Sociology discussion

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Sexual orientation and inequality
Lecture outline
Homosexuality cross-culturally and historically
The emergence of the homosexual identity as a personality disorder
Understanding gender and sexual identity
Prevalence of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals
Biology or socialization?
Public attitudes toward gays and lesbians
Correlates to prejudice against gays and lesbians
Prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people
Let’s talk today about sexual orientation and inequality. Though we have come a long way with
respect to full acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, we still have a long
way to go. This lecture is divided into two parts. In the first part we will try to understand why sexual
orientation looks like it does in American society. We will first discuss homosexuality cross-culturally and
historically. We will see that homosexuality is probably universal across space and time. Then we will
look at the emergence of homosexuality as a distinct category of people in Western society. What was
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once considered an aberrant behavior becomes seen as an aberrant identity. We will then consider an
alternative way of understanding gender and sexual identity. Rather than variables with distinct values,
gender and sexual identity are seen as continuous variables with multiple dimensions. Then we will look
at the prevalence of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the United States, particularly focusing on gender
differences. We will follow that discussion with and examination of the question of whether
homosexuality is biologically based or is a product of socialization. I argue that it is both. In the second
part of this lecture, we will focus on inequality. We will first examine the public’s attitudes towards gays
and lesbians. We find that while most Americans are supportive of gays and lesbians, significant
numbers of people are not. We will follow this discussion with a discussion of the correlates of prejudice
against gays and lesbians. We will end by looking at some studies that show significant prejudice and
discrimination against LGBT people still exist today.
Homosexuality cross-culturally and historically
Experts theorize that homosexual behavior has existed throughout human history and in most,
perhaps all, human societies. Research studies that have examined the issue of the existence of
homosexuality in societies find that homosexuality exists in most societies. In one study, homosexual
activity was found to be permitted in about two thirds of the known preliterate societies, often taking
the form of contact between adolescent boys and adult men. Female homosexuality, some evidence
suggests, is less common than male homosexuality. One study found female homosexuality in only 17 of
76 societies examined. In another study, among 225 Native American tribes examined, more than half
accepted male homosexuality, but only 17 percent accepted female homosexuality.
In some cultures, same-sex relationships are the norm in certain contexts; however, they do
not consider themselves to be homosexuals as the term is understood today in American society. The
anthropologist Gilbert Herdt found that among more than twenty tribes in Melanesia and New Guinea,
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ritually prescribed same-sex encounters among young men and boys was the norm. For example, in
Western Papua, among the Lower Trans-fly Keraki, sodomy was fully sanctioned by male society and
universally practiced. It is regarded as essential to the growing boy to be sodomized.
Another example where homosexuality was the norm is ancient Greece. Most homosexuality in
ancient Greece was between men and adolescents. Men in ancient Greece were regarded as naturally
bisexual, as Lawrence Stone notes:
No distinction was made between the love of boys and the love of women. This was simply a question of
taste, about as significant as preferring coffee or tea for breakfast. The crucial distinction in law and
morality was between those who took active roles and those who took the passive roles – the penetrators
as opposed to the penetrated. This concept effectively degraded submissive boys, women, and slaves of
both sexes, and elevated active men, regardless of their gender preference.
Also, although many Americans assume that same-sex romantic relationships have always been
taboo in our society, during the 19th century “romantic friendships” between women were encouraged
and regarded as preparation for a successful marriage. The nature of these friendships bordered on
lesbianism. President Grover Cleveland’s sister, Rose, wrote to a friend, Evangeline Whipple, in 1890: “It
makes me heavy with emotion . . . all my whole being leans out to you . . . . I dare not think of your
arms.” Given that homosexuality is universally practiced in some societies, do you think that people in
American society are born heterosexual or do we learn heterosexuality? Post your comments to our
discussion board.
The cross-cultural and historical evidence suggests that homosexuality has existed in most, if not
all, societies. The term, homosexual, however, was not well known until that late 19th century, as we will
discuss in the next section.
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The emergence of the homosexual identity as a personality disorder
In his studies on sexuality, Michel Foucault showed that before the 18th century, the notion of
homosexuality seems barely to have existed. The term homosexual was first used by the medical
community in 1869 to characterize what was then regarded as a personality disorder. After that,
homosexuals were increasingly regarded as being a separate type of people with a particular sexual
aberration. In the past, the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; now, the homosexual was a
species. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its
list of mental illnesses. And it was not until 1980 that homosexuality was removed from the list
personality disorders in the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
As we will discuss in the section on attitudes below, most people no longer consider
homosexuality to be morally wrong, let alone a personality disorder. Before getting to that discussion,
let’s first look at the statistics on the numbers of gays and lesbians followed by a discussion on the role
of biology and socialization in understanding sexuality.
