Homosexuality as a Conundrum: Persistence of a Trait over Time and the Evolutionary Dance

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has apparently thrown a metaphoric “curve ball” of homosexuality at humanity, and towards scientists in particular. Why would such a seemingly maladaptive trait, one that causes an individual to lose its reproductive fitness, persist throughout existence, especially in humans? To explain their quandary briefly, if a person cannot reproduce and pass on their genes, the trait should reduce in frequency over time, causing the organisms with that trait to perish. That is what Darwin’s theory would conclude, or would it? There are no shortages of layperson explanations about the existence of homosexuality. And if one examines the scientific arena, discussions are ubiquitous and some major hypotheses have been suggested by evolutionary scientists.

Regardless of whether or not science had produced answers to explain the mystery of homosexuality, this trait has persisted in animals and humans since time immemorial. Within the framework of evolutionary theory, the trait of homosexuality might conceivably be passed to successive generations by those who are reproducing and contributing to the gene pool. To better understand this, it is necessary to broaden our idea of sexuality to include many different expressions of sexuality, which do not fall into the traditional definition of exclusive homosexuality. In addition, science has focused on individual reproductive success, overlooking the significance of reproductive success at the population level.

Furthermore, scientific inquiry must look beyond modern-day humans and animals. It is necessary to examine “primitive,” pre-industrialized cultures and ancient human cultures to understand homosexuality within an evolutionary context. The persistence of homosexuality at a stable rate over time shows that it must have a beneficial effect and intrinsic value in the human population. Moreover, it likely contributes to the survival of our species. One hypothesis, the kin selection hypothesis, attempts to explain how the lack of reproductive fitness in homosexual individuals can be counterbalanced by looking at overall reproductive fitness. An organism’s inclusive fitness, or ability to successfully pass on genes, is reliant on direct fitness and indirect fitness. Direct fitness depends upon an individual procreating to pass alleles to its offspring, which in turn, successfully reproduce. Indirect fitness relies on an individual’s ability to pass traits through the reproduction of related organisms, which possess alleles in common with the non-reproducing individual. The kin selection hypothesis suggests that individuals, in this case homosexuals (with an emphasis on males), are able to facilitate the movement of alleles into future generations secondarily by helping to assist in the reproductive success of close family members. According to this hypothesis, indirect fitness possibly compensates for lack of direct fitness in homosexuals, allowing the persistence of this trait in the population (VanderLann and Vasey 2014:1009-1010).

A study by Vasey et al. (2007:164) sought to evaluate kin selection’s central assumption by comparing altruistic behavior of androphilic and gynephilic males in Independent Samoa. Androphilic “men,” known as fa’afafine, vary from highly effeminate to slightly masculine and are attracted to masculine “straight” men. Gynephilic men are typically heterosexual, are often attracted to these feminine men, and even will have sex with other “straight” men if women are not present (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:822). The research concluded that androphilic men revealed notably greater avuncular tendencies (nurturing tendency toward relatives) than their gynephilic counterparts. This provides some support for the kin selection hypothesis for androphilic men and indicates the potential that such men act as helpers, assisting with care of siblings, nieces and nephews. And such aid to family might enhance indirect fitness through their relatives’ reproductive successes. While this study highlights the likelihood that the stronger uncle-like tendencies of the androphilic men are “the adaptive products of special evolutionary design,” scientists cautioned that they lacked sufficient data to support that conclusion (Vasey et al. 2007:165).  They suggested one alternative that the heightened uncle-like behaviors of the fa’afafine could possibly indicate a basic inclination of all men to invest in relatives regardless of sexual preference. Additionally, Vasey et al. considered the idea that some men might display uncle-like tendencies, because they do not have to raise their own children and live in a socially and geographically connected environment with their kin. Researchers suggested the need for further study to compare androphilic men with gynephilic men without children and to see if loss in reproductive fitness is offset by inclusive fitness gained by assisting such family members (Vasey et al. 2007:166).

In 2008, Vasey and VanderLann conducted a study to determine if increased avuncular tendencies were a consequence of lacking biological children, permitting more time for investment in close kind. They compared the avuncular tendencies of androphilic men with gynephilic men without children to see if the lack of direct parental obligations played a role in such propensities (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:822-823). Nevertheless, the nurturing inclinations of the fa’afafine were substantially elevated when compared to their childless gynephilic counterparts. In fact, gynephilic men, whether childless or not, did not show any remarkable distinction with regard to this evaluation. Subsequently, the researchers analyzed to see if gynephilic men with a certain amount of children correlated negatively with scores for avuncular tendency, and no such correlation was identified. Thus, parental duties or the lack thereof did not appear to explain the increased avuncular disposition among androphilic men (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:827). These authors still felt research was lacking to show that the “fa’afafine’s androphilia is characterized by special design features that are indicative of adaptations” (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:827).  One of the conclusions of this study was that the fa’afafine’s heightened nurturing behavior between close kin may be a fundamental factor in the ability of male androphilic genes to survive (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:827).

While the findings in the studies of Independent Samoa provide some support for the kin selection hypothesis, studies in the UK and US did not. In a UK study conducted by Rahman and Hull, questionnaires measuring general affinity, feelings of generosity, and benevolent propensities demonstrated that there were no noteworthy distinctions between heterosexuals and homosexuals (Rahman and Hull 2005:464). When comparing groups of homosexual men to heterosexual men, there was no great distinction with regard toward their altruistic attitude toward their nieces and nephews. Neither group favored certain categories of siblings when allocating resources. This is relevant, because the main tenet of  the kin selection hypothesis purports that homosexuals should disproportionately invest in their closest relatives, like siblings or their children, to benefit from indirect fitness  (Rahman and Hull 2005:465). Another study done in the US reached a similar conclusion, noting that gay men were no more generous to their relatives (Bobrow and Bailey 2001:366).

