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bullet Biblical times: At the time when the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were written, people knew what to do about people who engaged in certain same-sex sexual behaviors. They executed them. Many religious conservatives today interpret Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 as having reqired the death penalty to all sexually active gays and lesbians in ancient Israel. However, some follow a literal translation of the Bible and interpret the passages as applying only to males. Many religious liberals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, human sexuality researchers, etc. interpret the passages as referring only to Jews engaging in same-sex sexual behavior in Pagan temples -- activity that is not at all common today.

bullet Past centuries: Over the past few centuries, many North Americans have changed their degree of toleration towards sexual minorities, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals. During the 17th century, they considered same-sex sexual behavior a capital offense; by the 19th and 20th centuries , such activity was considered "merely" a criminal offense . Some events:

bullet 1624: In the colony of Virginia, Captain Richard Cornish was charged under the British Buggery Statute with having raped his male servant. He was found guilty. Both the perpetrator and the victim were hanged.
bullet 1646: Jan Creoli was executed in New Netherland (present-day New York) for sodomizing a ten-year old boy. His victim was "only" flogged.
bullet 1682: Pennsylvania became the first state in America to make sodomy a non-capital offence.
bullet 1791: The original 13 states ratified the Bill of Rights. By that time, they all treated sodomy as a non-capital criminal offense.
bullet 1868: The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. At that time all but 5 of the 37 States in the Union had criminal sodomy laws. Subsequently, all of the states outlawed sodomy. More info.   
bullet Recent events: During the past decade or so some major events were:

bullet 1961: Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to repeal its "sodomy" law; same-sex behavior was no longer a criminal act.
bullet 1977: Harvey Milk was elected as a supervisor in San Francisco, CA. He was the first openly gay person to hold public office in the U.S.
bullet 1996: The Romer v. Evans decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Colorado's Amendment 2. It had prohibited the granting of equal civil rights and protections to gays and lesbians by local municipalities in the state.

1998: The assassination of Matthew Shepard by crucifixion. This created a major public uproar and demand for passage of a hate-crime bill that would protect gays, lesbians, heterosexuals, women, and disabled persons. It took a decade to pass Congress and be signed into law.

bullet 2001 to the present time: Same-sex marriage (SSM) has been legalized in many countries in Europe, and in Canada, some U.S. states, and South Africa.
bullet 2003: The Lawrence v. Texas decision of the U.S. Supreme Court declared over a dozen "anti-sodomy" state laws unconstitutional. As is usual in matters related to religion and morality, this was a 5:4 decision by the Justices. The ruling stated that states cannot criminalize adult behavior in private solely on the basis that the majority of citizens regard the acts as immoral.

bulletRecent status of attitudes towards sexual minorities:

bullet Access to marriage: The Pew Research Center conducted a national public opinion poll between 2008-MAY-21 and 25. This was shortly after the Supreme Court of California issued legalized SSM in the state. For the first time in history, the poll showed that a minority of American adults (49%) opposed SSM. 1 Polls in Canada show that a sizeable majority of Canadians support SSM.

bullet Death penalty: We have only been able to find one public opinion poll that assessed public support for the execution of persons who engage in same-sex sexual acts. The data were reported in an section on Atheism and Agnosticism. The persons participating in the poll were self-selected. Although most were Americans, some probably lived in other countries. Thus, the results are probably not representative of the beliefs of the average American.'s online survey asked: "Should homosexuality be a felony that is punished with death?" Results were:

bullet 82% of persons voting rejected making homosexual activity a corporal offense.
bullet 17% accepted the alternative: that same-sex sexual activity should be punishable by execution on the grounds that "... homosexuality is an abomination before God." 2

bullet Additional polling info.

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The current status of equality for sexual minorities:

Sexual minorities in the U.S., including lesbian, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals (LGBTs) have sought and are now gradually achieving equal protections and rights under the law. As of 2010-APR:

  • The federal hate-crimes law increases jail sentences for hate crimes that are motivated by hatred of the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity (in addition to race, color, religion, national origin, gender or disability). It was signed into law on 2009-OCT-22.

  • The ENDA law would eliminate discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. About 40% of all American workers are protected by state laws, However, persons in 29 states can still be fired because of their sexual orientation; persons in 38 states, employees can still be fired because of their gender identity. The bill is now before Congress.

  • Under their "Don't Ask, Don't tell" policy the military can discharge military personnel becuase of their sexual orientation. This policy is under review.

  • There is one major hurdle for sexual minorities to overcome: marriage for loving committed couples who are of the same sex (SSM). Note that "gay marriage" is not the topic of the debate, because many same-sex marriages are composed of one or two bisexuals. The main opposition comes from social and religious conservatives who originally opposed SSM because they associated marriage with procreation. After the lesbian baby boom and the rise in adoptions by gay couples, conservatives changed the reason for their opposition: they asserted that children of same-sex parents are disadvantaged. When many studies indicated that children raised by two parents of the same sex did as well as those raised by opposite-sex parents, much of the opposition to SSM is now based on fear of the loss of religious freedom. specifically the freedom to discriminate against minorities because of religious beliefs. An anti-SSM ad by the National Organization for Marriage -- a group that opposes marrige by same-sex couples -- suggested three examples of past attacks on conservatives' freedom to discriminate against LGBT persons:
    • A physician whose employment in a fertility clinic is engangered becasue wants to deny her services to all gays and lesbians.
    • A church group who wants to deny gays and lesbians services that they have contracted with the government to supply to the general population, and
    • Public schools teaching facts about same-sex parenting and marriages.

Such fear-based ads are quite effective, and have increased voters' opposition to SSM, thus allowing anti-SSM constitutional changed to squeak by with 2 or 3% majorities in some states -- notably California and Maine.

SSM remains the last major hurdle to overcome before equality is achieved for LGBT persons. If the battle over inter-racial marriage is any guide, legalizing SSM will probably be fought intensely on a state-by-state until the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes it across the country.

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References used:

  1. "Gay Marriage Is Back On The Radar For Republicans, Evangelicals But Overall Opposition to Gay Marriage is Less Than in 2004, " Pew Research Center, 2008-JUN-12, at:
  2. "Poll results,", at:

Copyright 2008 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Initial posting: 2008-DEC-12
Latest update: 2010-APR-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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