6 Chapter 6 – Sexual Orientation

Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS

Chapter 6: Sexual Orientation

Learning Outcomes:

  • Define sexual orientation, heterosexuality, homosexuality, asexuality, bisexuality, and pansexuality
  • Explain what scientists mean when they say “sexual orientation is not binary”
  • Defend, using examples, the statement: “homosexuality is widespread in nature”
  • Cite evidence for a genetic basis of homosexuality, as well as evidence that homosexuality is environmentally influenced
  • Understand that homosexuality is widespread in nature—in human and non-human animals
  • Appreciate that our understanding of same-sex sexual preferences is part of an emerging field of study, thus, many of the scientific studies we’ll mention are relatively recent and, like all science, subject to revision
  • Consider homophobia, the challenges of hate crimes and the importance of being an ally.


Which one of these penguins is male?

“Day 119, April 28th: Penguin love” by katybird is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

There are known to be gay penguins couples all over the world.

Both of the penguins are male. In fact, they are a relatively famous couple of zoo penguins; in their desire to become fathers, they actually have attempted to steal eggs from other penguin couples, apparently going so far as to attempt deceit by leaving rocks in the place of the stolen eggs.

A related story involves the internationally renowned penguin dads, Jumbs and Kermit. If you’re not familiar with their story, check out: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-kent-27405652

Similarly, a same-sex penguin couple at the Central Park Zoo raised the now-famous Tango, star of the children’s book,  And Tango Makes Three.

Clearly, there is something compelling about same-sex penguin couples. Our attraction (or aversion) to these stories is itself interesting, and leads to a lot of biologically relevant questions about sexual attraction.

What do we mean by “Sexual Orientation?”

Sexual Orientation is an umbrella term that is used to refer to patterns of attraction—sexual, romantic, or both. Under this umbrella, individuals may assort themselves into categories such as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual.

“Queer,” “Bisexual,” “Pansexual,” “Polyamorous,” “Asexual,”

Queer as an identity term refers to a non-categorical sexual identity; it is also used as a catch-all term for all LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) individuals. The term was historically used in a derogatory way, but was reclaimed as a self-referential term in the 1990s United States. Although many individuals identify as queer today, some still feel personally insulted by it and disapprove of its use.

Bisexual is typically defined as a sexual orientation marked by attraction to either men or women. This has been problematized as a binary approach to sexuality, which excludes individuals who do not identify as men or women. Pansexual is a sexual identity marked by sexual attraction to people of any gender or sexuality.

Polyamorous (poly, for short) or non-monogamous relationships are open or non-exclusive; individuals may have multiple consensual and individually-negotiated sexual and/or romantic relationships at once (Klesse 2006).

Asexual is an identity marked by a lack of or rare sexual attraction, or low or absent interest in sexual activity, abbreviated to “ace” (Decker 2014). Asexuals distinguish between sexual and romantic attraction, delineating various sub-identities included under an ace umbrella. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/268096211.pdf


Read More

You’ll find an excellent overview of terms at: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation-gender/sexual-orientation

You’ll note from the definitions the use of qualifiers such as “may,” and “often.” This pattern should serve as a clue that sexual orientation is COMPLICATED, and our understanding of the diversity of presentations is quickly changing.

You can also check out this helpful Ally’s Guide to Terminology here.

Sexual preference is not binary

You may have heard things like “most people are bisexual,” and “sexual preferences exist on a continuum,” but are such claims scientific? That is, do we have evidence to justify such statements?

The Kinsey Scale

Some key work on sexuality was conducted in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the biologist Alfred Kinsey. Alfred Kinsey pioneered research in human sexuality through thousands of interviews and the development of “The Kinsey Scale” of human sexual preferences. The Kinsey Scale is a 7-point metric that categorizes individuals from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual), and includes the midpoint 3 (equally homosexual and heterosexual).

Alfred Kinsey in TIME, 1953 by BORIS ARTZYBASHEFF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kinsey’s main contributions were to (1) reveal that many people have preferences that aren’t “0” or “6”—in other words, sexual preferences do exist on a continuum; and (2) revolutionize how we view female sexuality—that is, women are not just recipients of sex, women have sexual desires, and women cheat, fantasize, and masturbate. For many people, these ideas may be obvious, but at the time they were shocking and revolutionary.

Based off of research from Bailey & Martin, 2000.

Above: distribution of Kinsey scores for 147 men and 238 women (who were not exclusively heterosexual) in an Australian sample from 2000.

