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SPOTLIGHT
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More than plumbing: The rainbow of sex

Published on -9/17/2012, 9:39 AM

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Image this: You're born left-handed, though it takes a while for people to notice. Eventually, it becomes apparent that you prefer to use your left hand more than your right.

When you begin to pick up eating utensils with your left hand, your parents seem uneasy, and insist you use your right hand. But you often forget. Your father scowls, and your mother looks worried.

Finally your parents summon the priest, and they confront you with the devastating reality. Preferentially using your left hand is disgusting, shameful and unnatural. Worse, it offends your god, who will burn you in Hell if you don't stop.

Your friends begin to treat you differently. They call you a "lefto." You're the last person chosen for playground ball teams. Bullies push you around, taunt you -- "Ooh, are you going to hit me with your left hand, lefto?"

You feel abnormal, not just different; your core being is flawed. You loathe yourself, but you still tend to use the "wrong" hand.

In an effort to behave properly, and show others you're not a bad person, you take up bowling, using your right hand. It's awkward, and your scores are low.

What can you do?

* * *

About the same percentage of the population is born left-handed as is born with a non-traditional sexual orientation.

Sexuality is far more complex than most of us realize, and spans a broad spectrum. As other cultures have recognized long ago, there are more than the two "traditional" sexes, male and female.

Sexual identity (how one experiences one's own sex), and sexual orientation (how one relates sexually to other entities) is far and away a biological phenomenon, no matter how we are raised, or how our culture views it.

To save space, I'll refer to non-traditional sexual identity and orientation as "SISO".

SISO is discovered -- not taught and not learned. While many "normal" people are sexually uncertain during adolescence, leading to experimentation with others of the same sex, few need to choose a heterosexual identity. Such early uncertainty is biologically based too, but in most cases it fades quickly, regardless of how far one has pursued various sexual activities. Prepubertal boys and girls don't "choose" to feel "funny" when they're around members of the opposite sex, but not their own.

The sex drive is very ancient, having emerged soon after life discovered sexual reproduction. Some species still reproduce asexually, essentially cloning themselves, while most multicellular organisms exploit sex for the advantages it provides in terms of mixing gene pools and capitalizing on the resultant variation.

But in many higher species, certainly our own, the primary "purpose" of sexual congress is not reproduction! That is, thousands of sexual acts occur for every one that results in reproduction.

Sometimes coitus or other sexual stimulation serves to enhance bonding and resolve conflicts, as a social glue. This is clearly the case with our closest relatives, the bonobos, who use both homo- and heterosexual interactions for just such purposes.

Paradoxically, homosexual behaviors can serve to ensure a species' viability. Rats, for example, may carry a trait for homosexual behavior, but most of the time it is inactive. When high population density or low food resources threaten all with starvation, male rats begin to mount each other, acting out their powerful sexual drive without adding stress to a stressed population. Natural contraception, like the rhythm method!

These genetic predispositions often require an environmental trigger, such as famine among rats. A gene or gene complex is "silent" until provoked, at which point it starts to be "expressed," and its influence becomes tangible.

It should come as no surprise that very complex behaviors can be traced to genetic and developmental factors. Orioles aren't taught to build intricate hanging nests. Beavers don't "choose" to build dams. Humans harbor complex behavioral instincts too.

So the notion that SISO is "unnatural" is nonsense. Nature orchestrates SISO in a large number of animal species, including ours.

Now, it's true that just because something is "natural" doesn't make it good, nor does being "unnatural" equate with bad.

Artifacts like eyeglasses, appendectomies, and wind generators are not natural, but overall they're beneficial.

Diabetes is natural, arising from natural causes, but is generally harmful.

But SISO per se is not harmful to those born with it. The damage comes when they are shunned, persecuted, and denigrated for being who they are. Contrary to those who claim that SISO is a disease that can be cured through reprogramming, the most any SISO person can do is act like a straight heterosexual; he or she will still be SISO inside.

The tragedy is not limited to those burdened with being born different. In attempts to convince themselves and others that there's nothing "wrong" with them, they may attempt outward heterosexual relationships; that is, they get married.

They may even produce offspring in the course of these doomed efforts. Usually neither participant fully understands what's going on, but because SISO is an integral part of one's being, the charade is unlikely to last. Eventually the marriage disintegrates, though sometimes neither partner will publicly acknowledge the role SISO has played in the debacle.

Everyone suffers, especially the kids. If the SISO partner subsequently "comes out," frustrated in-laws may claim he or she has "chosen the homosexual lifestyle."

* Next time: Biology and culture come into conflict.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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