So often, particularly in the debate about same sex marriage, it’s said that homosexuality is either wrong or okay. I’m wondering if that is the right question.

I know this topic is not so much a can of worms as a can of tangled fishing lines made of electrified razor-wire. So before looking at what I think is the right question, or at least the primary one, there are preliminary issues to put on the table.

Part I: preliminary issues

Three propositions
I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what you believe. I don’t care what your sexual orientation is. What I do care about is that all people should be treated with respect and tolerance because we are all human beings.

Second, no issue that affects the well-being or happiness of people, even if only one, is a small matter. No one has the right to sacrifice the minority for the benefit of the majority; however, we are capable of self-sacrifice and self-denial for the sake of others.

Third, in our cultural arrogance and occasional forgetfulness, we too easily fall into the trap of believing that certain beliefs or truths we hold are self-evident. We forget that what is self-evident to us, might not be so to other people in other places, of other cultures or in other times. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century it was self-evident that indigenous people weren’t as highly evolved as white people: now it is self-evident (to most of us) that that belief is wrong.

Have we yet reached the fullness of knowledge and enlightenment? Hardly. So how can know that what we now consider self-evidently right will not one day be considered self-evidently wrong? We can’t, of course; so how dare we treat others with disrespect and discourtesy because they are different to us, or believe differently to us?

Respect and tolerance don’t mean that we:

can’t say that we believe a particular belief wrong, or dangerous, or even abhorrent;
hide our emotions;
agree that the other person’s beliefs are right or valid;
allow people to do whatever they want;
protect people from the consequences of their actions; or
treat people like dirt and expect them to treat us like gold.

Respect and tolerance mean that we allow people to hold their own opinions and beliefs without reprisal or unfair treatment.

Four questions
Whenever I discuss topics that are close to people’s hearts, I state one rule before beginning: if you don’t think you can discuss this topic without being able to shake hands and part ways amicably – even if we still passionately disagree – then I won’t enter into the argument. Respect is essential: no personal attacks. We discuss the topic in order to get closer to the truth.

If someone asks me, What’s your stance on Topic X, I like to ask several questions:

1. Why do you want to know?

2. What’s your second question?

3. How will my answer affect how you treat me?

4. What evidence would change your mind?

Question 1 gives me a better idea of their motive. Are they just curious? Taking a survey? If so, for whom and for what purpose? Do they just want to write me down as an ally or write me off as an enemy?

Question 2 also helps me to understand their motive. If they don’t have a second question, this might indicate they’re unwilling to deal objectively with the topic.

Their answer to this second question might determine whether and how I answer their question. Usually I won’t give them the simplistic “yes” or “no” answer they would probably want.

FYI, if your first question is “What do you believe?”, your best second question is “Why do you believe that?”

Question 3 is to get them to look at their motives. When people talk about tolerance and acceptance, what do they mean? For many people, tolerance means that everyone should have the same opinion – meaning other people should conform to their ideas: heaven forfend that they need to change their opinions! – or that you can have a different opinion as long as it’s only superficially different. This is a denial, or at the least a redefinition, of tolerance. By definition, tolerance requires diversity and unity. There must be diversity for something to be tolerated, and the purpose of tolerance is to achieve unity, not uniformity. When uniformity or conformity exists, tolerance cannot.

Question 4 is to see how rational and open-minded the person is. In the debate like the one on same-sex marriage, “bigot” is usually the first one to come out of people’s mouths when they find you disagree with them. What is a bigot? A person who is bigotted steadfastly refuses to change their opinion, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. More than this, the person who is bigotted treats the a particular group of people unfairly.

We should genuinely consider evidence for and against both sides of the matter and be willing to change our opinions. This is to be objective, even though we might be biassed towards believing (or wanting) one side to be the right one. Usually the people called bigotted are those who are against same sex marriage – and the person casting the insult doesn’t bother to find out why their opponents believe what they do; so the insult is premature, to say the least. But consider this from the other side: are people who support same-sex marriage willing to change their minds?

