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The Old Way to Be Gay?

• October 01, 2013 • 10:00 AM

Paul Vasey’s fa’afafine research assistant, Trisha. (PHOTO: PAUL VASEY)

Are gay male couples a new thing, evolutionarily speaking?

Simple logic would suggest that “gay genes” would not survive in the evolution of our species. Even if a homosexually-oriented man occasionally had sex with a woman, he wouldn’t be able to keep up, reproductively speaking, with a man who by virtue of “straight genes” felt highly motivated to bed women. And yet androphilic males—that is, males who are sexually oriented toward other males—show up in cultures around the world. Why?

Harvard University sociobiologist E.O. Wilson suggested as an explanation the kin selection hypothesis, which holds that an androphilic male provides a level of assistance to his family large enough to overcome his lack of direct reproduction. “Gay genes” are then passed down (and so kept in the human gene pool) not via the androphilic male himself reproducing with a female, but via the straight family members he helps—family members who would naturally share many of his genes.

When sexologists have looked to see whether gay men in industrialized nations such as the United States and Japan are on average more altruistic towards family members, they have found no evidence for the kin selection hypothesis. But this may be because male homosexuality in these cultures looks nothing like male androphilia would have looked in our human ancestral past. The phenomenon in North America, for example, where one gay man builds a home with another appears to be a relatively new trend, historically speaking.

A young boy who exhibits interest in female-typical activities like cooking and playing with girls is re-categorized as fa’afafine and grows up to live “in the manner of a woman.”

Leaving aside intergenerational homosexuality (older males habitually using boys for sex, a phenomenon found in a small number of cultures), when anthropologists have looked at male androphilia in traditional cultures, they do find evidence for the “helper at the nest” theory for the persistence of male androphilia. In Samoa, for example, there is now substantial evidence for above-average kin-directed altruism among the culture’s androphilic males, a group known as the fa’afafine.

Fa’afafine translates roughly to “in the manner of a woman.” This is because, in Samoa, as in many traditional cultures around the world, androphilic males occupy a special transgendered category. A young boy who exhibits interest in female-typical activities like cooking and playing with girls is re-categorized as fa’afafine and grows up to live “in the manner of a woman,” dressing as a woman, assuming women’s chores, disproportionately attending to the family needs, and taking men as lovers.

The term “transgender” may connote sex change procedures, but the fa’afafine have traditionally not pursued bodily alterations. They simply live as women with their born-male bodies. The men who have sex with fa’afafine typically prefer ordinary female sexual partners, but when they have sex with fa’afafine, it isn’t seen by the culture as homosexual, because the fa’afafine are recognized as living “in the manner of a woman.” This transgendered system of male androphilia is culturally accepted and exists out in the open. Indeed, it is common to hear people say that families that include fa’afafine are particularly fortunate, a nod to the way in which the fa’afafine function as “helpers at the nest.”

A team of researchers who have studied altruism among the fa’afafine have a new study forthcoming in the journal Human Nature examining the question of whether transgendered androphilia—like what they see in Samoa—might be the way male androphilia looked in the human ancestral environment. Their analysis of male androphilia in transgendered cultures (like Samoa) versus cultures like the U.S. (where gay men live as men and partner with other gay males) finds evidence that, in fact, the “old way to be gay” would have been the transgendered form.

The researchers include Doug VanderLaan, a postdoctoral fellow in the Gender Identity Service of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, and Paul Vasey, professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. (Disclosure: Vasey and I are friends via common work interests.) In an email interview, VanderLaan hastened to say: “It’s important to exercise caution and not draw firm conclusions from particular anecdotes. There is a lot of cross-cultural variation in the roles of third-gender males in their families and in society at large.” He added, “My hope is that this study will help us move beyond anecdotal evidence and provide a framework for thinking about the possible causes of cross-cultural variation in the social roles of transgendered males.”

VanderLaan went on: “What I think this paper helps demonstrate is not that kin selection is the explanation [for the persistence of male androphilia], but rather that it is a viable potential explanation.” The kinds of work VanderLaan and Vasey have done in Samoa—meticulously measuring relative rates of kin-directed altruism among women, men, and fa’afafine—will need to be replicated in other cultures. There are a number of cultures that could lend themselves to this type of research, for example, the Zapotec culture that has the category of muxe for transgender androphilic males.

Another focus of this kind of research might be the Aché, a traditional hunter-gatherer people who inhabit a region in Paraguay. The Aché maintain a category called panegi for transgendered androphilic males. Kim Hill, an Arizona State University professor of anthropology with over 30 years field experience with the Aché, told me in an email interview that “about 3% of the male population are blatantly cross-gender ‘panegi’ males who look, act, and talk like females and do female activities. That fraction hasn’t changed much in 50 years.”

Hill describes the panegi: “[They] generally stay with the women’s and children’s group during the day when the men are out hunting. They collect fruits, larva, palm starch, and sometimes hunt small hand-killed game, but don’t ever hunt with bow and arrow,” a male-typical activity. “They do more than their share of carrying, collecting firewood, preparing camps and huts, and processing foods, both meat and vegetable. They often care for a menagerie of wild pets that are later eaten by the band. They always carry heavy loads when bands move from place to place. They also sometimes care for sick and injured individuals and several men describe being ‘saved’ by a panegi when they were incapacitated. Panegis grow their hair long, sit like a woman rather than a man, giggle and act coy, talk in high-pitched voices using female intonation, and exaggerate some female mannerisms. They are often very flirtatious with the men, but it is unclear if they actually engage in oral or anal sex (neither one of which seems to have been known by pre-contact Aché). They definitely do, however, get physical with men, touching, tickling, pushing and play fighting, in much the same fashion that flirtatious women do.”

Anecdotally, at least, the panegi would seem to again suggest support for the kin-selection hypothesis for the persistence of male androphilia in the human population. Hill notes that, post-contact, “In the modern world, that function role [of helping at the nest] is often not fulfilled and cross-gender males sometimes leave their kin group and contribute nothing as helpers at the nest.”

Rather like relatively kin-independent gay men in industrialized nations?

Interestingly, the very behavior that may have helped male androphilia persist in our gene pool—extraordinary attentiveness to the family—in North America has been seen as the basis for a diagnosis of pathology. Western psychologists have traditionally diagnosed strong mother-attachment among feminine boys (i.e., boys likely to grow up gay) to be a form of “separation anxiety disorder.” VanderLaan and Vasey have questioned this clinical practice, noting that in Samoa, such attachment—along with cross-gendered behaviors—are understood as normal for feminine boys. Perhaps what these boys need is fewer doctors, and more grateful families.

Alice Dreger
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

More From Alice Dreger

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