Thursday, April 26, 2007

Forcing social conformity in young men: Aspergers and homosexuality: is there a similarity?

In January 2003 I visited a filmmaker in New England, and as we sat down to dinner in a Friday’s, he said, “Oh, you have Aspergers. You know, the lack of body language.”

I suppose that if medicine had, a half century ago, been where it is today, such a diagnosis might have been made of me. A mild “pervasive developmental disorder” leading into the autism spectrum. I am also a gay man. So I experienced my fair share ot teasing and social ostracism, with some counter-rebellion, especially late in grade school and in middle school (high school was much better). In grade school, I had issues with interrupting in class, which was marked by teachers as “needs improvement” on “practices self-control.”

Most people with Aspergers are (or grow up to be) heterosexual, but it sounds as if many do not get married. Likewise, a gay male with Asperger's is likely never to have a long standing domestic partnerhship (let alone a “marriage”). There is a tendency for us to shun the intimacy of the “family bed” and feel satisfied with our own worlds, which we can create for ourselves. The whole spectrum of personality types is even more complicated by the idea of psychological polarity (some men can be "submissive" or "yielding") as developed by Rosenfels, and a minority of people (probably for biological wiring reasons) are introverted.

School systems in the 50s marked “progress of the pupil as an individual” and “progress of the pupil as a member of the group.” Persons – especially boys – who are “different” are strongly pressured (by teasing and sometimes outright hazing or bullying) to conform to the norms of the group, and in the time that I grew up, this pressure had considerable moralistic overtones. I can remember that a third grade teacher tried to intervene in my housekeeping habits at home. (Third grade, age 8, was the time when I started to fall behind other boys in physical strength and motor skills, and this became a "problem" -- even a "moral" one in others' eyes. That is also the time I suddenly wanted to take piano lessons and did start.) (Remember the nerdy teen Dwayne (Paul Dano) in "Little Miss Sunshine" who wouldn't speak, handscribbles "I hate everybody" and just wants to be left alone.)

Now, one of the most important points here is that many developmental and behavioral issues have biological, often genetic explanations. This may be true, “hands separately”, for both homosexuality and Aspergers. Science keeps accumulating evidence of biological causes for these things. Yet, when we deal with behavior that is more obviously destructive (like drug abuse or alcoholism, or susceptibility to addiction), biological tendencies do not provide a morally acceptable “excuse” for otherwise objectionable behavior.

The clinical issue for pervasive developmental disorders is to provide intervention so that the child will grow up able to function and earn a living. It is not just to make the person conform to the personal goals of parents. However, much of the pressure placed on me had to do with learning to “compete like a man,” play sports, do mechanical chores, and so on. My father talking about “learning to work.” Parents and society often have another agenda in pressuring kids to conform. Parents may (especially with only children or first-born sons) want to feel comfortable that their kids will give them a lineage. And society, particularly in earlier times, will insist that everyone (males especially) be able to assume his fare share of the burdens of a “free country” – such as fighting for it, and fitting in to the communal aspects of family life and child care for the next generation -- sharing family responsibility. Along these lines, there is considerable pressure not only to develop practical skills but also to become more responsive and attentive to people "as people" and not to just one's own inner compass. This does not sit well with many people who grow up to be "different."

There is, in the “developmental spectrum” a group of people who, when permitted to, function alone quite well in a modern technological society, and may individually make great accomplishments. Since the Cold War (about the time of Sputnik) the “nerds” and even loners have had more to offer society, it seems. Technology gave us media (including access to music) and personal mobility first (oil), and then essentially instant “astral projection” with the Internet and search engines in the 1990s. The stereotypes are somewhat true: gay men developed a lot of artistic culture, and geeks developed Silicone Valley (Alan Turing seemed to fit both areas and may have won us WWII). It’s possible to construct a life according to the “alternating current” model, where intimacy is welcomed when chosen by the individual and on the person’s own terms, preferably when he or she has achieved something first. This is particularly true of “artists”. I took piano for nine years, and in retrospect it is regrettable that I “chickened out” of music as a career because of the pressures of the draft and the Cold War. In general, the freedom to live as one chooses may be compromised by the demands and burdens of others (especially family members) in one's environment, regardless of one's own choices.

