Friday, 22 July 2011

Homophobia and all that

How,” queried the lady, eyes open wide in real or pretended shock, “can you not hate gays? How?

This was about fifteen or sixteen years ago, and the lady in question was a cousin of mine, who was otherwise – I used to think – a relatively sane and well-adjusted individual, progressive enough to be living in with her boyfriend, still a rare thing back in the nineties. My own response to her was something along these lines, if I recall: “How would you like it, then, if gays hate you? After all, what’s sauce for the goose...”

It didn’t faze her. “But,” she proclaimed triumphantly, “I’m normal. Gays aren’t!

That was far from the first time I’d come across reflexive homophobia, and it’s far from the last, but I thought it worthy of mention because it’s typical of what I like to call “thoughtless homophobia.” Even a casual look back at the conversation will show you that my cousin didn’t bother to think about her own attitudes before proclaiming triumphantly, “I’m normal. They aren’t.”

This is an easy attitude to get into, because, of course, every one of us loves to think we’re “normal”. So if we are normal, the “other” must be abnormal, and, for purely evolutionary reasons, everyone is hard-wired to discriminate against the “abnormal”. Sigmund Freud (yes, that Sigmund Freud) chose to regard homosexuality as a “treatable condition” [1], which is one of many reasons I regard that allegedly great man as being fairly full of faeces...though, as I shall shortly discuss, not quite completely.

But, of course, homosexuality isn’t abnormal; if it were, it would have disappeared long ago, by being weeded out by natural selection. After all, it’s fairly well established that homosexuality (despite what many people choose to believe) is a genetically passed on trait; which means you can’t choose to be homosexual or heterosexual any more than you can choose to be born with blond hair or slanted eyes. Now, if homosexuality is a genetically transmitted trait, shouldn’t it be a very ephemeral one? By and large, homosexual people don’t breed (unless, of course, they come to realise their own sexuality fairly late in life, or unless they are trapped in societies where they have no control over their own sexuality). In addition, homosexual non-human animals (and homosexuality is very common throughout the animal kingdom) shouldn’t, by and large, breed. Therefore, homosexuality should have been weeded out long ago by natural selection.


Well, the facts are all around us, and the facts show that plenty of our friends, relatives and colleagues are homosexuals; more, in fact, than we probably could have imagined (please excuse me for saying “we”; as a heterosexual, I’m writing this article from the heterosexual viewpoint). Therefore, far from being extinct, homosexuality is (at least in the private domain) thriving. How does one explain this?

I said above that Freud wasn’t completely full of faeces. True. He also thought that all people were born, inherently, bisexual, though he thought that it was possible to “cure” homosexuality by letting the heterosexual part assert itself through psychotherapy. Freud had a nineteenth-century mind, after all.

However, if we are all bisexual to some extent, it explains a lot of things. It explains why the homosexual gene refuses to die out; it’s there in all of us, and it expresses itself to various extents, so that some of us are mostly hetero, some mostly homo, and a fair number roughly half and half, so they’re bi.

And it also explains a large part of the homophobia. When does one hate something? When one feels threatened by it, am I right? Suppose I put myself in the position of your average homophobe. He knows perfectly well he’s part of the overwhelming majority, sexually speaking; and that the weedy gay youth he and his friends are beating up can never threaten one of them directly, by anal rape, let’s say (for the time being I’ll set aside male homophobic dislike for lesbians; that can be explained in terms of having fewer available females to breed with). So why does he do it? How does he feel threatened?

I believe, consciously or otherwise, he feels threatened by the knowledge of his own bisexuality; he’s afraid that he may give in. And that also pretty much guarantees that a homophobe is not, cannot be, comfortable with his own sexuality. As they say, you can only insult someone by calling him a bastard if he’s not sure of his mother’s fidelity.

Which brings me to the question I’m building up to; why should we be inherently bisexual? What possible evolutionary benefit could it have? And, unless it has some evolutionary benefit, why are we hanging on to bisexuality?

I can think of two distinct reasons.

Firstly, as biologists know, we all start off as female [2]. Femininity is the default sex, as a little thinking will show, because those organisms which still reproduce parthenogenically are female. The Y chromosome, which makes males male, really doesn’t do anything much except shut off the expression of female genes. Therefore, each of us men has a little bit of femininity in us, and it responds to other males. And all women have the possibility of partial suppression of female genes, for male traits to show through; enough, at any rate, to allow for attraction to other women.

Then, I am convinced that bisexuality isn’t just an accident; that, in social animals like humans, bisexuality was an important evolutionary tool. Let me run through my reasoning and tell me if you see any flaws.

