Being gay in today’s modern society may be more widely accepted than it ever has been with gay pride a worldwide event and the massive celebrations and parades that go with that. Gay marriage has been legalised in many countries around the world and various states of the USA. Gay dating is now more accessible than ever before thanks to modern technology and online dating but it has not always been that way. We take a look at the history of homosexuality, the stereotypes and myths around gay men and how gay men in the modern world have come a long way from sneaking around and hiding their true selves in years gone by.
It has only really been in the last couple of decades that being homosexuality has become more widely accepted and although this is not the case globally, we are certainly a far cry from where we were hundreds of years ago however it wasn’t always this way and certainly during ancient times, it was a very different story.
There is evidence in Ancient Egypt, in the form of drawings, of homosexual sex. In the Americas, prior to the European colonisation, the indigenous people actually respected homosexuality. In Ancient China, homosexuality was acknowledged as far back as 600BC. Ancient India, Israel, Japan, Persia and the Celts all have evidence of homosexuality existing and being recognised even among the gods and notable people in respected positons. Ancient times seemed to be a far more accepting period of time when it comes to homosexuality than perhaps even the modern world today.
Again, if we move forward to the middle ages, there is extensive evidence that suggests that whole communities and religious orders where homosexuality thrived. In fact, in the Catholic Church, it is believed that until the twelfth century, there was no particular concerns about homosexuality and that some celebrated love between men. It wasn’t until later on in the middle ages that gay men started to be persecuted and in the 14th century, charges of sodomy and homosexuality were bought against those who committed sins against nature.
Fast forward a few years to the Renaissance. It was during this period that homosexuality was extensively oppressed by the Roman Catholic Church across Europe going from being accepted to being an offense, punishable by the death penalty. In France (where later they were among the first to change attitudes) those found guilty of their first offense would lose their testicles for the first offense, then their penis upon being caught a second time with the penalty for being caught a third time being burning. It wasn’t just gay men that were burnt. Lesbians were also convicted and burnt for their crimes. It was not always the case though and the most severe punishments were usually reserved for those that committed acts of assault or violence and in many cases boys were flogged and men were fined or put in jail. During the 16th and 17th centuries the punishments got significantly worse and in 1532 the Holy Roman Empire introduced the death sentence for sodomy. At around the same time, King Henry VIII of England and Ireland also introduced the death penalty for, as it was known then, ‘buggery’.
As time evolved and attitudes began to change, it was in the 18th century that Molly Houses were introduced. This was an English term for a private place, sometimes a tavern, where men could meet each other. The 18th century was pivotal for gay society as it was in France in 1791 that sodomy was no longer criminalised making it the first country in Europe to allow sexual acts between consenting adults or at least decriminalise.
Being openly gay (a term which wasn’t used to describe homosexuality until the 20th century) is much more commonplace in modern society. The term gay wasn’t used to describe homosexuality until the 20th century. In modernised countries and states especially, there are no punishments for being gay and attitudes, especially among the younger generations have changed extensively. There are still countries that oppress gay men and women and there are still people, mainly among the older generation, that frown upon it but it is no longer something to be feared or avoided everywhere. There are still hate crimes and ‘gay bashing’ from bigoted people who have uneducated views but these crimes are not just against gay men, there are also racially motivated crimes and other hate crimes although rather than simply being gay being the punishable crime, now it is the haters who are punished.
There are so many myths and stereotypes about being gay. From whether you will become gay if you hang out with gay men to if it’s a choice people make are among the myths and views of those who don’t understand. We take a look at debunking some of the myths and the popular stereotypes that are associated with gay men.
It is not a choice that men make. They don’t just wake up one day and think “I’ve had enough of heterosexuality, I am going to be gay now”. For many men, it is something that they come to realise about themselves. Many gay men believe that they are born that way. Some may start out dating women and even get married and have families before realising there is something missing or that it doesn’t feel right. It takes them years to admit to themselves that they are gay before they admit to anyone else. Other men just know. From a young age they realise that they prefer men to women and they are confident and secure in that decision. It is not a choice for most men, it is something genetic with evidence mounting that it is at least partly genetic and biological.
For some parents who suddenly find themselves hearing the words – “Mum, Dad, I’m gay” coming from their son, it can be tough to hear. They had always envisaged grandchildren, a big white wedding with a daughter-in-law and now they are being told that they son is gay. Now, while modern attitudes have changed, and many people now accept it readily, there are still those with old-fashioned attitudes. Some believe it will be something that they grow out of or that they can be ‘cured’ but if you are gay then you are gay.