People like us may remain very distant from others and seem non-communicative. We may seem insular and seem to lack empathy. Others may perceive us as “dangerous” and a threat. But it seems that there are really three big reasons why society puts so much pressure on us.

First, as I mentioned, parents want a lineage. That is all many people have to carry themselves on. Lineage and loyalty of children comes across to them as one of the “rewards” of fidelity and commitment for decades of marriage. It is hardwired into their adult experience of marital sexuality. It is not fair to them, they feel, that children contradict their values or ignore them.

Second, a modern technological society may provide a false illusion of independence. Pandemics, terror, global warming, and eventual oil shortages can threaten personal independence unless technological progress intervenes first. (So far it always has, but the looming threats are big). So, people need to learn interdependence, and, so the thinking goes, the nuclear family is the heart of this, and everyone should be nudged into participation, using the social institution of marriage with all of its props, including abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage.

Finally, there is a moral issue of how burdens are shared. In the 60s and 70s, the Left tended to present this in terms of groups or “class struggle.” In more recent times, conservatives have started to get the point that personal values have a big effect on vulnerable people, although conservatives are less consistent on how people who “don’t reproduce” should be expected into sharing this responsibility. (The Mormon idea of mandatory missionary work fits into this idea.) Persons who are aloof and satisfied to live in their own psychological worlds simply may not be able to do what is expected or needed (and this changes with the times and with demographics, as well as the political climate) without unacceptable cost to themselves.

What I relate to, as a teen and young adult, is spending a great deal of energy and effort on my own welfare and “coming out” process. In my era, I did serve in the military without incident (because of Vietnam), but society was hostile to the idea of our taking part in raising children. But today, with a growing elderly population and fewer children, people like me will have to learn to deal with the possibility of others becoming dependent. Family responsibility doesn’t just come from procreating children.

It’s interesting, then, that when I started substitute teaching, I ran into such difficulties communicating with certain kinds of students. I simply did not have any notion of emotional empathy after my three decades of social urban exile. On the other hand, raising children or serving as a father figure or role model for them may not be an issue for gay men that have tried marriage (and may be divorced with child support payments and visitation), or who had more family responsibility for other siblings early in life. Many jobs that are pushed on seniors assume a high degree of socialization and manipulation of others For me, there is also the disturbing experience that expected “smalltalk” and manipulative social interaction in these jobs (including those involving children) contradict the upward affiliation that drives creativity and aesthetics. I know that this can lead one into dark areas of thought. Others may feel that some public self-expression from people like me indirectly demeans them and would not come from someone who shared more interpersonal responsibility. For example, profession of a desire to "submit" (and unwillingness to have children) can embarrass the family because it implies (in the view of some) that another family is "better" than one's own; someone who respects himself would go to bat for other family members. But that's just a superficial appearance.

Current social and political problems may indeed pay more attention to how people share sensitive responsibilities bringing them into forced intimacy. In these regards, not only military service, but national service in general, as well as parenting and filial responsibility are becoming increasingly sensitive issues for those of us who are a bit different. One point: forcing "different" young men to empathize in a more conventional way with others may make them better citizens (especially given the challenges that seem to be coming our way), but it won't make them "grow up straight." So it also won't justify McGreevey-type marriages just to meet societal expectations and approbation.

Earlier blog posting on role modeling.

