A "Homosexual" is a person, of either gender, who is sexually and often (though not always) romantically attracted exclusively to people of the same gender.
There are multiple words for the trait. "Gay" is gender-neutral, but more likely to apply to men. "Lesbian" applies exclusively to women; this is a reference to the Greek isle of Lesbos, where poetess Sappho kept a collection of women with whom she was enamored ("Sapphic relationship" comes from this as well). "Queer" is gender-neutral, and has often been used as a derogatory slur, but is now being reclaimed by the radical queer movement. Then there's "homosexual" itself, but this word can carry negative connotations (not to mention five syllables) and is avoided outside of technical speak; the shortened version, "homo," is mostly used as a slur, as are "faggot" and "dyke."
Current statistics claim that about one person in ten is homosexual. This has contributed to the historical view that it is unusual at best, a serious deviation at worst. Until 1973, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, basically the official textbook for abnormal psychology, listed homosexuality as a mental disorder * . Just about the only term that has escaped the pejorative label is "Bi", as in "Bisexual," meaning "attracted to members of both sexes". This is partially because the term is relatively new, as is the idea that sexual orientation is a spectrum; and it's also because bi people are still willing to sleep with people of the opposite sex, which is a big point in its favor.
Since homosexuality is harmless as far as sexual abnormalities go, why is there so much hostility towards and/or disapproval of it? One interpretation has to do with conditions people have lived in through history. In the past, child mortality rates were horrific: on average, half of all children died before the age of fivenote . Death by Childbirth was also a major risk, which was even worse because it killed not only the mother, but every child she might have had thereafter. Long story short, you wanted every able-bodied male and female available to be involved in the process of continuing the species. Men and women not interested in reproducing (because they wanted to get busy with their own sex exclusively) added nothing to the process. It should be pointed out that in many cultures, however, having gay sex on the side was okay (in fact, sometimes man-on-man sex was considered a virtue). Women-on-women was seen as non-existent (as it was commonly believed in patriarchal societies that All Women Are Prudes and only have sex to procreate), or given a blind eye, as long as you were still pumping out babies.
Many animal species include homosexual members, just like humans do; and since it's such a widespread phenomenon, biologists theorize that homosexuality in a population must be an adaptive trait despite the stigma. When the population equals or exceeds the food supply, homosexual (and asexual) members of a population can contribute to the well-being of the community, but do not add more children. The end result is that the children of the straight and bi members of the population have a better environment and a better chance of surviving because there are more people to support each child. Infant mortality goes down, and the next generation is smaller but healthier. And, of course, there is nothing to necessarily prevent homosexual people from reproducing themselves, even if the opposite sex isn't their preference (after all, as mentioned above, it was socially enforced that all people, regardless of desire, would have children—women especially). In other species, homosexuality actually does have very relevant evolutionary traits: in social mammals, like dolphins and lions, same-sex behavior helps reduce aggression among males, while in birds like black swans and seagulls, studies show that more chicks survive if raised by couples composed of the physically stronger sex (males in swans, females in seagulls). If this theory is correct, improved acceptance of gays and lesbians should eventually help mitigate the problem of overpopulation in crowded countries. Pleiotrophy may also be a factor, as the same gene can produce different phenotypes depending on other factors, including the carrier's biological sex. A direct correlation has often been found between a woman's ease of conceiving and carrying a child to term with the likelihood that her male relatives will be gay. So even if a gay man is not fathering any children himself, his mother, sisters, and female cousins will still ensure the continuation of the family line.
The Squick factor is important too. Homosexuality is a concept many straight people do not understand, and as H. P. Lovecraft put it, "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Men who engage in same-sex relations, especially those on the "receiving" end of anal intercourse, are considered unmanly in most modern cultures, and sick weirdos for not appreciating the fairer sex. Suggesting that a man is gay is often the worst insult against him in any language (except maybe calling him a virgin or a cuckold). For lesbians, it's a little different but not by much. Girl-on-Girl Is Hot, and it's okay to ogle women making out, but seriously acknowledging a relationship between two women (i.e., women who don't need love, or at least sexual fulfillment, from a man) is a no-go. And this is where you get cases of people trying to Cure Your Gays through torture, often incorporating The Ludovico Technique or Rape and Switch.