Putting the shoe on the other foot makes walking uncomfortable but it’s what we must do to be objective.

Part II: the important question

Having said that, I think the first question to ask about homosexuality is the same question we should ask about every aspect of human nature: Is it wrong to be who we are? Is it wrong to live in accordance with our natural desires? Can our desires and natural attitudes be defended by the argument, “That’s the way I am”? (This begs the question of nature versus nurture; but let that be for the moment.)

In brief, I think the answer this fundamental question is: it might be, depending on what the desire is. The corollary question to ask is: What makes a desire or attitude wrong; or to set aside the implicit moral aspect reflected in words like “bad” and “wrong”, what makes an attitude deleterious for individuals and for society?

If I had a choice of what personal issues I’d have to deal with in this life, I believe I would rather be homosexual (or bi; objectophile at most) than be arrogant, selfish, greedy, heartless, sarcastic, contemptuous or a host of other bad attitudes that have a lower profile in popular consciousness but damage relationships more. You might argue that any sexuality other than hetero (and, to be fair, bi) is damaging because it prevents the generation of more people to carry on the human race and so makes the gene pool shallower [1]. However, that’s in a one-on-one relationship (within the paradigm of the nuclear family); whereas being untrustworthy, for example, can damage every relationship you have [2]. I think it was Aristotle who said: Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. Parents with bad attitudes will influence their children and damage society, both now and in the future.

You might argue that the comparison between sexuality and attitude isn’t valid. I would respond that I am looking at the social and personal difficulties we experience in life because of our sexuality and our personality and attitudes. All these, I believe, are partly innate (genetic) and partly formed by our experience [3]. Human nature has an innate sexual aspect to it – we have, by nature, a desire for romantic and sexual interaction, just like we have for social relationships – but whether the focus of our desire is caused by our genes or the environment, I don’t know. Most probably it’s formed by our experience: the interaction of our genes with our environment. To what degree does each plays a role? Again, I don’t know.

Even if our sexual orientation is formed by our environment and experiences rather than purely by genetics, it’s probably formed early, before we realise it [4]. The same is true of any of our attitudes, until we become aware that we can choose how we think and act. Even then, it’s difficult to go against what we think of as our nature: our usual way of thinking and responding. (That’s because we don’t learn we can change our thoughts until they’ve been ingrained in us for years, even decades.) Our attitudes feel natural to us. Then why do we think poorly of people who have bad attitudes? It’s because we know, and we believe everyone knows, that certain attitudes hurt other people.

We believe that people with bad attitudes need to change: that those attitudes aren’t acceptable. But if those attitudes are genetic, should we insist on this? Can we overcome our genetic recipe? I don’t know, but it seems to me that people who argue “genetics” to excuse or defend a particular behaviour or attitude don’t believe it is possible. Or maybe they do, but that the person hasn’t had the opportunity to get on in the world, so we really can’t blame them because their circumstances reinforced their genetic bias. On the other hand, Richard Dawkins says that we should try to teach generosity and altruism because we’ll get no help from our genes. From this statement I infer that he believes it is possible to overcome our genetic programming.

Consider a man who is unfaithful and excuses his behaviour by saying, “That’s just who I am”, or “Males aren’t meant to be monogamous.” Would we say, “Oh, that’s alright then”? Of course not. We believe that the commitment involved (at least implied) in a relationship means that both partners should strive to overcome desires, no matter how natural they are, for the sake of their relationship.

Consider the desire for revenge. This desire is born from our natural sense of justice [5]. If we let that natural desire for justice overflow into seeking revenge, it can damage us psychologically and emotionally. Psychologists, doctors, and even poets could attest – and some have done so – to the destructive effects of holding a grudge.

What if our experiences or attitudes are born from the interaction of our genes, personality and environment? Is it fair to expect people to change, or at least to try to? I think so. Consider clinical depression, the common cold of mental illness. People get depression for different reasons but there is often a genetic or personality factor. Does this mean we should give up trying to overcome depression? No. Will we get tired of the fight? Of course. Should we stop the fight? No.

But what if victory seems impossible, and change unattainable, even after decades of struggling? What about the 10 per cent of people for whom depression is untreatable; for whom, it seems, depression is part of their genetic blueprint? Do we settle for an armistice or set up a demilitarised zone where we agree to coexist though each side still occasionally tries to dominate the other? It isn’t a desirable solution, but it is a practical one if we don’t want to live a double life, commit suicide or capitulate.

As it relates to same sex marriage, the argument that “it’s natural”; “it’s who I am” (implying “so it’s okay”) has parallels to other topics. The argument that “if two people love each other, their gender doesn’t matter”, or “it’s just a different way of loving” is sentimentality: an argument from emotion [6]. If we follow the argument through, where might we end up? If love can overcome gender, what else can it overcome?

Can love overcome number? Polyamory is a kind of polygamy in which every partner is married to every other. So if there are, for example, two men and two women, each person is married to the other three. If we are going to support same sex marriage, shouldn’t we also support polygamous ones? Plus, polygamy also exists in other cultures, although not polyamory, as far as I know.

Can love overcome family relationships? This would be a good time to direct you to two external pieces. First, a BBC news article – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17690997 – about a brother and sister in Germany who met after they had grown up, and, although knowing they were related, lived together in a de facto relationship and had four children. A court imprisoned the man and refused that the relationship had any legal legitimacy. The second article – http://www.believermag.com/issues/200508/?read=interview_haidt – is a fascinating interview with psychologist Jonathon Haidt about moral values and decision-making.

Our objection to incest is based upon genetics: two people who are genetically very similar are more likely to carry similar faults in their genetic material, which could mean any of their children could have or develop a congenital disease. So, for the sake of the children, incest is outlawed [7]. But, to play devil’s advocate, what if one or both people were sterilised, or children were conceived using donor sperm or eggs, or using DNA analysis akin to that in Gattaca? Or what about adoption? Would it be okay then? If not, why not?

Can love overcome animation? Objectophilia is when a person’s object of love is, literally, an inanimate object. This isn’t a joke. Look it up for yourselves. The objectophile has the same kind of feelings and desire for the object that a heterosexual person has for a person of the opposite sex, or the homosexual person for a person of the same sex. The only difference is that the objectophile loves a what rather than a who.

This is the case for any form of sexuality: the feelings of desire and attachment are the same; what is different is who, or what, is loved. That is, if there were parallel universes and my sexuality was different in each – hetero in one, homo in the next, bi in the next, objectophile in another and so on – my feelings would be the same; the only difference would be the gender of the person I desired (or in the universe where I was an objectophile, that I desired a thing, not a person).

There are also other kinds of sexual and romantic desire that are different ways of loving: think of those that are far from socially acceptable; that can – and should – get you imprisoned and given medical and psychological treatment. Who would support these desires as okay on the basis that they’re genetic?

I’ll here note the danger of the “slippery slope” argument: that one action will unfailingly lead to the next. It might, and perhaps the only issue is how long it takes. In this case, the validity of the “slippery slope” argument depends on how much social attitudes are like human neuropsychology; specifically like addiction and desensitisation, where you need to increase the dosage to achieve the same effect. In this case, as the song runs: “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/ was thought of as something shocking/ now heaven knows, anything goes.”

So permitting same-sex marriage does not necessarily mean the following cases will follow. However, there are people in polyamorous relationships who want those relationships officially recognised: although they realise it probably won’t happen in their lifetime. About twenty-five years ago I saw a documentary about a person with objectophilia who had herself married – I kid you not – to the Eiffel Tower. This was after falling in and out of love with a bridge and then with her archery bow. Certainly there are benefits to objectophilia: no domestic screaming matches at 2am; no problems with in-laws; civilised and courteous divorces with no hard feelings. From this perspective, the only social objection to objectophilia is that it might tend to reduce the depth of the human gene pool.

I think both points are made: that (1) irrespective of our sexuality, the feelings we have would be the same no matter who or what we loved; and (2) If love can overcome gender, should we not agree that love can overcome other factors? So for the sake of consistency, shouldn’t we also support these forms of love? If not, why?

That’s why I think that we have some desires, however natural they are, however strong they feel, that we should try to overcome; for the good of others and even, maybe, for ourselves. I include myself from this: to list a few of my less desirable qualities, I am sarcastic, lustful, apathetic and greedy. Being intelligent, I’ll always have a tendency to look down on people who don’t “get” what to me is obvious. Being male in a rich, consumerist, vision-based society, lust will always be a problem. Whether these attitudes are genetic or brought about by experience, I don’t care. What I do care about is that they are not good for my relationships with other people, so I work to overcome these attitudes, as far as I can. Self-denial is never pleasant unless you’re a masochist, but living with other people means we will sometimes have to give up our rights, or wants, for the benefit of society. Rights always have concomitant responsibilities.

This is the time when people offer another argument, one that is logically stronger: It’s my right to do what I want, as long as I’m not hurting anyone. When it comes to particular paraphilias, people would fairly argue that it can’t be okay if it hurts other people. But what kind of hurt? And how is it measured? Certainly the protection of others, and particularly of children, should be our primary concern.

So what, then? If natural desires are not necessarily good to act on, what then? Can we teach or condition people to be or think or desire differently? Should we even try? If not, should we try to prevent people from acting on those desires?

If the answer to these questions is yes, by what authority? What about the freedom to be who we are? The foundation of democracy is that the will of the majority must prevail but that the interests of the minority must be safeguarded. But if we answer no, we shouldn’t try to change people – maybe against their will – what about protection of others who their behaviour might hurt?

We can only act on the knowledge we have now, not on what may be in the future. But is it fair to support same sex marriage but not other forms of relationship like those mentioned earlier? If not, why? But whatever the answer, we should treat all people with respect and tolerance, no matter who they are, what they believe, or who or what they desire.

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Endnotes

[1] My training is not in biology or genetics so I might be way off base with this note. Nevertheless, I’ll ask the questions: if homosexuality were only genetic, wouldn’t it have been eliminated from the human gene pool before now? How long can a recessive gene remain in a population? Although, because of its past social stigma, many homosexual or bisexual people have had to live double lives – marrying and having children – and so, in theory, passing the gene on. However, even if the allele were recessive, it should have pretty much disappeared by now. Of course, this depends when in our history the allele appeared. What part might epigenetics play in maintaining or reviving a recessive or dormant (if there is such a thing) gene?

[2] Tangentially, there is the argument that there can be abusive heterosexual relationships. This is a logical error: some heterosexual relationships are characterised by abuse but this doesn’t mean that homosexual or paraphilic relationships are therefore okay, or that there won’t be abuse in those relationships. The attitude and behaviour of the abusive person is the problem, not their sexual orientation.

[3] Could our “innate” personality, assuming there is such a thing, be affected by our mother’s diet, environment, and hormonal levels? Could these environment factors determine our genetic makeup? Or our genes determine how our environment affects us; or both?

[4] I’ve heard it said that neurological studies show a difference between the brains of people who are heterosexual and those who are homosexual; therefore, it is inferred, our sexual orientation is genetic; therefore, it is further inferred, if it is genetic, it is okay. The first inference overlooks neuroplasticity, that our brains change as we live. Our brains affect how we behave and think and how we think and behave affects our brains. Our original genetic blueprint may not determine our sexual orientation but change with our development and rather reflect what our sexuality is, or becomes. It could also be, and I think probably is, that it’s both.

[5] This begs the question whether the desire for justice is natural. I think a strong case can be made that it is.

[6] Moreover, how is love defined? Feelings of desire and attachment? I think there is more to love than feelings: General Lew Wallace wrote, “Mother-love, infinitely tender to its object, can also be infinitely tyrannical to itself.”

[7] One of the questions raised about the first few chapters of the Bible is: If Adam and Eve were the first humans, who did Cain and Seth marry? The answer, whether you agree it actually happened or not, can only be that they married their sisters. They were, literally, the second generation, living in an almost perfect world, where genetic defects were unknown.

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