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Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures

Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures concern the culture, knowledge, and references shared by members of sexual minorities or transgender people by virtue of their membership in those minorities or their state of being transgender.

Among the first to argue that members of sexual minorities can constitute cultural minorities as well as being just individuals were Adolf Brand, Magnus Hirschfeld and Leontine Sagan in Germany. These pioneers were followed later, in the USA, by the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.

Not all members of a particular sexual minority participate in, or are aware of, the subculture that may be associated with that minority. In addition to simply not knowing that the culture exists, non-participants may be geographically or socially isolated, they may feel stigmatised by the subculture, they may simply dislike it (feeling it is outdated, corrupted, or does not align with their personal taste or style), or they may prefer to affiliate with some other culture or subculture.

Sexual orientation and gender identity-based cultures (LGBT)

The Rainbow flag, often used as a symbol for LGBT culture.

The Rainbow flag, often used as a symbol for LGBT culture.

Sexual minorities defined by sexual orientation and gender identity — gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people — are often seen as having a common culture, which can be called LGBT culture, Queer culture, or gay culture. In academia, when discussing works of literary or artistic value, the term used is often ‘homoeroticism’. (We will use the term LGBT culture in this article.

The term Queer is perceived by many to be political or objectionable, although others use it as the primary description of their sexual minority culture. We will reserve the term “gay culture” for gay men’s culture.)

The idea is quite contentious. Some argue that there are too many LGBT people who do not participate in this culture for the idea to be meaningful, or that the culture constitutes a stereotype or is associated with only a radical minority.

Others argue that LGBT culture is an undeniable fact, and/or that it constitutes the basis of a LGBT nation with a common understanding and history.

The existence of a larger community including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people has also been questioned by noting the exclusion of some of these groups by others; for example, bi-phobia among gays and lesbians, transphobia among non-trans LGB people, or lack of inclusiveness of lesbians in gay milieux. For example, some cities have separate neighbourhoods for gay men and for lesbians.

A response could be that, although these sorts of prejudice and exclusion exist among part of the community, they do not necessarily impede members of all of the groups from participating in a common culture.

It ought to be remembered, further, that LGBT culture is often intensely marked by geography and surrounding culture. What may often be thought of as “LGBT culture” may be peculiar to North America and/or Europe, and not found among other LGBT communities around the world.

Elements often identified as being common to the culture of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people include:

  • The work of famous gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. This may include:
    • Present-day LGBT artists and political figures;
    • Historical figures who have been identified as LGBT. It has often been questioned whether it is appropriate to identify historical figures using modern terms for sexual identity (see History of sexuality). However, many LGBT people feel a kinship towards these people and their work, especially to the extent that it deals with same-sex attraction or gender identity.
  • An understanding of the history of the LGBT rights movement.
  • An ironic appreciation of things linked by stereotype to LGBT people.
  • Figures and identities that are present in the LGBT community; in Euro-American LGBT culture, this could include the gay village, drag kings and queens, Pride, and the rainbow flag.

LGBT communities organise a number of events to celebrate their culture, such as Pride parades; one of the largest such events is the Gay Games.

Gay male culture

In the last half-century, American culture as a whole has focused more heavily on gay men than on other members of the LGBT community. This may be due to larger numbers of men than women or transgender people coming out, it may be due to gay men typically being more brash in their coming out, or it may be due to American culture as a whole still seeing men and male experience as the central experience in culture, even if the men in question are transgressing from the norm.

AIDS, and the high number of gay male deaths related to it, certainly had a great deal to do with mainstream American media discussing gay life. The subject is open to debate, but gay male culture is often better known to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people than those groups’ particular cultures may be known to gay men.

Two Young Men by Crispin van den Broeck (Dutch), ca. 1590; Oil on panel; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Early coded reference to the practices of a Dutch sexual minority. The painting, laced with coded messages easily missed by those unfamiliar with the culture, satirizes the Biblical theme of original sin. The man in black is offering an apple (bottom up) to his friend. The two personages caress and embrace. Pagan symbols can be discerned in the background, among which the head of an eagle, suggesting the myth of Zeus and Ganymede.

Two Young Men by Crispin van den Broeck (Dutch), ca. 1590; Oil on panel; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Early coded reference to the practices of a Dutch sexual minority. The painting, laced with coded messages easily missed by those unfamiliar with the culture, satirizes the Biblical theme of original sin. The man in black is offering an apple (bottom up) to his friend. The two personages caress and embrace. Pagan symbols can be discerned in the background, among which the head of an eagle, suggesting the myth of Zeus and Ganymede.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, gay culture was highly covert and relied upon secret symbols and codes woven into an overall straight context. Gay influence in early America was mostly limited to high culture. The association of gay men with opera, ballet, couture, fine cuisine, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and interior design began with wealthy homosexual men using the straight themes of these media to send their own signals.

In the very heterocentric Marilyn Monroe film vehicle Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a musical number features a woman singing while muscled men in revealing costumes dance around her. The men’s costumes were designed by a man, the dance was choreographed by a man, and the dancers seem more interested in each other than in the female star, but her reassuring presence gets the sequence past the censors and fits it into an overall heterocentric theme.

After the Stonewall riots in the United States in 1969, gay male culture began to be publicly acknowledged for the first time. A small group of privileged, Euroethnic gay men formed the Violet Quill society, which focused on writing about gay experience as something central and normal in a story for the first time, rather than as a “naughty” sideline to a mostly straight story.

A good example is the short story A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. In this first volume of a trilogy, White writes as a young homophilic narrator growing up under the shadow of a corrupt and remote father. The young man learns bad habits from his straight father and applies them to a gay existence.

