The Comparative Sociology of Homosexualities

Stephen O Murray. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Comparison requires at least a tentative sense of a phenomenon with sufficiently recurrent instances to make categorization heuristic. Sociologists often abstract entities (such as capitalism, a scientific paradigm, or the Protestant ethic), processes (such as revolution, migration, or urbanization), and attributes (such as class and class-consciousness) that are not directly observable. We routinely compare concentrations and exercises of ‘power’ despite considerable disagreement about what exactly ‘power’ is and about whether its exercise increases or reduces it. ‘Resources,’ and, even more so, instances of ‘resource mobilization’ are open to debate in the discourse about ‘social movements.’ No less than ‘revolution,’ ‘homosexuality’ is an abstraction. In both cases, some of the persons regarded by observers as participating in this category define what they are doing as ‘revolution’ or ‘homosexuality,’ while some others deny that what they are doing is ‘revolution’ or ‘homosexuality.’ Many others do not think about distinguishing what they are doing as fitting the category, or contest the label if they encounter it being applied to them.

Many terms in human languages have more than one precise referent (this is called polysemy). One of the sillier of Michel Foucault’s pronouncements was that ‘sodomy’ in western Christendom was an ‘utterly confused category.’ In fact, its prototypical reference was to placing a human penis in a human anus; putting a human penis into a non-human vagina or anus followed the logic of (in)appropriateness, as did the far-from-universal extension to oral-genital contact. Whether particular behavior was an instance of the category ‘sodomy’ was often argued in court, but the core meaning and the prototypical behavior that established instances of the category were anal penetration with emission.

Contrary to Foucault’s surmise (it certainly was not based on comparative research!), ‘sodomite’ preceded ‘sodomy’ in European discourse (i.e., the realm in which he was primarily interested) (see Jordan, 1997). A person with a penchant for committing the act of sodomy was widely conceived by confessors. If someone confessed to the Inquisition (or to Florence’s Ufficiali di Notte), the focus was not on a particular act (‘that anyone might commit’). The focus was on a pattern and on the network of partners and procurers.

Behavior, Conduct, Orientation

‘Sexual orientation’ is a modern locution, although ‘unmodern’ and ‘premodern’ people also have noticed patterns of desire as well as patterns of behavior. ‘Homosexual orientation’ is analytically distinct from ‘homosexual behavior,’ the latter being in principle observable, the former is almost always an inference. It seems fairly obvious that there can be orientations without physical consummation. ‘Gay virgin’ is a conception that makes sense in contemporary gay North America, and most gay men include those who identify as gay, but who have never had same-sex sex, as part of ‘gay community’ (Murray, 1981, 1996: 204-5).

‘Homosexuality’ sometimes refers to a sexual orientation, sometimes to behavior, i.e., to a sexual act between persons of the same sex. One cannot infer sexual desire from sexual behavior. As Simon (1996: 72) put it, ‘The complexity of motivations to engage in sexual behavior remind us that the desire for sex is rarely, if ever, in the exclusive control of “sexual desire”.’

In that coercion may be subtle, one cannot be sure that sexual contact is chosen and, therefore, is an indication of desire. Economic gain is a common motivation distinct from desire, and not only for those directly exchanging sex for money (prostitutes). Although I have expressed skepticism for what I call ‘the blind phallus reverie’ (‘it doesn’t matter where we put it, as long as we get off’) of men who do not identify as gay/homosexual (Murray, 1987: 196), it is very clear that many sexual acts between persons of the same biological sex occur without one (or more) being regarded as ‘homosexual.’