There are flaws in how the UK and US studies were performed. They were conducted in modern, post-industrialized countries rather than non-Western cultures, which might resemble ancestral or primitive cultures more closely. Unlike Independent Samoa, these countries have more geographically disconnected families, are not as accepting of sexual variance (homophobic), and homosexuals are often ostracized from their families. If homosexuals are more isolated from their families, and thus unable to assist their relatives in familial obligations and potential familial reproductive success, it may be difficult to use this hypothesis explain the steady persistence of this trait in modern societies. In any event, most of human existence is composed of pre-industrial societies. Therefore, these studies do not represent the various societies that have existed over the course of human evolution.

The kin selection hypothesis has severe limitations for a variety of reasons. On a logical level, kin selection itself makes sense. Organisms tend to give preferential treatment to those that are related to them, and it makes sense that overall fitness would be increased as our genes are passed through successful fertility in our relations. It is a rational conclusion that close participation of homosexual family members, like that of Samoa, might assist in maintaining a trait like homosexuality in the gene pool in some cultures. However, this hypothesis rests on the premise that to offset the cost of not directly producing offspring, homosexuals would have to assist their siblings in order to produce twice the amount of nieces or nephews to compensate for each child they would have produced through reproduction (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:827-828). It is hard to show the direct relationship between the nurturing tendencies of homosexuals and the exact mathematical increase in the reproductive success of their relatives. It is also fair to say that scientists using this hypothesis have not addressed female sexuality, modern-day homosexuality, and the wide variation in expression of gender and/or sexuality. More generally, when I was researching, I noticed that the scientific literature was heavily skewed toward male homosexuality. Only Belcombe, Bagmihl, and Neill made references to female sexuality or lesbian behavior. I had to wonder if this bias that favored studying male homosexuality might be affecting scientific research negatively. If a person is working within a heterosexual paradigm and it does not recognize the importance of the female, does this bias affect the way data is collected and analyzed with regard to homosexuality as a trait? It is a serious and valid question that needs to be publicly discussed before undertaking any more research regarding homosexuality.

The studies in Samoa, which give the most support to this hypothesis, are not broadly applicable and are dependent on transgendered behavior, which is not realistically paralleled in modern society. Unlike post-industrialized societies, these transgendered people, the fa’afafine, are sexually attracted and have sex with men that identify as “straight.” The androphilic males in Independent Samoa do not pair up with each other like modern gay couples (Vasey and VanderLann 2010:822). In addition, there are comparatively less pre-industrial societies to study, and therefore, the sampling populations are not substantial enough to be accurate or applicable.

Next, I want to explore homosexuality by looking at the evolution of pleasure as an adaptation. Pleasure is an innate mechanism, or proximate cause, which leads animals to perform certain behaviors that are often adaptive, or enhance survival. Unlike ultimate evolutionary causes, which attempt to explain traits through genetics, natural selection, and reproductive success, this analysis looks at an underlying quality in animals, pleasure-seeking, and its effect on preferences (Balcombe 2009:211). According the Jonathan Balcombe, a researcher of animal behavior, pleasure is a product of evolution. He explains that the evolution of pleasure was reliant on two other developments: the development of movement along with an intricate nervous system for enhanced perception of stimuli in the environment. As movement and complex sensory systems emerged, it became necessary for organisms to develop heightened perception in order to detect unpleasant and rewarding stimuli in the environment. Just as pain developed as an adaptive mechanism to avoid unpleasant circumstances, pleasure is an advantageous adaptation, which provides compensation to an organism for engaging in activities that enhance survival. Pleasure drives organisms to perform positive acts, like seeking out food, copulating, and maintaining body temperature (Balcombe 2009:211). Homosexuality and any sexual expression could be viewed as behaviors resulting from pleasure-seeking, activities which provide gratification and accomplish other survival goals simultaneously. As aptly stated by Balcombe, “We do know that pleasure is a powerful reinforcer of sex drive in humans” (Belcombe 2009:215). He further adds that in the search for sexual satisfaction of desire and accompanying benefits, great sexual diversity is the consequence (Belcombe 2009:215).

To explore this hypothesis, it is helpful to examine the range of non-reproductive activities, in addition to homosexuality, that are ubiquitous in the animal world. Much of sexual activity has nothing to contribute to directly reproductive fitness, yet it still accounts for a significant amount of sexual behaviors (Balcombe 2009:215). Having sex during pregnancy, while menstruating, and outside of breeding season or ovulation provide three noteworthy examples. Group sex, in which few or no individuals pass on their genetics is inefficient. This activity has been documented in spinner dolphins, swallows, and herons, to name a few. Diverse non-copulatory mountings are abundant as well including: mounting without apparent sexual arousal, mounting without consummation, female/male mountings, or mounting in positions that do not allow for fertilization. Masturbation, oral sex, stimulation of another organism’s genitals, anal manipulation, and interspecies pairings (all activities plentiful in the animal world) are behaviors that offer no added reproductive consequences (Balcombe 2009:215-216).  Chimpanzees and baboons have been seen mating with each other in the wild (Bagemihl 1999:328), which must be considered a futile effort (Balcombe 2006:115). Particularly interesting is homosexual behavior among birds. Parrots and gulls often form same-sex pairings, perform courtship rituals, and nest together. To illustrate, female New Zealand gulls often go through the motions of copulation, apparently using a male for sperm only. The females proceed to make a nest, share in incubating eggs, and raise offspring together (Balcombe 2006:110). Other than interspecies sexuality, these behaviors are common in macaques, waterbuck, mountain sheep, and many animals, in addition to humans. (Balcombe 2009: 215-216). Finally, attempting to reach orgasm, either individually or with others, hardly seems necessary for survival, yet it occurs. All of these non-reproductive behaviors discussed are applicable to humans.

