|THE MEANING OF HOMOSEXUALITY
The meaning of homosexuality
– like that of gender, which is formed by equally significant components:
gender identity reflecting one’s own feelings vis-à-vis gender attribution
by others (cf. Kessler and McKenna 1978) – can only be fully recovered
if we take into account both the self-identification and the attribution
in the context of identification, the core concept is that of homosexual
identity. “A concept in need of definition” was the title of Vivienne
Cass’ article on the topic, which can be rephrased as “a concept with too
many definitions.” For example, in this article alone five meanings
of homosexual identity are listed: 1. defining oneself as gay; 2.
a sense of self as gay; 3. image of self as homosexual; 4.
the way the homosexual person is; 5. consistent behavior in relation
to homosexually related activity (cf. Cass 1984: 108). Examining
these meanings could reveal the possibility for different sets of self-perceptions
regarding the social category of homosexuals. Their main elements
are knowledge of a group in society called homosexuals as well as personal
interpretations of homosexual experience. Too many meanings is only
one of the problems which make the concept of homosexual identity difficult
to apply. Another, possibly even more bothersome question is what
the homosexual identity can be contrasted with. The concept of homosexual
identity implies a necessary reference to the social category of homosexuality.
However if we want to focus on the social category of heterosexuality as
a necessary reference for a possible concept of heterosexual identity,
there is hardly anything to use. In addition, we can mention the
common experience of everyday life, the needless assertion of a person’s
heterosexuality: “‘person’ implies heterosexual without indication to the
contrary. And yet the normal person is not ‘heterosexual’ in any
defining sense; he engages in heterosexual activity from time to time but
hardly any information about his or her character, behavior, lifestyle
or interest is inferable from this fact” (Boswell 1990: 161).
Homosexual identity is a
cognitive construction and its preliminary condition is the possibility
of learning about the category of homosexuality, thus the missing conceptualization
of heterosexual identity can be explained by the relative lack of knowledge
about the heterosexual social category. According to Jonathan Katz,
not studying heterosexuality means the admission of its privileged, normative
state in comparison to homosexuality: “Such privileging of the norm
accedes to its domination, protecting it from questions” (Katz 1990: 8).
In consequence, it does not seem to make too much sense to talk about ‘the’
homosexual identity (or ‘the’ heterosexual identity); instead we should
interpret homosexuality as a situational self-concept component.
Still, there are situations in which one feels that s/he is perceived by
others specifically as homosexual. These are usually conflict situations
in which the extensive relational aspects of the participants are reduced
to one, the sexual aspect – usually in order to relativize or highlight
the power balance between the parties. The essence of this mechanism
seems to be a vicious circle: reducing the whole into a salient part (the
salience of which is quite relative and questionable itself), and recreating
it again into a whole. This is the recipe to produce a social stigma
from homosexuality and dehumanized beings from homosexuals (cf. Goffman
Thus in defining someone
as homosexual, that is, in the formation of perceived homosexual identity
(cf. Cass 1984; Troiden 1988), the emphasis is on the interaction between
the defined and the definer where encounters between them can be seen as
“‘exchanges’ between groups with differential access to power” (Plummer
1975: 21), and homosexual identities as outcomes of differently interpreted
power games. If we take for granted the existence of the ‘homosexual’
and ‘heterosexual’ categories, argues James Weinrich, it gives power to
the creators of the definitions: “After all, ‘define and conquer’ is a
strategy used at least since the time of Adam” (Weinrich 1990: 176).
In the context of power relations, homosexual identities – even if they
are only ‘fictions’ – can be seen not only as consequences of stigmatization
but also as specific means applied to reintegrate the stigmatized part
into the whole human being. This way, ‘perceived homosexual identities’
can become actively functioning, openly ‘presented identities’ (cf. Cass
1984; Troiden 1988).
