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A Gay Humanist Manifesto by Alan Keslian - HTML preview

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ebook ISBN 978-0-9547693-6-9

© Alan Keslian 2011

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PROPOSITIONS OF THIS MANIFESTO

Humanism is a rational system of thought in which the primary objectives are human happiness and fulfilment, not adherence to supernatural beliefs. Humanism can be defined as working with others for the common good, or “Being good for goodness sake”.

This booklet is a manifesto - not in the sense of being a political party's pitch for votes - but in the sense of proposing a humanist view of the world specifically relevant to lesbians and gay men.

Though written for lesbian and gay humanists, what it says may be of interest to others who are not gay, or who may be religious.

Arguments are put forward to support the following propositions:

human characteristics vary from one individual to another; this variation is natural and desirable - it helps us to adapt and survive in a changing world;

human sexuality varies a lot; millions are strongly driven by sexual attraction to others of the same gender;

our sexual desires are deeply rooted in our personalities; with sexual love, as with relationships between human beings generally, variety should be expected to occur;

we should use observation and reason to develop our understanding of the world around us, testing our ideas out when practicable; we should challenge beliefs based on superstition, supposed messages from a god or gods, or traditions, especially those which conflict with rational understanding;

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we should develop a moral compass to guide our actions; a compass that will help us judge what will be of benefit to ourselves and those around us, and steer us through the difficulties of life;

living among a heterosexual majority, we are constantly reminded of our own different natures; like other minorities, we may face questions about how we fit in;

being an identifiable minority, we are vulnerable to discrimination; we need to stand up for ourselves;

we should promote an outlook of tolerance and respect for individuality and difference in society generally;

whilst opposing those who condemn us because of our sexuality, we should give credit where credit is due; we should not undervalue kind and helpful actions performed by those with beliefs different from our own.

The following sections of this booklet further explain each of these propositions.

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Human characteristics vary from one individual to another.

This variation is natural and desirable. It helps us to adapt and survive in a changing world.

Darwinian evolution is the scientific theory which explains how different species of living things all developed from earlier forms through genetic variation and natural selection. Variations that help any form of life to thrive are part of the process that brings about new species. Because of the vast timescale and the many thousands of different species on the planet, the way evolution works as a whole cannot be tested and demonstrated in a laboratory. Nevertheless a huge body of evidence does exist; it comes from recorded observations of nature, from the selective breeding by humans of plants and animals, and through links to biology, the fossil record, geology, astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry and many other scientific disciplines.

Simple observations and experiments can be carried out by breeding species of plants or small animals to demonstrate that variations occur and are passed on from generation to generation.

Some rules to predict how certain traits are inherited were identified by Gregor Mendel in the 1850s. He studied the characteristics of pea plants, and one of the milestones in his research was the discovery of pairs of dominant and recessive genes. Cross-pollination of plants that produced yellow seeds with plants that produced green seeds would result in some later generations having 100% of plants with yellow seeds, and some with 75% yellow and 25% green. No later cross-bred generations contained fewer yellow than green, and Mendel found it was possible to predict the percentages that would occur. He deduced that the traits of seeds being yellow or of being green occurred as a pair, and that the yellow trait was dominant. A plant inheriting one gene of each type, i.e. having the yellow from one parent and the green from the other, would bear only yellow seeds; only when both parents had the green trait would plants bearing green seeds result.

We know now that genetic traits are determined by particular 3

molecular sequences in the genes of the living cells that make up our bodies. Our species, homo sapiens, shares most of these sequences with other animal species. We have developed in the same way as other living things, through the processes of individual variation and natural selection. Some human traits, such as eye colour, follow the dominant/recessive gene pattern of inheritance. Recent estimates of the numbers of lesbians and gay men in human populations, 5% or so, are much lower than the 25%

found when a variation is due to a single dominant and recessive gene pair. Though estimating characteristics in human populations is more complex than counting the seeds of cross-bred pea plants, this suggests that sexual orientation is not determined by anything as simple as a single pair of dominant/recessive genes.

