The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


homosexuality, a term created by 19th cent. theorists to describe a sexual and emotional interest in members of one's own sex. Today a person is often said to have a homosexual or a heterosexual orientation, a description intended to defuse some of the long-standing sentiment among many Westerners that homosexuality is immoral or pathological. Homosexual practices are not afforded any special moral or psychological significance in many other cultures. A survey of 190 societies around the world (1951) reported that homosexual practices were considered acceptable behavior in approximately 70% of them.

The description of homosexuality as an orientation also suggests, as some contemporary theorists have argued, that the boundaries between "homosexual" and "heterosexual" are not necessarily rigid. Some studies have indicated that most individuals have some erotic interest in both sexes, whether overt or not. The open expression of interest in both sexes is known as bisexuality. Transsexuals are distinguished from homosexuals by the feeling that they are really members of the opposite sex. Male and female homosexuals are now commonly known as gays and lesbians, respectively.

Theories of Homosexuality

Psychiatric theories of homosexuality have included the following: that homosexuality is a regression to the earliest (oral) stage of development; that most families of homosexuals are characterized by an overprotective mother and an absent father; or that homosexuals fear engulfment by a dominant mother in the pre-Oedipal phase. Some authorities have suggested that homosexuality may be an expression of nonsexual problems, such as fear of adult responsibility, or may be triggered by various experiences, such as having sexual relationships with members of one's own sex at an early age that prove to be very satisfying. Arguments regarding the roots of lesbianism include disappointing heterosexual love experience, a father who displays distaste for men who express interest in his daughter, and memories of abusive relationships with men.

Many of these theories have been discredited in recent years, particularly by those who cite biological causation. Some researchers have contended that a disruption in the hormonal processes of the mother while she is pregnant may be one explanation. Simon Levay, a neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, has suggested that homosexuality may be related to brain functioning, as part of the hypothalamus in homosexual men is about a quarter to half the size it is in heterosexual men. Subsequent studies have shown that homosexual men react to certain substances believed to be human pheromones differently from heterosexual men. Several studies have pointed to a genetic predisposition governed by one or more genes on the X chromosome.

Other recent studies, while not directly supporting biological explanations for homosexuality, suggest that it may be a predisposition that can be detected at an early age among children who do not appear to have traditional gender identification. Whether it can be easily detected or not, most theorists agree that homosexual orientation tends to arise at an early age. Substantially fewer studies of homosexuality have been performed among lesbians, perhaps because of the greater stigma which is often attached to male homosexuality in many Western cultures.

The American Psychiatric Association no longer considers homosexuality a disorder, unless sexual orientation becomes an object of distress for the individual. In such cases, the individual—referred to by psychologists as ego-dystonic—may choose to seek psychiatric treatment. Also, beginning in the late 20th cent., biologists more openly examined and discussed the occurrence of homosexual behaviors among animals, which has been documented in several hundred species. Such behaviors, which may include courtship, sexual contact, bond formation, and the rearing of young, are found both in wild and captive animals. Many gay-rights activists have criticized the various theories which try to "explain" homosexuality, particularly those that treat it as an illness in need of treatment.

The Gay-Rights Movement

In the United States today, the law's approach to homosexual acts has varied from state to state: In most states, unharmful private sexual acts of any kind between consenting adults were by the late 20th cent. considered to be outside the province of legal authority. The Supreme Court upheld state laws prohibiting homosexual conduct in 1986, and gay activists subsequently focused their efforts on overturning antisodomy laws in those states that retained them; in most, the laws applied also to heterosexuals but were seen as likely to be used chiefly against homosexuals. By 2003, when the Supreme Court reversed its 1986 decision and voided all antisodomy laws, 13 states still had such laws. In recent years, gays and lesbians have struggled to gain rights accorded other Americans as well as public acceptance, but the Judaeo-Christian tradition's condemnation of homosexuality as immoral has made such goals as acceptance of same-sex marriage and adoption by gays elusive. The Clinton administration's much discussed "don't ask, don't tell" policy, announced as a way to allow gays in the military to serve without fear of discharge or other penalty as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation, appears to have done little to change the precarious status of gay soldiers.

The outbreak in the early 1980s of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which initially came to public notice as occurring among male homosexuals in the United States, galvanized the American gay community and brought support also from the wider community for recognition of the menace posed by AIDS, for increased funding for AIDS research, for wider access to information regarding safe sexual practices, and even, to some degree, for legal recognition of same-sex couples. But AIDS, even as it appeared in the nonhomosexual population (e.g., hemophiliacs), also sparked moralistic reactions; some felt, for example, that it represented a form of judgment on homosexuality.

See also gay-rights movement.


See K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (1978); L. Nungesser, Homosexual Acts, Actors and Identities (1983); B. Cant and S. Hemmings, Radical Records: Personal Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay History (1988); D. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (1988); R. Troiden, Gay and Lesbian Identity (1988); D. Halperin, 100 Years of Homosexuality (1989); J. Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994); D. Hamer and P. Copeland, The Science of Desire (1994); A. Sullivan, Virtually Normal (1995); J. Loughery, The Other Side of Silence (1998); B. Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999); L. Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (2003); G. Robb, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (2004).

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