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SPOTLIGHT
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Culture, anatomy and stereotyping

Published on -10/15/2012, 9:42 AM

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Some years back, George W. Bush caught some undeserved flak over pictures showing him holding hands with a Saudi prince. But that wasn't "gay," as some joked.

It's a cultural protocol, such as Obama's courtly bow. Akin to our "handshake." Refuse the proffered hand in either case, and you offend your host.

The terms "masculine" and "feminine" are cultural constructs and, as is commonly the case, they both create and reflect stereotypes.

Women are nurturing, frilly and take too long to get ready. Men are aggressive, stoic and pose for pictures holding dead fish.

Like most stereotypes, these possess a factual basis. Universally, across cultures, women tend to be more nurturing, for example; some men are nurturing too, and some women are not, but overall, the tendency is not evenly balanced between these two sexes.

Other aspects of the stereotype are definitely culture-specific. "Men don't cry" is one.

Cultural stereotypes can change. These days rugged NFL players often wear very long hair. Women wear suits and chair board meetings.

What don't change so rapidly are the physical, anatomic correlates of non-traditional sexual identity and orientation (SISO).

Differences in the relative size of the two brain hemispheres, the neural density of the amygdala, the structure of the hypothalamus have been correlated with SISO. Just as hair color comes in an infinite variety of shades -- "brown" really covers a spectrum of hues -- so does sexuality. Not just male and female. Not just homosexual, bisexual or transsexual. These arbitrary categories don't reflect the reality, the subtle ways one disposition blends with the next.

Many of us combine specific traits. Some heterosexual males' mannerisms might seem "effeminate," but in every other respect they are normal heteros. Most male homosexuals retain "masculine" traits. Both gay and straight males tend to prefer younger partners. Both lesbian and straight females tend to prefer older partners. Some regions of the brain remain "masculinized" even in gay men.

A SISO friend of mine killed a lion with a spear while visiting the Masai. Not your basic mincing sissy.

For something as complex as SISO, it's no surprise that multiple influences, from genes to environment, play significant roles in determining whom we accept as a perfect partner.

We see a high degree of variability among cultures when it comes to their attitudes toward SISO.

Some of the grim and violent warriors of Sparta actually were encouraged to continue homosexual relationships right onto the battlefield. If a soldier will fight for his comrade, it was said, he might fight even harder for his lover.

As we've seen, SISO persons are accorded special respect and important political or ceremonial roles in some cultures.

So a reflexive rejection of SISO is not innate in our species.

But what about the "Yuck!" factor?

You see two people kissing in a bus station. How does it strike you, this exchange of mutual affection between two adults?

For some, the answer is "It depends." Depends on the pair's anatomies. If they have different anatomies, those uncomfortable with any public display of affection might only think "Get a room, you two!"

But if their anatomies are the same, some onlookers immediately will experience a deep sense of revulsion and disgust.

Since such a violent visceral reaction to visible SISO is by no means universal among humans, through history and across geography, where does it come from?

It has to be taught.

Who would teach innocent kids such a thing? Where does this condemnation of a natural state originate?

Prototypical religions, some still surviving for examination today, viewed Man as a part of Nature. We aren't in nature, we are of nature.

There was no real distinction between sacred and profane. The world was populated by unseen influences, including spirits dwelling in rocks, trees, springs, animals and us. Every act took place in this context, and therefore had "religious" significance.

Preparing for war could mean invoking "medicine power" in various ways -- a certain body paint scheme, horse decorations, amulets -- all completely natural. Man, spirits, medicine are all part of the natural world; the term "supernatural" held no meaning.

Shinto is all about nature.

Hinduism and Buddhism, despite the eventual conceptualization of natural phenomena as deities or traveling souls, essentially regard the universe as a Unity, a One-ness, and everything we experience, including ourselves, is an illusory manifestation of this fundamental unity. A wave on the ocean, though it appears discrete, emerges from and returns to the primordial One, and has no real existence of its own.

Today, millennia after their origins, some devotees of these religions have adopted dualistic attitudes toward SISO, as "unnatural" and thus separate from Nature.

The Dalai Lama, generally so loving and tolerant, disparages expressions of SISO.

SISO is controversial in Hindu societies, and views are diverse. Accepted Hindu texts do not explicitly mention SISO. The Kama Sutra says homosexual sex is to be engaged and enjoyed for its own sake as one of the arts.

Anti-SISO Hindus may regard SISO persons as more prone to lust, and lust diverts us from the pursuit of purity and escape from the cycle of rebirth. However, heterosexual lust is just as distracting, and at least as common. The Hindu evaluation of SISO depends heavily on context.

But how about us Americans? How does religion influence us on SISO issues?

* Next time: SISO and the Peoples of the Book.

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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