Homosexuality, Contemporary

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Homosexuality, Contemporary

This entry contains the following:

Michelle Parke

Michelle Parke

Michelle Parke

Michelle Parke


Homosexuality as an identity and a set of practices has undergone repeated metamorphoses since classical antiquity. Before the nineteenth century homosexuality was thought of not as an identity but as a series of practices and attitudes. "In some societies same-sex behaviors and attitudes have been generally accepted, even honoured. In other times and places they have been considered reprobate, branded sinful and immoral" (Aldrich 2006, p. 8). The language used to label those behaviors has experienced numerous revisions, from the absence of words to designate such practices in ancient Greece and Rome, to contemporary times in which most languages have numerous words to mark homosexual identities and practices. Responses to homosexuality have been filtered through religious, legal, and cultural lenses and have varied widely from positive recognition to violent persecution and oppression.


The historical debate over how to classify homosexual practices and attitudes has culminated in the late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century conversation about how to define homosexuality and bisexuality as "sexual attraction, sexual behavior, political self-identification or some combination of these factors" (Smith and Haider-Markel 2002, p.1). The debate also includes whether homosexuality is a stable and innate characteristic or a social construction in which sexuality categories are applicable only in one place and at one time if at all (Smith and Haider-Markel 2002). In addition to this attempt at a definition the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community has been working for legal recognition and rights in many European countries, including the United States, and challenging the persecution of homosexuals in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Scholars have argued that same-sex relations throughout recorded history fall into three broad categories: "between adults and youths, often in an initiatory context; between persons who abide by their culture's gender conventions and persons who assume that cultural status of the other sex or of an 'intermediate' gender; and between persons of equal age and status" (Chauncey, Duberman, and Vicinus 1989, p. 9). Those relations are influenced by a variety of factors, including race, class, religion, laws, and age. The contemporary understanding of sexuality and its identities, including gay and lesbian identities, cannot be applied to or layered onto historical considerations of homosexuality, because the modern notion of homosexuality takes a number of factors into account that were not part of general knowledge in earlier historical periods.


The first category, which often is referred to as pederasty, has been evident in many cultures, particularly during antiquity. Pederasty is distinct from pedophilia because "it is age-controlled (no young children) and excludes females" (Bullough 2004, p.1). This category of homosexuality must be understood in its historical context and not in the context of contemporary European and North American assumptions and ideas about homosexuality and relations between adult men and young men. In ancient Greek culture relationships between men and young boys were common; young men were initiated into an elite group through penetration by an adult male. This type of relationship was featured in Plato's Symposium, specifically in Aristophanes's speech (Hupperts 2006). Primarily, the sexual contact was limited to kissing, fondling, anal penetration, and ejaculation on the thighs or buttocks, and oral sexual contact appears to have been rare (Bullough 2004). In Rome same-sex male relationships generally occurred in a military context, but men were expected to be virile and dominant in all aspects of their lives, including sex. For a Roman man "sex equated to penetration, and in principle all sexual acts in which he was not dominant were condemnable"; this meant sex with adult men, women, or boys (Hupperts 2006, p. 49). In both cultures types of sexuality never were referenced in the same way they are in the contemporary world.

In ancient China same-sex relations between men were perceived in a much different manner than in the European world. Chinese literature supplies insight into these relationships. Those stories tell of homosexual love "between rulers and their favorites, for instance, or between older and younger noblemen relationships framed by strong emotional bonds and deep attachments based on filial loyalty" (Carton 2006, p. 303). The tales reveal how homosexuality was categorized in Chinese antiquity. Out of the stories came language by which homosexuality, specifically relations between men, would be labeled. However, as in the classical Greek and Roman cultures, same-sex relationships between men were not limited to pederasty.

In Japan homosexual relationships between adults and youths occurred in the specific context of the powerful and influential samurai warrior culture as well as in Buddhist temples between elder monks and younger men. During the twelfth century the samurai class, which rose to political prominence in the over-six-hundred-year-long age of the shoguns, was a decidedly homosocial society from which women were excluded. That environment allowed same-sex relations between men to flourish. Those relationships were traditionally between "an older nenja, the active partner and protector, and a younger chigo, the object of desire and affection" (Carton 2006, p. 315). In many ways that pederastic relationship mirrored relationships in the larger Japanese culture, but "the samurai model of male same-sex relations became inextricably interwoven into the political system by the 15th and 16th centuries," unlike the other types of Japanese homosexual relationships (Carton 2006, p. 315).

During the golden age of Islam (the Umayyad dynasty, 661–750) "homosexuality was a variant of an eroticism celebrated in all its facets" despite the condemnation in the Qur'an of homosexual acts, "and an adult male might have sex with an adolescent boy, provided that the man took the active role" (Patané 2006, p. 272). The modern reader learns about the pederastic relationships in ancient Islam through literature, Abū Nuwās's poetry in particular. He was one of the leading poets in Arabic literature and wrote about many relationships with boys and female slaves. Abū Nuwās wrote specifically about fifteen-year-old boys and those slightly younger, as well as pages, slaves, and young male prostitutes, and "his verses bespeak a burning passion" (Patané 2006, p. 274). Although the sexual acts are not detailed, the poet alludes to their possibility by saying that the boys had "a supple and slender body, smooth skin, narrow hips, [and] firm buttocks" (Patané 2006, p. 274). Abū Nuwās's poetry represents a period in Islamic history that describes homosexuality, in particular pederastic relationships, extensively; that period reached its peak in the twelfth century.


With the emergence of Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices in the Middle Ages (seventh to fifteenth centuries) and the Early Modern period (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), references to adult-youth homosexual relationships seem to disappear, but this does not mean that those relationships did not occur. Within the Christian framework the sexual act had a specific purpose—reproduction—and any form of sexual practice, including homosexuality, that violated that principle was deemed unnatural. Adult men and boys during the period of the Enlightenment (1600–1800), for example, engaged in sodomy probably without knowing that they were committing sodomy (Sibalis 2006).


Modernity appears to have influenced other cultures' responses to and acceptance of pederastic relationships, with the best example being Japan. During the twentieth century in Europe and North America, pederastic relationships were often a source of debate and conflict. In the United States some in the gay community accepted those types of relationships, but for the most part adult-youth homosexual relationships have been excluded "for political if for no other reason" (Bullough 2004, p. 1). However, the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which was founded in 1978 in Boston, has continued to operate despite numerous attempts by authorities to shut it down.

