Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Unnatural [II, 48]

Why is the claim that homosexuality is unnatural so persistent?

According to this view, faith and the cosmic order concur in proscribing homosexual behavior. What might seem to clinch the matter is the fact that this idea stems from the most venerable sources of Western civilization. The concept of nature, rooted in the very fabric of Greek thought, was extended to sexual politics by no less a figure than the philosopher Plato. Many will recall the lyrical exaltation of homosexual love found in his “Phaedrus” and “Symposium.” However, by the time he wrote his last work, “The Laws” (ca. 380 BCE) he reversed himself, taking a negative view. In that text he condemned all sexual acts between gay men/lesbians as against nature (para physin), because they are nonprocreative.

During the Hellenistic period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, this idea found its way into Jewish thought, as seen in the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs” and into the apologetic writings of Philo Judaeus, who equated the Mosaic Law with the "law of nature." Then it appeared in the New Testament with the portentous words of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:26-27, which speaks of changing "the natural use to that which is unnatural." This language--which in the Pauline text cited sets the stage for a condemnation of male homosexuality--proved fertile, entering into other contexts, including that of jurisprudence. In Latin texts the condemnation takes the concise form of contra naturam, a formula that found its way into all the major Western European languages. The most recent prominent example is a major gay novel in Spanish by Álvaro Pombo, entitled Contra Natura (2005).

The path for the spread of this notion was made smoothed by the earlier Roman acceptance of the concept of "natural law," defined by Cicero as "right reason in agreement with nature." Cicero ascribed this law to God, hence giving legal standing to Biblical injunctions in the eyes of Christian interpreters, and went on to insist that "it is a sin to try to alter this law."

In medieval Europe the semantically iridescent concept of natura was perpetuated and even given some new twists and images by moralists (Peter Damian), literary figures (Bernard Silvestre, Alan of Lille, and Jean de Meun), and philosophers (Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas). The Marquis de Sade coined the adjective antiphysique (later taken into English in the rare antiphysical) for unnatural sexual behavior

The older law codes of the American states tended to refer to homosexual conduct elliptically as the crime against nature. Earlier Sir Edward Coke had promoted this concept in his seventeenth-cen-tury Institutes and Reports, whence it percolated tdhrough the Anglo-American legal tradi-tion down to our time.

Filtering down through the centuries, this complex intellectual background has created a popular mental climate in which the accusation of behavior that is "against nature" is readily invoked. Proposition Nine, placed on the ballot in Oregon in 1992 but rejected by the voters, asserted that homosexuality (together with pedophilia, sadism, masochism, bestiality and necrophilia) must be recognized by the state as "abnormal, unnatural, and perverse." Further in the proposed statute, unnatural is defined as "strange, contrary to or at variance with nature or what is considered normal or right."

From a scientific perspective, the debate over the "naturalness" of homosexuality has been joined by the eminent sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey who, holding that norms of naturalness are essentially historically contingent and arbitrary, concluded that anything sexual which can be done is natural. The older arguments deployed by theologians and moralists were, in his view, accompanied by a considerable charge of emotionality. "This has been effected, in part, by synonymizing the terms clean, natural, normal, moral, and right, and the terms unclean, unnatural, abnormal, immoral, and wrong."

Anthropologists have reported homosexuality in many tribal societies (presumed "close to nature"); a wide range of ethologists have described homosexuality among other species (presumed more "natural"); and theorists in sociobi-ology have sought to provide an evolutionary rationale for human homosexuality. Perhaps as a reflection of these efforts as well as of other scien-tific embarrassments involving earlier cultural assumptions about "naturalness," it is no longer scientifically respectable to maintain the argument against homosexuality as "unnatural." This development has not yet had a major impact on Judeo-Christian homophobes or popular demagogic rhetoric, nor on public opinion among the less educated, but over time it can be expected to undermine the credibility of the position that "homosexuality is unnatural."

Much confusion has been caused by the notion that the natural/unnatural concept is scientific or derives from the notion of "natural law," however defined. Rather it is a piece of ideology. Modern science does not accept that anything exists outside the order of nature; only fantastic entities, such as centaurs and phlogiston, are "unnatural." But to our enemies, gay people are scarcely fantastic.

Once common rhetorically, the imputation of unnaturalness to gay men and lesbians seems less popular nowadays. This may have to do with the realization that the late twentieth century, with its computers and space vehicles, is more and more artificial and nonnatural. The departure from the natural is increasingly evident in the realm of procreation, through contraception, abortion, and "test-tube" births. And if a cure can be found for AIDS, who would oppose its use because the drug is "not natural"?

Indeed a different path of thought contrasts the natural not with the unnatural, but with the artificial. In the best sense artifice is that application of human ingenuity to practical and theoretical problems. Put another way artifice is an aspect of culture, which is not a rival of the natural but its complement. Homosexual behavior, which can involve complex learning, may be regarded as a valid application of the strategy of artifice. See also CREATIVITY and CAMP, above.

A final approach reexamines the idea of the natural in the light of individual natures, which are not all the same. Each of us must come to a proper understanding of his or her nature, and act accordingly. So that when a heterosexual says, "your behavior just doesn't seem natural" one can reply: "It is natural to me."


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