Friday, March 23, 2012

Changing our attitudes towards homosexuality

When they think about what it means to be gay, many East Africans focus on its physical implications: they think about gay people as those who have physical relationships with members of the same sex. Because sex is a physical act that one chooses to engage in, they figure that one can choose whether or not to be gay. This perspective fails to take into consideration the fact that, for many gay people, being gay precedes the act of sex. To them, being gay means feeling attracted to people of the same sex. Even if they never act on these feelings and choose to live a life of celibacy or one of heterosexuality instead, they know deep down inside that they feel attracted to members of the same sex and that they have felt that way for as long as they have been sexually aware.

I have read narratives by gay people who speak about becoming teenagers and realizing that, unlike their age mates, they felt absolutely no attraction to members of the opposite sex. They grew older and the status quo held: the heterosexual attraction that other people took for granted was never a part of their experience. Instead, they remember their first experience of feeling romantic love for another as involving somebody of the same sex.

I notice that most discussions of homosexuality in the East African media have not evolved beyond the expression of horror or disgust at the possibility that two men or two women can be physically intimate. Very few East African writers set aside the focus on the sexual angle to ask what it is that makes it possible for a man to feel attracted to a man or for a woman to feel attracted to a woman. Very few even ponder over what it is that makes them heterosexual. They just assume that they are heterosexual because that is the natural state of things. They don’t think about the biological and environmental factors that influence their sexuality. Nor do they realize that if a few factors in their lives had been different, they could possibly have been gay.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single definitive factor that makes a person gay or straight. Rather, a variety of factors interact to influence a person’s sexuality. They include genetic heritage, the hormones to which a fetus is exposed while in the womb, the structure of the brain, family influences, birth order and other factors.

Over the years, I have read of studies where it was shown that there were demonstrably distinct differences between people who self-identify as homosexual, and those who self-identify as heterosexual. These include physiological differences, e.g. differences in the sizes of specific parts of the brain, different brain responses to certain chemicals, and different ways of processing certain forms of information. One study I read about in a science magazine a few years ago (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one now) looked into the family structures of gay and straight men. It found that the gay men’s maternal female relatives tended to have more offspring than their paternal female relatives. The conclusion was that the X-chromosome, which was passed to these men by their mothers, was involved in some way. The scientists speculated that this chromosome was carrying genes that increased female fertility and the likelihood that male offspring would be homosexual.

I remember reading another article which indicated that more gay men tended to experience rejection from their fathers than straight men. Gay men also tended to have closer relationships with their mothers than straight men. The conclusions were not clear cut in this one. It could be argued that the fathers rejected their offspring because they sensed that they were somehow different from the norm and that the mothers tried to compensate. It could also be argued that the rejection by the fathers played a role in influencing their sons’ psychosexual development.

I can think of many more studies that focus on different biological and environmental factors, and show them to have some kind of influence on an individual’s sexuality. The conclusion I am bound to draw from all of this is that sexuality is complex, and that there are no easy explanations for the way it manifests in individuals. Thus, being gay or straight is not about simply deciding to feel a certain way.

Given that homosexuality is complex, and is determined by a variety of factors, our attitudes towards it need to change. We are living in the age of information. With access to the internet, many people really have no excuse for holding on to superstitious beliefs about sexuality.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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