At Odds with Society: Constructing a Positive Gay Identity
Given that identity of gay men is a complex concept with micro-, meso-, macro- and global-level dimensions, connections between all these three levels have to be made. This essay will discuss how a member of an oppressed group, namely gay men, can develop their positive identities, voice and agencies that overcome the learned negative stereotypes about themselves from those in dominant positions.
It is important to keep in mind that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is sexism. Sexism is no better than racism or anti-Semitism. Condemning homosexual relationships that are more stable and exemplary than heterosexual is ‘surely unjust’ (Maguire, 2006, para. 3).
Therefore, it is of paramount importance for gay men to develop positive identities and gain a voice in order to fight discrimination and oppression. Development of a gay identity might be a complex process, since it such an identity has multiple dimensions.
It has not only several layers, but has implications for any area of life of a gay person:
‘Accepting a gay identity has far-reaching implications because being ‘gay’ includes not only personal feelings, but also describes a social and political identity’ (Park, 1996, ‘Development of a Gay Identity’).
Creating a positive gay identity might be problematic given the prevailing negative attitude to homosexuality in many societies, even at the dawn of the 21st century. Attitudes towards homosexuality varied greatly over the course of human history. It was an accepted phenomenon in Ancient Greece: Aristotle believed that homosexual relations could be regarded as a population control method. Changing attitudes towards homosexuality are the proof that such concepts as sexuality are socially constructed. In Europe before the mid-20th century, the prevailing opinion viewed homosexuality as a deviant behavior attributed to person’s genes. The so-called ‘genetic and unchangeable’ theory has been actively promoted by gay activists and the popular media, but it lacks scientific explanation and support. The question whether human sexual orientation is genetically predetermined or is a product of rational choice has been actively debated in the scientific community for many decades. The question whether a person is born or becomes homosexual is surrounded with controversy and causes much discussion in scientific circles as well as among general public. Indeed, it is hard to give a definite answer here, because homosexuality is an issue that concerns a significant number of biological, physiological, psychological, religious and ethical aspects.
Numerous scientific studies on homosexuality were conducted, and they showed that people choose their sexual preferences themselves. So, homosexuality is now considered as a choice rather than deviation. Homosexuality is rather a lifestyle and outlook that is not genetically caused and biologically predetermined. This view is central for affirming positive gay identity and tackling discrimination among laypersons.
One of the undisputed proofs of homosexuality being a choice concerns the fact that humans can change their sexual identity in the course of their life. Furthermore, it has been proven to be caused not by biological factors but psychological ones. Each study on the genetic nature of homosexuality still leaves a pretty substantial portion of sexual preference open to environmental influence (Throckmorton, 2003). Nowadays teenagers often experiment with different sexual partners before taking the final stance on their sexual orientation. In order to determine or change one’s sexual preferences, a person should solve his or her identity crisis. This can be only done through deep self-reflection, which results in arriving at a decision about the gender of preferred sexual partners (Beckstead & Israel, 2007). Homosexuality is a lifestyle not a deviation, and psychologists acknowledge that pathological thinking has been harmful to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens (McCann, 2007).
More positive attitude to homosexuality can be attributed in part to activism on behalf of notable public figures. For example, French philosopher Michel Foucault was promoting the agenda of radical left and campaigning for the rights of marginalized groups, such as homosexuals (Miller, 2000). There are many NGOs that offer a variety of services to gay community. For example, in New York City there are organizations like Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Gay Men of African Descent and Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
One more reason that facilitates the construction of positive identity for gay men is media consumption. Few gay people dared to come out of the closet in a 17th century village. However, in the modern society, media exposes people to a variety of attitudes and lifestyles, which encourages people to engage in an introspective analysis of their inner selves. In such a way, media makes it increasingly complicated for a group to enforce a certain identity upon an individual. Media introduces people to different perspectives on group roles and prescribed identities helping people to rediscover who they are and where they belong.
One of the reasons that contributed to negative stereotyping of gay men is the association of homosexuality with risk of HIV/AIDS. The start of HIV/AIDS epidemic that was first regarded as a rare form of cancer endangering gay and bisexual male New Yorkers. However, gay community was the first social group that started to actively promote safe sex and HIV/AIDS awareness. There are many gays and gay associations spreading information about HIV prevention and campaigning for governmental attention to the problem in order to save ‘other gay and bisexual men from losing the ones they love’ (Williams, 2006, para. 6).
Although an overwhelming percentage of new HIV/AIDS cases were among gay and bisexual males, members of the LGBT community should not be portrayed as a source of danger. It is also unproductive to resort to another extreme and present lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as powerless victims of the dangerous disease. Other social groups are also at risk (and perhaps at a greater risk) and need help and protection. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens should establish an image of proactive and cooperative members of the society ready to dedicate their time and effort to making their county a safer place for everyone though campaigning against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Gay men should also keep campaigning for recognition of same sex unions as legitimate family units. In many countries, it involves countering the conservative orthodox view of the Catholic faith on same sex unions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church that teaches that a marriage should be a mutually loving union open to the procreation of children. Such position by the Church should hardly elicit surprise, since the defense of heterosexual marriage has been a major thread in modern Catholic philosophy. The effects on children raised by homosexual couples, society at large, and marriage as a social institution are among the most frequently cited objectives to gay marriages. While the Church does not present ‘any new theological arguments regarding homosexual, but advances clear logical arguments against the legal acceptance of same-sex unions’ (Catholic World News, 2003, para. 4).
However, even religious conservatism can be tackled by gay activism and promotion of tolerance and acceptance. In the past the Church ‘accepted homosexuality more openly and even had liturgies to celebrate same sex unions’ (Maguire, 2006, para. 1). There is an increasing number of theologists who believe that different sexual orientations are clearly part of God’s plan for creation and discrimination and prejudices are sins. Although the Bible says all homosexual activity is evil and sinful, not everything written in the Bible should be treated as guide to action. He cites examples of justification of slavery and male domination over females, both found in the Bible. Homosexual unions are sometimes more successful and lasting than heterosexual. Homosexual unions can involve ‘exclusive, committed, enduring, generous, and faithful love’ (Maguire, 2006, ‘But, are same-sex unions really marriage?’, para. 1).
A related controversy is adoption of children by gay couples. More and more people come to believe that children are better off when being raised in a homosexual union than ‘languishing in an institution or, worse, dying from neglect’ (Maguire, 2006. ‘Objection # 4’).
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that hay men still face various forms of discrimination. Developing a positive identity should involve combating prejudices by acknowledging homosexuality as a legitimate choice of sexual orientation rather than a genetically predetermined deviation, campaigning for equal rights to marriage and childrearing, and promoting a favorable image of gay people as active and cooperative community members.
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