It's high time that we step back from the euphoria of 40 years of “gay is beautiful” to take a hard look at what the effect of gaylib has been on society and what direction it should take to both consolidate the remarkable gains made and to ensure that this new minority voice can play a constructive role in society.
There is an implicit understanding in the gaylib movement that sexual relations between men or between women are just as legitimate an expression of one's sexuality as that between men and women. This has culminated in the present human rights legislation in most developed countries up to and even including gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay ministers. In some countries, schools are even encouraged to provide gay-positive sex education.
Understandably, this has led to a reaction by traditionalists who assert the primacy of heterosexuality and decry the concurrent collapse of traditional morality, pointing the finger at gays as a prime cause for the social malaise which now grips us.
So who is right? Is homosexuality just another equally valid lifestyle choice for people, like wearing Nikes or eating organic food? Does God look favorably on two men or two women tying the knot in holy matrimony? Should schools promote gay families as if they were just as good as the traditional family?
Homosexuality in nature and history
Evidence of homosexual activity in nature abounds, but it is marginal, merely a substitute for the “real thing” or perhaps practice. The lack of the advanced brain in animals, with its massive cerebral cortex and highly specialized left-right hemispheres, means that all sex is reproduction-related and there is no psychological problem arising from the more refined brain activities of thought and consciousness as in humans. Also humans are sexually active at all times, putting sex at the center of all human activity.
In lower animals, as a rule, males fight for territory and females, but this fighting is highly ritualized and the males almost never kill each other before one yields. The less dominant males and young males are tolerated by the alpha male as ersatz females, this explaining the homosexual role in lower animals (submission to the dominant male or expulsion from the group) as a necessary compromise for group survival.
In humans, especially with the rise of patriarchy, it is necessary for men to vie for females and territory. Because humans are always “in heat,” this territorial and herd rivalry is ongoing, unending. This is the impulse behind the incessant history of war and the tendency to murder/kill other humans, both of which are lacking as permanent features in lower animals, even those governed by male dominance.
Because of the greater brain capacity and the increased complexity of consciousness, it leads to a myriad of ways to incorporate sex in a stable fashion within the social order. This human constellation of “instincts” is harnessed by establishing traditions in relations within and between tribes. These traditions also must incorporate homosexuality, generally as a highly ritualized though marginal phenomenon, though sometimes homosexual rituals as part of initiation involve(d) all men and teenage boys in the tribe.  Sometimes homosexuality has just been ignored or suppressed. This was the case with the advent of large states by the second millennium BC. Greek society allowed it in a ritualized form between well-placed patrons and teenage boys as part of initiation to adulthood and Roman society allowed it as part of a very licentious culture, but for the next 2,000 years homosexuality was more or less written out of history.
As far as historical records tell us, until recently at no time and in no society was homosexuality treated the SAME as heterosexuality. Sometimes a boy who had feminine characteristics was given the role of shaman, sometimes he was adopted into the tribe functioning as a woman (berdache). Mostly homosexuality was treated as a passing phase of boyhood, and even the few who “got stuck” in that phase still usually married the opposite sex, had children, and either suffered in silence or found some relief on the side. Whatever the case, they fitted into a role pre-determined by tradition, and did not upset the social order. Even where homosexuality was frowned upon, they were generally tolerated as long as they were discrete, especially in the upper classes.
The Greeks, Christianity and homosexuality
The Greek renaissance culminating in Plato was the golden age for homosexuality (or rather “love of boys”), though sexuality wasn't conceived of in homo/hetero terms, but rather as masculine (active) and feminine (passive), with men as lovers and women and boys as beloveds. The ideal man is a moderate, self-possessed man vs. one who is a slave of desires/pleasures. Whether or not he preferred boys or women was quite secondary. Sexual activity was not highly codified. It was OK to covet your neighbor's wife as long as you left her alone (there were slaves and prostitutes for that). It was OK to court a teenage boy, initiate him into the adult world as his patron.
Not for Christianity, which insisted that even that was a sin and you must renounce these pleasures. Sex was strictly for procreation and had nothing to do with your spiritual make-up. This was probably the nadir for all sexuality and is our legacy coming into this era of free-for-all, i.e., libertinism. No longer did “the real man” “become himself” Nietzsche-like through exercising his body, mind and soul, gaining self-mastery and attaining wisdom. The good man must submit to God's will, follow a highly codified life of what to do and not do. Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a lot in common in attitudes towards homosexuality and marriage, not surprisingly given their common origins.
