Is homosexuality a recent invention?

July 31, 2010

That’s the question J. Michael Bailey takes up in Chapter 7 of his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. See my earlier post on the controversy surrounding the book.

Bailey’s purpose with this chapter is to refute some common objections to the idea that male homosexuality is, to a significant degree, innate to the individual, meaning a male born with a certain set of genes in a certain womb environment has X probability of being gay, irrespective of the culture in which he is born and raised. I didn’t mention it in my earlier post, but Bailey argues that male homosexuality is probably the result of “incomplete masculinization” of the brain in the womb (169).

Ignoring the somewhat loaded phrasing, if male homosexuality is indeed biological in this way, then it stands to reason there could be “gay genes” that predispose a male brain to resist masculinization. (And may the Heavenly Father bless and protect those genes, should they exist.)

As evidence of gay genes, Bailey writes that he did a study of identical male twins showing that if one twin was gay, the other twin was 52 percent likely to be gay too, compared with 24 percent of fraternal twins and 11 percent of adoptive brothers (109). The logic of twin studies is that because identical twins share the same genes, if a trait is under genetic control, then the twins should share that trait more often than would a pair of lesser-related individuals .

Now, Bailey is a good writer, because he answers one of the big questions an educated person might have about all this. And it’s not, “why should we care if male homosexuality is genetic or not?”, although that’s a reasonable question. No, it’s, “what about the Greeks?” According to social constructionists, gender — the set of characteristics that distinguish the sexes — is a construction, meaning those characteristics are “true” only because of tacit social agreement, not because the sexes would actually possess those characteristics in all conceivable social contexts. Or that’s my understanding.

Here are the social constructionist counter-examples Bailey cites (125):

• Ancient Greece, where it was common for men to form sexual relationships with adolescent boys and where most men were bisexual (according to the constructionists).

• The Romans, who were tolerant of male homosexual behavior, provided that normal free men were penetrating male slaves and prostitutes.

• Fifteenth-century Florence, where nearly half of all men came to the attention of the authorities for committing sodomy.

• The Sambia, a tribe in New Guinea, in which boys live for years only with males and practice oral sex with men.

• British public schools, all-male boarding schools, which were famous for their high levels of homosexual activity.

I love that he actually takes these counter-examples seriously, even if they don’t convince him. Here’s how he responds to the cases of ancient Greece and Rome:

To make any generalizations about “the Greeks” is risky. What we do know contradicts the social constructionist account. For example, far from being widespread, “pederastic” relationships between men and adolescent boys were viewed as a decadent practice of the aristocracy. Parents often tried to prevent their sons from entering these relationships (as the younger member). If money changed hands, the younger member could lose citizenship. The Greeks were especially intolerant of receptive anal intercourse, which they viewed as an abomination against nature.

More important, the record we have shows that some Greeks recognized that at least some people had a homosexual preference. For example, Aristophanes portrayed Agathon as a feminine man who enjoyed receptive anal sex. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes related a creation myth in which originally there were three sexes: men, women, and a combination of the two. Zeus cut each sex in half, and from that point, each person was driven to find the missing half. Thus, the man created by cleaving a complete man in half was homosexual, whereas heterosexual men and women were created by cutting the original androgyne in half.  The historian John Boswell documented the existence of obviously heterosexual or homosexual characters in Greek literature.

The Romans, just a few centuries later, had a word to describe feminine, exclusively homosexual men: cinaedi. These men were so common that the Apostle Paul offered homosexual behavior as his chief example of the capital’s decadence. They appear to have shared a flamboyant style of distinctive dress, hairstyles, and mannerisms, as well as regular cruising grounds, and typical occupations. To me, they sound a lot like the guys on Halsted Street. (128)

If you want to read his full argument, consult his book here. Search for “greeks.”

I’ll write a separate post about what I think all of this means for gender.

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