Gay And Lesbian Community Essay, Research Paper
The community I chose to research is the Gay and Lesbian community. I chose to look at this community because, as I meet more and more people in my life, I have found that I come into contact with many Gay and Lesbian people, and to understand their issues, would be beneficial to a social worker. As Berkman and Zinberg (1997), states, social workers are “susceptible to absorbing the explicit and implicit biases held by mainstream society.” I personally feel that the more you learn about other communities, its history and its struggles, it gives us a broader range of understanding and empathy, in which to do our work.
Up until the 1960s, no one questioned the idea that the traditional family was the cornerstone of American society and essential to its very survival. A traditional family was a man and a woman, married to each other, who had children together and reared them in a community full of other such families. A family thirty plus years ago, meant Mom, Dad, the kids, and on holidays, Grandpa, Grandma, aunts, cousins, and in-laws. In those days, a man and a woman didn’t just move into an apartment and live together. Occasionally it would occur, but the practice was not common, and in small town America it almost never happened.
In such a world, then, how were homosexuals regarded?
First, no one thirty years ago thought a lot about homosexuality. It was not a topic that preoccupied the average American. You didn’t hear it discussed on talk shows or depicted in movies. You didn’t see so-called gay pride parades in our major cities. You weren’t bombarded with political pronouncements on the subject. You didn’t have homosexuals militantly proclaiming to the general public the propriety of what they did in the bedroom. Certainly prominent political figures did not announce to the world that they habitually committed homosexual acts and were proud of it.
If someone engaged is such acts, he or she kept the matter to himself or herself, not only because there were laws against homosexual conduct but also because the community at large disapproved of it as much as it disapproved of any kind of abnormal sexual behavior.
Not only did society at large disapprove of a homosexual life style, there were laws prohibiting such conduct. Sexual behavior has always been covered by law, not only in Western society but also in Eastern society. Laws were put into place to protect the very young, who were believed to be susceptible to deliberate corruption of innocence. Statutory rape laws were instituted to protect male children against homosexual conduct, as a hedge against the abuse of youngsters by people of the same sex. Other laws existed to protect society against public flaunting of immoral conduct. The idea was to prohibit the conduct by law, and then you won’t have to be exposed to it in the public arena.
Coming to the end of the 1960s, gay and lesbian groups were springing up across the United States and Canada, jumping from fifteen in 1966 to fifty in 1969 (D’Emilio, 1983). They no longer wanted to define themselves in terms left over to them by the heterosexist opposition; rather, they sought to build a new gay culture where gay people could be free. Civil rights and integration seemed like endless begging for the charity of liberals who conveniently ignored the everyday physical and psychological violence exerted by homophobic society (Adam, 1987).
On the night of Friday 27 June 1969, New York police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall. Bar raids were an American institution-a police rite to “manage the powerless and disrespectable-and in the preceding three weeks, five New York gay bars had already been raided (Adam, 1987). What made the stonewall a symbol of a new era of gay politics was the reaction of the drag queens, dykes, street people, and bar boys who confronted the police first with jeers and then with a hail of coins, paving stones, and parking meters. By the end of the weekend, the Stonewall bar had been burned out, but a new form of collective resistance was afoot: gay liberation.
Gay liberation never thought of itself as a civil rights movement for a particular minority but as a revolutionary struggle to free the homosexuality in everyone, challenging the conventional arrangements that confined sexuality to heterosexual monogamous families (Adam, 1987). Within two years from the Stonewall Rebellion, gay liberation groups emerged in every major city and campus in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe (Dannemeyer, 1989). On three continents, gay movement in the early 1970s developed along a similar course, with parallel Left-oriented gay liberation groups forming along with more liberal civil rights organizations.
From the beginning of gay liberation, lesbians often found themselves vastly outnumbered by men who were, not surprisingly, preoccupied with their own issues and ignorant of the concerns of women. Many women became increasingly frustrated as gay liberation men set up task groups to counter police entrapment, work for sodomy law reform, or organized dances that turned out to be 90 percent male (Dannemeyer, 1989). Men took for granted many of the social conditions that made it possible for them to be gay. But lesbians needed to address fundamental problems facing all women-such as equal opportunity in employment and violence against women-in order to have sufficient independence to become lesbian. Most men had at least the financial independence of wage labor and a well-developed commercial scene to fall back on, whereas many women were struggling to gain a foothold in employment and create places where lesbians could be together. In a movement that was supposed to forward their cause, lesbians grew angry at having to devote time and energy to “reminding” men of their existence. Many lesbians suspected that gay men would be happy to accept the place befitting their sex and class while leaving the system of male domination intact. As Marie Robertson stated to the Canadian National Gay Rights Coalition, “Gay liberation, when we get right down to it, is the struggle for gay men to achieve approval for the only thing that separates them from the ‘Man”—their sexual preference”(Robertson 1982, 177).
The paradox of the 1970s was that gay and lesbian liberation did not produce the gender-free world it envisioned, but faced an unprecedented growth of gay capitalism and a new masculinity. While debates raged inside the movement, the actions of gay liberationists and lesbian feminist entered a larger political field, which transformed and expanded the gay world in unexpected directions.
Another paradoxical outcome of gay liberation was the expansion of the gay ghetto. The success of the movement in beating back state management and repression; gay places allowed for a new generation on businesses oriented to a gay market. Within a decade, every major city in North America and Western Europe had a new range of bars and saunas, restaurants and discos, travel agents and boutiques, lawyers and life insurers, social services and physicians, who catered specifically to a gay clientele (Altman, 1980).
