Homosexuals as Deviants in American Society

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?

Additional reading:
A Causal Model of Secondary Deviance: The Case of Homosexuality

A Non-Moralist Approach to Deviancy

Conformity and Deviance

By Josh Berman and Michael Lowes


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9 responses to “Homosexuals as Deviants in American Society

  1. 03nicoleberkowitz

    I disagree with your argument that modern American society considers homosexuality “deviant.” While there is still discrimination against homosexuals in America, as a whole the country is making progress towards acceptance. Gay marriage is now legal in many states, and it is illegal for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. I think that over time, these laws will become obsolete as the gay community is more fully incorporated into mainstream American society, similar to other minorities. For example, when the Irish first came to America, they faced discrimination similar to those that homosexuals have begun to overcome. Many employers refused to hire Irish employees or let them shop in their stores. Today, no one cares whether you are Irish or not; the Irish community has been completely immersed in mainstream society. Other minority groups, such as African-Americans and women, also went through discrimination struggles. Today, both groups have the same legal rights as everyone else, and have overcome discrimination. While there may be some racism and discrimination against women left, both groups have been accepted by mainstream America. As more and more legislature supporting equal rights for homosexuals is introduced, gays will become more incorporated into mainstream culture because the differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals (i.e. legal rights) will decrease.

    I would also like to address your question about the status of homosexuality in more conservative countries, particularly Iran. According to a research project by Bruce Dunne, homosexuality is actually accepted in the Middle East. Sexual acts between homosexuals are considered a display of power between men. By replacing a woman with another man, one man displays his masculinity, contempt for, and power over the other man. Sexual relations, both heterosexual and homosexual, in the Middle East are not built around equality, and sex in general exemplifies the power relationship between two people. If, however, there is a sense of equality in these homosexual relations, Middle Eastern society would reject these homosexuals. Because, male prostitution is common in the Middle East, it is unlikely that homosexual men will have difficulty finding a subservient man to fulfill his needs. It is probable that homosexuality in the Middle East will continue to be overlooked as long as the homosexual relationship remains one of dominance.

  2. 02katherinegallagher

    I agree with Nicole that homosexuality will become accepted in mainstream America. It will however, take a lot of time. I think we are progressing towards acceptance because of new laws allowing gay marriage in certain states in the U.S. These states include Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, it is not a perfect progression. There have been setbacks. In November, Proposition 8 was barely passed in California banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. There have been many lawsuits filed about the validity of Proposition 8 and the Supreme Court of California will be ruling on its validity sometime this year. This shows that it is an uphill climb for homosexuality to be completely integrated in the mainstream U.S. and it will take time for it to occur.

    Also, I think that acceptance will occur but it won’t be complete 100% acceptance. There are still people who discriminate against African Americans. While there is acceptance of African Americans in society, Barack Obama is now president, there will always be some racial prejudice there. I think the treatment of homosexuals will be the same way. Mainstream society will eventually accept homosexuality but there will always be someone who discriminates against homosexuals.

    In regards to the China and Iran question, China has a different view on homosexuality than Iran. They are both conservative countries but view homosexuality differently. In China, a homosexual relationship is not about power and dominance. The relationship is viewed the same way it is in the U.S., as a relationship of equality. I think that eventually in China homosexuality will be accepted in mainstream society, but it will take them longer than the U.S. for it to occur. I think it will take China longer because less than ten years ago, China had homosexuality listed as a mental disorder. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Classification and Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders according to the textbook, Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Since, China has recently done this; I think it will take the country longer to overcome the preconceived ideas on homosexuality than for the U.S. because the U.S. did not classify homosexuality as a mental disorder. I do think it is possible for acceptance because China has removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders and gay-bashing according to Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality, is now scarce.

  3. 02kristencattoi

    I believe that part of this argument is related to the religiosity of the people involved. Sometimes, the “more conservative” people referred to in the post are those who believe that their religions specifically label homosexuals as “sinful.” Similar to the way that sexual orientation becomes part of self-identity, many people consider their religions to be part of their self-identities.

    Often, people who are religious make their religious beliefs part of their daily lives. They may attend weekly meetings with others of their same religion and many agree to live by the standards and morals set by their respective religions. The people usually identity with the beliefs associated with their religions. This self-identity can be seen not only in the actions of the people but also in physical representations – how often have you seen a woman wearing a necklace with a cross or another form of open portrayal of religion? Similar to how homosexuals may internalize their sexual orientation, many people make their religions part of their self-identities.

