Is homosexuality wrong?

It’s time for another discussion of morality. Just a quick reminder, keep it secular in the comments.

The idea that it’s immoral to be attracted to someone of the same gender (or at least, to act on that attraction) is pretty common around the world. Yet it seems to me that romantic and/or sexual relationships generally increase the happiness of everyone involved without harming the well-being of anyone else, with the caveats that I’d normally put on relationships — that they not be coerced, that all parties are mature enough to consent, that communication is open so that everyone can protect their emotional and physical well-being, and so on. None of this has anything to do with the gender of the people in a given relationship, which is why I have no problem with same-sex relationships and homosexual sex.

I suspect that most of the moral outrage towards homosexuality is essentially religion-based, which is why I thought it would make a good topic for discussion here. Are there any reasons it might be wrong to be gay, if we don’t start from the presumption that any particular ancient book or supernatural belief is true?

One common charge against homosexuality is that it’s “unnatural.” The response you’ll often hear is that homosexuality appears often in nature, and there are many good reasons to believe that being gay is not a choice any more than being straight is. While these points are true, I think that discussion of gay penguins (however adorable) distracts from the real point: what’s so morally wrong with something being unnatural?

There are plenty of things that occur in the “natural world” (defined as everything besides humans, which is maybe an argument we can leave for some other time) which we would strongly object to as immoral human behavior. Some animals devour their own babies. In many species, animals violently attack each other, sometimes fighting to the death, in competition for mates or resources. When people behave similarly, we condemn them as monstrous. So maybe whether animals do something is not a reliable indicator of whether it is moral behavior.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that almost everything humans do could equally well be considered “unnatural” by this sort of standard. Driving a car is unnatural. Waking up to an alarm clock is unnatural. Drinking soda, watching television, heck, typing on a computer — have you ever seen animals doing that? One of my favorite classes of examples here, though, includes things like wearing eyeglasses, or using a prosthetic limb. These things constitute modifications of our natural bodies and abilities in the most basic sense, but I think I’m not alone in saying that they are awesome technologies that have significantly improved our quality of life. I don’t know anyone who would lob the “unnatural” charge at someone just because they availed themselves of orthodontics.

Sometimes the accusation of “unnatural” sex is couched in a more specific objection: gay sex cannot produce a child. Sex is “supposed to” be for reproduction, the argument goes, so sex that could not have reproductive value is a perversion of its purpose. I think this is patently silly. The principal biological purpose of eating is to gain nutrients and energy, but we don’t eat for that purpose alone; we enjoy gourmet food and desserts because they are tasty to us, not because we need them to survive. Similarly, sex has multiple purposes. There’s no reason to privilege the reproductive one over the pure pleasure aspect. Moreover, humans have sex for pleasure rather than reproduction most of the time, and I don’t see any moral problem with that at all. Unless you’re prepared to make a moral argument against straight couples who choose not to have children (or choose to have sex even at times when they are not trying to conceive), and against infertile people ever being in love and/or engaging in sex, I don’t see how you could make the reproduction argument against homosexuality.

Mostly, I suspect, secular objections to homosexuality (to the extent that they exist) boil down to, “I think it’s icky.” And it’s a fair consideration, insofar as I think most of morality is ultimately about examining our intuitions. I rely on my intuition when I lay down moral principles like “It’s bad to hurt people” or “It’s good to help people.” But I think the issue of homosexuality is a higher order question, one which we can break down and examine in terms of those more basic principles. What are its benefits, if any? What are its harms, if any? Whether or not it sounds like fun to you doesn’t really factor in there. (If it did, we’d be able to say that riding big roller coasters was immoral, or that eating Brussels sprouts was immoral. That would be pretty absurd, and I think there’s a reason why there isn’t great social turmoil about either of those judgments.) At the end of the day, I just don’t see anything that would make homosexuality itself bad on face.

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  1. I suspect that most of the moral outrage towards homosexuality is essentially religion-based.

    I heard a lesbian colleague complaint of this once and I said,

    “Sorry, but I think you are naive — it is much worse than you think.
    (1) Hitler persecuted homosexuals. And he wasn’t really a deeply religious person — the persecution was convenient for him.
    (2) And Mao (an atheist) clearly persecuted Homosexuals.

    I think the tendency to dislike homosexuals is far deeper than religion — religion only uses that deeper tendency.

  2. That’s interesting, Sabio.

    Regarding your specific examples: People argue all the time about whether Hitler was a Christian or not — I suppose we’ll never know what he thought deep down, but anyone who emblazons “Gott Mit Uns” on his army’s belt buckles is at least totally okay with manipulating people by means of religion. Religious outrage about homosexuality was convenient for him, sure. As far as Mao … I’ve always thought it was worth considering that Communist China under Mao was more like a [personality] cult than a completely “atheist” regime. (In fact, it’s used to illustrate this Wikipedia entry.) The equating of homosexuality with the “deviant West” is not unlike equating homosexuality with sin and Satan. “Your supreme authority figure says that only bad people are that way” is still the extent of the reasoning.

    That being said, I certainly don’t mean to say that no atheists object to homosexuality. It’s just that i can’t figure out why. Yes, there is this “ick” factor … but why is that there? And if you find out that you are experiencing it, why consider it a valid moral judgment? Do you have any idea where this “tendency to dislike homosexuals” might arise from? It doesn’t seem really unique in any way from other rare physical traits or behaviors, but has resulted in way more oppression than, say, having blue eyes, red hair, or a stutter.

  3. Here’s a very strained attempt at a “sermon” to rationalize a “biblical understanding” of homosexuality. The first 16 mins. or so are a rehashing of the basic evangelical view of the Christian religion. Following that more direct comments re: homosexuality.

  4. Jojo the hun

     /  April 23, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Nice blog I stumbled onto.

    I agree with Sabio’s idea that an antipathy to homosexuality is not necessarily religious.

    Don’t you think it has an evolutionary basis, in common with most sexual taboos? That populations that proscribed it tended to fare much better than those that did not, for any number of reasons?

  5. Mylegacy

     /  May 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    To me homosexuality is simple. The sex drive is very powerful – girls, guys, sheep, rubber toys, rubber ducks, any port in a storm.

    Sex – OBVIOUSLY – is primarily to keep people striving to reproduce – our primary biological directive. That being the case homosexuality can be seen as being counter productive.

    To me homosexuality is completely natural but not normal (not wrong or evil just not normal) – not what we would see if indeed there had been any “intelligent design.” Looking at mankind it is patently obvious there is very little intelligence being generated by that species – let alone intelligence in its design.

  6. Daniel

     /  May 8, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Even if religious based peoples believe that homosexuality is wrong, that doesn’t change the fact the its unnatural. Think about it, whether or not you believe in evolution, human beings reproduction organs are made for certain reasons. For example, isn’t odd how a woman’s sexual organs “appear” to interact with man’s sexual organs? You are 150% correct on the fact that humans don’t have sex solely for the purpose of reproduction, and your right humans do enjoy having sex, it “feels” good, it fun. how ever animals use sex SOLELY for reproduction, its the only way for a species to survive. Your are also right that driving a car IS unnatural, thats why they dont make cars for Elephants, This alone proves that humans are, have, and will ALWAYS be the dominant species on this planet, and perhaps beyond. Its interesting how you say homosexuality isn’t really off moral basis, however, if i know a gay person, I CAN’T state a fact, no rude, or condescending in any way, and say that so and so is gay. Now on the other hand, people don’t really get offended when you call them straight. Why is this? Because it seems odd, considering the fact that the word gay, originally meant happy. Don’t gay people want to be happy? Dont they want to have a good life, with multiple good memories? You see society today has changed the way we think about social issues. They either lighten or completely ignore what used to be the common known truths. The way society views it is this, “What they do in there bedroom is not my business nor concern” alright i’ll give them that, i dont want to know what goes on behind the door either. however what is your concern is how it is effecting other people around the globe. Children are being taught that its ok, fairs and festivals are held for them, for example Colorado and Disney World have really big fairs. what’s messed up the is on Sirius Radio, right next to the KIDS station, literally The NEXT CHANNEL is a gay station!
    People who are gay do have a choice many of them were abused and molested as a child so they turn to homosexuality to cope with their problems esp when the abuser was the same sex.

  7. “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”
    — Dorothy Parker

    Perhaps heterosexuality is normal, for heterosexuals whilst homosexuality is normal for those who are naturally homosexually oriented.

    There are sociobiological theories which suppose that homosexuality is an example of a natural variant which has a subtle benefit for humanity. For example, there’s the kin selection theory and the superior heterozygote fitness theory to name just two. If you define morality as being beneficial collectively and/or individually, then it is at least arguable that homosexuality falls within the scope of what should rightly be considered moral.

