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To: Table of Content - The Social Construction of Male Homosexuality and Related Suicide Problems...

By Pierre J. Tremblay in Collaboration with Richard Ramsay
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary.

The Paper  was Presented by Pierre Tremblay at The 11th Annual Sociological Symposium: "Deconstructing Youth Suicide," San Diego State University - March, 2000 (Cover Page). A part of the present updated paper was presented at the Gay Men's Health Summit in Boulder, Colorado - July, 2000. Now Available: A 2004 Updated Interim Version Of This Paper.

Male Homosexuality: From Common to a Rarity

In 1960, I was 10-years-old and growing up in a working class environment where male homosexual activity was the rule, not the exception. Its predominant manifestation was "sex with equality,"  thus including mutual masturbation and oral sex, but not anal sex (Bagley, 1997, p. 183). The latter was not even thought about, except for eventually learning that passive anal sex was an activity engaged in by apparently degraded males who thought themselves to be like women, or were labeled as such because they were accepting the status of being anally penetrated. As for ourselves living in a world where effeminate males did not exist, our sexual activities with other males generally reflected our social relationships: most sex with one's best friend, and lesser sex with lesser friends. We also had girlfriends and knew what was to be done sexually with them as it was so well understood via having learned the word "fuck" and its clear meaning. This explains why even the thought of "fucking" one's best friend was precluded: the activity or related desires was in violation of our equality based male bonding friendships. Sexual activity was also only a small part of our daily activities, and it was not an everyday activity although, at times, it was enjoyed more than once a day.

As a young adult, I ventured into learning more about male homosexuality and encountered the Kinsey et al. (1948) study which contained data not at odds with my experiences (Note 3), nor with the similar experiences of my youngest brother who grew up in the same neighborhood. Although he did not engage in homosexual activity, when asked what our neighborhood was like in the 1970s, he explained the male homo-sex situation as follows: "You know, Pierre, when the tent was set up and most boys came to have a sleep-out, well, I was the only one not having sex" (Bagley, 1997, p. 185). Without doubt Freud would have been happy to learn about this reality because it would have supported his belief that all individual were capable of acting in accordance to his postulated "bisexuality" norm for humans (a fact Freud recognized possibly because of his knowledge of the Ancient Greek males), and especially because he had also situated homosexuality as the first manifestation of a person's sexual desires that may or may not be acted upon (de Kuyper, 1993).

When I ventured in gay communities in 1978, a major new experience involved the learning about so-called "gay-identified" males, many still being teenagers, and they often were gender nonconformable. As a rule, they had also grown up thinking themselves to be the only ones with homo-sex desires in their neighborhoods, their school, or even in their town or city. Their feelings of isolation had been extreme, resulting in their belief that male homosexuality was exceptionally rare, and many had grown up perceiving themselves to be "freaks." In recent books and papers dealing with gay youth, and on related internet pages, these stories are repeated, and similar life situations were highlighted in the Australian 'Here for Life' Youth Sexuality Project Final Report.

The process of realising a same sex orientation, and either hiding this or being open, often results in:

damaged self esteem; distancing from family and peers; attempts to avoid disclosure; distortion of nearly all relationships; increasing sense of isolation; and, sense of inferiority and self loathing

This sense of isolation and negative reinforcement has been shown to increase the incidence of mental health issues in young people, resulting in emotional disorders, self harm and suicide. (Goldfram et al. 1999)

My own adolescent environment, however, precluded having such feelings because desires to have sex with other males, and engaging in such joyful activities, resulted only in knowing that I was part of a majority even if, as with masturbation, my sexual activities with other males were to be private acts (Note 4). It is also doubtful, given the information available from Ancient Greece, that adolescents boys of the period would have experienced self-hatred and isolation, with associated suicidal feelings, because they had love and sex desires for older males. If suicidal feeling existed, they would likely have been experienced by a male youth who was being ignored by all older males. Therefore, the reported exceptionally high rate of "suicide problems" for present-day males recognizing their same-gender sexual desires (males who often identify as gay or bisexual) may be a social construction intimately linked to another possible social construction: the increasing rarity of males reporting same-gender sexual desires and related sexual activity in the Western World. As Chauncey (1994) reports on the basis of the evidence: important respects, the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation (p. 13).
At the end of the 19th century, Ellis (1906) reported on diverse human cultures over time. There were great variations in male homosexuality, ranging from its widespread nature in Ancient Greece and Rome, to more rare manifestations such as being a shaman with gender nonconformable attributes. Many great individual in history had also been homo-sex desiring males, and homosexuality was reported to be the rule in male prisons. Its extent in the military was also noted, the evidence indicating that male prostitution was the rule in some British regiments. Many of these males were in a category commonly known as "trade," meaning that they were "real men" compared to men who were "so," as Nilsson (1998) reported the situation to exist in a Swedish city during the first half of the 20th century. Generally, the non-real men performed varying sexual services for the working-class "real men" who were often young, but included men of all ages. Nilsson also noted that the merchant marine was a common destination for homosexual-identified males, the implication being  that homosexuality was likely common in navies (Note 5).