    However, people who are religious rarely consider themselves deviant, though they may consider atheists or people of different religions to be deviant. It is interesting to consider how these standards were set for our society; do the people who are religious believe that their own morals and beliefs should be the same ones projected by society as a whole? Similarly, people who associate with certain religions that label homosexuality as “sinful” may consider homosexuals to be deviant. How might this affect the way they treat homosexuals, and how will this affect the way homosexuals view people of that particular religion? It seems that this may be way that many stereotypes are born.

    Religion has been part of our society for much longer than open homosexuality. How might this also affect society’s view of members of each group? And how might a very religious homosexual person be perceived by members of either group? Will both groups consider the person to be deviant for associating with the other group?
    In terms of self-identity and deviance, it is interesting to consider the role of religion in society’s portrayal of homosexuality. Though neither group is considered to be right or wrong in a liberal-minded society, how might the presence of each group affect the self-identity of the members? Will religious people become more or less religious when they see a functioning, healthy homosexual relationship? And will homosexuals lose their self-identity if they begin to consider themselves as “sinful?”

  4. 03rachelhaltiwanger

    I agree with the posts above me, especially the comments that homosexuality is becoming and will become more accepted in American society as time progresses.

    I thought that Farrell and Nelson’s research was interesting, but that Cooney’s point was valid. There have been studies done to prove both sides of the argument over whether or not people are born gay, and no definitive evidence has been offered to date. However, if the possibility exists that homosexuals are born that way, then their behavior cannot really be classified as secondary deviance in the way described in Farrell and Nelson’s study.

    Another factor that has been overlooked in all of these studies is the diversity of the homosexual community. The homosexual community is just as likely to be diverse in interests, employment, race and class as the heterosexual community. This diversity would throw off the theory that Farrell and Nelson had about secondary deviance because though the homosexuals would be labeled as such and they might form together into a community as a result of the persecution they experience from mainstream America, their interests and personalities are still very diverse and not conformed to one type (although they are often preceived to be). This is why homosexuals are not considered a “group” by sociologists: because they do not commonly communicate together within the group, nor do they all have the same goals as a group.

  5. 03michaellowes

    Classically defined, a deviant is “one that differs from a norm, especially a person whose behavior and attitudes differ from accepted social standards.” Based on this definition, homosexuality is still considered deviant in American society. One common instance that is a representative sample of how homosexuality is still considered deviant is the slang use of the words “gay” and “fag.” Both these terms are often used in a derogatory sense, especially among adolescent and teenage boys. For example, a child may say that school test is “gay” because it was hard, or he thought it was unfair. The word “fag” is also often used as an insult to other children because they are exhibiting homosexual behavior. These adolescents and teenagers are casting a negative image on homosexuality by using words that are also used to label gay people in a negative light and for things they consider bad. This is quintessential proof that homosexuality is still deviant because of how words usually associated with gay people are also used as insults. If homosexuality were considered to be part of an accepted social standard, it would no longer be seen as an insult to be gay and thus the word “fag” would no longer be seen as a common insult. Many of the people who responded to my blog may personally not consider homosexuality deviant because of their own personal views, but mainstream society, outside the liberal environment of a college campus, has a vastly different view of homosexuality.

    In America, there is still a negative stigma associated with homosexuality. Many people currently discriminate against homosexuals, just like they did the Irish in the 19th century, but the progress towards equality is still only in the early stages. Homosexuals are still fighting to be seen as equal before the law and not only on the front of gay marriage. In fact, sodomy (the act of homosexual sex) was only finally made legal in all fifty states in 2003 with the Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas. Furthermore, only forty percent of the states have anti-discriminatory laws for homosexuals. The lack of equal rights protection for homosexuals on a nationwide basis and in less than half the states proves that homosexuals are still seen as being unequal in American society.

    Currently in the United States, gay marriage or civil unions which provide the same rights provided to heterosexual couples to homosexual couples, is only legal in two states. In addition, Proposition 8, a statewide amendment to ban gay marriage passed in California, a state which is widely regarded to be one of the most liberal states in the Union. And even if gay marriage were to become legal nationwide, it cannot be used as a probative test to declare that homosexuality is no longer deviant. Equality before the law does not guarantee that it will become an accepted social norm. An example of this is the gender laws in India. It is expressly written in their Constitution that men and women are to be completely equal before the law in all situations, yet India is also one of the most oppressive societies to women. This parallel is applied to homosexuality because even if they are seen as equal before the law, homosexuals will still be seen as societal deviants and not equal to heterosexuals. This is because it is the views of people that determine what is considered to be deviant and not the law. One prime example of this of this is Theistic Satanism (devil worship). Under the protection of the First Amendment, all people are allowed the freedom of religion. This protection extends even to religions which can be considered deviant, such as Theistic Satanism. The United States of America was founded on Christian principles and many societal norms are still based on Christian teachings. Because of America’s history and basis in Christianity, all forms of Satanism are seen as deviant. Americans fully accept the worship of a God, but reject the worship of his evil counterpart, Satan and thus have cast satanic worshipers out of mainstream society.