In Europe, however, pederastic relationships have received more attention and support within the gay community. In Germany, for example, the Community of the Exceptional was formed at the turn of the twentieth century and produced its own literature, defending and exalting "boy love" (Bullough 2004, p. 1). Around that time, between the world wars (1919–1939), in England and America a "pederastic-oriented poetic movement developed, now known as the Uranian Poets. These writers turned to the extensive pederastic literature of the ancient world for inspiration, but focused on the trials, tribulations, challenges, and rewards of boy love in a Christian society intolerant of their love" (Bullough 2004, p. 1). Later, in the 1950s, propederastic groups appeared in Netherlands, Scandinavia, West Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland (Bullough 2004).


The second broad category refers to individuals who dress as another gender and even pass as another gender. Modern terms such as transvestite, transsexual, and transgender are used to refer to individuals who wear clothing and makeup to assume the role of another gender (transvestite), switch their physical sex (transsexual), or decide to change their assigned gender to another (transgender). The roots of these ideas of playing with gender binaries and complicating understandings of sexuality trace back to antiquity. The notion of the third sex can be traced back to Plato's Symposium. In one dialogue "Aristophanes propounds a mythological explanation of heteroerotic and homoerotic attraction in connection with the three primordial sexes of mankind: male-male, male-female, and female-female" (Bauer 2004, p. 1). Here three sexes are articulated as two halves put together to form one sex; thus, erotic love in the Greek tradition is based on two halves. Therefore, male-male and female-female attract members of the same sex, whereas male-female represents the traditional idea of heterosexuality.

One can see a similar attention to the third sex in ancient India, where "the acceptance of a 'third sex' category reflects the Hindu notion that sexual ambiguity can be cosmic" (Carton 2006, p. 323). The third sex included eunuchs, transvestites, and effeminate homosexual men. Hindu mythology has repeated references to sexual identity that do not correspond to contemporary notions. Shiva, for example, is one mythological entity that represents both sexes in unison, and other deities are known for cross-dressing (Kirshana's son Samba, for example). At the core of those stories and representations is the Hindu belief that all humans have equal amounts of masculine and feminine qualities (Carton 2006).

In Chinese antiquity the third sex—specifically men who dressed as women—was linked to the theater. The all-male theater often witnessed on-stage relationships that might occur off-stage as well. The male actors who played female parts would continue their gender roles off-stage, with the male actors playing the male roles (which were considered superior) in homosexual relationships (Carton 2006). A similar phenomenon can be seen in Japan's kabuki theater in the seventeenth century.

During the time of the European conquest of the Americas, native cultures blurred gender and sexuality lines. Most common were "the cross-gender roles, which included having sexual relations with and marrying people of the same biological sex" (Beemyn 2006, pp. 145-146). The notion of the third sex was prevalent in those native cultures: "Within their respective societies, women-men and men-women (biological females in men's roles) were viewed as neither men nor women, but as additional genders that either combined male and female elements or existed completely apart from other gender categories" (Beemyn 2006, p. 147). Many West African cultures (the origin of much of the enslaved population in North and Central America) also accepted and at times institutionalized cross-gender roles (Beemyn 2006).

The early modern period in Europe, although confronting sodomy, also began to pay particular attention to same-sex female relations, and when a woman was suspected of engaging in such behavior, hermaphroditism (and female genital overdevelopment) was considered the cause. The classical model of the third sex was dominant at that time, and "hermaphroditism was widely known, and, according to medical thinking, hermaphrodites occupied the middle ground in the spectrum from male to female; they were, at least in theory, literally central to the understanding of male and female as reversible" (Gowing 2006, p. 128). During that period certain women cross-dressed, and some became known as female husbands, which in terms of violating the norm of sexual conduct was aligned with hermaphroditism. Marriage served a specific economic and political purpose and did not epitomize heterosexual love; therefore, many women assumed another gender role. "For at least some cross-dressing women, marriage and sex may have come as an adjunct to all the other male privileges and responsibilities acquired through wearing breeches" (Gowing 2006, p. 135).

For men during the period of the Enlightenment homosexual subcultures emerged in major cities such as Paris and London, and within those subcultures much cross-dressing occurred. This very visible transgressive behavior involved men "who imitated women's dress, mannerisms and speech, and sometimes adopted female nicknames" (Sibalis 2006, p. 107). Some of the men and women who engaged in those cross-gender roles passed as their assumed gender. From male court officials in England, Spain, and France passing as women to females passing as Civil War soldiers in the United States, the idea of the third sex is an evolving and often times hidden component of the history of sexuality.

In the late nineteenth century, particularly in the Europe and North America, growing attention was paid to that category. The nineteenth-century German sexologists Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), who were two of the earliest advocates for gay rights, investigated the idea of the third sex. They traced the idea back to Plato and concentrated on two prevalent concepts: "the alternative scheme of sexual distribution and the egalitarian (or 'natural') explanation of both heterosexual and homosexual love" (Bauer 2004, p. 1).

This broad notion of the third sex is represented in nineteenth-century literature in which it encompasses "non-conventional or subversive women who, without being lesbians, were capable of dealing lucidly with their own sexual complexities and of questioning the social roles females were expected to fulfill" (Bauer 2004, p. 1). In that literature there are ambiguous uses of pronouns and even direct references to a sex that is not male or female. Notably, those references to a third sex in nineteenth-century literature concern primarily males, and only after the turn of the century was the term used explicitly in a lesbian context (Bauer 2004).

Ulrich used the concept of the third sex to define homosexuality specifically and redefined sexuality within a triadic scope of sexual possibilities, concluding: "'We constitute a third sex'" (Bauer 2004, p. 2). He believed that the third sex defined a special class of people. Hirschfeld's use of the term made it popular and pushed the idea into the mainstream. He "designated a whole range of intermediate forms of sexuality that could not be readily classified using the male/female scheme" (Bauer 2004, p. 2). Sigmund Freud took the stance that a third sex was necessary to distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Also falling within the broad category of the third sex is the idea of sexual inversion, which early sexologists believed was part of homosexuality. Effeminate men and masculine women were often the targets of persecution as well as study. Sexual inversion referred to the belief that one had "the feeling that one belonged to a gender 'opposite' to or 'inverted' from one's assigned birth sex" (Beemyn 2006, p. 162).


In the twentieth century cross-dressing and cross-gender roles became more visible with the growth of gay and lesbian subcultures in urban settings and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. Clubs in Berlin, Paris, and New York were often sites for cabaret acts that featured transvestites. Cross-dressing women also found social opportunities in those subcultures. In the contemporary period cultures around the world have versions of cross-dressing and cross-gender roles. In the United States drag queens and drag kings along with growing attention to the transgender community are perhaps the best example of the evolution of the concept of the third sex.