More recent work has investigated the “continuum” concept of sexuality, with a focus on the prevalence of bisexuality. For example, an analysis of several reports revealed the presence of bisexuality in from ~2% to ~6% of individuals who identified as heterosexual, and from ~18% to ~88% in self-identified homosexuals. In the latter example, far more women, on average, expressed bisexual tendencies than did male homosexuals. In sum, bisexuality is fairly common, and sexual preference is not binary.

Social Constructionism

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge that holds that characteristics typically thought to be immutable and solely biological—such as gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality—are products of human definition and interpretation shaped by cultural and historical contexts (Subramaniam 2010).

The Social Construction of Heterosexuality

What does it mean to be “heterosexual” in contemporary US society? Did it mean the same thing in the late 19th century? As historian of human sexuality Jonathon Ned Katz shows in The Invention of Heterosexuality (1999), the word “heterosexual” was originally coined by Dr. James Kiernan in 1892, but its meaning and usage differed drastically from contemporary understandings of the term. Kiernan thought of “hetero-sexuals” as not defined by their attraction to the opposite sex, but by their “inclinations to both sexes.” Furthermore, Kiernan thought of the heterosexual as someone who “betrayed inclinations to ‘abnormal methods of gratification’” (Katz 1995). In other words, heterosexuals were those who were attracted to both sexes and engaged in sex for pleasure, not for reproduction. Katz further points out that this definition of the heterosexual lasted within middle-class cultures in the United States until the 1920s, and then went through various radical reformulations up to the current usage.

Looking at this historical example makes visible the process of the social construction of heterosexuality. First of all, the example shows how social construction occurs within institutions—in this case, a medical doctor created a new category to describe a particular type of sexuality, based on existing medical knowledge at the time. “Hetero-sexuality” was initially a medical term that defined a deviant type of sexuality. Second, by seeing how Kiernan—and middle class culture, more broadly—defined “hetero-sexuality” in the 19th century, it is possible to see how drastically the meanings of the concept have changed over time. Typically, in the United States in contemporary usage, “heterosexuality” is thought to mean “normal” or “good”—it is usually the invisible term defined by what is thought to be its opposite, homosexuality. However, in its initial usage, “hetero-sexuality” was thought to counter the norm of reproductive sexuality and be, therefore, deviant. This gets to the third aspect of social constructionism. That is, cultural and historical contexts shape our definition and understanding of concepts. In this case, the norm of reproductive sexuality—having sex not for pleasure, but to have children—defines what types of sexuality are regarded as “normal” or “deviant.” Fourth, this case illustrates how categorization shapes human experience, behavior, and interpretation of reality. To be a “heterosexual” in middle class culture in the US in the early 1900s was not something desirable to be—it was not an identity that most people would have wanted to inhabit. The very definition of “heterosexual” as deviant, because it violated reproductive sexuality, defined “proper” sexual behavior as that which was reproductive and not pleasure-centered.

Social constructionist approaches to understanding the world challenge the essentialist or biological determinist understandings that typically underpin the “common sense” ways in which we think about race, gender, and sexuality. Essentialism is the idea that the characteristics of persons or groups are significantly influenced by biological factors, and are therefore largely similar in all human cultures and historical periods.

Essentialism typically relies on a biological determinist theory of identity. Biological determinism can be defined as a general theory, which holds that a group’s biological or genetic makeup shapes its social, political, and economic destiny (Subramaniam 2014). For example, “sex” is typically thought to be a biological “fact,” where bodies are classified into two categories, male and female. Bodies in these categories are assumed to have “sex”-distinct chromosomes, reproductive systems, hormones, and sex characteristics. However, “sex” has been defined in many different ways, depending on the context within which it is defined. For example, feminist law professor Julie Greenberg (2002) writes that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, “when reproductive function was considered one of a woman’s essential characteristics, the medical community decided that the presence or absence of ovaries was the ultimate criterion of sex” (Greenberg 2002: 113). Thus, sexual difference was produced through the heteronormative assumption that women are defined by their ability to have children. Instead of assigning sex based on the presence or absence of ovaries, medical practitioners in the contemporary US typically assign sex based on the appearance of genitalia.