Understanding gender and sexual identity
We tend to think of gender as dichotomous; that is, there are only two options. Either you are a
man or you are a woman. Similarly, we tend to think of sexual orientation as being limited to three or
four choices: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual. However, there are many possible genders
that you can be, and there are many possible sexualities. With respect to gender, you can also be
transgender, androgynous, or intersexed. Even the addition of those categories don’t capture all the
possibilities. Facebook allows you to choose from their list of 58 your gender.1 Rather than
understanding gender as having distinct categories, another way of understanding gender is as a
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continuum with many dimensions. Some men might have extremely high levels of testosterone and
some women might have extremely low levels. The rest of us are somewhere in between, lying
somewhere on the continuum. Similarly, some men might have very masculine physical features and
some women may have very feminine physical features. The rest of us are somewhere in between, lying
somewhere on the continuum. Sexuality can be examined in the same way. There are those that are
extremely heterosexual, with no interest at all in the same sex, and then there are those that are
extremely homosexual, with no interest all in the opposite sex. The rest of us are somewhere in
between, lying somewhere on the continuum. Here is a link to a person attempting to create a typology
of sexual orientation: Do you think it
is useful to understand sexual orientation as a variable with many values and with many dimensions?
Post your comments to our discussion board.
Another issue related to understanding sexual orientation is our ability to understand clearly
what our sexual orientation is. This is sometimes confusing for some people. Some people, for
example, will go from a heterosexual relationship to a homosexual relationship back to a heterosexual
one. And whether they consider themselves lesbian or bisexual may depend on whether they focus on
their relationship or their sexual attraction. One study found that those that defined themselves as
lesbians, though they had previous heterosexual relationships (43 percent in the study had heterosexual
relationships even after coming out as lesbians), were more likely to focus on their current lesbian
relationship in identifying themselves as lesbian. Those that identified as bisexual focused more on their
sexual attraction rather than a relationship. This suggests that sexual orientation is somewhat chosen,
depending on what you want to focus on, your attraction or your relationship.
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In what ways are you or people you know both masculine and feminine? In what ways are you,
or people you know, both heterosexual and homosexual? Why do you think it is difficult to think about
gender and sexual orientation in this way? How do you or people you know decide what your/their
sexual orientation is, based on who you are having sex with or who you are attracted to? If you want, we
can discuss these questions on our discussion board.
Prevalence of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals
What percent of women are lesbian, and what percent are bisexual? What percent of men are
gay, and what percent are bisexual? The data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth2
found that among those aged 18–44, a higher percentage of men claimed a gay identity (1.9 percent)
than women claimed a lesbian identity (1.3 percent). The pattern was reversed with respect to bisexual
identity. A higher percentage of women claimed a bisexual identity (5.5 percent) than men (2.0 percent).
This gendered pattern found for bisexual identity was also reflected in sexual attraction. Feelings of
attraction “only to the opposite sex” were more common for men (92.1 percent) compared with women
(81.0 percent) aged 18–44. This gendered pattern found for bisexual identity and sexual attraction was
also reflected in sexual activity. Almost three times as many women (17.4 percent) reported any samesex contact in their lifetime compared with men (6.2 percent) aged 18–44. Why do you think that more
women are bisexual than men? Is it culture or biology? Post your comments to our discussion board.
Biology or socialization?
Is sexual orientation biological or social? Survey research shows that Americans are divided as
to whether people are born gay. Most sociologists believe that it is both biological and social. Many
factors contribute to sexual orientation, including genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural
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influences. Studies that examine siblings and twins support the position that sexual orientation is both
biological and social. One study found that if one identical twin was homosexual, there was roughly a 50
percent chance that their identical twin would also be homosexual. This is compared to one out of five
chance for fraternal twins, and one out of 10 chance for adopted brothers and sisters. Since
approximately half of the identical twins with a homosexual twin were not themselves homosexual, this
suggests that biology as well as social learning plays a role. Peter Bearman (2007) found that males with
a female twin are more likely to be gay than male-male twins. He interprets this, in light of additional
data showing that boys with older brothers are less likely to be gay, as showing that in environments
with a less overtly masculine socialization, the likelihood of homosexuality increases. He does not
conclude that sexual orientation is purely social, but that social factors play a role. Do you think gays and
lesbians are born that way? Are heterosexuals born that way? Post your comments to our discussion
Public attitudes toward gays and lesbians
Around 1973, society began to become more accepting of homosexuality. Each year, fewer
people believe homosexuality is morally wrong while more support civil liberties for homosexuals. Only
44 percent now believe that homosexual relations is always wrong. Also, most Americans now believe
that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. We have also come a long way with respect to
acceptance of gay and lesbian teachers teaching elementary school. Now, most Americans believe that
gays and lesbians should have the right to be an elementary school teacher. What reasons can you think
of for this shifting in attitude about homosexuality? Post your comments to our discussion board.