Same-sex relations between people of the same age and status are perhaps the most widely practiced and known category of homosexuality. Evidence of this classification of homosexuality is evident throughout history and generally has remained consistent in terms of sexual practices. For example, the use of a dildo between two women dates back to Chinese antiquity, and there is evidence of male anal intercourse on pottery from ancient Greece (Carton 2006, Hupperts 2006). Anthropological, historical, and sociological research has provided a variety of evidence from all parts of the world regarding the presence of homosexuality in the majority of cultures.

Documents and other sources may vary and are still being unearthed, but the understanding of the presence of homosexuality across cultures and times is more comprehensive in modern times than ever before. Although the general sexual practices—anal, oral, and manual sex—are still the most common sexual acts (with the addition of role playing, toys, etc.), more specific sexual identities and practices within the GLBT community have become more visible, such as leather, sadomasochism, fetishism, butch/femme, and pitcher/catcher.


Aldrich, Robert. 2006. "Gay and Lesbian History." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Bauer, J. Edgar. 2004. "Third Sex." In GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture. Available from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/third_sex.html.

Beemyn, Brett Genny. 2006. "The Americas: From Colonial Times to the 20th Century." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Bullough, Vern L. 2004. "Pederasty." In GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture. Available from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/pederasty.html.

Carton, Adrian. 2006. "Desire and Same-Sex Intimacies in Asia." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Chauncey, George, Jr.; Martin Duberman; and Martha Vicinus. 1989. "Introduction." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, eds. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncy, Jr. New York: New American Library.

Gowing, Laura. 2006. "Lesbians and Their Like in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Hupperts, Charles. 2006. "Homosexuality in Greece and Rome." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Ng, Viven W. 1989. "Homosexuality and the State in Late Imperial China." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, eds. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncy, Jr. New York: New American Library.

Patané, Vincenzo. 2006. "Homosexuality in the Middle East and North Africa." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Sibalis, Michael. 2006. "Male Homosexuality in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution, 1680–1850." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Smith, Raymond A., and Donald P. Haider-Markel. 2002. Gay and Lesbian Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

                                         Michelle Parke


The history of homosexuality is extensive, dating from antiquity in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas through the present moment on a global scale. To highlight some of this history, what follows is a summary of the histories of homosexuality in Western Europe, Asia (specifically, China and India), and the United States.


During antiquity and in numerous cultures, evidence exists of same-sex relations between men and between women. In the Greek city-states of Sparta and Thebes, homosexuality was closely linked with the military, and in Athens, another city-state, homosexuality and sport were intimately related. In fact, during the fourth century bce, Thebes was host to "a special military unit of three hundred men, the so-called Sacred Band, that was completely comprised of [sic] amorous couples" (Hupperts 2006, p. 31). In Rome the choices men had in their sexual partners—men, women, and young boys—illustrates the centrality homosexuality, and sexuality in general, had within Roman culture. Male prostitution, for example, was prominent in Roman antiquity, so much so that it grew to become a luxury trade, and it did not solely employ slaves, as was the traditional practice, but also Roman citizens looking to earn money.

Because Greek texts were written by men for a male audience, the evidence of same-sex relations between women is scarce, although it is mentioned, however briefly, in Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium (Hupperts 2006). This is certainly not to say that these relations did not exist. Our best evidence of same-sex relations between women in Greek antiquity is the work of Sappho, the sixth-century bce Greek lyric poet. "In her poetry Sappho wrote about the world of women, their daily lives, their marriages and their participation in religious ceremonies. She also praised the beauty of women and the love that they shared, and spoke of her own love for girls" (Hupperts 2006, p. 47). Her fame drew attention to both her poetry and her home island of Lesbos, which was a cultural center at the time, attracting young women to study with the famous poet. The category of lesbian certainly did not exist during Sappho's lifetime, but her home—Lesbos—and her name had a linguistic impact on lesbian identity and practices, as did the same-sex relations between men in Greece at the same time. Many women who loved women in European and North American culture would later be known as Sapphists, and men who engaged in sexual acts with other men were said to have practiced Greek love.


In Europe, during the Middle Ages (seventh to fifteenth centuries) and the Early Modern period (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), the influence of Judeo-Christian values and beliefs dominate in terms of how same-sex relations between men and between women are perceived. Evidence of the daily lives of gays and lesbians during this period are scarce because "the concept of 'homosexuals' as members of a separate category was at that time completely foreign" (Hergemöller 2006, p. 57). Rather, individuals were judged based on the practices as they related to nature; more specifically, sexual behaviors were judged within the context of reproduction. In the thirteenth century the term sodomites becomes a common way to broadly refer to same-sex acts, primarily between men. A significant aspect of European culture at this time was the exalted position of male friendships, which occurred within a homoerotic context and can be traced back to the sixth century. "Apart from the religious and legal aspects of homosexuality, however, there also emerges a literary and cultural context for same-sex relationships, at least as far as male-to-male contacts are concerned" (Hergemöller 2006, p. 58). These frequently homoerotic friendships were characterized by sleeping in the same bed, kissing, and embracing.

Women were often included in the broad definition of sodomy, and the terms lesbian, sapphist, and tribade were used to describe practices rather than identities during the Early Modern period. "Female sexuality in the early modern period was understood very differently from the sexless chastity that became the ideal for Victorian women" (Gowing 2006, p. 126). And in this context sex was necessary to a woman's health, and "women, who required sexual satisfaction and who were fundamentally not naturally chaste, could and would turn to each other" (Gowing 2006, p. 126).

Although most sodomy cases were focused on same-sex relations between men, there are a few examples when women, during the eighteenth century in particular, were prosecuted under sodomy laws, and the debate over the use of dildos during same-sex relations between women raised questions as to whether that practice constituted sodomy. The use of dildos by women was common not only in European cultures but also in Asian and native cultures in the Americas, and "rarely did their use have lesbian connotations, but they nonetheless signified the autonomy of female sexuality" (Gowing 2006, p. 132).

Scholars also see a similar prominence of female friendships as with male friendships. "The model of platonic female friendship, elevated in writings across early modern Europe, seemed to demonstrate the innocence and chastity of relations between women. Elite women […] celebrated their networks of friendship and their intimate bonds with other women. Many expressed their love in rapturous language that in later centuries was reserved for heterosexual passion" (Gowing 2006, p. 136). Even though most of these friendships were simply platonic and intimate, many were sexual in nature. The elevated position of female friendships and their homoerotic context drew more attention during the eighteenth century because of political scandals, particularly those surrounding the English Queen Anne (1665–1714, ruled 1707–1714). "Outside the spheres of law and medicine, theatre and poetry, and below the social world of female poets and court friendships, possibilities for lesbian relationships existed in a much wider realm than is suggested by tales of female husbands, tribades and their partners. Perhaps the first thing to note is the proportion of women who, by choice or by compulsion, remained single" (Gowing 2006, p. 137).

