‘Homosexuality is unnatural.’
‘Nature’ is a loose peg on which to hang a theology of human relationships. The word has multiple meanings: the Concise Oxford Dictionary lists nine for nature and fourteen for natural. In Victorian times, Europeans spoke of Africans as ‘children of nature’, meaning they were brutal, primitive, and savage, in need of the wise, firm and civilizing hand of the colonial master; this was to justify European exploitation of Africa. For centuries, slavery was regarded as natural; it had a long and virtually universal tradition behind it, as had the subjection of women to men. It was natural, too, for gentlemen of quality to rule the lower orders. The word has been pressed into the service of several racial, political, social and cultural agenda. Today, people like food to be natural, meaning free from artificial chemicals. But mildew, ants, aphids, cockroaches and rats are natural, and will happily occupy food. Is it natural to have them on it?
Some argue that the natural purpose of sexuality is procreation, and that, since homosexual relationships are not procreative of life, they are therefore unnatural. The argument draws on teleology (ends) or finality as seen from one viewpoint, and seems to imply that since procreation is the principal purpose, then it’s the only legitimate purpose of a sexual relationship. Where does that leave non-procreative heterosexual love, or sexuality simply as play? Does it not also mean that the non-use of genital sexuality, as in celibacy, is likewise unnatural?
Is anatomical structure the determinant of what is normative in human behaviour? If the natural purpose of nipples is to give milk, why do men have them? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) states, ‘The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.’ (Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1 October 1986; CTS, London, n.16.) A teleological argument from biological nature is no less reductionist. Homosexuals find it natural to engage the body as it is in sexual relationships, and consider it suited for the purpose.
Throughout history, and across the globe, as art, history and literature testify, same-sex attraction and acts have been a consistent feature of human life. In that sense, they cannot be called unnatural or abnormal. Same-sex attraction is simply a facet of the human condition.
As is often the case, our use of language is not helpful. The word ‘straight’ implies that someone who does not fit that category is crooked, deformed, or queer. It’s a by-product of a culture of contempt and repression towards homosexuals on a par with calling black people niggers, and it helps perpetuate prejudice. In this article, I use the word homosexual to describe same-sex attraction, whether between women (lesbians) or men (gays). And homosexuality is not just about what goes on between the sheets, or in clubs or the ‘gay scene.’ The latter is often as far removed from a committed, loving relationship as the activities of a brothel are from a committed, loving marriage. Homosexuality is about the way human beings relate to each other in their totality.
Does homosexuality exist objectively - clear, cut-and-dried - like Plato’s forms, regardless of relationships? According to the president of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, between eighty and ninety percent of Northern Ireland’s wider gay community are married with families. In Latin America, the “active” (top) male partner in sex between men is not regarded as gay, only the “passive” (bottom) partner. Gays estimate that between one-third and two-thirds of men who frequent gay clubs or bars live in a heterosexual relationship. And it is not uncommon to find lesbians who have had a child. There is some of the straight in every gay, and some of the gay in every straight. (If all the gay people in society came out, it would banish homophobia overnight.) Some of what is included in the ideas of homo- and hetero- are cultural constructs, such as our ideas of beauty, for instance. It might be nearer the truth to think of homosexuality more in terms of what one does, or how one relates, than of what one is.
The hope some people have is that a homosexual gene will be found; it would let them off the peg on which they’ve hung themselves. Homosexuality could then be considered natural. (How do you persuade people who think they have to be right in order to be credible that their credibility would be enhanced by an admission that they could be wrong?)
Is there a ‘homosexual gene’? I don’t think anyone knows. I hope not; it might lead to homosexuals being treated ‘compassionately’ as freaks. But surely the question is irrelevant. Whether a homosexual orientation is genetic or environmental, inborn or acquired, from nature or nurture, it’s there, and that’s what counts. Most homosexuals experience it as a given, no more a choice than the colour of their eyes.
A more important question is, ‘What sort of human being is this?’ ‘What sort of relationships does s/he engage in?’ And the great challenge is for people to be true to themselves. Shakespeare wrote: -
‘This, above all,Is homosexuality unnatural? Yes, it is - if you’re heterosexual.
to thine own self be true,
and it must follow,
as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.’
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80.)