First, a disclaimer. I am not a scientist. But I would like to think that I’m scientifically literate and probably more interested in science than your average “Joe.” Given that, this essay is simply a look at one of the most common “common sense” arguments used to relegate homosexual behavior and by extension, homosexual people, to the bottom rungs of the social acceptance ladder.
The argument goes something like this, “homosexuality just, well, it ain’t natural.”
Aside from my facetious use of the word “ain’t,” on its face it’s an interesting declarative statement. Why? Because it’s a claim to knowledge of what makes something, in this case sexual attraction, natural versus unnatural. Typically such a statement is offered with no supporting evidence behind it, so when uttered in a crowd of other anti-gay people, it merely results in affirmative nods. “Homosexual behavior just isn’t natural.” Of course it isn’t. End of discussion.
Fortunately for us, this is not the end of discussion. In fact, precisely because this kind of statement claims to know something about the natural world, we Homo sapiens have developed over the last several centuries, a nice little tool with which to tackle such claims to knowledge about the natural world. Science.
Yes, the question of the “naturalness” of homosexuality versus heterosexuality is actually a scientific question. This means that after defining the terms, we should be able to look at the question objectively, form a hypothesis, collect some evidence, test our findings, and make forward progress toward a greater understanding of homosexual behaviors (and heterosexual behaviors, and asexual behaviors, and etc.)
Of course the average anti-gay person does not state their claim to the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality as a means to kick start an honest scientific inquiry. When an anti-gay fundamentalist makes a claim toward the “naturalness” of heterosexual behavior or the “unnaturalness” of homosexual behavior in order to promote the former and demote the latter, they are really trying call on their rudimentary understanding of the natural world in a way that reinforces their homophobia. Their holy book says that homosexuality is sinful, so gay people become an easy target for their sanctimony and hate. They then couple their homophobia with the following natural observation:
- Sex between same sex partners does not result in procreation, therefore it’s unnatural
There you have it. Then they look around the room for the affirmative nods. Thinking about the preceding statement scientifically, let’s be honest, the anti-gay bigot is correct up to a point. The fact is that for most of the animal kingdom, if one (incorrectly as we’ll discuss later on) limits the definition of natural sexual attraction to that which leads to the ability of animals to procreate, then it is true that same sex attraction will likely not lead to procreation.
But right out of the gate that definition stumbles. Because ours is an awesome animal kingdom and even in that what might seem axiomatic proposition, there are some exceptions in nature. Take for example the female whiptail lizard. She reproduces asexually after engaging in sexual behavior with other female whiptails in a fascinating process known as parthenogenesis.1 No one bothered to tell this naturally lesbian lizard that she can’t procreate!
But again, the anti-gay religious fundamentalist isn’t really interested in the scientific question. They are interested in using the natural argument as an anti-gay “one / two punch.” In other words, in addition to their observation on how things should work in nature, they also bring a healthy dose of anti-gay doctrine (usually from the Bible or the Quran). The anti-gay religious fundamentalist then feels bolstered to charge ahead with their social ideas; which as we know often manifest in the form of dehumanizing anti-gay bigotry. They extend the argument to say, “not only is it (gay behavior) wrong, but it’s also unnatural.” It goes against God (jab) and nature (cross).
They now feel doubly fortified in their homophobic social and political positions. They are passionately anti-gay. And the bigotry flows. Gays are ruining our country. Gays will invite God’s vengeance upon us. No gays in the military, no gays should get married, no gays in the Boy Scouts, no gays in my church, no gays on the football field, gays deserve what they get, AIDs is God’s punishment for gays, and the nauseating list goes on, and gets worse.
Unfortunately science can’t remove anti-gay doctrine from religion. It will never be able to redact the anti-gay messages from the Bible for example. Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, the warnings against “porneia” in the synoptic gospels, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1, and others are there for all to read. Perhaps new “translations” or some creative humanistic hermeneutics will dampen the messages. Perhaps the maltreatment of real people will weigh heavier than the fear of some cosmic vengeance from an omnipotent being interested in who people love (and further, interested in how people love). On the other hand, perhaps adherents to certain religions will always beat the anti-gay drum; irrespective of our large social march toward love and acceptance.
We must set religiously inspired anti-gay bigotry aside for a moment and get back to the question that we can answer. Science can certainly and rightfully tackle the claim to homosexual “unnaturalness.” Let’s look briefly at that claim with the hopes of if not completely removing that particular arrow from the anti-gay cultural quiver, making it far too flimsy to fly.
