Letters to the Editor

Published in: May-June 2018 issue.


Science and Equal Rights

To the Editor,

            In “Evolutionary Origins of Homosexuality” (Jan.-Feb. 2018 issue), James O’Keefe and his collaborators contrast the antiquity and prevalence of homosexuality with its criminalization, which even today in some countries involves the death penalty. They indicate that criminalization and other ill treatment of gay and lesbian people is justified by the old chestnut that homosexuality is “against the order of nature.” O’Keefe and colleagues therefore look to Nature to justify protecting gay and lesbian people from harsh treatment. They offer a tour of some scientific studies indicating that homosexuality might be an evolutionary effect.

            While their main focus is on the science of sexual orientation, when they venture into ethics they argue that if homosexuality is the legacy of evolution, it follows that homosexuals don’t deserve harsh treatment because there must be some evolutionary reason for such people to exist. The idea that homosexuality is genetic dates, in various versions, from the 1800s, and reached a theoretical high point in the 1970s. One can draw a fairly straight line between Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ theory of a third sex to E. O. Wilson’s sociobiological accounts of homosexuality. Even so, it’s a major conceptual mistake to put one’s hopes for better lives for gay men and lesbians into the evolutionary basket.

            Natural Law theorists bypass evolution when condemning homosexuality because the “nature” they’re interested in is not part of a scientific but of a moral order. They typically argue that men and women should incline toward opposite-sex relationships in accord with their divinely ordained nature. This “nature” is a teleological end point, not a biological starting point for science. Thus it remains impervious to criticism that homosexuality is biologically caused. Regardless of causality, people should not aspire to this deflection from their true moral nature, says the Natural Law crowd.

            An evolutionary account is also unnecessary to defend the morality of same-sex relationships. O’Keefe and colleagues describe evolution as expressing intentions: “same-sex preference is naturally intended.” There is no reason to think that nature “intends” anything in the sense of hoping to achieve one outcome over another. Evolutionary effects are instead the result of blind chance. In a moral sense, too, not everything has to be valuable to the family as a survival advantage in order to be valuable and worthy of social protection.

            Showing that homosexuality is rooted in evolution will not, therefore, show much of anything from a moral point of view. A far better defense of same-sex interests and identities is this: they have value in themselves and in the relationships they make possible. No further evolutionary study is necessary to make this point plainly before society and the law.

Timothy F. Murphy, Chicago


Why Call Me By Your Name Broke Hearts

To the Editor:

            Andrew Holleran’s review of Call Me by Your Name (March-April 2018) offers a good analysis of both the novel and the film. He places the film in its historical context, commenting on its advancement over the well-received Brokeback Mountain. I agree with Mr. Holleran that knowing the sexual orientation of the two main characters is important in the film and for knowing who the characters are.

            What was lost in the film version is the very meaning of the novel’s title. In the film, the statement is tossed off as a passing intimacy. In the novel, the words “Call me by your name,” have far more significance. The two young men merge their identities, each taking on the character of the other. This is a psychological experience that can occur only in a profound love. That the merger doesn’t last is the sad reality they must endure, especially Elio. My reading of the novel is that Elio is fundamentally gay and Oliver is straight. I think the film conveyed this as well, maybe even more so. The sexual experience that Elio has with a girl his age is experimental sex of the sort that many gay men have in their youth. That he wants to maintain a friendship with her, but not a romance, confirms this pattern, I think. Oliver, on the other hand, follows his heart to marriage and family.

            Nonetheless, I have to agree that both the novel and the film remain muddled over their sexual orientations. We are left with our own views on the characters’ sexuality, or bisexuality, or position on the Kinsey scale, or whatever. We are also left with our individual takes on love between men of different ages. Holleran takes up the references to Greek sculpture and pæderastic love. Are we to assume that Oliver is momentarily transformed by all the images of beautiful youths he encounters in his work, and the embodiment of that ideal form in Elio? In real life, Armie Hammer is nine years older than Timothée Chalamet, 29 and twenty when the filming took place. Inevitably, the film was criticized by some viewers for its portrayal intergenerational sex—in the book their ages are supposed to be 24 and seventeen—but the age of consent in Italy for most purposes was fourteen in 1983. Also, as Holleran points out, it is Elio who seduces Oliver.

            Holleran is right that the father in the film is an important addition to the novel. I did not see him as talking about his own prior homosexual attraction, but rather the truth that a deep love is intrinsically valuable, whether it lasts or not. It is a wonderfully wise encouragement that Elio needed.

            One last point: in the novel, Oliver eats the peach; Elio doesn’t stop him. Why would he? Likewise, the camera pans away, as Holleran remarks, just when it should reveal the sexual consummation that Elio and Oliver enjoy. I found this to be the worst moment of the film, reminiscent of movies under the Hays Code in the 1950s. Some of us laughed out loud. It was a ridiculous step backward from the hot tent scene in Brokeback Mountain.

Jack Miller, Atlanta


“Once a Philosopher…”

To the Editor:

            Concerning Voltaire and the “anti-physiques” [March–April 2018 issue], there is a famous anecdote. A young man once asked Voltaire, concerning the article on sodomy in his Dictionnaire philosophique, whether it was based on personal experience. “No,” replied the philosopher, “not at all.” “Well,” said the disciple, “in the interests of science, I propose to make an experiment and try it out myself.” “Go to it,” Voltaire encouraged him. Shortly thereafter, the young man returned to make his report. “What’s your opinion,” the sage asked him. “I’m not sure,” the disciple answered. “I think I’ll have to try it again.” “Ah,” proclaimed Voltaire, “une fois, un philosophe, deux fois un sodomite!” (“Once a philosopher, twice a sodomite!”)

Laurence Senelick
Tufts University, Medford, MA