Early humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, where the men went out together for varying periods of time leaving the women to care for the children and the home caves. Humans aren’t, by and large, very effective predators; without firearms, they need a large amount of co-operation to bring down large game, or even smaller burrowing animals, let alone bringing back injured members to the home place, and the like. Each man was, to an almost unimaginable extent today, dependent on the rest of his tribe; he would have found it virtually impossible to survive alone (and on a side note, this may be the reason why banishment from the tribe was the ultimate punishment, because it meant almost certain death apart from being incredibly psychologically traumatic). He would have needed to be absolutely certain of the loyalty and reliability of at least some of his fellow tribesmen.

The women, on the other hand, would have depended on each other to help out with the more domestic work; taking care of the children (there would have been a lot of them, and they would have been just as slow to develop as today’s babies) and the sick and old, low-level foraging, helping each other out in late pregnancy and childbirth and the like. Again, co-operation would have been crucial, and each woman would have to be sure of the support and help of at least one other woman. Familial ties were, in all probability, not of much importance in a hunter-gatherer society which lacked the idea of heritable property; so blood ties wouldn’t be of much importance in forming a bond with one’s peers. What would, then, form a dependable bond?

One answer is rather interesting: sex.

Quite apart from its reproductive purpose, sex has a whole lot of other functions; and among them the physical and emotional intimacy that comes from swapping body fluids and orgasms ranks very, very high. If you have a regular and reliable sex partner, wouldn’t you go out of your way to ensure that he or she remains your sex partner? In the modern world, it might involve giving gifts of cars or jewels. In the hardscrabble time when just about all of our modern social behaviour actually originated, the gifts would be much greater: the absolute support and reliability you needed to stay alive.

And, of course, there’s the point that intercourse does have health benefits galore [3], and having regular sex even when there’s no access to the opposite gender would significantly boost your own health and therefore your chances of successfully passing your genes on to a future generation when said access to the opposite gender actually materialised.

Can we now agree that bisexuality had a distinct evolutionary role, and helped in the survival of the species? Am I making sense here?

Assuming I am, therefore, people ought not to be called by such absolutist terms as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, but (except for the few who genuinely fall in the middle and might be called bisexual) but by something more descriptive of what they really are; “homosexual-oriented” and “heterosexual-oriented”, perhaps. Certainly, since words have power, they would also aid in making people more comfortable with what they are. I’m all in favour of throwing out terms like “straight”, “gay”, or “lesbian”, because they’re far too amenable to abuse. I’ll admit though that this is highly unlikely to happen.

Today, in India at least, there’s a kind of backhanded recognition of bisexuality. In certain circles – specifically, among the fashion designers, advertising agency whiz kids, and the other “creative” lot – being gay is suddenly cool. It seems to me that at least some of these people pretend to be gay to gain cred. It’s ridiculous, pathetic and touching all at once. I remember a transvestite in Bombay who declaimed loudly to an admiring circle of friends that “no Indian male is heterosexual” while staring at me...

Of course, among the hoi polloi, it’s different, but there’s hope in that at last there are now even Gay Pride parades in India, and homosexuality has finally been decriminalised by order of the Supreme Court. Yeah, if you are a man, you can’t get locked up any more for having consensual sex with another member of the same gender. (The ladies were never at risk, because Indian women were supposed to be too pure to have sexual desire, so couldn’t possibly wish to have sex with each other.)

That’s...kind of progress. Relatively.

But to get back to the point.

Once we do realise the fact of innate human bisexuality, we can probably understand why most religions hate and condemn homosexuality, can’t we? Homosexual people are less likely to be tied down to families than heterosexual people, and therefore are less amenable to religious overview and control. Besides, religions are all about numbers, and thence about income. More followers equal more income, in the form of tithes, donations, tax exemptions or whatever; therefore it’s self-destructive of religions to be permissive of anything that can reduce those numbers. A perfect family, seen from the organised religion point of view, would be large, ignorant, and willing to believe anything the church/temple/mullah tells it. That’s why religions – sometimes explicitly, and sometimes implicitly – discourage birth control, encourage breeding (often as a “religious duty”) and almost universally condemn homosexuality. Just look at the Vatican as the prime exemplar.

They hate it because they fear it. And they’re losing.

They’re losing because the “enemy”, from their viewpoint, hides where they can never reach it, inside our genes. I suppose they could make some kind of misguided and doomed attempt, by means of genetic engineering, to stamp it out; but not only would it fail spectacularly, but they’d be acknowledging what they dare not: that homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Yes, they have met the enemy; and they are us.






