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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Insight from History into Orientation

The evidence from history, anthropology and the animal kingdom seems clear - it is not "homosexuality" that is unnatural, but exclusive heterosexuality. The trouble lies in that little qualifier "exclusive": if we apply it impartially, then the corollary also holds. Exclusive homosexuality is also "unnatural" - at least in the purely statistical sense, of being rare.

When we speak glibly of the acronym LGBT, we tend to think of the first two, and (sometimes) of the "G" - and overlook almost entirely the "B". This is odd, as the evidence, from human societies across history and from Kinsey's research, is that most people fit naturally along a scale of bisexuality, with relatively few people "naturally" places at either extreme. Yet in the modern (Western) world, the assumption too commonly is the reverse- that either we are "straight", or we are gay or lesbian.  Why should this be? The interpretation I that has been making sense to me, is that the medicalisation of "homosexuality" in the twentieth century led those who are are primarily heterosexual, developing a positive aversion to admitting (let alone expressing) any degree of same sex attraction at all. In reaction and as self- defence, those who are primarily "homosexual" then began to embrace the evidence, from science and from personal experience, that their same-sex attraction is inborn, not a mere lifestyle choice - and in embracing this, embrace also a gay "identity". Yet in earlier centuries, most people would have been puzzled by the very idea of a fixed, exclusive sexual "orientation".

This is a theme I have been wanting to explore and write about for some time, but do not yet have sufficient knowledge to present a reliable exposition. The following passage, which I came across in a review of the play "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party ", provides a useful description of the historical facts - if not yet the historical explanation for the anomaly:

American culture has always had deep divisions regarding any open display of sexuality. For many right-wingers, the concept of gay equality sticks in the craw because it means admitting that gay people have a right to exist openly. Christians and Jews can find Biblical arguments against homosexuality, but they can't find any in the Constitution. A historical disparity is involved: Homosexual practices, found throughout nature, have probably been part of human life since it first evolved, but homosexuality, as we understand it, has existed for barely more than a century. Oscar Wilde, a married man with two children, who saw his attraction to younger men in part as continuing an ancient Platonic tradition of ideal love, probably did not think of himself as a homosexual—not, at least, until after his imprisonment. He may never even have heard the word, which only came into use in later decades. (And "gay," in Wilde's time, merely meant "loose" or "promiscuous.")

Homosexual identity, often viewed today as a central and absolute character trait, was seen through most of history as a quirk affecting very few. Men—like Lincoln and Joshua Speed—embraced each other, and slept together for warmth; men took sexual advantage of slaves they owned, boys they mentored, servants they employed; prisoners, soldiers, and sailors, apart from women, engaged in clandestine mutual pleasuring. But most of them assumed that, when conditions altered, they would engage with women and presumably produce children. Few, no matter which role they played in the act, would have assumed an exclusively homosexual preference; a great many might have been startled to know that people who thought themselves exclusively homosexual even existed.

Today life's different. Gay is an identity, and a highly politicized, assertive one at that—an inevitable reaction to the millennia during which homosexual acts were stigmatized, outlawed, and persecuted, often violently. Every concern that gays might confront, from coming out to one's parents to becoming parents, has taken on an absolutist mentality, apparently subscribed to by both its adherents and those who wish they would disappear. The secondary cultural traits through which gays in the clandestine era once signaled their shared interest have become a kind of instant public shorthand. Quarterbacks who enjoy showtunes are instantly suspect; 10-year-olds with a gift for classical music conceal their interest for fear of being bullied at school. Future generations may come to regard our time's extreme emphasis on sexual identity as nearly equal in absurdity to the frantic hostility and repugnance that kept same-sex attraction clandestine in preceding centuries.

- Full review at Village Voice