Yawning Bread. June 2006

Homosexuality and the problem of scale




There are two parts to this article: the first is about one of Singapore's most admired poets, the recently deceased Arthur Yap, and the second, about Joan Roughgarden's critique of evolutionary science.

Believe me, they are connected.

One of the perennial problems that gay people face is that of relative invisibility. Being "out of sight, out of mind", their concerns and interests are given scant regard by the community as a whole.

Invisibility has many sources. Most obvious of all is when gay people deliberately hide their sexual orientation from others, either passing off as straight or keeping as low a profile as possible.

A second source is when those who know that so-and-so is gay, never breathe a word about this fact. They do this either out of good intentions, or because they too don't know how to state the fact without sounding like tattle tales.

The third is when censorship and social pressure suppresses the dissemination of information about people who are gay.

The obituaries about Arthur Yap fall into either the second or third category, or both. Here we have a man whose life's work is considered among the best Singapore has produced, and upon whose passing, effusive write-ups appear in our newspapers. Yet no one has mentioned that he was gay.

In her piece of 20 June 2006, Ong Sor Fern alluded to his sexual orientation when she wrote about how after Yap's "friend" Keith Watson passed away, Yap put a memorial notice in the Straits Times every year on the anniversary.

Why such elliptical language? If the love of Yap's life had been a woman, would the Straits Times have been more forthright about the importance of the partner in his life? Would the newspaper have used plain language instead?

It's not as if Yap had been doing his utmost to hide the fact. I am told that the many young poets who looked up to him knew he was gay. In any case, Yap dedicated his 1977 collection "From Commonplace" to Keith, as was "The space of city trees selected poems" 2000.

And this poem too from 1986 (Man Snake Apple collection):

your goodness 
for Keith

your goodness, i sometimes light 
my anger with, is what you have. no one 
can burn it away; it is not for my discussion. 
i know, near you, i myself feel good. 
& this is enough for me, my friend. 

this is a life-time friendship; the poem 
is short, inadequate &, except for a word, 
totally redundant

Why is it important to know he was gay? Well, the above poem gives you the answer. You cannot understand it unless you know the relationship between the poet and the "you" - Keith Watson

What is that exceptional word that is not totally redundant?

We've just had a debate in the press whether Singapore schools should have Singapore literature in their syllabuses - that's assuming they even have literature at all. It was argued that giving our pupils exposure to the works of Singaporean writers will help create a sense of history and identity that no amount of National Day songs and nation-building slogans can.

Yet, if we're not watchful, we'll go into the habit of shoehorning the reading and interpretation of Singaporean writing into the ideological framework of the day. Students might read Arthur Yap without being told he was gay - not far-fetched if even the Straits Times couldn't say the "g" word.

What good then is such selective and filtered exposure to Singaporean writing? We might as well go back to National Day songs and nation-building slogans.

These tendencies serve to render invisible the presence and contribution of gay people. The result is a widespread belief that homosexuality is rare and marginal to the human experience.

* * * * *

In science, this gives rise to the mindset that "homosexuality is some sort of anomaly," according to biologist Joan Roughgarden.

"A lot of biologists assume that [gay people] are somehow defective, that some developmental error or environmental influence has misdirected their sexual orientation."

This notion has long acted as epistemological blinders in science, leading researchers merely to ask, "what causes homosexuality, and why does homosexuality persist?" divorced from what makes for sexual interest and behaviour in general.

Scientists think this way because large numbers of people hold these ideas:

  • Sex is for reproduction;
  • Thus homosexuality is an evolutionary dead-end;
  • Thus as a contributor to the species' survival, its value is zero;
  • Supported by the observation that the trait "afflicts" only a small percentage of humans - a belief no doubt reinforced by the invisibility problem.

These "first principles" are safe only if homosexuality is indeed marginal. But more and more, evidence is accruing that it is not. The theory now faces what I call the problem of scale.

Once you start to look, you find gay people everywhere you turn. Arthur Yap was/is not the only accomplished Singaporean poet who was/is gay. Right here in Southeast Asia, there's a king who's gay, and another neighbouring country has had at least 2 gay prime ministers, though no one too writes openly about what are well-known facts.

As Roughgarden explained to writer Jonah Lehrer for his article in SEED magazine, if homosexuality is an evolutionary dead-end, then "gay and lesbian people are a mistake that should have been corrected a long time ago."

"But this hasn't happened," she pointed out. "When scientific theory says something's wrong with so many people, perhaps the theory is wrong, not the people."


The problem of scale manifests itself in another direction too: humans are not the only species with homosexual behaviour. Until very recently, no one thought that animals could be homosexual, but that was simply because, governed by the orthodoxy that sex was for reproduction and homosexuality a result of defective (human) upbringing, no one looked for it in the animal world. On occasion when researchers did see homosexual activity among animals, they tended to dismiss it as "play" or "aggression", not as sex.

They worked on the definition that sex was only heterosexual. That being the case, naturally, they didn't see any homosexuality.

Lately, that bias has begun to be corrected, and thenceforth researchers saw homosexual behaviour almost everywhere they looked. Roughgarden said it's currently documented in 450 species and counting.

So we now have a situation where due to increasing openness, we know gay people are a lot more common than previously assumed, far more common than true evolutionary dead-ends such as heredity diseases that cut short a person's life.

As well, we now know it's a trait that is found in many other vertebrate species, sometimes even more commonly than in humans.

Thinking out of the box, Roughgarden concluded that homosexuality cannot thus be "a maladaptive trait.... Given the pervasive presence of homosexuality throughout the animal kingdom, same-sex partnering must be an adaptive trait that's been carefully preserved by natural selection."

In other words, there's a reason for homosexuality in populations. It's not what one might call a 'quality control defect'.

What could that reason be? What advantage does homosexuality bring to the species, that natural selection (perhaps up to a certain point) works in its favour?

"The more complex and sophisticated a social system is," Roughgarden writes, "the more likely it is to have homosexuality intermixed with heterosexuality."

She's suggesting then that it acts as social glue, but by doing so, she's also challenging the hoary idea that sex is for reproduction. Heterosex is also social glue.

At this point, many readers may ask, why should x percent of the population use heterosex only for social glue and y percent use homosex? This is another blinker that should be peeled off - the idea that people are either homosexual or heterosexual.

I have argued in Where straight men come from that bisexual impulses may be a lot more common (among outwardly straight men) than we think. Perhaps due to socialisation (in Western culture), they may not even be aware of these impulses and thus consider themselves straight. Observations made in other cultures, and historical reports from China and Japan before the arrival of Judeo-Christian influences, support the view that perhaps a plurality of men are capable of behaving bisexually.

Yet another notion now confronts a problem of scale. Perhaps nature-wise, the default mode is bisexual, and it is the exclusive heterosexual and homosexual who are the statistical outliers.

Yawning Bread 


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