Homosexuality (male)

Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Research Center Gender & Sexuality;

Abstract: Homosexuality as a term was coined in 1869 in the fight against anti-sodomy laws and soon became a term describing a pathology. In the early 20th century, the German homosexual rights movement began analysing sexual practices. Around 1950 the work of Kinsey set new norms: homosexuality was a continuum of practices and fantasies rather than a special identity. Surveying (homo)sexuality thrived in the sixties and later with the AIDS-crisis. The Chicago school initiated research on gay urban cultures. Symbolic interactionism suggested concepts such as stigma and script to describe homosexuality. Coming out processes were studied. Foucault’s perspective on the social construction of sexualities created a flourishing of studies on a great variety of topics: social history, gender and sexual variation, families of choice, biological essentialism. Gay and lesbian or queer studies has become a booming field. Future themes might be sexual and gender identifications, erotic pleasures and citizenship.


Homosexuality refers to sexual behaviors and desires between males or between females. Gay refers to self-identification with such practices and desires, like homosexual, both terms mostly used only for men. Lesbian is its female counterpart. Such definitions have run into major problems, and nowadays the concept “queer” is used to indicate the fluency of sexual identifications and gender performances.

Social context.

Since the 1970s, homosexuality has become the topic of an interdisciplinary specialization variously called gay and lesbian, queer or LGBT studies (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender to which sometimes are added TTQQIA: Transsexual, Transvestite, Queer, Questioning, Intersexual and Asexual – and/or Allies). The field is far removed from traditional sexology that has its base in psychology, medicine and biology, and is closely linked to what once were called minority (black and women’s) studies and now Gender and Sexuality studies. Most of the disciplines involved belong to the humanities and social sciences: language and literature, history, cultural and communication studies, sociology, anthropology and political sciences, philosophy. Sociology had a late start although some of the key figures in the field were sociologists (Mary McIntosh, Ken Plummer, Jeffrey Weeks), but their work was seen as primarily historical. Michel Foucault made a major imprint with the first volume of his Histoire de la sexualité (1976). Other major sociologists contributed to or supported the field, for example Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Maffesoli and Steven Seidman (1997, 1998). Notwithstanding its important intellectual proponents, the field has a weak base in universities and departments of sociology where few tenured staff have been nominated anywhere specifically for the field, not even for the sociology of sexuality. Most often academics started to work on homosexual themes because of personal and social interests. LGBT studies have kept a strong interdisciplinary quality, with close cooperation between sociology, history, anthropology and cultural studies.

History. The word homosexual was invented in 1868 and first put in print in 1869 well before the word heterosexual by the Hungarian author Károly Mária Kertbeny (1824-1882). In 1864, the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) had come up with the words “uranism” and “uranian” to describe a similar social reality while “philopedia” was created by the French psychiatrist C.F. Michéa in 1849. These words no longer referred to sexual acts that were sins and crimes and were called sodomy, unnatural intercourse, pederasty and so forth, but to sexual identities and desires that were deeply embedded in persons. The focus went from acting (sodomy) to being (homosexual). Ulrichs and Kertbeny were anticipated the gay rights movement and wrote mainly against criminalization of sodomy. They spoke largely from personal experiences and historical examples. Most medical authors, who started to use the new terminologies, discussed mainly the causes of such identities and desires and the question whether they were pathological or normal. They set the standards for the search of a biological basis that continues to this day (“gay gene”). Most physicians started to believe that homosexuality is an innate condition (but not the Freudians) and took the position that it is a disease or abnormality that should be healed or prevented. The late 19th-century research by psychiatrists was mainly based on case histories of what they called “perverts”. They not only began to discuss homosexuality, but other perversions as well that got new names such as masochism, sadism, fetishism, exhibitionism, necrophilia, zoophilia and so forth. The centers of research were in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Vienna.