There are, of course, many
who do not want to play this ‘dehumanization-rehumanization’ game, and
prefer to stay out of it (which in some cases is equal to staying passively
within its frames or in other cases to refusing its legitimacy) – but surely,
if one decides to win the game, one has to follow its rigid rules and make
the best of it. In this sense, homosexual group identities were created
by players who thought that united forces could be more effective than
individual attempts. Thus homosexual group identities can be interpreted
on the one hand as forms of strategy to gain resources and rights, but
on the other hand as visible proof of the ‘true nature’ of the homo/heterosexual
“How do you protest a socially
imposed categorization except by organizing around the category?” (Epstein
1990: 254). In this case group formation is an especially useful
strategy because a real category is not even needed to be organized around:
the production of homosexual group identities is more about identifying
with other group members than with the homosexual category, where the main
idea is to perceive the other group members as ‘one of us’ – whatever this
‘us’ means. In this sense we can agree that “difference from the
‘norm’ is about all that many people in the ‘gay community’ have in common
with each other” (Louise Sloan, cited by Duggan 1992: 18). However,
this difference should not be mistaken for an omnipotent unifying force,
especially if we consider how unanalyzed the norm is, and how little is
actually known about the people labeled by the collective noun, ‘homosexual’.
Let us now briefly examine
homosexuality from another viewpoint, that of attributing processes.
In this context I will focus on those phenomena which surround the social
functioning of the term ‘homosexual’: stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination.
We can think of stereotypes as “category-based expectations,” prejudice
as “personal disposition or response orientation toward a particular social
group” and discrimination as “differential behavior directed toward individuals
or groups as a function of category membership” (cf. Brewer 1994: 317).
These phenomena have multiple functions including the promotion of cognitive
economy (complexity reduction), ego protection (anxiety reduction), and
Earlier, especially in studies
of ethnic stereotypes, more individualized explanatory models were applied
with emphasis on complexity and anxiety reduction needs, and with very
little or no attention paid to the social fitting function. From
these studies we could learn about, for example, certain types of personality
– the authoritarian, the prejudiced (cf. Allport 1958) – and their sometimes
pathologically described traits. Following this pattern, most of
the research on attitudes toward homosexuality centered around personalized
characteristics and concentrated on the interpersonal level of analysis
while the exploration of the social context (the intergroup level) was
almost totally neglected. Additionally, there is a real problem with
prejudice against homosexuals, which is the impossibility to define its
objective meanings: “There exist only a range of different ideological
positions each positing its own definition of what constitutes a ‘prejudiced’
attitude towards homosexuals” (Kitzinger 1987: 156). Definitions
of prejudice thus very much depend on the ideological context, and the
motivations of ‘experts’ creating the definitions are at least as important
as their findings.
In comparison with prejudicial
disposition, discriminatory behavior is a more ‘tangible asset’ to tackle.
Discrimination is often viewed simply on the interpersonal level as the
behavioral component of individual prejudice. According to this logic,
first there must be prejudice and then discrimination follows, while in
reality we have to recognize their interactions: prejudice does not only
support but also stems from the institutionally restrictive arrangements
of a society. As Pettigrew argues, “institutionalized discrimination
is the core of the problem” (Pettigrew 1986: 172), and this underlines
the importance of intergroup analysis where discrimination can reflect
the different access of social groups to resources and power (cf. Brewer
Problems deriving from the
fluid meaning of individual prejudice can be avoided by considering discrimination
more as a type of intergroup behavior than as an interpersonal one (cf.
Tajfel 1978). In this context the basis of interactions is not the
personality but the group membership: members of the outgroup are
likely to be seen in a homogenized way, as an undifferentiated mass detached
from social existence. The detachment of outgroup members from commonly
shared social life is generated by (and certainly also generates) stereotypes.
Stereotypes are descriptions about what outgroup members are like.
