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The Homosexual Experience in America

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On Friday, June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling made the wise decision to make gay marriage legal throughout the country… finally! In his majority opinion statement Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said “that marriage is a “keystone of our social order,” … adding that the plaintiffs in the case were seeking “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” (Liptak). The ruling addressed what has been a long and grueling fight for justice with prevailing discriminatory views that have adversely affected millions in America. It has significantly affirmed the humanity and legal rights of the gay community. In this article I will refer to sexuality in America overall and the older gay male community.

The gay struggle for rights has been one of addressing the time-honored tradition in America of “blaming the victim”. The group doing the blaming has largely been heterosexuals and many Christians who have chosen to adhere to their on-going discrimination against homosexuals. Although, we are now witnessing some changes in both groups – thankfully. The Supreme Court decision, in fact, has finally addressed this problematic heterosexual and Christian bias.

In the early 1980s I was engaged in research at Emory University’s Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Just up the street from Emory on Clifton Road was the headquarters of the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Before the 9/11 fiasco, it was easy to walk in and spend time with friends or colleagues at the CDC without constraint, but 9/11 changed all that. Security is now excessively rigid.

But, back to the 1980s.

My friend Dr. William Darrow – otherwise known as “Bill” of course – worked in the Sexually Transmitted Disease section at the CDC. I would often talk with him after work hours to explore what was happening in the world of STD’s. Bill is a sociologist and “yes” he is the great nephew of the renowned attorney, Clarence Darrow, of the 1925 “Scope’s Monkey Trial”.

One night when I was with Bill at the CDC, he took a long break to talk with a 70 year old California male. The fellow had called to ask questions about the herpes he had contracted after having sex. As there was no cure for herpes, Bill told me he couldn’t decide whether to tell the fellow he was sorry or to congratulate him. I think he did neither. Nevertheless, that night we also talked about my Masters degree in sociology.

As I was seeking a topic for my Master’s thesis, Bill said, “Heather, why not use this data I have here in my office? It is a national survey of 4,212 older gay males (over 50) and the largest sample ever assembled of this group. It hasn’t been analyzed as yet.” I jumped at the chance.

Then began my journey and research into sexual behavior of all sorts. The findings were ultimately published in “The Gerontologist” in 1985 in an article entitled “Alternative Interpretations of Aging Among Gay Males”.

In my research I looked at older gay males and how they grappled with the heterosexual community overall. Blaming the victim? One of the prevailing views in America has been that individuals “chose” their sexual orientation rather than being born with their homosexual tendencies. There has also been a belief that older gay males on the whole do not do well in the society as the assumption has been that they would be ostracized and lacking support overall.

Almost as interesting than the data itself was the intensive research I did on sexual behavior in America. I learned that many of us humans are quite varied in our sexual interests and we are not static over time. I also learned that having an attraction to someone of the same or opposite sex does not necessarily imply a physical relationship.

But first, I am convinced that anyone doing research on sex in America has to look at the Kinsey studies in 1948 (on men) and 1953 (on women). Sometimes controversial, along with questions of his research methods, Dr. Alfred Kinsey nevertheless conducted the first major studies on sexual behavior in America. It is now legendary.

Kinsey, a Harvard trained biologist and entomologist, obtained a teaching post at the University of Indiana in 1935 and it was from Indiana that he carried out his research on sex. While teaching in entomology he was asked to teach a marriage course. It was then he discovered there was virtually no research on sexual behavior. The rest is history as they say. He certainly then made his contribution on the issue of sexual behavior and this was after interviewing some 16,000 Americans.

Perhaps one of the best summaries of “The Kinsey Report” is by Martin Gumpert in The Nation in 2009. The Nation editors start by saying that with The Kinsey Report “for the first time that frank talk about sex is no longer the sole domain of the church and psychoanalysts. Now, everyone could be master of that domain.”

Gumpert provides an excellent summary of some percentages from “The Kinsey Report”:

Obviously the statement that, under our present laws, 95 percent of our total male population could be convicted of sex crimes becomes social dynamite when it is offered as a statement of authoritative scientific fact. Most of us were aware of it all along, but proof was lacking. The same is true of such findings as these: that 85 percent of American males have pre-marital intercourse; that 59 percent have some experience in oral-genital contacts, a criminal offense in a number of states–and by criminal I mean a felony, not a misdemeanor; that from 30 to 45 percent have extra-marital intercourse; that 37 percent have had some homosexual experience; and that 17 percent of farm boys have intercourse with animals. These figures may be slightly changed by further studies, but on the whole they would appear to be accurate–and they come as no surprise to anyone who has intimate and undistorted knowledge of human relations.

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After his extensive research with thousands of people, Kinsey and his research team developed a graph of sexual behavior with “0” being exclusively heterosexual and “6” exclusively homosexual with various degrees of bisexuality -“1 through 5” – in the middle. And while the largest majority of men and women reported being exclusively heterosexual and a smaller percentage reported being exclusively homosexual, “many individuals disclosed behaviors or thoughts somewhere in between”. Further they found that for many, sexual feelings were not consistent over time regarding attractions to the same or opposite sex (The Kinsey Institute).

