An open letter to Mac Fingall, in response to “Abnormal Behaviour”

posted 13 August 2013

(Reposted from my tumblog)

Hi Mac -

I was recently linked to your article "Abnormal Behaviour" and was deeply offended, as a gay Caribbean citizen, by the ignorance and hatred you showed therein. Since merely sending you an angry message would do nothing to correct your misinformation or calm your hatred, here is instead a line-by-line rebuttal and refutation of your article. I hope you take it as the constructive criticism it is intended to be.

You begin:

THE WORLD IS NOW embroiled in discussion on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. It is a discussion that should be of concern to everyone for if allowed to dominate it could spell the end of mankind.

This is just a little unclear. Read literally, it would seem that you think the mere discussion of homosexuality would end mankind. I'm going to assume you meant instead that if homosexuality itself were allowed to dominate that would spell the end of mankind. That's a little more plausible -- if everyone were gay, humanity would indeed end. But the underlying assumption is that the only thing stopping everyone in the world from being gay is that we prevent them from talking about it. Is that your position? Because you have just spent an entire article discussing homosexuality, and it clearly hasn't turned you gay. And I spend an awful lot of time discussing heterosexuality, and it hasn't made me straight.

In fact, the preponderance of current available research suggests that sexuality is determined before birth; I won't bore you with links to a dozen studies, but if you're interested, Wikipedia's page on biology and sexual orientation is an excellent jumping-off point. My point is that discussion of homosexuality is not going to change anyone's orientation, so there's absolutely no danger to anyone in discussing it, and gay marriage even less so, since I think we both agree nobody is going to marry somebody they're not sexually attracted to.

Homosexuality speaks of being sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. We all know that sexual activity between man and woman results in childbirth, which allows the world to continue.

Well, that's not all sexual activity is for. A lot of people do it for fun, even if they're infertile, or too old to have kids, or just don't want any additional kids. But I'm not going to argue all of human sexuality with you. I'll accept that it has a primary biological function in addition to its social one.

Sex between two men or between two women cannot produce children – therefore it will be seen as non-productive. But can it be seen as normal?

An excellent question! And quite easily answered, I think. One definition of normal is "conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected". Where a lot of trouble lies is when people conflate being "normal" with being "common". Left-handed people make up about 10% of the population. They're not very common. But are they normal? I think common sense says they are. Nobody thinks left-handed people are a scourge who, if left unchecked, will eradicate all the right-handed people in the world. If that was going to happen, it would have happened many thousands of years ago.

Likewise, homosexuality is not common but is, ultimately, normal. The demographics of sexuality are a contentious topic (apologies for another wikipedia link, but Demographics of Sexual Orientation has an excellent list of recent studies), with estimates of the percentage of the population that is homosexual anywhere from 2% to 15% of the population. Again, not common, but certainly normal.

As an aside, I also think it's worth noting that any incidence of homosexuality in the population greater than 1% argues strongly against it being any kind of "disease"; natural selection ensures that genetic diseases -- especially one that would prevent the carrier from breeding, as you have pointed out homosexuality does -- are vanishingly rare. Even the most common ones (such as cancers) affect significantly less than 1% of the population. The documented presence of homosexuality in humanity for thousands of years, and its presence elsewhere in the animal kingdom, is a strong indicator that whatever purpose homosexuality may ultimately serve, it is far too common to be harmful to any species, including humanity.

There's an interesting hypothesis, for example, that mothers with particularly healthy immune systems are more likely to produce gay children (if those children are male). Per the theory, the evolutionary advantage of having a mother who doesn't die in childbirth, and can healthily bear multiple children, outweighs the reproductive disadvantage of some of those children being gay. Of course, this theory only accounts for male homosexuality; we still have a lot to learn.

The way the human body is designed holds the answer to the question. The female body is designed to accommodate the male body and the male body is designed to fit the female body. This cannot be a mere coincidence.

I don't think even the most militant gay activists would suggest that it was.

This has to be an act of God, or for those who do not understand “God”, it has to be an act of nature – the phenomena of physical life not dominated by man. Therefore, this has to be seen as natural and normal.

Again, no argument there.

It should now be clear that the sexual activity between “same-sexes” or homosexuals is not normal.

And this is where we part ways again. The existence of one normal state does not preclude the existence of other normal states. The fact that 90% of people are right-handed doesn't make left-handed people "not normal", it makes them "not common".

Having established the abnormality, I will now look at the ramifications of such an act.