To date, an interesting body of research work has reported that in the first half of 20th century male same-gender sexual activity was much more extensive than during the last third of the century (Nilsson, 1998; Chauncey, 1994, 1985; Dowsett, 1994; Carbery 1992, Brighton Ourstory Project, 1992; Humphreys, 1975; Kinsey et al., 1948). In fact, not all that long ago, about 40 percent of American males had been homosexually active at least at some point in their lives after the onset of adolescence (Kinsey et al,, 1948), but something happened which caused the elimination of the majority of homosexually active males from the world of male homosexuality. Nilsson (1998) supplied the likely explanation for this event occurring in Europe and in other countries with populations of European origins.

Marshall (1981), Newton (1993), and Chauncey (1994) argue that there has been a slow [homosexuality] redefinition process in the western world in this century, from a definition based on 'gender'  - a homosexual man desires men because he is like a woman - toward a universal 'sexual' definition: a homosexual man, however "feminine" or "masculine" he is, is homosexual because he desires men... It is interesting that this change, and the concomittant separation of men who were "so" from "real men," occurred at the same time as, and was indeed influenced by, a growing openness of male homosexual life toward and visibility from society.
The "real men" were generally from the working class (the largest segment of population at the time) and some males from this group are described by Minton (1995). "[The two males in a study sample] represented a growing number of working-class young men who migrated to urban centers in the 1920s and 1930s, seeking the "sex trade" as a means of income. As long as their masculinity was not compromised, they had no qualms about engaging in sex with other men." Many of these men, however, did not receive money for their services, although tokens of appreciation were common, and others participated in "trade" for no other reason than the enjoyment Nilsson (1998) and others reported to be the rule for all these "real men." Basically, these men (often teenagers) were well aware that these same-gender sexual activities were infinitely more enjoyable than masturbation, the most common male sexual activity (Munsey, 1997).  At a very young age, I had also recognized this fact and, in the neighborhood where I grew up, sanity and altruism also ruled. Most males innately knew (or quickly learned via biofeedback) that masturbation was a selfish act: keeping for yourself what could be shared, and being altruistic was much more enjoyable than being selfish and of questionable intelligence.

A major demographic change has occurred with respect to males participating in homosexual activity to orgasm since Kinsey et al. (1948) reported that 37 percent of males had these kind of experiences since adolescence, with that another 13 percent reporting related desires not acted upon, for a total of 50% in the study sample reporting some degree of homosexuality. This is a minimum, however, as Kinsey et al. (1948) emphasized because, with respect to taboo sexual activities and thoughts, some males will always withhold such information from investigators no matter how skilled they may be, and Alfred Kinsey is recognized to have been an expert in terms of gaining the confidence of interviewed subjects. Furthermore, for working-class males in the Kinsey sample, the incidence of homosexuality was higher than 50 percent given that manifestations of male homosexuality was greatly influenced by social class, producing incidence differences ranging from 200 to 500 percent, with working-class males manifesting the highest incidence of homosexual activity (Note 3).

Recent demographic studies, however, have consistently reported lower incidence of male homosexuality than the Kinsey et al. (1948) results, the inference often being that the study was seriously flawed. Yet, would similar data obtained from Ancient Greek times - reporting that maybe 100% of male citizens enjoyed (had enjoyed) male homosexuality activity (probably including love responses in most cases) - be in error because a modern study of males produced radically different results?  Basically, the above cited research reporting the withdrawal of working-class "real men" from the world of male homosexuality serves to highlight the fact that the Kinsey et al (1948) data is not wrong. Instead, it reflects the degree to which male homosexuality existed in the western world during the first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that extreme homophobic social pressures were being applied to minimized the extent to which male homosexuality existed, leading to its increasing rarity - the "freak" situation - that many gay-identified adolescents have been coding it to be.

The degree of reduction in homosexually active male youth is indicated by Bagley and Tremblay (1998) data obtained via random sampling in Calgary, and then using a highly effective computer technology methodology to solicit information of a sensitive sexual nature, including information about young adult males who had been sexually involved with children (1%) and the ones having related desires (4%) (Bagley et al., 1994). Bagley and Tremblay (1998) reported only 11.2 percent of males had related sexually with at least one other male since the age of 15 years (14.0% since the age of 12 years), and 9.2 percent were currently homosexually active (in the six months preceding the data intake). On the basis of self-identification as homosexual or bisexual (11.1%) and /or being currently homosexual active (9.2%), minus bisexual-identified males who were not currently homosexually active, a study sample of homosexually oriented males (10.9%) was produced and analyzed for a number of attributes to be compared with heterosexually oriented males, including their history of self-harm and suicidality (Bagley and Tremblay, 1997).