Many people assume that all gay men are effeminate, that they are softly spoken, camp, well kept, like to dress flamboyantly, cross dress and more. In fact, some people are surprised when they learn that someone that they wouldn’t have guessed is gay turns out to be so. We expect larger than life, camp, almost pantomime dame like characters when in fact, this is not the case. Another common misconception is a ‘limp wrist’ – a mannerism commonly associated with gay men. It is also safe to assume that not all gay men like shopping and that they don’t ‘mince’ when they walk.
Hanging around with gay men will not turn you gay. Straight men and gay men can be friends just as men and women can be friends. Just because your friend happens to be gay, does not mean that you are going to become gay by association. They will not influence, ‘turn you’ or suddenly start taking you to gay bars to hang out. There is often an assumption that gay men can’t be friends with one another. If they are seen to be hanging out together then they must be sleeping together or engaged in a relationship.
A woman who hangs around with a gay man or a group of gay men is stereotypically labelled a ‘fag hag’, which is not a very pleasant term. American sitcoms such as Will and Grace portray this stereotype very well. The truth is that anyone can be friends – straight, gay, lesbian or transgender. It may be easier however for a woman to have a gay best friend as this is non-threatening to her romantic partner or dates. She can often get a male perspective from her male best friend and get things from the relationship that she doesn’t get from her female friends.
While there is a party and play subculture of gay men that use recreational drugs as part of their sexual activity, this doesn’t apply to all gay men. It isn’t a pre-requisite of being gay that you need to get high and have sex or partake in orgies. Two gay men of any age can enjoy a relationship together based on all of the same principals of a heterosexual relationship. They can settle down, enjoy great careers, buy a house together and even get married.
On the very extreme end there are those that are very suspicious and highly sceptical and prejudice towards homosexuality. Even though we are no longer in the middles ages, there are still those that see it as a satanic act that goes against everything that is right. Unfortunately, these attitudes are becoming less prevalent but there are still those that believe that being gay is inherently wrong and needs to be addressed.
There is a common misconception that all paedophiles are gay or that gay men are deviants and sexual predators. The truth is that bad people that prey on people can be anyone of any age and any sexual persuasion. Just because someone might be gay, it doesn’t make them a sexual predator that preys on the weak. In fact, research has shown that men that prey on young boys as their targets are often married with children of their own. In the majority of cases, child sexual abuse is usually perpetrated by heterosexual males against younger females.
If you look past the stereotypes and were to venture into a gay bar or to hang out with a group of gay men, you would see that everyone is different. There are those that are flamboyant, extrovert, camp, effeminate and then there are those that you wouldn’t ever suspect of being gay if, of course, you were applying the usual stereotypes of how a gay man should behave or act. There are many different types of modern gay man. From those who are at the top of their game in respectable executive roles to the more creative and artistic or artisan type, you would often struggle to tell someone’s sexuality just from talking to them. So, let’s take a look in more detail at the modern gay man and what you can expect.
There are some stereotypes within the gay community that are used to describe a certain “stereotype”. On one hand, you have the ‘bear’. He is the butch, hairy man that embraces his sexuality but that is not in any way flamboyant, camp or effeminate. Then there are the ‘twinks’ as they may be referred to who epitomises the archetypal gay man and what people might expect them to be. They are colourful, well groomed, creative, effeminate, may wear makeup, colour their hair and wear the clothes that many modern-day men wouldn’t entertain. The ‘bear’ and the ‘twink’ don’t really get along as partner much the same as those who have nothing in common in a heterosexual situation. Not all gay men will band together like an army of brothers fighting the same cause just because they share a common sexual preference.
Possibly the most flamboyant and extrovert of all gay men – the drag queen is a man dressed as a woman to the extreme, one might add. It is a very exaggerated version of a woman often with a phenomenal amount of makeup, the highest heels, feather boas, wigs and the whole shebang. Historically drag queens are found on the stage and are an entertainment act. They can laugh at themselves and are the masters of sending themselves up. They use this power to entertain and step into a different character which makes their desires more comfortable when taking on another persona.
