THERE was a teenager in Arizona in the 1970s who “could no more imagine longing to touch a woman than longing to touch a toaster”. But he convinced himself that he was not gay. Longing to be “normal”, he blamed his obsession with muscular men on envy of their good looks. It was not until he was 25 that he admitted the truth to himself—let alone other people. In 1996 he wrote a cover leader for The Economist in favour of same-sex marriage. He never thought it would happen during his lifetime. Yet now he is married to the man he loves and living in a Virginia suburb where few think this odd.
The change in attitudes to homosexuality in many countries—not just the West but also Latin America, China and other places—is one of the wonders of the world (see article). This week America’s Supreme Court gave gay marriage another big boost, by rejecting several challenges to it; most Americans already live in states where gays can wed. But five countries still execute gay people: Iran hangs them; Saudi Arabia stones them. Gay sex is illegal in 78 countries, and a few have recently passed laws that make gay life even grimmer. The gay divide is one of the world’s widest (see article). What caused it? And will tolerance eventually spread?
Two steps forward and one back
The leap forward has been startlingly quick. In the 1950s gay sex was illegal nearly everywhere. In Britain, on the orders of a home secretary who vowed to “eradicate” it, undercover police were sent out to loiter in bars, entrap gay men and put them in jail. In China in the 1980s homosexuals were rounded up and sent to labour camps without trial. All around the world gay people lived furtively and in fear. Laws banning “sodomy” remained in some American states until 2003.