[The author gratefully acknowledges helpful criticisms and suggestions from Jean Pedersen, Joan Slonczewski, L. William Countryman, Carl Horn, Carol Linni, Paul A. Martin, Robert E. Bennett, and Richard Schneider, Jr.]
The question posed in my title is essentially the same one used by Andrew Sullivan as the title of the epilogue to his path-breaking 1995 book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality--the one difference being that Sullivan's version omits the word "good." Whether this omission is conscious and intentional, one ought not to surmise. But while the body of Virtually Normal fully merits all the praise the book has won for its author, it does seem to me that Sullivan loses a bit of his argumentative nerve in this epilogue. The answers to his rhetorical inquiry are offered with a tinge of tentativeness: Homosexuals "can transfer their absent parental instincts into broader parental roles" as teachers, doctors, clergy, and the like; and "homosexual relationships...may contain features that could nourish the broader society as well" (emphasis added in the foregoing quotations). One can't help but be grateful to Sullivan for putting these ideas forward at all. But one might also be forgiven for coming away with the impression that he is really defending the relatively cautious proposition that homosexuals might be "for" something, rather than the bolder assertion that they assuredly are.
More recently it's been suggested that the elusive but much-discussed "gay gene" might be in essence a "stubbornness gene"--bravely marching forward through evolutionary eons in spite of its too-manifest uselessness, and perhaps underlying the fabled perseverance of gay and lesbian people in the face of opposition and oppression. This interpretation may well appeal to those of us who are naturally of a poetic bent, and have already managed to achieve either a sure sense of purpose about our curious different-ness, or at least a measure of bemused equanimity in the face of its mystery. But I doubt that the "stubbornness hypothesis" will speak persuasively to the profound self-questioning most gay folk are subject to in the course of coming out; nor to the existential curiosity of the philosophic types among us who can't help wondering whether we are indeed "for" something, and if so, what.
We can easily grant that the biosocial utility of homosexuality is indeed a conundrum when considered simply in terms of the propagation and perpetuation of the species homo sapiens. But if one takes only a moment to attend properly to the enormous variety and complexity of our existence as a species, it becomes obvious that the strategies of homo sapiens to care for and perpetuate itself go far beyond the procreation and nurture of offspring. Individual humans can regularly be observed to set aside their own interests in order to care for each other--be they Marines leaping on live grenades in order to shield their comrades, or Boy Scouts helping older ladies cross the street. Nor is care-giving by members of the species confined to the realm of physical preservation and well-being; witness the volunteer who reads books onto audio tapes for blind listeners, and the friend or sibling who holds the new widow as she weeps. Further yet, homo sapiens is orders of magnitude beyond any other species in its capacity to conceive of, and contribute to, a collective welfare that transcends the welfare of individuals--being, for example, the only species that operates national parks and universities, organizes archeological digs and political demonstrations, and publishes books and periodicals.
Against such a background, to frame speculations about the biosocial utility of a phenomenon like homosexuality solely or primarily in terms of reproduction is not merely to risk, but virtually to ensure, missing the point. We need rather to consider the possibility that such a mechanism--manifestly non-productive when assessed solely from the narrow standpoint of procreation--might in fact be a positive biosocial good for the species when considered in a more encompassing context.
Since a previous draft of this essay was criticized for failing to "prove" the thesis I've just enunciated, it may be well to state explicitly that I don't see this proposition as being susceptible to "proof," at least in any sense of the term that would hold scientific or logical water. My mode of argument here is more on the order of "Come speculate with me; doesn't this seem to make sense when you stop to think about it?"
I begin from what seem to me the quite well-established postulates that homosexuality is, always has been, and always will be a minority orientation among homo sapiens, but one that has proven remarkably durable and consistent across times and cultures. These facts themselves seem to many (myself included) to constitute prima facie evidence for a genetic component in the phenomenon. But my purpose here is not to argue either side of this heavily argued proposition. Whatever their bearing on the question of origin, such ubiquity and durability strongly suggest that homosexuality does indeed have some objective, identifiable biosocial utility. Further consideration, I think, confirms this notion, for a number of specific reasons.
