Descriptors for Sexual Minorities
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Homosexuality refers to the sexual orientation where a person prefers members of own gender (and not the opposite gender) when forming romantic and/or sexual relationships.
Since people in most cultures are assumed to be heterosexual, homosexual people are often in for a bit of a shock early in life. This is especially true in cultures where social benefits are withheld from homosexual and bisexual people.
Homosexual people sometimes have a moment of revelation as a child or teenager when they realise their first crush, first love, or first strong sexual attraction is for a member of their own gender. This causes them to question the beliefs of the people around them who have assumed they would prefer opposite-gender partners. Usually, they have shared these beliefs until the revelatory moment.
All too often, homosexual people discover that advantages they'd expected to get are no longer being offered. They may also find they are now targets of prejudice. This can be an especial shock to homosexual people who are members of a more privileged ethnicity, gender, or social class. On the other hand, being a member of a less privileged class can make you a sort of double minority, and therefore an obvious target for discrimination.
Even worse, some religions make a newly discovered homosexual feel they are suddenly destined for hell, reincarnation into an unflattering form, or something else awful. Luckily, there are dissenters for just about every religion that can provide hope for the morally conflicted. And some religions have never discriminated or recently stopped doing so. However, all this takes a little research to sort out and meanwhile things can seem very grim indeed.
Homosexual people often question social mores regarding gender when they head into relationships (if not before). Since gender roles usually dictate that each gender is better at certain specific tasks necessary to run a happy household, society's rules would seem to indicate that same-sex couples cannot function as well or be as happy. This is not actually true, as most homosexual people learn given half a chance.
As a result of this questioning, homosexual people may feel less constrained by gender roles than their heterosexual counterparts. They may also spend time in the gay community where other society members are more flexible about gender, thus releaving social pressure about adhering to gender roles.
When it comes to relationships, there is somewhat of a rift between gay men and lesbians. Gay men seem more comfortable forming short-term relationships, while lesbians tend to form long-term commitments. Of course, this is an incredibly broad generalization and should not be used to evaluate individuals. It is interesting, though, because boys are encouraged from a young age to pursue sexual fulfilment while girls are traditionally taught to be more chaste and to seek monogamous fidelity. Obviously, gender roles remain a problem for many homosexual people despite their advantages in seeing past them.
Homosexual people can have children, though not with each other through regular sexual activities. Gay people can adopt children, use technological means like artificial insemination, or draft a helper of the opposite gender to help out with the procreation and/or gestation processes. Fewer homosexual than heterosexual people have children, though, since the methods are less convenient and social prejudice may place obstacles in the couples' path.
There is nothing at all wrong with homosexuality, nor with the huge majority of homosexual people. A thoughful romantic and/or sexual life can lead to great rewards for homosexual people, just as with everyone else. There is absolutely nothing preventing a homosexual person from getting along well with people of other sexual orientations. Unfortunately, this latter variable depends greatly on the tolerance of the local society.
Mainstream Culture's Take on Homosexuality
Media portrayals of homosexuals were originally both rare and stereotyped, and most gay characters were comic in nature. Gay men were universally swishy and effete, while lesbians were usually burly and unattractive. Such characters always took minimal roles in the cast, sometimes appearing in a single scene or one episode of a TV series.
Once AIDS became well known, gay male characters were sometimes inserted into plots in order to spout a public health message. Such characters were at least capable of receiving sympathy, but were still highly stereotyped. Meanwhile, a brief fad caused many lesbian characters to profess their undying love just in time for a contrived plot device to kill off one or both of them1. And in the case of cheaply-made straight pornography then and now, 'lesbian' is a frequent misnomer for actresses who have sex with women only until a male comes along.
Portrayals of gay characters are finally reaching a new level of realism with television shows like Will and Grace, Ellen, and Queer as Folk and movies like American Beauty, Better than Chocolate, and If These Walls Could Talk 2. Sometimes these forward steps are attacked by political religious organizations for promoting homosexuality, though clearly no television show or movie can make you gay.
Outside of the media, it is difficult to generalize the response of mainstream society because you then have to ask which society you are talking about. In many African nations, homosexuality is called 'the white man's disease' and is considered to be a form of absolute moral corruption. In a few Latin American countries, men are only considered 'homosexual' if they are on the receiving end of the sex act and lesbians aren't recognized as existing for all practical purposes. In Japan, homosexual acts are understood but those who engage in them are usually assumed to be bisexual.