  1. Yes, your evolutionary argument makes sense Bill.

  2. Bill, your argurment makes sense. To say it more abstractly, I think that a certain degree of intimacy is necessary to trust, and sexual relations is one way of establishing said intimacy.

    Wonderful article.

  3. BTW. Anonymous above is me, Vickie Collins. I am not a member of blogspot so dont have a profile.

  4. such an ugly word. It brings to mind all those other irrational phobias..of spiders and tiny places and poor harmless peanut butter sandwiches. People who hate gays?..are irrational too. Woah, before I get carried away, why don’t we cut the emotive labels and get down to the real discussion. The sexuality of human beings is, I believe, the topic of the day. Recapping the points brought forward so far: 1. humans evolved from simple ‘cave-man’ societies, in which sexuality was the primary motivation to form relational bonds. 2. Sexuality is determined by genetic selection. 3. Organized religion considers homosexuality a threat to the coffers. Leaving aside other less central but nevertheless eloquently expressed side issues such as anti-imperialism and feminism, I will take a look at the problems I see in those three main points.
    I like science. It’s logical to a fault, unemotional and unforgiving. Science relies heavily on provable fact, and the absence of evidence to support the origins of mankind means that the theory of evolution must take its place alongside the beliefs of creationism and alien intelligence. Each of these theories has its own stories to suggest how mankind has come to this highly civilized or at least technologically advanced state. In addition to the example already given of cave-men, I would like to offer the creationist explanation of man beginning as an already very intelligent and socially capable being. Not only was he able to form bonds based on familial ties, but also on a spiritual love and commitment to another. In this case sex, rather than the chain that bound, was the icing on the to speak. While there is much debate over how humans came to populate the earth and form our different cultures, there is no evidence to support any claims, and although some would cite the pyramids with their Egyptian cryptographs as proof of alien intervention…none of the theories cited above has conclusive proof of fact.
    ....continued in next post. I seem to be limited to 4,096 characters ~Frances

  5. Sexuality is a term that covers not only our orientation, but also many other preferences involving sexual fulfillment. Whether humans wish to copulate with same sex or opposite, or indeed with other species altogether, is only one aspect of their sexual natures. Consider also libido, conservative versus experimental preference, the practice other than homosexuality of acts which have been labeled perversion such as pedophilia, necrophilia, sadism, oh need I go on? If there is something that can be done with the human body in the pursuit of pleasure, humans have thought of it. Why have we decided that some are moral and others not? What have we used as the yardstick for our decisions?
    Religion has served as the foundation for our legal systems, governing systems, and moral values. As we slowly undermine those morals, we also dismantle the very foundation of our societal systems. The family unit itself has been the lynchpin of the structure of our culture, one that is set up to protect children, democratic rights and moral principle. it true? That human desires are set by genes? Of course it is. We are genetically predisposed to want pleasure. The more we get, the more we need. If we excuse the indulgence of one desire, how can we deny the others? Where is accountability for self control or moral circumspection? I do agree with one point you made, Bill. I think that human beings are naturally attracted to other human beings regardless of gender. Label that bi-sexuality if you will. We have, I believe been created with an enormous capacity and need to love and touch other humans. But we also have a nature that will relentlessly pursue satisfaction, and that’s why sex gets mixed in with the definition of relationship. Take a quick look if you will at less ‘civilized’ times where folk lived in small villages in daily fear of rape, pillage and looting by the next village that had stronger warriors. Without the constraints of a morally founded belief system, humans took what they could get. Did I say less civilized times….? this sounds a lot like what happens to the losing side of conflicts in modern day Africa.
    Organized religions don’t even need to be brought into the discussion. Today’s institutions are too easily picked full of holes for their problems. I don’t think it’s wise though, to throw the moral baby out with the holy bathwater. Corruption within these various institutions has no bearing on the discussion of whether homosexuality is morally wrong.
    I have to say, I like your style of argument, Bill. Friendly but with a glint of steel. I was eager to check your research sources..and then a little disappointed. Where is your reference to an article supporting your most important point? Is there in fact no evidence for this claim that homosexuality is in the genes? Where are the headlines that herald the discovery of the ‘off the hook’ genome that makes it ok to succumb to the dark side? (personally I am hoping for discovery of the one that lets me eat dessert before mains without guilt)

  6. It's well enough known that homosexuality is genetically determined, but if you want a source, it's here, Frances:

    I don't think religion has anything to do with morality. Non-religious people can be as moral as religious people, and religious people can use their religion as cover to be immoral (look at the Crusades). Nor can I even begin to accept an intelligent design or creationist hypothesis.

  7. Great. Pretty much agreed. Those religious twits, again...
    . Most of them probly should be isolated from the gene-pool.


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