Ethics consists of rules and concepts for determining right and wrong. Within the LGBTQ community, certain ethical principals have shaped Gay folklife, such as the right to self-identity, tolerance of difference, a policy of inclusion, appreciation of diversity, and protection for the helpless.
Gay ethics is best understood as the summation of responses by individuals whose identities as sexual, gendered, and embodied beings do not match up with the standards of universalized male-masculine/female-feminine dichotomy. Rather than being top-down ethics (based on eternal principles imposed upon the community by the divine, by nature, by custom, and by reason), Gay ethics is bottom-up (derived from the lived experiences of its members).
Principles of Gay ethics are ultimately based in the individual experience of self. The first principle is that individuals have the right to determine their own sexual orientation, gender identification, and physiological classification (an important issue for transpeople and intersex people). This first principle leads to a second: individuals may then associate with others like themselves for mutual support, which leads to a third: such groups should be tolerant of difference, recognize of a range of gender/orientation/biosexual identities, and should appreciate diversity. Due to these principles, there tends to be resistance against dogmatic pronouncements, coercion of the weak by the strong, and physical acts of aggression such as incarceration for non-violent offenses, vigilantism, war, and terrorism.
The strong ethical prohibition against enforced conformity through violence had led the LGBTQ community to come up with alternatives that entice rather than physically coerce others to behave properly, such as harm reduction when dealing with drug addiction, and colorful Pride parades when confronting homophobia.
Topics concerning Gay ethics are closely linked to physical pleasure, aesthetic appreciation, humor, hilarity, and festival. Major ethical challenges for the LGBTQ community include issues of propriety (limits to nonviolent offensive behavior), personal responsibility (avoiding harmful excess), and humility (lessening the potential for arrogance due to presumed moral superiority over Straight people).
Many human societies adopt pan-cultural systems of ethics through religious systems such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as well as non-religious ones: communism, democracy, consumerism, and humanism. The fact that much of life on Earth reproduces by means of two distinct sexes, male and female, along with the observation that each sex manifests distinct characteristics, has led pan-cultural systems to enshrine male-masculinity and female-femininity as universal and mutually exclusive characteristics that are essential to the proper function of cosmic order. It is therefore common for people who follow the above systems to cosmologize (render universal for all time and in all places) heteronormal roles of sex and gender.
Universalizing man/woman opposition then becomes a gender-separatist mandate issued by any number of superhuman sources, be it the Gods (often through myth and epic), God (through divine revelation), Nature, Reason, Evolution (science), or the March of History (dialectical materialism). Deviation from one’s biologically/spiritually ordained sex, gender, and body may thus be interpreted as absurd, perverse, deformed, insane, sinful, criminal, or any combination of the aforementioned negative labels.
There appear, however, to have been occasions in the historical record of exceptions, people who did not conform to their society’s expectations concerning sex and gender. Such people would often re-interpret myth, revelation, and reasoning to situate themselves as acceptable within the order of things, such as Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in 2600 BCE Egypt, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut in 1500 BCE, the poetess Sappho in sixth-century BCE Greece, legalized marriage between men in pre-Christian Rome, the Ladies of Llangollen in eighteenth century CE Wales (Britain), and the custom of sworn virgins in twentieth century Albania. A more usual path, however, was for them to simply avoid being noticed, especially in those places where Christian and Muslim homophobic discourse spread though imperialism and proselytizing.
Science, War, and Human Sexual Ethics
It was not until the late nineteenth century that scientific analysis of sex and gender began to undermine homophobic cosmological presuppositions that informed science, religion, politics, and culture around the world. Along with ethnographic research on multiple societies with non-heteronormal categories of sex and gender, a growing movement to question the ethics of homophobia and coerced gender-body conformity arose in Europe, the USA, and Canada. This movement, however, met with serious resistance from established pan-cultural systems. The frequency of international combat during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which often included the depiction of the enemy as effeminate (and the fear of appearing as such), hindered efforts to counter homophobia-as-patriotic-discourse that was based on the moral imperative to see one’s side as ethically superior in accordance to the standards of God and Nature.
For approximately 1500 years before Stonewall, the ethics of legally enforced homophobia were based on the aforementioned dichotomy of male and female as essential to cosmic order. Undermining sex and gender expectations meant undermining the cosmic order and threatening the security of all. Those who did not conform to sex and gender expectations were therefore dangerous and deserved punishment. In addition, there was often reluctance to name the crimes against male/female opposition (as in opposite sexes) clearly, and offenders were seen as having committed crimes so disgusting they could not be said aloud. Discussion of sexual/gender ethics was hobbled by the inability to even speak of important issues, much less argue their merits and liabilities.
In order to begin such conversations, social scientists developed terms such as homosexual, invert, and hermaphrodite to describe those who did not conform to heteronormal expectations. Same-sex orientation groups used various vague terms such as homophile to represent themselves, and insisted that their members behave and dress according to the expectations of the general public.