Throughout the 1970s, gay male culture was a growing influence on American pop culture as a whole. Celebrities such as Liza Minnelli spent a significant amount of their social time with urban gay men, who were now popularly viewed as sophisticated and stylish by the jet set. And more celebrities themselves, such as Andy Warhol, were open about their relationships. Such openness was still limited to the largest urban areas, however, until AIDS forced several popular celebrities out of the closet due to their contraction of what was known at first as a “gay cancer”.

Some elements that may be identified more closely with gay men than with other groups include:

  • pop-culture gay icons who have had a traditionally gay male following (for example, in Euro-American gay culture, disco, Madonna, Judy Garland, and so forth);
  • familiarity with certain aspects of romantic, sexual, and social life that have been common among gay men (for example, in Euro-American gay culture, Polari, poppers, camp, and the fag hag; in Indian gay culture, evening people).

There are a number of subcultures within gay male culture, such as bears, chubbies, and gay skinheads. There are also subcultures that have historically had a large gay male population, such as the leather and SM subcultures.

Groups critical of the sex-orientated part of contemporary gay male culture also exists, most recently in gay activist Larry Kramer’s 2005 book The Tragedy of Today’s Gays.

Lesbian culture

As with gay men, lesbian culture includes elements both from the larger LGBT culture and elements that are more closely specific to the lesbian community.

Often thought of in this regard are elements of counterculture that have been primarily associated with lesbians in Europe and North America. The history of lesbian culture over the last half-century has also been tightly entwined with the evolution of feminism.

Older stereotypes of lesbian women stressed a dichotomy between women who adhered to stereotypical male gender stereotypes (“butch“) and stereotypical female gender stereotypes (“femme”), and that typical lesbian couples consisted of butch/femme couples. Today, some lesbian women adhere to being either “butch” or “femme” but these categories are much less rigid and there is no express expectation that a lesbian couple be butch/femme.

There is a sub-culture within the lesbian community called Aristasia, where lesbians in such community adhere to exaggerated levels of femininity. In this culture, there are two genders blonde and brunette, regardless of hair colour. Brunettes are femme, yet blondes are more femme. Also notable, are diesel dykes, which are overly butch women who apply male forms of dress and behaviour.

Lipstick lesbian refers to feminine women who are attracted only to other feminine women. Lesbian culture also has its own icons such as Melissa Etheridge. Others include K.d. lang (Butch), Ellen DeGeneres (androgynous), and Portia de Rossi (femme).

Bisexual culture

The bisexual pride flag

The bisexual pride flag

In an effort to create both more visibility, and a symbol for the bisexual community to gather behind, Michael Page created the bisexual pride flag.

Bisexuals are in the peculiar situation of receiving hatred, distrust, or denial from elements of both the heterosexual and homosexual populations. There is of course some element of general anti-LGBT feeling, but some people insist that bisexual people are unsure of their true feelings, that they are experimenting or going through a “phase”, and that they eventually will or should “decide” or “discover” which (singular) gender they are sexually attracted to.

More people of all kinds are becoming aware that there are some people who find attractive sexual partners among both men and women – sometimes equally, sometimes favouring one gender in particular more often.

Distinctions exist between sexual orientation (attraction, inclination, preference, or desire), sexual identity (self-identification or self-concept), and sexual behaviour (the gender of one’s actual sex partners). For example, someone who may find people of both genders attractive might in practice have relationships with people only one of those genders.

One popular misconception is that bisexuals find all humans sexually attractive. That is no more true than the idea that, say, all straight men would find all women sexually attractive.

Many bisexual people consider themselves to be part of the LGBT or Queer community.

The bisexual flag, which has a pink or red stripe at the top for homosexuality, a blue one on the bottom for heterosexuality and a purple one in the middle to represent bisexuality, as purple is from the combination of red and blue.

Transgender culture

The study of transgender culture as such is complicated by the many and various ways in which cultures deal with gender. For example, in many cultures, people who are attracted to people of the same sex — that is, those who in contemporary Western culture would identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual — are classed as a third gender, together with people who would in the West be classified as transgender or transsexual.

Also in the contemporary West, there are usually several different groups of transgender and transsexual people, some of which are extremely exclusive, like groups only for transsexual women who explicitly want sex reassignment surgery or male, heterosexual only cross-dressers. Trans men‘s groups are often, but not always, more inclusive. Groups aiming at all transgender people, both trans men and trans women, have in most cases appeared only in the last few years.

Some transgender or transsexual women and men however do not classify as being part of any specific “trans” culture, however there is a distinction between transgender and transsexual people who make their past known to others and those who wish to live according to their gender identity and not reveal this past, stating that they should be able to live in their true gender role in a normal way, and be in control of whom they choose to tell their past to.

Other groups within the LGBT community

Other groups of sexual minorities which have formed significant communities and possibly cultures include the Deaf Queer community.


The polyamorous community is another sexual minority with an associated culture.

Fetish-based cultures

Another form of sexual minority that may form culture is that based around sexual fetishism. For example, practitioners of BDSM and those who are into leather may have extensive cultural knowledge associated with their communities.

Influence on culture at large

Sexual minority cultures frequently and consistently influence the broader culture at large, including straight culture. Slang frequently originations in subcultures, including sexual minority subcultures, which becomes part of the larger vernacular including words associated with descriptions specific to sexual minorities or not.

Madonna is one of many artists who have borrowed from sexual minority cultures, including her appropriation of vogueing. Recently, the television series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy depicts straight men being made over by gay men.

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