In general, sociologists are uncomfortable with the psychologistic inference of an ‘orientation.’ Moreover, there is extremely little evidence for scholars to compare subjective orientations to their sexual desires (or behavior) of those engaged in even recurrent same-sex sexual relations in other societies than post-World War II North America and Northwestern Europe. Although American sociologists may sometimes study behavior, the category intermediate between acts and orientations that we favor is ‘conduct.’ Gagnon and Simon (1967) influentially deployed the classic Chicago school distinction between ‘behavior’ and a recurrent pattern of behavior, ‘conduct.’ It is recurrence, not approximation of any ideal essence, some ‘right way’ of enacting ‘homosexuality,’ that is used to distinguish ‘conduct’ from ‘behavior.’ The patterning may not be consciously recognized. Unfortunately, no clear threshold number exists for deciding how much behavior constitutes a pattern of ‘conduct.’ Moreover, analysts are not altogether free of the common-sense view that patterns are recognized by those engaging in recurrent behavior (e.g., that a man who goes to a bar or park every week and has sex with one or more men whom he meets there realizes he is looking for sex at least to an extent sufficient to go there). Still, the conception of ‘homosexual conduct’ excludes those who tried same-sex sex once or for a brief span of time, then ceased. What they did once or for a while can still be considered ‘homosexuality,’ but the conception of ‘conduct’ allows us to leave aside questions about whether this or that person is or was ‘a homosexual,’ has become an ‘ex-homosexual,’ etc. We (comparativist sociologists—in contrast to some psychologists and others, such as the geneticist oncologist Dean Hamer) do not claim to know what the ‘sexual orientations’ are—even of those we directly observe, let alone those of individuals mentioned in forensic, historical, travel, or ethnographic literatures from other times and places.

Along with ‘conduct’ as a concept not making assumptions about inner ‘orientations,’ another concept from the standard sociological armory is that of ‘role.’ Its usefulness was beclouded by the Parsonian synthesis during the 1950s of Durkheimian and notably ethnocentric neo-Freudian theories of ‘deviance,’2 and the very Parsonian positing of a singular ‘homosexual role’ in McIntosh’s eventually famous 1961 article. In many societies—including the USA of the late 1950s—there are/were ‘homosexual roles.’ These include occupational roles with concentrations of those who openly pursue or are presumed to pursue same-sex sex, roles played within couples at home and in lesbigay settings (e.g., butch-femme), sexual roles (‘top’/’bottom,’ activo/pasivo), and, in many times and places, roles that involve presenting a gender other than the one conventional for the person’s (natal/ genital/chromosomal) sex.

Even from these examples, one might wonder how useful the notion ‘role’ could be. Among the reasons I think it is useful are (1) everyone plays multiple roles every day, so that ‘homosexual roles’ and even a role as a ‘homosexual’ are not the totality of personhood, and (2) over time the actor (the individual) may be cast or cast herself/ himself in new roles and drop old roles from his/her repertoire. The second of these is particularly crucial for the insertee role of younger partner in age-stratified homosexual relations (pages, acolytes, boy-actors, boy-wives, initiates of either sex). Some of those playing such roles desire penetration, and some prefer (are ‘oriented toward’) same-sex sex sexual partners (see Herdt, 1981: 252), but (in role theorizing) saying that someone played such a role does not imply that s/he is a ‘homosexual’ or has a ‘homosexual orientation.’ Similarly, in regard to the first, we need not presuppose that someone who plays homosexual sexual roles does not also play heterosexual ones. A vocabulary of roles removes any need to try to establish if someone is ‘really’ a ‘homosexual,’ or is a ‘heterosexual’ dallying with same-sex partners, or is a ‘bisexual,’ or whether a person has primary bisexual or heterosexual or homosexual ‘orientation.’ Put another way, comparing roles avoids claiming either that ‘homosexual’ (‘homosexuality’) has an ontological status, or that it has no ontological status, universally or in a particular society—or even within a particular psyche. This allows us to get on with the task of comparing what the roles are in different societies, how rare or common performances of particular roles are in this and that society, etc.

Most of the comparisons of homosexualities across time and space rely on documentation recorded by nonparticipants (see Bleys, 1995; Murray, 1999a). Most of them have been censorious, and even much of what was recorded by participants was intended to camouflage the authors as properly censorious, shocked, and appalled recorders of such socially stigmatized conduct. Comparisons of subjectivities about same-sex sexualities are tenuous even across races in the contemporary United States. Even with the seemingly large amount of writing about homosexuality, there is very little at-all-systematic sampling of the population about the meanings of same-sex sex.

Systematic comparison across space and time of homosexual inwardnesses is almost entirely conjectural. What we know something about are sociocultural forms, so we compare roles and conduct, usually including whatever information about desire and orientation is available—which usually is not much. Even if individuals’ motivations are knowable in principle (a proposition many sociologists find dubious), they are not knowable from the kind of records available for comparativists to use.

