Applied to the case of same-sex marriage, the social imagination of homosexuality at the macro level is the collective process of creating prototypical understandings of same-sex sexuality in a society. Cohorts coming of age in different historical periods defined by a given social imaginary came to understand homosexuality in fundamentally different terms. In the lifetimes of contemporary Americans, the dominant social imaginary changed twice: from mental illness to deviant behavior between 1969 and 1974 and from deviant behavior to collective identity between 1987 and 1992.

The two moments of change should be understood as turning points, not disjunctures, because of how macro-level change in the social imagination occurs through innumerable contests over meaning, with change in public opinion occurring cumulatively. Each turning point was caused by tactical changes in the LGBTQ movement, which pressured epistemic communities (Haas 1992) (mental health professionals in the first episode, journalists in the second) to alter their discourses and practices. Because of their institutionalized claims to expertise and scope of influence, changes in how Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World homosexuality was constructed and represented by these epistemic communities caused the broader public’s imagination
to shift afterward.

Americans coming of age prior to the first turning point, 1969 to 1974, grew up in a society in which homosexuality was defined as mental illness because of its institutionalization in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases and the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the practices of institutionalizing and treating lesbians and gays as mentally ill (Conrad and Schneider 1992). Prior to the mid-1960s, this social imaginary remained hegemonic because homophile movement
organizations remained largely covert, and activists rarely challenged their collective representation in public (Bernstein 2002; D’Emilio 1983).

As late as 1970, about 62 percent of Americans said that, for most lesbians and gays, homosexuality was a “sickness that can be cured” (Leavitt and Klassen 1974). Nineteen sixty-nine marked the beginning of the first turning point because of both the Stonewall uprising and the release of the final report from the National Institute of Mental Health Task Force on Homosexuality, the recommendations of which emphasize changing society’s attitudes and policies about homosexuality rather than changing lesbians and gays themselves (Livingood 1972). Although lesbian and gay activists became more militant throughout the 1960s, Stonewall marked the emergence of a new phase of contention: it was commemorated by annual pride marches beginning the following year, and it led to the founding of organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, which openly challenged medical and legal authorities (Armstrong and Crage 2006).

In 1970, activists began disrupting meetings of the APA, and in 1973, they concluded a successful campaign to eliminate homosexuality from the DSM. The demedicalization of homosexuality was ultimately approved by a highly publicized referendum of the entire APA membership in 1974 (Bayer 1981; Conrad and Schneider 1992). Despite homosexuality’s demedicalization, Americans
continued to imagine homosexuality as deviant behavior through the late 1980s. Americans’ intolerance of homosexuality remained steady (or even increased) between 1974 and 1988 (Loftus 2001; Treas 2002). Despite the “identity  deployment” (Bernstein 1997) of movement activists in the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians and gays remained a relatively powerless minority in politics, were further stigmatized by HIV/AIDS, and were continually “symbolically annihilated” (Tuchman 1978) in mass media (Gross 2001).

The conservative and religious counter-mobilization neutralized many successes of the lesbian and gay movement and was largely successful in framing homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle (Fejes 2008; Fetner 2008; Stein 2012). In 1986, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the institutional status of homosexuality as a deviant behavior for which individuals could be punished (Bowers v. Hardwick 1986). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the social imagination of homosexuality began to shift from deviant behavior to collective identity. The start of the second turning point can be meaningfully marked by the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (Ghaziani 2008) and the emergence of ACT UP (Gould 2009). Simultaneously, the LGBTQ movement began to strengthen its rights-oriented strategy of attaining legal equality while deploying confrontational and dramatic tactics to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic and the prejudice that exacerbated it.

In short, Americans coming of age between 1974 and 1990 encountered a social imagination of homosexuality as deviant behavior, while Americans coming of age after 1990 increasingly imagined homosexuality as a collective identity. Once constructed, the dominant social imaginary shapes the cognitive schemas of individuals coming of age during that period. It was only when homosexuality was socially imagined as a collective identity that tolerance for homosexuality increased in public opinion and institutional supports for gay rights began to spread.

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Victor van der Meer

Founder & Director of My Rainbow Net Pty. Ltd.

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