Ever wonder why same sex behavior evolved in our species? I mean, at this point in our evolution, humans still need egg, sperm and a womb to reproduce. But Mother Nature is a perfect planner, and survival of the fittest might also mean survival of the gayest. This is Mating Matters.
Mating Matters is the podcast that looks at human behavior through a lens of reproduction. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh and I’ve always been fascinated with the science of love and evolutionary psychology. In recent decades, the great thinkers in evolutionary psychology have expanded Darwin’s original premise. Remember survival of the fittest? You see, Darwin believed that we’re here simply because we learned to survive. He said, we evolved because we learned to adapt to our environment and procure food and shelter often in very harsh conditions.
Here’s the problem with that simplistic view of evolution. Even if one smarty pants, hunter gatherer, lived a life of fine dining on animal carcasses and outfitted his cave with only the very best animal skins and modern heating called fire – if he or she forgot to reproduce, that caveman is not our ancestor. He may have survived, but he didn’t create descendants. Survival doesn’t ensure that genes stay in evolutions chain.
Now, reproduction, that’s another matter. In evolutionary terms, she who dies with the most grandchildren wins. I believe nearly every human behavior is designed to increase our reproductive odds, but what about homosexual behavior? Why did it evolve? That’s the question I set out to answer in this episode of Mating Matters. Welcome to Survival of the Gayest!
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: The multiple award winning performance of Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, the bio pick up Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, depicted a man who seemed to struggle with his sexual identity. He was deeply in love with a woman named Mary, played by Lucy Boynton. And also, had many same sex relationships. In fact, he wrote the song “Love of my Life” for Mary.
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Watching that movie, I at first experienced the feeling that the producers probably intended. Here was a gay man in the 1970s from a conservative immigrant family who was under cultural pressure to act straight and maintain a heterosexual relationship. But the social scientist in me had an inkling of another thought. His lifelong love for Mary was so deep and their attachment so crucial to his feelings of security. What if he was a bisexual man who is under cultural pressure to choose a side, and what percentage of people live with that pressure to be put in one box or another?
Dr. Alfred Kinsey: “Hello, I’m Dr. Alfred Kinsey from Indiana University and I’m making a study of sex behavior.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: That’s the actor Liam Neeson playing Dr. Alfred Kinsey, in the movie “Kinsey”. Some of the earliest work on sexual behavior was done in the 1940s by this Harvard-trained scientist. In fact, even today, the Kinsey Institute produces some of the most respected research on human sexuality in the world. In the 1940s, Kinsey interviewed thousands of people asking them about their sexual histories and creating something called the “Kinsey Scale”.
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In a nutshell, the Kinsey Scale looked at two things; sexual fantasies and actual sexual behavior. Kinsey’s hunch was that many gay people were culturally constrained to behave as straight people, yet still might have homosexual fantasies. And Kinsey was right. From these interviews, he created a six-point scale. Someone scoring a one on the Kinsey Scale would be completely heterosexual, meaning all their fantasies and behavior were reported to be heterosexual. At the other end of the scale, someone’s scoring a six would be considered 100% homosexual. Virtually, all their fantasies and sexual behavior was reported to be homosexual. That leaves the rest of us.
You might think that the vast majority of Kinsey’s respondents would have ranked a one or a six. But Kinsey found that most people lie somewhere in the gray area in between. They might have mostly homosexual behavior but experience some heterosexual sexual fantasy or have opposite sex relationships at some point, or they may be mostly straight with some gay fantasies or experience often occurring in young adulthood and adolescents when hormones are high and self-identity is forming.
This man says he had plenty of girlfriends in high school. But one summer home from college, he decided to wander up the beach to an area known as “gay beach”.
Brian: It was the summer of my freshman year in college and I knew, okay, I’m going to try and kind of explore this a little bit. Without really defining that I was going to do something that day, I knew I was open to walking down the beach to where the gays were. And I happened to notice a guy who was really attractive. That was that. I noticed him. So, anyway, I went out into the surf and soon he actually came out to the surf coincidentally because I don’t think he noticed that I noticed him.
I’m Brian. I am the program director of the new National LGBTQ radio network known as Channel Q. I came to the realization that I was gay at about age 14.