Given the paucity of funding for research on the meanings of same-sex sex (i.e., on the subjectivities of those who engage to varying extents in same-sex sexual conduct), I cannot foresee the accumulation of the body of data necessary for serious comparative work of homosexual inwardnesses. Although I can fantasize about working with such data, I am interested in sociocultural forms. For me, comparing forms (both of homosexualities and of other social patterns) is not just making a virtue of necessity, but a project of consuming interest.

Geographical Patterning

Recognizing that all human categories are at least somewhat fuzzy does not mean that any particular category is heuristic. It seems to me that there are several matters in which ‘homosexuality’ is heuristic. One might be interested in contrasting rates of homosexual behavior from locality to locality (whether the unit is neighborhood, state, or even cultural area). The pioneering comparative work, the ‘Terminal essay’ to Richard Burton’s multi-volume translation of The Arabian Nights (1886) postulated a geographic swath, what he called the ‘sotadic zone,’ in which male-male sexuality was more common than in more temperate regions. There was no reliable data on rates of behavior on which Burton could draw for such comparisons, and there still are not.

After Burton, there have been comparisons of different homosexual patterns within regions, e.g., Herdt (1984) on Melanesia, Murray (1987, 1995a) on Latin America; Roscoe (1998) on Native North America; Murray and Roscoe (1997) on the Abode of Islam, Murray and Roscoe (1998) on Sub-Saharan Africa, though only the first and last of these have any focus on geographical patterning within the region discussed. None of these focus on differing rates of same-sex sexual behavior or different percentages of participants on particular sociocultural roles.

Two pioneering works of considerable erudition, psychoanalyst Wainwright Churchill’s (1967) Homosexual Behavior Among Males and historian Vern Bullough’s (1976) Sexual Variance in Society and History focus on what seems to me a dependent variable without much variance: sex-negativity of societies. Bullough reviews material on masturbation and what would now be labeled transgendered roles, in addition to homosexuality in ancient (Jewish, Greek, Roman), Islamic, Chinese, and Hindu civilizations. Churchill relied heavily on Kinsey, while also discussing ancient Greece and Rome and (then-)contemporary Americans and southern Europeans. Their considerable accomplishments have been forgotten, as decidedly less erudite works, notably Foucault (1980), have become foundational to historical gay and lesbian studies.

Forms of Homosexual Relationships

Instead of geographical patterning, one might be interested, instead, in what is the dominant cultural conception and social organization of same-sex sex in different societies, and what correlates between social organization of same-sex sex and other sociocultural patterns that exist.

The first thing to note is that same-sex sexuality in many times and places has not involved one person visibly differing from the appearance and demeanor expected of a person of that sex in that society. Although gender variants are particularly visible and, therefore, likely to be reported by ethnographers and other kinds of travelers, there is a great deal of homosexual conduct not involving a gender-variant person.

A distinction between same-sex sexual relationships in which the partners differed in age from each other or differed in gender presentation is implicit in Burton (1886). Whether there are status differences between same-sex sexual partners and what the salient (within a society) status that differs is has been my own particular interest, and I shall discuss it further below.

In a number of societies, people have felt that sexual desire for persons of the same sex is an important shared feature and/or that such persons deserve contempt and should be proscribed from acting on same-sex desire and should be punished if they do it. Such beliefs provide not just a basis, but a need to band together and fight against cultural stigmatization and institutionalized persecution what the state (and/or others able to limit life chances) treat as a kind of person (‘homosexuals’ and various local labels for those with recurrent same-sex sexual desire). Whether ‘the homosexual’ has any ontological status, laws against sodomy etc. continue to exist, and to provide an umbrella to justify employment discrimination against those thought to be ‘homosexual,’ to take away custody of children from ‘homosexuals,’ etc.

The construction in particular societies of a pathological ‘homosexual’ criminal is the primary focus of a vast constructionist literature, most notably David Greenberg’s magisterial (1988) book The Construction of Homosexuality. The focus in this line of work is not (primarily) on how those who engage in same-sex sex conceive themselves and organize their lives, but on how legislators (using the term broadly to include councils of tribal elders) conceive nonconformity to gender norms and to ‘sexual object choice’ of persons of the same sex. There are marked variations not only in the existence of sanctions against each of these kinds of anomalies but in whether being born with the genitalia of one sex or the other is more important than gender. That is, what from the outside appears to be heterogender homosexuality may be regarded and treated by a particular people as ‘heterosexual’ insofar as a masculine human is penetrating a feminine human, disregarding their genitalia. Transformed shamans in Siberia are the prototype of this (see Murray, 1992: 293-352, 2000: 314-26).