To reiterate: you have not established the abnormality in any way. But since you continue to provide misinformation of the grossest kind, I will continue to refute it.

Some people talk about the morality of homosexual behaviour. Personally, I don’t even get that far. I believe that it is physiologically wrong for men to engage in sexual activity with other men.

This is a genuinely interesting point. Certainly, anal sex is a complicated business, and human bodies were not particularly well designed for it. However, there's a strange conflation here of "difficult" and "wrong", with subtle hints that biology implies morality, despite your earlier assertion that you are not making a moral argument. We wear eyeglasses, fix our teeth with braces, insert artificial hips and pacemakers to keep failing hearts going. These are quite difficult, messy, sometimes even painful interventions against our biology, and that's before we discuss the myriad cosmetic treatments that are available.

If anal sex is "physiologically wrong", it's about as wrong as getting breast implants or a nose job. I don't see any world-wide campaigns against those, though perhaps I've just not been looking.

Of course, not only homosexual men engage in anal sex, and not all homosexuals engage in anal sex -- in particular, most lesbians are quite ill-equipped to engage in it. Is your biological-moral objection to homosexuality confined to men? Should lesbians feel free to get married without delay? Or are you perhaps using a deliberately graphic description of one aspect of gay male sexuality as a device to wrap a deeper revulsion you feel, but can less easily explain away?

The anus is made for exit only. The sphincter muscle, which is an involuntary muscle, is designed to snap shut so tightly that nothing can pass – not even the slightest seepage.

Here you begin to go rapidly astray from your previously relatively factual account. The anus is in no way an involuntary muscle. It is under direct conscious control, which is why toilet-training an infant is both effective and necessary. It is why humans, unlike other animals, can choose when and where to defecate. A fuller explanation including a diagram is available.

The constant probing and invasion of the anus can and does cause the sphincter muscle to lose its elasticity and as a result it then cannot shut as tightly as it was originally designed to do.

This is in fact a widely-held myth, discussed here and other places. Severe damage to the anal muscle can of course result in incontinence, but anal sex does not as a matter of course do any such damage, and as noted in the link above, repeated conscious relaxation and contraction of the muscle as happens in anal sex is more likely to make it stronger, not weaker.

The result is that because of this abnormal act – homosexual activity – the individual whose sphincter muscle is not functioning as it should now has to wear diapers.

A disturbingly graphic mental image frequently used by those who disapprove of homosexuality on moral grounds but not, in any way, supported by facts. I'm sure you get a lot of disgusted gasps from your audience when you bring this up, so if this letter does nothing else, please let it be the end of your spreading of this lie.

Does this not prove that the human body is not designed for this behaviour – male or female?

Again, biological compatibility does not imply morality or correctness, even if it were true, which it is not.

Then there is the problem of faeces (excrement) getting into the bloodstream. If there is any broken skin, the faeces can enter the bloodstream and the result can be “acquired immune deficiency syndrome”, better as AIDS.

Are you seriously making the claim here that AIDS is the result of fecal matter entering the blood stream, and not the virus known as HIV? Because that is a seriously dangerous claim. As you are no doubt aware, incidence of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean is amongst the highest in the world, due in large part to poor education on the part of the public as to how it is contracted and spread. An educated person such as yourself, writing in a national newspaper, should definitely not be misinforming the public about this disease.

In my opinion, AIDS, being the result of this abnormal act, tells you that there is a punishment for going against the natural wishes of God.

Firstly, to reiterate, AIDS is the result of a blood-borne virus, and can be passed by both anal and vaginal sex, as well as non-sexual means such as blood transfusions and needle sharing amongst drug addicts. It is not the result of anal sex. Secondly, while I do not wish to get into a theological argument, an explanation of HIV as a punishment for unnatural acts needs to take into account the hundreds of thousands of innocent children born with AIDS, and thousands of blameless folk who acquired it via routine blood transfusions before screening was common. Did the babies offend God in the womb? Are haemophiliacs cursed by the Lord?

Now let us look at the normal and natural act of heterosexual activity. The vagina, which is placed in the perfect position for the pleasure it provides, is used only for sex and the results thereof. Surely I don’t have to tell you that it was not created to carry drugs.

This is just confusing, since drugs were not mentioned up to this point, and I'm not clear what you're referring to. Is it a reference to drug mules? Birth control? Neither seems particularly germane to the discussion, so I'll leave this alone.

Now, in understanding the imperfections of life, it is easy to understand that everyone will not be equally equipped mentally or physically. When therefore there is an imbalance and an individual has mixed feelings or has both male and female reproductive organs making them a hermaphrodite, then this is understandable but this is not the norm.