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Correlates to prejudice against gays and lesbians
We find that certain categories of people are more likely to hold negative attitudes about gays
and lesbians. As you go through this list, think critically about why these correlations exist. Also, this list
may support some stereotypes we may have of certain people. Let’s use this list to think about why
certain groups are more likely to hold negative views rather than using this list to confirm our
stereotypes about certain groups.
In contrast to heterosexuals with favorable attitudes toward gay people, those with negative
attitudes are more likely to be: men, older, less educated, and residing in geographic areas where
negative attitudes represent the norm (for example, rural areas or the Midwestern or Southern United
States). We also find that in contrast to heterosexuals with favorable attitudes toward gay people, those
with negative attitudes are more likely to display high levels of psychological authoritarianism, be
supportive of traditional gender roles, and believe that a homosexual orientation is freely chosen. Those
with negative attitudes were also less likely to be sexually permissive and have close personal friends or
family members who are openly lesbian or gay.
We also find differences by religiosity. In contrast to heterosexuals with favorable attitudes
toward gay people, those with negative attitudes are more likely to attend religious services frequently
and more likely to endorse orthodox religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of the Bible
We also find differences by political preference. In contrast to heterosexuals with favorable
attitudes toward gay people, those with negative attitudes are more likely to be a Republican than a
Democrat or Independent and are more likely to describe themselves as politically conservative, rather
than liberal or moderate.
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Why do you think these correlations exist? Pick one or two correlations and discuss it on our
discussion board.
Prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people
In society at large, homophobia is on the decline. While attitudes have clearly shifted,
homophobia and overt discrimination and violence remain. In 2014, hate crimes related to sexual
orientation impacted 1,248 victims, accounting for about 18.6 percent of total hate crimes committed
that year. Especially in adolescence, a great deal of open hostility exists toward the very idea of
homosexuality. Gay and lesbian high school students are often targets of harassment. This harassment
has consequences. Researchers have found that gay and lesbian youth are at higher risk for poor
health, depression, suicide attempts, and suicides. Researchers believe that these tendencies result
from discriminatory experiences they suffer by peers and feelings of being “different.” Let’s now look
at three studies that examined discrimination against LGBT individuals.
The Extent of Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Topeka, KS (2004)
In this study conducted in Topeka, Kansas, researchers found significant discrimination against
gays and lesbians in the community and the workplace. Seventeen percent of respondents reported
experiencing discrimination buying or renting a home due to their sexual orientation or gender identity
and 11 percent of respondents reported that they experienced discrimination seeking police protection.
With respect to discrimination in the workplace, 16 percent of respondents reported that they
were denied employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, 15 percent reported
that they were fired, 11 percent reported that they were denied a promotion, 18 percent reported that
they were overlooked for additional responsibilities, and 35 percent had received harassing letters, emails, or faxes at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
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The 2009 National School Climate Survey
In this national school climate survey, researchers found that gay and lesbian students suffer
significant discrimination. Because of their sexual orientation, 61.1 percent felt unsafe at school, 84.6
percent were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened), 40.1 percent were physically
harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the past year, and 18.8 percent were physically assaulted (e.g.,
punched, kicked, injured with a weapon). 52.9 percent of LGBT students were harassed or threatened by
their peers via electronic mediums (e.g., text messages, emails, instant messages or postings on Internet
sites such as Facebook).
This high incidence of harassment and assault is exacerbated by school staff rarely, if ever,
intervening on behalf of LGBT students. 62.4 percent of students who were harassed or assaulted in
school did not report the incident to school staff, believing little to no action would be taken or the
situation could become worse if reported. 33.8 percent of the students who did report an incident said
that school staff did nothing in response.
What role do students, teachers, and parents play in perpetuating discrimination and
harassment of LGBT students? What role can students, teachers, and parents play in reducing
discrimination and harassment of LGBT students? Post your comments to our discussion board.
Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination
Survey (2011)
In this national transgender discrimination survey, researchers found that transgender
individuals experience significant discrimination in school, the workplace, community, and family.
Those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12 reported
alarming rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent);
harassment was so severe that it led almost one-sixth (15 percent) to leave a school in K-12 settings or
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in higher education. In the workplace, 26 percent reported that they had lost a job due to being
transgender or gender non-conforming and 50 percent were harassed. With respect to housing
discrimination, respondents reported various forms of direct housing discrimination — 19 percent
reported having been refused a home or apartment and 11 percent reported being evicted because of
their gender identity/expression. A particularly difficult issue is family rejection. 43 percent maintained
most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection. Given these
statistics, it is not surprising that 41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to
1.6 percent of t …
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