| Homosexuality: unnatural? Immoral? Un-African?
Homophobia, like racism, does not seem to be going out of fashion. I have been back in this town (Grahamstown) – and country – for only a couple of weeks and already witnessed racism, and experienced homophobia. The kind of racism one witnesses now is, in a sense, more unpalatable than the explicit stuff of yesteryear. That is no doubt a callous thing to say, but I mean by it that the new, insidious forms of racism, if I may snatch a quote from Jimmy Kruger, “leaves me cold”. You see it in the way in which your Albany farmer-type interacts with staff at Debonairs; you see it in the way a fat white local klaps a street kid in front of Rat and Parrot just because he is begging; you see it, even, in the unreflective comments of black South Africans about “other” blacks. We have a long way to go, still, to eradicate these attitudes.
So perhaps it is not surprising that homophobia, which is a cousin of racism, still lingers. Last week I witnessed a Zimbabwean assault his brother because he is gay. When I tried to reason with him I got punched on the side of my head. How do I know that that was the reason for the assault? Because when the police arrived and asked him for a rationale, he asserted, “They are gay. I did not know my brother is gay.” That comment, uttered as a morally acceptable reason to physically attack another human being, even your own family member, also “leaves me cold”.
But instead of merely narrating these experiences, as I did in the article I wrote about that assault, I want to use this opportunity to offer some arguments, and clarifications, about the morality of homosexuality. We have to be optimistic about being able to address bigoted viewpoints. A colleague – and mentor - of mine, Marius Vermaak, rightly criticised my article when he said, “Do not treat homophobia as if it is a disease. It is not. It is a set of attitudes underpinned by flawed reasons and arguments which, if you have enough time, you could persuade someone out of.” I agree. So let me get on with laying out how one could go about remonstrating with persons who do not believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable. In fact, as an initial qualification, it is also important to notice that many people who have moral qualms about the acceptability of homosexuality are intelligent, brilliant, empathetic, wonderful human beings. Indeed, some of my friends have sincere convictions about my lifestyle that differ – obviously – from my own. It is therefore important to address their arguments, not always with militant activism, but also with impassioned argumentation. We can consider this a kind of “good cop, bad cop” strategy: the bad cop hits the homophobe over the head with a cricket bat or – less dramatically – marches down the city centre with placards; the good cop – call him Eusebius McKaiser - buys him a beer and tries to chat. Indeed, we should be careful even of using the word homophobe, since it has connotations that could inadvertently alienate someone who otherwise might be susceptible to critical discussion about their beliefs.
So, then, how does one respond to the claim that homosexuality is unnatural?
Is homosexuality unnatural and immoral?
I will argue that there is no morally relevant sense in which homosexuality is immoral. In other words, I will argue that even if homosexuality is "unnatural" (and it is not clear what that means), it does not follow that homosexuality is, thereby, immoral.
I should firstly say that this part of my talk is not entirely original. An excellent, and very clearly stated, analysis of this issue of the “naturalness” of homosexuality, is laid out (so to speak) by a fantastically smart social philosopher by the name of John Corvino in a paper entitled “Why shouldn’t Tommy and Jim have sex?” I have made refinements, and additions, to his analysis, in order to speak to the South African, and African, context of the debate.
When someone says that homosexuality is unnatural, that raises the obvious question of what exactly they mean by that claim. It is surprising how easily that claim slips off the tongue, with apparent meaning. But upon closer inspection, in fact, things quickly get tricky. Let’s list the possible meanings of unnatural.
It could mean that
(1) something is unnatural if it is unusual in the sense of being a statistical minority; or
(2) something is unnatural if other animals don’t do it;
(3) something is unnatural if it is distasteful;
(4) something is unnatural if it is not an innate desire;
(5) something is unnatural if it goes against an organ’s principal purpose.
There are two questions we must keep in mind, now, as we examine each of these definitions:
1. Is homosexuality unnatural in any of these senses?
2. If homosexuality is unnatural in any of these senses, is that enough to conclude that it is immoral?
Let’s start with the first definition of unnatural, that of “statistical minority”. It is factually correct – so far as I know, at any rate – to state that homosexual persons constitute a minority of people on the planet. So if unnatural means that something is unusual or statistically rare, then it is correct to conclude that homosexuality is unnatural. But … does it follow from this fact that homosexuality is immoral? No. Consider some analogies. Good-looking people like members of His People are a minority. Does that make them immoral characters because they are a statistical minority? Surely not. Geniuses are a minority. Does that make them immoral? You cannot jump from "something is rare" to "something is immoral". You need extra justification for the conclusion that something is immoral. I will consider these extra possible tactics later.
