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1:18pm on Friday, 26th August, 2011:



Today I get to offend two groups of people. Yay for me.

So: why is it that throughout history, society generally hasn't been very approving of gay men? Gay women have had an easier time of things (for being gay, if not for being women), so what is it about gay men that makes the world less tolerant?

OK, so there's religion, but that's just a symptom, not a cause. There are generally reasons why strong principles have developed in a religion, basically coming down to religious evolution. Example: if your religion is enlightened and treats men and women as equal, then come wartime your tribe will send men and women alike out to fight. Result: you lose a whole swathe of women of child-bearing age who will now not be bearing children. It doesn't matter if you lose a whole swathe of men, because it only takes a few men to do the work of many when it comes to procreation. Therefore, a religion which says women are not the equal of men has an evolutionary advantage over one that says they're equal. Therefore, over time it will garner more adherents and squeeze the other one out.

So why would a religion be anti-gay? There's no direct evolutionary advantage to it, because there wouldn't be any shortage of non-gay men willing to meet any demand from women. It could be just a random mutation, but it's appeared in several independent religions so that seems unlikely. However, there are plenty of religions (mainly eastern) that are pretty well neutral on the subject, too. This suggests it's something to do with secondary evolutionary effects rather than primary ones, and that the way that some societies are set up these such effects are more easily shrugged off than in others. Western society tends to operate more at the personal level and eastern society tends to operate more at the group level, so perhaps that's it? If it is, it would indicate that individual voices are acting against male homosexuality in the west (which would be reflected in the attitudes of the Abrahamic religions that predominate here, because if they didn't reflect it people would turn to other religions that did reflect it). In a more group-oriented society, the individual voices may still be there but they're moderated by those of others.

This raises the question of why individuals would voice disapproval over gay men and not do so to anywhere near the same extent over gay women. It's a long while since I read anything on this subject, so the argument has probably moved on somewhat, but last time I did the consensus seemed to be that straight men felt gay men to be threatening in some way. Now while this almost certainly has more than a grain of truth to it, I don't think it's the whole story.

Personally, I view an individual's sexuality as something hardwired that they can't do a great deal about. If you're a man who only finds men sexually attractive, there's nothing much you can do to change that. It's not a lifestyle choice. I do draw the line at acting on hardwired drives that harm other people — it could be argued that paedophiles don't have a choice in what they find attractive either, but that doesn't mean they have an excuse to act on their feelings. Likewise, hardly a day passes when I don't see some random woman and get an instant, involuntary "she's attractive" interrupt; that doesn't mean I'm entitled to act on it, though. That said, between consenting adults, hey, anything goes so long as wider society doesn't have to mop up the mess (which means no Russian Roulette, either).

So, to summarise the philosophy I've just outlined:
For some things, people are just hardwired to feel the way they feel.
You can't criticise people for their hardwired feelings.
You can criticise people for acting on their hardwired feelings if it affects other people adversely.

Last night, I watched Torchwood.

Captain Jack in Torchwood is officially bisexual, although he does seem to favour men over women when it comes to sex scenes. Nothing wrong with that, of course — it's a small contribution to redressing an overwhelmingly straight bias in TV drama. Last night's episode was particularly energetic in this regard, with several such scenes. My daughter was texting her friends while we were watching it, and they were all laughing about the "soft gay porn" on display. The scenes weren't particularly raunchy, and they made sense in the context of the show so weren't gratuitous either. So that's fine, then.

Except, I couldn't watch them. I really couldn't. I had to look away. Intellectually, I have absolutely no issue with them — in fact I think there should be more shows that do this, given the proportion of people in the real world who are gay men and the disproportion of TV shows that show them as anything other than harmlessly camp figures of fun. However, emotionally — arrrgh! I just can't take it. I get a powerful feeling of revulsion. There's nothing I can do about it: it's hardwired. If it were a man and a woman going at it hammer and tongs, I'd watch with indifference. If it were two women, I might watch with interest. Two men, though, I just can't handle. I've no idea why: it's just how it is with me.

Now this admission is probably not something of which gay men will necessarily approve, although I guess most will have come across something like it many times before. It can't be very pleasant to discover that what you find the most beautiful and intensely emotional of all experiences gives me a knee-jerk sense of "get me out of here!". In my defence, though, I can't help it. As I outlined above, some people are just hardwired to feel the way they feel, and you can't criticise people for their hardwired feelings.

I know I'm not alone among straight men in having this reaction (indeed, I suspect I am in a majority). This being the case, we can see where the prohibition on homosexuality came from in the more personal-level religions: straight men greatly outnumber gay men; straight men who are grossed out by overt signs of affection between gay men also greatly outnumber gay men; any religion that frowns at homosexuality is going to get the vote of these straight men; more votes means more success for the religion; so, the attitude spreads. Women are neutral in terms of their emotional response to the activities of gay men, so if a religion proscribes gay sex they're not really affected by it; the religion therefore doesn't lose their votes by taking an anti-gay stance.

Where society has failed is in the third step above: you can't criticise people for their hardwired feelings, but you can criticise people for acting on them if it affects other people adversely. Gay men can't help being attracted to men; straight men (large numbers of them, anyway) can't help being grossed out by this. Neither gay men nor the straight men can be criticised for these feelings, because neither can help having them. The straight men can criticise the gay men for acting on their instincts and grossing out the straight men, but the gay men can criticise the straight men more for acting on their instincts and banning homosexuality outright. This is because the effects on gay men of getting banned are life-ruiningly adverse whereas the effects on straight men of seeing gayness in action are merely a moment of "eww". This is therefore an argument straight men should concede.

So sure, the image of two actors simulating tastefully mild gay sex on TV may affect me in ways I'd rather it didn't, but I don't have to watch such scenes (and indeed didn't watch yesterday's in Torchwood). However, I'm not going to act on that and call for gay male sex scenes to be banned, or worse, homosexuality as a concept. Condemning generations of gay men to a life of frustration, guilt and misery seems rather a disproportionate response.

Bloody hell, though, Jack, do you have to be quite so rapacious?

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).