Let’s start from the top. What does it mean for something to be natural? Webster says that something natural is said to be in accordance with or determined by nature. In the context of homosexuality, the claimant then is saying that homosexual behavior does not occur as simply a matter of course. In other words, that there is something naturally aberrant about it; it doesn’t fit the “order” of things. The parts don’t fit in a way that serves a function. To quote Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, “If you just think biologically how God made us, our plumbing is completely different.” Two men can’t have babies. Two women can’t have babies.
Did you notice what happened there? Somehow the definition of what constitutes natural slipped to encompass only that which is functional, not that which is “naturally occurring.” We are back to “sex between same sex partners does not result in procreation, therefore it’s unnatural.” But that’s fine; the claimant is wrong on both counts. Homosexuality is both naturally occurring and sex is often not functionally procreative. There are a multiple angles we can take with this.
- Biological utility. Must everything in nature serve a function? Absolutely not. The animal kingdom is replete with examples of traits which no longer serve a function. The term in biology is called vestigiality. This is to say that traits are present in nature all the time and across multiple species, which don’t by necessity appear to serve a direct function in the survival of a given species. Having a same sex desire need not “solve” some evolutionary problem. In fact interestingly enough, there is quite a sociobiological debate around the altruistic “utility” of a certain percentage of homosexuals2 within human population groups. All that said, of course I’m not suggesting that homosexuality is a vestigial feature of any ancient evolutionary step; I’m just pointing out that life is full of characteristics which are not necessary for successful genetic transfer to subsequent generations. The question of homosexual procreative utility seems practically irrelevant. And by the way, there is absolutely nothing about a gay person’s biology or anatomy (or plumbing to borrow from Franklin Graham’s vocational vocabulary), which precludes neither he nor she from having children.
- Evolution by natural selection. Because homosexuality does actually exist among Homo sapiens, clearly the selective pressures never existed in our ancestral evolution to the degree required to keep homosexuality from being present. Procreative selective pressures were clearly not, nor do they clearly continue to be (as Homo sapiens reaches seven billion) threatened by homosexual sex drives. Q.E.D.
- Commonness. According to a 1999 review by researcher Bruce Bagemihl3, homosexual behavior has been observed in almost 1,500 species of animals. Homo sapiens are but one of those animals in which homosexual behavior “naturally” occurs. Regardless of motive (acceptance, dominance, pleasure, etc.), homosexuality in nature is abundant and this one primate species, regardless of sentience, is no exception.
- Human pleasure. (Feel free to read this one with an air of heavy sarcasm.) Believe it or not, humans enjoy all kinds of sex – irrespective of one’s heterosexuality or homosexuality – in which procreation is not the goal. I know there are many religious fundamentalists out there who publically don’t want to acknowledge this one, but it’s true…even men and women (and presidents, interns, preachers, and congregations) have sex that will biologically never result in a child.
- Common sense. Is it unnatural for two people beyond child bearing years to have sex? Is it unnatural for a man with a vasectomy to have sex (I certainly hope not!), or a woman with a hysterectomy to have sex? Of course it isn’t. Notice it didn’t matter what the sex of the sex partner was. The notion that people who can’t have children shouldn’t have sex flies against common sense. No matter how often they try, their sex will never result in babies. Bye bye function.
Where are we then? These are facts. Homosexuality occurs naturally throughout the animal kingdom. Homosexuality exists; therefore selective pressures to keep it from existing were minimal. People have sex all the time without wanting children. People who can’t have children, have sex.
Obviously what I have written here is not a scientific paper. It’s merely a scientifically literate look at the arguments against the naturalness of homosexuality. So if I’ve misrepresented the science in any way, I look forward to any corrections from the scientific community to what I’ve stated. Neuroscience, biology, genetics, chemistry, anthropology, among other scientific disciplines, will all continue to make forward progress toward understanding sexuality (not just homosexuality).
Hopefully the functional/procreation argument of what makes for “natural” sex is looking a bit like Swiss cheese by now. Again, that’s not to say that sexuality is completely understood by any stretch of the imagination. Science, unlike religion, doesn’t make that claim. But nowhere in the scientific literature will you find science placing a value judgment on the person as a result of his or her sexual preference.
The religious anti-gay bigot then is left with but one arrow in their quiver; their holy book. We can only hope that treating each other better in the real world, will trump bigotry no matter the source.
1Halliday, Tim R.; Kraig Adler (eds.) (1986). Reptiles & Amphibians. Torstar Books. p. 101. ISBN 0-920269-81-8.
2Weinrich, James D.; A new sociobiological theory of homosexuality applicable to societies with universal marriage. Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 8(1), 1987, 37-47. doi: 10.1016/0162-3095(87)90056-2
3Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, St. Martin’s Press, 1999; ISBN 0-312-19239-8