The term "homosexual," and indeed the entire idea of sexual orientation, is much Newer Than They Think. The first time "homosexual" appeared in print was 1869. Now, this is not to say that there have not been same-sex lovers since basically the beginning of time; in fact, as homosexual behavior is found in animals, it actually predates the human race. It's simply that, as explained earlier, humans placed a huge emphasis on making babies. As long as you were doing that, nobody cared what, or who, you did in your spare time, but it wasn't a lifestyle you could adopt, or identify with. You weren't gay; you weren't straight either. There was no category. As such, going to just about any historical figure and trying to describe them as gay or straight is inappropriate, since such social constructs didn't exist yet. Whether or not William Shakespeare liked boys, it's an absolute guarantee that he didn't think of himself as being gay. Like any good Englishman, he sired issue on his wife, regardless of what he would have liked to do if given the chance. Of course there were people who saw themselves as homosexual in the modern sense of the word, but they often received the same kind of ostracism that goes on today—even though most of them would have had to be rich, powerful, respected or privileged just to get away with it. They were considered, well, deviants.
Expression and Gender Politics
The concept of gayness or straightness seems to be pretty simple, on the surface, but there's actually a lot of complication to it. What does it say about behavior?, about dress codes, about friends, about... all the other questions of life besides "where you put your dick". Instead of addressing those complications, we're going to go on a brief lecture about some traits that all humans have. It may seem irrelevant right now, but trust us, it's not.
- Your biological sex is, simply put, the genitalia you were born with. Traditionally, sex is considered a binary condition—you are either male or female, no exceptions—but sex is now seen as a spectrum, with "intersex" in between and consisting of people who are born with characteristics of both male and female persons.
- Your sexual orientation consists of who you are attracted to. Some people like men, some people like women, some people like both—again, there's a spectrum. Notice, however, that there's only two extremes to the spectrum: you can like men exclusively or you can like women exclusively, but there are no additional points regarding what kind of junk you've got between your legs.
- Your gender identity has to do with your personality, actions and tendencies, and whether they trend towards patterns that are (traditionally) masculine or feminine. You may have a vagina, but that doesn't mean (anymore) that you are required to act in a girly fashion. It's also okay for men with penises to act womanly, though not nearly as okay.
Does all this seem complicated? Well, keep in mind that this is a simplified version of the conversation. Our little discussion doesn't include the option of having no place on the spectrum: having real life Barbie Doll Anatomy and being sexless; being androgynous and having Ambiguous Gender; or displaying asexuality and not being attracted to men or women. Additionally, it glosses over the distinction of the differences between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. It's perfectly possible to think men fall into the Brainless Beauty category—fun to sleep with, but no good (for you) in relationships. For more on this subject, see the Genderbread Person discussion. This concludes our lecture.
Now that the lecture's over, you may be thinking, "Why did we go through all the trouble of learning that?" Simple: In modern media, those three separate traits are often believed to be one single trait. If you have a penis, you must be the kind of person who likes American Football and belching—period. If you like flowers and sort clothes by color, you must own a vagina. And, if you 1) have a penis and 2) like to have sex with people who also have penises, you must be effeminate and foppish.
Is this true? Well, pretty obviously, it is not. But Hollywood relentlessly hammers that, nuh-uh, it is true!, and more often than not we follow: notice how many Gender and Sexuality Tropes link two or more of those factors together! Manly Gay (male sex; attracted to men; masculine gender), Real Women Don't Wear Dresses (female sex; masculine gender) & Pretty Boy (male sex; feminine gender), and more. We felt it important to give at least a little time to the real facts of the matter, especially since this is a Useful Notes page.
The stereotype of the straight male is that he is a manly man... but it's possible to be an exclusively straight male but also swing over to the feminine side of the spectrum; stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, who has declared himself this sort of person, likes to call himself a "male lesbian". For the ladies, you have characters like Shannon Beiste from Glee, a rough and burly female football coach who has no sexual interest in other women. People such as this need not be Transgender, it's just their personality. Furthermore, being transgender has nothing to do with homosexuality. A female-to-male transgender person who dates women is not a lesbian, for example, but a straight man, and is just as likely to be gay (attracted to other men) or bi. This is also why the "Trans Equals Gay" trope exists and gets bundled up in this issue, despite being loosely related at best: the media like to stereotype it as being some sort of "ultra-gay" condition (reality: it is not, and in fact is so unrelated that it has a completely separate Useful Notes article, found by clicking here).