The information presented above illustrates that homosexuality is only one of the many non-reproductive behaviors. In my opinion, too much emphasis is being placed on individual losses of fitness. It appears that overall group reproductive success may be enough to pass and sustain successful genes in the population. Pleasures drive organisms to engage in varied behaviors, giving rise to sexual preferences, but also ensuring that enough individuals reproduce to accomplish the long-range goal of survival in evolutionary terms. In this sense, pleasure might also be a large part of an ultimate explanation for the development of sexual preferences, including homosexuality.

Because most of human history occurred prior the modern industrial age, an examination of ancient society assists in providing a deeper understanding of human evolution. Modern society includes the last two hundred to three hundred years, and on an evolutionary scale, this is like “a blink of the eye.” Homosexual behavior has clearly occurred in many ancient societies and appears to have been more accepted in those contexts. I am going to use ancient Mesopotamian culture to illustrate a cultural view that differs greatly from our modern vantage point. According to James Neill, who extensively researched homosexuality in human and animal societies for twelve years, it is reasonable to conclude that homosexual behavior was very common among Neolithic peoples and their Paleolithic ancestors. He explains that the prevalence of homosexual behavior in primates and in the aboriginal peoples of the world supports this assertion that homosexuality has ancestral roots. (Neill 2009:82). Neill demonstrates the ubiquity of homosexuality by citing examples from art, law, politics, and religious texts (Neill 2009:83).

Archeological evidence from Mesopotamian civilizations from 3000 B.C. reveals clay sculptures that depict people having sex, including numerous depictions of anal sex between men. Codified law contributes more confirmation of ancient attitudes toward same-sex behavior. The Code of Hammurabi from 1700 B.C. contains proscriptions governing sexuality. While it mentions prostitution and marital indiscretion, homosexuality is not addressed. Neill contends that the absence of homosexuality from this code implies cultural acceptance of it. Assyrian law from about 1500 B.C. includes two codes that relate to homosexuality. The mere existence of such laws indicates that same-sex relations were commonplace in ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, King Hammurabi not only had male sexual partners, but his wife discussed that in written correspondence (Neill 2009:83).

Religious texts offer further evidence of homosexuality’s presence. An almanac of Babylonian prayers consists of prayers relating to a man seeking the love of another man. Other religious texts refer to sex between male partners and reference female same-sex relations. Neill concludes that the inclusion of same-sex sexuality in such texts show its significance not only in daily life but also suggest it was viewed as permissible option outside of heterosexual unions. To underscore his position, I will include a quote Neill used in his writing taken from a Babylonian religious text: “If a man has intercourse with the hindquarters of his equal (male), that man will be foremost among his brothers and colleagues”(Neill 2009:84). Obviously, homosexuality was not viewed negatively here, rather male homosexual sex is associated with societal benefits (Neill 2009:83). Neill’s work gives impetus to the argument that homosexuality is an ancient behavior, which existed for our ancestors without the modern-day emphasis on its negative aspects, one of those being lack of reproduction. It is true that there is no way to directly study these types of societies any longer, outside of archaeological examination of their remnants, but a detailed historical examination shows us that our sexuality has been much more diverse and accepting of homosexual behavior over the course of human existence. The historical presence of homosexuality might not give a scientific explanation, but its presence in Mesopotamian cultures and many others signify that it made a significant contribution to human development and societal success.

Given the historical evidence coupled with the varied sexual behaviors of animals, particularly primates, it is evident that homosexuality is a constant trait. The underlying scientific controversy lies in trying to determine what caused the trait and its persistence. Both of the above-mentioned hypotheses shed some light on this phenomenon. The kin selection hypothesis has its flaws, but it has something to offer in terms of increased indirect fitness. In general terms, organisms share similar genes. Thus, when those related to us have offspring, they pass down traits in common whether each of us individually reproduces or not. I feel this applies to all humans and organisms, regardless of whether individuals assist kin or are homosexual. Having said that, in contrasting modern culture with ancient cultures, it is a reasonable deduction that the infant mortality rate was higher for societies in ancient history. With that in mind, homosexual, transgendered, or non-reproducing individuals likely helped by providing assistance to their relatives to ensure a higher success rate in the pregnancies that occurred within the group as a whole. Belcombe’s hypothesis, one that proposes that pleasure is an evolutionary adaptation, is my favorite of the two that I have presented. Its basic, logical assertion is that pleasure-seeking is an innate, universal force residing in all organisms (including humans), which has led to the development many preferences, including sexual inclinations like homosexuality. The quest for pleasure brings gratification to humans while simultaneously accomplishing the tasks of survival. It seems key to the survival of our species.

Darwin’s theory of evolution has more depth than many give it credit for, and it recognized the obvious diversification of species, especially that which formed in response to particular environmental pressures. His theory did not revolve around the individual, but rather groups of individuals developing in ecological niches. Both competition and cooperation took place during evolution. When Darwin’s theory is oversimplified to only embrace the individual’s ability to reproduce, pass on genes, and engage in a competition for survival, it undermines the importance of life experiences and individual diversity. While competition plays a role in evolution, cooperation has been vital to human existence. There does not appear to be a Darwinian paradox at all, but rather it seems that the population has variations, one of those being homosexuality. I am genuinely surprised that many scientists view this supposed lack of some individuals to reproduce to their full potential as clashing with the theory of evolution. Darwin’s writing about social insects illuminates how valuable non-reproducing individuals can be to a community, and he sees no conflict between their sterility and natural selection:

I will here take only the case of working or sterile ants. How the workers have been rendered sterile is a difficulty; but some insects and other animals in a state of nature do occasionally become sterile, and if such insects had been social, and it had been profitable to the community that a number should have been born capable of work, but incapable of procreation, I can see no especial difficulty in this having been effected through natural selection (Darwin 1979:140).

