A History of Inequality: Homophobia in America

On the surface, the United States may appear to be the pinnacle of freedom and individuality of the modern world but at the core of its value system there is a social construct in place that prematurely stifles any hope for true equality. It is called discrimination. It comes in many forms but the latest version of this democratic deterrent is homophobia. A look into the history of America will show anyone willing to acknowledge facts that the attitude Americans attribute to “tradition” regarding human sexuality is not innate but a learned behavioral pattern and perception that Americans have been trained by their society to believe and take on as their own. Knowledge of this fact calls to question the behavior of the general public toward homosexuals and points an accusatory finger at the common practice of discrimination based on sexual orientation in America, accentuating it for the heinous act it truly is.

The words “homo” and “gay” are commonly used among the youth of America today as half joking/ half offensive terms of endearment and mode of description for inanimate objects (That shirt is so gay!) but there was a time when the abbreviated version of the word homosexual, and even the word heterosexual, weren’t well known or widely used terms, let alone everyday slang. In the first part of the nineteenth century these terms were only known to those belonging to the medical field and their definitions and applications have changed drastically in the past one hundred years in the favor of a heterosexual majority. Jonathan Ned Katz analyzes the creation and transformation of the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” throughout the past century in “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” He explains:

“Heterosexuality began this century defensively, as the publicly unsanctioned private practice of the respectable middle class, and as the publicly put-down pleasure-affirming practice of urban working-class youths, southern blacks, and Greenwich Village bohemians. But by the end of the 1920s, heterosexuality had triumphed as dominant, sanctified culture.” (Katz 90)

He goes onto explain the transformation of the medical terms heterosexuality and homosexuality. In 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex” (Dorland 121) while in 1934 Miriam Webster’s dictionary defined heterosexuality as a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” (Webster’s 137) This adaptation can be attributed to many societal changes over time. At the dawn of the nineteenth century sexual intercourse was largely regarded as an act meant for married couples consisting of a man and a woman for the sake of procreation by upper middle class America. As sexual activity became a leisurely pastime for more and more of the general population, it began to seem less and less offensive, especially with the upsurge of the hippie movement in the later decades of the nineteenth century. With this shift in perception of male-female sexuality a general acceptance of heterosexual behavior began the notion that this type of sexuality was the “right” type of sexuality. Whereas before heterosexuality had a negative connotation of overzealousness attached to it, it had now become the widely accepted “norm.” On the very same day that heterosexuality was given the U.S. stamp of approval and made a status quo, homosexuality was branded ‘abnormal.’

Homosexuality was defined simply as “eroticism for one of the same sex” (Webster’s 140) in the same 1934 Webster’s dictionary that defined heterosexuality as “normal sexuality”- a sly but apparent bias- suggesting that homosexuality is ‘abnormal’ since heterosexuality is defined as ‘normal.’ Today homosexuality is defined by Miriam Webster’s dictionary online as “of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex.” Though the current definition may seem innocent, the damage of the previous has already been done.

The textbook definition of the term may not seem offensive but society’s general behavior toward homosexuals and its lack of concern for their civil rights surely is. The view of homosexuality as ‘abnormal’ as exhibited by the dictionary definition of the term’s counterpart is repeatedly manifested and reinforced in today’s world. In Ruth Hubbard’s “The Social Construction of Sexuality,” she asserts that

“Western thinking about sexuality is based on the Christian equation of sexuality with sin, which must be redeemed through making babies. To fulfill the Christian mandate, sex must be intended for procreation, and thus all forms of sexual fulfillment or enjoyment other than heterosexuality are invalidated.” (Hubbard 65)

Because of this harsh reality the homosexual population is often degraded and left out of the general population which forces them to assimilate and “act straight” to maintain their status and safety within their community. The homosexual is constantly pressured to exhibit heterosexual behavior in a society full of people who simply are not sensitive to the differences and feelings of non-heterosexual people due to an array of circumstances including but not limited to religious upbringing as described by Hubbard and the general gender role ideology of America as described by Marilyn Frye. In a piece called ‘Oppression’ she chastises society for its conflicting and hypocritical treatment of homosexuals, women in particular. She breaks down the dozens of forms and fashions that all oppressed people, including homosexuals are faced with in an everyday struggle to please, comply and act “normal.”