Earlier blog posting on ABC News coverage of Aspergers and autism

Sunday, April 22, 2007

CO: gay adoption bill; surveys show many gays are parents or want to become parents

Elizabeth Perry has a story “One in three lesbians raising kids: study; Report claims majority of gay men want children,” in The Washington Blade, p. 14, April 20, 2007. The study was authored by Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, and Jennifer Ehrle Macomber of the Urban Institute of Washington. The study apparently comes from the 2000 United States Census, the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, and the 2004 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.

The report maintains that one third of all lesbians are raising children, and that a majority of gay men would like to become fathers, whether by adoption or biology, including possibly insemination.

I was personally aware of a family in Dallas of two gay men and two gay women raising children.

The Williams Institute has an article by Larry Muhammad from June 2005, “Father’s day for two dads: Gay men’s children say they make good parents.” Link is here. and it does mention Mr. Gates. Reason Magazine has an article by Julian Sanchez from August/Sept 2005 “All Happy Families: The looming battle over gay parenting”, link here. The Reason article addresses the "birthright" argument (that every child deserves a mother and father as a married committed parent) as if it were a canard.

The progressive gay world was always an adult world that developed its own norms of personal responsibility and independence, often emphasizing the need to be “one’s own person” before commitment. The cultural world of families sets priorities quite a bit differently and makes a lot of unwritten and unspoken assumptions about family connectedness and loyalty, a mindset that was often rejected by the gay community in earlier days of gay liberation. When I researched my first book in the 1990s, I found a degree of interest in parenting that surprised me, including reading “Getting Simon: Two Gay Doctors’ Journey into Fatherhood” by Kenneth Morgen. Is this out of a real motive to become a father, or out of a desire to what has always been a societal expectation of men (contradicting the child's "birthright" and posing a moral conundrum), a notion that is growing stronger. In Morgen’s book, it seems to be the former.

Perry’s article mentions a bill on Colorado that would make it the eleventh state to allow same-sex couples to adopt children as couples. A few states discourage or (as with Florida) outrightly prohibit gay adoption. The article maintains that Colorado is one of four states that allows gays to adopt as singles, but I thought the number was much larger. When I lived in Minneapolis, several free newspapers and public billboards advertised for singles to adopt children.

The Blade article indicates that there are over 14000 foster children in “gay households” that would have to be placed if every state suddenly banned gay adoption. One could propose a public policy debate on whether more legally married heterosexual couples could be persuaded to adopt children.

In the 1990s, Alyson Press had created controversy with "Heather Has Two Mommies" by Leslea Newman and Diane Souza, and "Daddy's Roommate" by Michael Willhoite, both books illustrated and intended for children.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gay life in Saudi Arabia: Atlantic story

Nadya Labi has an interesting article in the May 2007 The Atlantic, p. 70, “The Kingdom in the Closet” with the byline “Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why is it ‘easier’ to be gay than ‘straight’ in a society where everyone, homosexual or otherwise, lives in the closet?”

The article goes on to explain that sexual orientation is not accepted in Muslim society as a trait the way it is in western Society. Sexual behavior is, however, and a certain amount of covert male homosexual activity is accepted, maybe even encouraged. There are a variety of reasons, but much of it has to do with the extreme patriarchal nature of Arab tribal society, the religious insistence on keeping the sexes separate, and even polygamy, which can reduce heterosexual options for many men.(a fact that George Gilder bad pointed out in his 1986 book “Men and Marriage”). Some of this would have to do with protecting the royal family. All men in Saudi society are thought of as having "procreative responsibility" although obviously some may lack the opportunity to fulfill it.

The article discusses Wahhabism, the use of sharia law, the religious prohibitions (or harum) and the activities of the religious police (or mutawwa’in), who work for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. People who have worked as contractors in Saudi Arabia tell me that the religious police would come in to guest worker quarters and search for alcohol, even on base. Back in the 50s (and as recently as the 80s in some cities) police vice squads in the United States used to raid gay bars in order to publish lists of patrons.

