Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Gays, obituaries and evolution
Charles Darwin bequeathed us two great social constructs: childhood and homosexuality. Previously, they were aspects of the same amorphous lump – of being human – but evolution’s “survival of the fittest” blowtorch inevitably singled-out human states of non-breeding.
The evolutionary role of one’s first 15 years or so being sterile seems straightforward – decent preparation for the all-important next stage of life, breeding – but the anxiety in the 0-14 (ahem) mounting yard, preceding puberty’s starting-gate, was altogether new. Instead of childhood being a ride to adulthood, it became something ridden. Life was a race, so natural parental qualms about their own genetic mediocrity (“nature”) led to a brand-new hothouse environment for nurture – aka childhood. It was, I stress, a social construct founded on anxiety: parent-jockeys, all too aware that their “horse” may not have the pedigree of others in the race, trying to compensate for this in other ways, all in the ticking-time countdown of childhood.
Homosexuality’s evolutionary role is no doubt a thing that has received serious academic pondering. For this, and other reasons I’ll try to write on this only as someone along for ride (as opposed to being ridden). Again, we start with the post-Darwin construct of childhood – the construct of homosexuality starts as parental anxiety crystallised, as disappointment (real or imagined). In crude evolutionary terms, nature has fired a blank. Then enter Oscar Wilde – the gay man whose wit the upper classes can’t get enough of, and whose homosexual predilections for the lower classes would amount to evolutionary sabotage – if only they were acts of breeding, in both senses of the word.
Gay identity (which is largely to say, gay sex) is a fantastic counter-evolutionary circuit-breaker, then. It admixes class (and race, when miscegenation was taboo), and so keeps the breeding “fittest” (upper classes) on their toes, in more than one way. (Oscar Wilde was arguably an earlier Bradley Manning – a shocking traitor to the class who trusted him, yet someone who leaked exactly what they needed to lose at the time, for their class’ long term survival). In breeding, as in capitalism and the public intellectual realm (and probably any given ecosystem at all), broad liquidity is a necessary, if fraught imperative. You might say that the micro-exchange of bodily fluids (or not) in gay sex thus ultimately prevents the whole macro-shebang from getting lopsided, and toppling over.
Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way, to an obituary for the late Christopher Pearson, who died suddenly on the weekend. The shrill fundamentalism of most of the comments on this page (including many that you would call well-meaning) is a salient reminder that evolution can be a bitch, too.
On one level, you could regard the disrespect shown to Pearson as simply the tearing down of a tall-poppy (or dim-witting of a bright wit) – with a margin of encouragement here being provided by the knowledge that Pearson has no children, or life partner (AFICT) to take close-up offence at offensive comments.
Yet I think that there is something bigger and systemic here – the bon mots, and other gay evolutionary circuit-breakers (non-biological nepotism, anyone?) do end, more or less absolutely, with death, while breeders, in contrast, can view – and be obituarised in – death with some consolation. Alas, then, for gays: evolution gets the emphatic last word – until the next gay child is born to perplexed parents, anyway.
Sidebar: Christopher Pearson and celibacy as a gay Catholic – setting the bar low
Pearson’s gradual slide, from being a gay liberation founder in the early 1970s (previous URL), into almost-celibacy from the mid-1980s (at the height of the AIDS crisis, when he was in his early 30s), is sketched out in this 2009 Oz column. If the AIDS crisis was the initial catalyst here, his 1999 conversion to Catholicism (in his late 40s) sealed the deal, well sort of:
“Making a commitment to regular examination of conscience was unexpectedly therapeutic. It led me to trade in my double bed for something more austere, observe the Lenten fast and try, for the most part, to avoid low bars.” (emphasis added)
Ah, “low bars” – seemingly said with an Irish twinkle, but certainly not a Wildean one; Wilde rather relished setting the bar low in his sex life, and could not have mentioned “low bars” even semi-seriously. That Pearson gets away with such a slippery euphemism (for what I interpret as an admission that he was not completely celibate, post 1999), is testament to the power of the particular sub-culture that he adopted (or vice versa), alongside – but arguably quite separate to – his conversion:
“The welcome I got, especially from people in the Latin mass community, was a warm one. Mostly Irish and working class, its gatherings often involve shucking oysters or shelling prawns, washing them down with Guinness and singing folk noir ballads . . .”
The wholesome picture that Pearson affectionately paints of his adopted family (if I may term Adelaide’s Latin mass community that), indeed seems bigger than any occasional sexual lapses/shenanigans by Pearson. But Christopher – and may you rest in peace – I’m not sure whether, at least for a tiny moment, you may have got carried away with your adopted family’s craic, and lapsed into kitsch – the ancient, evil, heterosexual counterpart of camp.