What about the second definition, that something is unnatural if other animals don’t do it? This definition is fascinating. I know very little about other animals. I am a mere philosopher. But two points can be made here. First, there have been studies done that show that there is homosexual activity among some animals, most famously bonobos (apes in northern-central Congo). So if unnatural simply means "other animals don’t do it", then homosexuality is natural. But … there is a much, much more important second point to be made. Even if other animals displayed no homosexual activity, so what? Questions of what is morally acceptable for us cannot be deferred to other animals. I see no reason why I should take my moral cue from what dogs do or do not do. So the entire line of argument – that other animals don’t do it – stems from a simple, unreflective view about how morality for humans should be constructed. All that would follow from the fact that other animals don’t do it is that they are losing out! The moral question would be left untouched.
Third: Is homosexuality unnatural in the sense of being "distasteful"? Now it may seem silly of me even to consider this possible definition. I hope you indeed do think it is silly. And yet, this definition of unnatural is more pervasive than we realise. Many people who do not think that homosexuality is morally acceptable are non-religious. These people might cite other definitions of unnatural that appear more palatable … but I would venture to say – pop-psychologically, to be fair – that in fact there is, in the first instance, a sense of deep distaste that homosexuality conjures up for some people. The homophobe who assaulted me reacted to a thought, and sight, that he found distasteful, in the first instance. So it is important to address this definition. Again, two observations can be made. First, not everyone finds homosexuality distasteful. I don’t. So on this definition, all we could say is something like, “Homosexuality is unnatural for some people.” If the definition of unnatural is so subjective, hopefully that is a clear indication that the definition is weak. But,secondly, even if a majority of people did find homosexuality distasteful, would it follow that it is immoral? Not at all. Finding something distasteful is not sufficient to make it immoral. I find banana on pizza distasteful, but I don’t think someone is immoral for eating it. My flatmates found my love of Lionel Richie and Bon Jovi distasteful, but they did not regard it as a moral error. Or sometimes they looked as if they were judging me morally! At any rate, matters of taste should not be confused for matters of morality.
Fourth, is homosexuality unnatural in the sense that we do not have innate homosexual desires? Here I must confess that I do not know. My suspicion is that homosexuality is innate. I base that solely on the fact that my desire for same-sex sexual relations, and same-sex love and emotional bonding, is so intense and lingering that biology – genetics – best accounts for that. If it was merely learned behaviour, then it is behaviour I could unlearn. Given the social challenges of being gay, many gay people have tried hard to unlearn their same-sex attraction and have failed. That must count as strong anecdotal evidence, at least, that biology is at play here, and not only social factors. But at the end of the day, I am agnostic on this issue. I am utterly comfortable with the possibility that same-sex attraction is purely sociological, perhaps even purely psychological! Here is why. It does not matter – morally speaking! I find it fascinating how both gay activists, and homophobes, obsess about whether or not homosexuality is a “choice” or “innate”. But … from a moral point of view, nothing turns on the answer to that question. Let’s imagine, for example, that a gay gene gets discovered tomorrow. Does it follow that I must act on my predisposition? Of course not. Just because you have a genetic predisposition to obesity, that does not mean you must go out and eat shit loads of KFC and down buckets of beer! A genetic predisposition, in itself, gives you no reason to do something. Similarly, if we never find a gay gene, this does not help out the other side of this battle either. Just because I do not have a genetic predisposition towards helping other people, does it follow that I have a reason to live only a selfish life? Of course not. The bigger point is that whether homosexuality is innate or not is neither here nor there. It is still morally permissible unless some other reasons can be given for why it is not acceptable. We have all become too excited about the implications of genetic studies for morality. Janet Radcliffe’s book Human nature after Darwin is a particularly crisp statement of why evolution has fewer normative, moral implications than we think.