When species spread into new areas, or when the environment changes, some traits become more, or less, useful than they were before. New traits may appear at any time through genetic mutation. The outcome is a slow and continuing process of adaptation, and this has resulted in the huge range of species that has come into existence over the millions of years life has existed on earth. Many species have become extinct, some through dramatic environmental change, others because new species appeared that were better able to survive and breed.

Our brains being so much larger than that of other species, we are uniquely able to alter our environment intentionally. From forest clearances to fresh water reservoirs, we are increasingly working the levers of environmental change.

Human sexuality varies a lot. Millions are strongly driven by sexual attraction to others of the same gender.

Differences in physical characteristics abound among our species; our personalities, too, vary in countless different ways. Whether we think of intelligence, feeding, fighting, bodily strength, ability to use tools, entertainment, whatever aspect of human personality we 4

might choose, individuals vary. These variations are essential to civilisation, enabling people to develop particular abilities and specialise in a range of occupations and activities. They can also be the cause of conflict. Since individuals differ in so many ways, inevitably something one person enjoys may not be liked another, or may even be thought loathsome.

Human sexual desire is as varied as other attributes of our personalities. Same sex attraction has been recorded in different cultures in all periods of history, and in all parts of the world.

Other species too exhibit same sex attraction. Sheep farmers, when deciding how many rams are needed to impregnate a flock of ewes, allow for about 10% of males being sexually attracted not to the ewes but to other rams. Horse breeders tell of stallions that are

'gay'. Pairs of water birds of the same sex have been seen making nests, some taking a fertile egg from the nest of a mixed sex pair.

In communities of bonobo (a species of chimpanzee), promiscuous sexual acts between individuals of the same and opposite sexes occur frequently and appear to reinforce cohesion within the group. These are a few examples. Many, many more have been observed in the animal kingdom.

Historically, in humans many kinds of sexual relationships have occurred and been condoned in human societies, for example child marriage, forced marriage, slaves bought to satisfy the lust of their owners, and harems. What is accepted in one country may be illegal in another. In societies that value human rights and individual freedom, a rule of thumb applicable to sexual relationships is that the informed consent of the participants must be freely given. Many relationships approved of in other cultures, past and present, contravene this rule, but it leaves us free to do what we want with our own bodies, as long as we do not deprive others of the right to decide what to do − or not do − with theirs, providing we do not harm others, especially the vulnerable, and especially children.

Whether in liberal or autocratic societies, the sexual urge is a frequent cause of problems. Those who can be happy without a great investment of time and effort in the bump and grind of physical sex may look with bemusement at those who are 5

relentlessly driven by desire. They may well be pleased to escape the strife and misery that strong sexual urges sometimes cause.

They may though, experience less of the joy that intense sexual love can bring. What they have no right to do is to assume their lower sex drive gives them the moral authority to condemn others who are more strongly driven. One of the most appalling instances of such bogus moralising was the suicide of the father of the modern computer, Alan Turing, who was driven to take his own life through persecution by the British authorities because he had consensual sex with another man, a crime under the laws of the time.

Our sexual desires are deeply rooted in our personalities. As with relationships between human beings generally, a variety of types of sexual love should be expected to occur.

Evolutionary arguments can be used to explain some prohibitions against sexual relationships. Inbreeding will, over time, limit the mix of different genes passed on to later generations, and increase the likelihood of offspring having genetic defects. With few exceptions, people who seek sexual partners instinctively look beyond their brothers and sisters and other close relatives.

To these instinctive prohibitions, laws, traditions and religions have added their own concepts of what is acceptable. Many earlier views of what should be forbidden have been contradicted, or called into question, by more recent scientific knowledge of human reproduction, evolution, and psychology. In societies which value human rights and individual freedom, those in power should not use the law to prohibit people from engaging in an activity unless it causes harm.

