Saturday, October 22, 2011

What Makes Us Gay?

In the summer of 1966 I was a midshipman in the Navy serving on the USS Long Beach, America’s first nuclear-powered surface ship! And no, I don’t think this early exposure to radiation is responsible for any of the personality quirks that some people claim to observe in my behavior.

U.S.S. Long Beach

Anyway I was reminded of this summer experience today because I’ve been reading about the evolutionary bases of homosexual behavior in humans. What I was reminded of in particular was a peculiar experience I had out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean one afternoon. I was looking at a couple of my fellow sailors who were engaged in working on some piece of equipment on the main deck when, inexplicably, I started to feel, welling up within me, a certain attraction for one of the guys. It wasn’t that I wanted to grab him and get right down to business, but it was definitely a feeling of tender affection that I had never felt for any guy before that moment. He seemed to sense something and looked up at me, so I quickly looked away.

We never got to be friends, and I don’t remember his name, though, for some reason, I do remember his home town. The rest of the summer cruise included my more or less avoiding looking at him lest he feel I was putting the moves on him. I did wonder at the time if he might have been gay and that something about his possible gayness had triggered an involuntary response in me. I wasn’t worried about being gay myself; I had a girlfriend and knew where my primary interests were. But I did wonder if I was somehow “part gay.”

Being gay in 1966 was no picnic, and, though I was happy to hang out with gay guys, I would have been afraid to have to face the difficulties that actually being gay would entail. So, though I was sure I wasn’t gay, I did wonder what having this odd attraction for this guy meant. He did remind me of a guy to whom I was very close, and it did take place on a ship with an all-male crew in the middle of the ocean, so maybe those factors were at work. To this day, I still don’t know what it means, and until this moment I’ve never spoken or written about this long-ago incident. To be honest, I’ve rarely even thought about it.

Dude, can you see yourself here?

Research on the evolution of male homosexuality is forced to grapple with the fact that Darwinian selection favors those types that reproduce at higher than average rates. This wouldn’t seem to include gay guys, so a big Darwinian question is, “Why do gay men occur in human populations at a steady rate of about 3%, give or take a point?” If gay guys reproduce at a lower rate than heterosexual guys, then, natural selection should, ultimately, result in all males being heterosexual. But that’s not happening.

In fact other species have been shown to include predictably constant rates of homosexual males, even though the actual labeling of individuals as hetero- or homosexual seems to be an entirely human enterprise. Sheep populations, for example, generally include rams that prefer rams over ewes at a steady rate of about 8%, though no rams have ever claimed to possess supersensitive gaydar.

There are a number of explanations for the viability of homosexuality, and one of them is that among humans, at least, gay males tend to be related to females who are more fertile than average. So, the DNA that partially explains male homosexuality may be the same genetic material that promotes high reproductive levels in females.

I wonder if there might also be social factors underlying the genetics of gay males. Could male homosexual behavior itself have proven useful to human groups in some contexts? If so, could it have been useful for most males to be, in some sense, “part homosexual?”

Scientists have come to the conclusion that, among men, genetic and other biological processes explain the bulk of sexual preferences. Neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality is based on choice. The latest memo has apparently not reached Sarah Palin, but maybe she’s too busy doing other important stuff to keep up with this topic.

At any rate, I believe this would be an interesting question to pose to all of our presidential candidates: “Do you believe that men choose their sexual orientation?” It might be depressing to hear what they say, but it would be a favor to historians and to our long-term sense of justice if we could get their beliefs on record. After all, it won’t be long before intolerance toward homosexuality has the same cringe-inducing effect that other forms of bigotry already command.