“The implication that marriage in some way belongs to the religions ignores history. Marriage as an institution long precedes Christianity and other present-day monotheistic religions.”
BY STAN R. BLECHER
Editor's note: This is an abbreviated version of an article by Prof. Stan R. Blecher, a retired physician and U of G professor emeritus of molecular biology and genetics and human biology. His research expertise is in the genetics of sexual development. The full text of his paper, including source references, is available on the web at www.uoguelph.ca/atguelph/06-02-22/marriage/.
SEX: As Ethel Merman sang in the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, sexual attraction is “doin' what comes naturally.” It is not something we learn, nor is it something we choose. In the language of evolutionary theory, it is genetically instinctive.
SAME-SEX: Irving Berlin's song referred, of course, to heterosexual attraction. But homosexual and bisexual people also do “what comes naturally.” There are those who claim that homosexuality is a matter of temptation, about which we all have a choice. The good resist and sinners succumb. But heterosexual people experience no sexual attraction to members of their own sex and are exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. For a truly heterosexual person, the notion of “temptation” is bizarre. If same-sex contact were a greater temptation than opposite-sex for the majority, the species would have died out long ago, and eons before any organized religion would have existed to save humanity. Those who belong to the minority segment of the population that experiences same-sex attraction do so because of changes (mutations) in the genes controlling sexuality. They cannot be taught to be heterosexual.
In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides gives a fictionalized account of a genetic condition from which science has learned a lot about sexual orientation. In this condition, affected children are genetically male, but at birth their external sex organs look female. Before the advent of medical genetic care, these children were raised as girls. But extensive studies on numerous such children showed that at prepubertal age, these children identified themselves as boys and demonstrated heterosexual orientation. This and other research confirms that sexual orientation is genetic; it cannot be “learned” or “taught.”
It has been argued that genes for homosexuality would die out because they would cause sterility. But a gene that causes sterility can very well be passed on through generations if it is recessive — i.e., if it affects fertility only when not masked by a partner dominant gene.
MARRIAGE: In the debate on secular same-sex marriage, opponents have often asserted that control of marriage should be left to the Church. For example, in an article in the Toronto Star, Father Alphonse de Valk, citing the book of Genesis, stated that “marriage was ordained by God” (“God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply'”).
The implication that marriage in some way belongs to the religions ignores history. Marriage as an institution long precedes Christianity and other present-day monotheistic religions. Long-term pair bonding for mutual sexual fulfilment, companionship, support and nurturing of children — if and when these appeared — arose at the dawn of human evolution. Societal marital rituals developed as society evolved. In the 19th century, the San people (“Bushmen”) of the South African Kalahari Desert, still living a Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence when white explorers first visited Africa, practised a form of marriage without any assistance from any monotheistic religion.
Father De Valk also wrote: “The family is what distinguishes man from animal in social culture.” This, too, is incorrect. A precursor of the “human form” of pair bonding with “family”-type nurturing of offspring is seen in the gibbon. Certainly, neither gibbons nor primitive prehumans would understand the link between sex and reproduction. Pair bonding served the purpose of nurturing children secondarily. Early formalization of marriage laws, such as the Sumerian code on marital responsibility of ~ 2000 BC, far precedes the origin of the Christian church.
“GOD'S WORD”: It is claimed by some that what is written in the Bible (and other Scriptures) are the “words” of God, though few envisage that God wrote these words with his own hand. In fact, the Bible originated as oral tradition, passed on by word of mouth through untold generations. It was subsequently committed to writing as “books” by numerous authors, initially using primitive, unstandardized alphabetical symbols. It has been further translated and edited many times. The scope for changes, errors, misunderstandings and reinterpretations is clear. To quote from another song from the rich repertoire of American musicals, this time from the Gershwin brothers' Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so; The things you are li'ble to read in the Bible, It ain't necessarily so.”
It is not surprising that there are contradictions between different “books” within the Bible, and different editions, and between biblical content and modern scientific fact — knowledge is greater today than it was then. We now know that the universe was not created in six days; planetary theory was unknown when the Bible was composed. Similarly, homosexuality is not evil; nothing was known of biology either at that time.