Relatively few of the imaginable structurings by the relative status of partners in same-sex sex occur in the vast panorama of known societies. This is surprising, given the tradition of anthropologists and other travelers of stressing ‘exotic’ differences and the tendency not to bother mentioning what is familiar. There are not hundreds or even dozens of different social organizations of same-sex sexual relations in human societies (Murray, 1984: 19-21). As for other cultural domains, only a few categorization systems recur across space and time.

Barry Adam (1979, 1986) proposed a fourfold typology of social structurings of homosexuality: (1) age-structured; (2) gender-defined; (3) profession-defined; and (4) egalitarian/’gay’ relations. Two years earlier, historian Randolph Trumbach (1977) demarcated the age/gender distinction, and in subsequent publications has stressed a revolution from age-structured to gender role-structured homosexuality, but Adam told me that he was unaware of Trumbach’s (1977) paper in 1979. Similarly, Trumbach told me that he was unaware of Geoffrey Gorer’s earlier age/gender dichotomy, which, in turn, seems to me to derive from the implicit distinction in Richard Burton’s ‘Terminal essay’ (first printed privately in 1886). Herdt (1987) labeled the second type ‘gender reversed’ and the third ‘role specialized’ (religious or social role). Greenberg (1988) and Murray (1992) dropped a distinct occupationally-defined type, Greenberg adding class-structured. Roscoe (1997: 55) suggested ‘status-defined’ to include differences between partners in age or in class. It seems to me that one could include gender as a ‘status’ and counterpoise ‘status-differentiated’ with the ‘modern gay’ kind of homosexuality in which sexual and domestic roles are not stratified by status differences (although Carrington [1999] shows less than perfect fit between egalitarian ideology and everyday divisions of labor in gay and lesbian households).

While relationships structured by differences in age, gender, class, or occupation, and by more-or-less egalitarian comradeship may coexist in a single society, one of them tends to be more visible ‘on the ground,’ both among those who are native to the society and in explanation to aliens who ask about same-sex sexual relations. For instance, age-graded male homosexuality was the most-valued and only respected form across ancient Greece. Gender-defined and comradely homosexuality also occurred, and at least the former was labeled—with a term for such a kind of person, kinaidos (Winkler, 1990: 45-54). Similarly, many indigenous North American peoples had terms for a gender-variant role labeled by alien observers ‘berdache.’ They had no labels for males who were masculine by their culture’s standards, did male work, and had sexual relationships with other males, or for females who were feminine by their culture’s standards and had sexual relationships with other females.

Always and everywhere, there is intracultural (and intrapsychic) diversity. There is a range of homosexualities in a single society, and the dominant discourse of the predominant sexual ideology (‘sexual culture’) may occlude but does not preclude different kinds of relationships. Even one person may understand the same behavior differently on different occasions with different partners, or even with the same partner. As Adam explained:

Any single set of cultural institutions never completely contains the full range of human experience and innovation. Social coding practices may be uneven, incomplete, or in transition. Even if sexuality has a culturally specific and internally coherent complex of meanings, and even if culture (in the singular) could be shown to channel desires, there remains a larger universe of experience, maladjustment, and emigrations from prescribed interpretive frameworks. Moreover, the dominant sexual codes of one place take on subterranean aspects elsewhere as a ‘little tradition.’ (1986: 20)

A role category may be variously interpreted and lived by individuals within a society. Over time, shared new meanings may move even the cultural categories. Also traditions that are overshadowed (by dominant discourses) may nonetheless persist, as, for instance, age-stratified and gender-stratified homosexualities do in current-day Amsterdam and San Francisco.

Beyond his explication of the age-structured type (Adam, 1986), Adam has not elaborated on his typology. Greenberg (1988) and Trumbach (1985 et seq.) have stressed a unilinear evolution from age-structured to gender-structured (and from gender-structured to modern/gay in Greenberg) while mostly disregarding intra-cultural variability and the simultaneity of different structurings of same-sex sexual relations in particular places and times. The rapidly proliferating genre of detailed local histories (of which Chauncey [1994] is the most distinguished exemplar) has documented some variability within a more modulated but hardly more multilinear evolution from gendered to gay homosexuality.