The large number of single women in European culture produced various all-female living situations, which allowed for the possibility of lesbian relationships, and because women were much more marginalized than men at this time, their intimacies occurred behind closed doors more often than those of their male counterparts. Although there is no evidence of lesbian subcultures in eighteenth century Europe, brothels and prisons were two locations in which lesbian relationships did perhaps develop (Gowing 2006).

During the Age of Enlightenment, a dramatic change in homosexuality occurred, specifically the emergence of gay subcultures in major European cities, such as Paris, London, and Amsterdam. In each of these cities homosexual men had meeting places, such as London's Covent Garden Arcades. Moreover, eighteenth-century intellectuals began to discuss homosexuality in secular rather than religious terms, and laws regarding sodomy were revised during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which changed the legal status of sodomites. For example, much of the focus of the Enlightenment was on nature, and sexual pleasure was seen as the natural incentive for men and women to perpetuate humanity; therefore, same-sex practices were perceived as unnatural (Sibalis 2006.). The shift here is notable—the notion of unnatural is no longer couched in religious terms but in terms of philosophy.

In the nineteenth century and into the part of the twentieth century, further drastic shifts in homosexuality occurred. Perhaps most notably, medical and psychiatric discourse influenced how homosexuality is perceived and accepted. "Homosexual" replaced "sodomite," "who did wrong against society, but was also 'sick', 'perverse', 'degenerate'" (Tamagne 2006, p. 167). This notion of perversion dominated as the central perception of homosexuality, but at the same time, the first active homosexual movements emerge and homosexuality becomes more visible. Whereas male homosexuality received a great deal of attention from the medical establishment, the same is not true of lesbians. "Lesbianism was of little interest to doctors, who either considered it be of marginal significance or cast doubt on its very existence. Deprived of […] semen, a woman could not achieve satisfaction, and so relations between women, if they aroused the senses, condemned the lesbian to frustration or even to madness" (Tamagne 2006, p. 168).


As is often the case scandal drew attention to homosexuality in Europe during this period. The Eulenburg affair (1907–1909) in Germany and Oscar Wilde's trials in London focused interest on the gay communities in these countries. These scandals "contributed to the adoption of certain modes of identification; […] reinforced the feeling of normality in the average reader of the popular press; and lastly, […] caused homosexuals to react against the danger now facing them by either withdrawing in the private sphere or by demanding recognition of their rights" (Tamagne 2006, p. 172). Into the twentieth century the perception of homosexuality shifted once again, and by the end of World War I (1914–1919), there was a turning point of how homosexuality was depicted. The changed perceptions coming out of the medical and mental health professions along with the growing visibility of gay and lesbian populations caused much of this shift. And by the end of this period, Paris and Berlin had established themselves as centers of gay life, with flourishing gay and lesbian subcultures. At the same time, however, "stigmatizing stereotypes, social exclusion and the threat of police action all point to the homophobic feelings and practices that constantly confronted homosexual men and women, though in different forms and to different degrees" (Tamagne 2006, p. 188). After World War I was over, there was a desire to return to heteronormativity and the demographic shift, indicating a surplus of women and lesbians, who became the targets of attack, particularly in Britain (Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness [1928] drew considerable attention, became the target of a lawsuit and was eventually banned).

World War II (1939–1945) was of significance in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) history. In Germany some elements of the NSDAP (or Nazi) party, led by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) embraced the idea that homosexuality weakened society and was unnatural because such thought fell in line with the party's overall ideology. The Nazi Stuermabteilung (SA, or storm troopers) targeted gay and lesbian organizations and meeting places as well as well-known homosexuals. There were rumors about homosexuality among the SA leadership, including Ernst Roehm, (1887–1934), cofounder of the SA. Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), commander of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS), developed "the homophobic Nazi rhetoric, mixing traditional stereotypes with detailed analysis that focused on the survival of the Aryan race"; the Nazi policy toward homosexuals became clear: "totalitarian discourse, police terror, punishments disproportionate to deed" (Tamagne 2006, pp. 192, 193). Of more than 10,000 people arrested, 92 percent were found guilty, and although most lesbians escaped prosecution, some were arrested under Austrian law. The punishments (e.g., forced work in brothels, systematic rape) lesbians could suffer were to meant to reinforce the patriarchal order the Nazi regime so greatly valued. Between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexuals were sent to concentration camps, where a pink triangle was used to identify them, and the tasks they were given were designed to cure them (Tamagne 2006).


Somewhat similar attitudes toward sex and sexuality existed in China as those found in ancient Greece and Rome, in the third and fourth centuries ce in particular. The literature of antiquity, as mentioned earlier, provides the best insight into same-sex relations in China. Out of these stories came language by which homosexuality, specifically relations between men, would be labeled. "Love of the shared peach" derived from a story of two imperial court officials whose intimacy was marked by one of the men giving the other a half-eaten peach, indicating his "sense of devotion and self-sacrifice" to the other (Carton 2006, p. 304). "Long yang" became a synonym for a homosexual lover because the third-century bce story of Lord Long Yang and the king of Wei, who shared a fishing boat, reveals the competition among the favorites within the imperial court as well as "confirms the extent of homosexual intimacy among the elite" (Carton 2006, p. 304).

Finally, the "cut sleeve"—perhaps the most famous of the stories—grew to become a synonym for homosexual desire and further indicates how homosexuality pervaded the upper class. Emperor Ai and his favorite, Dong Xian, are napping, with Dong's head resting on the Emperor's sleeve. Rather than disturbing Dong, the Emperor cuts off his sleeve and returns to his royal duties. In addition to pointing to how homosexuality was classified at the time, the story and metaphor also convey "enduring noble qualities of loyalty, respect and filial attachment intrinsic to the moral fabric of the Confucian universe" (Carton 2006, p. 307).