It is not that unusual for certain individuals not to reproduce or to encounter challenges with reproduction. In reality, mate choice often causes individuals to lose reproductive success, when infertility presents itself. Couples may not be able to have children due to fertility issues. Many humans choose to remain single and outright decide not to have children. Certain people live a life of abstinence, for example, monks or nuns in religious orders. Outside of religion, individuals may be asexual for personal, or perhaps biological, reasons. Belcombe’s studies showed that there is also an abundance of non-reproductive sexual activities, which do not lead to offspring and could be argued to cause a reduction in fitness. In the scheme of life, homosexuals represent only a portion of those not reproducing, and some people that identify as homosexual do procreate. Why are we not questioning the other non-reproducing humans, but continue to question the reason for the existence of homosexuality? It is possible to view those that forego having children as benefiting overall success by mitigating over-population and allowing more resources to be available for the entire society. Non reproducing individuals assist the broader society, taking on roles that reproducers may not be able to accomplish efficiently. The benefits that might arise from same-sex pairings could be hard to detect and quantify, especially, but not limited to looking at the gene pool.

There are aspects of sexuality that must be examined in order to explain one possible reason for the persistence of homosexuality in our genetics. Sexuality, as a trait, is difficult to measure scientifically, and it is possible that human sexuality can be viewed more accurately as occurring on a scale or continuum. Alfred Kinsey expressed his thoughts on this topic in the following quote:

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories . . . The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects (Kinsey, et al.1948:639).

Sexuality is defined in a rigid, dichotomous manner. For example, some people consider themselves heterosexual, but they have engaged in homosexual behavior during their life. The heterosexual men in Samoa discussed above are a case in point. Likewise, others identify as homosexual, but have engaged in heterosexual behavior throughout their lives. Ascertaining sexual preferences is challenging, partly because people tend to hide parts of their sexuality. There is societal pressure to pick one side of the spectrum and display it “properly” in today’s world. To compound this, some are not aware of their sexual status and the idea that it can change throughout time. If a state of bisexuality is more common in the population than thought, it might explain how this trait is passed from parents to succeeding generations. Sexual preference could present in a part of the human genome, and homosexuality might be one phenotypic expression, occurring at a lower frequency. If this trait is coded for in most or all humans, maybe it is only potentiated in society under certain environmental conditions. Furthermore, a gene might have existed ancestrally, which served a specific function that was vital to survival. While it might have manifested itself one way in more ancient environments, that same gene might express itself as homosexuality in more modern times.

In its simplest form, people might carry a gene or set of genes for the trait of sexuality, which are expressed in a heterozygous fashion (expressed as basically heterosexual). If two such heterozygous persons have a child and a child results that identifies primarily gay, it is a fair assumption that he or she received the gene/genes that allowed for the expression of that trait. Because this trait is seen uniformly across cultures, I think it is likely to be present in some way in a large portion of the population. Keeping this in mind, homosexual behavior should not be viewed as an anomaly in today’s world.

Sexuality is not nearly as concrete as it has been presented during discussions about it. The view of sexuality as either “normal” heterosexuality or “abnormal” exclusive homosexuality has an effect on the way it is studied. Clearly, a variety of sexual behaviors exist in many organisms and cultures–both ancient, modern, and preindustrial types. As shown in my discussion, ancient societies and non-Western societies can offer insights that are not visible when scientists study modern-day societies. This paper has attempted to explain how genes might be passed on and maintained in the gene pool; however, part of the problem with our inability to understand this trait is in our simplistic outlook on how genes determine traits. Just as sexuality is complex, genes need not be as deterministic as they appear. As mentioned before, the manner in which a genetic code is expressed likely changes as organisms evolve and encounter new environments. In other words, one genetic code may lead to many different qualities under varying conditions. If science finds an answer to the question that is so pressing to science and society, it will likely be found by looking at a combination of factors: inclusive fitness, culture, pleasure-seeking, and the manipulation of genes in the presence of environmental factors. There are definitely more hypotheses than I have presented, and some answers might be revealed as more studies are conducted. Regardless of whether or not science finds answers, Darwin’s discussion of social insects that are sterile indicate that the existence of non-reproductive humans does not conflict with natural selection. The importance of cooperation, diversity, and group success and survival are understated by science and society. Homosexuality and all sexual behaviors must be observed and considered in that light.

I want to close by discussing the impact that culture can and does have on humans, in particular. The power of culture should not be underestimated with regard to this subject. Culture affects human choices, and we are raised in a world that values heterosexuality. There are powerful, cultural suggestions about what the “norm” is. People are highly susceptible to such suggestions and want to be accepted by society. This might affect humans as a whole, and consequently, inaccurately reflect the actual number of people that have homosexual inclinations. In more open, accepting environments, this trait might be expressed more and have more visibility if it were valued. Culture might influence choices in sexuality on both a conscious and unconscious level.

References Cited

Bagemihl, Bruce

1999 Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Balcombe, Jonathan

1999 Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Balcombe, Jonathan

2009 Animal Pleasure and its Moral Significance. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 118(3): 208-216.

Bobrow, David and J. Michael Bailey

2001 Is Male Homosexuality Maintained via Kin Selection? Evolution and Human Behavior 22:361-368.

Darwin, Charles

1979 The Illustrated Origin of Species. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin.

1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia:W.B. Saunders.

