Attitudes towards homosexual behavior have had a checkered history in human cultures throughout the ages, ranging from such behavior being ignored or tolerated to being frowned upon, shamed, denounced, or repressed, sometimes with outright persecution, jailing, or killing of individuals who engaged in it. A lot of the early negative attitudes towards homosexuality came from religious beliefs which considered it a sin. With the advent of science, homosexuality came more to be viewed as aberrant or pathological behavior: a mental illness. However, as societal mores changed, homosexual people became more empowered, and more evidence was collected and more studies were performed, this view evolved. In the United States the psychiatric, psychological, and medical sciences have accepted that homosexuality is within the spectrum of normal human sexual identities and behaviors. Insofar as human behavior is concerned, homosexual people are no more prone to criminal, immoral, or unethical acts than heterosexual people. In the United States, the homosexual community has gained more legal rights with time, culminating in a Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage among homosexuals.
There has been a lot opposition to the changes outlined above from conservative religious groups who argue that homosexuality is not a normal condition of human beings, but rather a disorder or a choice. Some in these groups advocate treatments to “correct” or “cure” homosexuality such as the so called “conversion therapy” which is branded as ineffective and potentially harmful by scientists. Research into the nature of homosexuality indicates that there are genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, and environmental factors that interact in a very complex way to determine sexual orientation, but currently there are no identifiable strong influences that clearly produce a homosexual gender identity. Just like most heterosexuals, most homosexuals claim to experience little sense of choice regarding their sexual orientation.
Whereas some people consider homosexuality sinful, depraved, or disordered, and will back their belief with citations of passages from religious texts, these are, after all, religious beliefs, and no one has the right to impose their religious beliefs on others. However, one point that comes across in a lot of the literature against homosexuality is an argument that is not religious. This argument posits that homosexuality is “unnatural”- something going against natural law. This argument takes several forms. One form of this argument is that homosexuality is not found in nature. This is not quite true because homosexual behavior has been documented in a multitude of animal species in the wild and may serve purposes such as social bonding or conflict resolution. Although critics counter that exclusive homosexual behavior is rare, having only been documented in some birds, domestic sheep, and humans, this ignores that individuals who throughout history engaged in homosexual behavior would also mate with the opposite sex to have children. So the allegation that homosexuality is “unnatural” is more difficult to support from this vantage point.
Another form of this argument is that the genitals of the sexes are designed for each other, and any other arrangement is unnatural. However, one recurrent theme in biology is that structures originally fulfilling one function can be coopted for another. As I mentioned above, genitals, which are used for reproduction, can also be used in animals to promote social bonding or resolve conflicts. Examples of organs being coopted for other functions over geologic time scales are fins in fish used for swimming that were modified during evolution and are used today for gliding in flying fish, the wings in birds that evolved from an ancestral organ originally used for gliding and/or thermoregulation, and vestigial hind limbs in some snakes that are now used in mating.
Nevertheless, I think that the argument that homosexuality is unnatural misses a much broader point which is: what is natural when it comes to the human species?
The gold standard to identify something as “natural” is to ask whether that something is found in nature. So in this line of reasoning let me ask the following questions: Are values, rights, morals, ethics, laws, philosophy, and religion natural? What about science? Are math, chemistry, biology, and physics natural? What about the arts? Are literature, architecture, painting, music, sculpture, and film natural? What about technology? Are smart phones, computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, cars, airplanes, rockets, space stations, atomic bombs, and particle accelerators natural? What living thing, apart from humans, has been able to worship Gods, write constitutions, compose symphonies, sequence the genome, send space probes to other planets, measure gravitational waves, photograph a black hole, or even understand what these things are? Among the millions of different types of organisms on this planet, has any displayed anything remotely resembling the capacity to think, create, discover, and build that the human race has displayed? From this vantage point isn’t it obvious that there is nothing natural about the human species?
The critics would argue that all the things I mentioned above are possible because of our brain which is a natural organ. But if that is so - if it is our natural brain that makes us so unusual compared to other living things - why can’t we accept that that very same brain may make some human beings unusual in other ways such as, for example, being attracted to the same sex?
In my blog I have addressed previously the opinions of those who claim that human beings must strive to be in balance with nature. I have argued that this is not only impossible but also absurd because the very premises on which we base and define our existence (think for example “rights”) are at odds with the natural order according to which all living things but we live. My argument against considering homosexuality unnatural follows this same line of thought. When it comes to nature, the human species has broken the mold. We are charting our own course and defining what it means to be human free from notions of what we should be like according to nature.
If you still disagree with me, at least you have to admit that among the billions of others living things in this planet, only members of our species like you are capable of disagreeing with me or in fact of understanding what it is we are thinking or talking about. Now ask yourself: how “natural” is that?
The image of the homosexuality symbols by Martin Strachoň/Wikimedia Commons is used here under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the image, and the use of this image in this article does not imply an endorsement from the licensor.