1960s and Stonewall
In the 1960s, progressively more anti-war, anti-imperialsim, and anti-establishment discourse was brought before the American public by the increasingly sophisticated news media. Ethics promoting ethnic and racial rights to resist oppression (particularly with the civil rights campaigns of the African American community) were adopted by a loose confederation of non-heteronormal groups that called themselves gay and who refused to conform to expectations of gendered dress and behavior. The crucial moment of resistance was an event called the Stonewall Riots (more recently, the Stonewall Uprising), in which police surveillance and raids of Gay bars resulted in civil unrest in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1969. International attention gained by the unrest, which was portrayed less as a riot and more as a rowdy street festival, did something new: it gave the community visibility and publicly christened it “gay,” the term the protesters had given themselves in chants and signage that appeared on television screens and in newspapers around the world.
The Stonewall Uprising was unusual in that there was little actual violence against the perceived oppressors of the Gay community. Most of the hostile behavior consisted of throwing things at riot police who were dressed in full protective gear, inflicting damage on official vehicles, chanting slogans, and dancing before the police while singing mildly obscene songs. Nobody on either side was killed. Almost as soon as violence erupted, members of the Gay community called for peaceful protest and public display of solidarity, which started the Gay Liberation movement and set the pattern for Pride parades and LGBTQ rights events from that time on.
Ethical Diversification and Inclusion
The success of Stonewall led to the insistence that difference within the Gay community not be glossed but appreciated and given voice. The heteronormal pattern of establishing men in charge was challenged by women, leading to the Lesbian community within the Gay collective, as well as the Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and others that were based on traditional genders and identities such as mahu (Hawaiian), Two-Spirit (Native American/Canadian First Nation), muxe-nguiu (Mexican Zapotec), kathoey (Thai), hijra (Southeast Asian), ‘yan Daudu (Haussa), and sistergirl/brotherboy (Australian Aborigine).
The importance of inclusion in LGBTQ folklife can be seen in the Gay Games, Gay rodeo, the National Women’s Music Festival, Leather runs, and Circuit events that allow anyone to participate regardless of sex or gender. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which restricts attendance to women-born women, nevertheless allows all women to attend, regardless of orientation.
The Three Spectra
In conceiving the Gay community as a rainbow, identities were initially lined up on a spectrum from Gay to Straight. Further refinement reveals three intertwining spectra: orientation (homosexual-heterosexual), gender (feminine-masculine), and physiology (female-male). The ethical consequences of a three-spectra understanding of identity and appreciation of difference undermine homophobic glosses that conflate non-heteronormal orientation, gender, and physiologies as if they were one deviant category.
Coming Out, Outing
Coming out of the closet (revealing one’s non-heteronormal identity) has been framed as a morally courageous act. When famous people come out, it can help the LGBTQ community refute the accusation that Gay people are immoral because they are sneaky. Professional tennis player Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, for example, and she risked her career in the process but won praise for being honest about her orientation.
An early mandate of the Gay community before Stonewall was not to reveal another’s sexual orientation or alternative gender identity without prior permission from that person. Some activists, however, became angry at the hypocrisy of politicians who were homosexual in private but homophobic in public. This inspired the practice of outing, revealing personal details related to closeted (secretly homosexual) politicians and public figures.
Outing is a controversial ethical issue in the LGBTQ community. In the case of Oliver Sipple, a man who saved the life of President Gerald Ford in 1975, Sipple was neither a politician nor a homophobic person. But Gay activists in San Francisco, including Harvey Milk, outed Sipple in an attempt to elevate his stature as a Gay hero. The resulting fallout that Sipple received from his family (who did not know he was Gay) ruined his life.
One of the most important thinkers who influenced Gay folk ethics was philosopher-activist and icon Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Raised Roman Catholic, Foucault was troubled by same-sex attraction as a young man. He was also concerned throughout his adult life with the rights of oppressed people to speak for themselves. Much of his writing dealt with the intellectual subversion of institutions that had oppressed him: the Church, the criminal justice system, medicine, and psychiatry.
What made Foucault’s critiques so appealing was his archaeology of ideas: unspoken assumptions surrounding official discourse reveal important power dynamics informing the people who enforce that discourse. Towards the end of his life, Foucault began discussing sexuality, and how official discourse claimed that sexuality was too shameful to discuss, but never stopped talking about it. Foucault linked this obsession with forbidden sexuality, including homosexuality, to pleasures of transgression and confession, implying that homophobic discourse was intrinsically homoerotic. In doing so, he subverted the moral bases for condemning homosexuality in a way that also undermined splitting the argument into a simple “us against them” dichotomy. When describing the Catholic Church, an institution that had been a source of great anguish to him when he was growing up, he said, “I think the church is wonderful… it is a superb instrument of power for itself. Entirely woven through with elements that are imaginary, erotic, effective, corporal, sensual, and so on, it is superb!”