… we reconnected. I went to his house for a barbecue and ultimately as I think the kids would say today, we hooked up.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: If this experience had happened 200 years ago, some historians believe this man might not have “become gay”. Meaning interpreting his sexual behavior as part of his self-identity. The concept of an exclusively gay person is relatively new in our history, say about 150 years. It likely got bundled up with the spread of Western religions who wanted to grow their ranks through reproduction and limit sex for that purpose. Listen to the Mating Matters podcast episode called “The God Who Clubs” for more on that.
In reaction to the negative cultural attitudes toward homosexual behavior, gay eventually became a community, a civil rights movement, a political platform. Harvey Milk, a gay activist in San Francisco was the first openly gay elected official in America when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of supervisors in 1977. The actor Sean Penn, played Harvey Milk in the 2008 movie simply called “Milk”.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Tragically, Harvey Milk was assassinated while in office by another former county supervisor.
Why do you think that in the last 100 to 150 years there’s been this pressure to self-identify as one or the other?
Brian: Well, I would say maybe perhaps (and this is really just off the top of my head), I think, speaking in modern times, I know once I got out of college and I moved to the Bay Area, San Francisco specifically, there was a need to then identify because there was a political drive behind what I was doing and others were doing. Now, mind you, this was also during the Aids crisis. And so, in order to have a voice and to demand attention in a way, we certainly really were loud and proud about being gay or queer. We took back that word.
And I think there are lots of reasons why as a younger person might want to identify as that because it’s helping them find that voice, that lane, if you will. Which is separating them or shedding that former life of theirs, which is maybe what they thought they might be or what their family expects them to be, which is heterosexual. And so, there’s a need to identify, I think if only to figure it out.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And while there are some who thrive in gay communities, other people in same sex relationships choose to live in conservative, mostly heterosexual suburbs and don’t even take on gay as part of their identity.
Do you self-identify gay?
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Why? Anything?
Female: I really don’t.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Interesting. Do you have a same sex partner?
Female: I do. I’ve been with the same partner for 28 years, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary in July. But yeah, we’ve been together 28 years, and I’m raising two children. They’re adults now though. 24 and 21 – two boys.
So many families tell me all the time, they’re so grateful that like our kids will become friends with their kids and then they find out that my kids being raised by two moms and they kind of have to question their own, bigotry or not. And they’re like, “Okay, is this going to be okay with me? Is it not in?” Then they get to know us and they’re so grateful because they’ve been exposed to something that they had no idea really existed.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Whether you subscribe to the idea that gay is an identity or gay is a behavior, it still doesn’t explain why we as humans evolve to have the behavior. Same sex relationships are seen in all primates and all human cultures throughout all human history. Napoleonic friendship is a term that refers to special bonds of friendship that grow between men in a homo social environment like the army. Yet at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a reproductive benefit.
You should know that there are other sexual behaviors shunned across human cultures because they don’t positively impact reproduction. Take incest, for example, sex between siblings is generally taboo in all human cultures, but not same sex behaviors between strangers. Why would this be? Anthropologists have often pointed to the gay uncle or gay aunt theory. In our anthropological past, if a mother had an extra child free-adult around to help with her own children, especially one with a biological interest in protecting them, more of her children would have survived to adulthood and gone on to have babies themselves.
The theory is that gay uncles and gay aunties often called “alloparents” also nurtured their own genes, and those genes flourished in their nieces and nephews. Thus, the gay gene if there is such a thing, would have stayed in evolution’s chain.
Sounds like a good theory, but here’s a more impactful one. Remember Kinsey and his scale? All of his data came from self-reports. If there’s one thing people often lie about, it’s sex. There’s just too much judgment and made up stigma around sexuality. Nevertheless, very few people reported being exclusively gay or exclusively heterosexual. The vast majority of gay people he interviewed also had had heterosexual relationships at some point in their lives. Often because getting married and having kids was the only thing allowed. Sometimes, homosexuality was downright illegal and even dangerous.
Besides the helpful gay uncle theory, evolutionary psychologists remind us that “gay people” are also reproducing and passing on their genes that might include an affinity for same sex behavior. That certainly makes a lot of sense. And all of the gay people we interviewed also said they’d had heterosexual relationships. Not always because of cultural pressure, but just because they enjoyed them.
Male: I was quite the lady’s man. I had a girlfriend after girlfriend after girlfriend, and was happily engaged in that activity because it’s what I knew.
