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Visual Representation of Sexual Orientation in Europe

Table of Contents


The fight against discrimination towards homosexuals has taken a long and painful path. The liberators were harassed, tortured, and some of them were killed fighting for the rights of homosexuals. This study was focused on understanding how the visual representation of sexual orientation has become more acceptable in Europe. The researcher has reviewed the history of sexual identity and the challenges faced by homosexuals during the era of civilisation. It comes out clearly from the study that it was not easy for society to accept this practice.

It took the effort of top celebrities and lawyers to make the society believe that homosexuals are normal human beings who should not be condemned because of their sexual orientation that is very different from that of the wider population. In this fight, the visual representation of sexual orientation has played a major role in promoting this acceptance. Playboy Magazine was one of the first institutions to use visuals to promote awareness about different sexual orientations. The use of visual presentations in the form of placards and billboards became popular in Europe. Currently, social media has enhanced the use of visual presentation to make European society accept the existence of different sexual orientations.


The concept of sexual orientation has been a controversial topic in Europe, North America, and various other parts of the world. The moment this term is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is homosexuality, an emotive topic that is yet to be fully embraced even in the civilised western world. Despite the sensitivity of this topic, there has been a concerted effort among members of the society to discuss the issue of sexual orientation and create acceptance of everyone despite the differences that may exist in terms of the orientation. According to Herbert (2002), it has been a tough and long journey to create awareness about sexual orientation in a world that is dominated by straight people.

This has been worsened by religious teachings in our society. Christians, Muslim, and Jews, who account for over 85 per cent of America’s and Europe’s population, have very strict teachings about sexual orientations (Gill 2006). It is, therefore, not normal for people to come up openly and confess their sexual orientation, especially if it is seen to be against what the majority of the society upholds. The fight for gay liberation has taken various forms, including street protests, use mass media, and recently the use of social media. In this paper, the researcher will analyse how the visual representation of sexual orientation has become more acceptable in European society.

Research question

Sexual orientation and the fight for gay liberation is a very wide topic that has been under research for the past several centuries. This broad topic is not within the scope of this study. The area of focus will be the acceptance of visual representation of sexual orientation in European society. This research specifically aims to answer the question below.

How has the visual representation of sexual orientation become more acceptable in European society?

History of Sexual Identity

Sexual identity has a very long history, especially in Europe among the Greeks. According to Nayak and Kehily (2013), Greeks were among the ancient communities that brought civilisation to the world. Existing history shows that both heterosexuals and homosexuals existed in this society. However, there was no clear term that was used to define homosexuals. At this time, the general belief among the Greeks was that an individual can erotically respond to the beauty of any gender. Plato, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, once stated that the army should majorly be a group of male lovers (Bloodsworth 2007). He went ahead to explain that putting male lovers to fight alongside each other would make the selfless and determined to win the war to protect their lovers. This was a clear demonstration that the Greeks practised homosexuality and it was something that was discussed publicly.

The Roman Empire also contributed to the debate on sexual identity and orientation in ancient times. In this kingdom, people were more aware of the issue of sexual orientation and many people had started taking hard lines about this topic. In 529, Emperor Justinian I issued a code known as Justinian’s Code that prohibited same-sex orientation in his kingdom. The decree stated that anyone found practising homosexuality would be put to death.

The resentment towards same-sex orientation grew in 1225-1274 with the teaching of Professor Thomas Aquinas. The professor gave a philosophical argument against homosexuality, citing its unnaturalness and the need for procreation. At this time, Christianity was spreading very fast across Europe and many other parts of the world. Christian teachings prohibited same-sex marriages or acts of homosexuality, and the teachings of Aquinas was very convenient to them. They used the teaching to criticise the practice and insisted that those who were willing to become Christians had to abhor the practice.

In 1533, the English parliament passed the first anti-homosexual legislation that prohibited sodomy. The Act, which was supported by King Henry VIII, was an attempt by the government to gain public support. It did work in favour of the government that was trying to reduce the power of the church in the kingdom. The issue was emotive and people wanted a system that would be decisive. The move by the king and his parliament worked in his favour. In 1610, a similar law was passed in Virginia, the United States, which classified sodomy as one of the capital offences. This was later enhanced when New Heaven enacted a law that prohibited sexual acts between women (Hewitt 2010). The offence was punishable by death.