Differential definitions of sex point to two other primary aspects of the social construction of reality. First, it makes apparent how even the things commonly thought to be “natural” or “essential” in the world are socially constructed. Understandings of “nature” change through history and across place according to systems of human knowledge. Second, the social construction of difference occurs within relations of power and privilege. Social constructionist analyses seek to better understand the processes through which racialized, gendered, or sexualized differentiations occur, in order to untangle the power relations within them.

Exploring heteronormativity, you may want to look at this Straight Questionaire, which flips the script on the questions commonly asked of sexual minorities. If you think it’s uncomfortable for a straight person to get asked these questions, then you will understand how problematic it is to ask LGB+ individuals these questions. Think back to when we explored microaggressions during the second week of class. Any questions on this list asked of a person who is perceived to be a sexual minority would be considered a microaggression. Be aware of this for yourself and educate others who may ask similar questions of others.

This takes us to our next section, which- given the lens of social constructionism, can be a bit challenging. Researchers have been inquiring about the origins of sexual orientation for quite some time and it’s still a point of examination. But challenges emerge in these areas. How does one investigate this area of sexuality without endorsing heteronormative structures?

Is sexual orientation genetic?

Asking this question is a bit like asking, “Are we born gay? Or straight?” This question can be problematic for some, because the motivation for asking the question may not be scientific. For example, individuals who have a social problem with homosexuality may be motivated to see sexual orientation as a choice, making homosexuality a characteristic one could choose not to exhibit. And in recent history, eugenicists (individuals who promote selective reproduction among “favored” types of humans) used a presumed genetic basis for homosexuality as an argument in favor of sterilizing gay people. The question can also be problematic because the stated or implied focus is typically on the cause of homosexuality, rather than heterosexuality. (We’ll say more about that in a bit.)

But, for now, let’s focus on the biology of homosexuality’s origins. While no serious scientist is claiming that same-sex mating preferences arise in a simple Mendelian fashion, or that there is a single “gay gene,” many have found evidence of a possible genetic basis. Some intriguing data are from the literature on twins. For example, researchers discovered that identical twins (who arise from the same sperm and egg, and have nearly 100% identical genetics) are more alike with respect to sexual orientation than are non-identical twins (who arise from different eggs and sperm). However, identical twins don’t overlap completely in sexual preferences, a finding that suggests other factors—besides genetics—may be at work.

Is sexual orientation influenced by the environment?

Several studies have found correlations between same-sex sexual preferences and environmental conditions. In this case the “environment” can be the uterine environment, and refer to conditions during fetal development, or the environment can refer to conditions after birth.

The literature on post-birth experiences, and their impacts on sexual orientation, is challenging for many reasons, but largely because it is so difficult to disentangle the impact of a tolerant environment on someone’s inclination to express their homosexuality. For example, there has been work suggesting that children of gay parents are more likely to grow up expressing same-sex sexual preferences. Is this because growing up in a gay family actually influences an individual’s sexuality, or because a family that is accepting of homosexuality creates a safe space for a gay or bisexual individual to express their sexuality?

Similarly, work in Denmark has shown that growing up in an urban environment is associated with the choice to marry a person of the same sex later in life. Diverse metropolitan areas are typically associated with greater tolerance towards gays and lesbians, so is it simply that this tolerance supports the expression of an existing characteristic, or is there something else about cities that promotes homosexuality? A summary from the Danish study includes the following statements: “For men, homosexual marriage was associated with having older mothers, divorced parents, absent fathers, and being the youngest child. For women, maternal death during adolescence and being the only or youngest child or the only girl in the family increased the likelihood of homosexual marriage.”

Somewhat more compelling is the work on the prenatal environment and homosexuality. According to many of these studies, differential exposure to prenatal hormones, specifically testosterone, influences sexuality later in life.

Several studies have found evidence, through the development of certain body parts (e.g., fingers, ears) that lesbians were exposed to more testosterone in utero than were straight women.  Finger (or “digit”) lengths, especially the ratio between the second (2D) and fourth (4D) fingers, seems to vary as a function of exposure to testosterone in the womb. In one study of identical twins, researchers found that, on average, the 2D:4D ratio is larger in lesbian women than men (Watts, Holmes, Raines, et al, 2018). It’s important to note that these differences are rarely noticeable without doing precise measurements of an individual’s finger lengths. It’s also critical to mention that a subsequent, more recent study (Holmes, Watts-Overall, Slettevold, et al,  2022) found no evidence that increased prenatal androgen exposure influenced masculinity in homosexual women. Critically, while there is some evidence correlating androgen exposure with sexual orientation, there is no causal explanation.

