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The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 19 th century by an Austrian-born Hungarian psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert. Although the term is new, discussions about sexuality in general, and same-sex attraction in particular, have occasioned philosophical discussion ranging from Plato’s Symposium to contemporary queer theory. Since the history of cultural understandings of same-sex attraction is relevant to the philosophical issues raised by those understandings, it is necessary to review briefly some of the social history of homosexuality. Arising out of this history, at least in the West, is the idea of natural law and some interpretations of that law as forbidding homosexual sex. References to natural law still play an important role in contemporary debates about homosexuality in religion, politics, and even courtrooms. Finally, perhaps the most significant recent social change involving homosexuality is the emergence of the gay liberation movement in the West. In philosophical circles this movement is, in part, represented through a rather diverse group of thinkers who are grouped under the label of queer theory. A central issue raised by queer theory, which will be discussed below, is whether homosexuality, and hence also heterosexuality and bisexuality, is socially constructed or purely driven by biological forces.

2. Historiographical Debates

3. natural law, 4. queer theory and the social construction of sexuality, 5. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries.

As has been frequently noted, the ancient Greeks did not have terms or concepts that correspond to the contemporary dichotomy of ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ (e.g., Foucault, 1980). There is a wealth of material from ancient Greece pertinent to issues of sexuality, ranging from dialogues of Plato, such as the Symposium , to plays by Aristophanes, and Greek artwork and vases. What follows is a brief description of ancient Greek attitudes, but it is important to recognize that there was regional variation. For example, in parts of Ionia there were general strictures against same-sex eros , while in Elis and Boiotia (e.g., Thebes), it was approved of and even celebrated (cf. Dover, 1989; Halperin, 1990).

Probably the most frequent assumption about sexual orientation, at least by ancient Greek authors, is that persons can respond erotically to beauty in either sex. Diogenes Laeurtius, for example, wrote of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and politician of the 5 th century B.C., “in his adolescence he drew away the husbands from their wives, and as a young man the wives from their husbands.” (Quoted in Greenberg, 1988, 144) Some persons were noted for their exclusive interests in persons of one gender. For example, Alexander the Great and the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, were known for their exclusive interest in boys and other men. Such persons, however, are generally portrayed as the exception. Furthermore, the issue of what biological sex one is attracted to is seen as an issue of taste or preference, rather than as a moral issue. A character in Plutarch’s Erotikos ( Dialogue on Love ) argues that “the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail” ( ibid ., 146). Gender just becomes irrelevant “detail” and instead the excellence in character and beauty is what is most important.

Even though the gender that one was erotically attracted to (at any specific time, given the assumption that persons will likely be attracted to persons of both sexes) was not important, other issues were salient, such as whether one exercised moderation. Status concerns were also of the highest importance. Given that only free men had full status, women and male slaves were not problematic sexual partners. Sex between freemen, however, was problematic for status. The central distinction in ancient Greek sexual relations was between taking an active or insertive role, versus a passive or penetrated one. The passive role was acceptable only for inferiors, such as women, slaves, or male youths who were not yet citizens. Hence the cultural ideal of a same-sex relationship was between an older man, probably in his 20s or 30s, known as the erastes , and a boy whose beard had not yet begun to grow, the eromenos or paidika . In this relationship there was courtship ritual, involving gifts (such as a rooster), and other norms. The erastes had to show that he had nobler interests in the boy, rather than a purely sexual concern. The boy was not to submit too easily, and if pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble one. There is also evidence that penetration was often avoided by having the erastes face his beloved and place his penis between the thighs of the eromenos , which is known as intercrural sex. The relationship was to be temporary and should end upon the boy reaching adulthood (Dover, 1989). To continue in a submissive role even while one should be an equal citizen was considered troubling, although there certainly were many adult male same-sex relationships that were noted and not strongly stigmatized. While the passive role was thus seen as problematic, to be attracted to men was often taken as a sign of masculinity. Greek gods, such as Zeus, had stories of same-sex exploits attributed to them, as did other key figures in Greek myth and literature, such as Achilles and Hercules. Plato, in the Symposium , argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers. Thebes did form such a regiment, the Sacred Band of Thebes, formed of 500 soldiers. They were renowned in the ancient world for their valor in battle.

Ancient Rome had many parallels to ancient Greece in its understanding of same-sex attraction, and sexual issues more generally. This is especially true under the Republic. Yet under the Empire, Roman society slowly became more negative in its views towards sexuality, probably due to social and economic turmoil, even before Christianity became influential.

Exactly what attitude the New Testament has towards sexuality in general, and same-sex attraction in particular, is a matter of sharp debate. John Boswell argues, in his fascinating Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality , that many passages taken today as condemnations of homosexuality are more concerned with prostitution, or where same-sex acts are described as “unnatural” the meaning is more akin to ‘out of the ordinary’ rather than as immoral (Boswell, 1980, ch.4; see also Boswell, 1994). Yet others have criticized, sometimes persuasively, Boswell’s scholarship, arguing that the conventional contemporary reading is more plausible (see Greenberg, 1988, ch.5). What is clear, however, is that while condemnation of same-sex attraction is marginal to the Gospels and only an intermittent focus in the rest of the New Testament, early Christian church fathers were much more outspoken. In their writings there is a horror at any sort of sex, but in a few generations these views eased, in part due no doubt to practical concerns of recruiting converts. By the fourth and fifth centuries the mainstream Christian view allowed only for procreative sex.

This viewpoint, that procreative sex within marriage is allowed, while every other expression of sexuality is sinful, can be found, for example, in St. Augustine. This understanding of permissible sexual relationships leads to a concern with the gender of one’s partner that is not found in previous Greek or Roman views, and it clearly forbids homosexual acts. Soon this attitude, especially towards homosexual sex, came to be reflected in Roman Law. In Justinian’s Code, promulgated in 529, persons who engaged in homosexual sex were to be executed, although those who were repentant could be spared. Historians agree that the late Roman Empire saw a rise in intolerance towards homosexuality, although there were again important regional variations.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, and its replacement by various barbarian kingdoms, a general tolerance (with the sole exception of Visigothic Spain) for homosexual acts prevailed. As one prominent scholar puts it, “European secular law contained few measures against homosexuality until the middle of the thirteenth century.” (Greenberg, 1988, 260) Even while some Christian theologians continued to denounce nonprocreative sexuality, including same-sex acts, a genre of homophilic literature, especially among the clergy, developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Boswell, 1980, chapters 8 and 9).

The latter part of the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, however, saw a sharp rise in intolerance towards homosexual sex, alongside persecution of Jews, Muslims, heretics, and others. While the causes of this are somewhat unclear, it is likely that increased class conflict alongside the Gregorian reform movement in the Catholic Church were two important factors. The Church itself started to appeal to a conception of “nature” as the standard of morality, and drew it in such a way so as to forbid homosexual sex (as well as extramarital sex, nonprocreative sex within marriage, and often masturbation). For example, the first ecumenical council to condemn homosexual sex, Lateran III of 1179, stated “Whoever shall be found to have committed that incontinence which is against nature” shall be punished, the severity of which depended upon whether the transgressor was a cleric or layperson (quoted in Boswell, 1980, 277). This appeal to natural law (discussed below) became very influential in the Western tradition. An important point to note, however, is that the key category here is the ‘sodomite,’ which differs from the contemporary idea of ‘homosexual’. A sodomite was understood as act-defined, rather than as a type of person. Someone who had desires to engage in sodomy, yet did not act upon them, was not a sodomite. Also, persons who engaged in heterosexual sodomy were also sodomites. There are reports of persons being burned to death or beheaded for sodomy with a spouse (Greenberg, 1988, 277). Finally, a person who had engaged in sodomy, yet who had repented of his sin and vowed to never do it again, was no longer a sodomite. The gender of one’s partner is again not of decisive importance, although some medieval theologians single out same-sex sodomy as the worst type of sexual crime (Crompton, 2003, ch.6).

For the next several centuries in Europe, the laws against homosexual sex were severe in their penalties. Enforcement, however, was episodic. In some regions, decades would pass without any prosecutions. Yet the Dutch, in the 1730s, mounted a harsh anti-sodomy campaign (alongside an anti-Roma pogrom), even using torture to obtain confessions. As many as one hundred men and boys were executed and denied burial (Greenberg, 1988, 313–4). Also, the degree to which sodomy and same-sex attraction were accepted varied by class, with the middle class taking the most restrictive view, while the aristocracy and nobility often accepted public expressions of alternative sexualities. At times, even with the risk of severe punishment, same-sex oriented subcultures would flourish in cities, sometimes only to be suppressed by the authorities. In the 19 th century there was a significant reduction in the legal penalties for sodomy. The Napoleonic code decriminalized sodomy, and with Napoleon’s conquests that Code spread. Furthermore, in many countries where homosexual sex remained a crime, the general movement at this time away from the death penalty usually meant that sodomy was removed from the list of capital offenses.

In the 18 th and 19 th centuries an overtly theological framework no longer dominated the discourse about same-sex attraction. Instead, secular arguments and interpretations became increasingly common. Probably the most important secular domain for discussions of homosexuality was in medicine, including psychology. This discourse, in turn, linked up with considerations about the state and its need for a growing population, good soldiers, and intact families marked by clearly defined gender roles. Doctors were called in by courts to examine sex crime defendants (Foucault, 1980; Greenberg, 1988). At the same time, the dramatic increase in school attendance rates and the average length of time spent in school, reduced transgenerational contact, and hence also the frequency of transgenerational sex. Same-sex relations between persons of roughly the same age became the norm.

Clearly the rise in the prestige of medicine resulted in part from the increasing ability of science to account for natural phenomena on the basis of mechanistic causation. The application of this viewpoint to humans led to accounts of sexuality as innate or biologically driven. The voluntarism of the medieval understanding of sodomy, that sodomites chose sin, gave way to the prevailing though contested modern notion of homosexuality as a deep, unchosen characteristic of persons, regardless of whether they act upon that orientation. The idea of a ‘latent sodomite’ would not have made sense, yet under this new view it does make sense to speak of a person as a ‘latent homosexual.’ Instead of specific acts defining a person, as in the medieval view, an entire physical and mental makeup, usually portrayed as somehow defective or pathological, is ascribed to the modern category of ‘homosexual.’ Although there are historical precursors to these ideas (e.g., Aristotle gave a physiological explanation of passive homosexuality), medicine gave them greater public exposure and credibility (Greenberg, 1988, ch.15). The effects of these ideas cut in conflicting ways. Since homosexuality is, by this view, not chosen, it makes less sense to criminalize it. Persons are not choosing evil acts. Yet persons may be expressing a diseased or pathological mental state, and hence medical intervention for a cure is appropriate. Hence doctors, especially psychiatrists, campaigned for the repeal or reduction of criminal penalties for consensual homosexual sodomy, yet intervened to “rehabilitate” homosexuals. They also sought to develop techniques to prevent children from becoming homosexual, for example by arguing that childhood masturbation caused homosexuality, hence it must be closely guarded against.

In the 20 th century sexual roles were redefined once again. For a variety of reasons, premarital intercourse slowly became more common and eventually acceptable. With the decline of prohibitions against sex for the sake of pleasure even outside of marriage, it became more difficult to argue against gay sex. These trends were especially strong in the 1960s, and it was in this context that the gay liberation movement took off. Although gay and lesbian rights groups had been around for decades, the low-key approach of the Mattachine Society (named after a medieval secret society) and the Daughters of Bilitis had not gained much ground. This changed in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, rioted after a police raid. In the aftermath of that event, gay and lesbian groups began to organize around the country. Gay Democratic clubs were created in every major city, and one fourth of all college campuses had gay and lesbian groups (Shilts, 1993, ch.28). Large gay urban communities in cities from coast to coast became the norm. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official listing of mental disorders. The increased visibility of gays and lesbians has become a permanent feature of American life despite the two critical setbacks of the AIDS epidemic and an anti-gay backlash (see Berman, 1993, for a good survey). The post-Stonewall era has also seen marked changes in Western Europe, where the repeal of anti-sodomy laws and legal equality for gays and lesbians has become common. In the 21st century, the legal recognition of same-sex marriage has become widespread.

