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Knowing the Body

2004 First Web Report

On Serendip


Laura Graham

Every June thousands of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people gather in different locations around the world to celebrate Gay Pride Month with dances, festivals, and marches. The categories of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender are fairly recent; the term "homosexual" used to refer to all individuals of a sexual orientation other than heterosexual. The tradition reached its thirty-fifth anniversary this year, and while the number of participants has skyrocketed since the first march, the rights for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people have not altered significantly since 1970. For example, not only are same sex marriages not legally recognized or granted the same privileges as opposite sex marriages, the current administration proposed to ban the possibility of same sex marriages ever being recognized by the government through a constitutional amendment.

This amendment is one in a series of attempts by the American legislature to restrict and confine the homosexual lifestyle, therefore an entire month seems extraneous to celebrate their identity given their lack of legal rights. But the more the government threatens to interfere with the choices of homosexuals, the louder PRIDE becomes: cities such as New York and San Francisco boast attendance in the hundreds of thousands. The legislative act of prohibition has provided strength to the prohibited acts in the case of sexual behavior and identity.

Michel Foucault best explains how homosexuality became an identity and a category. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault explores the validity of the "repressive hypothesis" which claims that sex has been repressed in Europe since the Renaissance. For three centuries, the bourgeoisie, characterized by "modern prudishness," "need[ed] to gain mastery over it [sex] in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present." (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 17) A key component to the repressive hypothesis is that the solution to escaping this repression is to talk openly about sex and therefore be liberated from the political restraint of sex. Foucault reasons that the censorship of sex did not "extinguish" any words concerning sex; on the contrary, the act of repression actually created new words.

Even before the age of repression, the government identified perverse sexual acts which deviated from the traditional intended purpose of sex—procreation within marriage. Instances of sex not adhering to this purpose were in violation of the law. Married heterosexual sex "with its regular sexuality, had a right to more discretion," under repression, so the bourgeoisie found alternate sex acts to target and discuss. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 38) Previously same sex sodomy had just been against the law, but then people began examining the reason behind engaging in homosexual sex and identifying characteristics associated with the act. "The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood . . . . nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality . . . it was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature . . . a species," thus a person who committed same sex sodomy was first and foremost classified as a homosexual. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 43) The act of engaging in homosexual sex translated into an identity in order "to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality." (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.44) The discourse was opened was to why people engaged in homosexual sex, and they attacked the question from medicinal, historical, and psychological perspectives. As a homosexual's identity was defined by his sexuality, certain stereotypes for behavior were associated with having homosexual sex and therefore being a homosexual.

In the case of United States law, it is not illegal to be a homosexual. However, the act of engaging in sodomy was outlawed in every state before 1960, and the law was directed at homosexual sex. ( Western religious principles constitute the foundation of American laws and culture, and lawmakers created sex laws based on those found in the Bible: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death." (Leviticus 20:13) The ideals guiding American politics are "the ancient civil or canonical codes" described by Foucault. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 43) And similar to the 19th century French culture, modern American society has created a homosexual identity for those persons committing the aberration of sodomy and the government is intent on confining sodomites to their category.

Contemporary American politics reflects the public's fear of the homosexual identity. The "Thinking Sex" chapter of American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader, Gail Rubin lays out the history of homophobia in the actions of the government in the United States. "Homosexuals were, along with communists, the objects of federal witchhunts and purges," as a result of the accepted image of the homosexual as a disgusting perverse creature out to molest young boys. (Rubin, p. 6) Americans began creating the middle class suburban dream after World War II, and homosexuals did not fit the standard for being a part of the mother and father with two children family living in a split level home located a convenient twenty minutes from the city.

Since they were less likely to find a community of people like themselves in suburban or rural areas, homosexuals migrated to the cities. Gay bars sprung up in urban areas across the nation, and such establishments became targets for the government to shut down homosexuality at the source. "Churches and other antivice forces constantly put pressure on local authorities to contain such areas [with a high concentration of gay establishments], reduce their visibility, or to drive their inhabitants out of town," with gay bar raids being a common "antivice force" of choice in many cities. (Rubin, p. 31) These raids were attempts to control the homosexual lifestyle of sex and drugs perceived as a threat to the ideal American "normal" life.

Stereotypes of the homosexual worsened with the appearance of AIDS in the 1970s. "Gay people find themselves metaphorically welded to an image of lethal physical deterioration," and religious fundamentalists blame acquired immunodeficiency syndrome on the sin of homosexual acts. (Rubin, p. 34) The government relied on its Western religious principles in attempting to prevent the spread of AIDS. As opposed to embracing and funding safe sex education and drug rehabilitation for drug users, legislators focused on associating the disease with a homosexual lifestyle: "Those who are at increased risk for becoming infected with HIV are not eligible to donate blood. According to the Food and Drug Administration, you are at increased risk if: you are a male who has had sex with another male since 1977, even once." ( There are several other criteria listed as putting oneself at risk for contracting HIV, but male homosexual sex is at the top of the list.

In every instance where American society or legislation has attempted to marginalize the homosexual identity, homosexuals have responded by claiming the identity more loudly. The first publicized and documented reclamation came in June of 1969 when gay men and drag queens fought back during a routine police raid of a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. Named after the bar, the "Stonewall Riots" nearly resulted in mass casualties due to the intense anger of the rioters—they had had enough. They wanted an end to the many years and instances of being prevented from the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness just because of their sexual orientation. The first PRIDE was in June of 1970 to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Revolution, and more people attend more PRIDE celebrations every year as new cities join the tradition. Sodomy was still illegal in many states when cities had their first PRIDE marches, but homosexuals united and proudly stood in public to proclaim their same rights to freedom as the rest of Americans.

They have not been alone with their fights for equality. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (1980) and Lambda Legal (1973) are dedicated specifically to protecting the legal rights of America's gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender individuals and communities. HRC and Lambda Legal were created in direct response to legislative attempts to restrict homosexual behavior. The American Civil Liberties Union has legally fought for those people most underrepresented in United States government since 1920 and is nationally respected for its mission of "defending the bill of rights." ( ACLU and Lambda Legal handle court cases concerning same sex marriage and sodomy laws among other issues. In the last twenty years at least ten state supreme courts have invalidated sodomy laws, and in 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws are unconstitutional in the Lawrence v. Texas case. The history of sexuality has resulted in individuals being defined by their sexuality, thus laws against homosexual acts prohibit homosexuals from claiming who they are. Social and legal attempts to restrain the homosexual identity have been met with increasing support and power.


1. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert
Hurley. (New York: Vintage Books, 1980)

2. Rubin, Gayle. American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader. Ed. Linda S.
Kauffman. (Cambridge, Ma: Blackwell, 1993)

3. Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston. Videocassette. Miramax, 1992.

WWW Sources

1)Sodomy Laws, A reference site for the history and current status of sodomy laws in the US and around the world.

2)American Civil Liberties Union ,Website for the organization working to defend the bill of rights.

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