Male: I have had sex with women. My first sexual experience was with a woman at age 12. She was 15. Yeah, and then shortly thereafter when I was about 15 or 16, is my first sexual experience with a man. To be that way, it’s more fluid for me than necessarily being a wholly identifying homosexual male.
Female: Some days, I will be very into women, but then I’ll see a cute boy walking down the street and I’ll be like, “Oh, he’s so cute. Even though I was with a girl yesterday.”
Female: I didn’t even really have an experience with a woman until I was 22, I suppose. And it never crossed my mind that I would ever find women attractive. I find men very physically attractive. And then so I always tell people, “I fell in love with the person.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But there’s much more to the story of survival of the gayest, and for that, we turn to gender role and gender expression. Here’s a fun fact about gay men that might surprise you. The more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be gay. One researcher has even isolated the biological underpinnings for this phenomenon.
Tony Bogaert: My name is Tony Bogaert. I’m a professor of Health Sciences and Psychology at Brock University in the Niagara Region of Canada, and I do research and teach related to human sexuality.
In 1996, Ray Blanchard and I actually conducted the first study demonstrating that on average, gay men do have more older brothers than do heterosexual men. And we were perplexed by that. We thought that was very interesting and we ended up replicating it in a number of other samples including the original Kinsey sample. Then other people actually ended up replicating. And in fact, it’s been replicated cross culturally as well.
So, it’s one of the more consistent, reliable findings in sexology. We didn’t have a mechanism for why that was though. So, we were unsure about why that was the case. And so, I actually ended up doing lab work with immunologists. And just recently, we published a study that in fact suggest very strongly that the older brother effect is in fact biological, in fact immunological in nature. That a mother develops an immune reaction to a protein that’s male oriented. So, she herself is female and male fetuses have certain biological structures that are very foreign to her. And therefore, she may end up developing an immune reaction to it. And it becomes increasingly likely with each male fetus that she in fact will develop an immune reaction against that male protein.
And once she does, what ends up happening is it alters brain development and makes later born males more likely to end up having certain mechanisms in the brain that end up making them more likely to be attracted to men as opposed to women.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So, it’s almost like the more men she’s had in her body, her body says, “You know, the next one, let’s make it a little more female?”
Tony Bogart: Kind of, yeah.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And how many siblings do you have?
Brian: I am the youngest of five. So, there are two sisters and two brothers.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: All this research makes me think, could a gay little brother be helpful for families? After all, reproductive strength is a family affair. Could Mother Nature be manufacturing, strong, caring siblings who might not reproduce? Well, Mother Nature may do it sometimes biologically, but there’s at least one group that does it culturally. Meet the Fa’afafine of Samoa – a third gender group of people who are born biologically male but prefer female dress and gender roles, and are very dedicated to their families.
Male: Fa’afafine, they are now staying home, helping up the family and helping the people, sisters and brothers and you better do your own thing so your family will keep contact with you all the time.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: A popular western theory is that when a Samoan mother gives birth to too many sons, the family raises the youngest son as a girl to help with the labor. Although this idea has been disputed.
Male: Sisters and brothers develop like awhile because they have kids. The Fa’afafine in me has to stay home, care my mother and my dad because I have no kids.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: These special community members are considered a third gender. They are also reported to only have sex with nonb- Fa’afafine men. They are accepted and today some even take hormones so they can breastfeed younger siblings.
But wait, as you can hear, I’m mixing up sexual orientation with gender role and gender identity. These are three distinct concepts. They aren’t necessarily connected. Just because you can see someone’s gender expression, doesn’t mean you know who they sleep with. However, I noticed that when I asked the mostly self-identifying gay people in our studio about their sexual identity, they almost always tied it to gender role.
Brian: I’m married to really a traditional guy’s guy. He knows what to do with the hammer and nails. Well, he’s a rocket scientist so that helps. But he’s very even keel … I would come to expect in a man. He is very protective. I know that no matter what, we’re always going to be safe and sound with Dr. Steve around.
I on the other hand, I’m much more emotional that we attribute that with women oftentimes. I know how to make things look pretty. He knows how to make them work.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: It sounds like your definition of gay identity is also intertwined with gender identity.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And so, do you think that this sort of forcing people into a gender pigeon hole has led the way into making them go into a sexual orientation pigeon hole?
