What basic fact about homosexuality do you, your parents, your local evangelical priest, and your science teacher most likely agree about? Try this one: Homosexuals don't reproduce. This verity is beyond obvious: Try as they may, two men or two women together cannot have babies. It is the self-evidence of that statement that I would like to deconstruct here.
The argument dates from antiquity and has constituted one of the cornerstones of Western sexual morals that sees homosexuality as "against nature." The idea appeared in Classical Greece, most clearly in late Platonic writings; Greco-Roman moralists largely endorsed it; it triumphed with the rise to power of Christianity. Modern philosophers were equally puzzled by this revolting anomaly in human behavior. And until today the scientific community has operated with the same basic certainty in the background: Homosexuality is intrinsically sterile. Because homosexuals don't "spread their genes" and should have therefore been eliminated during the evolutionary process, they constitute an evolutionary anomaly. More recently however, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have revealed a far more complex reality.
Anthropological data are astonishingly consistent: For the most part, homosexual relationships have been perfectly compatible with the reproductive duty. This was true across the board in antiquity, from Greece to Japan and from Australia to Central America, in the Islamic world, and probably any civilization prior to European colonization. Transgender homosexuals, who were attributed or granted the right to adopt the opposite or a third gender, were the only exceptions to this rule. The Native Indian two-spirit, the Indian hijra, and the Hawaiian māhūs were all exempted from the reproductive duty... yet their male partners weren't. As for lesbians, they were almost universally coerced into marrying. As a result, lesbian relationships remained mostly invisible throughout history. In Christian Europe, sodomites were forced to hide from the public eye. Unless they opted for priesthood, they too married and procreated. Remember that Oscar Wilde had two sons.
In the end, the concept of the "barren homosexual" only applies to recent generations. After WWII and particularly since the sexual revolution in the 1970s, a new -- modern -- type of homosexual relationships, which no longer demanded a difference in status between partners (whether age, gender, or class), became the new relational standard. One of gay identity's novelties is to champion an exclusive interest in same-sex partners. Yet, only three decades later, gays are now fighting for their right to marry and the recognition of their families. Gay couples have employed various strategies to have children on their own, such as artificial insemination and the hiring of a surrogate mother. Left to them, many homosexuals today would create parental relationships outside of their romantic and/or marital bond to a same-sex partner. By and large anthropological and historical data, including the most recent ones, confirm that homosexuals procreate. But our inquiry is not over yet.
Most languages use the same word -- sex -- to design two largely unrelated activities: On the one hand, the process of procreating by virtue of combining the genetic pools of two individuals (whether human, plant, or bacteria), and on the other hand, a collection of behaviors aimed at providing pleasure and occasionally an orgasm. Sex for pleasure, unlike reproductive sex, is only observed among complex mammals. And unquestionably human beings have mastered it.
Both processes -- reproductive sex and sex for pleasure - -use the sexual organs, however sex for pleasure involves many other body parts in addition to the genitals, as you hopefully already know. The idea that homosexual sex precludes reproduction goes hand-in-hand with the idea that heterosexual sex is "always" about the possibility of procreation. Both statements are equally unfounded. Indeed in humans, heterosexual sex for pleasure, distinct from reproductive sex, is only marginally procreative. Do the math in your head and try to estimate how much of it actually leads to conception. Subtract all sexual acts that do not involve vaginal penetration plus ejaculation (I'll let you make your own list). Then subtract all occurrences when the woman is not fertile ...
A few occurrences of reproductive sex in one individual's life suffice to ensure proper reproduction. As it happens, the human species is designed such that sex for pleasure and reproductive sex are disconnected: The human female is sexually receptive all the time (not only during estrus) and sends no visual or odorant signal to help males know that she's fertile (a characteristic that humans share with bonobos). Efficient procreation ensues automatically from abundant sex-for-pleasure, as a "byproduct" if you will. By the way, don't you think that the female orgasm -- another biological mystery -- makes much more sense now also?
Yet, everything that I've mentioned above is dwarfed by another evolutionary conundrum in the human species: menopause. Forget about the tiny fraction of homosexuals that exhibit zero interest in procreating; most women passed the age of 50 -- about 20 to 25 percent of the female population -- cannot reproduce. And they still have sex (for pleasure).
I am certainly not the first one to notice those inconsistencies. Why has our culture been so outraged by homosexual behavior? Why has it been viewed as a threat to reproduction while the opposite is actually true? Why has menopause never been viewed as "unnatural"? From a pro-homosexual perspective, the response to this issue has commonly been that people are either ignorant or ill-intentioned. But again, this is not what we observe. The list of brilliant thinkers -- whether philosopher, theologian, or scientist, who have criticized and more often than not condemned homosexual behavior throughout history -- demonstrates how much homophobia is not a matter of ignorance or malevolence (even though ignorance and malevolence can and have patently amplified it).
We are then left with a new, possibly greater, mystery to solve: Why do human beings see some things as true -- no matter what --a nd remain totally blind to others? What are the conditions to our knowing and believing? It is, I believe, only by addressing those questions first that we will be able to understand the history of homosexuality and the reasons of its integration or rejection in human societies, a problem that has baffled scholars for decades now. In other words, I argue that there is a design to the fact that we cannot make sense of homosexuality. This is, I believe, what we urgently need to explore collectively, and what I have begun to address in my new book, The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love.