KarMel Scholarship 2009
Honorable Mention: Best Essay
By Icee Griffin - MI
Description of Submission: “This is a research paper I wrote for my writing class last semester. We were instructed to write about a topic that meant something to us, but in a cultural context.” - Icee
Why Karen and Melody Liked It: We liked that Icee included so much of the history of homosexuality. We learned something new from this paper!
Usually when society begins to recognize something new or unusual it is often cast down and ridiculed. However, homosexuality is not a new concept, nor has it been hidden within the world’s history. Some individuals believe that love should only be between a man and woman and anyone who defies that is immoral. These beliefs cast the homosexual culture into a class of derision and seclusion. Is the culture of people who identify themselves with homosexuality so unusual that they should be looked down upon? Despite common stereotypes, gay men and women come from all different walks of life. Homosexuality transcends the boundaries of color, race, class, culture, and nationality. In this paper, gay culture will be discussed in order to prove that even though it is different, it should not cause the social isolation of the people within it.
A person’s sexuality is a difficult thing to define. Some individuals personally struggle with identifying their own sexuality, let alone from a spectator’s point of view. Heterosexual refers to the attraction to a person of the opposite sex and is considered the social normality. The term homosexual refers to a person who has sexual and romantic attraction to someone of the same sex. While most people tend to identify themselves as either heterosexual or homosexual, there has been speculation that most people do not fall within a particular strict category. “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories” (Kinsey 639). In his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey developed a scale on which individuals could place their sexuality. It ranges from zero to six; zero being exclusively heterosexual, three being bisexual (equally attracted to both men and women), and six being exclusively homosexual. He believed that there were not solely two distinct sexualities, and that most people would fall somewhere in the middle of his scale. With this system Kinsey pushed the social boundaries on sexuality, developing the idea that no person identifies with solely one in particular.
Along with the difficulties of defining a person’s sexuality, you have the dilemma of clarifying exactly where these different sexualities come from. There has been debate over whether being gay is biologically determined or a chosen way of life; and the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness until 1972 (Herdt 2). The debate over whether people were born gay “dates back to the late 1800s, when Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the first gay rights movement in Germany, stated his belief that homosexuality had biological origins” (Marcus 12). Most people who are gay believe that that is the way they were born. It is claimed that they were born homosexual, just as the majority of the population was born heterosexual.
As long as people have existed, so has homosexuality. There are many accounts of people in ancient Greece, Rome, and other civilizations engaging in homosexual acts. The word lesbian (which is used to describe a female homosexual) comes from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, where the poetic Sappho wrote about her love of women in the 6th century BCE (Aldrich 10). In Greek mythology all of the gods except Ares, the god of war, fell in love with young men (Aldrich 30). From the stories of Zeus and Ganymede to Apollo and Hyacinth, the Greeks documented their gods’ homosexual actions in regards to their own. It was a common Greek practice for a young boy to be pursued by an older man and develop relationships with them. In Greek culture, they viewed the love between a man and woman, just about the same as the love between two men (Aldrich 33).
Despite popular belief that Greek culture influenced homosexual acts in the Romans, homosexuality was actually a fundamental part of Roman culture. “In contrast to the situation in ancient Greece, a large proportion of Roman literature discusses sexual relations with slaves” (Aldrich 50). It may seem as though their masculinity was derived from their sexual acts, despite the sex of the person whom they were with. There have also been accounts of homosexual love throughout Roman history. The emperor Hadrian fell in love with a boy named Antinous, and upon the boy’s death the emperor erected statues and temple in his honor, and also built a city on the spot where he died (Aldrich 50-51). Before Christian ideologies were introduced to Greek and Roman societies they remained open-minded toward sexuality (Aldrich 55).
Although homosexuality was prevalent during ancient times, it has always been looked down upon in modern religions. Judaism introduced a monotheistic view on religion, along with a set of rules and sins. The religion also stressed the idea that sex should only be used for procreation, not pleasure or even love. Therefore, within Judaism “same-sex acts were completely condemned and death decreed as the punishment” (Naphy 31). The Christian bible also had its views on same-sex acts. It reads: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). Religious views condemning same-sex acts brought upon the idea of ‘shame’ in being a homosexual. But because homosexuality has been a part of human life throughout history, it cannot be called unnatural or abnormal. There is no doubt that homosexuality is less common in the world than heterosexuality, but it is a trait shared by humans across the world.