The increasing acceptance of same-sex relations has prompted new theoretical debates, such as whether a “post-gay” culture will emerge due to widespread assimilation of gays and lesbians (Anderson, 2016). Generally what is meant by the term “post-gay” is that if LGBTQ persons have full legal and social equality, that level of acceptance makes it so sexual orientation is no longer a defining aspect of one’s identity or social position. While it seems unlikely that gay, lesbian, or queer persons of color, or who live in rural areas, or are otherwise in a marginalized position will achieve such assimilation in the foreseeable future, the debate is still of theoretical interest. For instance, post-gay can be conceptualized as either a specific political order, characterized by equality across sexual orientations, or it can be seen as a specific type of identity, where persons understand and accept themselves as same-sex oriented but as not in any way defined by that. Post-gay can also be a time, an era marked by widespread assimilation, or a space, where persons are fully treated as equals. Some regard the variety of meanings given to the term as evidence of confusion (Kampler and Connell, 2018). A better understanding, however, is that the term is being used to rival ends. For some, post-gay marks the culmination of the gay rights movement, which all along, they contend, was an effort to be treated as equals. For others, it opens a space where sexual labels can be resisted, renegotiated, and made fluid and non-binary (Coleman-Fountain, 2014).

Broader currents in society have influenced the ways in which scholars and activists have approached research into sexuality and same-sex attraction. Some early 20 th century researchers and equality advocates, seeking to vindicate same-sex relations in societies that disparaged and criminalized it, put forward lists of famous historical figures attracted to persons of the same sex. Such lists implied a common historical entity underlying sexual attraction, whether one called it ‘inversion’ or ‘homosexuality.’ This approach (or perhaps closely related family of approaches) is commonly called essentialism. Historians and researchers sympathetic to the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s produced a number of books that implicitly relied on an essentialist approach. In the 1970s and 1980s John Boswell raised it to a new level of methodological and historical sophistication, although his position shifted over time to one of virtual agnosticism between essentialists and their critics. Crompton’s work (2003) is a notable contemporary example of an essentialist methodology.

Essentialists claim that categories of sexual attraction are observed rather than created. For example, while ancient Greece did not have terms that correspond to the heterosexual/homosexual division, persons did note men who were only attracted to person of a specific sex, hence the lack of terminology need not be taken as evidence of a lack of continuity in categories. Through history and across cultures there are consistent features, albeit with meaningful variety over time and space, in sexual attraction to the point that it makes sense of speak of specific sexual orientations. According to this view, homosexuality is a specific, natural kind rather than a cultural or historical product. Essentialists allow that there are cultural differences in how homosexuality is expressed and interpreted, but they emphasize that this does not prevent it from being a universal category of human sexual expression.

In contrast, in the 1970s and since a number of researchers, often influenced by Mary McIntosh or Michel Foucault, argued that class relations, the human sciences, and other historically constructed forces create sexual categories and the personal identities associated with them. For advocates of this view, such as David Halperin, how sex is organized in a given cultural and historical setting is irreducibly particular (Halperin, 2002). The emphasis on the social creation of sexual experience and expression led to the labeling of the viewpoint as social constructionism, although more recently several of its proponents have preferred the term ‘historicism.’ Thus homosexuality, as a specific sexual construction, is best understood as a solely modern, Western concept and role. Prior to the development of this construction, persons were not really ‘homosexual’ even when they were only attracted to persons of the same sex. The differences between, say, ancient Greece, with its emphasis on pederasty, role in the sex act, and social status, and the contemporary Western role of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ are simply too great to collapse into one category.

In a manner closely related to the claims of queer theory, discussed below, social constructionists argue that specific social constructs produce sexual ways of being. There is no given mode of sexuality that is independent of culture; even the concept and experience of sexual orientation itself are products of history. For advocates of this view, the range of historical sexual diversity, and the fluidity of human possibility, is simply too varied to be adequately captured by any specific conceptual scheme.

There is a significant political dimension to this seemingly abstract historiographical debate. Social constructionists argue that essentialism is the weaker position politically for at least two reasons. First, by accepting a basic heterosexual/homosexual organizing dichotomy, essentialism wrongly concedes that heterosexuality is the norm and that homosexuality is, strictly speaking, abnormal and the basis for a permanent minority. Second, social constructionists argue that an important goal of historical investigations should be to put into question contemporary organizing schemas about sexuality. The acceptance of the contemporary heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy is conservative, perhaps even reactionary, and forecloses the exploration of new possibilities. (There are related queer theory criticisms of the essentialist position, discussed below.) In contrast, essentialists argue that a historicist approach forecloses the very possibility of a ‘gay history.’ Instead, the field of investigation becomes other social forces and how they ‘produce’ a distinct form or forms of sexuality. Only an essentialist approach can maintain the project of gay history, and minority histories in general, as a force for liberation.

Today natural law theory offers the most common intellectual defense for differential treatment of gays and lesbians, and as such it merits attention. The development of natural law is a long and very complicated story. A reasonable place to begin is with the dialogues of Plato, for this is where some of the central ideas are first articulated, and, significantly enough, are immediately applied to the sexual domain. For the Sophists, the human world is a realm of convention and change, rather than of unchanging moral truth. Plato, in contrast, argued that unchanging truths underpin the flux of the material world. Reality, including eternal moral truths, is a matter of phusis . Even though there is clearly a great degree of variety in conventions from one city to another (something ancient Greeks became increasingly aware of), there is still an unwritten standard, or law, that humans should live under.

In the Laws , Plato applies the idea of a fixed, natural law to sex, and takes a much harsher line than he does in the Symposium or the Phraedrus . In Book One he writes about how opposite-sex sex acts cause pleasure by nature, while same-sex sexuality is “unnatural” (636c). In Book Eight, the Athenian speaker considers how to have legislation banning homosexual acts, masturbation, and illegitimate procreative sex widely accepted. He then states that this law is according to nature (838–839d). Probably the best way of understanding Plato’s discussion here is in the context of his overall concerns with the appetitive part of the soul and how best to control it. Plato clearly sees same-sex passions as especially strong, and hence particularly problematic, although in the Symposium that erotic attraction is presented as potentially being a catalyst for a life of philosophy, rather than base sensuality (Cf. Dover, 1989, 153–170; Nussbaum, 1999, esp. chapter 12).

Other figures played important roles in the development of natural law theory. Aristotle, with his emphasis upon reason as the distinctive human function, and the Stoics, with their emphasis upon human beings as a part of the natural order of the cosmos, both helped to shape the natural law perspective which says that “True law is right reason in agreement with nature,” as Cicero put it. Aristotle, in his approach, did allow for change to occur according to nature, and therefore the way that natural law is embodied could itself change with time, which was an idea Aquinas later incorporated into his own natural law theory. Aristotle did not write extensively about sexual issues, since he was less concerned with the appetites than Plato. Probably the best reconstruction of his views places him in mainstream Greek society as outlined above; his main concern is with an active versus a passive role, with only the latter problematic for those who either are or will become citizens. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was, according to his contemporaries, only attracted to men, and his thought did not have prohibitions against same-sex sexuality. In contrast, Cicero, a later Stoic, was dismissive about sexuality in general, with some harsher remarks towards same-sex pursuits (Cicero, 1966, 407-415).

The most influential formulation of natural law theory was made by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Integrating an Aristotelian approach with Christian theology, Aquinas emphasized the centrality of certain human goods, including marriage and procreation. While Aquinas did not write much about same-sex sexual relations, he did write at length about various sex acts as sins. For Aquinas, sexuality that was within the bounds of marriage and which helped to further what he saw as the distinctive goods of marriage, mainly love, companionship, and legitimate offspring, was permissible, and even good. Aquinas did not argue that procreation was a necessary part of moral or just sex; married couples could enjoy sex without the motive of having children, and sex in marriages where one or both partners is sterile (perhaps because the woman is postmenopausal) is also potentially just (given a motive of expressing love). So far Aquinas’ view actually need not rule out homosexual sex. For example, a Thomist could embrace same-sex marriage, and then apply the same reasoning, simply seeing the couple as a reproductively sterile, yet still fully loving and companionate union.

Aquinas, in a significant move, adds a requirement that for any given sex act to be moral it must be of a generative kind. The only way that this can be achieved is via vaginal intercourse. That is, since only the emission of semen in a vagina can result in natural reproduction, only sex acts of that type are generative, even if a given sex act does not lead to reproduction, and even if it is impossible due to infertility. The consequence of this addition is to rule out the possibility, of course, that homosexual sex could ever be moral (even if done within a loving marriage), in addition to forbidding any non-vaginal sex for opposite-sex married couples. What is the justification for this important addition? This question is made all the more pressing in that Aquinas does allow that how broad moral rules apply to individuals may vary considerably, since the nature of persons also varies to some extent. That is, since Aquinas allows that individual natures vary, one could simply argue that one is, by nature, emotionally and physically attracted to persons of one’s own gender, and hence to pursue same-sex relationships is ‘natural’ (Sullivan, 1995). Unfortunately, Aquinas does not spell out a justification for this generative requirement.

More recent natural law theorists, however, have presented a couple of different lines of defense for Aquinas’ ‘generative type’ requirement. The first is that sex acts that involve either homosexuality, heterosexual sodomy, or which use contraception, frustrate the purpose of the sex organs, which is reproductive. This argument, often called the ‘perverted faculty argument’, is perhaps implicit in Aquinas. It has, however, come in for sharp attack (see Weitham, 1997), and the best recent defenders of a Thomistic natural law approach are attempting to move beyond it (e.g., George, 1999a, dismisses the argument). If their arguments fail, of course, they must allow that some homosexual sex acts are morally permissible (even positively good), although they would still have resources with which to argue against casual gay (and straight) sex.

Although the specifics of the second sort of argument offered by various contemporary natural law theorists vary, they possess common elements(Finnis, 1994; George, 1999a). As Thomists, their argument rests largely upon an account of human goods. The two most important for the argument against homosexual sex (though not against homosexuality as an orientation which is not acted upon, and hence in this they follow official Catholic doctrine; see George, 1999a, ch.15) are personal integration and marriage. Personal integration, in this view, is the idea that humans, as agents, need to have integration between their intentions as agents and their embodied selves. Thus, to use one’s or another’s body as a mere means to one’s own pleasure, as they argue happens with masturbation, causes ‘dis-integration’ of the self. That is, one’s intention then is just to use a body (one’s own or another’s) as a mere means to the end of pleasure, and this detracts from personal integration. Yet one could easily reply that two persons of the same sex engaging in sexual union does not necessarily imply any sort of ‘use’ of the other as a mere means to one’s own pleasure. Hence, natural law theorists respond that sexual union in the context of the realization of marriage as an important human good is the only permissible expression of sexuality. Yet this argument requires drawing how marriage is an important good in a very particular way, since it puts procreation at the center of marriage as its “natural fulfillment” (George, 1999a, 168). Natural law theorists, if they want to support their objection to homosexual sex, have to emphasize procreation. If, for example, they were to place love and mutual support for human flourishing at the center, it is clear that many same-sex couples would meet this standard. Hence their sexual acts would be morally just.

There are, however, several objections that are made against this account of marriage as a central human good. One is that by placing procreation as the ‘natural fulfillment’ of marriage, sterile marriages are thereby denigrated. Sex in an opposite-sex marriage where the partners know that one or both of them are sterile is not done for procreation. Yet surely it is not wrong. Why, then, is homosexual sex in the same context (a long-term companionate union) wrong (Macedo, 1995)? The natural law rejoinder is that while vaginal intercourse is a potentially procreative sex act, considered in itself (though admitting the possibility that it may be impossible for a particular couple), oral and anal sex acts are never potentially procreative, whether heterosexual or homosexual (George, 1999a). But is this biological distinction also morally relevant, and in the manner that natural law theorists assume? Natural law theorists, in their discussions of these issues, seem to waver. On the one hand, they want to defend an ideal of marriage as a loving union wherein two persons are committed to their mutual flourishing, and where sex is a complement to that ideal. Yet that opens the possibility of permissible gay sex, or heterosexual sodomy, both of which they want to oppose. So they then defend an account of sexuality which seems crudely reductive, emphasizing procreation to the point where literally a male orgasm anywhere except in the vagina of one’s loving spouse is impermissible. Then, when accused of being reductive, they move back to the broader ideal of marriage.

Natural law theory, at present, has made significant concessions to mainstream liberal thought. In contrast certainly to its medieval formulation, most contemporary natural law theorists argue for limited governmental power, and do not believe that the state has an interest in attempting to prevent all moral wrongdoing. Still, most proponents of the “New Natural Law Theory” do argue against homosexuality, and against legal protections for gays and lesbians in terms of employment and housing, even to the point of serving as expert witnesses in court cases or helping in the writing of amicus curae briefs. They also argue against same sex marriage (Bradley, 2001; George, 1999b). There have been some attempts, however, to reconcile natural law theory and homosexuality (see, for example, Lago, 2018; Goldstein, 2011). While maintaining the central aspects of natural law theory and its account of basic human goods, they typically either argue that marriage itself is not a basic good (Lago), or that the sort of good it is, when understood in a less narrow, dogmatic fashion, is such that same-sex couples can enjoy it. Part of the theoretical interest in these arguments is that they allow for a moral evaluation of sexuality, still requiring it to realize the basic good of friendship if it is to be permissible, while avoiding what seem to be the various problematic aspects of contemporary natural law theorists’ denigration of same-sex sexuality in any form.