Neill, James

2009 The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies. Jefferson NC: McFarland.

Rahman, Qazi and Matthew S. Hull

2005 An Empirical Test of the Kin Selection Hypothesis for Male Homosexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior 34(4):461-467.

VanderLaan , Doug P. and Paul L. Vasey

2014 Evidence of Cognitive Biases for Maximizing Indirect Fitness in Samoan Fa’afafine. Archives of Sexual Behavior 43(5):1009-1022.

Vasey, Paul L., David S. Pocock and Doug P. VanderLaan

2007 Kin Selection and Male Androphilia in Samoan Fa’afafine. Evolution and Human Behavior 28:159-167.

Vasey, Paul L. and Doug P. VanderLaan

2010 Avuncular Tendencies and the Evolution of Male Androphilia in Samoan Fa’afafine. Archives of Sexual Behavior 39(4):821-830.

 

Illusion Dismantled

Good bye my sweet friend.

Looking through the crowds,

I saw you standing there so many times.

I longed to know you,

and spoke highly of you.

I thought we connected once, twice, many times.

A great joy ensued for me,

Followed by wonder.

Time passed,

and the evolution of our friendship was obvious.

It was destiny, no?

Something meant to be—fate?

One day things seemed different.

The world no longer appeared the way it had to me.

Was anything real or just an alternate reality?

It was an illusion,

Or maybe a mirage provides the proper illustration.

I’ve chased your shadow on so many occasions,

and for what reason?

Acceptance, love, reciprocity . . .

I wanted to be a part of the whole.

A new chapter unfolds,

And I can see the few that want me for who I am.

It is not so hard even though my heart has remaining pains.

Even amongst the sadness of my loss,

My delusion is gone.

Good bye sweet dreams. You have held me back too long from truth and beauty.

This chapter will be different,

One based on not looking away from harsh reality.

I still love you, as surreal as you are,

but I wish to be part of humanity.

The humanity that looks at the most significant moments—good and bad.

C.K. Thiruvathukal

This poem was written about someone I considered a dear friend, a supporter of me during my alternative treatment, and practically family. Likely many, she vanished into the wood work. It’s hard to keep friends when you have an illness like Lyme. People often disappear. Those same people return if they become ill.  Once there, some of us welcome them with open arms. Others hold onto bitterness and sorrow. I’m fairly forgiving, but at some point, I have to remember the lessons or repeat them.

An Oral Narrative: One African American’s Journey

 

 

     As I studied for this class, I was fascinated to read that thousands of African Americans hadmigrated to Portland in 1942, to fill vacant jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards. These migrants became part of an integral, temporary workforce during World War II (Thompson 21). Surprisingly, I had no prior knowledge of the existence of the city of Vanport, Oregon. This community had far-reaching effects on Portland’s underlying racist culture.

     According to one source, as America became more involved in the war and demands for ships increased, Henry Kaiser added two shipyards along the Columbia River in Portland. Kaiser began to recruit workers from across the nation, offering high wages and free transportation into the area. With inadequate housing for incoming workers and Portland’s discriminatory housing practices against African Americans, Kaiser purchased a floodplain with federal funding. Vanport was the largest public housing project in the United States at the time. It was hastily erected and became the second largest city in Oregon. Because it was an unwelcoming city to minorities, Portland’s African American population was estimated at 2,000 persons prior to the war.  Thousands of workers stayed behind after Vanport’s flood, and African American refugees fled into Portland, where the long process of integration began. This provided an opportunity for the dominant group to come into direct contact with members of this minority community, challenging the status quo of discriminatory attitudes and behavior, and permanently changing Portland’s racial constituency (McGregor).

     I wanted to interview a prominent, older African American from Vanport, and I found Ed Washington, who works as a community liaison for the PSU Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion. He and his family had lived in Vanport after its creation, and they were present during the subsequent flood in1948. I felt extremely privileged that I was able to interview Ed, who is a 76-year-old, African American survivor of the Vanport flood.  Ed allowed 90 minutes of uninterrupted time in his office. At my interview, I had an extensive list of questions. For this presentation, I will focus on the most important themes discussed. Since Ed grew up in Vanport, I wanted to allow his words to tell a personal account of his background, an historical perspective of this unique city, and his thoughts on Portland after the flood of Vanport. The following paragraphs will detail his responses to tailored questions.

     Not native to Oregon, Ed’s dad initially came to here in response to recruiting for work in the shipyards and eventually found housing in Vanport.  Later, he, his mom, and his five siblings followed by train. It was a long, arduous journey with multiple connections. He was seven years old at the time:

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. I have four brothers and one sister. And my mom and dad were born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Well, at the time that my folks moved here from Birmingham, my dad was already here. My dad came out here about 1942 or ’43 to work in the shipyards. And then he sent for the family, because there was no housing out here at that time. […]We all arrived here on June 6th, 1944, from Birmingham. (Washington)

     While Kaiser’s shipyards were eagerly awaiting needed workers, there was a housing shortage for those coming into the area.  Ed recalls stories he was told about crowded and inadequate living conditions:

People were living wherever they could. These are stories that I’ve been told. They were living in housing but sharing a room. There may have been three men living in one room. Then, since the shipyards worked on a three-shift basis […], they would sleep when the other one was working. […]

     Oregon was a prejudiced state, and a series of laws excluded African Americans from settling with freedom from the time it was established as a territory.  Ubiquitous in writings, it is clear that the first European settlers wanted this to be a White state, free of Blacks and ethnic minorities, unless they were needed for cheap labor. That sentiment is echoed in my interview with Ed:

Well, I think to sort of set the stage, Portland and Oregon were segregated. It wasn’t segregated like the South. But there were sundown laws. Most cities in Oregon had sundown laws. That means you were not supposed to be in those towns when the sun’s down. And so those things were on the books. And many cities had them […] But it even goes back before logging when this area was a territory to not welcome Blacks.

