In light of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s recent comment about there being no gay people in Iran, Matthew Yglesias links to this really interesting article about homosexuals in Saudi Arabia:
What seems more startling, at least from a Western perspective, is that some of the men having sex with other men don’t consider themselves gay. For many Saudis, the fact that a man has sex with another man has little to do with “gayness.” The act may fulfill a desire or a need, but it doesn’t constitute an identity. Nor does it strip a man of his masculinity, as long as he is in the “top,” or active, role. This attitude gives Saudi men who engage in homosexual behavior a degree of freedom.
It’s easy to mock such self-definitions as self-delusional, much like Larry Craig was widely ridiculed for insisting that he was “absolutely not gay in any way.” But I think it’s also easy to forget that the modern Western definition of homosexuality as an orientation is an extremely recent cultural phenomenon. (An extremely welcome phenomenon, but a recent one nonetheless.) As Kinsey first pointed out, a plurality of men in the 1950’s experimented with same-sex sexual behavior but didn’t consider themselves gay. The tragedy, of course, is that many of this men were gay, and lived sadly closeted lives. The strictures of culture led people to deny human nature.
Because it’s scientifically obvious that homosexuality is a big part of nature. See, for example, my old article on the Gay Animal Kingdom:
Having homosexual sex is the biological equivalent of apple pie: Everybody likes it. At last count, over 450 different vertebrate species could be beheaded in Saudi Arabia.
The article goes on to discuss the possible evolutionary logic for same-sex sexuality being so prevalent. Joan Roughgarden is a Stanford biologist who has contributed much to the debate. She argues that many species (including humans) are naturally bi-sexual, at least in the sense that we use sexuality and sexual interactions to form and cement social bonds.
“In our culture,” Roughgarden says, “we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn’t the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing.” Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. “I’m convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It’s just such hard work.”
To be honest, I don’t know enough to know what I think. Disentangling sexual identity from culture is damn near impossible. My own hunch is that different people have different tendencies, and that sexual identity is a sliding scale, not a clear dichotomy. But I do know that homosexuality is natural biological phenomena, and that denying the presence of homosexuality within a country is about as meaningful as saying that there are no left-handed people in Iran.