Friday, July 15, 2011

What if Homosexuality is Genetic?

Sweetie and I were talking about this in the car on the way to work.  A lot of the debate surrounding homosexuality stems from two camps, those who say homosexuality is a choice, and others who say it is hardwired.

It's not hard to find the core of the two different groups.  The ones who say homosexuality is hardwired are gay themselves.  The ones who insist it's a choice are adamantly not or, paradoxically, were.  More on that in a bit.

Part of the problem surrounding homosexuality is that it's still treated as if it's something to be ashamed of.  Gay people keep their orientation hidden, "in the closet."  Coming out of the closet is difficult and traumatic, and it happens in stages.  Perhaps the most difficult stage is the very first one, the one where the individual admits to himself that he's gay.

Why should that be so difficult?  Let's suppose for a moment that homosexuality is unequivocally hardwired, you are or you aren't and it's not because of anything you did or didn't do.  It's not because of anything your parents did.  But the society you live in is straight, that is to say, not gay.  It's not even gay-friendly.  There are precious few parts of the country that are frankly gay-tolerant let alone -friendly, so it's a difficult hurdle to face: "if I accept this as fact, life gets harder."  But life is already difficult if you're denying a portion of your own identity.  Do you live with internal denial or external denial?  Internal denial is abstract, a dissatisfaction with or even hatred of the self that cannot be focused because it is about the self.  Internal hate crimes are actually more damaging, but in one's own imagination, they're not as scary as a lynch mob.  To come out is to face the possibly irrevocable alteration, maybe even dissolution, of relationship with family, friends and society at large.  A gay person coming out may be throwing himself, so to speak, overboard into an unknown, unforgiving sea.  It's no surprise that many people who might otherwise identify themselves as gay choose not to, and either suppress or disassociate themselves from their identity.

Homosexual behavior is observed in many species besides just humans.  Great apes, assorted social bird species, and others cross what is considered the "normal" line of sexual behavior into what is considered homosexual.  If we don't consider these animals to be sapient, that is, self-aware and able to make conscious decisions about actions beyond mere survival, then it's hard to say that what they are doing is by choice.  But it's also observed that such behavior doesn't usually take precedence over heterosexual behavior.  It has been observed in some animal populations, however, that there can be a distinct proportion of the population that is homosexually oriented, preferring the company and attentions of members of the same gender to the exclusion of potential mates.

Just like in humans.  Except the zebras and elephants and dolphins and bed bugs aren't as hung up about it.

Then there are the people who somehow become not gay after having been so.  How they achieve this is up for debate.  But it does bring up a very salient point: you can choose a sexual orientation.  Choosing doesn't mean changing your native state, the orientation with which you're born, but it does mean that the self determination of the personality isn't subverted by the biological predilections of the neurochemistry.  Mind over matter, as it were.  Brains over biology.

This is difficult to express.  I could, for instance, shoot myself in the foot if I decided it really, really was in my best interest to do so.  But the natural aversion to pain and the survival instincts would make it an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.  I could choose - this is weird to write - to be gay if I thought it were necessary (!?) but under the circumstances in which I now live, the idea is almost incomprehensible.  It's nearly impossible to imagine a life situation in which that would become necessary.

And yet, that is exactly the life situation in which gay people find themselves.  The lack of societal acceptance, the extraordinary stresses under which they live can force them to seek a means to alleviate some of that pressure.  Like an animal in a trap gnawing off its own leg to free itself, drastic measures can be taken.  A gay person can suppress his native state and choose a different orientation.

That cannot possibly be healthy.  Life changes undertaken in such conditions could not be assumed to be permanent, nor would you expect them to be normal.  Once the stress lets up, the native state may well reassert itself, or the stress itself changes form and causes other problems in the individual.  But sometimes the stress doesn't let up and causes other rifts.  It's a good chicken-vs-egg question when you hear that a woman, after her divorce, has come out as a lesbian.  Did latent homosexuality stress the marriage to break up, or did the stress of the breakup initiate a self-preservative change of orientation?  It's a truism that women hold their sexuality in a different way from men, not to mention their relationships in general.  And indeed American society seems to accept homosexual women more readily than it does men.

And speaking of society, what does this mean to society if homosexuality is in fact genetic?  Well, for one thing it means parents can relax.  It isn't anything they could have prevented.  It just happens, like other things that people have tried to train out of their children, like left handedness or a lisp due to a deformed palate.  People don't fret over left handedness anymore; deformed palates are a routine medical correction.  At one time left handedness was looked at with suspicion, somehow associated with the devil.  A lisp was associated with low intelligence.  We know neither of these things are true, they're just abstract societal constructs.

But about that lisp...if sexual orientation is a manifestation of a physical state, then maybe it's something that could be treated medically.  If sexual orientation is genetic, could it be treated genetically?  Could some clever researcher whip up a tamed cold virus that goes into the body and modifies the individual's genetic code so that he is no longer gay?

Could it be tested for in utero?  Search for certain markers here or there and determine whether the child is going to grow up gay or straight.  Straight ones get born, gay ones don't.  That would be a hell of a question to pose before the religious right: if homosexuality is wrong and abortion is wrong, is it wrong to abort a fetus that will grow up to be a gay person?  I'd love to watch the feathers fly on that debate.

My parents never tried to "correct" my left handedness.  Thank goodness.  I am so preferential of my left hand that I am even more aware of the left side of my face.  I can't think as clearly if I cannot move my left hand.  My right hand is good for dumb things requiring little coordination; when using that hand for anything more complex than carrying firewood I almost can't speak - I have to concentrate on what it's doing.

Now imagine that kind of preference that defines your sexual orientation.  That's where a large part of you lives, the natural instinct for finding companionship.  Now imagine that your good hand, the one you use for writing, for holding hands, for everything, is tied down.  Unwelcome.  You must use the other hand.  That's the only hand society will tolerate.

That is what I think it must be, to be a gay person forced to live an unnatural life.  Miserable.  Handicapped, freakish, awkward.

I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

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