My own work has examined homosexual roles around the world and across time (insofar as data are available). After books on Latin America, an extended Oceania, and the Abode of Islam (Murray, 1987 and 1995a; 1992; Murray and Roscoe, 1997), I more systematically correlated the presence of types of male and of female homosexuality in records of ‘tribal’ African societies with other sociocultural patterns, using Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) codings of these latter (Murray, 1998). I then extended this correlational (very explicitly not causal!) analysis to a world sample (Murray, 2000: 420-40). The geographically organized surveys had showed that there were ‘premodern’ instances of female and male homosexuality not involving status differences, so that egalitarian homosexuality was not impossible before industrial capitalism, the lynchpin of ‘modernity.’ The organization of cases in Homosexualities (Murray, 2000) emphasized that each of the main types (age-stratified, gender role-stratified, not stratified by status differences) occurred in societies varying considerably in scale and technological development.

Some of the patternings that emerged are:

  • Societies with gender-stratified male homosexuality were twice as likely to have matrilineal inheritance than the world average.
  • Inheritance in societies with age-stratified male or female homosexuality were markedly more patrilineal than in regional and global rates of patrilinearity.
  • There is no apparent difference in primary means of subsistence correlating with the different types of homosexuality, male or female.
  • Greater female participation in making a living does not co-occur with gendered male or female homosexuality more often than with age-stratified or non-status-stratified homosexualities.
  • In societies in which boys are freest to engage in sex with girls, they also more freely—or, at least, more visibly—have sex with each other (contrary to claims about ‘deprivation’ or heterosexual ’outlets’ explaining homosexual sexual activity).
  • Societies with egalitarian male homosexuality have longer post-partum sex taboos than do societies with age- or gender-stratified male homosexuality.
  • Relatively egalitarian societies are more likely to have male homosexual relations not structured by differences in age or gender status.

Comparing male and female patternings, the correlates of gender-stratified female and gender-stratified male homosexualities turned out to be quite similar, and the correlates for age-stratified homosexuality are fairly similar. However, such (premodern) egalitarian female-homosexuality as has been attested occurs in quite different kinds of societies than those in which egalitarian male homosexuality has been attested, specifically in those that are in other ways less egalitarian.

The differences in this correlational exercise were attenuated by the occurrence of more than one type in the records about particular societies. Moreover, the extent to which ‘traditional’ social patterns have survived ‘globalization’ is certainly open to question, although it seems to me that the ‘modern gay’ conception and organization of homosexuality have not swept away heterogendered homosexuality in the places I have studied directly (Mesoamerica, Thailand, Indonesia). I have argued that in most contemporary societies, gay is known and used by some as a label for ‘modern,’ egalitarian homosexuality, challenging traditional stigmatization of a gender-variant partner in homosexual relations. Nevertheless, outside Anglophone North America, the new container gay recurrently has been filled with old negative connotations of sexual receptivity and effeminacy. That is, what has occurred is relexification, substituting a new label for a traditional schemata rather than challenge to and transformation of the stigma of homosexuality (Murray, 1995c, 2000; 393-414).

Comparing National Lesbigay Movements, Inducing Prerequisites

Challenges to traditional stigmas have, nonetheless, occurred. Barry Adam has also pioneered the comparison of lesbigay movements. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement (Adam, 1987, 1995) provides an overview of organized lesbigay resistance and politicking focused on the USA and Canada, but also discussing European and Latin American groups. In 1999 he co-edited a collection of accounts of movements in Brazil, Argentina, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Japan, and South Africa, as well as in ‘first world’ countries.

Adam et al. (1999: 344) concluded that a prerequisite of any lesbigay political organizing is the existence of some social space (beyond private-party networks and cruising sites) in which people can develop gay and lesbian identities. Both protecting and enlarging the range of these spaces are recurrent goals of lesbigay politics.