As in ancient Greece and Rome where men wrote for a male history, recorded examples of same-sex relations between women are scarce. "Women were perceived to have no sexuality outside of the traditional patriarchal hierarchies, [and] female same-sex love was subject to the general Confucian perception of women as submissive to men," which led, as in many other cases, to the "invisibility" of lesbian love (Carton 2006, p. 311). There are a few examples of same-sex relations between women in ancient Chinese art and literature, but much of this evidence dates well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This witnessed an explosion in literature that drew on stories from early China that suggest/indicate homosexual activity, particularly between men. Scholars believe that "male writers employed certain rhetorical strategies to keep love between women trivialized and contained within patriarchal parameters…. The modernization of China along Western lines in the twentieth century ushered in a new era for homosexuality. Centuries of tolerance were abandoned for an attitude of open hostility and punitive measures." As part of this modernization China adopted "Western scientific models of sexuality" that pathologizes same-sex behaviors and attitudes. After the victory on the Chinese Mainland of the Communist Party of China in 1949, gays and lesbians were viewed as "decadent, morally dangerous, and antithetical to the aims of the new proletarian society" (Carton 2006, p. 311). More recently, however, GLBT subcultures have emerged in China's major cities as Chinese culture has become gradually more pluralistic and open.

Unlike the Western Europe, North America, and China, for example, much less is known about homosexuality in India, and this could be "due to a lack of a reliable historical records or to a general social taboo." It is only recently that the moral and cultural "silence on the subject of same-sex desire" has been lifted—a veil that was in place because there was a widely held belief that homosexuality was a "foreign import." Interestingly, sexuality holds a central place in Indian culture, "with early Hindu sacred texts and art heavily charged with an erotic sensibility. Sexual desire, intimate friendship, and gender ambiguity are issues central to ancient understandings of human relationships and the way in which they relate to the universe" (Carton 2006, p. 322). For example, intimate friendships between women or between men were viewed as highly spiritual, which led to harmony with the universe. Deities in Indian religion are often linked in friendship but have erotic overtones. The friendship between Krishna and Arjuna is perhaps the most famous and the tale's "central proposition is that, like the human and the divine, the two characters are really one—loving reflections of each other" (Carton 2006, p. 322).

Perhaps the best-known example of Indian attitudes toward sexual practices and sexuality is the Kama Sutra, which dates from the third century ce. From this text it is learned that "gender-differentiated sex between women was socially accepted" (Penrose 2007, p.1). Regarding men (and male-male desire, or kama), there is a clear active/passive binary evident in the Kama Sutra and in general beliefs in the modern era. Similar to European antiquity, the male in the active role receives less stigmatization than his passive, or receptive, partner. Indian attitudes regarding sexuality changed drastically with the Muslim conquest of the nation in the eighth century ce. "Islamic rule spread into modern-day India in the early eleventh century and culminated with the tenuous conquest of most of South India in 1707" (Penrose 2007, p.2). Same-sex desire between men is not prohibited in Islamic belief but acting on it is, and there is evidence that men did engage in physical and sexual expressions of this desire despite the prohibitions (Penrose 2007).

As with much early history little is known of same-sex desire between women during this period in Indian history. British colonization of India in the mid-nineteenth century dramatically altered the Indian societal landscape, including attitudes and practices regarding sexuality. The British antisodomy laws were in effect in India, and the influence of Judeo-Christian perceptions of same-sex relations also took hold in India. "Male-male homoerotic poetry ceased to be published. Although some poetry discussing love between women, called rekhti, continued to be written in the late nineteenth century, it was eventually suppressed as well" (Penrose 2007, p. 2). By the late twentieth century, compulsory marriage and familial responsibilities dictate that GLBT-identified individuals (although it is precarious to impose European and North American categories of sexual identity onto Indian culture) conform to tradition, and those who want to be "out" (in a more Europeanized manner) must move to the larger cities where GLBT communities do exist. In addition, Indian popular culture has experienced a more visible of GLBT identities in literature and film, and Indian academia has begun to incorporate Queer Studies into curriculum (Penrose 2007).


Finally, scholars can trace the history of homosexuality in the Western Hemisphere back to native populations. The role, or identity, most widely known in early Native American cultures is the mixture of male and female characteristics. "Such roles for males (and, likely, intersexed persons) have been documented in 155 tribes, with about one-third of these also having a named role for women who adopted a male lifestyle as well" (Roscoe 2007, p. 1). Although accurate records do not exist regarding the numbers of such individuals, there were enough in the "Timucua of Florida and the Hidatsa, Crow, and Cheyenne of the Plains" to constitute social groups in their communities (Roscoe 2007, p. 1). With the arrival of the European colonists to North America came Judeo-Christian attitudes about sexuality and certain laws that governed sexual behavior, including sodomy laws. Under the sodomy laws in British North America, few men were severely punished for violating the law because proving such activity was difficult, and although not as frequent, women were occasionally found guilty under the sodomy law. The Puritan influence was also felt regarding gender boundaries; individuals who "cross-dressed or led cross-gendered lives" were punished (Beemyn 2006, p. 151).

Throughout Latin America homosexuality was illegal due to various laws from different colonial powers. The conquest of the Spanish imposed Catholic believes regarding homosexuality, which conflicted with certain native practices that celebrated homosexuality as a form of communication with the gods. Punishments for sodomy were derived from the Inquisition and the ways in which sodomy was punished during this time in Spain. Not until 1871 was homosexuality decriminalized in Mexico.

In North America Sodomy remained a criminal offense from the late eighteenth century until June 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that the thirteen remaining state sodomy laws were ruled as being unconstitutional. Despite the presence of such laws, citizens "accepted and even idealized passionate, loving and physically affectionate friendships between members of the same sex" (Beemyn 2006, p. 151). Evidence of such relationships were more widely known to occur between women, as seen throughout nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, but men also engaged in such friendships. Men's friendships were perhaps better accepted because they were perceived as nonsexual, although this was not always the case. Whereas there a series of examples regarding actual female romantic friendships (e.g., the U.S. novelist Sarah Orne Jewett [1849–1909] and her friend, Annie Fields [1834–1915]), the best representations of such relationships come to us from literature―Henry James's (1843–1916) The Bostonians (which details the more specific Boston marriages), Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) Work, Jewett's Martha's Lady, and other examples. Male romantic friendships were intended to end with the onset of adulthood, but some men—the most famous perhaps being Walt Whitman (1819–1892)—did not end these relationships but instead incorporated them into their conception of manhood (Beemyn 2006).

With the formation of the Young Men's Christian Organization (YMCA) in the mid-nineteenth century and the all-male communities work camps (e.g., railroads, mining, logging) across the Western frontier, it can be seen how greatly intimate male friendships were valued among mostly middle-class whites. Similar all-female communities existed as well, primarily at women's colleges and in brothels. At the turn of the twentieth century, despite the emergence of medical and psychological attention on homosexuality, gays and lesbians began to develop subcultures in some major U.S. cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Freer expression of perverse sexualities operated hand-in-hand with the general freedom of sexual expression associated with the Jazz Age (ca. 1918–1929).