Visual representation of 2D and 4D

Fraternal birth order and the uterine environment

What is the fraternal birth order effect?

In males, it appears to be that number of older brothers alters the likelihood of same-sex preferences later in life. Specifically, more older brothers (not sisters) is associated with homosexuality in men (not women). This is called the fraternal birth-order (FBO) effect in the scientific literature, and the evidence for the FBO effect is compelling. Simply, homosexual men, on average, have more older brothers than do heterosexual men, a difference that is not seen in homosexual versus heterosexual women.

A logical response to this finding would be to wonder whether growing up with older brothers somehow led more men to develop with same-sex sexual preferences, or if there was something about the uterine environment that favored homosexuality in successive male offspring.

Anthony Bogaert was interested in the FBO effect and whether it was due to exposures in the uterus during fetal development, or somehow due to the impact of growing up with older brothers. He tested this by analyzing data on sexual preferences in several groups of men, including one sample of men raised in step- or adoptive families. That is, he was able to compare homosexuality in men raised with their older brothers, and those raised apart from their older, biological brothers. He found that only biological older brothers were associated with male homosexuality, regardless of the amount of time spent with those older brothers. Bogaert used these data to suggest that it is uterine conditions, not how a person is raised, that is associated with same-sex sexual preferences in men.

For an accessible summary of the FBO effect, read: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1502267/pdf/zpq10531.pdf

Caution: These differences in uterine influences on male and female homosexuality also illustrate a key point: male homosexuality and female homosexuality appear to have different causes, thus we should be careful not to transfer the findings of research on men to the reality of sexuality in women. Further, male and female homosexuality are likely influenced by multiple factors.

Evolutionary Approach

Some biologists have referred to the evolutionary problem with homosexuality, because same-sex sexual behavior is non-reproductive, yet homosexuality occurs in relatively high numbers—enough to support an adaptive function for homosexuality. So the big question is: how can natural selection work on a trait that seems unable to increase an individual’s fitness?

The literature on the evolution and occurrence of homosexuality has focused on several hypotheses, including some that are adaptive (fitness-enhancing) explanations and several that are non-adaptive explanations.

Suggested adaptive explanations include (but are not limited to),

  1. Social glue: according to the social glue hypothesis, same-sex sexual interactions help to form bonds, reduce tension, repair relationships after conflict, and prevent future conflicts from occurring
  2. Kin selection: this hypothesis centers on the idea that individuals can increase their fitness either by direct mechanisms (having their own offspring) or by indirect mechanisms (investing in, or somehow providing a benefit to, the offspring of their relatives. A homosexual individual might forego having his or her own direct offspring, but could benefit the family (and help get their own genes into the next generation) by investing in siblings, nieces, nephews, etc.
  3. Alliance formation: similar to social glue, the alliance formation hypothesis posits that bonds forged during sex lead individuals to greater acts of bravery or sacrifice, to benefit those with whom they’ve been intimate. If same-sex sexual relationships lead to stronger alliances, and these alliances make better warriors or soldiers who are more likely to survive conflicts, that would lend support for the alliance formation.
  4. Practice: according to the practice hypothesis, same-sex activities during immature stages make an individual more adept at courtship and copulation, with opposite-sex partners, as an adult.
  5. Enhanced family fertility: according to the enhanced fertility hypothesis, some of the genetic components that can lead to homosexuality are also associated with enhanced fertility or success in getting mates. From this hypothesis we would predict that individuals who share genetic information with homosexual individuals would have greater reproductive success than those who do not.

You can probably imagine ways to test all of the above explanations, as well as potential problems associated with each suggestion.

There’s Just No ONE Factor (aka- Reasons We Love Psychology)

Remember “And Tango Makes Three”, the children’s book about two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who adopted an egg? That book became notorious, making the American Library Associations top-ten list of “most challenged [or banned] books” during the most recent decade: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009

Soon after the book’s publication, and after a six-year partnership, Silo left Roy for a female penguin named Scrappy. Reactions to the split were mixed but, as Roberta Sklar, a spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said: “There’s almost an obsession with questions such as, ‘Is sexual orientation a birthright or a choice?’ And looking at the behavior of two penguins in captivity is not a way to answer that question.” She continued by noting that the public outcry (over the book, the penguin pair, and then their split) “is a little ridiculous. Or maybe a lot ridiculous.”