     When jobs are available without enough willing or able workers, there usually is a force that pulls people into the area. In Oregon, both historically and today, minority groups have often performed lower-paying jobs. Kaiser hired Blacks, other racialized minorities, and women to fill these important jobs during wartime.

And so, but when the shipyards opened and Henry Kaiser went out to attract workers, he didn’t really care what their ethnic background was. He needed workers, and the young workers were all gone to war […] So, with Henry J. Kaiser and the federal government, struck a deal to build this large war housing project in Vanport. And Vanport wasn’t the only housing project here. That was the first big one […] And so the government and Kaiser struck a deal with the Portland Housing Authority to manage Vanport. (Washington)

     I asked Ed to discuss Vanport’s housing and to explain if any segregation occurred there. This is his explanation of the community during its formation, and he expressed that areas were more concentrated with Blacks or Whites, as opposed to segregated:

[…] And so what happened when Kaiser and the federal government hired the Portland Housing Authority to manage Vanport, they did not say, ‘Manage Vanport on a segregated basis.’ That was a rule that the Portland Housing Authority decided to establish […] Now, Vanport was not totally segregated, because people started coming, they were coming so fast. Initially, they tried to do it, but as people were coming so fast, they couldn’t say, ‘Okay blacks here.’Just couldn’t do it. So the initial segregation that did start [was] because of the Portland Housing Authority.  Not Kaiser. Not the federal government [. . .] Vanport housing was all the same.  Every unit where everybody lived was made from the same cookie cutter. […] And those units in Vanport were just hastily built.  But they were not dilapidated, there were not broken windows, they were not slummish. […]  (Washington)

     As with housing, the Portland Housing Authority wanted the Vanport schools to be segregated.  This attempt also failed, but the reason was a refusal to comply by the Superintendent of Vanport schools, according to Ed:

The Housing Authority did want the schools to be segregated. And they actually asked the Superintendent, Mr. James Hamilton, to segregate the schools. And he says, ‘No way. Not going do that. It’s not gonna happen.’ So, it never did. The schools were totally integrated. Vanport was probably the first district to hire African American teachers. […] And the schools were really, really good schools. […]

          When I asked Ed about if children from different racial groups played, he shared his thoughts, which aptly illustrate the time period. During wartime, toys were priceless, and playing with those toys was high priority. Regardless of color, kids played at Vanport:

[…] the big thing back in those days for kids was just playin’. And if you had a pair of skates, and a kid wanted to skate on your skates, he didn’t care whether you were black, purple, red, or green. If you had a bike and you wanted to ride and you gave him a chance to ride, he didn’t care. And mostly, if you had a baseball bat and glove, kids didn’t care. Kids just want to play. Even though their parents would say, ‘I don’t want you playing with those so-and-so’ns,’ kids will still find a way to play. (Washington)

     While kids from different racial groups played together, Ed discussed how kids mimicked their parents’ use of racial slurs and settled disputes. The following excerpt shows his point of view on the interactions of children at Vanport:

Kids will be kids, but the kids all mingled. You know, kids don’t care, what your color looks like. There were kids who would use the n word, but that was because that’s what their parents told them, you see. But you know. It happened. But when that would happen, you’d always have a little fight, and a little fight would take care of it. And that’s just the way kids are. (Washington)

     From speaking to Ed, it became clear that parents faced different issues than their kids. Ed recalls stories that he was told about Whites and Blacks riding on transit to the shipyards.

Now I was told stories about men and women who rode in the buses and the trucks to the shipyards, that there were a lot of White southerns who worked the shipyards and they never sat next to a Black in the South. So they would get up and ask some of those Blacks, ‘Get up and give me your seat boy.’ Well, you know, that only happened a couple of times, and they got the crap beat out of them, because they’re not in the South anymore. After someone either, if they didn’t lay them out physically, they would lay them out verbally. […]

     Vanport hospitals treated everybody, but it appears that there was some segregation of the races as shown by the following:

[…] My brother was hurt in an accident, and I remember he was a room by himself. But I didn’t, I never even thought about that. But some people said that it was, but I think as far as if you got if you got hurt and you went to the hospital, they would give you care. They took care of you. (Washington)

     Vanport flooded on Memorial Day in 1948, and this caused an evacuation of people of all groups to flee into Portland. Like most crises, relief agencies, churches, and the community responded in various ways.  I wanted to know if Ed felt he and the Black community were treated well by the Red Cross and Portland communities:

All of those communities really did tremendous outreach. […] The Red Cross, though, offered African Americans a one-way ticket out of here. […] I mean, you know, people will open their hearts and even their minds a little bit in time of need. That doesn’t mean that they won’t close them. But, you know, it makes us feel good to be accommodating in times of need. And I think they probably figured that by being nice, that means that we may get a blessing, you know. […]

     After the immediate needs of the flood victims were met to the communities’ satisfaction, discriminatory attitudes and behaviors were omnipresent in the culture. The flood had rapidly introduced a large population of Blacks into Portland, but the process of integration and fight for fair treatment was an arduous one. Ed described how he felt this affected the process of integration in Portland as follows:

I think that it was a genesis for learning how to accept, because there were still things going on even up until the ’60s and the ’70s. But I think that the fact that you went from a population from 2,500 African Americans to a population of probably 50,000 over the next 20 to 30 years. And so, really, I think Vanport was a genesis of integration for the city of Portland.