During the pre-World War II period, literature and art—both the work itself and communities—became a forum in which GLBT individuals could begin to explore same-sex desire somewhat more openly than during the Victorian Era (ca. 1840–1914). Authors, artists, and actors such as Henry James, Charles Warren Stoddard (1843–1909), Robert McAlmon (1896–1956), Clarkson Crane 1894–1971), Djuna Barnes (1892–1982), Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), Forman Brown (1901–1996), Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987), and Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961), who signed her poems H. D., produced works that explore, in various ways, homosexuality. After the end of World War II, homosexual identities and practices shifted in the wake of the reassertion of heteronormative gender roles, which is evidenced most visibly in popular culture (e.g., Leave It to Beaver). However, GLBT communities still existed and even enlarged in major urban centers. Drag queens and butch and femme lesbians had their own meeting places, such as bars, but existed on the outskirts of mainstream U.S. and Canadian culture.

Prior to the events at the Stonewall Inn at the end of June 1969 in New York's Greenwich Village, many people assumed GLBT political movements did not exist. Known before the 1960s as the homophile movement, the GLBT community did, in fact, have small organizations that met with the goal of advancing the rights of their community, but they usually did this in secret and behind closed doors. Groups such as the Mattachine Society (gay men) and the Daughters of Bilitis (lesbians), founded in the 1950s, may have had their roots in the radical left (paralleling other civil rights organizations that were growing at the time), but they remained non-confrontational and guarded. The events at Stonewall, however, pushed GLBT rights into the mainstream and "proved to be a catalyst for a wave of national GLBT organizing" (Smith and Haider-Markel 2002, p. 11). Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), "which rejected the conciliatory incrementalism of the old homophile groups," and the Gay Activist Alliance were founded as a direct result of the events at Stonewall (Smith and Haider-Markel 2002 p. 43). These groups, along with the lesbian feminists within the broader women's movement, tackled issues ranging from homophobia within the women's movement to the psychiatric treatment of homosexuals with shock therapy, and pejorative classifications of homosexuality by the mental health professions.

The 1970s, known as the period of Gay Liberation, witnessed extensive marches, demonstrations, and other forms of protest from the GLBT community throughout the country, in urban centers in particular. This pervasive organizing would prove vital in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS would become the largest issue to challenge the GLBT community. In the early 1980s, when gay and bisexual men began to die from a debilitating disease, at the time an unidentified immune-system disorder. The rising death toll and the growing public and political designation of AIDS as a gay disease (even as punishment from God for the sin of homosexuality) challenged the GLBT community. "Although lesbians had not been infected with HIV in comparably large numbers, they shared a great deal of the stigma of AIDS, while seeing much of the earlier promise of the women's movement dashed by the Reagan revolution" (Smith and Haider-Markel 2002, p. 46). The GLBT community rallied with the founding of ACT UP by the U.S. playwright and activist Larry Kramer (b. 1935) in March 1987. ACT UP focused specifically on political action in response to the AIDS crisis and the mounting negativity targeted at the GLBT community from conservative America. It grew to become one of the most active and powerful political organizations in the nation and soon had more than 100 chapters globally. The 1990s saw a growing understanding of HIV/AIDS and with that came a waning of negative perceptions about the disease and its connection to the GLBT community. As of the early twenty-first century, the GLBT community tackles a variety of issues, including marriage/civil unions, workplace discrimination, adoption, and gays in the military.

In the United States the GLBT community exists in urban, suburban, and rural areas and has a growing presence in mainstream popular culture. The community is more socioeconomically diverse than ever before and has its own subcultures, with groups such as the International Gay Rodeo Association and the Lesbian Avengers. In addition, the GLBT community has grown into a powerful political entity through activist organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.


Beemyn, Brett Genny. 2006. "The Americas: From Colonial Times to the 20th Century." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Carton, Adrian. 2006. "Desire and Same-Sex Intimacies in Asia." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Gowing, Laura, 2006. "Lesbians and Their Like in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Hall, Radclyffe. 1928. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Covici Friede.

Hergemöller, Bernd-Ulrich. 2006. "The Middle Ages." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Hupperts, Charles. 2006. "Homosexuality in Greece and Rome." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

Penrose, Walter D, Jr. 2007. "India." GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture. Available from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/india.html.

Roscoe, Will, 2007. "Native Americans." GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture. Available from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/native_americans.html.

Sibalis, Michael. 2006. "Male Homosexuality in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution, 1680–1850." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

Smith, Raymond, and Donald P. Haider-Markel, 2002. Gay and Lesbian Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Tamagne, Florence. 2006. "The Homosexual Age, 1870–1940." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich. New York: Universe.

                                          Michelle Parke


The social position of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) individuals varies widely around the world. In the United States, the GLBT community has a fairly visible presence in popular culture and the media, and there are growing GLBT subcultures in most urban centers that engage in the political struggle to gain equal rights and legal recognition.


GLBT neighborhoods in urban centers and college towns typically have meeting places such as coffeehouses, bookstores, restaurants, and bars and clubs where GLBT individuals gather for social and political reasons. They usually include resource centers such as the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and the Center on Halsted in Chicago that can assist members of the GLBT community with a variety of issues, including workplace discrimination, housing, harassment, and coming out. Many colleges and universities have organizations that provide a community for GLBT students on campus, and the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network is a national organization with state and local chapters that works to provide a safe school environment for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is a national organization that supports the GLBT community through education and advocacy and serves as a support network for GLBT individuals and their loved ones. These organizations attempt to develop and support the GLBT community at the local and national levels in an effort to make life easier for GLBT individuals.


There is a similar visibility and cultural presence in Europe. However, in the Arab world and in countries such as India and Zimbabwe, GLBT individuals struggle against oppressive political and cultural entities that see homosexuality as a Western disease (Hekma 2006). GLBT communities in those regions must operate more clandestinely, but there are activist groups working toward changing the perception and persecution of GLBT peoples in those nations.


The media have had a tremendous worldwide effect on the cultural position of GLBT individuals. The gradual increase in the number of celebrities who have come out in recent years is part of that media exposure. George Michael, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Elton John, and others have become gay icons for the GLBT community, particularly in the West. Most of the celebrities who come out work in the arts, and the majority of "out" celebrities in Hollywood are women. This gives visibility to lesbians but also leads to the question of why gay men in Hollywood do not come out in the same numbers.

