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Sexual Orientation

Sexual Orientation And Social Policy

Heterosexuals tend not to question their sexual orientation, nor do they question or even notice the privileges and protections they enjoy because of it. Another question remains, however: although no one knows where sexual orientation comes from, and most researchers agree that it is a basic emotional need that persists even in the face of repression, why is there so much anger, prejudice, and discrimination against people who are homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered? Homophobia, an irrational fear and hatred of same-sex relations, is found in societies around the world, although the degree of hostility towards people in same-sex relationships varies considerably. Homophobia is a social construction; it is hatred "produced by institutionalized biases in a society or culture" (SIECUS 1993, p. 1).

As gays became more public and their homosexuality was more accepted by loved ones, the focus of activism changed from familial relations to public legal issues. Variance in laws and restrictions based on sexual orientation can be found around the world. Markers can be found in legal marriage, adoption, and military service. Inclusion in civil rights and human rights legislation are additional areas of contention.

LGBT people existed in every society before the 1970s, but gay identity and community did not. Even in those societies that formally legalized homosexuality, openness and the formation of gay groups often took longer. For example, homosexuality was legalized in Slovenia in 1974, yet it was 1984 before the first gay men's organization emerged and 1988 before the establishment of the first lesbian group. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, dozens of gay groups organized in Eastern Europe. In the 1990s, gay life became visible in some form, such as organized groups, newsletters, or Gay Pride Parades in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Bolivia, Curacao, Kenya, Moldova, Portugal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Japan, Turkey, Nicaragua, Mexico, Estonia, Hong Kong, Brazil, Czech Republic, and Zimbabwe. Decriminalization occurred earlier in Germany, the United Kingdom, and in twenty-seven states in the United States.

A number of countries have national laws that protect gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from discrimination, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden. Australia bans employment discrimination and has some states that provide legal protection. Nine states in the United States have civil rights laws that include sexual orientation, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an amendment in Colorado disallowing an antidiscrimination law on sexual orientation was unlawful. Still, there are seven states that ban the practice of certain sexual acts between adults of the same gender; sixteen states include heterosexual couples in the same ban of specific sexual acts (SIECUS 1998/1999).

International organizations have become active in protecting sexual orientation through human rights policies. The United Nations, through programs and commissions such as The International Labour Office, The Development Program, and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, are involved in promoting and monitoring the rights of gays and lesbians. United Nations Conference Resolutions, such as from the Fourth World Conference on Women, call on nations to recognize that women and men must be able to decide freely all matters relating to their sexuality. There are also nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that monitor states' repressive measures related to sexuality and sexual orientation.

Groups exist in countries with formal resistance, as in Nicaragua where same-sex relations were criminalized in 1992, and Zimbabwe, where the president in 1995, Robert Mugabe, called homosexuals subhuman animals who deserve no rights at all. In India, the topic of homosexuality has been one that is not spoken of, although by the end of the twentieth century, this forbidden subject began to slowly receive more attention. In China, homosexuality is not illegal, but it is seen as an illness.

The Gay Liberation Movement, as noted earlier, is a primary cause of increased social and self-acceptance. The greater access to education, particularly higher education, leads to generally more acceptance of difference (Gerek 1984). The Internet, which has made possible contact with others even when living in a remote environment, has played an important role in breaking down feelings of isolation. Also, there have been health concerns related to the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which have led governments to be more open, particularly as gay groups have demanded government health services.

Even as greater tolerance and acceptance around the world increased in the late twentieth century, repressive societies remained, as did resistance to full equality in those countries that have become more progressive. The Islamic world is not accepting, nor is much of Africa. Early into the twenty-first century, Egypt sentenced twenty-three men to five years in prison for defaming Islam by their homosexual lifestyle (Schneider 2001, p. A11). Homosexuals can be jailed in Romania, the Caribbean, and Malaysia. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuals can be put to death. Indeed, Susan Greenberg makes the point that in spite of rhetoric and sometimes in spite of equality laws, "there are few societies around the world where homosexuals are not persecuted in some way" (Greenberg 2001, p. 28).

Marriage laws are a major area of discrimination by sexual orientation. Norway has recognized same-sex marriages since 1993, The Netherlands and Germany since 1991. Canada, Norwegian, and Danish laws permit registrations of homosexual partnership that are identical to legal marriage except that they must be done in a civil context, and the couple is not allowed to adopt children. Iceland, Hungary, and Sweden enacted legislation allowing couples to register their partnerships.

The rest of the world basically does not recognize marriage or legal partnerships between same-sex couples. Many countries provide some level of economic and inheritance benefits, but not on the same level that is granted to legally married couples. In the United States, Vermont is the only state that provides legal same-sex ceremonies with domestic partner benefits. Some activists have come to feel that civil unions rather than marriage may be a more realistic goal, resulting in equality by practice, even if not equality in principle. However, not everyone in the LGBT community agrees with gay marriage. As some activists see it, marriage, as practiced by heterosexuals, is an oppressive institution to individual freedom and women's rights.

Adoption is another issue the LGBT community has struggled with, and for the most part, lost. Even countries like Denmark, which allow registered partnerships with all the rights associated with marriage, make an exception for the adoption of children. Remarkably, the right to artificial insemination is also disallowed. Other countries that allow officially recognized same-sex unions modeled their adoption policy on Denmark's conditions. Although gay men and lesbians are allowed to raise children as foster parents, full adoption rights are not granted. There have also been cases of divorce when biological parents have been denied custody because of their sexual orientation.

Gays in the military is an issue that has international differences. In 1993 the Israel Defense Force established an antidiscrimination policy and in 1997 the Tel Aviv Military Court recognized a gay male as the legal widower of a male officer (Gamson 1999). Israel's policies contrast sharply A homosexual couple celebrates their marriage. Homosexual marriages are recognized in Norway, The Netherlands, and Germany. Several other countries, including Canada, recognize homosexual civil unions. REUTERS NEW MEDIA INC./CORBIS with the United States's government response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, where surviving gay partners were denied recognition from the Victim Compensation Fund, or the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the U.S. military.

The number of countries that ban homosexuals from serving in the military is declining. Australia no longer excludes gays, nor does Canada. The United Kingdom decriminalized homosexual acts in the military in 1992, but still regards homosexuality as incompatible with military service and can use a sexual orientation argument as grounds for dismissal. Italy followed suit and has a policy similar to the United Kingdom. Most NATO countries do not, as a matter of policy, exclude homosexuals from military service, with the exceptions of Turkey and Greece. Germany, in practice, has a highly exclusionary military, even though official policy states that homosexuals are fit for service and cannot be discharged for their sexual orientation. Countries that have decriminalized homosexuality in the military are Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Poland. The Netherlands represents the most tolerant position on gays in the military (Segal, Gade, and Johnson 1993).

Policies and practices in the military appear to follow social norms of each country, and heterosexuality is clearly the norm. Thus, almost everywhere in the military, homosexuals keep their sexual orientation hidden except around people and situations where they know they are free to be themselves, express their desires, and behave in similar ways that heterosexuals have been allowed to do.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsSexual Orientation - Essentialism Or Social Construction, Early Sex Research, Family And Social Relations, Cross-cultural Sexual Diversity