If sex is important in making us happy or sad, we have the right to decide for ourselves what suits us best, subject always to the rights of others being given due weight. Sex will play a major role in determining who (if anybody) we live with, and we will often make friends with those who share our interests and outlook. We 6

become aware of physical differences at a very young age, and during adolescence find ourselves being interested sexually in others, some of us in the opposite sex, some of us in our own sex, and some are attracted to both. Some of us discover that our initial desires were mistaken and change tack. We need to discover what is right for us, so as not to spend the rest of our lives fearing we are miserably doing what parents and others wanted, but not what might have brought us happiness. Attraction to the same or the opposite sex is only one factor in our sexual natures. Some arguments for and against promiscuity, and similarly for and against monogamy, are outlined in the paragraphs that follow.

Arguments in favour of promiscuity

Sex is a simple physical pleasure which should be enjoyed freely by consenting adults whenever there is mutual attraction, as long as no harm is done. Engaging with many lovers will enrich our lives. Learning from them will improve our own ability to make love, and make us better able to bring pleasure to others as well as to ourselves. Being promiscuous means that we engage with a greater number of people in a mutually beneficial way, and shows our willingness to cross boundaries and reach out to strangers. It can make us feel we belong to a huge informal club of like-minded people.

An individual's sexual desires can change over time. Promiscuity makes it easy to move on to new experiences.

Whilst promiscuity may not bring everyone all they want, the prospect of a larger number finding at least some satisfaction is greater in a promiscuous world. This reduces sexual frustration, which causes psychological and social problems.

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Against Promiscuity

Any highly promiscuous man or women is rather like someone who answers the question “Do you have any close friends?” by saying “Oh yes, I have thousands!” Their love is fleeting and hedonistic; relationships do not deepen and mature over time. All that matters about a complex human being is whether their appearance arouses sexual desire, and their actions give sensual pleasure. This is a cold way to love, a refusal to see sexual partners as sensitive beings who have hopes and dreams, problems and disappointments.

Between strangers, the understanding of each other's physical likes and dislikes is limited. There is no repertoire of shared sexual pleasures that can be drawn on to enhance love-making.

Promiscuity can lead to a constant hunt for new sexual partners.

This predatory activity comes to dominate some people's lives; thousands of new conquests are sought to satisfy what is seen as a purely physical need, when satisfaction can only be found through a broader appreciation, a physical, emotional, and intellectual meeting of mind and body.

Can anyone engaging in an alcohol or drug fuelled orgy truly say that informed consent has been freely given by all the parties?

An attitude of “What the hell, anything goes” is likely to predominate, with little regard to the wishes and well-being of others.

Promiscuity brings greater health risks. “Safe sex” will reduce these, but will not eliminate them. There are, too, people on the prowl who are nasty and dangerous.

High levels of promiscuity among gay men, far from being a form of sexual freedom, may be a hangover from oppressive times when gay sex was punishable by imprisonment, and exposure ruined careers and caused social ostracism. Then, brief anonymous encounters were the best way to avoid blackmail or prosecution.

Patterns of behaviour that developed during those awful times of persecution have been foisted by older generations onto new.

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In favour of monogamy

Many people find that sex is best when it is part of a long-term loving relationship. To established couples, what they share with each other is special. The desire for an intense relationship with one individual is strong in many of us; without it our lives are not complete.

In well matched couples, the sense of belonging to one another, and of being able to trust and inspire one another, is reinforced by the act of making love. The relationship boosts the couple's confidence in themselves. Together they can achieve more in life than would been possible had they remained single.

The everyday burdens of life are more easily carried by two than by one.

A stable relationship provides a good basis for home life, especially for lesbians or gay men who want to raise children.

Against monogamy

The monogamous do not cease to fancy other attractive people they see and encounter, in photographs or in the flesh. They stray, at least in their thoughts. Perhaps the reasons they do not act on their desires are little to do with virtue, and much more to do with the fear of being found out, or perhaps breaking their complaisant routine is too much bother.

Living as a couple means each partner giving up many of the things they want in favour of what the other partner wants. Even if this sacrifice is fully reciprocated, they each have to spend a lot of time on things they would not have chosen for themselves.