With the rise of the gay liberation movement in the post-Stonewall era, overtly gay and lesbian perspectives began to be put forward in politics, philosophy and literary theory. Initially these often were overtly linked to feminist analyses of patriarchy (e.g., Rich, 1980) or other, earlier approaches to theory. Yet in the late 1980s and early 1990s queer theory was developed, although there are obviously important antecedents which make it difficult to date it precisely. There are a number of ways in which queer theory differed from earlier gay liberation theory, but an important initial difference becomes apparent once we examine the reasons for opting for employing the term ‘queer’ as opposed to ‘gay and lesbian.’ Some versions of, for example, lesbian theory portrayed the essence of lesbian identity and sexuality in very specific terms: non-hierarchical, consensual, and, specifically in terms of sexuality, as not necessarily focused upon genitalia (e.g., Faderman, 1985). Lesbians arguing from this framework, for example, could very well criticize natural law theorists as inscribing into the very “law of nature” an essentially masculine sexuality, focused upon the genitals, penetration, and the status of the male orgasm (natural law theorists rarely mention female orgasms).

This approach, based upon characterizations of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identity and sexuality, however, suffered from three difficulties. First, it appeared even though the goal was to critique a heterosexist regime for its exclusion and marginalization of those whose sexuality is different, any specific or “essentialist” account of gay or lesbian sexuality had the same effect. Sticking with the example used above, of a specific conceptualization of lesbian identity, it denigrates women who are sexually and emotionally attracted to other women, yet who do not fit the description. Sado-masochists and butch/fem lesbians arguably do not fit this ideal of ‘equality’ offered. A second problem was that by placing such an emphasis upon the gender of one’s sexual partner(s), other possible important sources of identity are marginalized, such as race and ethnicity. What may be of utmost importance, for example, for a black lesbian is her lesbianism, rather than her race. Many gays and lesbians of color attacked this approach, accusing it of re-inscribing an essentially white identity into the heart of gay or lesbian identity (Jagose, 1996).

The third and final problem for the gay liberationist approach was that it often took this category of ‘identity’ itself as unproblematic and unhistorical. Such a view, however, largely because of arguments developed within poststructuralism, seemed increasingly untenable. The key figure in the attack upon identity as ahistorical is Michel Foucault. In a series of works he set out to analyze the history of sexuality from ancient Greece to the modern era (1980, 1985, 1986). Although the project was tragically cut short by his death in 1984, from complications arising from AIDS, Foucault articulated how profoundly understandings of sexuality can vary across time and space, and his arguments have proven very influential in gay and lesbian theorizing in general, and queer theory in particular (Spargo, 1999; Stychin, 2005).

One of the reasons for the historical review above is that it helps to give some background for understanding the claim that sexuality is socially constructed, rather than given by nature. Moreover, in order to not prejudge the issue of social constructionism versus essentialism, I avoided applying the term ‘homosexual’ to the ancient or medieval eras. In ancient Greece the gender of one’s partner(s) was not important, but instead whether one took the active or passive role. In the medieval view, a ‘sodomite’ was a person who succumbed to temptation and engaged in certain non-procreative sex acts. Although the gender of the partner was more important in the medieval than in the ancient view, the broader theological framework placed the emphasis upon a sin versus refraining-from-sin dichotomy. With the rise of the notion of ‘homosexuality’ in the modern era, a person is placed into a specific category even if one does not act upon those inclinations. It is difficult to perceive a common, natural sexuality expressed across these three very different cultures. The social constructionist contention is that there is no ‘natural’ sexuality; all sexual understandings are constructed within and mediated by cultural understandings. The examples can be pushed much further by incorporating anthropological data outside of the Western tradition (Halperin, 1990; Greenberg, 1988). Yet even within the narrower context offered here, the differences between them are striking. The assumption in ancient Greece was that men (less is known about Greek attitudes towards women) can respond erotically to either sex, and the vast majority of men who engaged in same-sex relationships were also married (or would later become married). Yet the contemporary understanding of homosexuality divides the sexual domain in two, heterosexual and homosexual, and most heterosexuals cannot respond erotically to their own sex.

In saying that sexuality is a social construct, these theorists are not saying that these understandings are not real. Since persons are also constructs of their culture (in this view), we are made into those categories. Hence today persons of course understand themselves as straight or gay (or perhaps bisexual), and it is very difficult to step outside of these categories, even once one comes to see them as the historical constructs they are.

Gay and lesbian theory was thus faced with three significant problems, all of which involved difficulties with the notion of ‘identity.’ Queer theory arose in large part as an attempt to overcome them. How queer theory does so can be seen by looking at the term ‘queer’ itself. In contrast to gay or lesbian, ‘queer,’ it is argued, does not refer to an essence, whether of a sexual nature or not. Instead it is purely relational, standing as an undefined term that gets its meaning precisely by being that which is outside of the norm, however that norm itself may be defined. As one of the most articulate queer theorists puts it: “Queer is … whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers . It is an identity without an essence” (Halperin, 1995, 62, original emphasis). By lacking any essence, queer does not marginalize those whose sexuality is outside of any gay or lesbian norm, such as sado-masochists. Since specific conceptualizations of sexuality are avoided, and hence not put at the center of any definition of queer, it allows more freedom for self-identification for, say, black lesbians to identify as much or more with their race (or any other trait, such as involvement in an S & M subculture) than with lesbianism. Finally, it incorporates the insights of poststructuralism about the difficulties in ascribing any essence or non-historical aspect to identity.

This central move by queer theorists, the claim that the categories through which identity is understood are all social constructs rather than given to us by nature, opens up a number of analytical possibilities. For example, queer theorists examine how fundamental notions of gender and sex which seem so natural and self-evident to persons in the modern West are in fact constructed and reinforced through everyday actions, and that this occurs in ways that privilege heterosexuality (Butler, 1990, 1993). Also examined are medical categories, such as ‘inverts’ and intersexuality, which are themselves socially constructed (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, is an erudite example of this, although she is not ultimately a queer theorist). Others examine how language and especially divisions between what is said and what is not said, corresponding to the dichotomy between ‘closeted’ and ‘out,’ especially in regards to the modern division of heterosexual/homosexual, structure much of modern thought. That is, it is argued that when we look at dichotomies such as natural/artificial, or masculine/feminine, we find in the background an implicit reliance upon a very recent, and arbitrary, understanding of the sexual world as split into two species (Sedgwick, 1990). The fluidity of categories created through queer theory even opens the possibility of new sorts of histories that examine previously silent types of affections and relationships (Carter, 2005).

Another critical perspective opened up by a queer approach, although certainly implicit in those just referred to, is especially important. Since most anti-gay and lesbian arguments rely upon the alleged naturalness of heterosexuality, queer theorists attempt to show how these categories are themselves deeply social constructs. An example helps to illustrate the approach. In an essay against gay marriage, chosen because it is very representative, James Q. Wilson (1996) contends that gay men have a “great tendency” to be promiscuous. In contrast, he puts forward loving, monogamous marriage as the natural condition of heterosexuality. Heterosexuality, in his argument, is an odd combination of something completely natural yet simultaneously endangered. One is born straight, yet this natural condition can be subverted by such things as the presence of gay couples, gay teachers, or even excessive talk about homosexuality. Wilson’s argument requires a radical disjunction between heterosexuality and homosexuality. If gayness is radically different, it is legitimate to suppress it. Wilson has the courage to be forthright about this element of his argument; he comes out against “the political imposition of tolerance” towards gays and lesbians (Wilson, 1996, 35).

It is a common move in queer theory to bracket, at least temporarily, issues of truth and falsity (Halperin, 1995). Instead, the analysis focuses on the social function of discourse. Questions of who counts as an expert and why, and concerns about the effects of the expert’s discourse are given equal status to questions of the verity of what is said. This approach reveals that hidden underneath Wilson’s (and other anti-gay) work is an important epistemological move. Since heterosexuality is the natural condition, it is a place that is spoken from but not inquired into. In contrast, homosexuality is the aberration and hence it needs to be studied but it is not an authoritative place from which one can speak. By virtue of this heterosexual privilege, Wilson is allowed the voice of the impartial, fair-minded expert. Yet, as the history section above shows, there are striking discontinuities in understandings of sexuality, and this is true to the point that, according to queer theorists, we should not think of sexuality as having any particular nature at all. Through undoing our infatuation with any specific conception of sexuality, the queer theorist opens space for marginalized forms of sexuality, and thus of ways of being more generally.

The insistence that we must investigate the ways in which categories such as sexuality and orientation are created and given power through science and other cultural mechanisms has made queer theory appealing to scholars in a variety of disciplines. Historians and sociologists have drawn on it, which is perhaps unsurprising given the role of historical claims about the social construction of sexuality. Queer theory has been especially influential in literary studies and feminist theory, even though the dividing lines between the latter and queer thinking is contested (see Jagose, 2009; Marinucci, 2010). One of the most prominent scholars working in the area of gay and lesbian issues in constitutional law has also drawn on queer theory to advance his interrogation of the ways that US law privileges heterosexuality (Eskridge, 1999). Scholars in postcolonial and racial analyses, ethnography, American studies, and other fields have drawn on the conceptual tools provided by queer theory.

Despite its roots in postmodernism and Foucault’s work in particular, queer theory’s reception in France was initially hostile (see Eribon, 2004). The core texts from the first ‘wave’ of queer theory, such as Judith Butler’s and Eve Sedgwick’s central works, were slow to appear in French translation, not coming out until a decade and a half after their original publication. Doubtless the French republican self-understanding, which is universalist and often hostile to movements that are multicultural in their bent, was a factor in the slow and often strenuously resisted importation of queer theoretical insights. Similarly, queer theory has also been on the margins in German philosophy and political philosophy. In sum, it is fair to say that queer theory has had a greater impact in the Anglo-American world.

Queer theory, however, has been criticized in a myriad of ways (Jagose, 1996). One set of criticisms comes from theorists who are sympathetic to gay liberation conceived as a project of radical social change. An initial criticism is that precisely because ‘queer’ does not refer to any specific sexual status or gender object choice, for example Halperin (1995) allows that straight persons may be ‘queer,’ it robs gays and lesbians of the distinctiveness of what makes them marginal. It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity (Jagose, 1996). A related criticism is that queer theory, since it refuses any essence or reference to standard ideas of normality, cannot make crucial distinctions. For example, queer theorists usually argue that one of the advantages of the term ‘queer’ is that it thereby includes transsexuals, sado-masochists, and other marginalized sexualities. How far does this extend? Is transgenerational sex (e.g., pedophilia) permissible? Are there any limits upon the forms of acceptable sado-masochism or fetishism? While some queer theorists specifically disallow pedophilia, it is an open question whether the theory has the resources to support such a distinction. Furthermore, some queer theorists overtly refuse to rule out pedophiles as ‘queer’ (Halperin, 1995, 62) Another criticism is that queer theory, in part because it typically has recourse to a very technical jargon, is written by a narrow elite for that narrow elite. It is therefore class biased and also, in practice, only really referred to at universities and colleges (Malinowitz, 1993).

Queer theory is also criticized by those who reject the desirability of radical social change. For example, centrist and conservative gays and lesbians have criticized a queer approach by arguing that it will be “disastrously counter-productive” (Bawer, 1996, xii). If ‘queer’ keeps its connotation of something perverse and at odds with mainstream society, which is precisely what most queer theorists want, it would seem to only validate the attacks upon gays and lesbians made by conservatives. Sullivan (1996) also criticizes queer theorists for relying upon Foucault’s account of power, which he argues does not allow for meaningful resistance. It seems likely, however, that Sullivan’s understanding of Foucault’s notions of power and resistance is misguided.

The debates about homosexuality, in part because they often involve public policy and legal issues, tend to be sharply polarized. Those most concerned with homosexuality, positively or negatively, are also those most engaged, with natural law theorists arguing for gays and lesbians having a reduced legal status, and queer theorists engaged in critique and deconstruction of what they see as a heterosexist regime. Yet the two do not talk much to one another, but rather ignore or talk past one another. There are some theorists in the middle. For example, Michael Sandel takes an Aristotelian approach from which he argues that gay and lesbian relationships can realize the same goods that heterosexual relationships do (Sandel, 1995). He largely shares the account of important human goods that natural law theorists have, yet in his evaluation of the worth of same-sex relationships, he is clearly sympathetic to gay and lesbian concerns. Similarly, Bruce Bawer (1993) and Andrew Sullivan (1995) have written eloquent defenses of full legal equality for gays and lesbians, including marriage rights. Yet neither argue for any systematic reform of broader American culture or politics. In this they are essentially conservative. Therefore, rather unsurprisingly, these centrists are attacked from both sides. Sullivan, for example, has been criticized at length both by queer theorists (e.g., Phelan, 2001) and natural law theorists (e.g., George, 1999a).

Yet as the foregoing also clearly shows, the policy and legal debates surrounding homosexuality involve fundamental issues of morality and justice. Perhaps most centrally of all, they cut to issues of personal identity and self-definition. Hence there is another, and even deeper, set of reasons for the polarization that marks these debates.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Queer Theory Reading List , compiled by the LGBTQ Center, Brown University

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  • History & Culture

From LGBT to LGBTQIA+: The evolving recognition of identity

As society’s understanding of diverse sexual identities and gender expressions has grown more inclusive, so has the acronym used to describe them.

October is LGBT History Month. Or, as some might say, LGBTQ History Month. Or even LGBTQIA+ History Month.

The terms for the community of people that encompasses people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual are as broad as that community itself: As society’s understanding, recognition, and inclusion of diverse sexual identities and gender expressions has grown, so has its acronym.

( Subscriber exclusive: Read our January 2017 issue dedicated to the shifting landscape of gender .)

Here’s a look at how that evolution has happened—and why it’s all but certain the term will continue to change.

How lesbianism got its name

Out of all the letters in the acronym LGBTQ, the L was the first to come into existence. For centuries, the word had been associated with the works of Sappho, an ancient Greek woman from the island of Lesbos who wrote poems about same-gender passion.

The oldest use of the term to describe same-gender love has been traced back to the 17th century. But its modern use emerged in the 1890s, when it was used in an English-language medical dictionary and a variety of books on psychology and sexuality. Over time, it grew in popularity and was adopted by women who secretly, then proudly, loved other women.

The dawn of “homosexuality” and “bisexuality”

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th century German lawyer and writer who may have identified as gay, was the first to try to label his own community. As early as 1862, he used the term “Urning” to refer to men who were attracted to men. “We Urnings constitute a special class of human gender,” he wrote . “We are our own gender, a third sex.”

But the term was quickly replaced by a word coined by Austro-Hungarian journalist Karoly Maria Kertbeny. In 1869, the Prussian government contemplated adding language that forbade male same-gender sexual activity to its constitution.

In response, Kertbeny wrote a passionate, anonymous open letter to the Prussian minister of justice calling the proposed law “shocking nonsense” and using the word “homosexuality,” which he had previously coined in a private letter to Ulrichs. He also coined the term heterosexual, referring to those who are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and bisexual, which referred to people attracted to both men and women.

Kertbeny’s letter emphasized that same-gender attraction was inborn and challenged prevailing notions that it was shameful and harmful. Early gay rights groups and practitioners of the growing field of psychology eventually adopted the terms.

Gay: Reclaiming a slur

In the late 1960s, activists reclaimed a decades-old slur, “gay.” Throughout the 20th century, same-gender attraction and sexual activity was largely outlawed, and this and other slurs that denigrated LGBTQ+ people were common. Though its origins are murky, “gay” was eventually embraced by men who defied the status quo with open expressions of same-gender love.

Activists also began using other terms like social variant, deviant, and “homophile,” which means “same love,” in an effort to sidestep commonly used slurs, emphasize the loving relationships of same-gender relationships, and protest discriminatory laws. These words were used “as the means whereby individuals could make sense of their own experiences, their active-undergoing of being homosexual in a homophobic environment,” writes sociologist J. Todd Ormsbee.

By 1980, wrote essayist Edmund White, “gay” had overtaken these other terms for men who are attracted to men. White attributed its growing popularity to the fact that it is “one of the few words that does not refer explicitly to sexual activity.” It was used both to refer to men who love men and anyone who expressed same-gender preference or gender divergence.

“Transgender” becomes part of LGBT

In the 1990s, the longstanding bonds between lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in both daily life and liberation activism led to the widespread adoption of the LGB acronym (lesbian, gay and bisexual).

But it took longer to gain acceptance for another term that is now part of the modern acronym: “transgender.” Though trans people have existed throughout history, the term only came into being in the 1960s. Historians have traced the earliest use of the term to a 1965 psychology textbook, and it was popularized by transfeminine activists like Virginia Prince , who argued that sex and gender are separate entities. As it replaced other terminology that mocked or minimized trans people, “transgender” was increasingly embraced as part of the wider LGBT rights movement and was widespread by the 2000s.

How “queer” became mainstream

More recently, Q has been added to the acronym. In use since at least the 1910s, it was also once a slur used to separate people from a heteronormative society. But “queer” was increasingly used by people within the gay rights movement beginning in the 1990s. Linguist Gregory Coles writes that it “can be read as at once pejorative and honorific,” depending on the speaker’s identity and intention. Scholars largely consider the use of “queer” as one of reclamation. 

( "We are everywhere:" How rural queer communities connect through storytelling .)

Q  also used to stand for “questioning,” as a way to acknowledge those who are exploring their gender or sexual identity. This dual definition points to a larger, ongoing conversation about the meaning of personal identity and whether it’s even appropriate to use umbrella terms like LGBTQ as a shorthand about people’s lived experiences.

An unfinished evolution

Newer appendages to the acronym attempt to embrace an even wider swath of the community. A plus sign, referring to a wide variety of gender identifications and sexual identities, or the initials I (“intersex”) and A (“asexual”) are sometimes added after LGBTQ.

The acronym has its critics, especially among those who argue that no term can ever encompass the entire spectrum of gender and sexual expression. A variety of academic and governmental organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, have recently adopted the term “gender and sexual minority” in an attempt to be even more inclusive.

And it’s all but certain the words people use to describe gender expression and sexual identity will continue to evolve.

“No term is perfect or perfectly inclusive,” wrote a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee in a 2020 report. “The beauty of individuality is that self-expression, as well as personal and romantic choices, can manifest in a multitude of ways.”

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Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities. The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.

Cover of The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People

The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding.

  • Hardcopy Version at National Academies Press

1 Introduction

At a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ( LGBT ) individuals are an increasingly open, acknowledged, and visible part of society, clinicians and researchers are faced with incomplete information about the health status of this community. Although a modest body of knowledge on LGBT health has been developed over the last two decades, much remains to be explored. What is currently known about LGBT health? Where do gaps in the research in this area exist? What are the priorities for a research agenda to address these gaps? This report aims to answer these questions.


The phrase “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community” (or “ LGBT community”) refers to a broad coalition of groups that are diverse with respect to gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Thus while this report focuses on the community that is encapsulated by the acronym LGBT, the committee wishes to highlight the importance of recognizing that the various populations represented by “L,” “G,” “B,” and “T” are distinct groups, each with its own special health-related concerns and needs. The committee believes it is essential to emphasize these differences at the outset of this report because in some contemporary scientific discourse, and in the popular media, these groups are routinely treated as a single population under umbrella terms such as LGBT. At the same time, as discussed further below, these groups have many experiences in common, key among them being the experience of stigmatization. (Differences within each of these groups related to, for example, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and age also are addressed later in the chapter.)

Lesbians, gay men, and bisexual men and women are defined according to their sexual orientation, which, as discussed in Chapter 2 , is typically conceptualized in terms of sexual attraction, behavior, identity, or some combination of these dimensions. They share the fact that their sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual. Yet this grouping of “nonheterosexuals” includes men and women; homosexual and bisexual individuals; people who label themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, among other terms; and people who do not adopt such labels but nevertheless experience same-sex attraction or engage in same-sex sexual behavior. As explained throughout the report, these differences have important health implications for each group.

In contrast to lesbians, gay men, and bisexual men and women, transgender people are defined according to their gender identity and presentation. This group encompasses individuals whose gender identity differs from the sex originally assigned to them at birth or whose gender expression varies significantly from what is traditionally associated with or typical for that sex (i.e., people identified as male at birth who subsequently identify as female, and people identified as female at birth who later identify as male), as well as other individuals who vary from or reject traditional cultural conceptualizations of gender in terms of the male–female dichotomy. The transgender population is diverse in gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation. Some transgender individuals have undergone medical interventions to alter their sexual anatomy and physiology, others wish to have such procedures in the future, and still others do not. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual in their sexual orientation. Some lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are transgender; most are not. Male-to-female transgender people are known as MtF, transgender females, or transwomen, while female-to-male transgender people are known as FtM, transgender males, or transmen. Some transgender people do not fit into either of these binary categories. As one might expect, there are health differences between transgender and nontransgender people, as well as between transgender females and transgender males.

Whereas “ LGBT ” is appropriate and useful for describing the combined populations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, it also can obscure the many differences that distinguish these sexual- and gender-minority groups. Combining lesbians and gay men under a single rubric, for example, obscures gender differences in the experiences of homosexual people. Likewise, collapsing together the experiences of bisexual women and men tends to obscure gender differences. Further, to the extent that lesbian, gay, and bisexual are understood as identity labels, “ LGB ” leaves out people whose experience includes same-sex attractions or behaviors but who do not adopt a nonheterosexual identity. And the transgender population, which itself encompasses multiple groups, has needs and concerns that are distinct from those of lesbians, bisexual women and men, and gay men.

As noted above, despite these many differences among the populations that make up the LGBT community, there are important commonalities as well. The remainder of this section first describes these commonalities and then some key differences within these populations.

Commonalities Among LGBT Populations

What do lesbians, gay men, bisexual women and men, and transgender people have in common that makes them, as a combined population, an appropriate focus for this report? In the committee's view, the main commonality across these diverse groups is their members' historically marginalized social status relative to society's cultural norm of the exclusively heterosexual individual who conforms to traditional gender roles and expectations. Put another way, these groups share the common status of “other” because of their members' departures from heterosexuality and gender norms. Their “otherness” is the basis for stigma and its attendant prejudice, discrimination, and violence, which underlie society's general lack of attention to their health needs and many of the health disparities discussed in this report. For some, this “otherness” may be complicated by additional dimensions of inequality such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, resulting in stigma at multiple levels.

To better understand how sexuality- and gender-linked stigma are related to health, imagine a world in which gender nonconformity, same-sex attraction, and same-sex sexual behavior are universally understood and accepted as part of the normal spectrum of the human condition. In this world, membership in any of the groups encompassed by LGBT would carry no social stigma, engender no disgrace or personal shame, and result in no discrimination. In this world, a host of issues would threaten the health of LGBT individuals: major chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease; communicable diseases; mental disorders; environmental hazards; the threat of violence and terrorism; and the many other factors that jeopardize human “physical, mental and social well-being.” 1 By and large, however, these issues would be the same as those confronting the rest of humanity. Only a few factors would stand out for LGBT individuals specifically. There would be little reason for the Institute of Medicine ( IOM ) to issue a report on LGBT health issues.

We do not live in the idealized world described in this thought experiment, however. Historically, lesbians, gay men, bisexual individuals, and transgender people have not been understood and accepted as part of the normal spectrum of the human condition. Instead, they have been stereotyped as deviants. Although LGBT people share with the rest of society the full range of health risks, they also face a profound and poorly understood set of additional health risks due largely to social stigma.

While the experience of stigma can differ across sexual and gender minorities, stigmatization touches the lives of all these groups in important ways and thereby affects their health. In contrast to members of many other marginalized groups, LGBT individuals frequently are invisible to health care researchers and providers. As explained in later chapters, this invisibility often exacerbates the deleterious effects of stigma. Overcoming this invisibility in health care services and research settings is a critical goal if we hope to eliminate the health disparities discussed throughout this report.

It is important to note that, despite the common experience of stigma among members of sexual- and gender-minority groups, LGBT people have not been passive victims of discrimination and prejudice. The achievements of LGBT people over the past few decades in building a community infrastructure that addresses their health needs, as well as obtaining acknowledgment of their health concerns from scientific bodies and government entities, attest to their commitment to resisting stigma and working actively for equal treatment in all aspects of their lives, including having access to appropriate health care services and reducing health care disparities. Indeed, some of the research cited in this report demonstrates the impressive psychological resiliency displayed by members of these populations, often in the face of considerable stress.

As detailed throughout this report, the stigma directed at sexual and gender minorities in the contemporary United States creates a variety of challenges for researchers and health care providers. Fearing discrimination and prejudice, for example, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people refrain from disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to researchers and health care providers. Regardless of their own sexual orientation or gender identity, moreover, researchers risk being marginalized or discredited simply because they have chosen to study LGBT issues ( Kempner, 2008 ), and providers seldom receive training in specific issues related to the care of LGBT patients. In addition, research on LGBT health involves some specific methodological challenges, which are discussed in Chapter 3 .

Differences Within LGBT Populations

Not only are lesbians, gay men, bisexual women and men, and transgender people distinct populations, but each of these groups is itself a diverse population whose members vary widely in age, race and ethnicity, geographic location, social background, religiosity, and other demographic characteristics. Since many of these variables are centrally related to health status, health concerns, and access to care, this report explicitly considers a few key subgroupings of the LGBT population in each chapter:

  • Age cohort —One's age influences one's experiences and needs. Bisexual adolescents who are wrestling with coming out in a nonsupportive environment have different health needs than gay adult men who lack access to health insurance or older lesbians who are unable to find appropriate grief counseling services. In addition, development does not follow the same course for people of all ages. An older adult who comes out as gay in his 50s may not experience the developmental process in the same fashion as a self-identified “queer” youth who comes out during her teenage years. Similarly, as discussed further below, experiences across the life course differ according to the time period in which individuals are born. For example, an adolescent coming out in 2010 would do so in a different environment than an adolescent coming out in the 1960s. Moreover, some people experience changes in their sexual attractions and relationships over the course of their life. Some transgender people, for example, are visibly gender role nonconforming in childhood and come out at an early age, whereas others are able to conform and may not come out until much later in life.
  • Race and ethnicity —Concepts of community, traditional roles, religiosity, and cultural influences associated with race and ethnicity shape an LGBT individual's experiences. The racial and ethnic communities to which one belongs affect self-identification, the process of coming out, available support, the extent to which one identifies with the LGBT community, affirmation of gender-variant expression, and other factors that ultimately influence health outcomes. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups may have profoundly different experiences than non-Hispanic white LGBT individuals.
  • Educational level and socioeconomic status —An LGBT individual's experience in society varies depending on his or her educational level and socioeconomic status. As higher educational levels tend to be associated with higher income levels, members of the community who are more educated may live in better neighborhoods with better access to health care and the ability to lead healthier lives because of safe walking spaces and grocery stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables (although, as discussed in later chapters, evidence indicates that some LGBT people face economic discrimination regardless of their educational level). On the other hand, members of the LGBT community who do not finish school or who live in poorer neighborhoods may experience more barriers in access to care and more negative health outcomes.
  • Geographic location —Geographic location has significant effects on mental and physical health outcomes for LGBT individuals. Those in rural areas or areas with fewer LGBT people may feel less comfortable coming out, have less support from families and friends, and lack access to an LGBT community. LGBT individuals in rural areas may have less access to providers who are comfortable with or knowledgeable about the treatment of LGBT patients. In contrast, LGBT people living in areas with larger LGBT populations may find more support services and have more access to health care providers who are experienced in treating LGBT individuals.

Although these areas represent critical dimensions of the experiences of LGBT individuals, the relationships of these variables to health care disparities and health status have not been extensively studied.


In the context of the issues outlined above, the IOM was asked by the National Institutes of Health ( NIH ) to convene a Committee on Lesbian , Gay , Bisexual , and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities. The 17-member committee included experts from the fields of mental health, biostatistics, clinical medicine, adolescent health and development, aging, parenting, behavioral sciences, HIV research, demography, racial and ethnic disparities, and health services research. The committee's statement of task is shown in Box 1-1 . The study was supported entirely by NIH.

Statement of Task. An IOM committee will conduct a review and prepare a report assessing the state of the science on the health status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations; identify research gaps and opportunities related to LGBT (more...)

Although intersexuality constitutes an additional type of “otherness” that is stigmatized and overlaps in some respects with LGBT identities and health issues, the committee decided it would not be appropriate to include intersexuality in the study scope. The majority of individuals affected by disorders of sex development do not face challenges related to sexual orientation and gender identity, although homosexuality, gender role nonconformity, and gender dysphoria (defined as discomfort with the gender assigned to one at birth [see Chapter 2 ]) are somewhat more prevalent among this population compared with the general population ( Cohen-Kettenis and Pfafflin, 2003 ). The committee acknowledges that while very little research exists on the subject of intersexuality, it is a separate research topic encompassing critical issues, most of which are not related to LGBT issues, and hence is beyond the scope of this report.

In a similar vein, the committee decided not to address research and theory on the origins of sexual orientation. The committee's task was to review the state of science on the health status of LGBT populations, to identify gaps in knowledge, and to outline a research agenda in the area of LGBT health. The committee recognized that a thorough review of research and theory relevant to the factors that shape sexual orientation (including sexual orientation identity, sexual behavior, and sexual desire or attraction) would be a substantial task, one that would be largely distinct from the committee's main focus on LGBT health, and therefore beyond the scope of the committee's charge.


This study was informed by four public meetings that included 35 presentations (see Appendix A ). Three of these meetings were held in Washington, DC, while the fourth took place in San Francisco. In addition, the committee conducted an extensive review of the literature using Medline, PsycInfo, and the Social Science Citation Index (see Appendix B for a list of search terms), as well as other resources. The committee's approach to the literature is described below, followed by a discussion of the various frameworks applied in this study. A brief note on the terminology used in this report is presented in Box 1-2 .

A Note on Terminology. As discussed, the committee adopted the commonly used shorthand LGBT to stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. In cases in which the literature refers only to lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations, the term LGB appears (more...)

Approach to the Literature

While acknowledging that peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard for the reporting of research results and making every effort to consult works published in major research journals, the committee chose to include in this study what it judged to be the best empirical literature available: journal articles, book chapters, empirical reports, and other data sources that had been critically reviewed by the committee members. Recognizing that academic journals differ in their publication criteria and the rigor of their peer-review process, the committee gave the greatest weight to papers published in the most authoritative journals. Given that chapters, academic books, and technical reports typically are not subjected to the same peer-review standards as journal articles, the committee gave the greatest credence to such sources that reported research employing rigorous methods, were authored by well-established researchers, and were generally consistent with scholarly consensus on the current state of knowledge.

With respect to articles describing current health issues in the LGBT community, the committee attempted to limit its review to these articles published since 1999. In the area of transgender populations, however, much of the most current research was conducted prior to 1999 and is cited throughout the report. Likewise, in the case of history and theory, the committee reviewed and cites older literature.

When evaluating quantitative and qualitative research, the committee considered factors affecting the generalizability of studies, including sample size, sample source, sample composition, recruitment methods, and response rate. The committee also considered the study design, saturation (the point at which new information ceases to emerge), and other relevant factors. In some cases, the committee decided that a study with sample limitations was important; in such cases, these limitations and limits on the extent to which the findings can be generalized are explicitly acknowledged. The inclusion of case studies was kept to a minimum given their limited generalizability.

Research on U.S. samples was given priority. In cases in which no U.S.-based data were available or the committee determined that it was important to include research on non-U.S. samples, however, this research is cited. This was frequently the case for research involving transgender people. Only English-language articles were considered.

The committee considered papers whose authors employed statistical methods for analyzing data, as well as qualitative research that did not include statistical analysis. For papers that included statistical analysis, the committee evaluated whether the analysis was appropriate and conducted properly. For papers reporting qualitative research, the committee evaluated whether the data were appropriately analyzed and interpreted. The committee does not present magnitudes of differences, which should be determined by consulting individual studies.

In some cases, the committee used secondary sources such as reports. However, it always referred back to the original citations to evaluate the evidence.

Conceptual Frameworks

In understanding the health of LGBT populations, multiple frameworks can be used to examine how multiple identities and structural arrangements intersect to influence health care access, health status, and health outcomes. This section provides an overview of each of the conceptual frameworks used for this study.

First, recognizing that there are a number of ways to present the information contained in this report, the committee found it helpful to apply a life-course perspective. A life-course perspective provides a useful framework for the above-noted varying health needs and experiences of an LGBT individual over the course of his or her life. Central to a life-course framework ( Cohler and Hammack, 2007 ; Elder, 1998 ) is the notion that the experiences of individuals at every stage of their life inform subsequent experiences, as individuals are constantly revisiting issues encountered at earlier points in the life course. This interrelationship among experiences starts before birth and in fact, before conception. A life-course framework has four key dimensions:

  • Linked lives— Lives are interdependent; social ties, including immediate family and other relationships, influence individuals' perspective on life.
  • Life events as part of an overall trajectory— Significant experiences have a differential impact at various stages of the life course.
  • Personal decisions— Individuals make choices influenced by the social contexts in which they live (e.g., family, peers, neighborhood, work setting).
  • Historical context— A historical perspective provides a context for understanding the forces and factors that have shaped an individual's experiences; those born within the same historical period may experience events differently from those born earlier or later.

From the perspective of LGBT populations, these four dimensions have particular salience because together they provide a framework for considering a range of issues that shape these individuals' experiences and their health disparities. The committee relied on this framework and on recognized differences in age cohorts, such as those discussed earlier, in presenting information about the health status of LGBT populations.

Along with a life-course framework, the committee drew on the minority stress model ( Brooks, 1981 ; Meyer, 1995 , 2003a ). While this model was originally developed by Brooks (1981) for lesbians, Meyer (1995) expanded it to include gay men and subsequently applied it to lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals ( Meyer, 2003b ). This model originates in the premise that sexual minorities, like other minority groups, experience chronic stress arising from their stigmatization. Within the context of an individual's environmental circumstances, Meyer conceptualizes distal and proximal stress processes. A distal process is an objective stressor that does not depend on an individual's perspective. In this model, actual experiences of discrimination and violence (also referred to as enacted stigma ) are distal stress processes. Proximal, or subjective, stress processes depend on an individual's perception. They include internalized homophobia (a term referring to an individual's self-directed stigma, reflecting the adoption of society's negative attitudes about homosexuality and the application of them to oneself), perceived stigma (which relates to the expectation that one will be rejected and discriminated against and leads to a state of continuous vigilance that can require considerable energy to maintain; it is also referred to as felt stigma ), and concealment of one's sexual orientation or transgender identity . Related to this taxonomy is the categorization of minority stress processes as both external (enacted stigma) and internal (felt stigma, self-stigma) ( Herek, 2009 ; Scambler and Hopkins, 1986 ).

There is also supporting evidence for the validity of this model for transgender individuals. Some qualitative studies strongly suggest that stigma can negatively affect the mental health of transgender people ( Bockting et al., 1998 ; Nemoto et al., 2003 , 2006 ).

The minority stress model attributes the higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, and substance use found among LGB as compared with heterosexual populations to the additive stress resulting from nonconformity with prevailing sexual orientation and gender norms. The committee's use of this framework is reflected in the discussion of stigma as a common experience for LGBT populations and, in the context of this study, one that affects health.

In addition to the minority stress model, the committee believed it was important to consider the multiple social identities of LGBT individuals, including their identities as members of various racial/ethnic groups, and the intersections of these identities with dimensions of inequality such as poverty. An intersectional perspective is useful because it acknowledges simultaneous dimensions of inequality and focuses on understanding how they are interrelated and how they shape and influence one another. This framework also challenges one to look at the points of cohesion and fracture within racial/ethnic sexual- and gender-minority groups, as well as those between these groups and the dominant group culture ( Brooks et al., 2009 ; Gamson and Moon, 2004 ).

Intersectionality encompasses a set of foundational claims and organizing principles for understanding social inequality and its relationship to individuals' marginalized status based on such dimensions as race, ethnicity, and social class ( Dill and Zambrana, 2009 ; Weber, 2010 ). These include the following:

  • Race is a social construct. The lived experiences of racial/ethnic groups can be understood only in the context of institutionalized patterns of unequal control over the distribution of a society's valued goods and resources.
  • Understanding the racial and ethnic experiences of sexual- and gender-minority individuals requires taking into account the full range of historical and social experiences both within and between sexual- and gender-minority groups with respect to class, gender, race, ethnicity, and geographical location.
  • The economic and social positioning of groups within society is associated with institutional practices and policies that contribute to unequal treatment.
  • The importance of representation—the ways social groups and individuals are viewed and depicted in the society at large and the expectations associated with these depictions—must be acknowledged. These representations are integrally linked to social, structural, political, historical, and geographic factors.

Intersectional approaches are based on the premise that individual and group identities are complex—influenced and shaped not just by race, class, ethnicity, sexuality/sexual orientation, gender, physical disabilities, and national origin but also by the confluence of all of those characteristics. Nevertheless, in a hierarchically organized society, some statuses become more important than others at any given historical moment and in specific geographic locations. Race, ethnicity, class, and community context matter; they are all powerful determinants of access to social capital—the resources that improve educational, economic, and social position in society. Thus, this framework reflects the committee's belief that the health status of LGBT individuals cannot be examined in terms of a one-dimensional sexual- or gender-minority category, but must be seen as shaped by their multiple identities and the simultaneous intersection of many characteristics.

Finally, the social ecology model ( McLeroy et al., 1988 ) draws on earlier work by Bronfenbrenner (1979) , which recognizes that influences on individuals can be much broader than the immediate environment. This viewpoint is reflected in Healthy People 2020. In developing objectives to improve the health of all Americans, including LGBT individuals, Healthy People 2020 used an ecological approach that focused on both individual-and population-level determinants of health ( HHS, 2000 , 2011 ). With respect to LGBT health in particular, the social ecology model is helpful in conceptualizing that behavior both affects the social environment and, in turn, is affected by it. A social ecological model has multiple levels, each of which influences the individual; beyond the individual, these may include families, relationships, community, and society. It is worth noting that for LGBT people, stigma can and does take place at all of these levels. The committee found this framework useful in thinking about the effects of environment on an individual's health, as well as ways in which to structure health interventions.

Each of the above four frameworks provides conceptual tools that can help increase our understanding of health status, health needs, and health disparities in LGBT populations. Each complements the others to yield a more comprehensive approach to understanding lived experiences and their impact on LGBT health. The life-course perspective focuses on development between and within age cohorts, conceptualized within a historical context. Sexual minority stress theory examines individuals within a social and community context and emphasizes the impact of stigma on lived experiences. Intersectionality brings attention to the importance of multiple stigmatized identities (race, ethnicity, and low socioeconomic status) and to the ways in which these factors adversely affect health. The social ecology perspective emphasizes the influences on individuals' lives, including social ties and societal factors, and how these influences affect health. The chapters that follow draw on all these conceptualizations in an effort to provide a comprehensive overview of what is known, as well as to identify the knowledge gaps.


This report is organized into seven chapters. Chapter 2 provides context for understanding LGBT health status by defining sexual orientation and gender identity, highlighting historical events that are pertinent to LGBT health, providing a demographic overview of LGBT people in the United States, examining barriers to their care, and using the example of HIV / AIDS to illustrate some important themes. Chapter 3 addresses the topic of conducting research on the health of LGBT people. Specifically, it reviews the major challenges associated with the conduct of research with LGBT populations, presents some commonly used research methods, provides information about available data sources, and comments on best practices for conducting research on the health of LGBT people.

As noted, in preparing this report, the committee found it helpful to discuss health issues within a life-course framework. Chapters 4 , 5 , and 6 review, respectively, what is known about the current health status of LGBT populations through the life course, divided into childhood/adolescence, early/middle adulthood, and later adulthood. Each of these chapters addresses the following by age cohort: the development of sexual orientation and gender identity, mental and physical health status, risk and protective factors, health services, and contextual influences affecting LGBT health. Chapter 7 reviews the gaps in research on LGBT health, outlines a research agenda, and offers recommendations based on the committee's findings.

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This latter phrase carries quotation marks because it is drawn from the preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization ( WHO, 1946 ), which defines health broadly, and appropriately, as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” For the purposes of this report, the committee defines “health” broadly in accordance with this definition. Therefore, health encompasses multiple dimensions including physical, emotional, and social well-being and quality of life.

  • Cite this Page Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities. The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. 1, Introduction.
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Regions & Countries

The global divide on homosexuality persists, but increasing acceptance in many countries over past two decades.

A member of the LGBT community takes part in a 2019 Pride walk in India. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)

This analysis focuses on whether people around the world think that homosexuality should be accepted by society or not. The full question wording was, “And which one of these comes closer to your opinion? Homosexuality should be accepted by society OR Homosexuality should not be accepted by society.”

The question is a long-term trend, first asked in the U.S. by the Pew Research Center in 1994 and globally in 2002. Respondents had an option to not answer the question (they could volunteer “don’t know” or refuse to answer the question). Respondents did not get any further instructions on how to interpret the question and no significant problems were noted during the fielding of the survey.

The term “homosexuality,” while sometimes considered anachronistic in the current era, is the most applicable and easily translatable term to use when asking this question across societies and languages and has been used in other cross-national studies, including the World Values Survey .

For this report, we used data from a survey conducted across 34 countries from May 13 to Oct. 2, 2019, totaling 38,426 respondents. The surveys were conducted face to face across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and on the phone in United States and Canada. In the Asia-Pacific region, face-to-face surveys were conducted in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, while phone surveys were administered in Australia, Japan and South Korea. Across Europe, the survey was conducted over the phone in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK, but face to face in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Here are the  questions  used for the report, along with responses, and the survey  methodology .

Despite major changes in laws and norms surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage and the rights of LGBT people around the world , public opinion on the acceptance of homosexuality in society remains sharply divided by country, region and economic development.

The global divide on acceptance of homosexuality

As it was in 2013 , when the question was last asked, attitudes on the acceptance of homosexuality are shaped by the country in which people live. Those in Western Europe and the Americas are generally more accepting of homosexuality than are those in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. And publics in the Asia-Pacific region generally are split. This is a function not only of economic development of nations, but also religious and political attitudes.

But even with these sharp divides, views are changing in many of the countries that have been surveyed since 2002, when Pew Research Center first began asking this question. In many nations, there has been an increasing acceptance of homosexuality, including in the United States, where 72% say it should be accepted, compared with just 49% as recently as 2007.

Rising acceptance of homosexuality by people in many countries around the world over the past two decades

Many of the countries surveyed in 2002 and 2019 have seen a double-digit increase in acceptance of homosexuality. This includes a 21-point increase since 2002 in South Africa and a 19-point increase in South Korea over the same time period. India also saw a 22-point increase since 2014, the first time the question was asked of a nationally representative sample there.

There also have been fairly large shifts in acceptance of homosexuality over the past 17 years in two very different places: Mexico and Japan. In both countries, just over half said they accepted homosexuality in 2002, but now closer to seven-in-ten say this.

In Kenya, only 1 in 100 said homosexuality should be accepted in 2002, compared with 14% who say this now. (For more on acceptance of homosexuality over time among all the countries surveyed, see Appendix A .)

In many of the countries surveyed, there also are differences on acceptance of homosexuality by age, education, income and, in some instances, gender – and in several cases, these differences are substantial. In addition, religion and its importance in people’s lives shape opinions in many countries. For example, in some countries, those who are affiliated with a religious group tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than those who are unaffiliated (a group sometimes referred to as religious “nones”).

Political ideology also plays a role in acceptance of homosexuality. In many countries, those on the political right are less accepting of homosexuality than those on the left. And supporters of several right-wing populist parties in Europe are also less likely to see homosexuality as acceptable. (For more on how the survey defines populist parties in Europe, see Appendix B .)

Attitudes on this issue are strongly correlated with a country’s wealth. In general, people in wealthier and more developed economies are more accepting of homosexuality than are those in less wealthy and developed economies.

Wealthier countries tend to be more accepting of homosexuality

These are among the major findings of a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 38,426 people in 34 countries from May 13 to Oct. 2, 2019. The study is a follow-up to a 2013 report that found many of the same patterns as seen today, although there has been an increase in acceptance of homosexuality across many of the countries surveyed in both years.

Varied levels of acceptance for homosexuality across globe

Acceptance of homosexuality varies across the globe

On a regional basis, acceptance of homosexuality is highest in Western Europe and North America. Central and Eastern Europeans, however, are more divided on the subject, with a median of 46% who say homosexuality should be accepted and 44% saying it should not be.

But in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, few say that society should accept homosexuality; only in South Africa (54%) and Israel (47%) do more than a quarter hold this view.

People in the Asia-Pacific region show little consensus on the subject. More than three-quarters of those surveyed in Australia (81%) say homosexuality should be accepted, as do 73% of Filipinos. Meanwhile, only 9% in Indonesia agree.

In the three Latin American countries surveyed, strong majorities say they accept homosexuality in society.

Pew Research Center has been gathering data on acceptance of homosexuality in the U.S. since 1994, and there has been a relatively steady increase in the share who say that homosexuality should be accepted by society since 2000. However, while it took nearly 15 years for acceptance to rise 13 points from 2000 to just before the federal legalization of gay marriage in June 2015, there was a near equal rise in acceptance in just the four years since legalization.

Americans are increasingly accepting of homosexuality in society

At the same time, the U.S. still maintains one of the lowest rates of acceptance among the Western European and North and South American countries surveyed. (For more on American views of homosexuality, LGBT issues and same-sex marriage, see Pew Research Center’s topic page here ; U.S. political and partisan views on this topic can be found here .)

In many countries, younger generations more accepting of homosexuality

This difference was most pronounced in South Korea, where 79% of 18- to 29-year-olds say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with only 23% of those 50 and older. This staggering 56-point difference exceeds the next largest difference in Japan by 20 points, where 92% and 56% of those ages 18 to 29 and 50 and older, respectively, say homosexuality should be accepted by society.

In some countries, women are significantly more accepting of homosexuality than men

For example, in Greece, 72% of those with a postsecondary education or more say homosexuality is acceptable, compared with 42% of those with a secondary education or less who say this. Significant differences of this nature are found in both countries with generally high levels of acceptance (such as Italy) and low levels (like Ukraine).

In a similar number of countries, those who earn more money than the country’s national median income also are more likely to say they accept homosexuality in society than those who earn less. In Israel, for instance, 52% of higher income earners say homosexuality is acceptable in society versus only three-in-ten of lower income earners who say the same.

The ideological left is generally more accepting of homosexuality in society

In South Korea, for example, those who classify themselves on the ideological left are more than twice as likely to say homosexuality is acceptable than those on the ideological right (a 39-percentage-point difference). Similar double-digit differences of this nature appear in many European and North American countries.

People with favorable views of right-wing populist parties in Europe tend to be less accepting of homosexuality

And in Poland, supporters of the governing PiS (Law and Justice), which has explicitly targeted gay rights as anathema to traditional Polish values , are 23 percentage points less likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted by society than those who do not support the governing party.

Similar differences appear in neighboring Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, also has shown hostility to gay rights . But even in countries like France and Germany where acceptance of homosexuality is high, there are differences between supporters and non-supporters of key right-wing populist parties such as National Rally in France and Alternative for Germany (AfD).

People who see religion as less important in their daily lives are more accepting of homosexuality

In 25 of the 34 countries surveyed, those who say religion is “somewhat,” “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives are more likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted than those who say religion is “very” important. Among Israelis, those who say religion is not very important in their lives are almost three times more likely than those who say religion is very important to say that society should accept homosexuality.

Significant differences of this nature appear across a broad spectrum of both highly religious and less religious countries, including Czech Republic (38-percentage-point difference), South Korea (38), Canada (33), the U.S. (29), Slovakia (29), Greece (28) and Turkey (26).

Religious affiliation also plays a key role in views towards acceptance of homosexuality. For example, those who are religiously unaffiliated, sometimes called religious “nones,” (that is, those who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) tend to be more accepting of homosexuality. Though the opinions of religiously unaffiliated people can vary widely , in virtually every country surveyed with a sufficient number of unaffiliated respondents, “nones” are more accepting of homosexuality than the affiliated. In most cases, the affiliated comparison group is made up of Christians. But even among Christians, Catholics are more likely to accept homosexuality than Protestants and evangelicals in many countries with enough adherents for analysis.

One example of this pattern can be found in South Korea. Koreans who are religiously unaffiliated are about twice as likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted by society (60%) as those who are Christian (24%) or Buddhist (31%). Similarly, in Hungary, 62% of “nones” say society should accept homosexuality, compared with only 48% of Catholics.

In the few countries surveyed with Muslim populations large enough for analysis, acceptance of homosexuality is particularly low among adherents of Islam. But in Nigeria, for example, acceptance of homosexuality is low among Christians and Muslims alike (6% and 8%, respectively). Jews in Israel are much more likely to say that homosexuality is acceptable than Israeli Muslims (53% and 17%, respectively).

  • For the purpose of comparing educational groups across countries, we standardize education levels based on the UN’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). The lower education category is below secondary education and the higher category is secondary or above in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Tunisia and Ukraine. In all other countries, the lower education category is secondary education or less education and the higher category is postsecondary or more education. ↩

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“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan Essay (Article Review)

In his essay What is a Homosexual? Andrew Sullivan presents his own view on the concept of homosexuality, a view based on his own experience of a homosexual person. Using this experience, the author gives his own interpretation of this concept as well as its major elements. According to Sullivan’s essay What is a Homosexual?, homosexuality is the isolation from the rest of the society and a diversity of human sexuality; however, it is not a factor which people are guided by when making their life choices.

To begin with, Sullivan defines homosexuality as isolation which is simply unavoidable. He states that “no homosexual child, surrounded overwhelmingly by heterosexuals, will feel at home in his sexual and emotional world, even in the most tolerant cultures” (Sullivan 155). Sullivan shares his own experience in order to support this idea; he emphasizes that this isolation is unbearable for homosexual adolescents who are unable “to enter into the world of dating girls” (Sullivan 156) and who have to throw themselves into sports or studies or just withdraw from the others into despair because of their fear to come out. Therefore, what homosexuality is above all, according to Sullivan, it is isolation due to the homosexual adolescents’ unwillingness to disclose their real sexual orientation.

In addition, Sullivan defines homosexuality as diversity in human sexuality. This diversity accounts for the creation of stereotypes regarding a particular type of people (just like the diversity of culture, for instance). Sullivan admits that homosexual people possess “certain unavoidable features of homosexual character” such as “inflections of voice, the quirks of a particular movement”, etc (Sullivan 157-158). And namely the possession of these features allows referring homosexuality to the diversity of sexuality. However, as Sullivan states, it is due to them that homosexuals often develop self-contempt and have to live in emotional and psychological disguise that eventually alters their self-perception. Thus, trying to define homosexuality, Sullivan names it a diversity of human sexuality.

Finally, when defining homosexuality, Sullivan mentions that it is not a factor to be guided by in one’s life choices. The author notes that most of the homosexuals get appeased with their sexual identity and soon stop regarding it as something that may change their life drastically: “Perhaps because of a less repressive upbringing or because of some natural ease in the world, they affected a simple comfort with their fate, and a desire to embrace it” (Sullivan 156). Sullivan confesses that he envies such people’s self confidence because he himself had “the more self-dramatizing urge of the tortured homosexual, trapped between feeling wicked and feeling ridiculous” (Sullivan 156). Consequently, what homosexuality is not, as stated by Sullivan, it is not a critical factor “or even a factor at all” (Sullivan 156) and it is much easier to simply accept it.

Taking into consideration everything mentioned above, it can be stated that Sullivan’s definition of homosexuality focuses on what it is and what it is not. Sullivan defines homosexuality as isolation which a homosexual individual faces when discovering his or her being different from the others; in addition, homosexuality is a diversity of human sexuality with homosexual people possessing distinctive character features. At this, Sullivan emphasizes that homosexuality is not a critical factor considered in making life choices this is why it should be appeased with.

Sullivan, Andrew. What is a Homosexual? In Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. Ed. Andrew Sullivan. New York: Vintage Books.

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IvyPanda. (2022, June 8). “What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan.

"“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan." IvyPanda , 8 June 2022,

IvyPanda . (2022) '“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan'. 8 June.

IvyPanda . 2022. "“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan." June 8, 2022.

1. IvyPanda . "“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan." June 8, 2022.


IvyPanda . "“What Is a Homosexual?” by Andrew Sullivan." June 8, 2022.

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  • The adjective homosexual often appears in formal writing and medical writing, but in other situations many people prefer to use the less formal words gay or (for women) lesbian .
  • Except when used in older scientific or technical writing, the noun homosexual is now considered offensive by many people.

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Argumentative Essays on LGBT

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The Importance of Accepting The LGBT

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Lgbtq+ Acceptance in The Irish Community

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Impact of Social Media Platform on Self-concept Among Lgbtqia+ Community

Research and discussion on homosexuality nowadays, homosexuality and evolution: analyzing homosexuality as an adaptive strategy, the development of gay rights movement in the usa, nature of same-sex relationship: divorce, american literature: how lgbt invisibility shapes narratives, criminalization of homosexuality in england, wales, and scotland, the privilege and struggles of the transgender individuals in trans bodies, trans selves, a book edited by laura erickson-schroth, the sexual identity and overall well being of chiron in moonlight, a film by barry jenkins, how lgbt movement led to the legalization of gay marriages in the united states, homosexuality: debating issues in the light of indian legal and social system, what is pink capitalism and its representation in giovanni’s room, persecution and liberation of gays in the middle east, the issue of religious freedom for lgbt community, how one choice can have a harmful effect on others, money boy by paul yee: the issue of sexuality and sexual preference, scientific research and discussion on homosexuality, reflection on redefining realness by janet mock, rallying cry for equality among the lgbtq: the murder of matthew shepard, the negative impacts of homophobia on people.

LGBT is an initialism that represents the diverse identities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. This term, along with its commonly used variations, serves as an umbrella term encompassing a range of sexual orientations and gender identities. It acknowledges and respects the experiences and diversity within these communities. The initialism LGBT provides a concise way to refer to these groups, promoting inclusivity and recognition of the unique challenges and contributions of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Starting around 1988, activists in the United States began adopting the initialism LGBT. It wasn't until the 1990s that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities within the movement started receiving equal recognition. While the LGBT community has faced challenges and debates over the acceptance of various groups within it, the term LGBT has come to symbolize inclusivity and has had a positive impact. It serves as a unifying symbol for individuals of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, reflecting the ongoing progress towards equal respect and understanding. The evolution of the term LGBT highlights the collective efforts of activists and serves as a reminder of the continued work needed to achieve universal acceptance within the community.

Ellen DeGeneres: A well-known comedian, actress, and talk show host, DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, making a significant impact on mainstream visibility and acceptance of the LGBT community. She has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and has used her platform to promote inclusivity and understanding. Sir Ian McKellen: A renowned British actor, McKellen has been openly gay and a prominent advocate for LGBT rights. He has used his platform to raise awareness, challenge discrimination, and promote inclusivity in the entertainment industry and beyond. Ellen Page (Elliot Page): Page, a Canadian actor, came out as gay in 2014 and later as transgender in 2020, changing his name to Elliot Page. He has been vocal about his experiences and has become an important advocate for transgender rights and representation in the media. Janelle Monáe: An American singer, songwriter, and actor, Monáe has identified as pansexual, openly expressing her attraction to people regardless of their gender. She has used her artistry and platform to promote LGBTQ+ visibility and empowerment. Billy Porter: A multi-talented actor, singer, and fashion icon, Porter is openly gay and has been a prominent advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. He has made a significant impact through his activism, while his unique style and presence challenge traditional gender norms.

Public opinion regarding the topic of LGBT has undergone significant transformations over time. While societal attitudes towards the LGBT community have become more accepting and supportive in various regions, it is essential to acknowledge that perspectives can vary widely based on cultural, religious, and individual beliefs. In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend towards increased acceptance and inclusivity towards LGBT individuals. Many individuals now recognize the importance of upholding equal rights and protections for people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. This shift can be attributed to factors such as heightened visibility of LGBT individuals in mainstream media, educational initiatives, and the tireless activism of the LGBT rights movement. However, it is crucial to note that not all individuals hold positive views towards the LGBT community. There are still pockets of resistance and discrimination, often rooted in deeply ingrained biases and misconceptions. These differing opinions contribute to ongoing debates and discussions surrounding issues like same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the need for anti-discrimination measures.

The depiction of LGBT individuals in media has undergone significant changes, reflecting the evolving attitudes and increasing visibility of the LGBT community. In recent years, there has been a notable shift towards more authentic and diverse portrayals, highlighting the complexities and experiences of LGBT individuals. Television shows such as "Pose" have gained acclaim for their authentic representation of the transgender community and the ballroom culture in the 1980s and 1990s. This series not only features transgender actors in prominent roles but also explores the challenges and triumphs faced by the characters, providing a nuanced portrayal. Another example is the film "Moonlight," which received critical acclaim for its poignant depiction of a young, gay African American man navigating his identity and relationships. The film's exploration of sexuality and race resonated with audiences and contributed to important conversations surrounding intersectionality. Furthermore, the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" introduced a diverse range of LGBT characters, portraying their stories with depth and complexity. By showcasing the experiences of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in a prison setting, the series shed light on the intersection of sexuality, gender, and incarceration.

The topic of LGBT is important because it encompasses the rights, experiences, and identities of a significant portion of the population. Recognizing and understanding the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities promotes inclusivity, equality, and social justice. It is crucial to address the unique challenges and discrimination faced by LGBT individuals to foster a society that embraces everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. By raising awareness, promoting acceptance, and advocating for equal rights, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment where individuals can express their authentic selves without fear of discrimination or marginalization. Embracing the topic of LGBT is a step towards building a more compassionate and equitable society for all.

The topic of LGBT is worth writing an essay for students because it provides an opportunity for education, awareness, and personal growth. Engaging with this topic allows students to develop a deeper understanding of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, fostering empathy and acceptance. Exploring the challenges faced by LGBT individuals, such as discrimination and social stigma, encourages critical thinking and empathy-building skills. Additionally, studying the history and achievements of the LGBT rights movement can inspire students to become advocates for equality and inclusion. By addressing the topic of LGBT, students gain valuable knowledge that is relevant to today's society, helping to create a more inclusive and respectful environment for all individuals.

1. A significant portion of the LGBT community (42%) indicates residing in unwelcoming environments, while a substantial number of gay and lesbian youth (80%) experience severe social isolation. 2. Workplace discrimination remains a concern, with 35% of LGBT staff concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity due to fear of discrimination. 3. The majority (90%) of LGBT teens choose to come out to their close friends, highlighting the importance of supportive social circles.

1. Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). LGBT Issues. Retrieved from 2. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). LGBT Resources. Retrieved from 3. GLAAD. (n.d.). About GLAAD. Retrieved from 4. Lambda Legal. (n.d.). Impacting Policy. Retrieved from 5. National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from 6. Williams Institute. (n.d.). Research. Retrieved from 7. The Trevor Project. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from 8. Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from 9. Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from 10. Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). (n.d.). GLAAD Media Reference Guide - 10th Edition. Retrieved from

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homosexual meaning essay


Essay on Homosexuality

Students are often asked to write an essay on Homosexuality in their schools and colleges. And if you’re also looking for the same, we have created 100-word, 250-word, and 500-word essays on the topic.

Let’s take a look…

100 Words Essay on Homosexuality

Understanding homosexuality.

Homosexuality is when a person is attracted to people of the same sex. It’s a part of human diversity, like being left-handed.

Acceptance and Rights

Many societies now accept homosexuality, and many countries have laws protecting the rights of homosexuals.

Homosexuality in Nature

Homosexuality is not just human behavior; many animal species also show same-sex behavior.

Homophobia is the fear or hatred of homosexuals. It’s important to respect everyone’s identities and choices.

Everyone has the right to love and be loved, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Understanding and acceptance are key.

250 Words Essay on Homosexuality


Homosexuality, a subject of immense contention and debate, refers to the romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between individuals of the same sex. While homosexuality has been observed in various forms across different cultures and epochs, it has often been stigmatized or suppressed due to religious, societal, and cultural norms.

Historical Context

Historically, homosexuality has been interpreted in diverse ways. Ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans exhibited acceptance, even celebration of same-sex relationships. However, the advent of monotheistic religions marked a shift in this perception, leading to widespread criminalization and persecution.

Modern Perspectives

In the 20th century, homosexuality began to be understood from a psychological and biological perspective. The American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, marking a significant shift in societal attitudes. Today, many societies are becoming more accepting, with numerous countries legalizing same-sex marriage and adopting anti-discrimination laws.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite progress, homosexuality still faces severe challenges. Homophobic attitudes persist, leading to discrimination, violence, and mental health issues among the LGBTQ+ community. Controversies also arise from the debate between nature and nurture, with some arguing homosexuality is a choice, despite scientific evidence suggesting inherent biological factors.

In conclusion, homosexuality, while still a contentious issue, is increasingly recognized and accepted in modern societies. It is crucial to continue advocating for the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, promoting a society where everyone is respected and valued, regardless of their sexual orientation.

500 Words Essay on Homosexuality

Homosexuality, a term often loaded with cultural, religious, and personal bias, refers to the romantic or sexual attraction that individuals of the same sex have for each other. It is a natural variation of human sexuality that has been present across cultures and throughout history. Yet, it is a topic that continues to elicit controversy and debate. The understanding and acceptance of homosexuality have evolved over the years, but it remains a subject of discrimination and misunderstanding in many societies.