Finally, let’s look at what is probably the best definition of unnatural – that something is unnatural if it is being used for something other than its principal purpose – biological purpose, that is. This definition is tricky because it is not clear how we should decide what the principal purpose of an organ is. But let’s run with the grip of evolutionary theory and define purpose as “evolutionary purpose”. The claim then becomes that homosexuality is unnatural because male and female genitalia should be used only for procreative purposes because that is the evolutionary purpose intended for these organs. Is that a convincing claim, and, more importantly, is it a convincing basis on which to argue that homosexuality is immoral? First, it is surely not true that evolution requires us to use our genitalia only for, literally, sexual intercourse. Part of producing offspring requires us to court with one another, which in turn requires us to be playful, tactical, scheming in the way in which we show off our own fitness and test a potential mate’s fitness. Using genitalia for sexual pleasure that does not on every occasion lead to procreation surely makes evolutionary sense. The obvious objection, of course, is that there is no opportunity or potential for procreation in same-sex sexual relations, so same-sex sexual pleasure won’t end in the creation of offspring. So, only non-procreative sexual activity among heterosexual couples can be understood in evolutionary terms. I think this objection is spot on. I don’t have a response to it. But … again, it does not matter! Does it follow from the fact that homosexuals are not using their genitalia for procreative purposes, that homosexuality is immoral? No. First, many straight couples cannot procreate. We don’t think it is immoral for them to have sex. If the reason is that that is because they were once capable of procreating, well, then the gay couple can make the same claim. In fact, they can make a stronger claim: they are still capable of procreating. Sometimes we talk as if gay people are incapable of producing children. Second, it seems basic to human experiences that we are sexual creatures. To deny such a fundamental part of human experience to gay persons for the rather abstract reason that we might offend evolutionary theory, seems like wrong-headed moral analysis to me. Third, we use many organs for non-natural purposes too: we wear glasses on our faces, pierce our tongues and ears and other body parts … indeed, we even turn body parts into sources of sexual satisfaction! Are we immoral for using bodily organs for such a variety of purposes? I cannot see why. Last, it is trite to point out that there is no reason to believe that the projected ten percent of the population that is gay will ever grow so big as to endanger the human population’s existence as a race. Not only is the idea of obligations towards non-existing future populations rather weird, but at any rate there are ways in which homosexuality could be allowed without threatening the species. For example, we could be asked very nicely to donate sperm.
So, I conclude that there is no sufficiently strong definition of unnatural that can support the argument, “Homosexuality is unnatural and therefore immoral.” The definitions are either silly or, in those cases where the definitions are decent, nothing about the morality of homosexuality follows. The homophobe must try something else, then.
Very briefly, let me comment on other tactics.
The question of religion and that of whether homosexuality is immoral
There are, of course, other ways in which someone might argue that homosexuality is immoral. They do not have to rely only on the premise that homosexuality is unnatural. They could also, for example, rely on the premise that homosexuality is not permitted by God – or some other religious authority. How can we respond to this argument? First, the possible responses to this claim are limited. If you subscribe to the tenets of a particular religious community, then your source of morality comes from the teachings of that community. The only question, then, is one of interpretation of what the texts actually have to say about homosexuality. Let’s take Christianity. Last year I participated in a debate about homosexuality with Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican church whose appointment is causing the almost-split in the Anglican community. I angered many of my friends when I argued that homosexuality can bar one from being a bishop. I still hold this position. It seems to me that churches should be allowed the space to regard my lifestyle choice as immoral. If they do not wish to appoint a gay person on that ground to a leadership position, so be it. After all, the church is essentially a massive private members’ club and you can opt out of it if you don’t like the ethical code. The alternative, surely, is to collapse the distinction between the public and the private sphere, and force everyone to be not just tolerant of differences, but wholly liberal in their moral outlook. That cannot be right in, ironically, a liberal democracy based on value-pluralism. What does this mean for gay rights, outside and inside the church?
Outside the church, matters are relatively simply. The state cannot sanction unfair discrimination against gay people – not, at any rate, in a country like ours with a bill of rights founded on the values of dignity, equality and freedom. This is why it is morally, politically and constitutionally right that gay couples can get married, adopt kids jointly, etc. Gay activism that is focused on these advances in the public sphere is justified.