Since many of the rationales I put forward here depend in one way or another on the non-reproductive nature of homosexuality, it may be well to note for the record that I intend no implicit negative value judgment on the growing number of homosexually oriented persons who do become parents in one way or another. Precisely the opposite, as should become plain. The rationales depend only on the fact that homosexual couplings do not naturally produce offspring in the same fashion as heterosexual ones do.
The first rationale, in fact, has explicitly to do with the care of the young. As long as we stipulate that no positive value load necessarily attaches to the term "natural," I see no difficulty in affirming that the predominant natural mechanism of providing for the upbringing of human children is that of a pair of biological parents, one male and one female adult. But it is also, unfortunately, just as natural that some human children will find themselves orphaned or otherwise parent-less. Others have noted the extreme helplessness of human infants in comparison to those of other species, and the consequently enhanced importance of the parental roles among homo sapiens. But any parent who's ever hauled a van-load of kids to a soccer game or written a college tuition check can testify that the rearing of human offspring goes far beyond food, clothing and shelter. As the much-quoted African proverb has it, "It takes a village to raise a child."
Granted, one extra aunt or uncle does not a village make. But given the complexity of human life in general and of human child-rearing in particular, it makes stronger biosocial sense for homo sapiens than for any other species to evolve a mechanism to provide for a certain small but fairly stable proportion of naturally childless adults who can take up slack on the parenting front--ranging anywhere from babysitting for parents spending an evening at the movies, to outright adoption of orphaned children. And homosexuality is precisely such a mechanism--notwithstanding that society in general has thus far done a pretty splendid job of turning this particular silk purse into a sow's ear.
Moreover, it sometimes happens that certain "parental" functions--perhaps most notably the dispensing of advice!--are open to parental surrogates under circumstances that tend to rule biological parents out of the arena. My elder godson paid me one of the most profound compliments of my life by writing to ask my opinion on whether he should propose to his long-time girl friend as their college graduation approached. Typically, I declined to give him a simple yes-or-no answer; but I did respond with a lengthy letter giving my views on some matters I deemed worthy of being taken into account. I doubt that much of the credit belongs with me, but in fact Dave and his bride are now closing in on their fourth anniversary, wallowing, to all appearances, in both professional and connubial bliss.
Of course the purpose of "back-up parenting" could theoretically be just as well served by asexuality as by homosexuality. In order to avoid producing offspring, it clearly is not necessary that one engage in sexual intercourse with a member or members of one's own sex; one may just as well not have sexual intercourse at all. But are there positive reasons for a certain proportion of the population to be specifically homosexually oriented, rather than simply asexual?
Again I submit that the answer is "yes." To begin with, the very fact of sexuality itself suggests that it is the natural state of most human adults to be coupled rather than single. And there is no denying that, other things being equal, certain benefits accrue to coupled adults that are not available to their single counterparts--ranging from the household economies of scale expressed in the proverb "Two can live as cheaply as one" to the profounder benefits of mutual care-giving in illness and old age. Especially given that humans who are not "naturally" parents may nonetheless, as just noted, be called on to fill parental roles, it also makes evolutionary sense that these benefits should be available to the non-procreative minority as well as the procreative majority of the species.
The older of the two creation stories in the book of Genesis relates that after God has created Adam, God says "it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." "So," the story continues, "the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name....but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him."
This is really, when one stops to think about it, a scenario little short of hilarious: Imagine Adam saying, "Well, let's call this a giraffe, and this an armadillo; but I really don't think..." It's at this juncture that God seizes on the solution of creating Eve (yes, not Steve) from Adam's rib; and when she is shown to Adam he exclaims "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (emphasis added); she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." As a modicum of reflection will show, those who adduce this story as a rationale for the subordination of women have it exactly backwards; read with an open mind, the account is manifestly about mutual companionship and complementarity, rather than about the subordination of either sex to the other.
Now imagine that when God goes back to work on the eighth day, it occurs to God (the God of this story is clearly the sort of being whom things occur to) that--perhaps for some of the same reasons set forth here--it's desirable for a certain small proportion of the human species not to reproduce. "But," God thinks to God-self, "it is not good that these persons, either, should be alone. How shall they have helpers fit for them?" And God puzzles a while, and then... "Aha; I have it: They can couple with members of their own sex, rather than the other." Brilliant!
