Homosexuality click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or the sexual and/or emotional desire for others of the same gender as oneself, is found widely among the societies of the world.  However, the social acceptance of it varies dramatically.  In fact, the range in permissiveness and restrictiveness with regards to homosexual acts is at least as great as it is for heterosexual click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced ones.  In the United States, for instance, there has been a wide difference in legal restraints on sexuality from state to state.  Some states, like California, essentially have the same restrictions on both homosexuality and heterosexuality.  That is, all sex acts that do not lead to bodily harm are legal as long as they are done with consenting adults in private.  However, California shares the oldest age of consent (18) among the states.  The youngest (13) is in New Mexico.

Fourteen states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. military have criminalized "unnatural sex acts" or "crimes against nature"--that is, they have anti-sodomy laws.  Sodomy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is generally defined as anal or oral copulation with another person or animal.  It is also sometimes defined in law more ambiguously as non-reproductive sex.  Ten of these states extended anti-sodomy laws to heterosexual partners as well.  There has been considerable variation in the possible penalty for this crime.  In Louisiana, for instance, sodomy has been a felony that could result in a 5 year prison sentence, $2000 fine, and exclusion from public jobs such as teaching and the law.  In Idaho, it theoretically could result in life in prison.  However, few people are prosecuted under anti-sodomy laws in the U.S.  In Arkansas, for instance, the current anti-sodomy law has been in existence since 1977, but there have not been any prosecutions based on it.  In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law.  This decision very likely will have the effect of nullifying all such laws in the country.  These legal changes regarding homosexuality apparently reflect a growing acceptance, or at least tolerance, of it among the general public.

U. S. States With Anti-Sodomy Laws
(prior to the June 2003 Supreme Court ruling that very likely nullifies them)

(Data source: SodomyLaws website)

Elsewhere in the world, attitudes and legal consequences for homosexuality vary from wide acceptance in Western Europe to absolute rejection in some nations of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.  In sixteen nations, the punishment for sodomy can be life in prison or even death.  The most severe penalties are in the Islamic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced nations that adhere to traditional law based on interpretations of the Koran click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.

Severe Penalties for Homosexuality
Life in Prison   Death Penalty  

map of the Islamic world

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates


(Data source: SodomyLaws website)


In considering this information, it is important to keep in mind that the existence of harsh legal consequences for homosexuality does not necessarily result in people being prosecuted.  In Afghanistan, for instance, there is a widespread tradition of male homosexuality.  Estimates of the number of Afghan men who engage in sex with teenage boys or other men at some time in their lives range from 18-50%.  This unusually high frequency is quite surprising since Islamic law in Afghanistan mandates that sodomy be punished by being burned at the stake, pushed off of a cliff, or crushed under a toppled wall.  In 1998, three homosexual men were executed in the city of Kandahar by the then ruling ultraconservative Taliban by having a tank push a brick wall over on them.

There is a curious double standard in regards to anti-homosexual laws--they do not always apply to lesbians.  This may be due to the fact that the existence of female homosexuality is less likely to be socially acknowledged or that it is considered acceptable behavior, at least in private.  This double standard is most common in the South Pacific Islands, the non-Islamic nations of Africa, and some Caribbean Islands on which a high percentage of the population has Sub-Saharan African ancestral roots.  Governments may even officially deny that any form of homosexuality occurs.  This apparently has been the the case in Albania, Bangladesh, Congo, Lebanon, and Liberia.

Nations in Which Only Male Homosexuality is Criminalized
(Female Homosexual Acts are Apparently Ignored)

South Pacific

  Africa   Caribbean   Central Asia   Southeast Europe   Indian Ocean

Cook Islands
Marshall Islands
Papua New Guinea
Solomon Islands
Sri Lanka

(Data source: SodomyLaws website)

In 1991, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality as an illness from their classification of diseases.  Contrary to common belief in Western Nations, laws criminalizing homosexuality are not universally disappearing around the world.  In the 1990's, Nicaragua enacted a law making it a crime.  However, in the same decade, 8 nations and territories rescinded their anti-homosexuality statutes (Bahamas, Belize, Chile, Hong Kong [China], Ireland, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine).


In some societies, homosexuality has been socially accepted but limited to certain times and to certain individuals.  For example, The Papago click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indians of southern Arizona traditionally set aside nights during which any man could perform homosexual acts.   Women could as well if they had the permission of their husbands.

The Papago also had a socially accepted status for transvestite click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced men.  They wore women's clothing throughout the year and did women's chores.   Unmarried men were allowed to visit them for homosexual acts.