One of these areas is Greenwich Village in New York City, where one can witness openly gay and lesbian people in a setting that is accepting of them and their choices. Take a walk down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue to the West Side Highway and you will encounter every resource that a “normal” neighborhood has. Here, men and women feel free to express themselves in ways that they are comfortable with, without being afraid of oppression or adverse reaction from others who are not approving of the way they are. In the “Village” they are not exposed to insults that makes them feel as a lesser being. Particularly susceptible are youth that are stigmatized as being deviant and delinquent (Herdt, 1989). Even Erik Erikson’s (1968) work on identity and youth makes the deviant image essential to and almost obligatory for understanding gay youth. “Negative identity prevails in the delinquent (addictive, homosexual) youth of our larger cities,” Erikson (1968, 88) argued, because of hostility to family and culture. Only through complete identification with such deviant subcultures can relief from psychopathology be found for “cliques and gangs of young homosexuals, addicts, and social cynics” (176). The need to have a community in which you are accepted for what you are is a universal theme.
As the 1980s began gay and lesbian people were again facing a crises from an entirely unexpected source, with the discovery of a hitherto unknown fatal virus, which by 1985 claimed more than seven thousand lives, three-quarter of whom were gay men (Kayal, 1993). Lesbians, who were swept along in the discriminatory tide that afflicted gay men following identification of the syndrome, were nevertheless spared from the disease itself. That a disease should apparently pick out certain social groups and not to others is no surprise to epidemiologist. The virus apparently responsible for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) flourished in blood and semen, leaving gay men uniquely vulnerable to it through semen transmission from man to man.
AIDS was first brought to broad public consciousness in the summer of 1981. On July 3, the New York Times reported that forty-one American homosexuals were dying from a rare cancer and infectious complications stemming from an unexplainable depression of the immune system.
From the beginning, AIDS was socially constructed along a series of moral oppositions that defined gay men as disease carriers polluting an innocent population. Homosexuality, which had only recently been de-labeled as an illness, became quickly remedicalized, with gay men labeled as responsible for their own plight and thus undeserving of sympathy.
The Christian right was quick to exploit the new opportunity. Jerry Falwell, promoted as an instant expert on the topic by an obliging television network, announced that AIDS was God’s punishment upon homosexuals, called upon people with AIDS to be quarantined (or imprisoned if they had sex with anyone), demanded mandatory blood test for AIDS antibodies and a central file of those testing positive, and urged the closing of gay bathhouses (Body Politic 96, 1983). Rumors began circulating in the gay press that AIDS was a virus developed as a biological weapon by the CIA.
The result of media exposure was the beginning of research funding and the development of a public panic. Medical personnel denied people, who looked gay, services. Funeral directors declined to accept the bodies of people who had died of AIDS. An AIDS-antibody test was developed, and the U.S. military announced that all military personnel would have to take the test and those testing positive would be expelled without benefits. The antibody test instead of helping, only lead to identifying large number of traditionally stigmatized classes of people, initiating a new round of discriminatory practices.
It is a story that is still ongoing. Unrecognized by the larger public are hundreds of stories of individual heroism both of people with AIDS and their supporters—such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), who have struggled to make the idea of gay community a reality and have ministered to the needs of the beleaguered.
The problems of lesbians and gay men living in modern societies will not be simply solved through public education or goodwill. The ongoing task of women and gay people, as well as many other subordinated peoples, can only be to push for the democratization of the communication industry in order to overcome the capitalist or state administration of ideas and to critique media discourses so deeply infused with machoism, militarism, and consumerism. Any group of people seriously interested in social change must consider its place in the larger political context and the potential for coalition with other peripheralized peoples.
I have learned a great deal about the gay and lesbian community and I’m more aware of many of the problems that they face. I know I will not be as judgmental and accusatory towards that community as I was. It is important for a social worker to have these skills and I feel comfortable in saying that I can overlook a persons’ sexual choice and work with them without any qualms.
Adam, Barry. 1987. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement. G. K. Hall & Co. Boston.
Altman, Dennis. 1980. “What changed in the Seventies?” In Homosexuality: Power and Politics, edited by the Gay Left Collective. London: Allison & Busby.
Berkman, Cathy S. & Zinberg, Gail. 1997. Homophobia and Heterosexism in Social Workers. In G. Castex & P. Moore (Ed), Encounters in diversity. A Social Work Reader (78-89). Copley Custom. Massachusetts.
Body Politic 96(1983): 21. Gay Community News 13, no. 3 (1985): 2.
Dannemeyer, Congressman William. 1989. Shadow in the Land, Homosexuality in America. Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
D’Emilio, John. 1983. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Erikson, Eric. 1968. Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W.W. Norton.
Herdt, Gilbert. 1989. Gay and Lesbian Youth, Emergent Identities, and Cultural Scenes at Home and Abroad. In G. Herdt (Ed.), Gay and Lesbian Youth (1-42). Harrington Park Press, Inc. New York.
Kayal, Philip. 1993. Bearing Witness. Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the Politics of AIDS. Westview Press. San Francisco.
Robertson, Marie. 1982. “We Need Our Own Banner.” In Flaunting It! Edited by Ed Jackson and Stan Persky. Vancouver: New Star.