Foucault also criticized drug prohibition, saw consensual violence and power dynamics in Leathersex as opening possibilities for new pleasures, and supposedly gave a lecture at a San Francisco bathhouse called the Barracks. He expressed the following principles: homosexuality was not simply desire but something desirable, being Gay was “not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to try to define and develop a way of life,” homophobia was not so much that fear that men have sex together but that they might love each other, and same-sex love could be transformative, the basis for new kinds of pleasures and friendships that in turn could be passed on to the Straight community. In making these statements, Foucault described important features of Gay folklife, especially activist folklife. He died in 1984 of complications resulting from AIDS.
The AIDS Crisis
One of the most important unifying factors in the history of the LGBTQ community was the AIDS epidemic, which unified Gay men, Lesbians, Trans, Bisexuals, and sympathetic Straights to help those who were suffered from AIDS. The Gay community countered arguments (particularly those coming from religious fundamentalists) that AIDS was divine punishment against Gay men. A basic ethical shift that came with AIDS activism was the refusal to condemn an HIV+ person for contracting AIDS, no matter how it happened, and to concentrate instead on compassion for sick and prevention campaigns for everyone, Straight and Gay. Along with the refusal to condemn, there was set in place a strong ethical mandate against revealing a person’s status as a Person With AIDS (PWA), echoing the earlier controversial mandate not to reveal another’s sexual orientation or alternative gender identification.
Another shift occurred with reference to ending one’s own life. The sanctity with which the LGBTQ community holds the right to self-identity was extended into the right to determine the moment for departing from this world. Those who were dying of AIDS would encounter deteriorating physical and mental conditions that grew progressively more painful and distressing for people who, only a few months or years before, had been healthy. It became an unwritten custom that HIV+ people had the option to kill themselves once the diseases associated with AIDS became unbearable to them. The custom has resulted in no major backlash or scandal, either within the Gay community or outside of it. Dramatic representations of Gay men with AIDS who choose the moment of their deaths include the film, It’s My Party (1996).
Activists who were angered by the silence of the government during the early years of the AIDS crisis promoted the use of aggressive tactics to call attention to the plight of PWAs, including the disruption of church services. Although these groups stopped short of advocating violence, some members of the LGBTQ community saw such tactics as coercive and unethical.
Bathhouses, Drugs, and Bare-Backing
In the Gay male community right after Stonewall, the right to have sex with whomever one chose, whenever one chose, was linked to the ethics of self-identity. Issues dealing with romantic fidelity were never fully defined, neither were limits to what one could do in terms of the use of recreational drugs. A dramatic increase in sexually transmitted diseases did not impede the Gay male community from investing time and money in bathhouses and dance clubs.
The onslaught of AIDS led some community leaders to call for closing bathhouses, which brought protests that such an action would only drive sexual encounters further underground.
Eventually, consensus was reached that bathhouses, nightclubs, and other venues designed for pleasure would be prime spots for educational campaigns promoting safer sexual practices and informing people where they could seek help with AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and drug addiction. From this came the harm reduction movement, which holds that education is the key to managing problems of excess rather than censorship, shame, and incarceration.
A further reaction against restricting sexual behaviors with safer-sex practices was the promotion of bare-backing (not using condoms when engaged in sex) by some Gay men. The Gay male community, however, has rejected arguments in the arena of public opinion that sexual pleasure in the fulfillment of one’s identity or individual rights should supercede personal safety and the safety of one’s sexual partners. There is also informal consensus condemning the use of crystal methamphetamine and GHB in the party scene, as well as condemning the internet identifier PNP (party and play) in which sexual partners may be had if drugs (particularly crystal meth) are provided.
Within the Lesbian and feminist communities, ethical questions concerning pornography led to a movement to make all pornography illegal, or at least rendered unethical in the eyes of the community, because pornography was considered to be a factor the oppression of women and violence against them.
A countermovement to the “sex wars” proposed that the power dynamics in sex were intrinsic to the production of pleasure, that role-play could easily reverse those dynamics should the participants choose, and that managed violence in mutually-consenting sado-masochistic eroticism is the right of the individuals involved. To label all pornography and dominant-submissive sex play as unethical was portrayed as dogmatic and irreconcilable with the basic right to identify oneself as a sexual being on one’s own terms.
The call for equal rights concerning family and marriage has sparked considerable debate within the LGBTQ community. Those who support marriage equality claim that it is unethical to consider love between two people of the same sex as less valid than love between a woman and a man, or that same-sex love is faulty in terms of family-building. Those in the Gay community who do not support marriage, however, say that the institution of marriage is unethical and faulty to begin with. Traditional marriage, they claim, is based upon the exchange of women as sexual property between men of different families and the inherent inferiority of women, so the LGBTQ community would be better off without it.
Foucault, Michel. Religion and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Foucault, Michel. Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984. New York: Semiotexte, 1996.
Jordan, Mark D. The Ethics of Sex. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
Murphy, Timothy F. ed. Gay Ethics: Controversies in Outing, Civil Rights, and Sexual Science. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 1994.
Peddicord, Richard. Gay and Lesbian Rights: A Question: Sexual Ethics or Social Justice? Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1996.
Zion, Deborah. Attachment and Liberty: Gay Communities in Australia and the Ethics of HIV/AIDS. Monash University, 2001.