I’m recalling one of those random conversations in a lobby after a show. In this case, I was talking with a Christian friend of my mother’s after a performance of my one-man show (about the American painter John Singer Sargent). I was talking about one theory put forth by a writer that Sargent was actually a “closeted Victorian homosexual”. My mother’s friend blurted out “These homosexuals are everywhere these days”. To which I quickly replied “No. There’s the same number that there’s always been”. She looked at me with blank incomprehension.
What I understood her to be saying was that there seemed to her to be a proliferation of homosexuality, as if there were now simply more homosexuals as a percentage of the population. My point was that the occurrence of homosexuality in the population had not changed as a percentage throughout our history, but was likely a fairly reliable constant. Of course my point had two hurdles to overcome in this conversation: 1) The woman I was talking to probably held to an anti-evolution viewpoint (seeing it is an “anti-god” view of the origins of life), and so would not be open to a scientific view of human sexuality, and; 2) She was in the thrall of the perception that there were more homosexuals when what was much more likely the case was that she was aware of more homosexuals due to their increasing visibility in our culture.
It's not just homosexuals coming out of the closet these days!
(In that same vein, another current cultural trend is an increase in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “atheists” or “non-believers”. This fact, too, encourages some of us even as it really bothers others. But I wonder if these trends reflect any real tectonic shift in humanity or a more pedestrian lessening of the social pressures that mitigate public behavior).
There are two issues (at least) in play here. One involves a recognition of the natural variability within a species, and the other the purposes and effects of social “norms”.
To the first point, it is clear that homosexuality is a naturally-occuring phenomenon (we see it in other animal species beside our own). Recent genetic discoveries have only served to confirm the biological basis of this idea. (Therefore I have no reason to think that a propensity toward “non-belief” is any less a naturally-occuring variant of our species). And this is where the second point comes in.
We are highly social animals, and in order to live together we have long been at work constantly refining the ways in which we coexist in ever larger and more complex communities. We have developed what we call “social mores”, which are a sort of collective consensus on what is allowed and not allowed in society. But these rules are ever evolving along a spectrum between what one might call “oppression” and “liberty”.
When it comes to sex, I am reminded of Reay Tannahill’s fantastic book “Sex in History” (which is a delightful overview of just how different societies have dealt with issues of sex and sexual morality). It turns out that there is less a steady historical progression from ignorance and fear to tolerance and freedom as there have been pockets of different kinds of understandings of sexual behavior (you can find some very old civilizations with much more “advanced” views of sex than those of us modern Americans or Europeans).
But the main point I take away from this is that the human animal is going to be pretty much what it is when it comes to sex. What changes is what freedom individuals have to express that variety within society. And this is where the fearful conservatives get it right: when society loosens it’s control over individual sexual expression, variant behavior does appear to proliferate. But are we really seeing anything other than an expression of what is naturally occurring, but has only been suppressed or hidden? I don’t think so.
To get to the fine grain of the deal, I expect there is some difficult-to-quantify influence of a more sexually open society on individual behavior (as in some individuals might “try” things they would not otherwise engage in). But I doubt very much that even the most homosexual- (or atheist) friendly society is going to actually produce any more homosexuals (or atheists) than a repressive one. What it will do is make the no-longer-repressed variants more visible.
And I think this is a good thing when it comes to homosexuality (and atheism, for that matter).
Because I believe that we only have this one, short life. And though I understand and support the need for societal rules, the purpose of those rules is to allow the maximum number of humans to live as well as they possibly can. The place we draw lines in the sand is when an individuals behavior threatens the life or liberty of another. This is where ethics and civil law begin.
But religious belief gives many of us the idea that one woman marrying another woman and setting up house, raising some kids and living a normal, open life is a threat to our own chance at happiness. Sort of a zero-sum societal game. This is a pernicious trait in us humans that only adds to suffering, based on a notion that this particular variant of human sexuality (or — to belabor the point — non-belief) is inherently dangerous to society, despite the evidence we now have to the contrary.
But, then, the reality of our situation may well be this: just as with the number of potential homosexuals or atheists in the population at a given time, there will (also) always be a certain percentage biologically predisposed to be hyper religious, or moralizing, or fearful of those who don’t see the world just as they do.
The question then becomes (as it has always been, in my mind): how do we all manage to live together in harmony? This seems to be our most pressing and pragmatic goal (well, along with how do we do that while not making our planet unlivable in the near term).
To put it another way: for reasons that evolution makes clear, life varies to such a wide degree that our definitions of “normal” can only be statistical approximations of the mid-point on any bell-curve shaped spectrum of difference. But since the extremes on any such spectrum occur with “normal” frequency, can they really be viewed as “unnatural”.
Morality and social mores have their place. But we need to recognize that they are also variable measurements, subject to change (for good or ill). There are extremes of animal variability that are potentially dangerous to us (psychopathy comes to mind), but we are fortunate to live in an age of science where the identification of such dangers now rests in more pragmatic, evidence-based hands, and not in the fevered mind of the witch hunter or religious zealot.
Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you”. I think he could have included a whole lot more of humanity in that thought.