The general absence of athletes on that list is notable. In the United States high-profile athletes are considered celebrity figures, but few athletes are out. Notable exceptions include the basketball star Sheryl Swoopes and the French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo, along with the tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. The culture of homophobia in men's sports seems to inhibit active players who are gay from coming out. In the first decade of the twenty-first century retired players such as the former National Basketball Association player John Amaechi, the former National Football League player Esera Tuaolo, and the former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean came out.

Television, films, and the Internet have played significant roles in the cultural position of GLBT individuals in the West. Popular television programs such Will & Grace, Queer as Folk (the British and U.S. versions), The L Word, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and numerous reality shows (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Work Out, Amazing Race, Survivor) have featured GLBT characters. There are other programs that have niche followings, but the shows named above have had a larger media presence. Cable television stations that are GLBT-specific have been launched, including Logo and here! Films featuring GLBT characters and content have received critical and popular acclaim, including Boys Don't Cry, Philadelphia, Gods and Monsters, Brokeback Mountain, Monster, and Bound.

The visibility of GLBT celebrities and culture in the media has been significant in changing perceptions about gay life and culture as well as helping those who are coming out find reflections of their sexuality in mainstream culture. There are numerous examples of gay and lesbian teenagers who are struggling with coming out sending letters and e-mails to the stars of television programs to thank them for portrayals of gay or lesbian characters that helped those adolescents deal with their challenges. For example the actors Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson, who played a lesbian couple on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, received many of those letters.

The Internet has functioned in significant ways in the GLBT community by providing an opportunity for community building not only in the United States but globally. In nations where GLBT individuals cannot be as visible for fear of violence and persecution, the Internet has offered them a way to connect to others in the international GLBT community and with more local people. "In the West, it has allowed those who have difficulty in finding or fitting in with gay life, including young people and those who live outside large towns, to access it" (Hekma 2006, p. 351). It is also an important source of information on GLBT issues, news, and culture.

The media in other nations also have played a significant role in trying to position the GLBT community positively in cultures that may not welcome homosexuality. For example, the Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Metha's 1996 film Fire received international critical acclaim but also sparked heated debate in her native India. The film centers on the lives of two Indian families in New Delhi, showing how two women fall in love while living in the house they share with their husbands. The controversy in India involved two components of the film, both concerning sexuality. First, there was a scene in which a male character masturbated while watching a film. However, it was the film's lesbian content, which some of the groups that protested against the film argued subverts Indian culture, that triggered much of the controversy. Certain theaters where the film was shown were targeted for mob attacks, and Metha required a security detail in India. However, Fire and films like it bring visibility to the GLBT community.

Film in particular has proved to be a medium in which GLBT issues can be brought into the international spotlight, and numerous global film festivals feature GLBT films. Those films reflect GLBT communities and in many cases are vehicles to promote change. Films such as the Philippine The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and the Mexican Amores Perros show gay life and culture against a backdrop of socioeconomic and political issues. Thus, attention is drawn to the plight of the GLBT community in the country of each film, situating it within a larger international GLBT community and providing GLBT individuals in those nations with a mirror in which they can see their lives.


Aldrich, Robert, ed. 2006. Gay Life and Culture: A World History. New York: Universe.

Hekma, Gert. 2006. "The Gay World: 1980 to the Present." In Gay Life and Culture: A World History, ed. Robert Aldrich, 333-363. New York: Universe.

                                          Michelle Parke


After the debate over AIDS/HIV in the 1980s, in the 1990s the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community faced new challenges, such as hate crimes targeting gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals; gays in the military; gay marriage and civil unions; and workplace discrimination. The two best-known cases of hate crimes against the GLBT community were those involving Brandon Teena in 1993 and Matthew Shepherd in 1998. Those two incidents fueled protests led by organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century

eleven states and the District of Columbia have laws addressing hate crimes motivated by bias against the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity, among other protected categories. In 22 states, the hate crimes laws address bias based on sexual orientation but not on gender identity. Another 13 states have hate crimes statutes that address neither gender identity nor sexual orientation. Three states have no hate crimes laws of any kind."

                        (HRC, "Hate Crimes Laws," 2007)


At that time the GLBT community also was confronted with issues such as gays in the military and civil unions, and those issues would carry over into the twenty-first century. The ban on gays in the military was lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993 but was replaced with the compromise commonly called the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. That policy "requires gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to keep their sexual orientation secret and refrain from same-sex sexual conduct. The military is banned from asking questions about a service member's sexual orientation, and significant restrictions are placed on commanders seeking to investigate the possibility that a service member may be gay" (HRC, "Don't Ask," 2007). Under that policy antigay harassment and invasive investigations into service members' personal lives for the sole purpose of ascertaining their sexual orientation are prohibited (HRC, "Don't Ask," 2007). Service members can be discharged if they "make a statement that they are lesbian, gay or bisexual; engage in physical contact with someone of the same sex for the purposes of sexual gratification; or marry, or attempt to marry, someone of the same sex" (HRC, "Don't Ask," 2007).

From 1993 to 2007 more than 10,000 individuals were discharged under the policy at a cost of $250 million to $1.2 billion (HRC, "The U.S. Military," 2007). At that time a movement to remove the policy received strong public support (55 percent in the January 2007 Harris Interactive poll) and backing from the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John M. Shalikashvili (Harris Interactive 2007). In addition to reflecting the fact that 73 percent of military personnel are comfortable with the presence of gays and lesbians in the service, removal of the policy would be consonant with other nations' approaches to gays and lesbians in the military. (HRC, "The U.S. Military," 2007)

Twenty-four other nations, including Great Britain, Australia, Canada and Israel, already allow open service by gays and lesbians, and none of the 24 report morale or recruitment problems. Nine nations allowing open service have fought alongside American troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom…. [And] twenty-three of the 26 NATO nations allow gays and lesbians to serve openly and proudly. The United States, Turkey and Portugal are the only NATO nations that forbid gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services.

The 110th Congress was expected to take up the issue with the reintroduction of Massachusetts Democratic Representative Martin Meehan's Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which had bipartisan cosponsors. That piece of legislation was intended to replace "don't ask, don't tell" with a policy of nondiscrimination (HRC, "The U.S. Military," 2007).


Civil unions and gay marriage have been the subject of political debate since the mid-1990s. The difference between the two is dramatic. Civil unions offer legal protections and rights within a specific state and are not recognized at the federal level or by other states. Some states have domestic partnership laws that offer certain benefits, but they vary greatly; "some offer access to family health insurance, others confer co-parenting rights" (HRC, "What Protections," 2007).