The point is simply thus: don't confuse sex, gender and sexuality. They're none of them the same thing... and some of the most interesting people (and characters) are the ones that combine them in unusual or unconventional ways.
Today, there are major stereotypes going on, some of them documented on this wiki, about the kind of person you are if you're a homosexual. We've talked about Manly Gay and Lipstick Lesbian, as well as the obvious Camp Gay and Butch Lesbian. Straight Gay is somewhere in the middle. Being bi just means being awesome; it's become rather trendy today if you're a woman to identify yourself as bi, regardless of whether or not you would enter a serious relationship with the same gender. Having said that, as the Bi the Way trope remarks, a lot of times the media don't know how to deal with bisexuals. And let's not even get into Asexuality or anything more complicated than that. But the point is that, whether rightly or wrongly, homosexuality is perceived as being about more than just who you sleep with; it's thought of as being a lifestyle.
Today, being homosexual is also about politics. As with gun control, homosexuality, its legality, its normality and its social acceptability is a Single-Issue Wonk for a lot of people on both sides of the debate. In modern American politics, for example, it's valid to ask, "Would you vote against an African-American presidential candidate just because he's African-American, regardless of his actual platform," because some people would actually answer Yes to that question (or, vice versa, that they will vote for this person on account of his race even though the voter disagrees with him on every major political standpoint). A politician's stand on homosexuality can be a similar deal-breaker. It does not help that many gay people impose tests of ideological purity to determine who is authentically gay.
Even better, there are scriptures in various religious texts condemning homosexual acts. This of course raises its own questions: why are those condemnations there? Is it to encourage reproduction, or does <Deity Of Your Choice> actually consider it evil? Does the passage of scripture actually mean what you say it does, or is it being taken out of context, or suffer from translation errors? Is it just because, before condoms and penicillin, STDs were much more of a problem and monogamy was the best way to reduce their spread? Some people refuse to ask these questions on principle. Indeed, they tend to focus on anti-gay scriptures while ignoring those that condemn their own vices, simply using religion as an excuse for preexisting hatred.
Relatedly, you may hear some people claim that homosexuality, and indeed sexual orientation in general, is a choice—as in, "You don't have to be gay, you just want to." This attitude has more grounding in theology than anything else. Many modern branches of Christianity believe that homosexuality is a sin. They also hold that sins are actions which a person chooses to commit. In theory, it is always possible to not sin (the execution is obviously a bit more suspect). So, if homosexuality is a sin, the ensuing Circular Reasoning is therefore that it must also be a choice. There also exists a slightly more nuanced viewpoint claiming that having homosexual urges is not, in itself, sinful, but that acting on them is, which resolves the Circular Reasoning (since actions definitely are choices), but for obvious reasons is usually seen as hair-splitting to those outside those particular belief systems. All this is complicated by differences between official doctrine and how a particular faith is actually practiced by common practitioners.
The point is that this is an issue where personal morality, religion and politics all intersect, and if you talk about it openly someone might ask you for a political justification to what you had thought of as a purely religious opinion (or vice versa).
The growing acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle does bring up one issue that, for good or ill, even open-minded straight people could consider problematic: the idea of single-gender parenting. What are the implications on childhood if a child Has Two Mommies or Daddies? Religious conservatives would have you believe that this will result in all manner of perversions, like brainwashing, bestiality and liberalism. What little scientific research has been done, however, suggests that if anything the opposite is true: homosexual parents tend to be more settled, more sane and more involved as parents—in general, better. Supporters like to point out that gay couples are somewhat less likely to be afflicted with a Surprise Pregnancy than are straight ones; they have to take very active steps before obtaining a child, and thus have plenty of time to prepare (or back out). They are also a great boon to the adoption industry, which itself is flourishing to a rather disturbing degree due to the three-hit combo of Miss Conception, Teen Pregnancy and Good Girls Avoid Abortion in modern American schooling (promoted by, amusingly enough, the same religious conservatives who are terrified of gay marriage). Thus far, claims that open homosexuality will bring about The End of the World as We Know It are either being subverted or inverted.
Politics aside, the important thing is that homosexuality has existed for eons and will not be going anywhere any time soon. Gays are as diverse in interests and mannerism as any other group, and even though they continue to face persecution in many parts of the world, more and more countries are coming to the conclusion that gay rights (whether that be legalizing gay marriage and adoption or, at the least, not condemning them as criminals or insane) are human rights not bound by any religious or moral doctrine.