Sexual Orientation in the United States
This article explores issues of discrimination and institutional social inequality as they pertain to gender and sexual orientation. Although lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are no different than their heterosexual counterparts, numerous social inequities exist that compromise their employment, health, welfare, and families. Court challenges and legislative action over the past twenty-five years have radically expanded the rights of LGBT individuals.
Keywords Androphilia; Civil Union; Codified; Domestic Partnership; Don't Ask, Don't Tell; Gynephilia; Homophobia; Polysexual; Protected Class
Margaret was married to a man for seventeen years and has three grown children. She is employed as a radiologist, makes a reasonable salary, and worries about her retirement funds. Mark is a former Navy officer who now writes articles for national newspapers. He is happily married and is thinking of buying a summer home with his spouse. Jodie adopted a daughter late in life and faces the joys and challenges of raising a child as an older parent. If these individuals sound fairly normal, it is because most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals do not define themselves solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. However, to a large degree, society does define them as such. Each of these individuals has faced job losses, threats to child custody, the inability to marry their partners, acts of hostility from family and strangers, and the loss of financial entitlements, which their heterosexual counterparts take for granted. Sometimes the prejudice and discrimination is deadly.
On February 12, 2008, fifteen-year-old Lawrence King was shot twice in the head as he sat in his Oxnard, California junior high school computer lab working on a paper. King had been teased by his peers since he had started elementary school because of his effeminate mannerisms. By the age of 10, he had confirmed their accusations, stating that he was gay and sometimes dressing in women's clothing. In 2008, with Valentine's Day approaching and his female friends asking male classmates to be their valentines, King approached a 14-year-old male student to be his Valentine. The next day that student brought a handgun to school and killed him (Setoodeh, 2008). According to Katherine Newman's study on school shootings, youth affected by another junior high school shooting in Westside, Arkansas, reported that being called "gay" was a "catastrophic" epithet that would destroy their standing with their peers (Newman, 2004, p.38). Throughout Newman's analyses of school shootings nationwide, anxiety about sexual orientation played a major role in these murderous confrontations. Thus, despite the profound nationwide advancements made in social equality in terms of sexual orientation, real risks and threats still confront LGBT individuals every day.
Sexual orientation can be defined in many ways but the most familiar definitions are also the legal definitions: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. Heterosexuality is a sexual attraction to individuals of the opposite gender, while homosexuality is an attraction to individuals of the same gender. Bisexuality is an attraction to both men and women, although some individuals choose to use the word "polysexual" to avoid the assumption that only two genders exist. Transgender is an umbrella term including transvestites and transsexuals. Transvestites are individuals who wear the clothing normally worn by members of the opposite gender in a given society, and they adopt the stereotypical persona and mannerisms of that opposite gender. Transvestites can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, since their pleasure in wearing clothes of the opposite gender does not necessarily correlate with their sexual orientation. Transsexuals, or intersexuals, are individuals who feel that their sexual identity is different from the one that they present to their family, friends, and community. These individuals may have aspects of the male/female duality, or they may have been assigned the wrong gender at birth. These individuals may ignore these feelings, may wear the clothing of and pass as the opposite gender, or may choose to undergo gender reassignment through hormone therapy and surgery. Advocates for intersexual individuals are today questioning the need for hormone therapy and surgery to change the gender of the intersexual individual, arguing that this process reinforces traditional, distorted views of gender in our society rather than supports diversity in gender existence. In terms of their sexual orientation, transgendered individuals who are attracted to women express gynephilia, while those attracted to men express androphilia. Estimates of the percentage of individuals who are gay or lesbian in our culture vary between 3% and 10% of the adult population. A larger percentage is believed to be bisexual (Frankowski, 2004; Reitman, 2006).
Whatever the developmental or physiological processes that play a role in sexual orientation, it is individuals' self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and identity that ultimately defines their sexual orientation. If fact, a person need not have engaged in genital sex, either heterosexual or homosexual, in order to define his or her sexual orientation. Similarly, some individuals identify with a specific sexual orientation at various times in their lives, depending upon their relationships and their state of mind. Conversely, some individuals adhere to a heterosexual identity even in the face of numerous homosexual encounters. In terms of a legal definition, however, one same-gender sexual experience defines one as homosexual if employers or legal authorities discover this detail. "Homophobia," or hostility towards LGBT individuals, has been codified in English, French, and Spanish law for centuries, so it is not surprising that since the founding of the American colonies, our laws have contained sanctions against same-sex relationships. Changes in contemporary attitudes towards privacy, self-expression, and individual and minority rights have lead to many changes in the laws governing the lives of LGBT individuals. The balance of this article will look at those institutional changes and the continuing discrimination faced by LGBT individuals in our society.
One of the most contentious issues surrounding sexual orientation in the U.S. has been sodomy laws. Sodomy is legally defined as any anal or oral contact during a sexual act with another person or any sexual act that does not lead to procreation. Although it is likely that many heterosexual individuals have violated sodomy laws, in reality the majority of individuals prosecuted under sodomy laws have been LGBT. The laws were still in place in 13 states until 2003 when the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, (02-102) 539 U.S. 558 (2003), 41 S.W. 3d 349 (reversed and remanded), struck down the selective application of sodomy laws to LGBT individuals, ruling that due process protects adults' freedom to engage in private, consensual sexual acts, including sodomy. Thus, LGBT individuals, like heterosexual individuals, are now free to engage in sexual activity without fear of being arrested or...
(The entire section is 3176 words.)