The homosexual condition:   I.  Definition and causal factors

Gianfrancesco Zuanazzi
Professor of Psychology and Psychopathology
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

Defining the term

1. Despite a vast literature, homosexuality remains an enigma and from time to time the old debates are fueled again.

To avoid ambiguity, our discussion should first of all distinguish between behaviour and the structural disposition of the personality. In the broad sense, homosexuality includes any sexual act or behaviour, even occasional, of an individual with other persons belonging to the same sex. Seen in this way, there is a continuum between exclusive homosexuality and absolute heterosexuality, with a whole series of intermediate degrees. In the strict sense, however, homosexuality refers to habitual homosexual behaviour based on a specific orientation of the personality that rejects woman as a sexual companion (or man, in the case of female homosexuality). Thus understood, homosexuality is a way of existing, a way-of-being-in-the world, which concerns the dialectic of living with others and involves the person's relationship with his own body. This is the conception being proposed here. The following then are excluded: transient homosexual behaviour that can occur in adolescence; random acts due to, e.g., alcoholic intoxication, or resulting from particular circumstances (imprisonment, life in unisexual communities, etc.); actions symptomatic of brain diseases or psychosis; those performed to be accommodating or to gain some advantage; those connected with certain cultural patterns or signifying humiliation or outrage.

At one time homosexuality was understood to include transvestism and was sometimes confused with transsexualism. Actually, transvestism is related more to fetishism than to homosexuality. Moreover, neither the transvestite nor the homosexual displays the transsexual's deeply rooted conviction of belonging to the opposite sex, nor the desire to change his or her morphological sex. In both these forms there is none of the repugnance to one's own genitalia that is so obvious in the transsexual. It is true that the transsexual is attracted subjects belonging to the same sex; however, he perceives those biologically like" him as "unlike" him, while the company of those "biologically unlike" him causes him disgust or horror. Lastly, for the transsexual the habit of wearing clothing typical of the other sex answers the need for consistency (partial fulfilment of the desire for transformation); for the transvestite, pleasure-seeking, for the homosexual (for whom the behaviour is somewhat rare), an attempt at solicitation. This does not mean that there are no intermediary forms. In clinical practice one often finds a sort of progression from fetishism to transsexualism through transvestism and feminizing homosexuality (or masculinizing in women). The intermediate forms are certainly more numerous than the genuine ones, especially in the female sex, in which transsexualism seems often connected with homosexuality and indicates a desire for "androgyny" rather than a request for a "sex change".

There are also subjects who straddle the fence, so to speak, and are too easily identified as bisexual. The term suggests a sort of equivalence for these people between homosexuality and heterosexuality, but the homosexual tendency actually predominates (or does so with the passage of time). The individual sometimes presents himself as bisexual for fear of being regarded as homosexual. In these cases it is more correct to speak of ambivalent or mixed homosexuality, with the emphasis on homosexuality.

The homosexual world is also populated with weak, latent and unconscious forms which are sometimes revealed by a dream, a rejection or an arousal. They can become actual through the imprudent examination of a doctor, a confessor, a relative, by reading popular literature or by other environmental influences. Certain judgements must not be abused to avoid the risk of labeling as homosexual some young people who, despite the uncertainty of their still immature identity, are heterosexual: labeling can actually push these subjects towards homosexuality.

I refer again, without any claim to completeness, to those subjects for whom homosexual arousal results from a crisis. They are timid, inhibited people who generally reject abnormal sexual practices and, after clandestine encounters, are beset with anxiety and guilt feelings.

With most homosexuals, both male and female, the phenotype corresponds to the genotype. Effeminate men are not necessarily homosexual and, in any case represent a minority (8-10%) of their respective group (a minority that is to the genotype). Effeminate men are not necessarily homosexual and, in any case represent a minority (8-10%) of their respective group (a minority that is usually well-received by other homosexuals). Similarly, a woman's masculine demeanour is not an expression of lesbianism; in fact, masculine women are usually at ease with men and seek relations, including non-genital, with them, while lesbians exclude men from their lives without trying to compete with them on the social or professional level.

In the male homosexual we usually find a certain "phallus fetishism"; in the female homosexual we often see an emphasis on femininity. This glorification of sexuality also appears when an "inversion" is present: the virago is more demanding than a male, the effeminate homosexual more compliant than a woman. We should add that the distinction between active and passive subjects is groundless: as a rule, the roles are in fact interchangeable; moreover, in male homosexuality anal intercourse is not the most frequent practice.

Here it should be noted that female homosexuality is not symmetrical with its male counterpart. The identification game is different, as is the eroticism which appears more diffuse and such that it totally involves the person in the relationship. Impersonal desire, though highly developed in males, is almost non-existent in homosexual women and promiscuity is rare. For the woman, moreover, genital interest is not necessary for the subject's gratification nor is its presence obligatory. Like heterosexuality, female homosexuality also knows other sources of satisfaction than orgasm; it is a non-aggressive sexuality marked by tenderness and mutual understanding. As a result, female homoeroticism is a more widespread phenomenon than the homosexual syndrome. In addition, sexual behaviour, which is less "cerebralized " and "genitalized" than it is in males, takes more "intimate", less conspicuous forms and so is more tolerated by society.

Naturally, homosexuality cannot be considered a distinct human species (a sort of third sex), nor can the person be reduced to his sexual orientation. Only for brevity's sake do we use the adjective "homosexual" as a now, instead of saying more correctly "homosexual person".


Various aetiological theories

2. The genesis of homosexuality is still an open question. For male homosexuality, Freud proposed a theory based on the triad: attachment to the mother, narcissism and castration anxiety. This means that persistent fixation on the mother leads the subject, once puberty has passed, to seek a love object in which he can find himself, an object by which he wants to be loved the way his mother loved him; but the mother is a prohibited object and the spectre of incest causes conflict with the father, hence the rejection of any desire for women. Freud's model has been repeatedly revised, criticized and corrected by the master's disciples, some of whom have sought a new way following Lacan's psychoanalysis. For female homosexuality, orthodox psychoanalysis also hypothesizes a regressive development of the libido: from Freud to H. Deutsch, from Bergler to Khan, the pathology of the early mother-child relationship is considered the cornerstone on which future homosexuality is built, while disappointment with the father leads to a repudiation of love for men and of the female role in general.

Despite the uncertainties that undoubtedly remain, and prescinding from debatable theoretical positions, it is hard to deny the influence of family dynamics on the early developmental stages of the personality. In my opinion, however, it is not so much one parent as it is the relationship between the parental figures that can create the situation which fosters homosexuality, since one parent acquires meaning in relation to the other and from the way the other makes the child perceive him; the action of one parent can aggravate or, on the contrary, compensate for the influence of the other.

Then there are social factors in addition to those of the family. I am referring to cultural trends that tend to suppress all differences between the sexes; the changed relationship between men and women due to women's emancipation, a reason why homosexuality can be experienced as a refuge for men and as a protest on the part of women; the traumatic experiences of puberty, no less important than childhood conflicts, which lead to affective immaturity (fear of sexual activity for both sexes, fear of motherhood or the loss of virginity for women, confusion between sexuality and aggression). Kardiner emphasizes the "flight from virility", given the limited opportunities for "being a man" in modern society., Levy-Valensi points out the influence of male-centred societies which involve the segregation and degradation of women: the revenge of women by their disdain for men is the counterpart to disdain for women on the part of men.

Some authors have advanced an aetiological hypothesis based on the phenomenon of imprinting. This is a form of learning in which some newborn animals (e.g., ducklings) follow the first moving object they see, adopting it as their mother; once they have become adults, they seek the same object as a sexual companion. This phenomenon however has never been observed in man.

Lastly, the initiation of adolescents on the part of adults (often by a relative) or by their peers merits a separate discussion. Contrary to what is thought, the ways of being introduced to homosexuality are often non-violent. In particular, the homosexual initiation of an adolescent girl takes place in "innocent" ways and is gradual: the young male is more resistant to seduction because he discovers it immediately; on the other hand, the girl notices how far things have gone after it is too late. It is well known how easily lesbians are able to seduce under-age girls, without having to employ the skill and amount of time needed by male homosexuals who want to seduce adolescent boys. The seduction of young people is emphasized by some scholars, while others do not consider it a cause of homosexuality. Certainly, if there are subjects who were seduced as adolescents but did not later become homosexuals, there is an equal number who reached the same point without ever being seduced. Moreover, not all boys who have been seduced give evidence of disorders in their sexual orientation. This of course does not mean that the incident was insignificant, but that it is not a sufficient cause, much less a necessary one. It is also true that in certain cases an already existing tendency can (intentionally or not) provoke the seduction and through it the subject can become clearly aware of his inclination.

Clinical experience teaches that despite negative environmental factors the development of homosexuality does not always occur and that, on the other hand, the histories of some homosexuals do not include any threatening incident that can explain their condition. Perhaps Hans Giese was not far from the truth when he said: "Without the hypothesis of something 'natural' - in the general realm of impulses or frames of reference, of character or genetic sex - the homosexual syndrome in the strict sense can not be explained".

Actually, the thesis of biological origin, which seems to have been neglected, has been taken up again in recent years with some success. Without going into a very complicated topic, I will mention some recent scientific observations. Pillard and Bailey's research, conducted in 1992 on identical and fraternal twins and on the adoptive brothers of homosexual men, has indicated a decreasing rate of homosexuality from identical twins to adoptive brothers. This fact suggests the notable influence .of the genetic factor and confirms earlier experience. Other research on female homosexuality has provided similar results. In the field of molecular genetics, Dean Hamer and his team in 1993 examined 40 pairs of homosexual brothers; in 33 pairs the two brothers showed a genetically identical region located in the long strand of the X-chromosome. Studies of prenatal cerebral sexualization and endocrine constellation make a useful contribution to understanding the transsexual syndrome and some forms of male and female homosexuality. No less important are the results obtained by Simon Le Vay in 1991: in the structures of the hypothalamus, which controls sexual behaviour, there are important differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. More precisely, the third intermediate nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH 3) is significantly smaller in male homosexuals than in heterosexuals, and is roughly equal to that of heterosexual females.

These studies need to be confirmed and analyzed. Some of them start from the assumption of a femininization of the male homosexual, which is only valid for a minority of subjects. It should be added that the biological interpretations, whatever their validity, do not fully explain the phenomenon nor the very important fact - as Schelsky correctly says - that the frequency of homosexuality is subject to broad variations. However, the facts brought to light by biological research are of considerable interest and cannot be disregarded.

In short, the cause of homosexuality probably lies in a variety of factors: we can assume the presence of a biological potential underlying sexual behaviour, but the way this potential is utilized depends in large part on the environmental influences affecting the subject, as Stoller asserts, and on the subject's free initiative. The interaction between biological, environmental and personal factors is always a problem that calls for a good dose of prudence.


Self-awareness of the homosexual

3. Thus it is difficult to say what is innate and what is acquired in homosexuality; it is certain, however, that the person "learns" to acknowledge and accept his homosexuality. This sort of "apprenticeship" not only leads the individual to have his first homosexual relations, but also causes him radically to re-evaluate himself and his life-style. In general, men experience this crucial period in their life more painfully than women.

The "coming out" of the gay subject is a long process which usually takes place between the ages of 15 and 30 (but can be over in a few months or several weeks) and there can be critical moments. The majority of boys become aware of their homosexuality in early adolescence, girls a little later.

Boys discover their homosexuality in a variety of ways, but almost all subjects are aware of having a different " mentality" from their peers, of not sharing the same interests, of not finding women attractive in the ways others do and of experiencing strong emotion only in the presence of certain men, of being excluded from the group, of never living in a free and self-giving way, of being in a certain sense spectators of themselves. The fantasies of these adolescents, especially during masturbation, have a rather openly homosexual content and, given their early appearance, are an important sign.

A homosexual experience can take place early on, but usually the awareness of their "differentness" does not occur without a struggle or some attempts at defence. At the beginning a repression mechanism often intervenes and can last a long time. In fact, the first reaction is denial: it is a question not only of overcoming the prejudices of society (actually somewhat weaker today), but also of resolving an internal contradiction, that of "feeling different", of "lacking something". In the majority of cases, however, the defence is inadequate: the homosexual feelings become more intense. Some try to make affective or genital overtures to women and the inevitable failure confirms their suspicions. An angry phase can follow and becomes more and more intense as denial proves useless. Sometimes the almost compulsive need arises to experience the life, habits and meeting places of homosexuals. Thus the first step is taken into the homosexual "world", at first with ill-concealed hesitation, then with greater confidence. The first relationship can happen by chance and, if the experience turns out to be pleasant, conditioning sets in. At this point the subject can no longer deny his homosexuality, but he is still "bargaining" with himself and considers himself bisexual: for the homosexual who is coming out, bisexuality is a sufficiently neutral and reassuring label to allow him to gain better self-knowledge (cf. Burke). Reflection on his condition and the consequences it entails then initiates the stage of depression and the incessant search to accept his own identity. The individual wants to know if, as a homosexual, he will be able to lead a happy, satisfying life in a non-deviant environment and in this search he develops a great interest in famous people who were homosexual or had the reputation of being so. It is basically a question of justification, which can also steer the subject to the (unauthentic) choice of literary or artistic activity. Later on - after the last resistance has been removed at the cost of many rationalizations and the guilt or anxiety has been overcome - many people reach the point of accepting and openly displaying their homosexuality where they live and in the gay community (but integration into the homosexual world, which has its own rules and "rites", is not always easy nor is self-affirmation).

A young lesbian can come out in a similar way; with women, however, a heterosexual experience most often occurs before homosexual relations. One has the distinct impression that with women only heterosexual activity clearly raises the barrier that makes living with the other sex unsatisfying. In some women - after frustration, disappointment, loneliness - there sometimes occurs a kind of compensatory homosexuality that begins accidentally: then, given the more tender and less conspicuous expressions of female sexuality, the entry into homosexuality takes place almost inadvertently and the woman's discovery of "having become" homosexual is belated. It is often a question of single women living together, of disappointed wives, of widows who of course want to remain faithful to their husband's memory.

Everything I have said must be understood in a general way; not all people pass through the same stages nor do they move beyond them in the same way. And the duration of each phase varies from subject to subject. Every homosexual actually experiences a particular coming out process and we meet as many different personalities among homosexuals as in heterosexual groups.

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 April 1997, p.9


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