Male: I think that’s a really good evaluation. I think the best tangible entity for that, we are raised filling out forms from a very young age, and there have always been a male or a female box to tick off or to check. And it is really hard because it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to identify that maybe I don’t necessarily fall into those.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: When you see someone’s gender expression, how masculine or feminine they may dress and groom themselves and you notice the gender roles they prefer – are they a tidy housekeeper? Do they love to work with power tools? This may not be a predictor of their sexual orientation, but stereotypes exist. And stereotypes exist because enough examples are noticed that the culture generalizes it to all members of the group.
You’ve heard the stereotypes about gay people. Gay men decorate well, they are cleaner. Gay women are handy around the house. Speaking of that stereotype, I’m a landlady and once I had a gay woman tenant who owned her own tool belt. She was an amazing tenant, never called me once for a fix-it.
I had the good fortune of finding a tenant who happened to match the stereotype. Okay, hold that thought for a moment. That gender role and gender identity are stereotypically linked to sexual orientation.
First, we need to talk about peacocks. Male peafowl known as peacocks have indisputably the most beautiful tails of any bird species. They shimmy and shake it to a full fan spread of glory. It’s three times the size of their body. The large green and blue plumage when fully expanded, is a wonder to behold and a dangerous burden when it comes to fleeing from predators.
Peacocks lug around this enormous tail. They have to procure enough calories to maintain it, and they’re at a huge disadvantage against those who want to eat them. In short, their tail has no survival value. In fact, it’s a handicap. So, why would Mother Nature have created it? For one simple reason – it drives ladies wild. Enough peahens chose fancy tailed mates in the past that the trait became dominant in all males across the species. It’s a big drag that functions as a chick magnet.
Okay, so let’s go back to that stereotype of gay men being cleaner, kinder, more nurturing, and great housekeepers. Could women have selected them for mates because they’re prettier and neater? It’s called “the beauty happens” theory. And it says that females love select ornamentation as a signaler of good genes. Did enough women choose those “gay” traits in men because it made relationships more harmonious? houses easier to tend to and children easier to raise? And then homosexual behavior came along for the ride?
Of course, homosexual behavior might not increase vulnerability to predators like a peacock’s tail does. It’s not exactly a handicap until you consider that in some cultures, people who live openly gay live under a real threat of violence.
Male: We weren’t like acting crazy. We weren’t like drinking. We were just walking back to our car after we had a great night with our friends.
Female: That’s when they say a man walked past them saying a homophobic slur. Next, the man and his group of friends follow the couple yelling more expletives, then getting violent.
Male: And that’s when Tristan took the first punch directly to his face. And that is what broke his nose. He took two or three more punches. And then he was down on the ground motionless and he took a very hard kick to the back of his head.
Female: Spencer says, he lunged at the attackers, but they immediately started punching him in the head, leaving him unconscious.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: For another theory, let’s turn to ornithologist, yes, the study of birds, including gay birds, Richard Prom at Yale University. He believes that same sex relationships were designed to help females move more freely and safely, a kind of protection for women. Dr. Prom explains this in his big think talk that you can find on YouTube or read his book, “The Evolution of Beauty” and judge for yourself.
Dr. Richard Prum: In the case of female, female sexual relationships, they could contribute to female alliances that could protect females from sexual coercion by male hierarchical groups. At the same time, I propose that male, male sexual attraction could have evolved because any social situation in which males have multiple sexual outlets, would have contributed to female freedom to move among the individuals in that social system and to avoid coercion and sexual violence.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But there’s something else about primates you should know. And this idea aligns with Dr. Prum’s idea. We all practice grooming, whether it’s a chimpanzee picking insects out of each other’s fur, or the stroking and preening that goes on in every primate social circle, often in exchange for food. In modern humans, this primate grooming habit has become commercialized in hair salons, nail salons, barbershops, spas and massage parlors. And rather than exchanging food, we give the groomers money to presumably purchase their own food. And we know that touch is good for us. It releases dopamine, oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and it lowers cortisol levels and improves immune function.