    When viewing the adverse reactions of most human societies to same gender sexual attraction, the “ick” factor appears to be universally shared. However, over the course of human history there have been societies in which same gender sexuality is/was not subject to native approbation.

    The Sambia Tribe, Ancient Greeks, the various “two-spirit” approaches of some native tribal cultures in the Americas all provide examples of collective favorable responses to same gender sex. While those do not exactly equate to the post-modern expressions of homosexuality in Western Culture, they certainly support the idea that societal reactions to the natural occurrence of homosexuality are social constructs rather than strict instinctive taboos.

    As a gay man I can vouch for the fact that heterosexual intercourse feels completely unnatural for me and definitely has an innate “ick” factor. I assume the reverse is true for heterosexuals.

    One last thing – I never experienced sexual abuse in childhood, though I did experience physical abuse for not meeting some heterosexual behavioral norm in adolescence. Other than that, I was the beneficiary of a boringly normal rural American upbringing – just like my heterosexual brother. I also never chose to be gay, just as I’m sure he never chose to be straight.

    The American Psychiatric Association has clearly come out against the myth of childhood abuse as contributing to homosexual orientation, stating clearly in 2000, “no specific psychosocial or family dynamic cause for homosexuality has been identified, including histories of childhood sexual abuse. Sexual abuse does not appear to be more prevalent in children who grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, than in children who identify as heterosexual.”

  8. Jadis Goddess

     /  November 30, 2011 at 12:29 am

    A-freakin-men. I’m bisexual (more sexually attracted to women, more emotionally attracted to men)–raised by my mother, and got told all the time that there was no way I could be lesbian or bisexual, because i was “too feminine”. I may add that i was not sexually abused in my childhood by any person of either gender (although i was physically and emotionally abused by both men and women in my family), and my ex (who was raped and molested during his early years by male relatives) does not trust men and generally hates them, in fact. But…your article is spot on, just the same. Be blessed!

  9. I’ve never actually heard a secular argument against homosexuality. Some religious arguments do try to tack on a little secular argument at the end as a by-the-way, but they’re usually laughably inept. There are secular arguments against gay parenting, but they’re usually based on misleading or misquoted evidence. (Box Turtle Bulletin analysed a poorly-performed study earlier today.)

    There is an “ick” factor for any kind of sex you don’t like yourself. I’m a bit squicked out by some forms of BDSM, and to be honest heterosexual sex squicks me a bit if I think about it in detail. But it doesn’t squick me much, because it’s normal in our culture, and I was brought up to think of it as normal. I suspect that as homosexuality becomes normalised, fewer straight people will find gay sex icky.


  10. Why do people always focus on the sex? Why is our LOVE ignored?
    I am man. My love for men burns so deep I could shift mountains for it. The passion and reaction have always been there to men and my dulled sexual arousal to women has always been there in some way.
    I had a normal upbringing, and I definitley wouldn’t choose it. In this world? I’d switch to straight in a second.

    And there is increasing evidence it is GOOD for the population. Me and my partner effectively wipe out 2 male competitors for straight rivals. we take care of the unwanted offspring in the tribe. we don’t seek “alpha” dominance but act as problem solvers. We see things without alpha male sexual aggression. Pure social conditioning of what it means to e “masculine” and what it means to be “feminine” have completely distorted the issue.

    Centuies of lack of education has absolutley stunted human perspective on the whole sexuality and gender field and are in a state of post traumatic stress disorder. Our children will look back with shame, that’s why we kill ourselves. The shame and the fear and the total refusal of love. Because people are just idiots, and always have been.

  11. Besides if we were so unnatural and harmed the human race, wouldn’t we have even wiped out by now? By “nature” I mean. Since things that are bad for evolution tend to be phased out the end pool. But millions of years later POOF we’re still here. Think about it.

  12. And “morally” I think you should have no say in what you do not know.
    As in, if you aren’t LGBT, how can you truly know what or why we are?
    Who are you to say its not a choice?
    Or to even speculate at all?
    If its a choice, prove it and sick a dick man. It’s easy right?

    If you ain’t gay, you don’t get a say.
    You can’t get in my head no matter how many perverse experiments your scientists do.
    Our brains differ on a fundamental level, for sure, but don’t dare tell me what goes on in MY head.

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