     In discussing the 1940s and 1950, this interview clarified how African Americans were limited in the areas where they could gain access to accommodations.  While there was a community, Ed’s comments show that although signs might not have been present, Blacks knew where not to go:

Well, with accommodations, you were restricted to the Albina area, and there were restaurants that Black people knew not to go into. Back in those days, skating rinks, Blacks went on a certain night. Swimming pools, in the city swimming pools, that was not the case. […] And McElroy’s would allow Blacks to use their dance hall on Thursday. And there was never a sign. It was just this unwritten rule. And there was some people that were discriminated against in theaters. Like the Egyptian theater would only allow African Americans to sit in the balcony…And they referred to it as N-heaven, you know.

     Even with the obvious exclusion of African Americans in Portland after World War II, Ed expressed that he had pleasant experiences in the Portland schools. When I asked him if he liked school in Vanport more than in Portland, he responded, “No. Honestly, because Vanport school was really good. And my experience, and I can only speak for myself, where I went to school in Northeast Portland, I had a good experience.”

     Despite the Fair Housing Act passed in the early 1950s, the denial of accommodations to African Americans was still occurring and there was “racial steering” into the Albina area. One method of dissuading Black Americans from renting outside of those confines was to charge higher rent. This was the case for Ed and his wife in 1959. Ed describes his attorney’s return surprise confrontation with the landlord when they returned to the apartment together:

He said, ‘This is my friend, Ed Washington. I think you know him, because he was here a couple of days ago. He and his wife about an apartment. You know, you were going to rent the apartment to him, but you were going to charge him $75. I’m Ed’s attorney. I’m just wondering why is it that I can get it for $50, and you’re charging Ed $75? You know, that’s against the law.’

     Historically, African Americans had been “steered” into the Albina area and eventually into North and Northeast Portland. In the early 1990s, these regions of Portland were predominantly African American. These deteriorated neighborhoods were plagued with drugs and higher crime rates, which was ignored by the authorities. After more affluent Whites and White businesses established themselves in the region, the process of gentrification began, which Ed emphatically described:

[…]They did ignore it until they were ready to take it over. And then, when those young whites, who did not move in to change the neighborhood, they just moved in, because it was a place that they could live cheaper. And many of them moved in when drugs were bad, and the city and the police were not doing much about it.  And they moved in, and then once they started improving things, other whites moved in. Well, after awhile, all those people that owned that property said, ‘Hey, I can sell it now.’ And so, those Blacks who were renting … they [White landlords] just sold it and it’s horrible.

     In response to my question about how gentrification affected the Black community, Ed explained with emotion:         

It’s destroyed the Black community, what Black community existed, and I think gentrification is horrible. I mean there’s no excuse, but you know, people can’t just automatically gentrify. They have to have the help of governments in the city of Portland. And it’s various bureaus and the PDC. And those people all played a part in the gentrification of NE Portland. […] They’re [Blacks] out in north in deep, what I call deep Northeast, 168th, 164th, 181st. They’re all out in deep Northeast Portland now […] So I would say, the deeper you go out in NE Portland, people in the community refer to it as ‘out in the numbers.’ […] And that’s where, when you see all the gang crap, shootings. […] There are more African Americans in the Gresham area than ever before.

     Finally, I asked Ed what he felt were the current obstacles facing African Americans and if he felt there were a lot of racial issues in Portland today. This was his answer:

Well, I don’t think we have, per se, a lot of racial issues in Portland. I think we have a lot of perceptions in Portland. People love to talk about Portland, about how progressive we are, and how diverse we are, and how fair we are. And that is a lot of bull. Portland is still one of the largest majority White cities in the country. And so, I think that what happens to all people of color—not just Black, but all people of color, every group of people of color in Portland, I don’t care whether they’re from India or China or Japan, Native Americans, whatever—there are no huge number of anything in the city of Portland other than probably the Hispanic population. And the Hispanic population is a diverse population. […] They all have this wonderful, wonderful color. And I think other than them now, Blacks, Asians, all the Asians—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Latinos, Hmongs, all of them—the danger is they get swallowed up.

     Ed’s experiences present one viewpoint of Vanport as a relatively successful community. The media’s portrayal of Vanport life reflects the racial attitudes and social climate of the time; therefore, it is a highly biased source of information. Hearing from a well-known, respected member of Portland’s community offers a personal account that encompasses a more balanced and realistic perspective. It is crucial that we interview people from these types of communities in order to preserve a “collective memory.”  The interviewing experience was positive overall, but it brought painful memories of discrimination from my past to the surface.

       In conducting this interview, I realized that the younger generations should seek out and listen to such people, because they provide a priceless and omitted personal narrative.  Such personal stories enrich our understanding of history, which often lacks depth.  Many people cannot see the injustices that have occurred against African Americans and other ethnic minorities. A myriad of people often overlook the torturous conditions and hardships faced by many groups throughout American history.  Hearing stories like Ed’s show that large strides have been made in the area of Civil Rights, even though I feel we have a long way to go.

     Upon reflection, it became clear to me that younger people, especially minorities, need to be more politically and socially active in their communities. Whenever possible, they need to speak out. As a person of mixed ancestry, I feel that just as younger people can learn from the experiences of someone like Ed, minorities of older generations should listen to the struggles of newer generations of minorities and learn from those personal narratives.  In my opinion, there is a tendency for some older minorities that have been through horrible and overt societal conditions to not fully appreciate the struggles of present-day minorities.

     Although I knew about the gentrification of North and Northeast Portland, I had not realized that it was such a concerted effort, which involved governmental entities. I was surprised to learn that gentrification had displaced African American residents into Gresham.  The problems of those affected by gentrification have now been relocated to another region.

