Equality, Truth, and the American Dream
Where do “the Gays” fit in?
The state of sexual equality in America has spurred controversy and split political parties for centuries, leaving most LGBT* Americans with the experience of being second-class citizens. Perhaps, the most potent manifestation of the division between heterosexual and non-heterosexual Americans is the coming out ritual, which poses several moral issues for the LGBT population. For instance, why do I as a bisexual have to come out, whereas straight men and women generally do not have to come out as heterosexual? Who do I have to come out to, and does being out change who I am? Though there may be no answers to these questions, something can be learned from my having to worry about my sexuality in the first place. If I live in a country whose Declaration of Independence holds that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that these include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, why should I have to fear the coming out process? In this society based on the
self evident truth that all people are valuable, why does coming out represent such an aggressive double standard for LGB communities (if you do not come out you are a liar, but if you do you are a fag/dyke)? What does equality mean as an American value when it comes to sexuality?
To begin answering these questions, let us consider American adoption laws. In case an opposite-sex couple decides to adopt, there is practically no risk of their application being denied on the basis of their sexuality.1 For same-sex couples, the story is quite different, since adoption laws across state boundaries are inconsistent in their treatment of same-sex parenting. The Family Equality Council, an LGBT parenting advocacy group, reports that only seven states have formal laws providing adoption policies in support of same-sex couples, while thirty-nine of the remaining states are silent on the issue.2 Adoption laws in Virginia, North Dakota, and my home state of Michigan permit state-licensed child welfare agencies to refuse services to LGBT families if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs, while those in Nebraska restrict adoption by same-sex couples altogether.
One would presume that in a country where banning marriage on the basis of sexual orientation is finally illegal, thanks to the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case, limiting adoption to only opposite-sex couples would be so, too. However, implementation issues in this case in states like Tennessee3, Texas4, and Kentucky5 show that establishing marriage equality (let alone adoption equality) before the law is only the first step to genuine social change. Why would county clerks, state legislators, and other organizations still be so opposed to same-sex couples marrying? How do they justify their claims of judicial tyranny and stark refusal of same-sex relations at the legal level?
Most opponents base their claims on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been historically used to insist that legalizing same-sex marriage discriminates against religious groups.6 Many Christian denominations, for instance, hinge their opposition to same-sex marriage on the belief that sex is sinful if it is not procreative, and by allowing same-sex couples to marry, the government is imposing on their marriage rituals.7 Politically speaking, these groups differentiate between the identity and conduct of same-sex couples in attempts to create non-discriminatory legislation against same-sex marriage; they do not reject the idea of people being gay, but they see the union and adoption of these individuals as morally wrong. It is not to say that their beliefs are invalid – tolerance of belief is another core tenet of the American foundation – but to use them in political arguments against same-sex marriage or adoption is faulty.
To explain this, let us consider the scenario of a heterosexual married couple ready to start their family. Though this hypothetical couple tries to have children for years, they are unsuccessful, even after using alternative methods of artificial insemination. Coming to terms with their infertility, the couple decides to adopt, and after completing the application process, they finally welcome a child into their family. Grandma and Grandpa are ecstatic, Mom’s baby pictures on Facebook get dozens of likes on the regular, and the baby is christened after a few months.
Why would religious groups support marriage and adoption for this non-procreative couple while they would demean that of a same-sex couple? According to their procreation argument, this couple is also sinning, and if they cannot accept the above consequence of their line of thought, the argument falls through (reductio ad absurdum). This albeit simplistic example also highlights the inherent problems of the conduct vs. identity argument, since opposing marriage or adoption in a non-discriminatory way would mean to do so without regards to the sexual identity of the couple.
Instead of religion, however, a brief survey of historical attitudes toward same-sex attraction and their relation to conceptions of sexual “normality” would do more to illuminate complicated social roots of homophobia in the USA. For instance, marriage manuals from the years leading up to the Victorian Period highlight American sexual values that young newlyweds were otherwise inadequately educated about. John and Robin Haller discuss the American sexual system during the nineteenth century, when sex was described in the wide-spread Aristotle Series as the most primitive human tendency:
woman’s indifference to sex was naturally ordained to prevent the male’s vital energies from being overly expended at any one time.8 Same-sex relations were considered uncanny by this logic; in order to
restrain the aggressive nature of the male, purity authors encouraged women to disregard their husbands’ intimacy and impulses.
Following scientific breakthroughs in the Victorian Period and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), sexologists began creating evolutionary theories to understand sexual divergence. Karl Ulrichs9 developed the theory of sexual inversion, which held that the homosexual man had a female essence or psyche within him leading to his attraction to other men, and vice versa for lesbians. This theory suggests that gender predates attraction, making genuine homosexuality impossible. The motivation for this was not to pathologize homosexuality per se, but to advocate for persecuted homosexual men by clearing their moral slates. Ulrichs identified as a gay man himself, and by making homosexuality a psychological phenomenon (i.e. “not his fault”), he thought societal hatred toward gay men would lighten.
Contrary to these views, scholars such as Sandor Rado popularized the idea that heterosexuality was the only non-pathological attraction. Rado’s theory centered on the concept of reparative adjustment:
the basic problem […] is to determine the factors that cause the individual to apply aberrant forms of stimulation to his standard genital equipment […] the chief causal factor is the affect of anxiety, which inhibits standard stimulation and compels the ego action system […] to bring forth an altered scheme of stimulation as a reparative adjustment […] This approach […] has in practice unfolded a wealth of clinical details leading to a theory that is free of inconsistency.10 As societal attitudes toward sexuality began to reflect Rado’s views, homosexuality was classified in 1952 as a mental disorder in the American Psychological Association’s first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I).