Male: As silly as it sounds, you’ve got this new trend with millennial men of cuddling. Two men cuddling that have nothing to do with. They are totally boning down with the ladies or whatever they want to say, but because they are close with their male friends, there’s an affection level.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And affection can become sexual. Homosexual behavior can also be seen as a form of caregiving, a pleasurable form of grooming. In Bonobos, who we share 98% of our DNA with, young females often pleasure the older higher status females so that when men return with more protein to the nest, the higher status women will share. In fact, Bonobos are famous for using sex for just about everything. It’s a substitute for aggression. Bonobos have sex in virtually every partner combination except close family members, and females use it politically. All this makes me think about the award winning film, “The Favorite”.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: The Favorite, the story of competitive feuding con sorts of a mentally and physically disabled Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman. And yes, in the film, both women serve the queen sexually. One woman played by Rachel Vice was married to a military leader and used her favor with the Queen to sway the war. The other played by Emma Stone had fallen into a lower status and used her attentions from the Queen to elevate herself back into society through the Queen’s granting of a wedding to a gentleman. A wedding that came with a royal apartment.
In her case, homosexual behavior granted her access to a higher status mate for reproduction and increased the chances that she and her offspring would survive. Were the women in the favorite gay or did they practice exceptional grooming and caregiving? Was it simply a case of situational homosexuality that can increase survival chances? Think about it. Situational homosexuality has been observed in all kinds of settings throughout history, within military ranks, same sex boarding schools, convents, monasteries, and most notoriously in prisons.
Humans are wired to bond. We need each other for health, safety and survival. Humans use sex as an exchange of care as much as a route to reproduction. Most gay people have also had some heterosexual behavior. Only a few are exclusively gay across their entire lifespan.
Brian: My husband, for instance, is what we call “a gold star” gay. He is on the extreme end of the Kinsey scale where he’s never had sex with a woman, has no interest in it, it doesn’t cross his mind, would never cross his mind.
Male: I’m not a gold card or a platinum gay if you’re familiar with either of these terms. Gold card meaning that you’ve never had sex with a woman. Platinum meaning you were born by cesarean section, so you’ve never had any proximity to a vagina.
Brian: I’m just learning about true bisexuality with some new friends who are that, and it really does exist. Before you always thought, “Well is that just your way of trying to get to the truth or acceptance that you’re really gay?” No, actually it’s not. Some people are capable of loving and having sex with both.
Male: Sex with a woman for me is fulfilling in a more nurturing and soft way. There’s a different connection. There’s also maybe more abstract, but when you’re having vaginal sex, there’s an intake. But with a woman it’s much softer. There’s definitely almost like – this maybe not received well, but it’s like a mother’s embrace, having vaginal sex. There’s a definite different emotional connection.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And don’t forget that some of the same traits that gay males have stereotypically speaking of course (being cleaner, better groomed) are also traits that women tend to choose for reproduction. Then it makes sense that gay behavior would stay constant in our culture.
Finally, gay as an identity is a relatively new concept in human evolution. For centuries, people married and had kids despite a grayish sexuality. They didn’t necessarily choose to limit or alter their lives that much. In fact, today’s millennials see sexuality as something more fluid.
Female: I think it’s just hard because there’s such pressure to fit yourself into boxes, but reality is not like that. Like it’s always a gray area. No one ever perfectly fits into a box.
Male: There’s a fluidity to sexuality and it doesn’t matter where you fall on that spectrum. We’re not going to play the Kinsey Scale game, but if you are a man who is masculine identifying and you find another man attractive, it does not mean that you’re a homosexual. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find them attractive and find some arousal in it. It’s just one of those spectrum things.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Well, millennials need not worry for long about being forced into a gay box or a straight box. These days, sexual identity has exploded into a long list of sexual identity categories for any individual. Take your pick. There’s heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, gay, lesbian, queer, questioning, asexual, a romantic. Honestly, I’m not making this up. Look it up.
Why did homosexuality evolve in our species? Well, whether you subscribe to the helpful gay aunt or uncle theory or the need for someone to fulfill both gender roles in a sex-based division of labor, like the Fa’afafine or that gay little brother idea phenomenon, or you get the sexist behavior used for much more than reproduction – it’s clear that there are many, many reasons why mother nature designed us the way she did. Sex evolved in primates, not only as a mechanism for reproduction, sex is also an exchange of care. It can grant you access to higher status mates for reproduction and offspring survival. For all those reasons, not only has gay survived, but maybe it’s actually survival of the gayest.
Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeart Media. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram at Dr. Wendy Walsh. You know people don’t learn about podcasts usually by just searching around. They learn about a podcast because somebody who loved that podcast told them about it. So, I encourage you to please subscribe, write a review, and more than anything, hit that share button now. Think of somebody who would like to hear this information as much as you enjoyed it. Thanks for listening. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh.