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Is It a Choice? - 3rd EditionAnswers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Gay & Lesbian People
By Eric Marcus
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Eric Marcus
All right reserved.
A homosexual is a person whose feelings of sexual attraction are for someone of the same gender: male for male, female for female. In contrast, a heterosexual is a person whose feelings of attraction are for someone of the opposite gender.
The word homosexual was first used by Karl Maria Kertbeny in an 1869 pamphlet in which he argued for the repeal of Prussia's antihomosexual laws. (Prussia is now part of northern Germany.) Homosexual combines the Greek word for "same" with the Latin word for "sex."
Homosexual people come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life, just like heterosexual people do, and are part of every community and every family. This means that everyone knows someone who is homosexual. Most people just don't realize that they know, and perhaps love, someone who is homosexual, because many -- if not most -- homosexual people keep their sexual orientation a secret.
I wish I had known what a homosexual was when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Kew Gardens, New York, a comparatively bucolic New York City neighborhood about forty-five minutes from Manhattan by subway. At first I didn't know exactly what a homosexual was, except that homosexuals were something very bad and disgusting. The popular image for someone of my generation was a creepy-looking guy in an overcoat who hid behind bushes and tried to lure children into his clutches with candy.
As I grew into adolescence, I still wasn't exactly sure what a homosexual was, never having seen one on television or having met one, but I knew that the most horrible thing you could call someone was a "faggot." In summer camp there was always at least one boy who got tagged with that label. It was usually someone who always struck out at baseball. He was despised by the other boys and shunned by the girls.
One summer, when I was fourteen, I was that boy. It was also around this time when I was just beginning to understand that "faggot" meant more than just being bad at baseball. It had to do with not being like other boys, who at that age were starting to get girl-crazy in a way that made no sense to me. I can't say I had any memorable attraction to those of my own gender back then, but I do recall thinking that my strapping eighteen-year-old counselor, Ted, was kind of cute -- an observation I knew not to share with my bunkmates.
I was sixteen years old when I finally met someone I knew to be homosexual, and I was both shocked and relieved. Bob was no creepy-looking guy in an overcoat. He was a smart, devastatingly handsome (to me), and very confident college student who lived down the block. He didn't lurk behind shrubs, and he never once offered me candy. He did, however, help dispel all the myths I'd grown up with about homosexuality.
Bob was the first person to explain to me that a homosexual is simply a man or woman whose feelings of sexual attraction are for someone of the same gender. One man could meet and fall in love with another man, my new friend explained, and one woman could fall in love with another woman. So simple, but to me it was a revolutionary idea, and it changed my life, especially since I had a wild crush on Bob and could now do what any normal sixteen-year-old would do: imagine a life that included living happily ever after with the object of my affections.
What is a gay person? Why do gay people call themselves "gay"?
A gay person is a man or woman who is a homosexual. Gay is a synonym for homosexual. The word has been used publicly by gay people since the late 1960s, when gay was adopted by homosexual men and women in the early gay civil rights movement and incorporated into slogans like "Gay is good!" Gay was seen as a positive alternative to the clinical-sounding homosexual.
Gay was used as slang in place of homosexual as far back as the 1920s, almost exclusively within the homosexual community. If, for example, you wanted to indicate to a friend that a club or bar you planned to go to was frequented by homosexuals, you would say that it was a "gay place" or that there was a "gay crowd."
One of the early examples of gay being used in print to mean "homosexual" occurred in 1947. Lisa Ben, a young Hollywood secretary, used the word as part of the subtitle for a newsletter for lesbians that she published on her office typewriter. Lisa called her newsletter Vice Versa: America's Gayest Magazine. Other homosexual people knew that Lisa didn't mean her magazine was simply full of fun, which is what most people at the time would have thought, because gay was a word then typically used to mean "happy" or "fun," as in "We had such a gay time at the party."
Not all homosexual people like using the word gay to describe themselves. And since gay has come to be used most often in association with male homosexuals, many homosexual women prefer to be called lesbians. (See "What do gay people like to be called?" at the end of this chapter.)
What is a lesbian?
A lesbian is a woman whose primary feelings of sexual attraction are for other women. In other words, a lesbian is a homosexual woman. Like gay men, lesbians come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life.
The word lesbian derives from the name of a Greek island, Lesbos, where Sappho, a teacher known for her poetry celebrating love between women, established a school for young women in the sixth century BC. Over time, the word lesbian, which once simply meant someone who lived on Lesbos, came to mean a woman who, like Sappho and her followers, loved other women.
Excerpted from Is It a Choice? - 3rd Edition by Eric Marcus Copyright © 2005 by Eric Marcus.
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