An important result of the Bagley and Tremblay (1998) demographic study was support for the hypothesis that flawed methodology was responsible for current demographic studies which had reduced the percentage of homosexually oriented males to one or two percent. The proposed underestimates for these studies were in the range of 400 to 800 percent for homosexuality-related behavior and self-idenfication, respectively. In the same year, the results of the Turner et al. (1998) study, based on a large random sample of 16- to 19-year-old males, confirmed that, on average, a 400% underestimating error could be expected with respect to adolescent males reporting their homosexual activities on pencil-and-paper questionnaires compared to using the computer technology to solicit sensitive sexual information (Bagley and Tremblay 1997, 1998).

The validity of demographic studies using face-to-face interviews or telephone interviews may be inferred by a wise researcher foreseeing what the results would be if middle aged men were asked: "Are you relating sexually with adolescent males, or even younger males." A predictable "zero" (or near zero) percent response to this question would not reflect reality. Although the question requests highly taboo information, underestimates are also predictable if similar methodology is used to solicit information from males who have been homosexually active with males of varying ages. Such behavior remains in a taboo category (still illegal in about 20 American states), and significant underestimates are predictable if confidentiality issues are not addressed in a manner deemed credible by the study subjects who have engaged in such sexual activities (Bagley and Tremblay, 1998).

Unfortunately, face-to-face interviews continue to be used as in the NHANES III study of 17- to 39-year-old males. Only 2.2 percent of males acknowledged having "any male sex partners in their lifetime" (Cochran and Mays, 2000, p. 575), and similar methodologically flawed studies are then cited (given range of study results: "2% to 7%") to conclude that "this is consistent with the prevalence observed in NHANES III" (p. 577), thus creating the illusion of validity for their results. Not mentioned, however, is that this range of demographic results suggests a possible 350 percent underestimating error for the lowest results. Instead, it is asserted that "the willingness of men to report same-sex partners in a population-based survey such as NHANES is unknown; thus, the extent to which homosexually experienced men... declared no male sex partners cannot be determined" (p. 577). This assertion, however, is only made possible by not citing studies (e.g. Bagley and Tremblay, 1998; Turner et al., 1998) indicating the likelihood of producing scientifically scandalous underestimates when researchers use highly flawed methodology.

It could therefore be said that, since the Kinsey et al.'s 1948 study, about 70 percent of the males who once enjoyed being homosexually active (most often as adolescents and young adults) were to not to be anymore, apparently because the definition of who was "homosexual' was changing. As Foucault and others noted, homosexuality was taking on a "species" meaning which was also implemented by the American military by 1941 (Purkiss, 1997). Instead of homosexuality simply having been something all males could enjoy, the new "meaning" became infinitely more negative. In addition to the psychiatric decree that all homosexual males were "mentally disordered," many psychiatrists liberally propagated additional negative beliefs about homosexual individuals. Purkiss (1997) summarizes the outcome of (malignant?) psychiatric indoctrination in the American Military:

[In addition to defining homo-sex desiring males to be "inverts," or "like women, military administrators] therefore expanded upon the concept of the homosexual by adding components of violence, immorality, uncontrollable sexual impulses, and a potential threat to society. But woven into these new fabrications were the central ideas proposed by psychiatrists: homosexuals were sick, morally vacant, predatory, and in need of help.
Society - via its law makers - had also decreed that adult males engaging in same-sex sexual activities of any kind were "criminals," and laws had been changing since the early 1880s in Canada and Britain to make sure that all homosexual acts were criminalized, including the intent to engage in homosexual activities, as opposed to only anal sex between males having been a criminal act in the past (Kinsman, 1987). Given these labels and related punishments, the full weight of society's power to define the norms - what is acceptable - was made to apply, especially with respect to male homosexuality. All boys were somehow also being taught that the rejected and often abused easily identifiable "sissy" (the gender nonconformable boy) in early childhood would, by adolescence, be transformed into "the fag," This represents the learned belief that males who are like females must desire other males sexually, thus replicating the "sexual inversion" ideology based on hegemonic heterosexuality: if a male desires another male sexually, he must be a female because only female are sexually attracted to males. As for the supposedly more positive word "gay," the well indoctrinated adolescents almost immediately gave the word a meaning consistent with their acquired beliefs. Goldstein (1999) defines the current definition of the word in reference to the Columbine High School murder / suicide event:
The word "faggot" has never merely meant homosexual. It has always carried the extrasexual connotation of being unmanly [being like a female]. But these days, the implications of that insult have expanded. To say that a certain behavior is "so gay" can apply to anything stupid, clumsy, or outré. It’s probably the most effective way to call a guy a loser, and in this age of sexual candor, when high school students know that some of their peers may actually be gay, the accusation has an even more fearsome ring.
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