The early medical research had several sociological angles. Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the first homosexual rights movement in 1897, came with the first statistics on the numbers of homosexuals that closely resemble the data of today. While Ulrichs thought his uranians were less than 1% of the population, an anonymous Dutch adept of him estimated it in 1870 at 2% as Hirschfeld later did. The Dutch physician and homosexual rights activist Lucien von Römer worked with Hirschfeld on sexual statistics. In a survey of 308 Amsterdam male students done in 1904, he counted the men who identified as homosexual (2%), bisexual (4%), and those who had gay sex during puberty (21%) or homosexual fantasies (6%). In the first Dutch gay novel that appeared this same year, author Jacob Israël de Haan told how he as a student made fun answering the questions. He already made clear how unreliable such data often are.

Hirschfeld also created the first urban geography, “Berlin’s Third Gender” (1904) in which he described the city’s gay subculture of bars and parks and the elaborate world of male prostitution. Mainly German books on the history of sexual morality (“Sittengeschichte”) that often included chapters on homosexuality, preceded and influenced the work of later sociologists and historians, like Norbert Elias. The work of psychiatrists who started to give names, definitions and identities to what was seen as disease, crime and perversion, made possible the work of sociologists creating stigma and labeling theory. In many ways, this early research paved the way for what would become sociology of (homo)sexuality. The enormous body of work, available mainly thanks to early, prewar German sexology, was largely forgotten when the main location of sex research after World War II moved to another language, English, and to another country, the United States.

Most of the scholarly work on homosexuality remained focused on psychiatry, both in Europe and the United States. The major sociological breakthrough came from Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956). He was a biologist specialized in wasps, but he is generally considered to be the founder of the sociology of (homo)sexuality through his two major books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Female (1948, 1953). Although these studies have been criticized for methodological weaknesses and the reduction of sexuality to only “outlets”, this work has been pivotal in putting sexuality on the agenda of sociology. Kinsey was the first to come up with more or less reliable statistics on sexual behavior, and placed them in the larger contexts of biology and history. From his research stem ideas that 37% of US-men ever had homosexual experiences and 4% exclusively and lifelong. He did not hide his political agenda. He stressed time and again that the large majority of the citizens would have to go to prison if the US-laws were applied rigorously, indicating that it was a better idea to change them. He did much to normalize taboo acts such as homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sex, adultery and prostitution. His institute in Bloomington, Indiana, has become one of the world’s most important archives and research centers on sexual behavior and culture.

Kinsey offered a sociological instead of a psychological perspective on the topic. In his footsteps and in the wake of the nascent homosexual right movement in the US and the UK, Edward Sagarin and Michael Schofield started to write on homosexuality from a sociological perspective, using the pseudonyms Donald Webster Cory and Gordon Westwood. Cory’s books gave an overview of what was known on the topic while Westwood interviewed 127 homosexuals on their sexual life. Especially Cory’s work had a wide readership among gay men. These works changed the focus from the aberrant homosexual who had gender identity problems or abused a boy, to the society that discriminated against homosexuals and largely contributed to their problems (see Minton 2001 for an overview of early sociological research in the US).

In the footsteps of Kinsey and Schofield, more surveys were done among gay men in the 1970s, in Germany Der gewöhnliche Homosexuelle by Martin Dannecker and Reimut Reiche (1974), in France Rapport sur l’homosexualité de l’homme by Michel Bon and Antoine d’Arc (1974) and in the USA The Social Organization of Gay Males by Joseph Harry and William De Vall (1978) and Homosexualities. A Study of Diversity Among Men & Women by Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg of the Kinsey Institute (1978). Surveys did give overviews of local or national homosexual cultures but as they could not use representative samples, results are difficult to compare. Frederick Whitam and Robin Mathy surveyed Male Homosexuality in Four Societies (1986) and found effeminacy in gay men in all four locations, which suggested, for them, innateness. The homosexual behavior of many non-homosexual men in these societies was explained as a secondary sexual outlet. Other de/constructivist perspectives would later change this line of thinking. Surveying quickly developed in the wake of aids.