Other things being equal, I see nothing wrong with asserting that when it comes to families, two parents are better than one. Without in the least intending to denigrate the heroic accomplishments of single parents--among whom I number several close friends and one sibling--the simple fact is that it's easier for two people than for one to keep up with the changing of diapers, the packing of school lunches, the rides to ballet lessons, and the myriad other tasks that accompany the nurture of human offspring. This being the case, it makes perfect sense for the species to evolve a mechanism to enhance the likelihood that surrogate parents, like "natural" ones, will come in pairs rather than singly. And homosexuality serves this end, whereas asexuality does not.
Perhaps of broader importance is the possible role of same-sex couples in modeling pair-bond stability for their heterosexual counterparts. Again without embracing doctrinaire heterosexism, we can affirm that, other things being equal, stable and happy marriages are better for children than marriages marred by friction and recrimination, and marriages that end and are replaced (or not replaced) by new ones. Other commentators have drawn attention to the potential role of homosexual couples in discovering reasons and means for staying together and staying happy together, aside from the begetting and upbringing of offspring; and in sharing those discoveries with their heterosexual counterparts. But too little emphasis has been placed on the likelihood that, to the extent that it increases the happiness and stability of heterosexual pair-bonding, such modeling serves as a positive good not merely for heterosexual couples but for their children as well, and thus for the species as a whole.
Yet another rationale falling under the general rubric of "life enrichment" has been suggested to me by one of my graduate-school flat-mates-an electrical engineer by profession-who is also an accomplished singer and clarinetist. He additionally has the mixed good fortune to be the father of my goddaughter, who seems to have been descended from a hurricane on one side, and her younger brother, a chunky toddler you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. In discussing the frustrations of keeping up his artistic pursuits alongside his roles as parent and breadwinner, Paul suggested that perhaps one of the biosocial functions of homosexuality might be to insure that the species would be blessed with a certain proportion of people whose freedom from the onus of child-rearing would leave them freer to pursue artistic creation. Or, for that matter, scientific research, or any of a number of other useful occupations.
I think he's on to something. In fairness, Paul is hardly the first observer to comment in this vein on the marked tendency of homosexuals to produce art instead of children. But what seems to have escaped notice thus far is the possibility that this phenomenon may carry positive benefits for the human species in biological as well as social terms. It may be going a bit far to imagine that playing Mozart for babies in utero will cause them to develop denser networks of brain synapses--though you'll have a tough time convincing me it didn't work for my youngest niece. But some recent research does seem to suggest that exposure to music, at least, has positive cognitive consequences that are to some extent physiologically verifiable. Such being the case, then, the species homo sapiens could be said to have a positive evolutionary stake in the creation of music--and therefore, by extension, in the creation of mechanisms to enhance the likelihood that certain persons will have more time to devote themselves to its composition and performance. Hence, another argument for the biosocial usefulness of homosexuality and its naturally consequent childlessness.
It might be pushing the envelope to suggest further that this mechanism should actually be genetically correlated with artistic creativity, as homosexuality intuitively seems to be. But in the wake of the recent triumph of human-genome sequencing, this writer (himself an organist of some accomplishment) expects to hear any day now that the genes for male homosexuality and pipe-organ playing are indeed right next to each other, as we've known anecdotally for decades.
Yet another rationale might seem, at first blush, the most trivial, but may in the end be among the most profound. Have you ever wondered why the world really needs, say, white oak trees and red oak trees and live oak trees and pin oak trees and all the other kinds of oak trees that populate the globe? Perhaps you've come to the conclusion that it's simply more fun that way. And it is.
But fun is important--deeply important. Attention is often called to the devastating, even potentially fatal, consequences of a lack of adequate sensory stimulation for human infants. By extension, doesn't a little introspection show that, as a group, homo sapiens likes life to be interesting, is bored by sameness and stimulated by variety? As well as being the only species that runs universities and publishes periodicals, homo sapiens is also the only species that works crossword puzzles, attends plays and baseball games, and travels for pleasure.
Let me illustrate further with an incident from my workplace. One day I was eating lunch with a couple of co-workers--Audley, a very dark-skinned Jamaican-American, and Linda, a very fair-skinned Anglo-American. Linda was just back from a week in the Bahamas, and had managed only to get herself a bit pink around the edges. "Where's your tan?" Audley teased, and I retorted "That sounds like the pot talking to the kettle." My timing was a bit off, since Audley had meanwhile bitten off a mouthful of his sandwich and came close to requiring the Heimlich maneuver. That glitch aside, though, this incident illustrates a bit of levity brought into our day that would have been simply impossible if people didn't come in different colors.
My own repertoire of anecdotes does not, alas, include a similarly appealing one from the realm of sexuality; but many readers will doubtless be able to supply their own. I think of the "rate-the-men" game that I sometimes play with straight women friends in restaurants or shopping malls--and I fervently hope that somewhere there are a few lesbians who play a cognate version of the game with their straight men friends. At any rate, this phenomenon represents an enrichment of the dialogue between the sexes that, likewise, simply wouldn't be possible were it not for differences in sexual orientation.
I think, too, of the subtle differences in relationship dynamics between heterosexual and homosexual couples. How many married straight men ask their wives' opinions on other ladies whose attributes prove especially distracting to them? Granted, there are gay men too who would sooner die than ask their partner's opinion of the merits of a third man. But there is, as well, no species of fun quite like that enjoyed by a happily bonded male couple comparing notes on the passing wildlife on a warm spring evening. And this, too, is a sort of fun that just isn't available to our straight brethren, and serves to brew up a richer melting pot of fun for the species as a whole.
This essay itself may well be an example of an additional rationale for the utility of homosexuality. At the risk of committing too-casual armchair sociology, the argument might go something like this: We live in an age when population and technology are pushing us inexorably toward ever-greater interdependence. It seems to this writer that myriad brands of individualism are proliferating in defensive reaction to these developments--a trend that is manifest in phenomena ranging from the behavior of subway passengers to the generally pathetic job we do of caring for the least fortunate among us. In this sort of atmosphere, the mere presence of a phenomenon like homosexuality forces us back in the direction of thinking about relationship between persons, and more especially in terms of the larger human family and how it might best be structured. This, in the end, might be among the greatest of the goods that homosexuals are good for.
I suggested above that--while mere childlessness could be engendered just as well by asexuality as by homosexuality--homosexuality makes a positive contribution by increasing the likelihood that naturally childless surrogate parents will also be coupled rather than single. Thinking in larger human-family terms, one might also say that the potential for empathy between the heterosexual majority and the differently-constituted minority is enhanced if that minority--rather than being merely asexual--also experiences sexual attraction and coupling in common with their heterosexual kin.
Moreover, as my friend Bill Countryman has suggested, gay folk "are very useful nowadays for their ability to raise questions about things that look obvious to heterosexual folk but aren't in fact working very well and need rethinking." To take one currently hot example, the advancing debate over "gay marriage" has at least the potential (I wish I were more confident that it will be realized) to provoke a fruitful re-examination of marriage itself as an institution--by common consent, an increasingly beleaguered one. Not least do we need to take a good hard look at the lovingly-maintained French door through the wall of church-state separation that marriage represents in its contemporary American incarnation.
I submit then that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we gay and lesbian folk are not simply a mystery--important though it be to preserve a proper reverence for that aspect of our being--but a unique group with an identifiably unique and valuable role to play in the human family. Or, shall we say, we are created and called by God to a specific and essential function in God's plan for creation. One of the persistent difficulties of minorities in democratic societies is that, in response to any kind of ethical dilemma, the first question we ask is likely to be "What if everybody did it?" And in the case of homosexual behavior, the answer is obvious and obviously unsettling. But I trust I've gone some distance toward demonstrating how important it is that a fairly consistent minority of the species be homosexually oriented. And that the heterosexual majority needs the homosexual minority for its own greater well-being. And, one might add, vice versa.
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