The breakdown of Christianity and transformation of Judaism into a secular racial movement weakened the codified rules of behavior, and the commodification of sexuality weakened the sanctity of the heterosexual bond, making homo vs. hetero more a lifestyle choice than something determined by cultural tradition.
Islam and homosexuality
As was the case with Christianity until the rise of gaylib, neither open homosexuality or a promiscuous heterosexual lifestyle was tolerated. With the rise of western secularism both options have now became acceptable in the West. However, Islamic society still does not tolerate either. Openly declaring that you are gay is as unacceptable as openly declaring that you engage in pre-marital heterosexual sex.
As long as Islam remains strong, this will be unlikely to change. Many homosexuals have achieved high positions in Muslim society. Some religious and political Islamic leaders have been homosexual. Many Islamic poets and writers were homosexual and homosexuality was condoned behind the veil of privacy in many Islamic Harems. What has never been acceptable is to openly declare your homosexuality in the cause of being “liberated”.
As many western homosexuals have discovered to their delight (for example, Paul Bowles and Jean Genet), because of enforced separation of male and female and the strong prohibition of premarital sex for women, homosexual sex is widely practiced in the Muslim world, discretely and mostly by young, unmarried men.
The rise of “gaylib” in the West dates to the 19th century and the rise of the “science” of psychology, when theories about a third sex or a psychological spectrum in the individual from pure feminine to pure masculine began to be discussed. For the first time the term “homosexual” was coined and entered the medical literature as a disease. The condemnation of Europe's greatest playwright, Oscar Wilde, became the cornerstone of the gaylib edifice now busily being built today in advance countries. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, the campaign for gay rights got into high gear, demanding equal treatment for homosexual and heterosexual acts before the law.
The new freedoms and privileged upper middle class niche of most gays now give them disproportionate clout, and their famous narcissism and media-savvy energy have been used to push a gay agenda into broader society. This is driven by hundreds of gay lobby groups which pursue a radical gay agenda politically (electing openly gay politicians and lobbying for legal reform), socially (lobbying in media, education and health) and even economically (boycotting gay-unfriendly goods).
Fitting back into society
But it is time to reflect on the breathtaking success of the past 40 years. This social experiment reminds me of drug companies which push drugs whose long-term side effects are unknown and potentially dangerous. Is it really “no big deal” to demand traditional marriage rites for gays? Is a gay union really the same as a straight union? Is this really a perverse longing to “be just like the Joneses” when in fact we are very different from these Joneses? And in any case, is it worth provoking traditionalists (not an insignificant part of the population) and stirring up unnecessary hatred or just angst?
It is definitely perceived as a slap in the face of thousands of years of tradition. Though there are touching stories of monks joining together in holy matrimony somewhere in the Middle Ages, traditional depictions of homosexual passion are the warrior lovers or Zeus abducting Hermes. Whatever. The important point to realize is that these manifestations of homosexuality confirm it as a specific and marginal social phenomena. Hermes is not up there with Hera. And Castor and Pollux had a tragic fate.
Yes, we as humans have the ability to shape our own social norms by changing laws, but it is time to assess what a responsible role in society for self-identified homosexuals could be. Gaylib's implicit assumption is that being gay or straight is like driving a blue or a yellow Chevrolet. But this is to trivialize one of nature's mysteries.
It is time to state clearly that gay is neither good nor bad. It just IS. And more to the point, it is and will remain MARGINAL to society, possibly a useful evolutionary device for humanity, possibly harmful (just like anything). Yes, basic human rights belong to all. But now that gays have them, they should stop seeking self-respect from OTHERS through aping hetero traditions, and let sexuality become a personal, private matter again. There definitely is no justification for forcing overwhelmingly straight society to contemplate OUR navels publicly.
Most people are bisexual and should BOTH be encouraged to choose a straight lifestyle and to tolerate homosexuals. Gays can expect tolerance, acceptance -- nothing less. But nothing more. Like any other minority, gays should accept their minority status and try to fit into the “cultural mosaic” in a constructive way. If history is any guide, this will be discreet and in a role supportive to the dominant heterosexual norm. The movement to recognize homosexuality as a legitimate form of sexual expression can even play a CONSTRUCTIVE role in society if it emphasizes the non-confrontational element inherent in homosexuality and accepts a modest place in social relations, critical of the warmongering, possessive side of heterosexuality which has characterized all of human history to date.