In 1857, medico-legal research linked sodomy to mental insanity. In the study, the researchers stated that it was abnormal for a man to be attracted to another man or a woman to another woman. This research proposed that offenders should be treated as mentally troubled individuals who should be given some medical help. The term homosexual was first used on 6th May 1868 Karl Maria Benkert who was among the first people to challenge the law prohibiting sexual acts between people of the same gender.

The first gay right in modern Europe was first witnessed in 1897 in Berlin by a group of activists led by Hirschfeld and Max Spohr. However, this did not stop the US Military to criminalise sodomy among the soldiers in 1920 (Aldrich 2010). In 1933-1944, Nazis publicly prosecuted homosexuals, an act that killed the movement that supported homosexuality in the country. According to Bale (2008), the darkest episode in the history homosexuality research was when several homosexuals were rounded up, taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and used as a specimen to help understand reasons that made people engage in the practice. Most of them died painful and inhuman deaths. Serious effort to fight for the rights of homosexuals started in the early 1960s as discussed in the section below.

Underground Movements in London and New York

The background analysis above gives a clear picture of the environment under which same-sex human rights activists had to work to champion for the rights of homosexuals. Some nations in Europe and North America classified homosexuality as a capital offence punishable by death. The society loathed the practice and church leaders publicly spoke against it. It forced them to start the fight secretly through lobbying other than going to the streets.

That is why the activities of these human rights activities were regarded as underground movements. They knew that public demonstration would lead to their arrest, prosecution, and possible execution. In the United Kingdom, individuals and groups worked in secrecy to promote acceptance of the homosexuals. Hugh Hefner founded Playboy Magazine in 1953 to mildly explain why some people were sexually attracted to people from their gender. In New York, several organisations sprung up to help support the rights of homosexuals.

Stonewall Rebellion of 27th June 2969 marked a new era of the fight for gay rights in the United States. Police officers raided Stonewall Inn located in Christopher Street that was always frequented by gays and lesbians to arrest the patrons and their customers. This was a usual raid. However, instead of running away of complying with the demands of the officers, the patrons and their customers attacked the officers using various crude weapons. This was a new beginning for gays and lesbians. Most of them came out strongly to confess their sexual orientation and were ready to defend it through all means that were legally at their disposal. Secrete lobbying came to an end, and the homosexuals came out strongly to support their orientation. Street protests, such as the one shown in the figure below, became common in the streets of New York

In 1970, the gay movement soon turned into a properly structured organisation with leadership and funding programs. Harvey Milk became one of the first leaders of these groups. He would then be elected to the senate in 1977. However, his assassination was viewed by many as a sign that American society was still not ready to accept gay practices. This resentment towards gays was confirmed in January 1982 when the department of defence banned homosexuality in the military. However, this law was changed in 1993 when ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy was enacted to allow homosexuals to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret.

A break-through in the fight for homosexual rights was registered on September 21, 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed into law an Act that legalised same-sex marriage. Another victory was recorded in June 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled against a Texas Sodomy Law. On 18th December 2010, the Senate enacted a law that fully legalises homosexuality in the American military.

In London, the fight for the liberation of homosexuals from what the activists called bondage also started in secrecy soon after the end of the Second World War. The Church of England was still very powerful in the country and it worked closely with the government to ensure that homosexuality remained an outlawed practice that was punishable by death. According to Martindale (2007), the success of the underground gay rights activists in London is closely associated with the changes witnessed in the United States.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Kingdom, and West Europe at large, was heavily influenced by the United States. The acceptance of the United States government and the society in general of gay rights denied the United Kingdom the moral rights to execute homosexuals and their supporters. This motivated the underground movements to come out strongly in support of the rights for homosexuals. They started coming out in public in support of their sexual orientation using placards such as the one shown in the figure below

The messages in some of the placards showed that these people have been fighting for the gay right for a very long time. The only problem they faced in their long fight was lack of acceptance in society and laws that criminalised the practice.

Second and Third Wave Feminism

The modern feminism took different faces that are often referred to as waves of feminism. According to Burns (2006) women also took an active role in the fight for the liberation of the gays in society. They participated in the street protests they carried placards and engaged in public forums meant to educate the public about the issue of homosexuality. The second wave feminism started in the 1960s and lasted through to 1990s. These women fought alongside their male counterparts and did not fear public ridicule or even jail terms. The third wave started in the mid-90s and was characterised by massive support of public figures and top celebrities.

