The term homosexual describes those who have sex with, or are sexually attracted to, persons of the same (Greek:homo) sex. It was devised in 1869 by a Hungarian doctor (Benkert), as part of the emerging medical and scientific discourse around sexuality, discussed by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality (1976). During the following century, a great deal of scientific writing was concerned with depicting homosexuality as a morbid pathology, although several more sympathetic strands of thought did emerge during the early part of the twentieth century. For Sigmund Freud homosexuality was not an illness; for Alfred Kinsey it was a statistically widespread phenomenon; William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson saw it as physiologically normal; and, by 1973, it was no longer classified as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association.
In modern Western usage, male homosexuals are referred to as ‘gay’ and female homosexuals as ‘lesbian’. In all societies men have had sex with men (and probably women with women, though this is less well documented), but having this behaviour as a basis for a social-and especially an organizing or life-long- identity is a recent and Western phenomenon. Other societies have had other arrangements: generation-specific (and often mandatory) ritualist homosexuality in Melanesia; age-and role-specific relationships (Ancient Greece); and specified inter-role or third-role identity (American Indian Berdache). Even in well-documented Western societies, the varieties of homosexual identity, arrangements, and life-styles show considerable diversity, including episodic and time-limited activity (for example same-sex institutions), admixture with heterosexual activity (bisexuals and married gays), and wholly casual and anonymous encounters (‘cottaging’ and ‘cruising’).
Although the shift in both popular attitudes towards homosexuality and the social organization of homosexual identity and subculture must be seen largely as a consequence of the rise of a lesbian and gay movement, the sociological analysis of this field has proved important. The pathbreaking article was by (‘The Homosexual Role’, Social Problems, 1968), in which she argued that homosexuality was not a condition at all, but a social role which has emerged since the seventeenth century in the Western world-a proposition which sponsored the so-called social constructionist theory of homosexuality.
It is useful to distinguish homosexual behaviour, feelings, and identity, which may or may not be congruent. Estimates of prevalence are notoriously difficult to establish due to the stigmatized and often socially invisible nature of the gay and lesbian identities. The pioneering studies by Kinsey in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s introduced a seven-point scale, ranging from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual, and showed that changes in the definition of what counts as homosexual behaviour lead to estimates of male homosexuality between 4 per cent (life-long, exclusively homosexual activity) and more than 40 per cent (some significant homosexual activity to orgasm during sexually active life). Recent studies converge on a figure between six and twelve per cent for those exclusively or predominantly homosexual for most or all of their sexually active life.
Studies of the aetiology of homosexuality, though extensive, are inconclusive and make little sense outside the context of the aetiology of sexual orientation in general. Much sociological attention has been focused instead on the nature of homosexual identity and whether it is primarily inherent (essentialism) or socially elicited and moulded (constructionism). For an overview see, Against Nature (1991). See also heterosexism ; homophobia ; sex, sociological studies of.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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