Americans are becoming more tolerant of gays But physical attacks on gays continues to be a problem

Claude Lewis

January 02, 1991|By Claude Lewis

A READER recently asked me why homosexuality in the United States is increasing. Why I was asked is a mystery to me, but I've been thinking about the question.

From everyone I've spoken with and from research information, I determined that there may not be an actual increase in gay life. Instead, we're perceiving a supposed rise in the number of gay men and lesbians mainly because more people are willing to speak openly about their private lives and lifestyle.

Since prohibitions against non-traditional relationships are less intense, many more people have stepped forward to reveal their membership in the gay community. The tendency to reveal what once was a very painful and dire secret is far more prevalent than it was in the past. Increased tolerance for gays by the heterosexual community has, in many ways, made it less threatening to own up to alternative lifestyles.

Twenty or 25 years ago there was no effective gay rights movement in the United States. Most gays, fearing discrimination and recrimination, believed it much wiser to hide their lifestyle than to risk physical attack, ostracism, ridicule or being fired.

Despite new legal protections for homosexuals, physical attacks on gays and lesbians remain a problem.

Many homosexuals have developed pride concerning their lifestyles. One offshoot of the gay movement has been increased public tolerance and understanding of gay men and lesbians; many heterosexuals now feel less threatened by gays than they did when gays remained in the closet.

But "coming out" seems to have increased public acceptance. Since so many individuals have revealed their homosexuality, gays have become an increasing force in U.S. politics. Politicians who once avoided gays and lesbians today openly court their votes. That has led to "gay power," which has increased tolerance of gays in many circles.

Few are shocked when someone comes out of the closet these days. Even the word "closet" in this context now has an anachronistic ring.

I recall my own indignation many years ago when I read a copy of Newsweek bearing a cover photograph of a homosexual couple holding hands. However, as I learned more about the gay movement and its lifestyle, it no longer bothered me.

From what I've discovered, homosexuality in Europe is less a problem than in the United States. This seems true mainly because the American ethos is still obsessed with producing a particular kind of boy.

As a nation, we are still in our infancy in our idea of the masculine image. Many of us continue to believe that every boy should be molded in an image that lies somewhere between New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, John Wayne or Mike Tyson. These men, in many minds, are perfect definitions of masculinity, despite the fact that many American sports heroes are gay. No major sport is totally heterosexual, not football, boxing, track and field, tennis, hockey or baseball.

Still, many old images persist in the U.S. Any boy or man who appreciates poetry, or who enjoys ballet or art, comes under scrutiny.

Tommi Avicolli, managing editor of the Philadelphia Gay News, believes there is about the same percentage of people with homosexual and bisexual inclinations as in the past, but that public awareness of homosexuality has changed.

"Many things are far better for homosexuals, bisexuals and lesbians today," Avicolli said, "but it still takes courage to be open about one's sexuality. There's still great pressure as institutional and personal biases persist, even though times are looser and there's more tolerance.

"But while there's more tolerance toward gays, there's also more violence toward gays. There are still lots of jobs that won't hire gays, lesbians and bisexuals and there are few positive images coming out of Hollywood and television.

"Also, AIDS makes the whole question scary. Many families continue to reject people and many parents still throw their children out of the house once they learn of their gay lifestyles. Sure, things are better than they once were, but it takes courage to come out. I think things will improve when people find that courage and learn to accept their own sexuality instead of letting others define it for them," Avicolli said.

The bottom line is this: There may not be an increase in the number of gays in the United States, but greater tolerance for them does exist. It's going to take some time before there's general acceptance of the gay lifestyle, but it's doubtful that the United States will ever return to the full-blown resentment of the gay community that once was the rule instead of the exception.

Claude Lewis is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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