“Penguin” by C Simmons is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

As we’ve discussed, the ‘why’ of sexual orientation is complicated, non-binary, and often fluid. In humans and in penguins. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/24/nyregion/new-love-breaks-up-a-6year-relationship-at-the-zoo.html?_r=0 

LGBTQ Brief U.S. Historical Sketch

As discussed in the section on social construction, heterosexuality is no more and no less natural than gay sexuality or bisexuality, for instance. As was shown, people—particularly sexologists and medical doctors—defined heterosexuality and its boundaries. This definition of the parameters of heterosexuality is an expression of power that constructs what types of sexuality are considered “normal” and which types of sexuality are considered “deviant.”

LGBTQ history has developed through four stages Gerda Lerner first identified for women’s history: compensation, contributions, revision, and social construction (Lerner, 1975). LGBTQ historians first compensated for heterosexism and cissexism by finding LGBTQ people to reinsert into historical narratives, then determined how LGBTQ people contributed to history. As they analyzed primary sources, they slowly revised historical narratives through testing generalizations and periodization against evidence by and about LGBTQ people. Finally, the field understood that sexual orientation and gender themselves are social constructions.

Political organizing by oppressed Americans in the 1970s helped create U.S. lesbian, gay, bi/pansexual, trans, and queer history as a field. Why would people’s struggles for rights and freedom include wanting to be represented in historical accounts? Inclusive histories reflect the diversity of people in the U.S., expose institutional discrimination against minoritized people, trace how minorities have contributed, and outline their work toward the American democratic experiment.

Stonewall Riots

In 1969, the Stonewall Inn riot broke out due to a New York City police raid. This Mafia-run dive bar blackmailed gay Wall Street patrons and used those funds to pay off police. In return, police gave the Stonewall advanced warning of raids. Raids targeted those in full drag and trans sex workers like Sylvia Rivera. But raids could also ruin lives of white, Black, and Latino gay and lesbian customers; newspaper exposure led to being fired or evicted. On June 28, 1969 there was no tip off. Trans and lesbian patrons resisted—refusing to produce identification or to follow a female officer to the bathroom to verify their sex for arrest.  They also objected to officers groping them (Carter, 2004, pp. 68, 80, 96-103, 124-5, 141, 156; Duberman, 1993, pp. 181-193). A growing crowd outside spontaneously responded to police violence by hurling coins and cans at officers who retreated into the bar. Rioting resumed a second and third night. Gay poet Allen Ginsberg heard slogans and crowed, “Gay power! Isn’t that great! We’re one of the largest minorities in the country – 10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves” (Truscott, 1969, p. 18).

The Stonewall Riot also did not stop police raids, but mainstream and gay coverage and leafleting spurred the creation of new, more militant gay organizing than previous homophile groups. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) sought to combine freedom from homophobia with a broader political platform that denounced racism and opposed capitalism. The Gay Activists Alliance rose from the GLF with confrontational “zaps” where they surprised politicians in public to force them to acknowledge gay and lesbian rights (Carter, 2004, pp. 245-246). Gay liberationists like Carl Wittman drew on past New Left anti-war student activism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Wittman’s “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” (1970) rails against homophobia, imploring gays to free themselves by coming out while also acknowledging that will be too dangerous for some yet. Gay men must discard male chauvinism as antigay. Rather than “mimic” “straight society,” gay liberation should reject gender roles and marriage and embrace queens as having gutsily stood out. Wittman was attuned to the rise of lesbian feminism, which tied sexism together with homophobia. Lesbian feminists emphasized their focus on women’s autonomy and well-being rather than identification as mothers, wives, and daughters who indirectly gained from what benefitted men (Jay and Young, 1992; Pomerleau, 2010).

Gay liberationists demonstrated against the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Activists and gay counselors knew they were not sick. They marshaled psychological research homophile ally, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, created from 1957 on, that demonstrated gay men were equally stable as heterosexual men based on personality tests and sometimes showed more resilience (Minton, 2002, pp. 219-236). In 1973 the APA voted unanimously to define homosexuality in their diagnostic manual as “one form of sexual behavior, like other forms of sexual behavior which are not by themselves psychiatric disorders” (Eaklor, 2008, pp. 150-151). This was a major win on the long road to discrediting conversion therapies. Simultaneously, though, the APA’s third manual introduced “gender identity disorder of childhood” and “transsexualism” in 1980, preserving a concern about variety in gendered behavior and sustaining forced conversion programs for children and adolescents without increasing access to medical services some trans adults wanted. Despite the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) removal of the term “transexualism” in 1994, issues like conversion therapy on children still exist.