In the United States, and to a considerable extent elsewhere, shifts from agriculture to manufacturing and service occupations allowed men and women who were relatively detached from (or seeking to become autonomous from) their families to make a living outside family control and, often, even beyond family capacity to help secure employment. At least in the eastern United States, the service sector began to grow in the 1830s with the railroad system. Banks and corporate headquarters provided occupational slots, e.g., for ‘ribbon clerks.’ In the twentieth century, the growing welfare state required new kinds of white-collar and pink-collar employees at the same time that blue-collar jobs (handling ocean freight and manufacturing) became increasingly scarce. The growth and florescence of San Francisco gay culture, in particular, occurred simultaneously with the rapid growth of San Francisco’s downtown office space and the virtual end of manufacturing and of handling ocean freight in San Francisco. The shift of jobs to the service sector is a long-term trend, which gained momentum in the 1950s, and still continues in cities around the world.

Dependence upon and residence with families preclude the development of lesbigay neighborhoods and is a considerable obstacle to the formation of lesbigay consciousness, culture and community as these have developed in Anglo North America. The welfare state’s takeover of insurance against disaster—the ‘safety net’ function of the family—has facilitated (however inadvertently!) the development of more extensive and more intensive relationships outside family circles. Among these are the possibilities of same-sex couples living together and clustering of persons with shared or similar sexual orientations into gay communities in North America.

However, in much of the world, the family retains economic functions. The family as a production unit exists to a considerable extent in African, Asian, Latin American and Pacific societies, especially in rural areas. Even urban families that are not production units provide social security in countries far from being welfare states. In societies experienced by most of their inhabitants as capricious and heartless, the family provides more than merely psychological shelter. Someone who is struck down by illness or injury with no family to support him or her, will be reduced to begging in the streets. Examples of this horrific danger are readily visible, so individuals cannot, and had better not, take for granted minimum security being supplied against disability, as citizens of welfare states have. Total dependence on families (both of birth and of marriage) makes political, sexual, and social relationships with non-family members relatively unimportant (Khan, 1997).

In many places, revelation of homosexuality is a basis for expulsion from the home and the economic as well as psychological security provided by the family. Many males involved in homosexual liaisons in many places cultivate family relations to a greater extent than do those who can take them for granted. In some cases, they exercise the right of males who have reached sexual maturity to come and go from home at will (literally ‘without question’) less than do their brothers.

Moreover, taking prospective sexual partners to where one lives is rarely possible for people who live in extended-family households, especially when the whole family sleeps in one room. In such commercial institutions as do exist for lesbian or gay male sociation, admission prices are prohibitive to many. Most men who would like to go regularly to these places must save money for the special occasion of a visit (see Whitam, 1987: 29; Green, 1999a).

The seeming ‘tolerance’ for homosexual behavior in some places in which such behavior is not illegal, so long as it does not become too consuming an interest or passion, and so long as it does not involve public gender deviance is far from acceptance of homosexual relations as being equal to or as important as procreative/ familial relationships. In regards to the tolerance for discreet homosexuality (or other forms of sexual pleasure) as long as family obligations (of which reproduction is the paramount one) are fulfilled, Khan (1997) wrote of the impossibility of gay life in Pakistan:

Families are like organisms that extend themselves by absorbing their young, and grow stronger or weaker based on the contributions of the new entrants. This is not just one model of life in Pakistan; it is not a choice; it is the only way of life … If a husband takes care of his family’s security needs and produces many children, what he does for personal sexual satisfaction is quite irrelevant—and so long as it is kept a private matter—tolerated … The most successful gay relationships in Karachi are quiet and heavily compromised. They are almost never the most important relationship for either partner; the family occupies that position.

With only a sketchy identity as a person distinct from the identity as a member of a family, having a ‘sexual identity’ and/or building an ‘alternative lifestyle’ are literally inconceivable to many, even in urban centres.

Against a background of increasing wage labor outside family and/or feudal enterprises (particularly agricultural ones), association outside work is more a matter of individual choice. Lesbian and gay networks can increase in density and importance more easily when the family is not the only way of life. Dense, multiplex networks make identity more plausible.

Still, gay consciousness is no more automatic a product of homosexual behavior than class-consciousness is of ‘objective class position’ or ethnic consciousness of genealogy. Not all the persons with a characteristic consider themselves defined in any way by it, and some deny it altogether. The existence and importance of a characteristic must be realized if there is to be a consciousness of kind: characteristics are only potential bases, and if they are not publicly affirmed, they are tenuous bases. The public conflation of homosexuality with gender deviance, often the only kind of public discourse about homosexuality, makes it difficult and unpleasant to develop any conscious identification with ‘that kind’ even for those fully aware of sexually desired partners of their own sex. As was said in reference to the United States of the early 1960s, ‘In a world in which one is rewarded for concealment and submission, it would be difficult to expect the reverse’ (Cory and LeRoy, 1963: 213).