Inside the church, things are different. Of course, as a gay man, I would rather churches were not discriminating against gay people. Since I am agnostic, little is at stake for me personally. For the sake of gay Christians, I wish Bishop Robinson’s appointment did not cause a stir. But it is important to me to have a deep commitment to liberal pluralism also. Churches – religious communities – must have that space to regard homosexuality as immoral. I am not a biblical scholar, so I cannot comment on what the correct interpretation of the bible is. If the bible does permit homosexuality, then obviously the church leadership got it wrong. That is a hermeneutical battle that is a matter of textual analysis within the church and not a matter for the state to decide.
Does this mean that we can conclude that homosexuality is immoral "because the bible says so”? No. First, this entire discussion I have offered has been generous. I am assuming, for the sake of argument, that it is sensible to be Christian and that Christian morality is defensible. But, of course, our society is a secular one. We are not a Christian state. I do not take the bible as my source of moral authority, nor are our (new) public institutions founded on Christian morality. Indeed, Christianity faces profound philosophical weaknesses which makes it unattractive to me: metaphysical magic in positing a God, epistemological worries about what role God plays in determining right and wrong, etc. It does not follow that homosexuality is immoral – for all of us – just because a particular religion states that that is the case.
My point is therefore limited: religious communities should be allowed to exist, and even be allowed to regard homosexuality as immoral, but this view of homosexuality cannot determine public policies in a liberal society. This is unfortunate for gay Christians, but my advice to them is to start their own church (such as the Metropolitan Community Churches) or, better still, they should see the light and convert to agnosticism.
Finally, is homosexuality un-African?
The claim that homosexuality is un-African is factually false. The Joint Working Group – an umbrella organisation representing various gay groups – made a superb submission to the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee when they were conducting hearings into the Civil Unions Bill. In the appendix to their submission they included extensive anthropological evidence of homosexual relations of various kinds that have been recorded in Africa predating European arrival. They point to the Lovela tribe in Africa in which it is acceptable for the Queen to “marry” other women. In other parts of Africa, too, there is evidence of homosexual tradition: bisexuality among the Wolof tribe in Senegal, the Handu tribe in Nigeria, etc. They give a very rich array of examples that I found quite fascinating and certainly was unaware of. The idea that homosexuality was imported along with Christianity seem dubious. Furthermore, of course, it is particularly odd to imagine that human sexuality could be so radically contingent to one’s region of origin that something as biologically basic as sexual attraction could be fundamentally culturally relative. I am sceptical. But, most importantly, even if homosexuality did first arrive on the African continent, so what? That fact would not, by itself, imply that homosexuality is immoral. Indeed, there are a lot of habits we have internalised by mimicking Europeans, so why pick on homosexuality? The anthropological origin of an activity is irrelevant in deciding its moral acceptability.
I want to conclude by returning to race, where I started. It is important that we become vigilant about insidious forms of homophobia, not just insidious forms of racism. The lingering subtle forms of homophobia don’t help. They are found in everyday social contexts (eg allowing your mates to stereotype gay persons), or in various forms of self-hatred (eg masculine gay men expressing hatred of effeminate gay men), as well as on institutional levels (eg the shocking fact that Rhodes University has no "policy" to deal with discrimination against gay persons, finding itself stumped when OUTrhodes sought a remedy against a student’s homophobic remarks). Even our revered constitutional court displayed insidious homophobia when it declared the Marriage Act unconstitutional – thereby seeming liberal – but then proceeding to tell gay couples to wait a year while Parliament decides whether it is okay with changing "man" and "woman" to "spouse" in the Marriage Act. If they had struck down a racist law, would they have given Parliament a year to find non-racist language to rewrite the statute? No, they would have read non-racist language into the statute, with immediate effect, which is a remedy that is allowed in terms of our constitutional jurisprudence. But even these liberal judges did not realise the insidious operation of homophobia on their otherwise superb reasoning. It rendered their judgement schizophrenic: a brilliant substantive judgement about the rights of gay persons, but a brilliant wrong – homophobic – “remedy” to correct the injustice. This does not mean we should become paranoid and pessimistic: there is beer to be drunk, sun to be enjoyed (when it is out), and (in my case anyway) hot black men to court (preferably ones without homophobic brothers).
But neither should we remain silent as we try to achieve genuine, substantive equality for gay people. We have not achieved that yet, but I remain optimistic.
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