    I would also like to comment on the acceptance of homosexuality in the Middle East, specifically Iran. On September 26, 2007, while giving a speech at Columbia University in New York, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals. In Iran we don’t have this phenomenon.” The utter rejection claimed by Ahmadinejad was astounding because he knows that homosexuality does exist, since he supports all legislation against it, yet he was bold enough to claim that there are no gay people in Iran. Actually this does not surprise me as much as one would think because of the laws of Iran. Iran is essentially a theocracy and thus the criminal laws of the nation are fairly consistent with Muslim law. In Iran, acts of homosexuality are crimes punishable by death. Men found committing sodomy are publicly hanged or seem to disappear forever. The official stance of the Iranian government is that everyone in the country is heterosexual. In Iranian culture, being homosexual is considered so deviant that many people who are attracted to the same sex would probably chose to suppress their feelings for the fear of their lives. In light of this, I do not think that homosexuality will be considered mainstream in Iran for a really long time. In fact, as long as Iran stays under the current system of government, I do not think that homosexuality will shed its label of deviancy in Iran.

  6. 02brittnihamilton

    I would have to disagree with some of the earlier comments. I do not believe that mainstream Western culture will ever completely accept homosexuality.
    With so many people in today’s society seeing homosexuality as being deviant, I don’t see those opinions ever changing. A social deviance is when a person’s actions are not seen as an established norm. People think that anything to do with homosexuality is not a norm. It is thought of by these people as wrong and they do not accept it. As stated in an earlier comment, it was said that gay marriage is allowed in many states. That actually is not true. As shown in Dalton Conley’s book, a diagram shows that only 2 states allow same-sex marriage and only 3 other states actually recognize those marriages. The vast majority of states ban same-sex marriage and same-sex unions. Changing the ways of all these states is near impossible, at least not in our lifetime. There also is tons of discrimination against homosexuals, especially in the business world. Although there may be laws against the discrimination, it is still out there all over the place. It is something that cannot be avoided.
    Although more people overtime may begin to accept homosexuality, I believe there will never be a complete acceptance.

  7. Maddie McCluer

    My thoughts on the previous threads are split between agreeing with the hope for a decrease in prejudice against homosexuals and failing to see a viable end to the struggles of this community of individuals.

    As exposure to this alternative lifestyle increases, more of the American culture has come to realize that the choices of another individual have little effect on the life of another. As acceptance becomes more widespread, discrimination against this community will be scorned much as discrimination against the previously discriminated ethnic communities has become less tolerated. In comparing the gay community to the ethnic groups mentioned earlier, the past trends of increased tolerance provide hope for the gay community.

    However, an interesting factor in discrimination against the gay community is that of authority. The vast majority of individuals who do not tolerate homosexual relations feel this way as a result of what they have previously read in the Bible. Within the text, it is stated that relations between a man and another man will not be tolerated. Many religious individuals view the word of the Bible to be more than just rough guidelines with suggestions regarding how to live. The word of the Bible is THE word by which an individual is meant to live. This feeling gives the verses found within the Bible a state of authority such that when homosexuality is stated to be a sin it is therefore not to be tolerated within one’s community. Although this may not be directly related to Milgram’s experiment in which an authority figure was present and providing direct orders to the participant I think this is an interesting comparison to contemplate. In Milgram’s experiment, it was found that the power of an authority figure over the actions of another can lead an individual to commit terrible acts against another. By no means do I wish to imply that all religious individuals commit terrible acts against the religious community. However I do feel that many acts of violence committed against the gay community may be due to the instilled belief that a greater power has deemed them to be deviant and inferior. Could authority of a greater power lead to a significant portion of the discrimination faced by the gay community? If so, how can the effects of this authority be diminished such that tolerance may be increased?

  8. Jen

    Hey i was wondering if i could use some of your information for a paper for school that im writing on homosexuals/homosxuality

  9. Jenn Lena

    @ Jen: This isn’t paper-worthy information–it is a blog. But the articles linked at the end of the original post are reliable sources.