The AIDS Epidemic

In 1981 the New York Times stated that a rare, aggressive skin cancer had struck forty-one recently healthy homosexuals (Andriote, 1999, p. 49; Shilts, 1987, pp. 37, 54-66). By late 1982 related immunosuppression cases existed among infants, women, heterosexual men, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs. The mortality rate of the original patients was 100%. Panic spread. Media, many government officials, and the gay community asked what linked the affected gay men. Connecting deadly disease to gay male sexuality provided a new rationale for discriminatory laws and harassment as the political power of the Christian Right continued to ascend (Bronski, 2011, p. 225; Eaklor, 2008, p. 176; Stein, 2012, pp. 143-144).

In response to AIDS, LGBTQ Americans organized new institutions and created new methods to get needed resources, which furthered lively debates over tactics. A major contributor to the AIDS epidemic was willful neglect from the federal government. For the first five years of the epidemic, President Reagan remained silent about it. In 1986 he and governors from both parties proposed cutting government spending on AIDS. That year the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that gay adults did not have constitutional privacy rights that would protect them from prosecution for private, consensual sex. The Justice Department announced that federal law allowed employment discrimination based on HIV/AIDS.

This spurred high-impact radical organizing. Larry Kramer and cofounders formed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP in 1987. It further publicized the NYC slogan “Silence = Death” in demonstrations. ACT UP dramatically disrupted Wall Street, the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the high cost of AZT (the first drug treatment).

In tandem with responses to AIDS, often overlooked portions of LGBT Americans organized. Bisexuals started forming social groups and then National Bisexual Liberation Group in 1972 based on N.Y., S.F.’s Bisexual Center in 1976, and the national BiPOL in San Francisco in 1983. Although the 1987 March on Washington organizers would not include bi or trans in the march title of demands, both constituents argued “gay and lesbian” was not inclusive (Garber, 1991; Garber, 1995; Queen, 1995; Queen, 1997; Queen and Schimel, 1997).

Over the 1990s and 2000s, new drug therapies prolonged the lives of people living with AIDS. Although radical, multi-community AIDS activism continued, work for mainstream legal protections and rights dominated activism. LGBT Americans and supporters sought inclusion in the military, antidiscrimination law, and marriage equality.

State legislatures and popular ballots featured both anti-discrimination and antigay measures, creating grassroots organizing for and against protecting LGBT Americans from being rejected from jobs, fired or excluded from housing and public accommodations. Cultural conservatives lamented gradually increasing acceptance of LGBT people as celebrity musicians and television stars slowly started to come out and weathered backlash to continue their careers. Meanwhile, the Hawai’i state supreme court win, Baehr v. Miike, temporarily legalized same-sex marriage there in 1996. National LGBT organizations pushed to extend marriage equality nationwide. Over the next decade states split on whether to ban or legalize marriage equality. Popular support steadily grew over the 2000s, reaching sixty percent in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the fourteenth Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

As sexologists categorized sexuality into normal or pathological identities, heteronormativity developed that added psychology and medical science to the church and state as anti-LGBT institutions. Communities of gay and bi men, lesbian and bi women, and trans people multiplied in the 1950s despite heightened repression, and a portion of these minorities organized for equal rights. Even an epidemic blamed on and falsely identified with gays could not stop LGBT organizing. Activists further developed radical tactics from the 1970s to call for liberation from heteronormativity. Arduous legal gains have been easier than rooting out the foundational power imbalances by race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship, but both legal and cultural changes continue to transform society.

Anti LGBTQ Hate Crimes in the United States

On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. It was the deadliest single person mass shooting and the largest documented anti-LGBTQ attack in United States history. The attack on a gay nightclub on Latin night resulted in over ninety percent of the victims being Latinx and the majority being LGBTQIA-identified. This act focused on an iconic public space that provided LGBTQIA adults an opportunity to explore and claim their sexual and gender identities. The violence at Pulse echoed the 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire attack in New Orleans that killed thirty two people. These mass killings are part of a broader picture of violence that LGBTQIA people experience, from the disproportionate killings of transgender women of color to domestic violence and bullying within schools. There are different perspectives within the LGBTQIA community about responses to hate-motivated violence. These debates concern whether the use of punitive measures through the criminal legal system supports or harms the LGBTQIA community, and whether there is a need for more radical approaches to address the root causes of anti-LGBTQIA violence. This research profile explores hate crimes as both a legal category and broader social phenomenon.