The Biological Basis of Homosexuality

Scientific research suggests that homosexuality is not a choice but rather an inherent aspect of an individual’s identity. Studies have found genetic and hormonal influences on sexual orientation, indicating a biological basis for homosexuality. A significant piece of evidence comes from twin studies, which show a higher concordance rate of homosexuality in identical twins compared to fraternal twins. This suggests that genes play a role in determining sexual orientation.

Societal Attitudes and Legal Perspectives

Attitudes towards homosexuality vary greatly across different cultures and societies. In some regions, homosexuality is accepted and celebrated as a natural part of human diversity. In others, it is stigmatized, criminalized, or even punished with death. These attitudes are often shaped by religious beliefs, cultural norms, and legal structures.

In recent years, there has been significant progress in terms of legal rights for homosexual individuals. Many countries have decriminalized homosexuality and legalized same-sex marriage. However, in some parts of the world, homosexuality remains illegal and is harshly penalized.

The Importance of Acceptance and Understanding

Understanding and accepting homosexuality is crucial for numerous reasons. First, it promotes mental health and well-being among homosexual individuals. Homophobia and discrimination can lead to serious mental health issues, including depression and suicide. Acceptance, on the other hand, can foster self-esteem and resilience.

Second, acceptance of homosexuality contributes to societal progress. It challenges traditional norms and broadens our understanding of human diversity. It also promotes equality and human rights, principles that are fundamental to any democratic society.

Homosexuality is an inherent aspect of human diversity, shaped by biological factors and expressed differently across cultures and societies. Despite the progress made in recent years, it remains a controversial subject, often met with misunderstanding and discrimination. As we move forward, it is essential to promote acceptance and understanding of homosexuality, both to protect the mental health of homosexual individuals and to foster a more inclusive and equitable society.

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Guest Essay

My Mother Got on a Bike. It Changed Her Life.

An illustration of a woman with gray hair wearing a yellow shirt and colorful bike shorts, riding a bicycle. Behind her several figures stand in a cloud of dust.

By Caroline Paul

The author of “Tough Broad: From Boogie Boarding to Wing Walking — How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Life as We Age.”

When my mother was 62 years old, she dusted off a clunky Cannondale with Mary Poppins handles and joined a bicycling group. She was recovering from heartbreak and had just moved to a new town. She had no background as an outdoor activity enthusiast: She did not camp or hike, had never, say, paddled a kayak. But the bike group was made up of 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds. How hard could it be to tag along?

As I approach the age my mother was then, I notice my peers are increasingly galled by their advancing years. And why not? My friends are simply responding to the very real negative messaging around older women: fading looks, frail bones, cognitive decline, no cultural significance. I overheard one woman discussing plastic surgery and remarking, “Who doesn’t want to turn back time?” It’s hard not to get sucked into that mind-set.

Yet the way we look at our own aging predicts what our future holds, as Becca Levy, a professor of public health at Yale, writes in her recent book, “Breaking the Age Code .” We increase our risk of cardiac events and speed up cognitive decline, studies show, if we believe getting older is a time of suffering and diminution. More important, the opposite is also true: Those of us who view later life as a time of growth and vitality are more likely to stay healthy and to keep senility at bay . We may also end up living a whopping seven and a half years longer . In one instance, Dr. Levy looked at data from a longitudinal study and came to this astonishing conclusion: Mind-set was the most significant factor determining individuals’ longevity.

But all around us, the media, dating apps, our youth-obsessed culture and our own preconceived notions lead to one verdict: Aging stinks. It will be a white-knuckle ride, women are told, through increasing frailty and irrelevance. Affirmations and positive self-talk — skimming the surface of our psyches, outnumbered in the scrum — don’t stand a chance. Dr. Levy’s studies show us that we need to believe fervently in the vitality of our future. But how?

My mother joined that bike group. What was initially a distraction spun into a passion. She became a serious cyclist, the kind of serious who wore brightly colored bike shirts, used Lance Armstrong breathing techniques and planned group rides. I rode my bike with my mother once; believe me, there is nothing more disheartening than being trash-talked by one’s mom as she huffs by you on a hill. Pedaling through her 70s, she explored steep mountain roads and new towns. She entered 100-mile races, changed flats and downed electrolytes on the go.

I was envious of her new life. Except for the Metamucil regimens and early bedtimes, she and her fellow seniors resembled any weekend warrior. But unlike so many people I knew, she and her friends didn’t seem to want to be younger. My mother became more fit, more social and more emotionally expressive than I’d ever seen her.

Turns out, my mother’s cycling habit meant that she was checking many of the boxes — health, novelty, community and purpose — needed to age well. (For others, this might come in the form of a language class, a book club, a commitment to mastering a plank.) Yet when my mother went biking, there was something more: She was embracing attributes like exhilaration, exploration, awe, a little bit of recklessness. This provided the final pillar for healthy and fulfilling aging: Dr. Levy’s positive mind-set.

But how? My mom didn’t live in a bubble; she had not escaped subliminal toxic messaging. It was the bicycling, with its demands for physical vitality, the uncertainty of every ride, the grit on the uphill, the inherent “wheeeeee” aspect of fun on the downhill — all powerful proof of that messaging’s mendacity. As her beliefs were being subverted, her biking adventures also drew surprised and admiring reactions from peers and from those much younger (like her own children). “Wow!” and “Badass!” were the elated responses, which boosted her passion for the sport and her life. (Another thing not expected of older women: passion.)

Consider another study , in which Dr. Levy and her co-authors used computers to display positive subliminal phrases about aging (like “spry,” “capable”) to older participants in several sessions over several weeks. The researchers found these participants performed better on physical tests and ended up with a more favorable perception of aging.

Likewise, my mother’s biking adventures served as their own flashing screen. Every pedal uphill was a subliminal shout that she was strong. Every heart skip on a downhill told her she was brave and fun. Every new route she planned showed she was capable. She was being immersed in implicit feedback that upended what she (and others) had been told one could and could not do or be at this age.

Most older women don’t join bike groups. Instead, we begin to pull back on physical activities, risk taking or novel pursuits. Too dangerous for our failing body and mind, we are told in ways both subliminal and overt, and we believe it. But what if danger is found in failing to pursue exhilaration, exploration and physical vitality?

Unwittingly my mother knew: These attributes don’t imperil us. They protect us.

Activating exhilaration, exploration and physical vitality will be different for each of us. In my quest to understand healthy aging. I met a 93-year-old hiker, a 74-year-old BMX biker, an 80-year-old scuba diver and a slew of boogie boarders in their 60s, 70s and 80s. I walked on the wing of a plane at 3,000 feet in the air. But I also went bird-watching. Adventure, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder and can be had by almost all of us, despite physical restrictions, financial constraints or limited backcountry know-how.

Over and over, these women told me in different ways: Pick an outdoor activity, one that will electrify and engage, because it will change your life. To those who warn you against such foolishness, remind them of what Joan Captain, a player on one of San Diego’s senior women’s soccer leagues, told a journalist when she was 72: “People say, oh, that’s so dangerous, you know, you should take it easy. And I say, well, you see that couch over there? The couch will kill you.”

My mother stopped cycling only as she approached 80. She had begun to feel unsteady on her bike; she was soon diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At some point, then, the messaging has some truth. But this isn’t disheartening. This is just one more reason to embrace everything now. I’m sure my mother would still be pedaling if not for this stroke of bad luck. Instead, she gets outside any way she can, often on a walk around her neighborhood. On a recent amble, she waxed nostalgic but not about her youth. “I wish I was 60 again,” she mused, and we slowly continued down the sidewalk.

Caroline Paul’s books include “Tough Broad: From Boogie Boarding to Wing Walking — How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Lives as We Age” and “The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.”

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What does it mean to claim the US is a Christian nation, and what does the Constitution say?

FILE - A statue of Benjamin Franklin is seen at The Franklin Institute, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, in Philadelphia. Franklin, like some other key founders, admired Jesus as a moral teacher but would not pass a test of Christian orthodoxy. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

FILE - A statue of Benjamin Franklin is seen at The Franklin Institute, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, in Philadelphia. Franklin, like some other key founders, admired Jesus as a moral teacher but would not pass a test of Christian orthodoxy. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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Many Americans believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and the idea is energizing some conservative and Republican activists. But the concept means different things to different people, and historians say that while the issue is complex, the founding documents prioritize religious freedom and do not create a Christian nation.

Does the U.S. Constitution establish Christianity as an official religion?

What does the constitution say about religion.

“(N)o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (Article VI)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (First Amendment)

FILE- President Joe Biden, with from left, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., pray and listen during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington. Johnson has spoken in the past of his belief America was founded as a Christian nation. Biden, while citing his own Catholic faith, has spoken of values shared by people of “any other faith, or no faith at all.” (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

If it says “Congress,” does the First Amendment apply to the states?

It does now. Early in the republic, some states officially sponsored particular churches, such as the Congregational Church in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Within a few decades, all had removed such support. The post-Civil War 14th Amendment guaranteed all U.S. citizens “equal protection of the laws” and said states couldn’t impede on their “privileges or immunities” without due process. In the 20th century, the Supreme Court applied that to a number of First Amendment cases involving religion, saying states couldn’t forbid public proselytizing, reimburse funding for religious education or sponsor prayer in public schools.

What does it mean to say America is a Christian nation?

It depends on whom you ask. Some believe God worked to bring European Christians to America in the 1600s and secure their independence in the 1700s. Some take the Puritan settlers at their word that they were forming a covenant with God, similar to the Bible’s description of ancient Israel, and see America as still subject to divine blessings or punishments depending on how faithful it is. Still others contend that some or all the American founders were Christian, or that the founding documents were based on Christianity.

That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start at the top. What about the colonies?

Several had Christian language in their founding documents, such as Massachusetts, with established churches lasting decades after independence. Others, such as Rhode Island, offered broader religious freedom. It’s also arguable whether the colonies’ actions lived up to their words, given their histories of religious intolerance and their beginnings of centuries-long African slavery and wars on Native Americans.

What about the founders?

The leaders of the American Revolution and the new republic held a mix of beliefs — some Christian, some Unitarian, some deistic or otherwise theistic. Some key founders, like Benjamin Franklin, admired Jesus as a moral teacher but would fail a test of Christian orthodoxy. Many believed strongly in religious freedom, even as they also believed that religion was essential to maintain a virtuous citizenry.

Were the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution based on Christianity and the Ten Commandments?

References to the Creator and Nature’s God in the Declaration reflect a general theism that could be acceptable to Christians, Unitarians, deists and others. Both documents reflect Enlightenment ideas of natural rights and accountable government. Some also see these documents as influenced, or at least compatible, with Protestant emphasis on such ideas as human sin, requiring checks and balances. In fact, believers in a Christian America were some of the strongest opponents of ratifying the Constitution because of its omission of God references.

Were most early Americans Christian?

Many were and many weren’t. Early church membership was actually quite low, but revivals known as the First and Second Great Awakenings, before and after the Revolution, won a lot of converts. Many scholars see religious freedom as enabling multiple churches to grow and thrive.

Were Catholics considered Christian?

Not by many early Americans. Some state constitutions barred them from office.

How did that change?

Gradually, but by the time of the Cold War, many saw Catholics, Protestants and Jews as God-believing American patriots, allied in the face-off with the atheistic, communist Soviet Union.

Was it only conservatives citing the idea of a Christian nation?

No. Many proponents of the early 20th century social gospel saw their efforts to help the needy as part of building a Christian society. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed on national radio for God’s blessing “in our united crusade ... over the unholy forces of our enemy.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that civil rights protesters stood for “the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

What do progressive Christians say today?

“Christian nationalism has traditionally employed images that advocate an idealized view of the nation’s identity and mission, while deliberately ignoring those persons who have been excluded, exploited, and persecuted,” said a 2021 statement from the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, an umbrella group that includes multiple progressive denominations.

What do Americans believe about this?

Six in 10 U.S. adults said the founders originally intended America to be a Christian nation, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. Forty-five percent said the U.S. should be a Christian nation, but only a third thought it was one currently.

Among white evangelical Protestants, 81% said the founders intended a Christian nation, and the same number said that the U.S. should be one — but only 23% thought it currently was one, according to Pew.

In a 2021 Pew report, 15% of U.S. adults surveyed said the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation, while 18% said the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God.

One-third of U.S. adults surveyed in 2023 said God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians to set an example to the world, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings survey. Those who embraced this view were also more likely to dismiss the impact of anti-Black discrimination and more likely to say true patriots may need to act violently to save the country, the survey said.

Sources: Pew Research Center; Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings; “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” by John Fea.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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