Other centers of research and theorizing took over in the 1950s from the Kinsey Institute and independent gay researchers. The Chicago School of urban sociology started to include sexual variation in its agenda and to study urban gay subcultures. Maurice Leznoff and William A. Westley were the first to write on ‘The Homosexual Community’ in 1956, discussing ‘a larger Canadian city’ (1992). The topics included cliques, their gossip and incest taboos, being secret or overt and professions (many hairdressers). The topics are still very close to those of psychiatry. Later work discusses the gay bar in more sophisticated ways, for example Kenneth Reade’s Other Voices. The Style of a Male Homosexual Tavern (1980). Manuel Castells wrote a landmark study on geographical distribution, community organizing and political activity of San Francisco gays and lesbians, as a chapter in his The City and the Grassroots ( 1983). The concept of “gay gettho” was introduced in the article of the same title by Martin Levine in the collection he edited Gay Men. The Sociology of Male Homosexuality (1979). This was the first work on gay geography and included maps of several gay vicinities that had come into visible existence since the late 1960s. After the queer turn of the 1990s, several books on space and sexuality appeared that were more cultural studies but still included sociological material (Bell & Valentine 1995; Ingram 1997) while the field of gay urban histories boomed with George Chauncey’s landmark study Gay New York (1994) and David Higgs’ collection Queer Sites (1999). Elizabeth Armstrong studied in Forging Gay Identities (2002) gay and lesbian movements in San Francisco that she divided in three stages: the more prudent homophile movement before 1969, a short interlude of the radical gay movement that connected gay and left interests and since the early 1970s the identity and one-issue gay (and lesbian) movement. The date of the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, when fairies, butch lesbians and drag queens resisted a police raid in the bar of the same name in New York, is nowadays globally commemorated.

The major concept of the 1970s was stigma. Symbolic interactionism was added to urban sociology. It fit well with the change from psychology to sociology, from pathology to activism. What homosexual men suffered from, was not their innate abnormality or viciousness, but social rejection. At the time that activists asked for removal of homosexuality from psychiatric classifications such as DSM, and came out of the closets into the streets, sociologists started to discuss Sexual Stigma (Plummer, 1975). A landmark study was Sexual Conduct (1973) by John Gagnon and William Simon who developed the concept of sexual script(ing). Their script was what others later named narrative or story (Plummer 1995). Gagnon (2004) and Simon wanted to turn away from biological and Freudian perspectives to a sociological one that combined the social and the highly individual. Persons become sexual beings in an interaction between three levels: intrapsychic, interpersonal and cultural. With many examples, they indicate how the social influences the sexual and the reverse. Other work by Barry Dank, Thomas Weinberg and others engaged with the homosexual “coming out” in which the various stages of this process such as sensitization, resistance, acceptance, integration were studied and demarcated (Troiden 1988). A budding field was the theme of gay and lesbian youth and their organizations- Gilbert Herdt and Andrew Boxer in Children of Horizons (Boston 1993), or sexual education as in Janice Irvine in Talk about Sex. The Battles over Sex Education in the United States (2002). An early and most controversial contribution in the symbolic-interactionist tradition was Tearoom Trade by Laud Humphreys (1970) on casual homosexual encounters in a public toilet. The debate was both on the topic and on the ethics of the research method. Humphreys had used the number plates of the cars of men visiting tearooms to arrive at additional information, without their knowledge. So he came to know that visitors often were married and highly conservative men.

