WHAT’S UP WITH THOSE GAY GENES ANYWAY?

By Paul

There was an interesting article by Dr. Simon LeVay in the Oct. 2nd , 2012, issue of the online Huffington Post, entitled “The Paradox of Gay Genes.”  The article itself is not long, and if you are curious about reading it, I would direct you to the following website:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-levay/the-paradox-of-gay-genes_b_1929641.html.

In the interest of saying a few words about the subject, I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of what LeVay, a neuroscientist and long-time researcher on the biology of sexual orientation, has to say in the article.  The main issue he begins with is the fact that he is often asked, when giving talks, whether or not homosexuality is somehow genetically determined, and if so what might be its usefulness, if the main biological purpose of sex is to pass genes on to the next generation.  As he puts it: “If being gay is genetic, and gay sex doesn’t produce children, why don’t those genes die out?

As he notes, this is an intriguing question.  And although he makes clear that no one really knows the answer (at least not as yet), LeVay does discuss several possible hypotheses, which others have offered, as to why this may be the case.  For the most part, these theories cluster around how other individuals, that is, not gay people themselves, might somehow benefit from gay genes being passed on.  Sisters of gay people, for example, might receive some kind of advantage from a sort of gay-nanny syndrome (my words, not his), whereby gay brothers would assist their straight sisters in the raising of children.  Another theory speculates that some small amount of gay genes, which are already in the parental mix, may somehow get passed on to the straight siblings of gay brothers or sisters, such that otherwise heterosexual male siblings might present themselves as “mildly feminine,” and females as more “masculine.”  The somewhat feminine men are then purported to be more attractive to women.  As such, in the end they are consequently better able to produce a larger number of offspring.  Regarding more masculine women, although still heterosexual, the theory is that they are more sexually active and aggressive, which would result in more sexual activity, and therefore in a greater number of offspring that might be produced, as a result. 

I want to emphasize once again that LeVay is not proposing that these notions are necessarily an explanation in and of themselves, only that they have been proposed as hypotheses.  And we must note that hypotheses, by their very definition, are starting points, unproven theories.  Even so, I want to say that, as hypotheses, these particular examples appear to me to be extraordinarily lacking in any power to convince.  First of all, at least in my experience, I know of virtually no gay men who have significantly contributed to the rearing of their sisters’ offspring.  And in regard to the greater masculine/feminine tendency in siblings of gay people, again this seems farfetched and fanciful to me.  I certainly have never observed it, either in my own family, or in the families of any gay people whom I have ever encountered.  And what may even be more germane, perhaps, is that the entire idea of what is considered to be masculine, and what is considered feminine, is profoundly dependent on society and on social norms.  Therefore, to conflate biological determinism with societal or cultural constructs seems to me to be highly suspect.  And even if we could somehow agree on what either a fully masculine man (if that is the right term), or a mildly feminine man, might actually look like, who has proven that women prefer the latter over the former?  I will let heterosexual women weigh in on this, but again it is likely that much would depend on exactly what the definition of masculine and feminine turns out to be in any given cultural context. 

Although, as I have said, LeVay does not overtly give credence to any of these theories, he does note toward the end of his article:  “As a happy homosexual, I find it a bit disconcerting that my sexual orientation might simply be the price that evolution pays to improve straight men’s performance in the sexual marketplace.”  That sounds to me as though he may think that such hypotheses might have at least some degree of credibility. 

If, for the moment at least, we assent to the idea that there is a “gay gene,” or perhaps more likely a whole complex of such genes which, when activated by a physical or a social or a cultural stimulus, somehow results in a person being gay, what does that tell us?  In fact, it seems to me that the entire notion then gives rise to a number of other questions.  First of all, I believe that it is questionable to make the assumption that heterosexuality is the base line from which any other sexual orientation must deviate.  Is that really the case?  If sheer numbers are the sole criterion, I suppose there may be a degree of truth in it.  Still, it does not take into consideration the sliding scale, if you will, that sexuality is for most people.  During the course of our lives, all of us are attracted to countless other people.  Some of those people are individuals of the opposite sex, and some are of the same sex; some are older than we are, some are younger.  If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, most of us have to admit that at some time or another in our lives we have been attracted to a whole host of individuals.  If society were to place no special onus, no particular meaning, no negative connotation on same-sex attraction, I have no doubt that many more people would act on such impulses, at least some of the time.  And so, who is to say that exclusive heterosexual attraction is the norm, the default, against which everything else is to be measured and found deviant?  On the contrary, it seems to me that sexual attraction, itself, is the norm, and that this attraction is directed toward whoever it may be, depending on a whole host of individual, societal, and cultural preferences and specifications.