They can function both in individual and in social contexts, but their
contents mediate characteristics of intergroup behavior: applying
stereotypes to someone is equal to “robbing that person of his or her individuality”
and substituting it with attributes believed to be collectively shared
in an outgroup (cf. Snyder and Miene 1994: 34). Gardner points out
the significance of consensually defined stereotypes which have much social
support because of their seemingly cognitive basis. Their contents
thus can be perceived more like facts than beliefs; in this sense “cognitive
factors rather than motivational ones underline stereotypes about outgroups”
(Gardner 1994: 19). For example, years ago a Hungarian police department
officer made the following public statement: “One thousand homosexuals
can annually seduce about 10,000 fourteen- to eighteen-year-old boys or
more. It can lead to there being ever more homosexuals, i.e., those
men who do not produce descendants for the future.”1 Once these kinds
of stereotypes are established with a negative evaluative connotation,
they can be used in justifying discrimination.
attributions as specific forms of categorization and part of people’s usual
cognitive activity can be seen as expressions of a group’s cultural beliefs.
These attributions seem to operate on the ready-made base of social categories,
and say more in our case about the socio-cultural background of the heterosexual
society than about the homosexuals. In fact, we can argue that homosexuality
was created as a heterosexual concept (gaining social meanings only in
relation to heterosexuality), thus in this sense the homosexualization
of homosexuality is the main goal of homosexual politics. However,
this is a valid goal only as far as sexuality is still considered to be
ACTORS IN THE HUNGARIAN
In Hungary there are three
homosexual organizations which are officially recognized by the state.
Homeros-Lambda is the oldest (formed in 1988) and its pioneer character
determined its main task: to reduce the shock it caused in society.
By now, Homeros has gained a slightly old-fashioned reputation, as its
members are relatively old, and it has practically no activity at all.
Homeros is best characterized by its psychiatrist president’s views according
to which homosexuality is a primarily psychologically and partly biologically
determined condition. Starting from the Freudian concept of the “polimorph
pervert child,” he argues that the dominant mother figure has the greatest
responsibility for involving her son in her “unhappy and usually frigid
world, always complaining to him about men, and in this way forcing him
to identify with her.”2
From the statutes of Homeros
we learn that “about five percent of our country’s population is homosexual
(including lesbians), differing from the rest of society only in their
sexual habits. In the case of such a sizable minority, hiding sexual
tendencies is not desirable in any case, but in the present situation it
is especially dangerous considering the fact that AIDS first appeared exactly
in this minority’s circles” (Homeros Statutes 1988). The main purpose
of the association was to promote the social integration of homosexuals
by organizing leisure activities as well as introducing AIDS prevention
measures. Homeros has entered Hungarian public life by using a set
of essentialist arguments focusing on the biologically and/or universally
given essence of homosexuality (connected to psychological defects, genes,
hormones, temptations, etc.). This set of claims, inherited from
theology and medical science, seemed to be a useful compass to navigate
the “swampy sexual landscape” (Weeks 1995: 3). Additionally, there
is a double function of essentialism: on one hand, it can play a
strategic role in homosexual legitimization, but on the other hand, it
can also strengthen people’s “dependence on experts and authorities for
guidance” (Tiefer 1990: 320). The precondition for this ‘good for
gays – good for experts’ function is that categories of sexual orientation
are not questioned, but based on objective and stable properties.
The second organization,
Lambda-Budapest, was founded in 1991 by a small circle of younger people
who parted from the Homeros mainly because they wanted to publish their
own magazine, Mások. Their main concern is still to publish the magazine
and thus their major role is to serve the gay public by spreading information
in the form of news, ads and advertising. The magazine, the only
one of its kind in the country, provides gays with possible means of creating
their symbolic environment and of maintaining the appearance of a gay movement.
The original program of
Mások published in the first issue could be summarized as follows:
the magazine wanted to represent homosexual life in its entirety, and in
a manner which could empower those who face their otherness only with great
difficulty. In a later issue of the same year, the five main forms
of discrimination were listed with which Hungarian gays had to cope.