Those who favor gay marriage argue that because they are denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are not eligible to receive benefits and rights under more than a thousand federal laws that affect married couples, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, Social Security benefits, and parts of Medicaid coverage. In 1997 the General Accounting Office identified thirteen categories of U.S. law in which marital status was a factor: "Social Security and Related Programs, Housing, and Food Stamps, Veterans' Benefits, Taxation, Federal Civilian and Military Service Benefits, Employment Benefits and Related Laws, Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens, Indians, Trade, Commerce, and Intellectual Property, Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest, Crimes and Family Violence, Loans, Guarantees, and Payments in Agriculture, Federal Natural Resources and Related Laws, and Miscellaneous Laws" (Bedrick 1997, p. 3). Same-sex couples have limited options because they lack the right to marry. They can be granted power of attorney, for example, but that can be challenged by family members.

In 1993 the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying might violate the ban on sex discrimination in that state's constitution and could be upheld only if the prohibition was justified by a "compelling reason." In 1996 President Clinton signed a piece of legislation called the Defense of Marriage Act that was intended to "give states the 'right' to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states"; that law met with protests from the GLBT community as well as challenges from legal professionals who questioned its constitutionality (HRC, "What the Defense of Marriage Act Does," 2007). Perhaps the piece of legislation that jump-started the national debate most visibly was the signing of Vermont's civil union bill by Governor Howard Dean in April 2000. That law made Vermont the first state to give legal recognition to same-sex couples.

During the fight for equal rights in terms of marriage and civil unions in the first years of the twenty-first century the leaders of a conservative backlash worked to define marriage as a strictly heterosexual institution. The backlash might have been crystallized by the introduction of a resolution to amend the Constitution to do that by Colorado Republican Representative Marilyn Musgrave in May 2003. The supreme court of Massachusetts ruled in November 2003 that that state's constitution required marriage equality for same-sex couples. Conservative lawmakers in the Massachusetts legislature reacted a few months later by proposing an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. In February 2004 a challenge to state constitutional law occurred in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that a ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of the mandate for equal protection in that state's constitution. The event drew extensive media attention, particularly when the celebrity Rosie O'Donnell married her partner, Kelli Carpenter, joining more than thirty-three hundred other couples. However, less than a month later the California Supreme Court ordered an immediate halt to the distribution of marriage licenses, arguing that it had to decide whether the city could issue marriage licenses in defiance of state law.

One month after the cessation of same-sex marriages in San Francisco the Massachusetts legislature voted to ban such marriages but allow civil unions. In April 2004, on the same day that an Oregon state judge struck down a law blocking same-sex couples from marrying (the approximately three thousand licenses that were issued were nullified by the state supreme court a year later), a California state assembly committee voted to advance the Marriage License Non-Discrimination Act, the first legislative vote in favor of gay marriage. On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; more than six hundred couples acquired licenses that day.

In the 2004 election eleven states passed amendments banning gay marriage. However, in September 2005 California became the first state to pass a bill recognizing same-sex marriage, although the bill was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A few days later Connecticut approved civil unions for same-sex couples. Approximately a week before the November 2006 election the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to all state-level spousal rights and responsibilities. During the elections that year seven more states passed a ban on gay marriage. In December 2006 New Jersey allowed civil unions for same-sex couples.


The debate over gay marriage and civil unions has a global context. Between 2001 and November 2006 the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, British Columbia, Spain, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Quebec, and the United Kingdom passed legislation making it legal for same-sex couples in those countries and provinces to marry or have civil partnerships and receive the rights and benefits of married couples. In November 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the registration of marriages of same-sex couples that had been performed in Canada but did not rule on the legal status of those couples.


A series of other issues face the GLBT community in the United States and internationally. In the United States, for example, many in the GLBT community face workplace discrimination. There is no federal legislation prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, although thirteen states ban workplace discrimination that is based on sexual orientation and seven include gender identity in their bans. "In 33 states, it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation. In 42 states, it is legal to do so based on gender identity" (HRC, "Laws/Legal Resources," 2007).


These facts illustrate cultural perceptions and the distinction between sexuality and gender identity, which translates into greater discrimination against transgender individuals. Thirteen states offer domestic partner health benefits, but those benefits are subject to taxation because the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that domestic partners cannot be considered spouses (HRC, "Frequently Asked Questions," 2007). Organizations such as the HRC track the ways in which corporations respond to the needs of their LGBT workers, and in September 2006 that organization released its fifth annual Corporate Equality Index, which revealed that "a record number of the largest U.S. companies are increasingly competing to expand benefits and protections for their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees and consumers" (HRC, "New Report," 2006). Some of the key findings include that "75 percent more companies than in 2005 prohibited discrimination against transgender employees in employment practices and 35 percent more companies than in 2005 extended COBRA, vision, dental and dependent medical coverage to employees' same-sex domestic partners" (HRC, "New Report," 2006). The trend in corporate America appears to have passed the political debate over similar issues.


Bedrick, Barry R. 1997. "Defense of Marriage Act Memorandum." U.S. General Accounting Office. Available from http://www.gao.gov/archive/1997/og97016.pdf.

Harris Interactive. 2007. "Almost Half Oppose the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy." February 5. Available from http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=725.

Human Rights Campaign. 2006. "New Report Shows Corporate America Competing to Be the Most GLBT-Friendly." September 19. Available from http://www.hrc.org.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass." Available from http://www.hrc.org/Content/NavigationMenu/HRC/Get_Informed/Issues/Military2/Fact_Sheets_Dont_Ask_Dont_Tell/Dont_Ask,_Dont_Tell_Fact_Sheet.htm.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "Frequently Asked Questions: On Domestic Partner Benefits." Available from http://www.hrc.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Work_Life/Get_Informed2/Frequently_Asked_Questions/Frequently_Asked_Questions.htm.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "Hate Crimes Laws: State by State." Available from http://www.hrc.org.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "Laws/Legal Resources." 2007. Available from http://www.hrc.org.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "The U.S. Military: Where It's Illegal for Gay People to be Honest." Available from http://www.hrc.org/Template.cfm?Section=Military2.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "What Protections Other Than Marriage Are Available to American Same-Sex Couples?" Available from http://www.hrc.org.

Human Rights Campaign. 2007. "What the Defense of Marriage Act Does." Available from http://www.hrc.org.

Smith, Raymond A., and Donald P. Haider-Markel. 2002. Gay and Lesbian Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

                                          Michelle Parke