Another question arises in regard to this notion of what “use” gay genes may have.  Just how far are we prepared to go in order to say that things are fully biologically determined?  Are some people, for example, predisposed to being artists because of their genetic make up?  Surely it cannot be construed that the artistic vocation is somehow biologically useful.  And if that is the case, of what possible benefit would an “artistic gene” serve?  How would it enhance the next generation, and what would lead to its selection over, let us say, genes that predispose an individual toward something else which makes lots of money?  The evolutionary theory at work here is that those who are most successful (read, in modern society, those who make the most money) select others who have equal success.  It happens in the animal kingdom all the time.  The biggest and strongest males get to mate with the most fertile female or females.   Yet, it is clear that most artists remain at the lower end of the economic pecking order in the majority of modern societies. 

Neither am I suggesting here that gay people have a corner on the market when it comes to the creation of art.  Who could have been more heterosexual than Pablo Picasso?  And most of the great Impressionist masters of the 19th century were straight in their sexual orientation (at least as far as we know).  We could go on endlessly talking about other heterosexuals who excelled in one form or another of the arts, but that would take us too far afield.  My point here is not that artistic inclination equates either with heterosexual or homosexual inclination.  It is only that, if both stem from genetic predispositions, then both are equally “useless” from a strictly evolutionary point of view. And yet, the world has always had its artists, just as there have always been gay people.

Human sexuality generally cannot be reduced to any one gene, or even to a set of genes.  I believe that sexual orientation, of whatever stripe, is not solely predetermined either by biology or society, as much as both probably do play some role in its unfolding and in the particular expression it can take in any given individual.  This is not to say that neuroscientists such as Simon LeVay ought not to continue research and exploration.  Quite the contrary.  The more we learn, the more we begin to understand the underpinnings of the enormously complex and endlessly fascinating topic which is human sexuality.  But neither should we fall into the philosophical trap known as reductio ad absurdum, and claim that being gay can be reduced to something as simple-minded as help in the rearing of one’s sister’s children. 

If ever we do some day arrive at a full and profound understanding of the origins of homosexuality, my guess is that it will be seen to be as expansive, as full of beauty and wonder, and as utterly mysterious as heterosexual attraction is or ever has been.  On that day, let us hope, religious groups and others who currently condemn same-sex attraction will instead come to honor and to celebrate the stunning and awesome miracle that it clearly is.

THE GAY BURDEN

Dear Paul,
 
I deeply appreciate your May 23rd article “Dharun Ravi, The Latest in Homophobia.” Your essay is very intense, passionate and undeniably true. I especially admire the way you were able to capture “the gay burden” in words – what it feels like to live as a gay person with the constant requirement to decide how “out” to be in every social moment, and how exhausting that is, especially when one is in a part of the world where being gay is anathema, as it is here in this ultra-conservative backwater region where Robert and I live deep in the woods. But even in big progressive cities, as you point out, it is necessary for us gay people to decide how open to be in the course of daily life. Just mentioning my “partner” at lunch with a trusted client in the course of normal conversation, is a HUGE deal! So I usually don’t do it, because the consequences are potentially economically devastating. I did many creative problem solving projects and consultations for the national offices of the church in which I was raised, until I happened to mention in one event over 15 years ago, that many of my closest friends had died of AIDS. I have not been invited back since then. Even progressive clients don’t want to take the risk of being seen as supporting an openly gay “vendor.” In corporate America today, gay people are absolutely invisible and silent. When gay associates happen to identify one another in meetings and board rooms, they automatically stay as far away from each other as possible, in order to avoid inadvertently outing one another. Gay is NOT okay in corporate USA.
 
We gay people live with psychological violence daily, and you did an excellent job of defining that as well as the potentially disastrous hazards of such a life for sensitive young people who may just not feel that they have the stamina and courage to live with this “gay burden” day after day for a whole lifetime. Things have gotten both better and worse for young gay people. I knew I was gay from the very early age of 10, but there was no way for me to know that there were lots of other gay people in the world. Everything I read or heard about homosexuality defined it as a psychological pathology — an illness that had to be treated. Since I didn’t know any other gay people, I concluded that I must be one of 10 or 12 such freaks in the entire world, and I hoped I would outgrow my “illness.” But I didn’t outgrow it, and by age 14 I was literally crying myself to sleep every night over the realization that I could not possibly marry and have a family with my “condition.”
 
As a 14-year-old child, I was devastated by the thought that I would have to live my life alone, without love. As I think  back to that agony, it is easy for me to understand why some young people take their own lives during these very sensitive and vulnerable teen years. I did not consider suicide, but in desperation I wrote to Ann Landers and poured out my heart. She (or her staff) wrote back that I should seek psychological treatment for my problem. So I did. At 15 I could not abide the agony any longer. I told my parents that I was gay and wanted to be straight so that I could marry and have a family, and that I would need psychological therapy to achieve that goal. Unlike so many kids, I was incredibly fortunate to have very understanding parents. They scheduled weekly counseling for me immediately. The first small town Midwestern counselor I met with was clearly homophobic. He sneered and leered at me throughout the entire first session. I went home and told my parents that I would never speak to that man again, and that my counseling was over unless they could find me a more sympathetic ear. I have always been proud of myself for firing my first therapist. The one they found next for me was perfect. He was a Rogerian, which meant that he did not believe a counselor should speak at all in sessions. Well, I didn’t know what to say, so we sat in silence for the entire hour week after week for six months! I don’t know why, but after six months I started talking. I talked and talked and talked. For six months I talked a blue streak, and at the end of one full year I had talked myself into feeling just fine about being gay. The Rogerian approach had worked for me! I said “Thank you very much. Good bye.” But how many kids are as lucky as I was?
 