Western society today is a veritable golden age for gays. Not only have laws been changed to prevent discrimination, but the movement to make homosexuality more or less acceptable as just another lifestyle choice has been largely successful, at least in large cities, where most gays live (or move to as soon as they realize/decide that they are gay).
Formerly, homosexuals were “in the closet,” politely ignored for the most part by society, “confirmed bachelors” or “old maids.” In trying to imagine a way to reintegrate this part of human life into society, what better place to look than the previous golden age, classical Greece. Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality provides a good starting place.
The Greeks had nothing against male-male relations, their golden rule was self-control, control of your household (family life), control of eros (relations with youths). This makes for a free citizen. The real sin was indulging desires, excess, be it food, sex whatever. The citizen must not be a SLAVE (i.e., unfree) to his desires, which drag him down to earth, away from his spiritual life.
This is a male ethics -- women figured only as objects or at most as partners that one has trained and watches over but are otherwise off-limits, so to bring the Greeks up to date, we must extend the ethics to both men and women.
Sexual activity was not highly codified and was not considered the be-all and end-all of love relationships. In marriage, it was more a duty, aimed at producing legitimate and healthy offspring who would take a worthy place in society. True love was more likely between a man and his beloved, a youth who the man would court and introduce into the adult world, preferably in a Platonic relationship, eventually leading to philia or friendship. Sexual attraction is ephemeral but can lead to a lifelong friendship if the latter is cultivated, erasing the age and status differences between lover and beloved.
This results in a reversal of the lover-beloved chase: beloveds flock to (ugly) Socrates to receive his wisdom, since Socrates is moved by the force of true love (not lechery, which is of no interest to beloveds). This structures the love relation as a relation to truth (not satisfaction of base desire).
So for the Greeks, homo and hetero not opposites. Rather the opposites are a moderate, self-possessed man vs. one who is a slave of desires/ pleasures.
Principles for all lovers, then, in the Greek world, are self-mastery and restraint, and a striving to love beauty. And the higher the form of beauty (i.e., wisdom, truth), the better. The elements of a sexual ethics that will ultimately renounce the physical love require: 1) symmetry and reciprocity in love relationship, 2) a long arduous struggle with oneself, 3) gradual purification of the love addressed to the beloved in its truth, 4) self analysis as the subject of desire.
Ideas about marriage fit the standard understanding more readily: a husband's obligations to his wife include to provide for the family, to train and take responsibility for his wife, and to refrain from adultery (i.e., with a married woman who is under another respectable man's authority). The wife must manage the household. Make-up is a deception and not encouraged. A faithful husband is one who steadfastly maintains the privileges the wife is entitled to by marriage (not 'sexual fidelity').
This does not provide a set prescription for today's ethics, but the principles of self-mastery, moderation, and responsibility, and the special place reserved for higher, nonsensual love contrast sharply with what is generally understood as the gay (or for that matter str8) lifestyle. Today there is an understanding that m/m, f/f and m/f sexual relations are somehow the same, and ideally can be squeezed into a monogamous type of marriage with or without children. This would more no sense at all to Plato, for whom the male was active and strong-willed, and the female was passive and weak-willed, and the marriage contract was centered on raising children.
Considering for a moment the situation in the Muslim world. While there is no excuse for active persecution of homosexuals, is the scenario of discrete relations in a strictly male culture really so bad? Muslim states such as Turkey and Kazakhstan have removed homosexual activity from the criminal code, and a quiet but persistent campaign to change the harsh punishment (which is rarely carried out) in others should be continued as part of human rights lobbying. But insisting that homosexual activity be kept out of sight and not be publicly encouraged is a social option which the West has no right to condemn. I would argue that BOTH persecution and advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle is detrimental to the fabric of society. The middle way is best; keep your sexual preferences to yourself; whether you are homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual.
To structure social relations using the Greek model would entail drastically reducing the actual amount of sexual activity in society, encouraging men and women to honor both the active, self-control male aspect and the passive, submissive female virtue within oneself, be one physically male or female. To love is to support and develop the beloved towards the ideal of beauty, and the highest form of love is friendship. I see no place here for 'gay marriage', but definitely see a role for men to play the role of 'big brother' to younger males (and women as 'big sisters'). But this assumes restraint, even celibacy, which our present culture of hedonism discourages.
Simon Jones is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Uzbekistan. He writes for Peace Magazine (Toronto) and has published pieces in Counterpunch and YellowTimes.org. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1) The '(d)' is because this continues today in even the most advanced countries. It is well known that Skull & Bones initiations include male homosexual activity for all initiates.
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