emerged in the early 1980s, its prevalence among gays brought attention to the promiscuous sexual behavior of some gay men (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 3).
It could also be argued, of course, that the drive toward promiscuity is rampant among young men of any sexual orientation. The combined focus on homosexuality and a fatal disease about which little was known provided a ready-made excuse for campaigns against the homosexual “lifestyle. ” The subsequent revelation that HIV could be spread by means other than sexual contact, such as by reusing hypodermic needles, took some of the onus off of the gay community as purveyors of a deadly disease that threatened everyone.
But overall, the advent of HIV/AIDS in the United States was attributed to the degeneracy of homosexuals—a stigma that has never quite gone away. One result of this lingering stigma is that several areas of the general American culture are experienced differently by LGBT individuals than by the rest of the population. Until recently, for instance, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy effectively prevented gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from admitting their true identities as long as they were members of the armed forces.
The repeal of this policy was a long time in coming, but has finally brought equity to LGBT individuals who wish to serve their country in the military. The other widely-discussed matter of contention is the legalization of gay marriage. Although the definition of family has grown to include gay and lesbian couples, with or without children, not everyone has accepted this view. From a legal standpoint, gays and lesbians still do not have the same legal rights as heterosexuals, either in marriage or in the rearing of children.
Most states share the view enshrined in 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act, which imposes a legal definition of marriage as the “union between a man and a woman” (Garnets and Kimmel, Introduction 12), thereby preventing LGBT individuals from marrying the partner they love. Even when a civil union ceremony is available to LGBT couples, it does not convey the same legal rights that come with the status of marriage. Without that status, issues of “health care, death, funerals, and inheritance” will most likely be problematic.
In addition, some states prohibit gay males from adopting or fostering children (Garnets and Kimmel, “Legal Recognition” 445). Issues of child custody when gay or lesbian couples break up also remain unresolved in most states. As the lack of legal measures outlawing discrimination against the LGBT community indicates, much prejudice against non-heterosexuals still exists in the United States. For some people, sexual orientation is the most important characteristic an individual possesses, and is the main criterion for judging a person’s worth.
As Garnets and Kimmel point out, this narrow definition of personal worth causes “individuals . . . to be defined solely by what they do, or what they would like to do, in the privacy of their own affectional and sexual lives. Thus, when they come out to others, they are perceived as ‘flaunting their private lives’—when, in fact, all they are doing is revealing the gender of the persons they love, or would like to love, and their sexual-minority status” (Garnets and Kimmel, “Psychological Dimension” 149).
Sadly, some of the anti-gay feeling stems from conservative religious beliefs that cite passages in holy books declaring homosexuality to be a sin. Both secular and religious prejudices are often expressed through the opinion that homosexuality and bisexuality threaten the institution of the family. The model of gay and lesbian families with healthy, happy children is, presumably, the threat that this prejudice fears.
The bias against any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality can be manifested along a continuum of behaviors, from derogatory name-calling, to discrimination through the law (including the insidious practice of referring to gay people’s civil rights as “special rights” [Garnets and Kimmel, “Psychological Dimension” 150]), to violence against LGBT individuals or their supporters. Even within the LGBT community, there may be prejudice against other gay people for either hiding their sexual orientation, or for being too open about it.
It is not surprising that there may be a higher level of suicide among LGBT individuals than in the general population (Kimmel 438). At the worst end of the prejudicial continuum, the effects of homophobia and biphobia can be severe, most famously in the 1998 murders of Matthew Shepard and Billy Jack Gaither, who were killed for no other crime than being gay (Herek, “The Psychology of Sexual Prejudice” 157). Although sensational crimes against homosexuals grab the attention of the media, and thus the public, less visible struggles for equality occur every day.
The cause of equal rights for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals is the latest chapter in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. We would all do well to remember that prejudice is prejudice, no matter which group of people is under consideration. There seems to be no legitimate distinction between prohibiting gays or lesbians from marrying a same-sex partner and prohibiting African Americans from marrying each other, as was the case under slavery.
Keeping a loving man or woman from the bedside of a hospitalized partner serves no purpose, and is cruel to both parties. Preaching condemnation of certain people because of the innate quality of sexual orientation is no different from condemning them for the innate qualities of skin color or ethnic background. Despite the progress that has been made in recent decades, homophobia and biphobia are still entrenched in some areas of America and American culture, as evidenced by the eagerness of some voters to pass measures that institutionalize discrimination against the LGBT community.
The United States should be ashamed of the hypocrisy of proclaiming to the world that all its citizens have the right to the pursuit of happiness, while blatantly denying that right to a particular group of Americans. Until LGBT individuals experience parity with heterosexuals in all areas of life, America will not have achieved its stated goal of liberty and justice for all. ? Works Cited Bailey, J. Michael. “Biological Perspectives on Sexual Orientation. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 50-85. Print. Garnets, Linda D. Gregory M. Herek, and Barrie Levy. “Violence and Victimization of Lesbians and Gay Men: Mental Health Consequences. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 188-206. Print. Garnets, Linda D. , and Douglas C. Kimmel. “Adolescence, Midlife, and Aging. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 563-67. Print. ——. “Contemporary Issue: Debate Concerning the Extent of Choice versus No Choice in the Nature of Sexual Orientation. Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 26-29. Print. ——. “Contemporary Issue: Legal Recognition of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Relationships and Families. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 445-48. Print. ——. Introduction. Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 1-21. Print. ——. Psychological Dimensions of Sexual Prejudice, Discrimination, and Violence. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 149-53. Print. Gates, Gary J. “How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender? ” 2011. Web. PDF file. 25 Apr. 2011. Haldeman, Douglas C. “The Practice and Ethics of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 681-98. Print. Herek, Gregory M. The Psychology of Sexual Prejudice. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 157-164. Print. ——. “Why Tell If You’re Not Asked? Self-Disclosure, Intergroup Contact, and Heterosexuals’ Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 270-98. Print. Kelly, Gary F. “Sexual Orientation, Identity, and Behavior. ” Sexuality Today 10th Ed. New York, NY; McGraw-Hill Kimmel, Douglas C. Identifying and Addressing Health Issues of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) populations in Rural Communities: Psychological Perspectives. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 435-40. Print. Rust, Paula C. “Finding a Sexual Identity and Community: Therapeutic Implications and Cultural Assumptions in Scientific Models of Coming Out. ” Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. 3rd ed. Ed. Linda D. Garnets and Douglas C. Kimmel. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. 227-69 Print.