Rado’s pathology approach to homosexuality led the analysts Bieber, Socarides, Ovesey and Hatterer, all contributors to Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study (1962), to claim that they could cure homosexuality. It was this line of thinking that led to the institution of gay men and the conversion therapies they were forced to undergo, which are still in practice in some states11 and often involve physical and sexual harassment.12 Despite severe methodological problems associated with Bieber et al.’s study (such as the lack of long term follow-up on patients and lack of proof supporting their claims of change), homosexuality remained in the DSM until 1973 when the APA Advisory Committee revised the original manual. This change is largely attributed to social protests during the African-American civil rights movement, which gave birth to the women’s and gay rights movements.13
Still, the APA did not eliminate the diagnosis of homosexuality in 1973. Rather its leadership replaced it with a new term in the revised DSM-II: Sexual Orientation Disturbance (SOD). This diagnosis referred to individuals who were
in conflict with their sexual orientation, whereas those who felt comfortable with their sexuality were not considered mentally ill. After more opposition throughout the 1970s and 1980s (scientists highlighted that heterosexual individuals did not express discomfort with their sexuality, demonstrating the bigotry inherent to the diagnosis), SOD was replaced in the DSM-III by Ego-dystonic Homosexuality (EDH), defined the same way as SOD but specifically targeting homosexuality, as was the case before. Openly gay and lesbian APA Advisory Committee members fought against these diagnoses throughout the multiple revisions of the DSM, until 1987, when EDH was removed from the DSM-III-R. The committee agreed that using the patient’s subjective homosexual experience as a diagnostic measure was not consistent with the evidence-based approach that psychiatry had been utilizing at the time.
In summary, general scholarly opinion has historically held that same-sex attraction is abnormal and dangerous to society, ideas that have largely permeated the social sphere. In 1961, for instance, producer Sid Davis worked in cooperation with the Inglewood Police Department and Unified School District to produce Boys Beware, a Public Service Announcement warning Americans that homosexuality is a
dangerous and contagious sickness of the mind (
one never knows when the homosexual is about, the narrator declares). It is in this mindset that mainstream America has historically banned same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex parents. The widespread fear is that if homosexuals can marry, pretty soon everyone will be gay.
This historical baggage to this day threatens the development of true justice in America when it comes to sexuality: how can equality be real in a society where Public Service Announcements caution children of the dangers of homosexuality, where same-sex attractive people are abused during pseudoscientific conversion therapies, where LGBT teenagers are encouraged to kill themselves before they are given resources to live happy and healthy lives?14 Still, as disillusioning as the slow progress regarding sexual justice in America has been, not all hope is lost. American institutions have repeatedly denied millions of LGBT citizens the fundamental rights the U. S. Constitution guarantees them, but tireless efforts from activists such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remind us that progress toward equality shall forever be an American priority. In his famous I have a Dream speech from 1963, he said,
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. Although King was speaking about racial equality, his words are a reminder that one can envision an American society where it is a self-evident truth that all people can flourish – a culture in which coming out represents pride and resilience, in which there are no biased rules dictating whom people are allowed to love. Though history suggests such an America is idealistic at best, successes in the Supreme Court this year give people like me hope for the future of sexual equality.
- Trayce Hansen, Same-Sex Marriage Is Harmful to Children, in: Debra A. Miller (ed.), Gay Marriage (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012).
- Family Equality Council, Joint Adoption Laws, http://www.familyequality.org/get_informed/equality_maps/joint_adoption_laws (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- Tim Ghianni, Tennessee County Names Interim Clerk After Predecessor Exits Over Gay Marriage, The Huffington Post (July 6, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/06/tennessee-gay-marriage_n_7737654.html (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- Alexa Ura, Holdouts on Gay Marriage Could Face Lawsuits, The Texas Tribune (July 10, 2015), http://www.texastribune.org/2015/07/10/lawsuits-needed-holdout-counties-gay-marriage (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- David G. Savage, Kentucky Clerk Who Opposes Same-sex Marriage Turns to Supreme Court for Help, Los Angeles Times (August 30, 2015), http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage-kentucky-clerk-20150830-story.html (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- In Indiana, Using Religion as a Cover for Bigotry, The New York Times (March 30, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/opinion/in-indiana-using-religion-as-a-cover-for-bigotry.html?ref=topics&_r=4 (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS, Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Same-Sex Marriage, (December 7, 2012), http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/07/religious-groups-official-positions-on-same-sex-marriage (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- John S. Haller and Robin M. Haller, The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America. (W. W. Norton Inc., 1974).
- Huber Kennedy, First Theorist of Homosexuality (Vernon Rosario, 1997).
- Sandor Rado, A Critical Examination of the Concept of Bisexuality Psychosomatic Medicine 2, no. 4 (1940), 459–467.
- The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation, Human Rights Campaign, http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- #BornPerfect: The Facts About Conversion Therapy, National Center for Lesbian Rights, http://www.nclrights.org/bornperfect-the-facts-about-conversion-therapy (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- The History of Psychiatry & Homosexuality, LGBT Mental Health Syllabus, http://www.aglp.org/gap/1_history (accessed: October 17, 2015).
- Brian Mustanski et al., Mental Health Disorders, Psychological Distress, and Suicidality in a Diverse Sample of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youths American Journal of Public Health, 100, no. 12 (2010).