These were: limited career opportunities (homosexuals cannot be teachers
or soldiers in Hungary); different age of consent for hetero- and
homosexual relations; records on homosexuals at official places (like
police departments, venereal disease clinics); publications generating
hatred against homosexuals; no state subvention for homosexual organizations
leading to the impossibility of representing a Hungarian ‘minority of a
few hundred thousand people’.
Since then, the debates
over discrimination have lost their dynamic: by 1997 the basic tone
of Mások describing the Hungarian situation seems to be more optimistic
(and there are more imported bad news stories from other countries).
The structure of grievances has also changed. Claiming state subvention
for minority groups (and in this case the ethnically modeled minority status
itself can also be disputed) does not seem to be a valid reference point
any more in a situation where minority interests are mainly represented
in and mostly referred to by private foundations and NGOs. Claims
for protection against hate-inciting publications can be rejected by claims
for freedom of expression. The problem with those allegedly extant
official records on homosexuals seems to be decreasing because they are
partly transferred to the agencies of AIDS prevention organizations.
Limited career opportunities remain, but there is slightly less emphasis
on them. The different age of consent is the only old grievance which
preserved its full force, especially because nothing has changed with it.
Moreover, it became something like a general metaphor for Hungarian homosexuality-related
problems: the state legally and publicly discriminates homosexual relations
and at the same time privileges heterosexual ones. This way the state
intrudes not only into the bedroom but also into the private life strategies
of the concerned individuals.
As mentioned above, Mások
wanted to represent homosexuality in its entirety which included the publication
of ‘homosexual pictures’ portraying naked and half-naked men including
penises.3 This ‘sexy element’ made the character of Mások a bit controversial.
Some people could never reconcile the serious ideas of representing homosexual
interests with the lascivious images of proudly erect penises.4 Mások
is an open forum for struggling against social stigmatization and discrimination,
and Lambda-Budapest, the association whose members produce the magazine,
is mainly organized around a socio-cultural identity “constructed from
ingredients outside the individual such as social intolerance, legal persecution
and the gay subculture as refuge and hospice” (De Cecco and Shively 1984:
The third officially registered
organization, the Háttér (Background) Support Group was organized around
a gay help-line in 1995. Originally, Háttér was a subgroup of the
gay rights organization Szivárvány (Rainbow) but their practical plans
could not be realized within the institutional framework of the umbrella
group since the state rejected its registration. The story of this
rejection became an infamous one. In Hungary non-governmental organizations
have to be registered at court, but courts do not have the right to intervene
in internal organizational rules: their only function is to keep
the organization operating in accordance with the law. However, in
the case of Szivárvány the registration was refused, at first on the grounds
that the organization did not introduce an 18 year age limit for applicants.
No one seemed to pay attention to the fact that there are no laws or regulations
in Hungary which would provide legal support for this condition of the
court. In the first round there was yet another serious obstacle
allegedly preventing the court from registering Szivárvány, and it was
its name. Instead of using the term ‘homosexual’, they called themselves
a ‘meleg’ (meaning literally ‘warm’, figuratively ‘gay’) group. The
court did not want to accept this self-definition, referring to it as ambiguous.
This argument was not used later on, but it indicates the nature of the
court’s negative preconceptions concerning homosexuality.
The court of first instance
argued that it would constitute criminal behavior if under-age youth and
adults established sexual relations within this organization. Surprisingly,
the court of appeal arrived at a different conclusion and reasoned that
the danger in officially registering a group like Szivárvány would derive
from the bad personal examples adult gays would set for the youngsters
by their ‘immoral and unhealthy’ lifestyle. Finally, the constitutional
court rejected the registration on the basis of yet another argument:
here the potentially ‘serious future consequences’ were emphasized of youth
making decisions for which they were still too immature and inexperienced;
it was thus deemed absolutely necessary to prevent them – by legal
force if required – from the irresponsible steps leading to membership
in an organization related to homosexuality.