Dissatisfaction over the balance of give and take in relationships is common. Some couples stick together because they have nowhere else to go, but come to hate each other. One partner may become dominant, and the other a resentful lackey, or they engage in an endless battle of wills through constant point scoring or other mutually damaging behaviour. One party may inflict physical or mental cruelty on the other. The world is full of unhappy people limping along in committed relationships. Not only have they made 9

their own lives miserable, but their gloom affects those around them.

We all age. We are all vulnerable to illness, emotional distress, problems over money, or rows with family and friends. One partner can become a burden on the other, who may come to feel the relationship has turned into a trap. Even with heterosexuals, divorce numbers rocketed when law reform eased the restrictions.

In many long-term relationships, to borrow from the playwright Marivaux, “Duty becomes a monster that crushes you.”

There seem to be more arguments “against” than “for”, both for promiscuity and monogamy. Other possibilities, for instance serial monogamy, have not been mentioned. Coverage of all relationship possibilities would fill several large books, but there is no intention here to promote a “one size fits all” notion of how gay men or lesbians ought to live. As gay humanists we will want to think for ourselves and find our own way forward. The over-arching question is what is best for us as individuals, and for those close to us.

Unencumbered by guesses about the nature of things in ancient texts that have long since been proved wrong, or by superstitious beliefs, we should stand a better chance than most.

We should use observation and reason to develop our understanding of the world around us, testing our ideas out when practicable. We should question beliefs based on superstition, supposed messages from a god or gods, or traditions, especially those which conflict with rational understanding.

The vast extent of scientific knowledge, and the mathematics frequently entailed, may seem daunting. A single individual does not have the mental capacity to fully understand the whole of known science. Yet a familiarity with the basics of the scientific 10

method – an enquiring mind, intelligent observation, deduction and testing ideas out – will be of value to everyone.

Some people nevertheless find science too challenging, and seek refuge in a simpler world of straightforward absolute certainties.

Religious people who regard a holy text or the word of a prophet to be literally and absolutely true claim there is no need to think further. Indeed they usually regard questioning their accepted dogma as sinful. Very few, though, turn away from the benefits that have come about through scientific thought. Much of the modern world, including all of our electrical devices, many home comforts, modern medicine, and the ability to travel quickly over long distances, is a result of scientific advances. They are very seldom spurned as contrary to religious beliefs, even though they were not mentioned in the religious texts. There is great inconsistency among the “absolute truths” put forward in different religions.

Those who adhere rigidly to religious dogma shut the door on honest enquiry and understanding.

Innumerable myths and legends have been devised by different peoples at different times to explain how we and the world we live in came about. Many of these were genuine attempts to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and the universe, but may have been hijacked and embellished by forceful, domineering individuals to grab or wield power over communities, nations and empires. Scientific knowledge stands apart from myths, legends and tradition because it is subject to argument, to proof, disproof, and modification when new facts come to light.

This is not to say humanists must shun legends, myths, or tradition altogether. They can be appreciated as imaginative stories powerfully expressed in evocative language. We should think of them as part of human history and appreciate them for their cultural significance. What we should not do is give them the same factual status as careful observations of the world and theories that have been properly developed in the scientific manner.

Nor should we ascribe to scientific knowledge and our rational systems of thought the infallibility claimed for religious dogma.

The peer review process in science is very effective in maintaining quality, but errors of data and misunderstandings do happen.

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Sometimes charlatans deceive us with false claims, in order to make money or further their careers. When fraud occurs, the legal processes to obtain redress are so lengthy that the trickster often makes a fortune and the real discoverer goes bust before the case is determined. Sharp operators often buy their way out of trouble with out of court settlements.

Scientists should be open and honest about how they have made their discovery, obtained their data, and developed their theory.

They should not behave like nodding donkeys. Enquiring minds are essential to scientific advance, and they generate conflicting arguments. We should be suspicious of anything presented as fact solely on the grounds that scientists all over the world believe it to be so.

We should develop a moral compass to guide our actions; a compass that will help us judge what will be of benefit to ourselves and those around us, and steer us through the difficulties of life.