Nevertheless, homosexual congregation is tolerated in many Saudi cities. There are no bars, so they have to be at restaurants or markets. The attitude is similar to “don’t ask don’t tell” (a phrase used in the article). The fear is that “telling” would create a wedge issue that could undermine the precepts of Islam, yet the Koran says little or nothing about homosexuality or homosexual conduct per se (outside of the story of Lot).

I have wondered also about Internet speech. My domains do get page requests from Saudi Arabia, although I don’t know if they are blocked but that unblocking software gets around this. If I were to visit Saudi Arabia or any less tolerant Muslim country (I would also worry about Egypt) I wonder if I could be arrested or imprisoned for operating the websites and blogs that I have. I have never heard this possibility (for visitors to a Muslim country from the West) discussed and would welcome factual comments. It would really be sticky if I got a job with a contractor that required travel to one of these countries.

Picture: Metropolitan Community Church in Richmond, VA

See also: International Issues blog, Nov. 1, 2011, for discussion of compound life in Muslim countries.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

New York Times story on homosexuality and biology

On Tuesday, April 10, 2007, The New York Times featured a “Science Times” section D with the title “Desire” and led off with an important article by Nicholas Wade, “Pas de Deux of Sexuality Is Written In the Genes”. The article contained a lot of discussion of “brain wiring” and gender, the sizes of various parts of the brain in the sexes, and the effects of puberty. According to the article, gay men really do have a slightly different brain wiring (from either straight men or straight women). There is some evidence that sons born after older brothers (and the more older brothers the more likely) may be more likely to be homosexual. Ironically, that would comport with ancient patriarchal traditions favoring the first born son (and even the importance of that with the Passover). There is a theory that an immune response in the female deters the “masculinization” of the brains of subsequent sons in some cases, although no specific immune chemical has been found, and finding one that was “treatable” would raise profound ethical questions. There is another theory that a gene that increases fertility in women may increase the chance that some males will be inherit “gay genes.”

I grew up in the 1950s, and it was common for many families to have one or more male members who did not marry or have children. This was really much more common then than anyone would admit.

Sexual orientation in females seems less clear cut, and seems more reactive and less “hard wired” or at least “firmware wired.”

This leaves us, then, with the cultural (and religious) efforts to attribute a “moral” judgment about homosexuality, particularly in men, and particularly the idea that it gets associated with a refusal to create and accept “family responsibility.” Laura Schlesinger at one point came to call it a "biological error", an obvious pejorative that would inspire pity, not individual respect. That will be developed more in future posts. As noted in a recent post about Asperger’s (not necessarily itself associated with homosexuality), some people seem to have less need to validate themselves through social reaction and position and are more inclined to follow their own instincts and ideas, regardless of the approval of others.

Chandler Burr wrote an important book about this in 1996 (“A Separate Creation”), reviewed here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

NH, MA: more on civil unions, gay marriage, 1913 Mass law

The New Hampshire House passed a bill allowing civil unions that would give same-sex couples essentially the same rights as married couples. The story, “House Passes Civil Unions Bill,” is by Tom Fahey, published in the New Hampshire Union Leader, here:
on April 5, 2007.

Earlier the Union Leader had reported that Massachusetts Governpr Deval Patrick has ordered state public health officials to order recognition of out-of-state gay marriages, despite a 1913 Mass. Law that prohibits recognition of marriages of couples whose relationships had not been recognized in their home states. Candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, predicted a lawsuit over the 1913 law eventually, where the Supreme Court could claim that states do not have to recognize other states’ same-sex marriages, but Romney, in contradiction to much moderate opinion on governance, supports a constitutional federal amendment defining marriage.

Update: 4/7/2007

Frank Ahrens has a story in the Saturday Washington Post "Disney's Theme Weddings Come True for Gay Couples: Company Expands Access to Lavish Package," at this link.
Apparently these will be offered in both Florida and California. Disney extended benefits same-sex partners of employees in 1996, and prompted attempted boycotts from the religious right. No doubt they will protest again.