In a recent comment on my last post Jeanne raised some important questions concerning homosexuality. These are issues where considerations of political correctness and religious dogma have stifled genuine discussion and dialogue. I will try to address these questions openly and straightforwardly.
The sex or gender of a person expresses itself in five general ways.
1. Every cell of the body is recognizable under a microscope as male or female.
2. Anatomically: The male develops testicles; the female develops ovaries. These differences are discernible in the embryo within a few weeks of fertilization.
3. Secondary sex characteristics: The male develops a penis and the seminal ducts. The female develops a uterus, fallopian tubes, vagina, and clitoris. Additional gender characteristics become evident at puberty. Male: facial and pubic hair, deepening voice. Female: breasts and pubic hair.
4. Endocrine system: The pituitary gland releases gonad-stimulating hormones into the bloodstream – constantly in males; on a 28-day cycle in females.
5. Behavior. In animals these gender-specific behaviors tend to be stereotyped and rigid. In humans there are some uniformities, but there is also a very substantial influence from environmental factors (especially the social environment).
In most people these five factors all show the same direction – all five factors indicating male; or all five indicating female. Individuals in which all five factors don’t agree are called hermaphrodites. There are five sub-groups.
1. True hermaphrodites have ambiguous gonads; or a testicle on one side and an ovary on the other. This condition is very rare.
2. Pseudomales have female cells but male sex organs. These individuals are usually sterile. Sometimes at adolescence the breasts enlarge. Incidence is approximately 1 in 2000.
3. Pseudofemales have male cells but female external sex organs. Ovaries are missing. At puberty breasts do not develop and menstruation does not occur. Incidence is approximately 1 in 2000.
4. Male pseudohermaphrodites have male cells and have testicles, but gonaducts and external sex organs are female (to a greater or lesser extent). Testicles are often undescended. Incidence is about 1 in 2000.
5. Female pseudohermaphrodites have female cells and ovaries, but during fetal development male hormones are produced, which results in various degrees of maleness in appearance at birth and throughout life. Incidence, again, is about 1 in 2000.
There is a sixth group, in which the first four factors all show the same direction, but the individual desires to live and function like the opposite sex. Sometimes the person acts on these desires. These individuals are called homosexuals, or in modern terminology, gays. The condition admits of degrees with regards to the kind of behavior involved and the frequency of these behaviors. Some individuals are bisexual – i.e. they engage in both heterosexual and homosexual behavior. As to why homosexuality occurs, there are four theories: genetic; endocrine; psychosocial; and a mixture of two or more of the above.
With regards to which theory is correct, I think there are two general points. Firstly, a great deal of research is being done in this area, and secondly, people have taken deeply entrenched positions for reasons that have nothing to do with genuine scientific understanding. There is also a school of thought that says it is wrong to even enquire as to the cause(s) of homosexuality – that focusing on homosexuality is inherently stigmatizing, and presupposes that the condition is somehow wrong or aberrant. In my view, there is nothing stigmatizing about the desire to understand. A botanist studying the phenomenon of blooming in no way detracts from the beauty of the flower. And, in any case, the human quest for knowledge and understanding won’t be stifled by dictatorial fiats.
Human existence, although laden with the potential for great happiness and fulfillment, is not always easy. As children we learn that toys break and vacations come to an end. And throughout life we experience incidents of loss, grief, and heartache. Pain, bereavement, and disappointment are an intrinsic part of the human condition, and often there isn’t the familial/social support to carry us through these difficulties. Some of our difficulties are of our own making, but this is difficult to admit.
All of this results, in some cases, in a kind of smoldering resentment or anger, but with no legitimate target for these feelings. So we invent targets: blacks, Jews, Mexicans, and of course, homosexuals. The latter group has had a particularly rough road, ostracized as they were by church and state alike. Why do people express such negative feelings towards homosexuals? Here again, there are lots of exotic theories. My view is simply that they were taught to express these kinds of feelings by their role models, and were rewarded in both tangible and subtle ways for these expressions of hatred and disapproval. Sometimes these feelings of hatred are expressed as violence and even murder. Both secular and religious leaders have contributed to this violence through the ages.
