Butterfly sculpture, Hapeville Train Depot Plaza, Hapeville, GA, artist unknown. Photographed 17 April 2016.
To someone trying to reason out why people behave the way they do, homosexuality may seem like an anomaly. Two men together or two women together cannot produce a child, and since the biological imperative for all creatures on earth seems to be to survive and procreate, homosexuality doesn’t appear to play a role in that. For someone who adheres to a philosophy which states that all life was fashioned in the image of a divine creator, people frequently come to the conclusion that homosexuality is against the design of this creator, and yet, humans are not the only species to exhibit homosexual behavior, we’re just the only ones who constantly obsess over it. Remove divine intent from the equation, and we’re still left with the quandary of figuring out what, if any, evolutionary function homosexuality serves. The problem is we’re most likely still overthinking it.
When discussing human behavior, particularly with regard to sexuality, one often speaks of “what nature intended”, and yet, we rarely speak of this when talking about other natural phenomena. If a region is hit by an earthquake or flood, the people there usually don’t interpret that as nature telling them they don’t belong there, though insurance companies might disagree. It’s only in the realm of human behavior that we assume some divine purpose underlies what we do. Trying to figure out why something happens is usually the first step in figuring out how to prevent something from happening, and more than a few people throughout the world would be happy if homosexuality could be eliminated. The question is why?
One cannot simply look at a person and know that person’s sexuality. Men and women who don’t meet society’s standards for masculinity and femininity still choose mates of the opposite sex, while people who conform to the behaviors assigned by society for that gender sometimes don’t. We have already had instances of very masculine male athletes coming out as gay, and feminine models and actresses announcing they’re lesbians. As homosexuality becomes less stigmatized in society, we’ll undoubtedly have more instances of this. We don’t even need high profile illustrations, since pretty much everyone knows someone they thought was or wasn’t gay up until the time that person started dating someone of the same or opposite sex. As with many things in nature, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it. It’s society and culture that typically complicates things and we’re responsible for developing and maintaining those.
In patriarchal societies, fathers or other male relatives choose how women will be joined with their mates, and often the strongest and most influential men get first choice, surprise, surprise. In much of nature, however, it’s the female of the species which makes that choice, and the males must put on elaborate displays to attract the attention of willing partners. If one sees a pair of red birds, for instance, the one most brilliantly arrayed is the male, and among songbirds, it’s often the males who sing elaborate songs in order to attract mates. In cultures which tend to be matriarchal, we also see this behavior in humans, males prancing and preening in makeup and brightly colored costumes to attract the attention of their intended brides. Given the vastly different roles played by males and females in reproduction, particularly with mammals, it makes more sense for the female to choose, since she’s taking the greater risk in getting pregnant. Even in patriarchal societies we see vestiges of this, fathers choosing their daughters’ husbands based on who will best provide for them, or which tribal alliances will best insure their survival.
So, what did nature intend in creating homosexuality? Most likely nothing. With regard to biology, nature is a usually a passive force which sometimes gives a species mutations that have no effect on survival unless conditions exist that make that mutation an advantage. The way a given species reproduces is the result of billions of years of evolution and the fact that different species have vastly different methods of reproduction suggests no specific plan was in place from the start. One might argue that homosexuality is one of the curbs nature puts in place to control population growth, but this ignores two important facts. First, the percentage of homosexuals in society appears to remain constant while the population gets larger. Second, and more importantly, people who are homosexual are still capable of having children. Neither the ability nor the desire to have children is affected by one’s sexual preference. True, there are many homosexuals who don’t want children, but there is probably an equal percentage of heterosexuals who also don’t want children. If there is a curb, it’s probably more the lack of desire to reproduce rather than the type of relationship one is in.
Societal prohibitions against homosexuals focus almost exclusively on male homosexuality. Leviticus 18 forbids men from having sex with other men and says nothing about women. It’s not until much later that admonitions for women were added to Jewish law. It’s likely the restriction was put in place because this was behavior observed in cultures with whom the ancient Israelites interacted. It’s known that the ancient Greeks practiced homosexuality, though the specific cultural context is probably lost to us today. It would seem then, that the prohibition has less to do with protecting families or society than with controlling a specific type of male behavior.
Throughout human populations, rape is often a powerful weapon employed in asserting control over other individuals or groups of people. Despite its sexual nature, rape is not about sex, but about demonstrating one’s dominance over another person. In Western society, males who are raped by other males carry a higher stigma than females who’ve been raped, and boys who’ve been sexually abused often receive more attention than girls. Aside from totally ignoring or flippantly dismissing rape allegations by women, authorities take male rape very seriously, believing it diminishes the man’s masculinity. One rarely hears someone dismiss allegations of rape by one man against another with the phrase, “Boys will be boys” though statistics from prisons and other male-dominated endeavors tell a different story. Despite the fear mongering by anti-gay activists, men who rape other men often do not identify as homosexuals, since, again, rape is not about sexuality, but control.
So, it seems the real culprit is not human sexuality, but the need by humans to exert control over others, and that is a perversion of the survival instinct, since those who control the resources have a better chance to survive than those who don’t. We see, in parts of Africa where water and other natural resources are scarce, the highest level of strife, as populations are constantly at odds to try to claim those resources. In the Balkans, while the Soviet Union was still in place, people of different ethnicities lived side by side with relatively little conflict, but once the stabilizing influence of an authoritarian regime was removed, ethnic cleansing soon followed. The challenge for us is not to eliminate homosexuality from existence, since its presence in and of itself has not proven detrimental to the health and welfare of a given society. Rather it’s to overcome the need for humans to exert dominance over their environment and fellow individuals, which has been shown to hinder growth and development, bringing about such atrocities as wartime sexual violence and genocide, and leading to such repressive regimes as Apartheid-era South Africa. Our focus, then, should not be on those who wish to lead contented lives with partners they desire, but rather those who’ll stop at nothing to prevent them.