Here, interestingly, you provide an excellent example of the difference between "normality" and "commonality", although you interpret it as an example of the opposite.

I remember, at a school overseas, where I was teaching, there was such a child, and we had several meetings to determine in which dressing room that child should change for physical education classes. It was decided to let the individual change in girls’ dressing room. The assumption was that place would be safer. It made me understand things that I never even thought of. There was empathy and sympathy. That was one individual in a school of several hundred. Surely not the norm.

This surprisingly compassionate description and treatment of a transgendered individual is to your credit, and strangely at odds with the rest of your article. If it's okay for one child in a hundred to be transgendered -- a condition which often results in significant surgical intervention, not what their body was "made for" -- why is it not okay for the 4, 5, or 6 children in a hundred who are homosexual to similarly follow their instincts as to what sexuality and gender expression is good and right for them?

But now imagine a society where several adopted children are living in homes with two gay parents. The environment is sure to overpower them. To be influenced from so young with all the mannerisms and inflections and blatant and obvious observations. Unnatural behaviour and practices constantly exhibited would become the norm to the child.

There's a lot to unpack here. Again, as we previously established, sexuality is most likely established prior to birth, and no amount of discussion or display of homosexuality is going to change anyone's sexuality -- otherwise, all the gay kids who grew up surrounded by straight parents would have turned out straight! But they didn't. And the effects of gay parenting is no longer a theoretical discussion: there are thousands of children raised by gay parents, and there have been studies into the sexuality of those children showing that they are no more likely to be gay than any other children.

You are however correct that homosexual behaviour would seem normal to these children. That's because it is normal. It is the people who erroneously believe that just because something isn't common it's "abnormal" and therefore somehow "wrong" whose attitude needs correction.

I believe that we should not neglect the abnormal ones, but our laws should focus on the normal ones.

Again, the conflation of the common with the normal.

Same-sex marriage and homosexuality should not be encouraged.

Finally, nobody is asking you to encourage them. We are asking you to allow gay people to be gay, and allow gay people to marry each other if they choose. You can continue to disapprove, as you so evidently do. You do not even need to remain silent: feel free to talk long and loudly about how much your incorrect ideas about anal sex make you hate gay people. Just don't pass laws codifying your bigotry, and allow us to live our lives in peace.

With respect,

Laurie Voss.

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Stepping back from awe.sm

posted 13 August 2013, updated 13 August 2013

I'm not a big believer in euphemisms, nor in burying the lead[1], so let me begin by saying that I no longer work at awe.sm on a day-to-day basis. The parting, while solely my idea, was completely amicable, and I remain attached to the company as an advisor, occasionally weighing in on architectural issues. This was not a sudden decision, or a quick exit: over the last six months I slowly transitioned my responsibilities to the other members of the team, and then stepped away entirely on a trial basis to make sure things could run smoothly in my absence. As of two weeks ago, we made that permanent. For all intents and purposes, I am a free agent for the first time in more than a decade.

After taking some time off, including a pretty awesome road trip, I started work on a pair of related ideas for software that will make web development easier, faster and higher-quality. The opportunity to work on them uninterrupted was a big part of my motivation for leaving awe.sm, and I'll be blogging a lot more about the state of web development and the tools themselves once they are a little further along in development.

As for awe.sm in my absence, I have nothing but positive expectations. As I noted last year, everybody who works there is smarter than I am. Fred and Jonathan have the right strategy, and Bennett may not tweet much, but he's one of the best engineers I've ever worked with, so I'm happy to leave the engineering team in his hands.

A quick PWBFAQ: (Probably Will Be Frequently Asked Questions)

Does this mean you're doing a new startup?
It's not clear yet whether the ideas I'm working on will be useful, or monetizable, but I'm certainly not ruling out the possibility. I'm not in "stealth mode", I'm just coding some stuff, and will be talking about it more soon.
Does this mean you're looking for a job?
Not right now. If you are looking for somebody to consult with you, especially about building or scaling a web application, I may be available, and you should email me. But for the immediate future I want to concentrate the majority of my time on my own projects.
Sure, but I'm a recruiter for this AWESOME funded startup in Palo Alto and we should really talk.
I am definitely not interested in full-time employment anywhere. Recruiters who call referring to this blog post should be prepared to explain why they ignored this part.
Why does your blog look so broken?
It's been a bit neglected recently. I intend to fix that.

[1] Or the lede, if you're a journalist. Please don't email me about spelling.

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