In June of 1969, the Stonewall Riots pushed the doors open on gay culture in America. No longer was this country going to ignore the existence of the gay community after the police who had repeatedly raided the Stonewall Inn in New York were attacked by a crowd of gays, lesbians, and drag queens. When the people within the homosexual culture in Greenwich Village realized that neither the sate nor church would protect them, they took matters into their own hands in order to gain justice. “Stonewall was certainly not the only political reaction of gay men to social oppression, but it was a watershed in the political activism that had been growing from the 1950s onward” (Herdt 1). After the Stonewall Riots occurred, homosexual culture became more recognized around the nation.
The gay pride movement began after the Stonewall Riots. “The movement has three main premises: that people should be proud of their sexual orientation and gender identity, that diversity is a gift, and that sexual orientation and gender identity are inherent and cannot be intentionally altered” (Gay and Lesbian History Month 3). Today, many countries celebrate Gay Pride annually in the form of parades and festivals. Many symbols of gay pride have arisen throughout the years. “The gay pride flag was designed by Gilbert Baker and debuted at the 1978 San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade” (Gay and Lesbian History Month 3). Although the symbol of the rainbow flag in the gay community originated in the United States of America, it is now used and recognized all over the world. In addition to the rainbow flag, the pink triangle is a widely known symbol in gay culture. During World War II in the Nazi concentration camps, men convicted of sexual deviance, including homosexuality, were forced to wear a pink triangle (Gay and Lesbian History Month 3). Like oppressed groups before them, the gay community turned negative stigmas into positive ones for liberation.
Along with the common symbols of gay culture there are many organizations dedicated to their advancement as well. Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is a non-profit organization committed to the progression of laws protecting gays from discrimination. “In the early 1990s, PFLAG chapters in Massachusetts helped pass the first Safe Schools legislation in the country protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment based on sexual orientation” (PFLAG's History). Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is also a non-profit organization devoted to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation. The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) represents many gay rights groups across the world. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) is an organization dedicated to drawing attention to the crucial issues of the AIDS crisis. Although ACT UP is not specifically a gay organization, it began at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in downtown Manhattan in March of 1987, when certain individuals were outraged by the government’s mismanagement of the AIDS crisis.
The gay community has been stigmatized by the pandemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). At first doctors called it Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) because the first documented victims of the, at the time, unknown disease were homosexual (Aldrich 342). “Mainstream media coverage of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s would present the disease as an affliction of homosexuals because of their lifestyle, focusing on the immorality, promiscuity, and deviant behavior of the victims and not the problems of the disease” (Goh 383). This generalization was especially attributed to homosexual men. The news media coverage became more intense, and more negative as AIDS grew. However, when the disease seemed to spread into heterosexual individuals, people were inevitably shocked. Because AIDS was not automatically attributed to heterosexuals as it was to homosexuals, people were now starting to focus on the severity of the disease rather than the behavior of the individuals afflicted. Now that people realized that homosexuals were not the only people that could be infected, concerns grew. The idea that gays where the cause of AIDS and were the only ones affected by it was a rash generalization of the homosexual community.
Despite gay rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s lesbians and gays are still discriminated against in many different ways. In some countries, homosexuality is actually against the law. The strongest basis for the discrimination against homosexuals comes from Judeo-Christian traditions. Some have lost their jobs and custody of their children because of their sexual orientation. There have also been reports of antigay violence throughout the nation, ranging from gay slurs to killings. Marriage rights and protections given to straight couples are withheld from gay couples because of the laws prohibiting gay marriage. Homosexuals have been deprived of many basic privileges that all American citizens should posses.