In fact, Szivárvány (with
its full name: Rainbow Association for the Rights of Gays) was formed in
1994 in order to fight discrimination. In their view homosexuals
would be able to achieve their aims only if they introduced their situation
not as a particularly homosexual issue but as a general human one:
the central problem was not homosexual emancipation but the contradiction
between official social and individual interpretations of what is understood
as homosexuality. They perceived the different forms of discrimination
not only as negative actions calling for reactions, but also as symptoms
of a broader social situation to be analyzed and possibly changed.
It is probably not an accident that this organization generated the most
intensive public attention: maybe this was/is the only group with
real political potential. After the shameful Hungarian court experience,
two founding members of Szivárvány have turned to the Human Rights Committee
of Strasbourg for support claiming that the Hungarian authorities have
violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Today, the Háttér Support
Group seems to be the most active (and interactive) of the Hungarian gay
organizations: its services are based on the experience of members
who realized the potentials of the protected environment offered by the
telephone. Thus, to contact them one does not have to ‘come out’
or be involved in real homosexual activities. This support group
concentrates on mental health issues, crisis intervention, dealing with
both self-attributed and externally attributed homosexuality, as well as
spreading practical information. Consequently its main goal is to
comfort and inform – and not to politicize.
Following the official setback
of Szivárvány there were a few initiatives in trying to reflect on the
problematic character of the homo/heterosexual categorization itself.
One of them was NINCS (Non-Existent), a group for people ‘without sexual/gender
identity’, and another was called Diákok a Nemi Sokszínûségért (Students
for Sexual/Gender Multi-Coloredness). In 1996, a group consisting
primarily of members of NINCS, Szivárvány and other organizations, established
the Habeas Corpus Munkacsoport (Habeas Corpus Workgroup, HCM) whose main
field of practical activity is to organize legal protection against all
kinds of discrimination deriving from one’s sex, form of family, bodily
traits, sexual interest, nourishment, smoking or non-smoking habits, and
so on. The guiding principles of HCM include respecting everyone’s
right of self-definition, respecting each other’s taste, and emphasizing
the “originality of love and sexual fantasy” instead of always applying
a dichotomous formula, the bipolar myth of homo/heterosexuality.
These initiatives can be
seen as exciting intellectual adventures with very little likelihood to
induce any change. The reasons for this are multiple: it seems
that the social claims based on sexual orientation categories are more
intelligible for many people than “the gospel that the hetero/homosexual
distinction is a social fiction” (Epstein 1990: 243). For some it
must also be difficult to realize how the category of heterosexuality or
homosexuality is gaining its “culture-dependent, relational and perhaps,
not objective” meanings from the surrounding socio-cultural environment
(Stein 1990: 325). Additionally, the idea that “we want to be recognized
but not as homosexuals” can be interpreted as ambiguous, and therefore
to claim that “we are different” without being willing to define that difference
may seem disturbing for many (cf. Bersani 1995: 68–69).5
THE RELEVANCE OF HOMOSEXUAL
(OR GAY, AND MAYBE QUEER) POLITICS
By looking over what has
been said we can discover traces of vulnerability in our original definition
of homosexual politics. In that definition (i.e., symbolic space
to challenge definitions, discourses, categories which are structuring
social space in ways disadvantageous to homosexuals) the weakest element
seems to be the definition of ‘homosexual’ itself. There are various
valid answers to the question ‘who are the homosexuals?’ – many of which
are totally incompatible with each other. The indescribability of
homosexuality is the result to the inadequacy of the category ‘homosexual’:
“Inadequate, that is, in that we can’t really classify behavior on the
one hand, and the term can’t restore a type of experience on the other”
(Foucault 1982: 15).