What are Hate Crimes?

Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have had a simultaneously spectacular and invisible role in U.S. society. Today, hate crimes are defined as criminal acts motivated by bias towards victims’ real or perceived identity groups (Blazak 2011, 245). Hate crimes are informal social control mechanisms utilized in stratified societies as they are part of what Barbara Perry calls a “contemporary arsenal of oppression” used to police identity boundaries (Perry 2009, 56). Hate crimes occur within social dynamics of oppression, where othered groups are vulnerable to systemic violence, pushing marginalized groups further into the political and social edges of society. It is theorized that hate crimes are driven by conflicts over cultural, political and economic resources, bias and hostility towards relatively powerless groups, and the failure of authorities address hate in society (Turpin-Petrosino 2009, 34).

The 1998 beating and torture death of college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming became a rallying point to address hate crimes more fully in the late 1990s. His murder received substantial media coverage and inspired artistic works as well as political action. As an affluent, white gay young man, Shepard became a symbol of anti-gay violence. His attackers were accused of attacking him because of anti-gay bias, but were not charged with committing a hate crime as Wyoming had no laws that covered anti-LGBT crimes.

While federal laws address constitutional rights violations, each state has or does not have its own specific hate crime laws (Levin and McDevitt 2002). Today, there are a wide range of laws regarding hate crime protections across states, and they vary in regards to protected groups, criminal and/or civil approaches, crimes covered, complete or limited data collection, and law enforcement training (Shively 2005, ii). As of 2019, 19 states did not have any LGBT hate crime laws, and 12 states had laws that covered sexual orientation but did not address gender identity and expression (Movement Advancement Project 2009). Twenty states included both sexual orientation and gender identity in their hate crimes laws (Movement Advancement Project 2009). The majority of these laws were created in the early 2000s, with the inclusion of gender identity and expression following in recent decades.

Hate crime laws require law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute crimes committed with bias against LGBTQ people. Some state laws also require collection of data on anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

The federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity. State laws may also allow for state or local prosecution of certain hate crimes, depending on what, if any, protections the state law offers.  Read the State-by-State Statutes.

Hate Crime Laws

Movement Advancement Project. “Equality Maps: Hate Crime Laws.” https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/hate_crime_laws.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a federal law that amended federal hate crime law to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Several states have hate crime laws that require data collection for sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, but do not impose additional penalties: Indiana (sexual orientation), Michigan (sexual orientation) and Rhode Island (gender identity or expression). For additional information, check out the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, the National Center for Transgender Equality, or the Equality Federation.

Hate crime laws are intended to deter bias-motivated crimes, but there is no consensus around the efficacy of these laws in preventing hate crimes against LGBTQ people. Additionally, some advocates argue that hate crime laws may be counterproductive to that goal. Research further suggests that the enforcement of hate crime laws disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. Read more about how criminalization impacts people of color here.

Contemporarily, there is no universal consensus about the role of hate crime laws in furthering the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people in American society. For many people such laws carry with them an emphasis on the value of their lives and help to further their sense of belonging. Others, particularly LGBTQ activists engaged in broader social justice struggles, argue that such laws shore up a broken criminal justice system that is predicated on a violent logic that cannot truly benefit the LGBTQ community.

Coming Out

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s advocated for “coming out” as an LGBTQ person as an important strategy of political change and personal fulfilment. This concept is illustrated in this now famous quote by the late San Francisco Supervisor, and hero of the LGBTQ rights movement, Harvey Milk:

Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”

The benefit and buffering effects of coming out have been well established in the literature (Stirratt, Meyer, Ouellette, Gara, 2007; Cass, 1984; Troiden, 1989). Meyer’s LGBTQ Minority Stress model (see Frost, click here for more) connects minority identification with positive outcomes in terms of coping and social support resources necessary to address minority stress, but it also highlights how minority identification is related to minority stressors within the individual such as expectations of rejection, concealment, and internalized homophobia. In addition, identification and community connectedness can increase visibility, which may increase vulnerability to things like employment discrimination, harassment, and violence (Meyer, 2003).

Review this resource on the coming out process by the University of Washington.

Realize that it may not always be safe to come out to others due to concerns around physical or emotional safety, loss of housing, unsafe living situations, etc. Every individual must weigh the pros and cons of coming out because the people around us may not always react in supportive ways.