She explains, “ the experience of oppressed people is that living one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such ways as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in- all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.” (Frye 156)

This gives you not only a sense of the helplessness and ostracism of the homosexual in predominantly heterosexual America but a look at the malevolent way societal constructs play a part in the treatment of American homosexuals. The issue is not that the majority is heterosexual but that they seem to pick on the minority- the homosexual. The method of choice for their bullying is discrimination. It can be seen in the educational system when violence occurs based on sexual orientation related conflict (similar to that of ‘The Toilet), the workplace when a job is denied based on sexual preference, and even in the laws made regarding homosexuals. (Why the hell shouldn’t they be able to get married?) Similar to the African American citizen during the Civil Rights Movement, the homosexual within the gay rights phenomenon is not only afflicted with a lack of civil rights but also left vulnerable to the loss of friends, family, property (in cases where legal marriage is not permitted), positive self image and even life all because of something they cannot change: their sexual orientation.

One compilation of data on hate crimes produced by religioustolerance.org states that a “study of gay, lesbian and bisexual adults showed that 41% reported being a victim of a hate crime at sometime during their life after the age of 16. Assuming that 8% of all adults are either homosexual or bisexual, this would mean that about seven million of them had been victimized during their lifetime out of a total of about 17 million homosexuals and bisexuals.” That’s more than a third of the entire group! These statistics showcase society’s view of non-heterosexuals as ‘abnormal’ manifested into physical violence. This wouldn’t be the case if the ideology of heterosexual correctness hadn’t been instilled in the general public from an early age but such

teachings are common practice in the majority of countries worldwide, especially America. Ruth Hubbard explains,

“There is no ‘natural’ human sexuality. This is not to say that our sexual feelings are ‘unnatural,’ but whatever feelings and activities our society interprets as sexual are channeled from birth into socially acceptable forms of expression.” (Hubbard 65)

Sex scientist Alfred Kinsey agrees that society stifles it’s sexually liberated members and proposes this notion. “Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum.” (Kinsey 97) His idea of this continuum asserted that all humans live in a wide array of positions on the spectrum between homo- and hetero- feelings and tendencies, and that it is unnatural to feel as though one must choose between the two or deny one for the sake of the other exclusively. Rather than force the members of a so-called democratic society into static and opposing groups based on sexual orientation, he suggested that all people accept the call of their hetero- and homo- poles and feel free to be anywhere in between.

Though not all Americans are capable of being that free spirited, it would do society a world of good to make each and every citizen feel as though their individual rights and beliefs aren’t being snuffed out by the consensus of an exclusive group that determines what is and is not appropriate or proper. And that’s just what the problem with discrimination in this country is. Those in power force their beliefs about tradition and religion down the throats of the masses and each small group within the conglomerate pays a price for their individual characteristics, beliefs

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and practices when their personal preferences are trivialized, proclaimed incorrect or taken away completely.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been exacerbated by America’s fixation on heterosexuality as proper, homosexuality as ‘abnormal,’ and a plethora of religious beliefs but it can be combated through an acceptance of more than one lifestyle as “ok” and an understanding of one’s fellow man. The societal measures put into place to keep heterosexuality “normal” have to be seen as such- societal confines. Tradition and normality cannot and will not dictate the course of human history forever. Things always change. Discrimination of any person based on any physical, spiritual, sexual, or ethnic characteristic cannot be tolerated in the self proclaimed land of the free. If you’re not free to love your God, your skin, your heritage and your choice of life partner- in what way are you free?

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