It is also tempting to forget
that homosexual politics is not only a symbolic field but also a very realistic
venture which includes practical decisions, strategies for survival, competition
for social recognition, distribution of resources, and so on. In
theoretical research it might be sufficient to uncover, analyze and deconstruct
the structures dominating a given social space. Here deconstruction
signifies a mode of reorganizing our logic of perception: for example,
queer theory becomes activated by shifting the focus from homosexuality
to heterosexuality, from the marginal to the central feature – where heterosexuality
is the compulsory expression of a normative sexual regime. However,
in the context of politics mere deconstruction is not enough for transforming
either symbolic or non-symbolic structures. We might be able to reorganize
our own logic of perception successfully but the same success cannot be
guaranteed in the case of our political opponents, and even in the unlikely
case of success, “to demystify the hegemonic regimes of the normal doesn’t
render them inoperative” (Bersani 1995: 4).
In terms of local needs
and inventions, we can observe different – however sometimes coexisting
– sexual-political trends. For example, in Hungary, like in other
parts of Central and Eastern Europe, “gays and lesbians are organizing
and trying to manifest an identity and a lifestyle publicly” (Bech 1993).
In North-America, all of those who resist a male-dominated, white, capitalistic,
hetero-sexist culture are put into the “same queer bag” (cf. Bersani 1995:
71) where queer is “by definition whatever is at odds with the normal,
the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing particular to which
it necessarily refers” (Halperin 1995: 62). In various Scandinavian
countries, on the other hand, we can witness the vanishing of the modern
homosexual subject who is “a kind of time bomb, encoded with its own explosion.
Or perhaps rather its own discreet disappearance. The very circumstances
which form the background of his existence also act towards eliminating
him; at the same time, he himself helps this process along” (Bech
In conclusion, it is relevant
to speak about homosexual politics – in Hungary, as well – especially because
analyzing its different forms and meanings will direct our attention to
its broader context: the social organizing principles of sexuality
and gender. For example, answering the question ‘What makes a person
either a homosexual or a heterosexual?’ can be just as problematic as answering
‘What makes a person either a man or a woman?’ We have to realize
that the questions themselves appear to give support to assumptions that
a person is either a homosexual or a heterosexual, a woman or a man, and
that there is no problem in differentiating between them (cf. Kessler and
McKenna 1978: 163). Still, in both cases we have the option of examining
the arbitrary character of the traditional bipolarities and interpreting
the apparent counterpoles as sets of interwoven, inseparable meanings.
It can also come to mind that there are cultures which have not formulated
their concepts of gender in terms of the well-known symmetrical dualism,
and there are others which do not have formal notions of sexuality at all
(cf. Ortner and Whitehead 1981). As Pat Caplan argues, “what is sexual
in one context may not be so in another: an experience becomes sexual by
application of socially learned meanings” (Caplan 1987: 2; cf. Ross and
In this field, therefore
there are several further connections to make and various possibilities
to discover. It is a bit like peeling Clifford Geertz’s onion: “One
may have the illusion that by peeling off one layer after another one comes
nearer to the core of sexuality, after which one realizes that all the
different layers [i.e., economics, politics, families, identities, preferences,
and so on] together form its essence” (Wekker 1993: 152; cf. Ross and Rapp
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1 The quotation is from a
book with the tendentious title Homosexual Murderers, written in 1990 by
Károly Martinkó who – according to his own introduction – was led “only
by the wish to warn parents and teachers because if they pay more attention
in the future, fewer boys will become homosexual.”
2 Interview with Dr. Lajos
Romsauer, psychiatrist (Homeros 1991: 3).
3 This ended quite recently
when a new legal regulation broadened the definition of sex products to
include pictures of sexual organs. Sex products are penalized by
tax and other fees.
4 According to David Morgan
erection can also communicate rebellious social meanings as it has “an
irrationality about it which contrasts markedly with Western, and especially
middle class, one might assume, themes of control and predictability.
The erection is a jester in the wings of the civilizing process” (Morgan,
5 Besides the larger scale
organizations there are smaller specialized gay groups without public goals,
like the Jewish group, the Christian group, the group for married gays
and the gay excursion group. Within these usually very small communities
it is difficult to decide what is the more dominant group formation force:
being gay or being, for example, Jewish.