Also, keep in mind the role of an ally is to not out someone to others. It is up to the individual to tell others about their identity, and we could even cause them physical or emotional harm if we out them to others. Do not do this without the person’s express and direct permission beforehand.

Inviting In

Historians and other social scientists have also suggested that the increased visibility of LGBTQ people was a critical element in the formation of LGBTQ communities and the progress of the LGBTQ rights movements (D’Emilio, 1983; Chauncey, 1995). Herek’s and Allport’s contact hypothesis (Herek & Capitanio, 1996; Allport, 1956), Harvey Milk’s rallying cry of “Come on out!” (Shiltz, 1982), and research that highlights the importance of role models and positive representatives in various forms of media (GLAAD, 2016; Craig, McInroy, McCready, Alaggia, 2015; Forenza, 2017), all suggest that coming out, and increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people, is an important and often positive strategy for improving social attitudes (Levina, Waldo, Fitzgerald, 2000). As stated earlier, increased visibility does come with risks. However, positive contact between heterosexuals and LGBTQ people has been found to result not only in positive attitude change, but also in the possibility of increasing the dominant group’s identification with the marginalized, creating the possibility of allyship—the mobilization of heterosexuals to work toward change benefiting the LGBTQ community (Reimer et al., 2017).

Review these tips from the University of Southern California on how to be an ally to someone who is coming out and check out the video below:

APA Guidelines for Writing about Sexual Orientation without Bias

  • Review this resource in order to be up-to-date on current requirements for writing about sexual orientation in psychological research

American Psychological Association. (2020). APA style: Sexual orientation. Retrieved from https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/sexual-orientation.


This section provided an introduction to sexual orientation, defining several key terms and providing a brief overview of LQBTQ+ history in the United States. Additionally, we explored social constructionism and the challenges of research related to sexual orientation. Finally – we discussed some of the ongoing challenges to the safety and well-being for sexual minority folks, coming out processes and ways to be allies.

Licenses and Attributions

The Evolution and Biology of Sex by Sehoya Cotner and Deena Wassenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Harvey Milk. Provided by: Wikimedia Commons. Located at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harvey_Milk_at_Gay_Pride_San_Jose,_June_1978_(cropped).jpg. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Massey, S. G., Young, S. R. & Merriwether, A. (2020). The Benefits and Risks of Coming Out. License: CC BY: Attribution

U.S. LGBTQ History. Authored by: Clark A. Pomerleau. Provided by: University of North Texas. Project: LGBTQ Studies. License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Adaptations: Reformatted. Modified content for language, application to subject and cohesion.

Additional References

Holmes L, Watts-Overall TM, Slettevold E, Gruia DC, Rieger G (2022) The relationship between finger length ratio, masculinity, and sexual orientation in women: A correlational study. PLoS ONE 17(3): e0259637. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0259637

Watts, T.M., Holmes, L., Raines, J. et al. Finger Length Ratios of Identical Twins with Discordant Sexual Orientations. Arch Sex Behav 47, 2435–2444 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1262-z

The following videos have this license: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

J.M. (2009). And Tango Makes Three. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyPjUa908hM

Tinder. (2019). 5 asexual people explain what “asexual” means to them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMhix4nr_0g

AMAZE Org. (2016). Sexual orientations explained: Lesbian, gay, heterosexual and bisexual. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5x5Fo7rMvY

NBC News. (2016). The problem with heteronormativity | Queer 2.0 | NBC Out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ3K_oS6ZmU

them. (2018). Billy Porter gives a brief history of queer political action | them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoXH-Yqwyb0

The New York Times. (2019). The Stonewall you know is a myth. And that’s O.K. | NYT Celebrating Pride. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7jnzOMxb14

NBC New York. (2019). Pride 2019: Did the AIDS crisis accelerate LGBTQ rights in America? | NBC New York.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcqVXSL15X4

CGTN America. (2016). History of hate crimes against the LGBT community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4GBT5NVbrs

The Root. (2020). Why some Black LGBTQIA+ folks are done ‘coming out.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdCKe0QBuwQ

chescaleigh. (2014). 5 tips for being an ally. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dg86g-QlM0

The following video is licensed with a Creative Commons License, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (or the CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International).

TEDx Talks. (2016). Homosexuality: It’s about survival – not sex | James O’Keefe | TEDxTallaght.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Khn_z9FPmU


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Introduction to Human Sexuality Copyright © 2022 by Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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