The major line of research has became since the late 1970s historical-sociological. In 1967, Mary McIntosh wrote a first promising article ‘The homosexual role’ in this direction suggesting that such a role had only come into existence in the eighteenth century. The major studies were Michel Foucault’s three volumes Histoire de la sexualité (1976, 1984, 1984). The first part La volonté de savoir was the founding work of “social constructionism”, a term Foucault himself never used. In this work he remarks on the change from the legal concept of sodomy, an act, to the medical one of homosexuality, an identity that will be insistently researched as part of the politics of the body. His work is a strong critique of the idea of sexual liberation, then prominent on the social agenda through the work of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. He showed how discourses of sexual liberation had been around since the eighteenth century and mainly contributed to normalization and stricter controls of sexuality. His theory of an omnipresent power that used such ideologies to get a firmer grip on sexual practices, spurred a new generation to engage with sexual history, also because sexuality was reconceived as something that changed over time and may in fact not have existed as a special social reality before the rise of sexual sciences. Movements of resistance that were included in his theory of power played an ambivalent role as they largely contributed to the innovation of body politics. Although the work of Foucault deals with sexual culture in general, his leading theme may well be said to have been homosexual pleasures. His studies extended the realm of Gagnon and Simon from micro- to macro level and gave it a historical twist.

The main sociologist who works in the same vein as Foucault and whose first studies on sexuality appeared around the same time, is Jeffrey Weeks. He started in 1977 with a book on the development of the homosexual rights movement in England and continued with a general history of sexuality (2000). His later work is about sexual ethics (1995) while he produced an optimistic narrative of his own and UK’s sexual history (2007). The Foucauldian approach came at the same time as the establishment of gay and lesbian studies and inspired the first international conferences. Most new work was based on the idea of The Making of the Modern Homosexual, the title of a collection by Ken Plummer (1981). Social constructionism was opposed to essentialism that sees sexual preferences as innate. Few people in gay and lesbian studies defend that position while most of the biologists who research gay genes, brain parts and hormonal systems, are unaware of this critique. Edward Stein in The Mismeasure of Desire. The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (1999) and Roger Lancaster in The Trouble with Nature. Sex in Science and Popular Culture ( 2003) analyzed the debates and the various positions. A main theme became the development of essentialist sexual sciences. Janice Irvine discussed postwar American sexology in Disorders of Desire (1990) and Harry Oosterhuis the earlier work being done in Europe in Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry and the Making of Sexual Identity ( 2001). Steve Seidman, who edited a special issue on queer theory of Sociological Theory (July 1994), continued with his state of the art book Difference troubles (1997) and continued with another that announced the end of the gay/lesbian closet(2002).

The rise of aids stimulated research on several aspects of gay life, especially on sexual and preventive practices. The main aim was to impede risky behaviors. The positive side was that it produced much information on gay sex and created greater openness. But too often the research neglected the social context, once more focusing strongly on sexual outlets of “men having sex with men” (MSM). Some sociologists produced more nuanced work, for example Michael Pollak in The Second Plague of Europe (1994) and Gary Dowsett in Practicing Desire. Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS (1996). Many countries saw major surveys on sexual behavior (see Laumann 1994 for the USA) while efforts were made to compare the results on a European scale by Michel Bozon and others in Sexual Behaviour and HIV/AIDS in Europe (1998). The outcome of these surveys surprised the gay movement because the attested numbers of gay men were everywhere lower than those found by Kinsey in the 1940s. Stuart Michaels (1994) found that the higher numbers of gay men in cities can not fully be explained by their migration to the more gay friendly towns, as was expected, but that cities as well produce more men identifying as homosexuals.

Special topics

With the development of gay and lesbian, and later queer studies, the research specialized. Apart from gay bars and urban cultures, particular groups started to receive attention. An early popular issue was male prostitution. These studies discussed the pay and sexual identity of hustlers who often are straight, their age and sexual techniques, the locations where they work, their drug use, ethnicity and class. It is a circuit where the ganymedes, sexually unsure and unprofessional, rob and murder their clients. Later bisexuals, drag queens, transsexuals, transgenders, intersexuals and s/m-ers emerged. Anonymous sex on the streets and other places was studied. Other topics varied from gays and lesbians in ethnic groups, friendships, suburban lives to violence, suicide and aging. Gender became a topic, sometimes with a focus on sports, sexual development or the leather scene.

