May 20, 2007

This American Life - 81 Words

Let me preface this post by writing that This American Life is one of my favorite shows on the radio, if not my most favorite. Anyway!

This past weekend, This American Life reran an episode titled "81 Words" about the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) decision to alter the entry about homosexuality is the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM). For a show designed for a nonacademic audience, it was pretty great.

It touched on the changing meaning of homosexuality over time, although not as in-depth as it could have been. The narrator mentioned that before the mid-1800s, there was no such thing as homosexuality, there were only people who religiously-defined sexual crimes. These crimes included committing acts of sodomy (including masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, bestiality, and any other sexual act that didn't directly result in the production of babies). However, the producers' left out the fact that what we now know as a "homosexual" is an identity category. There is a big difference between being a homosexual and engaging in sexual acts with a person of the same sex. For example, men on the "down low"[1] don't consider themselves gay, but do have sexual relations with other men. A homosexual identity is a new phenomenon, not occurring over 1,000s of years but only within the last 150 or so.

A thousand years ago, people who engaged in sexual acts with other people of the same sex were considered sodomites. Then, around the mid- to late-1800s, a medical definition became popular: People who engaged in same-sex intercourse had a medical or psychological disease. At the time, many people considered this a great accomplishment: Now, people who engaged in same-sex intercourse could not be blamed for their sexual acts, it was God's fault for giving them a disease. However, the problem with calling same-sex intercourse a disease is that people will try to cure a person of that disease. From the late 1800s until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness that could be cured through therapy or other interventions. And this is where the This American Life story picks up.

Definitely check this story out. You can download a copy from for 99-cents or download a free copy from the This American Life website for a limited time.

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