It is clear that same-sex sexual conduct does not automatically produce a sense of commonality or peoplehood. Cruising areas and social networks of homosexually-inclined men partying together exist and have existed with varying degrees of visibility in cities everywhere, while a sense of belonging to a community of those whose identity is based on shared sexual preferences has not. Something more than sexual acts in ‘the city of night’ is needed to provide a conception of a shared fate. Being harassed, beaten, or robbed by the police or by others is an experience had by many males and more than a few females seeking or engaging in same-sex sexual relationships (enduring or transient ones). Some men in Los Angeles in the late 1940s organized against police incursions, but similar depredations were (and are) conceived as ‘normal’ risks or even as deserved punishment by many people in many places today. For political mobilization to occur requires a combination of some sense of a kind of person and a sense that such persons should be treated better than they currently are.

The modern ‘gay’ identity is conducive to such mobilization, but the early European and American movements began with conceptions that in retrospect acquiesced to dominant cultural conceptions of inferiority and deviance. In present-day societies with similar equation and derogation of recurrent homosexuality as a reflex of gender deviance, knowledge of the existence of western ‘gay’ self-presentation and self-acceptance is available. It is less difficult to believe that ‘things have to be this way’ even if the ‘gay’ way is not readily visible in one’s immediate vicinity. There is certainly emulation, particularly of American ways. One indicator is the choice of American place-names for gay bars and clubs in other countries. There is also a flow of persons with some experience of American lesbigay lifeways (both American visitors to other countries and returning natives who have gone to school or visited America for other reasons). In 2002, commonality of conventionally gendered persons who love and have sex with other persons of the same sex is easier to think in say, Timbuktu, than it was in 1945 in California or France.

Explicit challenges to the legitimacy of social arrangements (of which targeting for extortion and violence those who are involved in same-sex sexual relationships is frequently one) cannot be made where political censorship is vigilant and generally accepted as being legitimate. However, the diffusion of Internet communication has allowed reports of negative action to be reported quickly and internationally and for texts and images of modern ‘gay’ homosexuality to reach even remote locations. Copies of videotapes of sex between masculine males has shown people in many places with stereotypically heterogender homosexuality another way of acting, one that has the prestige of coming from affluent northern Europe and the USA. Globalization of ‘safe sex’ campaigns (often pushing condoms manufactured in the USA) also has disseminated conceptions of ‘modern’ homosexuality (in particular by preaching responsibility that is shared by insertors and insertee for reducing possibilities of HIV-transmission).

Conceiving that the existing reality is (1) intolerable and (2) changeable is necessary for the formation of a social movement of any sort. Undoubtedly the Kinsey data and the example of the civil rights movement encouraged the early homophile movement in the United States to begin to think about the number of potential recruits and about the possibility of challenging discrimination. Similarly, black nationalist and feminist movements later inspired American and other lesbigay movements making more self-affirming, less cringingly defensive demands to end discrimination in a widening range of domains (first law enforcement, then employment and housing, more recently, marriage and military service). Similarly, in South Africa the anti-apartheid movement’s rhetoric of human rights for all provided a rationale for including sexual orientation among the categories protected by its new legal system. In South Africa, as in the USA, some of the persons who were active in fighting for black rights were gay and moved directly on to advocating for gay rights. The new (1996) South African constitution’s bill of rights banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and South African courts have been following this logic to ensure legal equality for same-sex committed relationships.

The formation of a critical mass of people who viewed themselves as defined to some extent by homosexual desires was the central precondition for mobilization everywhere there has been some mobilization. The feasibility of better treatment and less abject status was itself disproportionately facilitated by even tiny organizations making even equivocal challenges to the legitimacy of the dominant society’s picture of homosexuals.

