The History of Homosexuality: Being Gay

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“Gay pride 390 – Marche des fiertés Toulouse 2011” by Guillaume Paumier

With the shift in understanding of human sexuality from acts to identities, the concept of behaving in a certain way outside the bedroom because of what happens inside began to take hold. Sexologists, busy looking for a “cause” of variant sexualities, began to study every aspect of their patients’ lives looking for common ground, although the debate about nature/nurture and whether or not conforming to stereotypical behaviour is a cause or effect of sexual orientation is still going on today. Initially, nobody had any idea what might make a person queer: the idea was still so new there was no received wisdom to fall back on. Early questionnaires used by sexologists and psychotherapists to try to understand their clients’ orientation show just how different the theories were. Some blamed overbearing mothers and/or absent fathers; others thought the reverse was true. The number of male and female friends a patient had, the amount of sport they played, and what they ate and where they worked were all considered important, but nobody was sure exactly how.

Essentially, there were two main conflicting theories in the nurture camp: one that too much time spent around your own sex made you attracted to them; and one that too much time spent around the opposite sex made you more like them. Some people were advised to spend more time with their own sex, and some to do the complete opposite. Obviously, both theories couldn’t be right.

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gay lions?

Today of course our understanding of sexuality is more nuanced, and genetics are also believed to play an important role in a person’s sexual development, although again nobody is sure exactly how. A “gay gene” located on the X chromosome seems likely, although early studies suggest if it exists, it’s recessive (meaning people can have the gay gene and still be straight). Foetal development is also a factor (one theory suggests that hormonal changes in the mother’s body from carrying a male foetus make subsequent male children more likely to be gay: a first son has a ~2% likelihood of being gay, compared to ~6% for a third son, and so on). Mostly science accepts that variant sexualities are a normal part of a species’ development — homosexual behaviour has been observed in hundreds of species across the animal kingdom, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say there were “gay” animals in the sense we understand the term — and there will probably never be a way of predicting with total accuracy if a developing foetus will grow up to be gay, straight, or anywhere in between.

Nonetheless, humans like patterns, and the impulse to establish trends and draw correlations between certain behaviours and identities is almost overwhelming. This isn’t surprising when we consider we willingly conform to how we’re expected to behave based on how we identify. Businessmen all wear suits, and the man without a tie in a boardroom is going to find himself looked down upon by his peers for transgressing the social code. Punks have colourful and dramatic hairstyles and a penchant for leather and steel; skinheads like tattoos and stonewashed jeans, and so on. Each generation and class and creed and race and socio-political subgroup has its own ways of identifying itself as separate which makes it instantly recognisable to everyone else. People might belong to various different groups, or move in and out of them over time, but they have always existed and our place in them — and thus, in society at large — informs our every decision from whether or not we get our coffee at Starbucks or a local independent store, to the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and where and how we live.

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Berlin Pride 2006

Sexual orientation is no different to any other standard by which society organises itself. For hundreds of years, queer men and women have congregated around certain areas, dressed and acted in certain ways, and formed a cohesive, independent identity. Obviously, these identities evolved over time, and there was never a period where all queerfolk looked and acted in the same ways. Other factors, such as class (particularly in the days when same-sex acts were illegal) could outweigh the imperative to be seen to belong to a subversive culture which existed on the margins of society. In the 1950s, the men who testified before the Wolfenden committee were from an upper middle class queer subculture, and they testified in part precisely to undermine the more visible street culture of working class queerfolk.

While we largely understand today that there is no single way to “be gay” — no stereotype to which we all conform — still those stereotypes exist, and a significant percentage of the queer community do conform to them, at least in some ways. Camp, drag, and effeminacy aren’t hard to find among modern queer men, and certain professions attract a disproportionately high number of queerfolk. In part stereotypes emerge because of necessity — the roots of drag can quite easily be traced back to the dual factors of working class queer men being forced onto the streets and competing with female prostitutes, often aping or impersonating them by cross dressing; and by a crude understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender which held that to be attracted to men made one womanly — but once a stereotype or social signifier takes hold, more people will become drawn to it if they want to project themselves as belonging to the group it represents.

Of course, stereotypes also have their problems. Just as it isn’t difficult to find camp queer men, nor is it difficult to find queer men who are the very antithesis of camp, and who struggled to reconcile their developing sexuality with their personality and they way they thought they should behave.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, and can be a powerful tool of social inclusion, but when taken too far they can ostracise the very people they developed to attract.

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