As to interpretation, the Bible can be and has historically been read to encourage not only homophobia but also subjugation of women, slavery, anti-Semitism and apartheid, to mention just a few. God's destruction of Sodom was reinterpreted in Christian theology as a punishment for homosexuality and used to legitimize unspeakable cruelty against “sodomites.” But the Bible does not mention homosexuality as a reason for the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:24-25).
Saint Thomas Aquinas condemned homosexuality on the basis of “natural law” — “what nature has taught all animals.” First, Aquinas said, animals do not practise homosexuality, hence it is unnatural. Second, sex may be performed only for its “final cause,” i.e., reproduction. Arguing in this spirit, Father de Valk also said in his article: “Homosexual activity rages against God's will” and “homosexual acts are grave moral aberrations.”
But we now know that homosexuality is widespread in hundreds of animal species, specifically including primates and therewith, most certainly, primitive humans, so if natural law is relevant to humans, homosexuality is natural and is better explained by genetics than by sin. Also, the final cause of sexual attraction is arguably not reproduction but pair bonding and sexual release; marriage develops from this. If one is seeking unnatural sexual acts to condemn, one might rather turn one's attention to celibacy and pedophilia.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has commented that the Bush administration, claiming to be defending Christian values, won a second term in the White House “by mining homophobia and preaching family values.”
Some insights on homophobia and family values are offered in a fascinating book called The Man Jesus Loved by Theodore W. Jennings Jr., a clergyman and professor of theology. Citing from the Gospel in the original Greek, Jennings argues that Jesus was sympathetic to homoerotic relationships and that he, in fact, had such a relationship himself.
With respect to “family values,” Jesus was not only unsupportive of the institution of family, but he also indicated that it was incompatible with entry into the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g., Luke 18:29, 12:53 and 14:26). Also, the concept that marriage and sexuality are ordained for procreation only is directly contradicted by Paul, who, though opposed to marriage, condones it for sexual release for those who “cannot restrain their desires” (I Corinthians 7:9).
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pointed out that several of the major organized religions and some religious and ethnic minorities are all aligned in vigorous opposition to same-sex marriage. What is curious about this coalition is that some of these institutions have traditionally regarded others of them as heretics. Furthermore, the established religions' traditions include, in some cases, subjugation of women, genital mutilation of infants, “honour” killing of girls and women, and forced polygamy imposed on young girls. Their credibility in the arenas of sexual and marital ethics is weak.
What is the origin of homophobia? Homosexuals are, after all, no real threat to anyone or anything. At one level, of course, there is the early religious dogma on the subject, and minorities are always isolated, but what would have initially motivated the vicious persecution?
One possibility lies in the ancient tradition of male dominance — the “macho” phenomenon, which decrees that it is a sign of weakness for a male to appear effeminate. Gay sex is less “masculine” than straight. In ancient Greece and Rome, where male sex with a younger man was condoned, the passive partner was nevertheless often an object of scorn. Historically, punishments of men have often taken the form of emasculation, either figurative as in the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal or literal, to create a figure of ridicule.
Those who state that homosexuals succumb to the temptations “we” all experience presumably experience such “temptations” themselves. Such people, pressured by society or religion to believe that their same-sex urges are “unnatural” and “evil,” might deflect suspicion of their own trait by expressing distaste for it in others. In popular belief, homophobic people are often themselves closeted homosexuals. Recent psychological research supports this contention.
Adolf Hitler vociferously denounced the evils of homosexuality and sent thousands of homosexuals to torture and death. As a child, he attended classes at a Benedictine monastery, and his childhood ambition was to be a priest. A recent well-researched study has unearthed some long-concealed evidence on Hitler's closet homosexuality. Other prominent homophobic homosexuals or bisexuals probably include Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrisostom, both famous for their fiery persecution of homosexuals.
Hitler was just one — and certainly the most evil — of many famous homosexuals in history. The list includes Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Frederick the Great, several popes and many members of the royal families of Europe. Some were good, others were not, much as in any group of people.
Over the centuries, the religions have brought solace and taught peace and good deeds to humanity; their record on sexuality and, in particular, same-sex relations has been less stellar. The opportunity to change direction and get on the right course is here.
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