While you may categorise gay men into bears, twinks, drag queens or any other classification that you see fit, there will always be those that you just don’t know about. You may drink with them down the pub and not have questioned that they aren’t married, living with a girl or having children. Perhaps they work hard, play hard and don’t seem to have time for relationships, they play their cards close to their chest and they prefer it this way because it is nobody’s business whether they are straight, gay, bi or other. They are probably just as sick of society’s stereotypes, views and opinions as the next man and wants to just keep their private life exactly that. Maybe they haven’t come to terms with their own sexuality yet or perhaps they have a secret lover or partner.
Throughout history and in more modern times, there has been a huge representation of famous gay people. Some are more prominent than others. Some are loud and proud, others like to live their life more out of the spotlight. There are those that are part of popular culture, that are role models for our children, that inspire and motivate those who are still not accepting of their own sexuality perhaps. Less well known, but still as critical to the gay rights movement, are the pioneers that have shaped modern society and the LGBTQ movement. We take a look at some of these famous people and what they have done for modern gay culture.
Who can forget when the teenage 80s Wham heart throb, George Michael came out as gay. Female hearts across the world shattered as this poster boy revealed it wasn’t the girls he liked. Stars like Elton John, Boy George and in more recent years, Sam Smith are all flying the LGBTQ flag and doing their bit to break down barriers and make it more acceptable to be gay in any society. Let’s not forget Freddie Mercury and his battle with HIV. He raised phenomenal awareness of the disease and how it could be prevented among gay men. These rock stars have broken down barriers, shown themselves to be gay and proud and made it OK for gay men to be exactly who they want to be.
Ru Paul is making it cool to be a drag queen with his own show “Ru Pauls Drag Race” but before this you had Dame Edna Everage who was characterised by the late, great Barry Humphries. Then more recently Paul O’Grady’s alter ego Lily Savage was more recognisable to the British public although she has now been retired as Paul has carried on his celebrity status in his own right. They showed the fun side of being gay and gave everyone permission to laugh at them with their own comedic personalities.
Sir Ian McKellen (yes, a Knight of the Garter no less), Stephen Fry, George Takei, Alan Cumming, Rock Hudson and even Laurence Olivier. These men have been pioneers in the LGBT community and revered and respected across the world for their roles in film, television and the wider celebrity community who, as well as gracing our screens with their creative genius, have also done a lot in raising awareness of various mental health issues and more. To be knighted by English royalty is a far cry from the court of Henry VIII where being gay was punishable by death.
While musicians and actors may have an easier time being creative and coming out as gay, there is one area where it can be a lot tougher. Even in today’s modern society, for a sports man to come out still has a huge stigma attached. With a team sport where men get changed and showered together, that spend their time in close contact, opening up to your team mates and telling them that you are gay can be a terrifying prospect but there are some leading the way. Making headlines in 2014 was Michael Sam who became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. NBA player, Jason Collins came out in 2013, Ryan O’Meara is an openly gay ice dancer and the list goes on. Perhaps the most famous of all sports stars though is Caitlin Jenner who became Caitlin after years living as famous Olympic Decathlete Bruce Jenner. Jenner has done an awful lot to raise awareness and bring LGBTQ to the wider community.
While there are the instantly recognisable faces that fill up our TV screens in our favourite shows, movies or singing the latest hits, there are those not so familiar gay faces that have done so much for the gay movement, for gay rights and to bring a wider understanding to the world. These people include men like Gilbert Baker who helped to define the LGBTQ movement by designing the rainbow pride flag which was first unveiled at the San Francisco Pride parade in 1978. In the 1950s, Harry Hay organised a secret society – Bachelors Anonymous. This was to later to become the Mattachine Society.
Ulrich was a German writer who is believed to be the first person to come out publicly in 1862. He wanted to end the ideas and myths around being gay rejecting the term ‘homosexual’ in favour of ‘urning’. He believed that you were born gay and that it wasn’t a learned or chosen behaviour. He is perhaps the greatest pioneer of the modern gay rights movement and one that is highly revered by many.
Fortunately, we no longer conform to the traits of the middle ages and Renaissance periods where punishments were much harsher than the ‘crimes’ that they were distributed for. Now, we live in a much more accepting society where it is not a crime to be gay, it is not even the taboo it used to be. Now being gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender is celebrated among a huge percentage of the population right across the world. Although being more open to the concept of gay men getting married, living together and adopting children or having a surrogate give birth for them, is still not as far along as it could be. There are still attitudes and opinions that no doubt, will dissipate over time but for now, while we have come a long way in terms of gay dating, gay marriage, gay partnerships and gay adoption, there is still some way to go before it is more widely accepted and even still to be legalised in some countries.