Western societies often maintain old stereotypes that homosexual people are shifty, morally inferior, unintelligent, untrustworthy, pointlessly artistic, socially challenged, and incapable of raising children. In addition, gay men are held to be too feminine, weak, flighty, oversexed, and poor at sports. Lesbians are stereotyped as too masculine, overly athletic, unhygienic, and completely without fashion sense. Even a mild glance around a gay establishment will discount these stereotypes, but they persist anyway because most straight people avoid gay establishments.
Even within Westernized countries, a rift exists between more tolerant and less tolerant areas. In more tolerant areas, most people assume that homosexual and heterosexual people are similar in most ways and neither has the moral upper hand. In less tolerant areas, homosexual people often become social outcasts and may find themselves on the receiving end of near-constant insults from otherwise upstanding society members, employment and housing discrimination, and even violence.
Within Western societies, there are always people who are much more or much less tolerant than the prevailing attitude. In more tolerant societies, those who exhibit rabid prejudice against homosexuals are ignored or condemned. In less tolerant societies, those who lend a helping hand to troubled homosexuals may themselves be singled out for prejudicial treatment. In all cases, though, gay people must navigate the social waters carefully to reduce potential harm to themselves and their friends.
Gay people must also navigate tricky legal waters. Homosexual sex acts are still punishable offenses in some countries. When they are not, there might still be other legal barriers that make life more challenging in a variety of ways. It is usually possible to consult internet sites for gay rights to determine the specifics for your own country. It's often wise to check ahead when travelling elsewhere as well.
One common method for avoiding prejudicial treatment is coming out. Coming out helps homosexual people remove the mistaken assumption that they are heterosexual. It also raises awareness of homosexuality's existence and provides opportunities for gay people to educate others. Unfortunately, it can also advertise one's status as a target for prejudice.
Once it is common for homosexual people to make themselves known and understood, it becomes more appropriate to discuss their needs. Gay rights is a catch-all term that describes the general effort to meet the needs of homosexual (and bisexual) persons. These can involve initiatives that target government policies like challenging sodomy laws that make gay sex illegal or lobbying for civil unions equivalent to marriage. Non-government initiatives are also common, from boycotting companies with prejudicial policies to petitioning religious bodies for more inclusiveness.
Some gay people seek to avoid prejudice by explicitly avoiding gay stereotypes in their dress and behaviour. Others feel that this sort of compromise is a symbolic affirmation of society's poor estimation of homosexuals. Sometimes, the desire to look and act straight is so strong that homosexual people will refuse to associate with other gay, bisexual, or transexual people who don't conform to social standards. All too often, such people have reduced prejudice from outside them but still internalize it within.
In the end, homosexual people can't entirely avoid prejudice. It is not within their power to do so. It is largely the society which determines how difficult the lives of homosexuals will be. To an extent, then, a gay person can best avoid prejudice by changing their society or moving to a different one. It should be no surprise, then, that many gay people move to more tolerant areas to avoid prejudice. This can mean moving from a small town to large city, or it might mean moving to a different country altogether.
The Gay Community
Gay communities are one reason many gay people move from rural areas to cities and the suburbs around them. In such places, the homosexual/bisexual population has formed a self-sustaining community in which they can meet without the usual discrimination.
Local gay communities typically include entertainment venues, bookstores, one or more gay-friendly churches, community centres and local charities, political organizations, and gay-owned businesses in fields from real estate to hairdressing that offer service without discrimination to their clients. Such communities tend to form in countries where there is no legal penalty for engaging in homosexual acts.
Bisexual and transexual people sometimes complain that the gay community exerts its own form of prejudice against them. Meanwhile, some gay people worry that bisexual and transexual people don't fit the unified image the gay community wants to present to legislators and other authorities in their quest for civil rights. Sex-oriented establishments within the gay community are also sometimes decried for presenting a bad image to outsiders. So while local gay communities may look unified at first glance, there is actually a lot of individuality and disagreement within.
In addition to local gay communities, there is also a growing sense of a worldwide gay community. This is largely composed of non-profit organizations and gay-oriented news and media sources. A quick search on the internet, for instance, will yield a huge wealth of information in every language on common issues for homosexual people. For those living in conservative and/or rural areas in some parts of the world, such venues can be the only way to communicate with other people who will admit to being gay.