It is a mistake to look at the center of the graph (1-5) and think that it means there was an actual a physical relationship – thoughts don’t necessarily translate into physical sexual relationships. They can, but probably in most instances a feeling or attraction and not expressed physically. In fact, “incidental” on the graph is defined as having an “occasional” desire for sexual activity with the same or opposite sex that is not necessarily realized. Although, the potential can be there.

In my research I also discovered that sexuality plays a role in virtually all of our relationships. We are sexual animals after all!! As with women, many of the female friends they choose are those who they might like because of the way they look physically or act or their sensuality as critical factors in making them their friends. It is a sexual attraction but, again, not necessarily expressed with an actual physical sexual relationship. The same applies for men. Their friends can often be men whose sexuality they appreciate but again this is not necessarily expressed physically.

There also seems to be an assumption, as mentioned, that some homosexuals are homosexual because it is a “desire” on their part and is, then, a “lifestyle choice”.

While it is not definitive, in my studies I found that gays on the whole know they are different by around the age of 10. Most of them, however, would not know what was happening to them or how to express themselves.

Often the conflict is compounded when views are expressed at home. For example, one Canadian male who knew he was gay but not sure what he could do expressed the following. “He grew up in a very religious home where he had been taught that being gay was disgusting, wrong, filthy and not normal. His mother had even often compared being gay to pedophilia” (The Calgary Journal).

When he came out as gay his mother told him he was going to hell.

While it’s true that some might “choose” to be gay, it was not something addressed in my research. Nevertheless, I have never found anyone who “chose” to be gay. What I’ve found instead, as mentioned, is that most gays knew they were gay when they were children. Then the question is always what do they do about this orientation when they get older? The society has definitely not been historically helpful on that score.

Regarding making an inappropriate “lifestyle” choice by becoming gay, as some opponents will claim, if anything the reverse seems to be the case. It is usually “inappropriate” for someone gay to make a “lifestyle” choice to be a heterosexual. Under societal pressure, some homosexuals will attempt to be heterosexuals when it is completely contrary to their sexual orientation. Everyone loses under the circumstances, as in, if a male chooses to marry a woman when he is actually a homosexual, invariably there will be problems.

Regarding being gay at birth or a genetic influence? Recent research also suggests that “a gay man is more likely than a straight man to have a (biological) gay brother; lesbians are more likely than straight women to have gay sisters. There have been other genetic studies as well from the early 1990s indicating there appears to be “certain genetic markers on a region of the X chromosome known as Xq28” (Malory). All of this might suggest then, that there are likely genetic factors here.

But then regarding homosexuality being a lifestyle choice, as British psychiatrist Dean Burnett has noted in 2015, why would anyone “choose” to be gay given the fact that:

They see the oppression, the suicide rates, the discrimination and harassment, the inequality, the increased risk of mental health issues, or abandonment from your family; they see all this and think “I gotta get me some of that”? This seems, to put it mildly, unlikely (Burnett).

This is one of the reasons I so admire those in my research who chose to “come out of the closet” and let the public know they were gay. I know it has not been easy for many gays to do this and many choose not to. Perhaps this Supreme Court decision will help them in “openly” being who they are. I, at least, hope that will be the case.

I did not interview a sampling of heterosexual males in this study, but did review available literature. I found that older heterosexual males tended to retreat socially, are sometimes isolated and generally rely on their wives for their social relationships. More comparative research needs to be done on this, but these were my findings based on the literature in the early 1980s.

In contrast, I found in my research that the older gay males did exceptionally well if they were “out of the closet” because their social network was, then, more often then not, quite profound and extensive. They tended to have not only a supportive social network in the gay community but those who are openly gay often have many heterosexual friends as well that are also supportive. In the end, while this is not always the case, it appears that being an openly gay older male can have enormous benefits socially and personally.

The Supreme Court decision making gay marriage legal throughout the country is profound. I concur with the New York Times Editorial Board on June 25, 2015 that “Justice Kennedy’s opinion will affect the course of American history, and it will change lives starting now.”

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

References

Burnett, Dean “Why would people ‘choose’ to be gay?” The Guardian (Thursday 8 January 2015)

Gray, Heather and Paula Dressel “Alternative Interpretations of Aging Among Gay MalesThe Gerontologist (1985)

Gumpert , Martin “The Kinsey Report” The Nation (March 25, 2009)

Liptak, Adam “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide” New York Times (June 26, 2015)

Malory, Marcia “Is Homosexuality a Choice?” Scientific American (October 19, 2012)

The Editorial Board “A Profound Ruling Delivers Justice on Gay Marriage”, New York Times (June 26, 2015)

The Kinsey Institute “Kinsey’s Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale.”

“When do most homosexuals know they’re gay?” The Calgary Journal (May/June 2015)

 

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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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