By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Some societies, such as the ancient Hebrews, medieval Christians, and modern Muslims, declare homosexuality to be an abomination, especially between men, punishable by stoning, burning at the stake, or hanging. To this day, fornication between men is a capital offense in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and several other Muslim countries. Other societies, like the ancient Greeks and the Japanese, were more tolerant towards homosexuals, and love of man for man was considered more romantic and important than love of man for woman, encouraged as a valuable bond between men in battle. In most advanced countries, gay men, lesbians, bisexual persons and transvestites are free to carry on their lifestyles; but straight men sometimes attack gays with deadly force and society in general discriminates against all sexual deviants. We may feel what gays do for sex is disgusting; gays view straight sex similarly, because for them what we do is abnormal. Let gays be, let any people be; be kind and respect their personal freedoms, provided they do no harm to others.
In medieval Europe homosexual men were not treated kindly. In 1482 the Swiss Knight von Hohenberg and his squire were burned at the stake for the crime of sodomy. Executions for sodomy continued in the Netherlands until 1803 and in England until 1835.
In Renaissance Italy, Florence and Venice especially, man-man love flourished as in ancient Greece and Rome, despite priests and monks, or because of them. In 1532, Michelangelo, 57, painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and poet penned this ode to his dead lover, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, 23.
The flesh now earth, and here my bones,
Bereft of handsome eyes, and jaunty air,
Still loyal to him I joyed in bed,
Whom I embraced, in whom my spirit lives.
This was the classic ideal of gay love, of an older man for a young lover, which often gave way to carnal desire, as it does for straight people.
Michelangelo’s competitor in the arts was Leonardo da Vinci, 23 years older than Michelangelo. Leonardo was a universal talent also: engineer, scientist, architect, and a great painter. He was not known to have had any relationships with women, except a friend, Isabella d’Este. He had feelings both loving and passionate for his pupils Salei and Melzi. Some of his paintings such as John the Baptist and Bacchus suggest androgynous eroticism.
Today in America, homosexuals are a minority of about 4% of the population. They are different from the rest of us. Is that any reason to hound and hurt them? Women find gay men amusing, often befriending them. Straight men do not object to lesbians, without malice allowing one woman to love another, even finding that interesting. Why hate those who deviate from our own sex? We are all deviants in one way or another; we are all grotesques, as in Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Be tolerant; be kind to all who cause no injury.
Preaching kindness and charity, some religions are not kind or charitable to gays. What is the justification for this attitude which preachers offer us? God revealed the evil of homosexuality to their prophets. I reject any argument based on divine revelations alone. Some truths may occur to prophets and saints; but not all notions they perceive in their meditations can be trusted completely. The heavenly messages are too mixed, contradictory, noisy, and confusing from one religion to another. What about sacrificing children or unblemished maidens to the gods? We would do best to consider these messages merely as suggestions on how to conduct our lives, not as infallible laws to be obeyed. God or Nature has endowed us humans with reason, the ability to think logically, arriving to sound conclusions. Let us use reason to judge homosexuals.
Scientific studies have identified over 1,500 animal species with homosexual individuals. Why has evolution produced these deviants? The percentage of such deviant individuals in animal populations is too high to consider homosexuality as a simple defect occurring randomly. It may be that mating between individuals of the same sex acts as a curb to population growth when the density of the population in a territory is too high. We know that unchecked growth in a population can lead to catastrophic food shortages. It may be that homosexuality reduces excessive aggression between members of the same sex at the cost of less reproduction.
Even so, 50% of gay men and 75% of lesbians do have children. So the genes responsible for homosexuality continue; they may also come about from spontaneous mutations. In either case, these genes may serve some function. Consider the case of sickle-cell anemia. It is a disabling disease, but not as bad as the sleeping sickness transmitted by the tsetse fly. Sickle-cell anemia renders immunity to the sleeping sickness. Any variation arising in the gene pool by mutation, if not fatal to the organism, has the potential of being a survival trait under certain circumstances. All species need variability in their gene pools for their survival, and Homo sapiens has too little gene variability because it is a relatively new species.
The mutation that started human evolution probably prompted other primates to kill many carriers of human genes before humans prevailed.
The Nazis were concerned about breeding and thought of homosexuality as a degenerate behavior that had to be eliminated in the master race. One of the Nazi leaders, Ernst Röhm was a closet gay, but Hitler had him assassinated when Röhm challenged Hitler’s authority. Eventually, as many as one million gay men were arrested by the Nazis and many put in concentration camps together with other people targeted for extermination, such as Jews, gypsies, and communists. The Nazis believed the Aryan race needed to be purified from such elements. They executed many gays; physicians committed medical experiments on some; and Courts ordered the castration of many gay men, as if that would make effeminate men less so. Ironically, Adolph himself may have been one quarter Jewish from his mother’s side, and a crypto-gay, according to some rumors.
Well, we all have some Semitic genes as members of Homo sapiens, and we all have some hormones of the opposite sex; but homosexuals are different from the rest of us. In 1993, Dean Hamer reported on a genetic marker, Xq28, on the X chromosome of gay men. A later study in 1995 disputed Hamer’s conclusions, but statistical results show in 52% of identical twins, if one is gay, the other one is too. Other researchers place the cause of homosexuality on environmental factors, starting in the fetus. Less testosterone in the fetus causes changes in the brain and other organs. Several organs in the brain are different in gays. Even their underarm odors are different from those of straight men. Gay men respond differently to sexual pheromones. They are more fluent, tend to be left-handed, and are better at locating objects than straight men. Lesbians have not been studied as much, but also have differences.