The genetic theory of homosexuality is attracting a good deal of support at the present time, largely because it is seen as relieving the homosexual individual of guilt. The reasoning (often unspoken) seems to be that either he was “born that way” (and therefore can’t help it) or he is a wicked, immoral person. Now for me, “immoral” has only one meaning – harming others. Whether two men (or two women) engage in sexual behavior simply is not a moral issue. We may find it difficult to understand or identify with, but that’s immaterial. I find sky-diving more-or-less incomprehensible, but that doesn’t make it wrong, and certainly doesn’t give me the right to direct my anger or violence towards people who engage in the sport. A man who engages in consensual sexual activity with another man has no more onus to defend his behavior than a person taking a walk on a summer evening, or playing ball with his children. Perhaps the most fundamental principle of behaviorism is that behavior is behavior is behavior.
So for the behaviorist, the idea of letting the homosexual “off the hook” by asserting the genetic theory is irrelevant. He (or she) is not on the hook to begin with.
The determinants of behavior are well-known and well-understood in general terms. How these determinants work out in individual cases, however, is almost impossible to establish. You can stand at the mouth of the Mississippi and know with 100% certainty that some of the water running past you comes from the Little Bighorn River. But it is impossible to identify the actual molecules of water that came from this source. Similarly, we can talk authoritatively about how parents influence their children’s behavior through reinforcement, punishment, modeling, etc., but we can’t pick out one specific behavior and reliably relate it back to a specific parental practice.
Although a good deal of research is being done on the genetic theory at the present time, the results are often difficult to interpret. It is widely reported, for instance, that having an older brother increases the probability of a man being gay, and that each additional older brother increases these odds. By way of explanation, it has been proposed that the male fetus provokes a maternal immune reaction (an antigen) that becomes stronger with each successive male fetus. Subsequent male fetuses are attacked by this antigen, resulting in less masculinization in utero. However, the phenomenon can be equally well explained in psychosocial terms. A mother who has had two, three, or even four boys desperately wants a daughter, and raises the youngest boy in a feminine sort of way (through the usual methods of reinforcement, encouragement, etc.). It’s not being suggested that she sets out deliberately to feminize her son, but rather that her deeply felt desires express themselves in ways that lead to this outcome. Some researchers maintain that you can’t become homosexual in this way. But I think this is more a doctrinaire issue than an established fact. I have worked with many homosexual individuals over the years, and a number of them have expressed the belief that these kinds of psychosocial influences did have a formative effect on their sexuality. In the late ‘60’s I was doing a research internship at a juvenile offender facility. One of the clients was openly homosexual. At one point I asked him if he had any idea why he was homosexual. “I was raised in a house full of women,” he replied. “They dressed me in silk gowns; they did my hair and my fingernails.” And he shrugged.
Genes determine structure. Structure, of course, in turn, has an influence on behavior, but it is by no means the only such influence. Genes, for instance, determine that we have legs, but it is our early experience that determines largely whether those legs will be used for ballet dancing or soccer or for kicking people in the head!
And so the debate continues. Here’s my position. Genes determine whether we have male or female cells and male or female anatomy. I also believe that genes determine whether we have sexual yearnings towards male or female partners. These yearnings are wired or programmed into the brain in the form of arousal at the sight of certain anatomical features. Cleavages, for instance, have an arousing effect on men; strong well-developed muscles have an arousing effect on women. The precise nature of this “wiring” is not known. Various researchers have identified small differences in brain structure between homosexual and heterosexual individuals. And, of course, there has been a great deal of interest in X928 – the “gay gene.”
But this is where the plot thickens. The wiring, although genetically determined, does not manifest itself until several years after birth. This is not unique in nature. Babies, for instance, are endowed genetically with the ability to walk upright, but this ability doesn’t emerge for about a year. So between birth and puberty there is a relatively long period in which basic drives can be modified by psychosocial influences.