For all our modern scientific understanding of our world, the horrors of war, of starvation, of disease, and of threats to the environment persist. Life is short and brutish for billions of people because of industrial pollution, massively powerful weapons, populations burgeoning where food is scarce, epidemic diseases, and a host of other reasons. Slaves, untouchables and deprived poor underclasses remain common features of human societies.

Tyrants torture and kill, racial and religious minorities are driven from their homes, and even in “advanced” countries that boast of freedom, millions of convicts languish in prison. Our modern, rational understanding of the world has eliminated some horrors, for example smallpox, but at times human misery seems to increase as quickly as the world population.

The challenge facing modern humanists is to turn scientific knowledge and modern technology towards the common good and 12

that of our planet, and to prevent them being used to cause harm.

Perhaps a final evolutionary test lies before homo sapiens. Can we use our knowledge to secure a better future for our species, in harmony with our ever changing environment, or will greed and aggression lead us back to more primitive, self-destructive ways?

Grit and courage will be needed even to stay where we are, let alone meet the challenge of further progress.

Man's positive capabilities, fairness, respect for the rights of others, altruism, forgiveness, charity, integrity, and cooperation with others for the common good, struggle against self-interest, greed, vengeance, dishonesty, oppression, callousness and the lust for power. To citizens in stable societies going about their everyday lives, this struggle may seem remote until some extraordinary event disturbs established routines. Yet everyday actions too are part of the struggle between good and bad. Most of us know people whose only concern is to get whatever they can in life, and we know others who are exceptionally kind and considerate. The humanist view of what being a good person means is much broader than acting only out of self-interest. We want to play a part in protecting what is of value in the world, and to make things better for everyone.

Living among the heterosexual majority, we are constantly reminded of our own different natures; like other minorities, we may face questions about how we fit in.

In tolerant countries we may be tempted to think we are no longer part of a dubious minority. This may be a nice idea, but do we, when we are out in public with a partner or lover, feel free to hold hands, put our arms round each other, and kiss? In places where we know others of our own kind are present, or where we think the straights are open minded, we may be confident enough to show affection, but when we see very conventional looking people all around us, we may simply decide to quietly do whatever we are 13

there to do without being conspicuous. Straight couples often do not touch each other in public, so this self-restraint may not seem much of a sacrifice. In reality we know displays of affection by us may not be accepted quite so readily as physical contact between heterosexual couples, and that we may even provoke hostility.

Much of the time we simply want to get on with our lives.

Advertising images are everywhere. Mixed gender couples are often shown happily being together, but same sex couples only rarely. The arithmetic is against us: adverts will usually be seen by a lot more straights than gays, and the mixed sex couple will appeal to most. That's the way marketing works.

Ever been asked by someone you've recently met about your wife or husband, and had to explain that you have a partner of the same sex? Or been asked by a comparative stranger if you fancy so and so, on the assumption that the opposite sex attracts you? Or been with a group of straights of your own gender who talk about their own hetero experiences in a way that makes you feel left out?

One run of the mill event of this kind may not amount to much, and we get used to dealing with the awkwardness, but the relief that comes from being able to talk and act freely and naturally again in the company of other lesbians and gay men can be enormous. Nor are the difficulties confined to small everyday matters: when we announced our same sex preference to our parents, even if they were supportive and reassuring, were they not likely to have hidden a disappointment that grandchildren were unlikely? We know we are not the same as the straight majority, and must accept that our being different is not always welcome.

Three questions about evolution and how we fit in as a minority are often asked:

does same sex attraction depend on inherited characteristics, or is it due to environment or culture?

if there is an inherited element, since same sex love making does not produce children, how has the trait been passed on, and why is it so common?

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how can we fit in with the straight majority?

Some thoughts about these issues are briefly outlined below.

The first question, whether nature or nurture plays the major role, is asked about a lot of personality traits. Arguments have raged about whether nature or nurture is primary. Whole books have been written about whether criminal and other antisocial actions arise through intrinsic wickedness, or are caused by deprivation or mistrea