Today things are much different for gay kids. They know very well that they are not alone and that there are millions of gay people in the world. There are gay clubs in high schools and gay support services everywhere to help scared and conflicted kids. But those kids still get the very strong message from our culture that it is not okay to be gay. Just yesterday the Illinois state senate failed by one vote to pass an anti-bullying bill, and the reason given was that the bill would “promote a pro-homosexual agenda.” There was no mention of bullying gay people in the bill. It was a generic bill about bullying. Today’s gay kids experience more pressure in many ways than you and I did. When we were in school 50 years ago, nobody talked about homosexuality, and nobody was identified as gay. Well… almost nobody. The coach showed our gym class homophobic films on “Health Fridays” and talked about how homosexuality was “sick.” And the principal’s boy ran around the locker room naked, with his flaming red hair and a raging hard-on. But even that was just interpreted as a hilarious prank! Today, gay kids are identified early and harassed by their schoolmates and others, long before they have had a chance to sort out their own feelings and attitudes and approaches to their sexual identities. Most of them don’t get the chance I had to spill out their hearts to a Rogerian psychologist for a year. And some of them crack under the pressure. Dharun Ravi’s incredibly cruel actions drove poor Tyler Clementi to suicide because Tyler could not live with the forced exposure and humiliation. Much of the Illinois legislature apparently thinks that kind of bullying should be allowed.  
 
I have been wondering lately what I might have achieved in this life if I had not been seen as a gay man, because, let’s face it, being gay is generally NOT an asset in most human pursuits. That’s why it is such a farce when people call it a “choice” or our “sexual preference.” A man once asked me why I made the “choice” to be gay. I responded with a question: “Can you tell me when and why you CHOSE to be straight?” Who would choose this kind of life when they are 14 and terrified?! I can assure you that I would have preferred to have lived my life on a level playing field, thank you very much. Would I have been fired from my position as art director for a church publishing company after ten years of loyal and effective service? Probably not. I believe my sexual orientation was most likely the secret weapon that my persecutors used to get me sacked finally after several failed attempts. Would I have been passed over for management and administration roles in the various positions I held? Probably not. Might I have been offered other more lucrative and powerful professional jobs in the world? Maybe so. As things stand, I AM gay and it IS known, and I have accomplished quite a lot in my professional life, despite carrying this “gay burden,” as have you. I’m happy with the way things turned out, and I feel relatively proud and satisfied with my public professional history as it winds toward a close, and you should feel extremely gratified by all of your stellar accomplishments in academe.
 
What remains now for both you and me is autonomous creative expression, loving our husbands and friends, contemplation, meditation, gardening and exercise. That is certainly a wonderful place to arrive at in one’s life. But I can’t help wondering if I have chosen to live at the dead end of a dirt road in these remote woods partly to escape the daily grind of the “gay burden.” The squirrels, frogs, trees, wildflowers, streams and ponds do not require me to decide “how openly gay I will be today.” I can just …BE… And that feels like a tremendous luxury and freedom. At the same time, of course, I have to acknowledge that Robert and I are surrounded outside of our private paradise by people who would want to do us harm if they knew that we are a couple. So, whenever we interact with them, I am “Old Uncle Kevin,” and Robert is my “nephew.” They are more comfortable with this lie, even if they happen to know the truth. Around here, any other approach would be suicide. And here’s the rub… even relatively accepting people tend to be uncomfortable with our reality. Many are willing to be tolerant as long as we don’t rub their noses in our lives. And unfortunately, rubbing their noses in it consists of engaging in very common everyday behaviors like kissing one’s lover goodbye or holding hands by the bonfire or mentioning the crazed cardinal that we saw through the window while we were having coffee and tea in bed this morning. We cannot do or say those common, ordinary, everyday things… and we don’t. We wouldn’t think of it. We value our safety. But gay children and young people are much more exposed and vulnerable. Once they are identified as gay in schools and communities, a certain segment of the population will persecute them just for being who they are, like Mitt Romney did 45 years ago when he instructed a gang of his bully friends to forcibly hold down a terrified and screaming gay boy, so that he, Mitt Romney, today’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidency, could violently cut off the gay boy’s long bleached blond hair and publicly humiliate him. Needless to say, even if, God forbid, Mitt Romney becomes U.S. president, he will never be MY president, for this and so many other reasons. We need a president who, among thousands of other deeds of courageous moral leadership, will help gay kids to survive the burden of growing up homosexual – a president who might even support gay marriage. Oh!… We already have that president. Let’s keep him. Then all we’ll have to do is persuade him to save the world from Global Climate Change… Easy!

— Kevin