What seems evident to me is that for a male individual to reach puberty with clear heterosexual yearnings he needs to:
– have male cells;
– develop testicles, a penis, and seminal ducts in utero;
– have a pituitary gland that secretes testicular androgens;
– have the appropriate neural “wiring,”
and to have been raised in an environment that fostered (or at the very least didn’t stifle) these yearnings.
It is likely that the “wiring” admits of degrees with regards to strength and direction. In other words, a person who is born male, cellularly and anatomically, may be “wired” strongly male or weakly male. Similarly for babies who are born female – they may be wired strongly female or weakly female. Admittedly all this is speculative, because I don’t know the nature of the “wiring,” but almost every human characteristic admits of degrees, so it seems a reasonable assumption. It is also reasonable to believe that the pituitary secretions can vary in strength from person to person.
The rest of the story I think is clear. People “wired” strongly will experience exclusively heterosexual yearnings at the onset of puberty; people “wired” weakly will also experience heterosexual yearnings unless their psychosocial environment has been such as to nudge them otherwise. Or perhaps we have to distinguish between wiring and programming? My knowledge of neurology is very limited, and I don’t have any precise or definite information in this area.
It will be argued by some that the wiring is rigid and cannot be modified by environmental factors. But consider this. The only drive in man stronger than the sexual drive is self-preservation. This drive prompts us to flee overwhelming danger. Soldiers, however, because of their training and other environmental influences, routinely behave in ways directly contrary to this drive. Similarly, people on hunger strike suppress their desire to eat. Neural wiring and/or programming, like almost everything else in the human body, is modified and sculpted by experience. We are what our histories have made us. This includes, but is not limited to, our genetic histories.
Some of the psychosocial factors that could conceivably nudge an individual towards a homosexual orientation are:
– having a parent who wanted very much to have a child of the opposite gender and who treats one as if he or she were of the opposite gender;
– having a same gender parent who was particularly ineffective or particularly obnoxious
– being severely ostracized during childhood and adolescence by same-gender peers
– (for girls) being sexually abused by one’s father (or other males)
– disappointment in heterosexual relationships pushing a person back to the safety of same sex friendships. (Culturally there is an expectation that we will form a heterosexual significant-other bond as adults. People who don’t do this successfully in a heterosexual way can of course stay single. Or, if their heterosexuality was marginal anyway, they can reach out towards a homosexual relationship.)
The central point here is that what we think of as the male role (or the female role) is actually an extensive collection of specific behaviors that are developed and maintained through modeling on others and by being reinforced. If the reinforcement doesn’t occur (for whatever reason), or if in fact punishment occurs, then the behaviors in question will tend towards extinction. But humans are very adaptable, and if opposite-gender role behaviors are reinforced instead, then they will be emitted, and may become habitual. That’s the kind of organism we are. We adapt. We go with the flow. During childhood we do the things that bring us good feelings and positive attention, and we learn to avoid the behaviors that bring us pain or disapproval.
The major need in this area is for clear thinking. The various doctrinaire stances are unhelpful. Sin is a contentless concept. As long as people are not harming one another, blame is an irrelevance.
Although the APA formally demedicalized homosexuality in 1974, there is still a widespread belief in the mental health community, and in society generally, that homosexual individuals are not quite ok – that they are “messed up” – that they have more emotional problems than heterosexual people. But I’m not aware of any research that supports this position (except for the side-effects of systematic persecution, which has fortunately abated considerably in recent years). Homosexual individuals are as varied in their presentation as heterosexuals. Some have their stuff together; others less so; others not as all. But first and foremost, they are people, with the absolute right to be respected and treated as such.
Now obviously this is contentious stuff. I’m not claiming that I’ve got everything right. As I stated in the text, some of my ideas are speculative, but I believe that the position sketched out above is consistent with the facts.