Sunday, February 18, 2018

On sexual orientation


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Homosexual behaviour in the wild amongst higher vertebrate animals has been recorded in the literature for over 1,000 different species. Amongst birds a full range of homosexual behaviours has been recorded amongst as diverse groups of birds as gulls, ducks, swans, penguins and albatrosses. Note that these groups all display social grouping behaviour.

The behaviours range from simple courtship through pair bonding and even parenting, as has recently been reported in a pair of female albatrosses that actually incubated and raised offspring in the absence of a male, the eggs having been abandoned by the previous heterosexual pair.

Homosexual behaviour in mammals is also well documented in as diverse groups as lions, elephants, dolphins, sheep, giraffes, monkeys and apes, such as the bonomo and the chimp. Indeed the bonomo, a sort of pygmy chimpanzee and a separate species, demonstrates heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual behaviours even within a single social group, with individuals alternating their behaviours as circumstances change.

Again, as suggested above the phenomena of heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality occur in both birds and mammals and clearly must be a natural phenomenon, from which it must be concluded that it must also be natural in man. To argue contrary to this conclusion is to argue that the human species is somehow separate genetically from its anthropoid relatives.

Given the different cultural, religious and legal attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality and to the variability of homosexual or bisexual relationships between individual pairs in human history, it is highly improbable that in the foreseeable future there will be universal acceptance of any but the conventional heterosexual relationship, especially given that the latter is the more common.

On the other hand it is highly likely that science will be able to determine the relative frequency of the phenomenon, and, in time, the genetic basis for such behaviour might be unravelled, as it has for other expressions of the human gene pool. Some studies suggest frequencies ranging from two per cent to ten per cent of studied groups in liberal western societies.

What may obtain in Islamic countries remains questionable, as simple self-preservation will certainly eliminate any possibility of admissions on the part of individuals of their sexual orientation even to detached scientific query. But given studies in more liberal countries and human genetics it is probably more than likely that there will be a similar percentage in all socially repressive systems.

Homosexuality and its emotional and physical manifestations have been known throughout human history; it is often condemned but also often accepted. The same may be said for bisexuality. But the strongest disapproval clearly comes from the monotheistic religions and the extreme sanctions prescribed in their "holy" books, sanctions that became entrenched in codes of law at times when religions held considerable political power.

In the evolution of the western democracies and the progressive codification of basic human rights the trend in the past century or so has been to decriminalise homosexual acts and to accept such persons as having the same civil rights as all other citizens. Today in many western democracies civil unions or even marriage between members of the same sex is widely accepted, although somewhat grudgingly by conservatives and fundamentalist Christians, and in some of the American states homosexual parentage either by adoption or by insemination is also accepted. Today also, open homosexuality is accepted as a norm in many countries. The upside of the change in attitude is a widely held perception that homosexual persons are often highly creative and productive in diverse fields.

We in Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed in the Anglophone Caribbean, continue to display a less-than-civilised attitude to the reality of the phenomenon of sexual orientation in humans. Sodomy continues to be on the statute books as a criminal offence. Given the obvious power of all religions in this small, fractured country with its accumulated baggage of 19th century English law and Victorian thinking it seems highly unlikely that change will come easily.

When, for example, we were debating the Equal Opportunities Bill in the Senate about a decade ago I seriously proposed amending the Bill to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It met with snickering and laughing from the government side, the sort of reaction one expects of a first form schoolboy hearing his first risqué joke.

Today in our law it is permissible to discriminate against a citizen on the basis of his or her sexual orientation, although not on their ethnicity, race or religion. But back to the issue of human homosexuality. Is it a voluntarily adopted lifestyle, or is it a biological phenomenon?

To answer the question, simply ask another question. Does the science and practice of psychiatry accept homosexuality as a medical condition or disease? While that profession recognises a range of medical conditions that may be diagnosed objectively and scientifically as diseases the American Psychiatric Association was persuaded by scientific studies that homosexuality could not be so defined and removed it from their diagnostic manual.

Schizophrenia is a disease. Homosexuality is not.

• Concludes next week

• Julian Kenny is a biologist

and natural history author. He is a former UWI Professor of Zoology and Independent senator