With the start of discussions on homosexuality and the army and same-sex marriage these issues came on the sociological agenda. The discussion on intimate relations was started by Weston (1991). Later studies showed opposite results. While Weeks and others (2001) underlined the transgressiveness of same-sexual families that were more open to third parties and educated children in various social constellations, Carrington (1999) stated that the couples he researched, largely imitated straight codes when it came to the gendered division of labor, household tasks and financial arrangements. It is likely that these opposite results could be explained by different samples. Patrick Moore suggested in Beyond Shame (2004) the revival of the culture of the 1970s, before the times of aids, when gay men developed a patchwork of sexual situations, passions, love relations and friendships that bridged the gap between single and couple, or went beyond. Gays felt culpable for the epidemic, but with the knowledge of safe sex this culture “beyond shame” could be formed.

With the breakdown of the difference between anthropology and sociology, themes of gay life in non-western and globalized world start to draw more attention. Nowadays a growing number of books discuss same-sexual practices and cultures in a great variety of countries, as well as the interconnections between the various parts of the world through migration, tourism, media, internet, science and politics. Globalization created “global gays” and multiethnic queer communities in the major capitals of the world, while global effects got local inflections, or were sometimes resisted by gay and anti-gay people (Altman 2001).

The present-day development is one of mass-production of books and articles in Journal of Homosexuality, Sexualities, GLQ or Psychology & Sexuality on issues such as coming out, gender identification, family, marriage, health, care, schools, army, workplace, arts, media, politics, space among different social, ethnic and age groups and in various countries. The first mentioned journal produces 12 issues with some 1700 pages per year, and has as spun-off new products such as journals on lesbian and transgender studies, gay and lesbian mental health, LGBT youth and sex education.

Methodological issues

The main question in gay research is the definition of what is the object of study. Most research is dependent on self-identification of the interviewees who may be unwilling to disclose their sexual interests. There are no objective criteria to define the homosexual. Kinsey therefore developed a homo-heterosexual scale from 0-6 in which he integrated sexual practices and sexual fantasies. Other authors created layered scales that included more facets or developments in time as individuals move between sexual identifications during their life. Aids-research put a strong focus on sexual practices, while some opposed this narrow perspective because behaviors are dependent on personal identifications and social contexts.

The confluence of homosexuality with effeminacy and passivity and of lesbianism with masculinity and activity in practice and prejudice offers another challenge. Most biological research is based on the equation of gender inversion with homosexuality, but most modern homosexuals stress their gender conformity and exchange sexual roles with partners. All of these terms can have very different meanings. Transgenders may flaunt their femininity but can be strong and masculine when they face violent confrontations. Straight men visit male-to-female transgender prostitutes and often prefer passive roles. Some females in Namibia call themselves “lesbian men” and were intransigent when the local gay and lesbian movement tried to learn them they were really butches. The advice should be to the researcher to learn and use the terminologies the respondents themselves use and clarify those instead of attributing to them names and qualities.

Another major stumbling block in research is the absence of representative groups. Most research uses the snowball-method. Gay men are invisible so researchers depend in surveys on self-disclosure. Several techniques have been developed to circumvent this problem, for example asking “how often did you have sex with men” rather than “are you gay”, or embedding questions on sexual behavior in a series that deals with heterosexual experiences. The terminological changes pose another problem, every new generation creating a new word for its same-sexual experiences. They moved from uranian, homosexual, homophile, gay to LGBTTQQIA and queer while these vocabularies always give different meanings to sometimes similar, sometimes quite dissimilar practices and desires. Translations into other languages pose specific problems. The use of any concept creates exclusions. The most inclusive word (queer that is close to non-heterosexual) is rejected by respectable gay men who consider the term insulting and because of its vagueness.

Future directions

Some of the research is driven by social developments so it can be expected that same-sex families, the army, violence and discrimination in various situations such as in workplace or sport will remain high on the agenda. The same regards sexual education and queer initiation. Specific groups such as elderly, ethnic minority and questioning young gays will receive more attention. The turn from biology to sociology in gay research means that attention will shift from genes and identities to space and time as context for the development of gay identifications and queer cultures. Urban queer geography will expand while this will create an interest in suburban and non-urban environments of gay men.