NOTE: transvestitism, or the wearing of clothes and bodily adornment normally associated with the other gender, is not necessarily connected with homosexuality.  It is important to understand the specific cultural patterns.  In North America, for instance, some strictly heterosexual men are sexually stimulated by putting on female clothes, especially undergarments.   Likewise, many homosexual men do not wear such garb or even approve of it.

photo of a North American woman wearing masculine clothes

North American woman  wearing
traditionally "
masculine" clothes

Heterosexual Plains Indian man

There is a double standard in regards to transvestitism, or cross dressing, in North America today.  Women are permitted to wear overtly masculine clothing without social disapproval, especially in business and recreational settings.  However, American men are much more restricted in their clothing choices.  When it becomes known that a man wears dresses or other female garb, he is almost universally stigmatized and often labeled as a homosexual.  This can have major negative effects on his career, social life, and even personal safety.


The anthropologically most well known transvestites who also often happened to be homosexuals were the berdache click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or two-spirited, men of the North American Great Plains Indian tribes. These men led the lives of women and had socially accepted statuses--they were valued members of their societies.

Heterosexual Plains Indian men who were going on hunting or war expeditions generally held the view that sex with their wives or other women was polluting and depleting.  In contrast, a two-spirited man did not pose these dangers.  As a result, two-spirited men were regularly taken along to perform women's chores and to entertain.  Some of them were renowned story tellers.

The Hijras click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of India are another example of a culturally accepted (or at least tolerated) male transvestite status.  These are men who dress as women but apparently are not often homosexual.  Many Hijras even have their genital organs surgically removed to symbolize their transition to "womanhood."  They are devotees of the Hindu mother goddess Bahuchara Mata.  Through emasculation, they express their faith in her and become conduits for her power.  The Hijras are difficult to label as to gender.  They identify themselves as "incomplete men", "incomplete women", or "inbetweens", but the Indian national census counts them as women.  There are about 50,000 true Hijras today living mostly in North Indian urban centers.  They work at many different kinds of jobs including construction.  However, the largest percentage of them make their living by blessing babies and entertaining at parties.  Some of the better Hijra musicians, dancers, and singers perform regularly in Indian films.  Recently, a few of the Hijras have successfully run for public office, especially in Utar Pradesh State.  In 2003, however, a court in Madhya Pradesh State ruled that a Hijra must give up his office as mayor of Katni because he is a male and this political office was reserved for women.  There are 10's of thousands of other eunuchs and homosexuals in India who dress as women and falsely claim to be Hijras.  Many of them make their living on the edges of society by prostitution or by extorting money for blessing children.  Few people refuse to give them money for fear of being cursed.

photo of two Hijras or possibly women--the gender is in question   photo of a Hijra or an Indian woman--the gender is in question  
Do you think that the
people in these photos
are real women or Hijras?


Click the button to see
 if you are correct.

clickable button icon

The Etoro click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and some other societies of the Trans-Fly River region in southern New Guinea provide an extreme example of the social acceptance of male homosexuality.  Apparently, all Etoro men engage in homosexual acts and most also marry and engage in heterosexual acts with their wives.  However, heterosexual intercourse is prohibited for up to 260 days of the year and is forbidden in or near their houses and vegetable gardens.  In contrast, homosexual relations are permitted at any time.

map of the Trans-Fly Region of New Guinea   photo of Jiwiki warriors in New Guinea
Jiwiki men in New Guinea

The Etoro believe that homosexual acts make crops flourish and boys strong.  Etoro men and women mostly live apart so that social contact between them is generally limited and often hostile.  Not surprisingly, their birth rates are low.  To compensate for this problem and to avoid depopulation, they allegedly have stolen children from neighboring societies and raised them as their own.

There is no clear explanation as to why societies are permissive or restrictive in regards to homosexuality.  However, there are two interesting correlations.  First, societies that strongly forbid abortion and infanticide are likely to be equally intolerant of homosexuality.  Second, societies that have frequent severe food shortages are more likely to allow homosexuality.  An implication is that homosexuality may be tolerated and even encouraged when there is severe population pressure.  Heterosexual abstinence and other birth control methods would be expected to be common then also.  That appears to have been the case with the Plains Indians and some New Guinea societies.

NOTE:  It is not clear what leads one person to be homosexual and another to be heterosexual or bisexual.  Both environmental and social factors have been proposed by psychologists and others engaged in researching this question.  In reality, both kinds of factors may be involved to some degree.  In addition, an individual may change sexual preference at different phases of his or her life.  Anthony Bogaert's recent research at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada indicates that birth order within a family may be an important factor in male homosexuality.  He found that the more biological older brothers a man has, the more likely he will be homosexual, and that it does not matter if he is raised with his older brothers.  It may be that each succeeding pregnancy with a male child somehow causes a mother's immune system to respond to male fetuses in a way that changes their sex-related brain development.  This same correlation between male birth order and homosexuality does not occur if older siblings are half-brothers, stepbrothers, or adopted brothers.  (Science News Vol. 170 July 1, 2006)


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This page was last updated on Friday, August 03, 2007.
Copyright 1997-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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