In most American cities and towns, if two openly gay men walk down the street holding hands and show general signs of affection, common among heterosexual couples, they will likely receive remonstrative stares, be viciously derided, and avoided. The homosexual couple has been labeled with a stigma. In other words, their community has changed their attitude and behavior towards homosexuals because, for whatever reason, they believe that homosexuality is wrong. Also included in the stigma is the fact that the two men will feel differently about themselves because of how they are treated by mainstream society. The stigma is the result of the fact that society treats homosexual behavior as being deviant, or against the norms of society. Deviancy is divided into two separate categories. Primary deviance is the initial act of breaking a societal norm or rule, which can lead to the offender being labeled as being “deviant.” This label will in turn change the opinions people have about a person, simply because of the label. Secondary deviance is the continued act of breaking the social norm because of the expectations of your behavior developed by other people based on your label.
In 1976, Ronald Farrell and James Nelson created a model in which they used homosexuality as their key example of secondary deviance. In their model, they claim that once people who are gay are perceived as being homosexual, they will be seen differently by other people and in turn incorporate their homosexuality into their “self definition”. They then think that they will be placed into a deviant role and will experience stress and the negative consequences of being part of the stigma associated with homosexuality. Farrell and Nelson then argue that the person will adapt and shift their associations to be with other homosexuals or people who have experienced being labeled in the same stigma. They will then supposedly, because of their homosexual association and “self definition”, become secondary deviants. They confirmed their study by using a sample of 148 homosexual men. Their results seem to be consistent with their theory that homosexuality is an example of secondary deviance.
While their results were consistent with their hypothesis, their study seems to neglect the nature of homosexuality. Dr. Patrick L. Cooney argues that homosexuality is different because it is a condition which one is born into and not a deliberate act. There is also not any way to stop the “deviant” behavior of homosexuality because it is not a choice. Because of this, homosexuality is not a clear example of secondary deviance. While it is, at least in modern American society, considered “deviant,” at least in the primary sense and there is a stigma associated with it, there is not a clear connection that forces homosexuals to a state of secondary deviance, as argued by Farrell and Nelson. Secondary deviance would require all homosexuals to include their sexuality in how they self-identify and change their actions based on the expectations of other people. While homosexuality may be an important part of the identity of a gay person, it is by no means the sole determinant in their associations and behavior. Today, many gay people will not engage in behavior that might be traditionally expected of them by mainstream American culture; believe it or not, all openly gay people do not automatically enjoy attending gay pride parades and festivals. They may instead feel that they do not need to flaunt their sexual orientation to the world because it is not an important part of their “self identity”. The lack of conformation to the societal expectations held for gay people show that there is a lack of secondary deviance because their actions are not affected by the expectations held for them. Yet even with a lack of secondary deviance, there is still a stigma associated with homosexuality. The stigma is not true for society as a whole, but there are some conservative portions of society that still consider it to be a deviant action. This stigma will probably not last forever, though, because of the progressive growth of the portion of society that does accept homosexuality.
Positive changes are already being made, with the tolerance for homosexuality being rather high on most college campuses and in other liberal countries, including Canada, where gay marriage is legal. In addition, the newly elected Prime Minister of Iceland is openly lesbian, evidence of changing attitudes towards homosexuals and the shedding of their deviant label.
Questions to think about:
Will homosexuality ever be completely accepted in mainstream Western culture?
If so, what will its status be in more conservative countries such as Iran or China?
By Josh Berman and Michael Lowes