The development of questioning sexual orientation to a next stage which might be queer, has not been touched upon in most theories of coming out that relied on people with stable homosexual identities, not on those who did not make such a transformation. Too little theorizing has taken place on changes in sexual identifications or object choices. Examples are those men who start with gay and move on to kinky interests. Many boys and girls, who develop gay and lesbian interests, rather seek adult partners than peers while others begin with their own age group and subsequently stay with it, go beyond it or forget about gay sex. Shifts in identification also remain unexplored as masculine, more macho men become the standard gay aspiration while sissies and pederasts are relegated to the margins and lipstick lesbians closer to accepted notions of femininity replace butches as the ideal lesbian. Such changes, also in sexual interests, have rarely been addressed in their social contexts and ramifications.

A major issue concerns the terrains in between homo- and heterosexual and male and female identifications and their interconnections. Sociological research on self-identified bisexuals and transgenders is on the rise, but rarely on those who do identify less along those lines such as unmasculine men, or persons who show a preference for the intermediate cases (Diamond 2008). They even lack concepts of identification and can be only circumscribed in descriptive terminologies such as lover of bisexuals, drag queens or male-to-female transgenders.

In most cultures and the Western world until about 1900, sexual desire was based on the idea of social inequality: between male and female, younger and older, higher and lower class. Gay men were effeminate mollies who desired “normal” (straight) men while others looked over class lines or desired boys or young men. In the literature a classification of homosexualities has been proposed based on gender, age and, less often, class difference (see Greenberg 1988). The ideal of sexual connections has become since the 1960s an absence of social differences. Gay and lesbian relations fit this ideal in fact better than heterosexual ones that still have to deal with a gender difference. But in most cultures connections between same-sexual partners continue to be based on gender and age difference: Latin America, Africa, the Arab world and Asia. Casual contacts between non-homosexual identified males that remain common in those cultures will often express a power difference, or be accompanied by financial transactions. Many non-western urban centers may see a quick expansion of gay cultures where such differences are eliminated, but they are not standard, often even defined as “modern” or “western” in a negative sense. The actual situation with regard to gender and age is rarely researched, not even for the West. This global and radical innovation from sexual desire based on equality instead of difference has attracted little attention. It parallels a similar change of a world that is divided along homosocial lines (separate worlds for men and women) to a heterosocial world in which men and women participate on a basis of equality. This remarkable change has manifold consequences for homosexuality.

Absent are studies on sexual pleasure both in its individual developments and social locations. Although gay and queer studies often have an implicit liberal or libertine agenda, the sociological aspects of pleasure and desire are rarely discussed or studied. Sex research being done in the context of aids-prevention has been weak on this issue while it has been otherwise largely neglected. The scripting theory would have been a good tool for such work, but has not been used. It could help to study relations between social context and the experience of pleasure or how sexual specialties develop. Important elements of gay culture such as the choreography of cruising and sexual practices have regrettably neglected (see Bech 1997), or studied from a literary perspective. Sexual subcultures attracted little attention, and even in such cases, their sexual organization remained left in obscurity.

The concept of intimate or sexual citizenship (Bell & Binnie 2000, Plummer 2004) has been introduced to highlight the social and political aspects of sexuality. They were hidden by the traditional relegation of sexuality to the natural and private. This terminology draws the attention to the intimate or erotic side of citizenship, next to its economic, religious, cultural or gendered sides. It is about the body politics of societies that are ruled by straight norms and defined by hetero-normativity. These codes pervade all societal institutions, from families and school to armies and prisons. The concept sexual citizenship highlights the sociological relevance of these topics.

SEE ALSO: Gay and Lesbian Movement; Heterosexuality; Homophobia; Homophobia and Heterosexism; Lesbianism; Postmodern Sexualities; Queer Theory; Sexualities, Cities and; Sexuality, Masculinity and


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