As the famous experiments of Solomon Asch (1958) show, one person perceiving himself or herself to be the only one opposed to the view of others is unlikely to express dissent. Realizing that even one other person also opposes the consensus greatly increases the likelihood of enunciating contrary views. Two is perhaps the most critical number, enabling the first alliance, but two people cannot create a full range of alternative institutions. Although we are not sure of exactly what number constitutes the threshold,

arrival at certain critical levels of size enables a social subsystem to create and support institutions which structure, envelop, protect, and foster its subculture. These institutions (e.g., dress styles, newspapers, associations) establish sources of authority and points of congregation and delimit social boundaries. In addition to the simple fact of the numbers themselves, they make possible and encourage keeping social ties within the group. (Fischer, 1975: 1325-26, 1329)

Fischer (1975) argued for the importance of absolute numbers in arguing that the greater the concentration of people, the higher the rate of unconventionality, the greater the subcultural variety, the more intense the subcultures in conflict and competition with others, and, therefore, the greater the likelihood of collective action on behalf of the subculture. He marshaled evidence from a variety of countries showing that city size ‘increases or at least maintains the cohesion and identity of ethnic subcultures—in spite of all the disorganizing aspects of urbanization, such as migration, economic change, and [the ready availability of] alternative subcultures’ (ibid.: 133). New subcultural institutions are possible with increases and concentrations of persons identifying with some particular oppositional characteristic.

Two of the conditions Weber (1978: 305) identified as increasing the likely success of class-conscious organization are the existence of a large number of persons in the same situation and their geographic concentration. In Anglo North America the congregation into ‘gay ghettoes’ facilitated homophile and gay mobilizations after World War II (Murray, 1984: 17). Such residential concentration of homosexually-inclined men is precluded where the unmarried males continue to live at home.

The specific pattern of historical development of gay communities in Anglo North America need not be assumed to constitute the only possible route to gay solidarity. Residential concentration may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for lesbigay identify formation or political mobilization. Residential concentration seems less in the ‘gay Meccas’ of Europe and Asia, Amsterdam and Bangkok, than in North American gay ghettoes. Even if dispersed, number is important, however. Especially for groups that receive no media attention, social networks are a vital basis for social movement mobilization (Snow et al., 1980). D’Emilio (1983) shows that at a time during which favorable publicity was unthinkable, the early Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis drew their members from pre-existing social networks. This pattern has been repeated in West Pacific South-East and South Asian, and Latin American instances (e.g., see Green, 1999a, b, Lunsing, 1999).

The formation of a critical mass of people viewing themselves as defined to some extent by homosexual desires was the central precondition for change in the USA and other western societies. It was facilitated quite out of proportion to the size of the organizations that challenged the legitimacy of the dominant society’s policing of homosexual sociation.

Other cultural factors important to what the critical mass did after coming together in the instance of the American gay/lesbian movement include the American tradition of printing dissident views and (some, at least nominal) valuing of freedom of expression. This is a value missing everywhere else in the western hemisphere; not that the value was sufficient in itself for extension to the homophile press without fight in the courts before the US Supreme Court ordered the US Post Office to cease blocking as ‘obscence’ anything about homosexuality. Also important to the development of American gay movement(s) is the tradition of voluntary associations deriving from the religious pluralism of the United States.

Some repression against which to mobilize is a prerequisite to politicalization (Adam et al., 1999). In a sense, some repression is good for organizing, though this is a good of which it is easy to get too much, making activism excessively high risk and even lethal (as in most Mesoamerican countries). Moreover, what is good for crystallizing a movement is generally not good for those living in a society, whatever one may think of the value of forging oppositional identities.


Although, the lengthy preceding section is based on comparative studies of gay/lesbian movements in different countries, it focuses on cultural particularities that seem to be importantly related to the emergence of the largest and most vociferous (though seemingly not the most successful) movement for gay/lesbian equality. Much more detailed comparison of tactics and of the resources that have been mobilized in different organizations in different places remains to be done. In this chapter, I stressed the intra-cultural variation in regard to types of homosexual relationships. Intranational variation in types, degree, success, etc. of gay/lesbian movements also needs to be addressed—or at least remembered.

Although comparison of national/social patterns is central to the Marx/Weber/ Durkheim ‘grand tradition’ of sociology, comparative sociology of homosexualities is in an infancy of trying to establish enough reliable data to compare patterns, whether patterns of behaviors, of roles, of structural differentiations, or of sociopolitical mobilization. More and better data are needed to advance beyond the kinds of generalizations reviewed here, especially to begin to account for intrasocietal differences and for the lived experiences even of those following the most common script for same-sex sexuality in a particular time and place.