Lesbians like ancient poet Sappho and Gertrude Stein and gay men have done much good work in the arts. Gays tend to work in certain occupations, such as dancing, hairdressing, and interior decorating. Famous actors Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift were gay. The great American playwright Tennessee Williams was an open gay and was beaten at least once for his sexual preference. He scripted the beautiful plays “The Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which showed his great sensitivity and understanding of the souls of women. Oscar Wilde, another accomplished playwright, was prosecuted and convicted for gross indecency in Victorian England. Wilde served two years at hard labor. He was the author of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” His career was destroyed and he died at 46. Wilde had met the greatest of the American poets Walt Whitman, declaring that he had a kiss from him and that Whitman was definitely gay.
Whitman was probably bisexual, AC/DC as some call bisexuals. Bisexual people enjoy both worlds: the straight and the gay. You might say they are privileged individuals, except that their behavior may get them into trouble with their spouses as well as their lovers. Asexual people have the least trouble, especially since they tend to reproduce the least, and thus avoid trouble with children. But, as Zorba the Greek said, “Life is trouble.”
I never had any trouble with homosexuals, although when I was younger and more attractive, I was approached by some in my native Greece and in America. They offered gifts or favors, depending on their wealth. When I declined, finding male love unappetizing, they left me alone. I believe people are born gay, and are not made so by the contacts they make, but a suitable seduction by an experienced gay can trigger a homosexual bent that has been latent. I can understand how a father may feel about his young son and heir being enticed by an older gay man. The father feels his hope of grandchildren from the son fading and can be very angry. His anger is probably useless if the son is indeed gay in nature and unnecessary if the son is born straight.
Among people born gay, Truman Capote was an open homosexual as well as a man of prodigious talent. He published at a young age the best-selling novelette “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” The main character Joel grows up lonely in a strange house, discovering his identity as a queer person, and finding liberation in accepting his destiny as a gay man. Later on in life, Capote achieved even greater fame with his novel “In Cold Blood,” based on a multiple murder in Kansas. Capote did not encounter the difficulties of Oscar Wilde, but hobnobbed with the rich and famous until his death in 1984, aged 59, due to liver damage from alcohol and drugs.
The great romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrestled with his homosexuality all his life and suffered from cyclothymia. He even tried marriage to attain respectability, with disastrous results. The composer of “Swanlake,” “The Nutcracker,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and the “Pathétique” symphony died in 1893 during a cholera epidemic, some say by suicide. He was 53.
Homosexuality is less well known among men of science and technology. Alan Turing was gay. He was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma codes during World War II in England. He devised the Turing machine and is credited for inventing the stored-program computer. He was working on codes for his country when he was exposed as gay. Turing was convicted of gross indecency and lost his secret clearance. He took his own life in 1954, aged 42, by biting into a cyanide-laced apple.
It is clear that being gay is hazardous to your health. Gay people have a higher incidence alcoholism, drug addition, and suicide, in addition to AIDS, than the general population. Not surprising, since they face discrimination in jobs, housing, and social organizations, including churches. Believing homosexuality is a choice, well meaning people try to change them and treat them for their disease. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association decided that evidence does not support the theory that a gay sexual orientation can be changed, that it is not a disease, and that it does not require treatment.
If we believe that a human is a composite of body, mind, and an immortal spirit, we can speculate about the condition of homosexuality as a spiritual phenomenon. In the 1985 Oscar-winning film with William Hurt, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a gay man says to the straight cellmate in a South American prison: “I am a woman in a man’s body.” He falls in love with his cellmate although he was placed in prison to spy on him, and finally seduces him, but does not betray him to the authorities, and he is killed by them. Who knows what channels placed a female spirit in a male body? What scientist understands the phenomenon of a child prodigy like Mozart? Western science has discovered much about the evolution of our bodies and minds, but not much about our spirits. Perhaps we should look to Eastern sages for answers to these questions, those who have studied the evolution of spirits, like the Buddha or Laotse. The Hindus believe in both a male and female divinity; and so do Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians, worshipping the Madonna as much as the Son. The Chinese describe the universe in terms of yin and yang, the female and male principles, pictured in a circle as dark and light tadpoles with a dot of yin in the yang and a dot of yang in the yin area. Perhaps our spirits too, as well as our hormones, contain some of the opposite sex. Why do I, a man surely, have nipples? Why does a woman have a small penis called a clitoris? Male nipples and the clitoris are clearly organs with the sole function of being sources of pleasure. So, gays seek pleasure too, in their own ways, to be happy and not get depressed in the face of life’s shocks, to live and to survive,
In any case, the time has come to accept gay men and lesbians as people deserving respect like the rest of us. The time has come to stop persecuting these souls, many of whom possess rare creative talents. The time has come to appreciate gays like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Turing, or Tchaikovsky for the persons they are, to allow them to live their lives to the fullest and to encourage them to contribute their precious gifts to human civilization.