The Modern Era
Woman who disguises herself as a man.
From the 16th century on, homosexuals were subject to periods of tolerance and periods of severe repression. In the American colonies, for example, homosexuality was a serious offense. In 1656, the New Haven Colony prescribed death for both males and females who engaged in homosexual acts. The severe attitude toward homosexuality in America reflects its Puritan origins, and America remains, even today, more disapproving of homosexuality than Europe.
Even in times when homosexual acts were condemned, however, homoerotic poems, writings, and art were created. Openly homosexual communities appeared now and then. Other cultures also had periods of relative tolerance of homosexuality. In Japan, for example, the Edo period (1600-1868) saw a flourishing homosexual subculture, with openly gay clubs, geisha houses, and a substantial gay literature (Hirayama & Hirayama, 1986).
During the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, it was not uncommon for single, upper-middle-class women to live together in committed, lifelong relationships, although they may not all have engaged in genital sexuality (Nichols, 1990). At the same time, passing women disguised themselves as men, entered the workforce, and even married women—who sometimes never knew their husbands were female (re-
Explain how our views on homosexuality have changed from ancient times through the Middle Ages to the modern era.
member the discussion of Billy Tipton, the famous jazz musician, from Chapter 3). In most cases, of course, the wife knew, and the couple probably lived as lesbians in a disguised heterosexual marriage. Some of these passing women held offices of great power, and their biological sex was not discovered until their death (Nichols, 1990).
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, physicians and scientists began to suggest that homosexuality was not a sin but an illness, which, if left “untreated,” would spread like a contagious disease (Hansen, 1989). The dangers of this perspective were realized in Nazi Germany, where homosexuals were imprisoned and murdered along with Jews, Gypsies, epileptics, and others as part of the program to purify the “Aryan race” (Adam, 1987). In America, psychiatry continued to view homosexuality as a mental disorder well into the 1970s—and some psychiatrists still do today.
Ironically, the medical model’s view of homosexuality, which influenced modern ideas of sexual orientation, changed the politics of homosexuality. Because physicians saw homosexuality not as just a behavior but as a built-in trait, it became a primary part of the way people looked at each other (Risman & Schwartz, 1988). Homosexuals began to argue: “If homosexuality is something I am, not just something I do, then I should have a right to be ‘who I am’ just as blacks, women, and other groups have a right to be who they are.” The new view of homosexuality encouraged homosexuals to band together and press for recognition of their civil rights as a minority group, which led to the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement we discussed in Chapter 1.
The history of homosexuality in the Western world has been strongly influenced both by the Judeo-Christian tradition of hostility to homosexuality and by the Western world’s difficulty in incorporating minorities into its political structures. The study of history is instructive, for it shows that Western, predominantly Christian, societies have often existed without the hostility to homosexuality that characterizes modern America and that Christianity itself has had periods of tolerance. Equally important is that different attitudes toward homosexuality exist throughout the world today, and other cultural traditions do not view homosexuality with the suspicion and disapproval that characterize North America.
Homosexuality in Other Cultures
We all have a natural tendency to believe that others see the world the way we do. Yet what we call “homosexuality” is viewed so differently in other cultures that the word itself might not apply. In many societies, individuals have same-gender sexual relations as a normal part of their lives. This can be minor, as in Cairo, Egypt, where heterosexual men casually kiss and hold hands, or it can be fully sexual, as in the sequential homosexuality of Papua New Guinea, where young males have sexual contact exclusively with other males until getting married at the age of 18, after which they have sexual contact only with women (see page 345).
Applying American conceptions of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” to cultures for whom such ideas are meaningless can be extremely misleading. Theories of sexual orientation often neglect the experiences of other countries and just assume that there are “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” everywhere.
Same-sex sexual behavior is found in every culture, and its prevalence remains about the same no matter how permissive or repressive that culture’s attitude is toward it (Mihalik, 1988). Broude and Greene (1976) examined 42 societies for which there were good data on attitudes toward homosexuality. They found that a substantial number of
Human Sexuality in a Diverse World