We know by observation that what we call “gay” as a physiologically-based desire for one’s own sex is universal among mammals (maybe ten percent in most species), probably related some way to the impulses of care that arose in the course of evolving into beings who replicated themselves by giving live birth to babies that require care. (This is also a phenomenon of the nesting dinosaurs — fossil maiasaurus nests with eggs-made-stone are close to where I am — But they are thought to be a precursor of birds — feathers rather than fur.) I’m not going to look for careful research that would confirm this notion about care as a source of same-sex desire because I don’t think the studies exist because I think they are too risky and too invisible to the community of investigators.
After proposing that, I will say that same sex relationships are highly vulnerable to culture: in honorable circumstances, they are honorable. In wretched circumstances they can be wretched. Right now we have come from a conformity-based post-war near-paralysis (fifties), to a wild time of experiment (sixties and seventies) to near panic (now) as we run out of both resources and cultural scripts. Too often people take it out on each other.
Human institutions make it their business to distinguish between those who are “in” and those who are “out,” which they enforce with neglect, rejection, abuse, stigma, and outright violent destruction, possibly rationalized as punishment, war or terrorism. Institutions seize upon any distinction that can be exploited for the benefit of the institution and those who control it. Sexual desire is not exempt. It is tightly linked with control, which is easier in heterosexual relationships because females are smaller and burdened with gestation and birth. I can’t think of a culture that keeps men in a harem. But as gladiators they can be forced to death.
I find evidence for the roots of same-sex desire in many places. One is that in the Plains Indians tribes there were people exceptionally large, interested in activities assigned to the female gender role, but also interested in children, caring for them. I wrote a pair of short stories trying to illustrate this. (In “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.”) In fact, I knew several contemporary Blackfeet men with this desire to care for the vulnerable, the young, and the aged. It is a high traditional value.
Stories involving priests with same-sex relationships — for instance “The Fancy Dancer” by Patricia Nell Warren — are also about the sometimes melodramatic conflict between caring for someone in a way so deep that it demands fleshly expression, while resisting all perversions of care into control, which is a basic institutional preoccupation and source of evil. Kirkus labeled this book “baroque.”
The anonymous expert on Wikipedia says: “The Baroque is often thought of as a period of artistic style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music.” To an outsider, this seems pretty close to a description of what we currently call “gay” as expressed in recently historical San Francisco, Florida, and Fire Island.
The literature about this extravagance is dominated by the anguish of trying to save lovers and community from AIDS, which meant a loss of control also found earlier in those losing loved ones to tuberculosis, except that TB was linked to spirituality and a kind of death-glamour ("La Boheme") and HIV keeps being forced into being synonymous with sin.
Around here “gay” is synonymous with weakness, femininity, failure to grip life hard so as to succeed. But in some groups of gays, particularly those associated with motorcycles and black leather gear, “homomasculinity” is defining. “Bears” are not wimps, but those I have known tend to be protective.
Some would associate drugs with gay culture, or maybe with any kind of sexuality, but I see drug abuse as everywhere and literally hooked into flesh of any kind, as much driven by institutions (Big Pharma) as by individual tendencies.
Shrinks suggest that creative art is equivalent to childbirth, that a play or book or sculpture is quite like a child, evoking the same emotional connection and protection.
“The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault sets up another love/control dynamic. ”Renault also posits the notion that Alexander's relentless drive to conquer the world stemmed in part from his troubled relationship with his domineering mother, and his desire to "escape" from her influence by leading his army ever eastward.” (Wiki) The Persian boy -captured, castrated, enslaved, much younger, but deeply in love with his warrior/owner despite having a rival, seems powerless but in fact is a foundation, an enabler.
So there are a military or an artistic approach to various male same-sex arrangements. (I don’t think that lesbian relationships play out the same way as those of homosexual men. Women have to include children or the possibility of children.) I’ve observed two other patterns.
One is local and made possible by separated gender arrangements (males kept apart from females by their daily roles) but also by men who sequester sex in their lives to certain circumstances. Currently the relevant term might be “men who have sex with men.” Or maybe the “down-low,” which I know almost nothing about. I’m thinking of family men, men with close male friends maybe in a team sort of setting or where there is high use of alcohol, men who do hard physical work that may be dangerous enough to create high levels of adrenaline/testosterone, and men who work with large animals in a contentious control-based way that they carry over to sex. Men who don't really like women.
The other pattern I saw when I was in the ministry and either sharing a building with the Metropolitan Community Church as UU’s often do, or invited to act as a one-off celebrant. Usually the congregation was mostly young lovers, but the official religious leader was likely gay, middle-aged, charismatic, and emotionally intimate with these pairs. I have no idea what their personal arrangements were. The care/control issue was vivid, but consensual, even craved. I had been instructed to put a hand on the shoulder of each man when they came in pairs for Communion, and to say strong supportive things. What I remember is the feel of their shoulders responding, leaning in.
Pairs of lovers are often the way into an unknown culture, whether it is a whole different nation or simply based on age or color or even education (“Educating Rita”, a movie but it’s het.). Which prompts me to first premise that there are scholars and scientists who are averse to the control traditional to heterosexual relationships and maybe not very sexual anyway, and then to wonder if there are books, plays or real-life examples of such ascetic men inadvertently falling in love with young men — maybe a story told by the younger man and maybe by the older. What effect would it have on his work, or would his work be the entry point for intimacy? There are het versions.
The perversion of caring into control is the source of much criminalized behavior, such as pedophilia, not so much because of the universal condemning of control, which is clearly necessary sometimes, but because institutions want the control as an exclusive right. Control can be perverted even more into destruction, the ultimate control being murder. Whole societies and institutions practice this, though they would deny it.
In fact, surrendering to needed control -- when it is appropriate -- can be blissful, ecstatic, an escape from the constant necessity of doing and getting that supports any mammal life, whether it is the animal’s own life or the lives of his children. I watch these feral cats and their dependence on their mothers for safety and nursing. I see how sucked-down the mothers get, nearly skeletal but just as armed and warlike as ever. The role of cat mammal males is brief and violent. They cannot afford to be weak.
In my life I have put freedom and creation ahead of motherhood, but then I end up acting out the role inadvertently — sometimes believing it was welcome nurturing or finding out too late that it has been perceived as control. Maybe there is a dimension of desire that is autonomous, beyond cross-gender, beyond same sex love, to self-love. Then the question becomes what is desire? Surely more than sex. Is it a surrender to cross the boundaries between one’s self and others? Is self-control a perversion? Certainly self-destruction is a phenomenon we know all too well.
Every individual mammal is an experiment in the terms of its existence, dependent on the nature of its being from conception on, shaped by the time and place of existence, and living a story that may end without any direct descendants, possibly with artful artifacts of creation, maybe a key to the culture as a whole, maybe to the species as a whole. The series of overlapping life-arcs is beyond any institutional religion, but has quite a lot to do with the Sacred, a felt guide beyond even culture, reaching into the depths of Life Itself, often with great suffering, but with Meaning.