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Gay Identity, Gay Rights, and Gay Activism

The terms gay (referring to men), lesbian (referring to women), and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) include not only personal feelings and behaviors, but also describe a social, cultural, and even political identity.

Development of a Gay Identity

Experiencing same-sex attractions and accepting a gay identity are separate, but related issues. Some people self-identify as gay and find comfort in belonging to a group of people they can relate to. As they associate with other gay people, they may find a great deal of acceptance and feel—perhaps for the first time in their lives—that they fit in. They may find acceptance and support in the gay community that they may not have found previously among their family, friends, or church.

Some people who are conflicted between their same-sex attractions and their personal values and religious beliefs choose not to self-identify as gay or associate with others in the gay community. They may desire a traditional marriage and family. They may choose to make behavioral decisions that don’t include homosexual behavior. (See “Making Decisions About Same-Sex Attraction.”)

Discrimination Against Gays

Gay people are sometimes treated unjustly and unfairly. Instead of receiving love and support from their families, they are sometimes ostracized. Rather than being involved in supportive church groups, they sometimes find themselves on the outside when people don’t know how to include them. Gay people are sometimes evicted by landlords, fired by employers, and even the object of physical attacks. Gays are substantially more likely to commit suicide than the average person. The collective anger over mistreatment is a powerful force behind the gay rights movement.

The Beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement

Summary: The gay rights movement began as simple attempts to gain fair and equal treatment for gay people. Over the years, gay activism has grown to be a highly-organized, well-funded movement to change public opinion and normalize homosexuality.

Homosexual behavior can be found in ancient history. For example, the Greeks had a naturalistic view of life, including homosexual behavior, but there was no gay identity. In fact, the Greek language had no word meaning gay. Homosexual behavior was seen as something you did (sporadic or chronic behaviors) and not who you were (identity). The concept of a homosexual person was created in the nineteenth century. The terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as psychological, political, and social constructs.

In the 1060s, gay people finally became tired of being mistreated and began to fight back. They didn’t want to be called names and didn’t want to be arrested for going to gay bars. When dialog and reason didn’t get results, they began to organize and develop protest strategies. Following the social protest strategies of the era, they turned social issues into political issues.

The watershed event of the gay rights movement in America happened in 1969 at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, where gay patrons fought police in clashes that continued sporadically for two days.

Gay Activism

Over the years, gay people formed various organizations to further their efforts for equal and fair treatment. Over time, many of their efforts went to extremes, including violence, vandalism, and clandestine efforts to change public opinion and public policy. Such efforts are often referred to as gay activism. Today, a number of highly organized, well-funded organizations influence public opinion in favor of homosexuality.

The Normalization of Homosexuality

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is the organization that determines for the professional psychiatric community in the United States what is normal and what is abnormal. Their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a handbook widely used by clinicians to assist in diagnosing and classifying mental, emotional, and sexual disorders. The first edition of the DSM, published in 1952, listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, a severe form of psychopathology.

By 1968, gay organizations targeted the APA. Over the next few years, protestors interrupted APA conferences, shouting at the speakers and taking control of meetings. After three years of disrupted conventions, the APA agreed to let gay activists be involved in the decision-making process, even though the activists were not professionals in psychiatry or psychology.

In 1973, the APA board of trustees agreed to redefine mental illness in a way that accommodated homosexuality. Previously, disorders had been determined by deviations from an objective norm, but this redefinition said that the norm should be more subjective, that people should not be considered disordered if they do not experience distress over their condition and if they show no major impairment in social functioning. With this redefinition, homosexuality was removed as a disorder from the DSM-III.

The decision by the APA board did not represent the professional opinions of the practitioners the APA represented. Surveys showed that a majority of mental health professionals believed that homosexuality was not normal. (For example, a 1977 survey showed that 69% of psychiatrists in the USA considered homosexuality to be the result of psychological maladaption.) In his book Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis, Ronald Bayer describes how clinical decisions are made and the factors that influence those decisions. He explains that this subjective standard of normalcy set a dangerous precedent, because without an objective standard nearly any deviation could be considered normal as long as the person was not seriously disturbed by his condition. For example, in the DSM-IV, one of the criteria for diagnosing pedophilia (a disorder in which children are the preferred sexual objects) states, “The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition, American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC, 1994, p. 528.) Such changes were also made in the criteria for diagnosing sexual sadism and masochism, transvestitism, voyeurism, and exhibitionism. In their attempt to be politically correct, the psychiatric community lost the distinction between what is normal and what is right.

The elimination of homosexuality as a disorder in the DSM has also had a negative effect on clinical research in the area of homosexuality. It was difficult to get funding or recognition for research in an area not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

The Movement to Deny Treatment

Gay activists sought not only to declare homosexuality to be normal, but also to block attempts for therapeutic help for unwanted homosexuality. They claimed that when people sought treatment, they were simply manifesting their internalized homophobia and self-loathing, and that the only healthy response to homosexual feelings was to act on those feelings. Some gay activists lobbied for legislation to make it unethical for therapists to treat people who sought treatment for distresses resulting from homosexuality.

In many states, laws prohibit direct therapeutic interventions to change homosexuality into heterosexuality. Nevertheless, treatment for persistent and marked distress about sexual orientation is covered within the guidelines of the current DSM-V. See the section “Professional Ethics.”