The first same-sex marriage case was filed in Minnesota in May of 1970, a mere nine months after the Stonewall riots, by Jack Baker and Michael McConnell. While some states have legalized civil unions between same-sex couples, they only provide some of the same rights that marriages do. There are 1,138 federal marriage rights and protections that are denied to same-sex couples (Anonymous). In 2004 the state of Massachusetts became the first to legalize gay marriage. Following Massachusetts’ lead, California became the second state to legalize gay marriage in May of 2008. However, recent votes on Proposition 8 in the state have instituted a ban on gay marriage. This wounded the gay community and added this to a long list of other unfair practices toward them.
“As of 2001, only 24 U.S. states have enacted a hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation” (Cowen, Heiple and Marquez). In 2007 hate crimes against gays rose 6% from the year 2006 (Bello). Homophobia refers to the irrational fear of or discrimination against homosexuals and homosexuality. People react to their homophobia in different ways. Many gay slurs have been attributed to homosexuals as a form of oppression, but there are people who take their homophobic hate to an extreme and attempt to physically attack homosexuals. In the case of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, two men lured him out of a bar, robbed, and brutally beat him, then tied him to a fence in the freezing cold night. He died in the hospital several days later (Lynch). Not only do hate crimes affect the victims, but also the entire community of which they are a part of.
Despite much discrimination, there has been some acceptance of gay culture in the United States. San Francisco has been seen as a major part of gay life in America. Because of its tolerance the LGBT community has become a distinct part of San Francisco’s culture. There is also National Coming-Out Day, held on October 11th of every year. It is dedicated to the awareness of individuals telling people that they are homosexual and it also focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) issues. American culture is adapting itself to the homosexuals in society.
While homosexuality was not present in the media some years ago, recently the media has portrayed homosexuality in both positive and negative ways. Most portrayals of homosexuals in movies and television are flamboyant and promiscuous. However, the recent 2005 film Brokeback Mountain depicted two men who fell in love with each other during the 1960s through the 1980s. This was a breakthrough for homosexuals. Instead of being portrayed as promiscuous, brazen, and “limp-wristed”, the characters in Brokeback Mountain were tough, manly characters who struggled to come to terms with their true feelings. The struggle illustrated in the movie shed light on the personal hardships that many homosexuals have to deal with throughout their lives. Proof that society is beginning to accept homosexuals lies in the mainstream media. With television shows like South of Nowhere, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word, making homosexual love a part of our weekly lineup, America is becoming desensitized to viewing homosexual culture.
Along with the representation of homosexuals in mainstream movies and television, you have many famous people who actively represent part of the homosexual population. From Rosie O’Donnell and Elton John, to Ellen DeGeneres, celebrities show that homosexuals are a general part of the population. Famous people coming out to the public can help ordinary homosexuals in many ways. By contributing to homosexual organizations openly and educating people about their culture they assist with new developments in society. Also, by seeing someone who is like them, homosexual youths can relate and feel less awkward with their sexuality. These individuals being in the spotlight can help some homosexuals come to terms with the fact that they should not be outcast from society.
The gay community has faced many hardships throughout the times. From ancient history to the present, different concepts have impacted societal views on homosexuals through religion and the current media. With support from communities and organizations, homosexuals have been recently acknowledged in laws and in greater society. Despite various attempts to eliminate homosexuality, from outlawing it to the AIDS pandemic, it has survived and flourished across the world. There is still a long journey ahead in the search for equal rights for homosexuals. Hopefully, through education, people will learn to accept differences within our population. Homosexuality is not a fad, nor is it a chosen way of life. It is, and will remain, a part of human existence forever.
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Goh, Debbie. "It's the Gays Fault." Journal of CommunicationIinquiry 34.4 (2008): 383-399.
Herdt, Gary, ed. Gay Culture in America. Boston: Beacon PRess, 1992.
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Lynch, John. "Memory and Matthew Shepard: Opposing Expressions of Public Memory in Television Movies." The Journal of Communication Inquiry 31.2 (2007): 222-238.
Marcus, Eric. Is it a Choice? 2nd Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Naphy, William. Born to be Gay: a history of homosexuality. Great Britian: Tempus, 2004.
PFLAG's History. 11 December 2008 <communtiy.pflag.org>.