People started coming out of their closet to confess their sexuality. One of the most prominent people to come out and reveal their sexuality was Caitlyn Jenner, a renowned Olympic medallist who everyone knew was a man. She informed the public that she was actually a trans-woman who was actually interested in women. That is why she went ahead to marry two women whom she later divorced. She then changed her looks from that of a man to that of a woman. The figure below is a photo of Jenner after changing her looks.

Celebrity Icons Gay Liberation and Civil Rights

According to Duggan and Hunter (2014), the war against discrimination of people based on their sexual orientation has been won in Europe, and visual representation of sexual orientation has played a major role in this success. In the past, the society gave a blanket condemnation against those who were considered to be gays. However, things changed when celebrities joined the war. Some of the most admired celebrities came out to openly confess their sexual orientation. Below is a picture of some of the iconic celebrities in modern society.

Tom Daley, left, is a celebrated British Olympic Diver. He is admired by many youths. He understands the language of teenagers and young adults very well. He went public about his sexual orientation, but this did not earn him rejection among his fans and the community at large. He remains one of the most popular British athletes.

Robin Roberts, in the middle, is the host of Good Morning America show that is very popular in North America and Europe. She recently posted on her Facebook account that she is gay. This did not come as a shock to many, and it has not reduced her popularity among her audience. Wentworth Millar is a globally celebrated superstar; especially after starting in Prison Break, one of the most successful television series in recent times (Bronstein 2011). He also went public about his sexual orientation. According to Cossman (2009), for a long time, celebrities have been used to endorse products to make them popular in the market.

Their popularity always makes them have a very strong influence on society. These celebrities have played a major role in legitimising homosexuality in Europe. They have convinced this society that being gay is normal and that it should not be used to discriminate against others. In fact, Barton (2006) says that some teens now believe that being gay is cool because the celebrities they admire are gays. The use of social media by these celebrities to champion for the rights of homosexuals has

Visual representation of sexual orientation has become more acceptable in Europe today. The society is increasingly accepting the differences that exist when it comes to sexual orientations. Visuals such as the one shown in the figure below are increasingly becoming common in the European community.

The acceptance of such visual representation is a sign that the society has accepted that indeed we have a different sexual orientation that may be due to biological factors or personal preferences. The hatred that was common in this society towards these people and the desire to eliminate them from the face of the earth is slowly disappearing. The society has accepted that indeed this is a personal choice that does not harm other members of society. It is a practice that is purely based on personal preferences. This comes as a major relief to gays and lesbians who have led a life of fear, discrimination, and suffering for several decades.


Visual representation of sexual orientation has become more acceptable in European society than it was in the olden days. It has taken a long journey to win the war against discrimination against homosexuals in society. Some countries in Europe had stiff penalties against those found engaging in the practice. However, modern society has become more tolerant and homosexuals are currently considered normal members of society in most of the European countries. This acceptance has been contributed by a number of factors, especially the use of visual representations of sexual orientation. Social media has made this possible. The society has also become more educated about how an individual may end up being gay. The pro-choice campaigners when it comes to sexual orientations have won the war, and modern Europe has the least cases of discrimination against gays in the world.

List of References

Aldrich, R 2010, Gay life and culture: A world history, Thames & Hudson, London.

Bale, K 2008, Media representations of female body images in women’s magazines: A content analysis of media trends, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, Saarbrücken.

Barton, B 2006, Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers, New York University Press, New York.

Bloodsworth, M 2007, In-between bodies: Sexual difference, race, and sexuality, State Univ. of New York Press, Albany.

Bronstein, C 2011, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Burns, L 2006, Feminist alliances, Rodopi, Amsterdam.

Cossman, B 2009, ‘Pornography, Feminism, and the Butler Decision’, Bad Attitudes, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 54-135.

Duggan, L & Hunter, H 2014, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, Routledge, New York.

Gill, R 2006, Gender and the media, Polity, Cambridge.

Herbert, W 2002, Sexual violence and American manhood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Hewitt, N 2010, No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Martindale, K 2007, Un/popular Culture: Lesbian Writing After the Sex Wars, State Univ. of New York Press, Albany.

Nayak, A & Kehily, M 2013, Gender, youth, and culture: Young masculinities and femininities, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.

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