     I was shocked that considering the entrenched system of discrimination and exclusion against African Americans, Ed’s life, including his schooling and reception into the city of Portland after the Vanport flood, was largely a positive experience.  By contrast, as a young, multiracial minority, I endured non-stop discrimination that was both overt and covert and lacked a true community. After September 11th, I have been the target of discrimination, which has occurred even recently.

     Despite Ed’s expression of a relatively happy life, obvious social injustices occurred. An alternate view emerged even though it was less pronounced. However, I am not sure my interviewee recognized this. Although Ed stated that he didn’t think there were necessarily racial issues today, his statements about the drug problems, gangs, and shootings occurring in Gresham reveal Ed’s dissatisfaction with societal issues today.  He emphatically concurred that leaders and our authorities are ignoring the deep Northeast area and its community presently.

      I think there are definitely many racial issues and obstacles facing various minority groups today, such as higher rates of poverty, arrest, and unemployment.  It is only through listening to hidden voices in from both today and yesterday that we can address those realities and bring about change. Other Black Americans don’t necessarily share Ed’s generally positive view or good experiences in Oregon. A quote from an African American who lived in Portland helps to make my point, “Oregon was a Klan state . . . a southern state transplanted to the North . . .a hellhole when I grew up. It has always been a prejudiced state. It is today, believe it or not. There’s a lot of prejudice even now, as far as that’s concerned, but nothing like it used to be” (McLagan 78).

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

McGregor, Michael. “The Vanport Flood & Racial Change in Portland.” The Oregon History Project. Oregon Historical Society, 2003. Web. 01 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/learning_center/dspresource.cfm?resource_ID=000BC26B-EE5A-1E47-AE5A80B05272FE9F&gt;

McLagan, Elizabeth “A Very Prejudiced State: Discrimination in Oregon from 1900-1940.” Ed. Jun Xing et al. Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Racialized Ethnic Minorities in Oregon. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2007. Print.

Thomson, Robert D., Jr. “Racialized Minority Demographics in Oregon.” Ed. Jun Xing et al. Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Racialized Ethnic Minorities in Oregon. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2007. Print.

Washington, Ed. Personal interview. 13 Nov. 2013.

 

 

Link

https://www.etsy.com/listing/166121952/elephant-ice-cream-bowl-decorative?elephant01elephant04elephant03elephant02

This is a new piece I made. It is one of my favorites and I plan to make more with different features.  Please let me know if you are interested in this piece. It would be a great kids’ gift or elephant lover’s delight. Have a treat of ice cream or pudding in it. Such fun!  I have a cat ice cream bowl, and I am open to making others in addition to my cat and pig banks. Even my daughter has pieces available and I’ll post those soon.  Any special requests are welcome!  A dog, cat, turtle…just let me know.

A friend that is a potter, Mark Campbell, wrote this after seeing my piece:

“A friend of mine just posted a picture of her elephant cup. When I saw it, I was instantly reminded of the first time I became fascinated with clay. I was in Kindergarten, and out teacher showed us a finished elephant that looked looked like this.

My first piece of ceramic work did not turn out all that great. I did instantly realize the limitless possibilities that clay had to offer, and was hooked!”

Discrimination…a view from my family

Internal and External Perspectives

Perhaps nothing other than severe illness has affected my life more than discrimination. Even before I was born, the wheels of prejudice began turning in my own family in response to my parents’ involvement. The relationship and eventual marriage between my father and mom was inter-ethnic, with him being born in India and her being an American of European descent. One of my uncles asked my parents what their children would look like. Sarcastically, my father replied, “Like zebras.” This interaction set the stage for me losing most of my mom’s family before I had even been conceived . My father would not permit my mom or us to have familial contact except for a few more visits. This included his own family as well.

As a young child growing up in Joliet, Illinois in the 1970s. I was in the middle of a war zone. My siblings and I were tormented by the other kids in the neighborhood and had rocks thrown at us. We could not play in the front yard and access was limited in the wooded backyard. What otherwise would have been a paradise of a home was an uninviting environment filled with rejection. My brother, sister, and I were often bullied or felt afraid, and it wasn’t just of those in the dominant group. Falling in between, we took assault from different groups. I recall walking to the park with a friend. I was under the age of ten. Kids yelled out “Spic.” I was so humiliated. Later, when visiting the private university my father worked at in my late teens, I felt like I was in a flashback of segregation in the 1950s.

To add to this, my father came equipped with his own views, placing everyone into racial and ethnic categories, an educational category, a category for income, and one for gender. Sexual orientation and cohabitation are heavily scrutinized even if platonic. Even people from India were and still are not excluded from this “caste system”. One day, he was walking with my mom and he saw a couple. The woman was “Caucasian” and the man was from India. He told my mom that she was with the man, because she couldn’t get anyone here (as in an American of her own race). It is safe to say that my father’s system was discriminatory against everyone in the family, and he expressed that he was superior to everyone in the household and outside of it.

This system added to the struggles I was already enduring and made functioning in the larger society even more difficult. Also, I believe my father’s attitudes about other Indian people came shining through directly to me, and I developed a strong inferiority complex with regard to my east Indian heritage, even when I acted proud of it. Despite that, I continued to try to find a way to appreciate my heritage.

My mom remarried when I was 9 after moving to Seattle, WA. My stepdad was African American. This added a new dimension. We lived in Federal Way, Washington, an area that had a small percentage of minorities. In the neighborhood, I once again fell into a category. This time, it was biracial. I had discussions at school where I vehemently defended children of interracial families to the point where one friend finally figured out I was a product of an “interracial couple.” I am not sure if people thought I was African American or some mixture. I didn’t discuss that a lot. I felt invisible at school and for the most part, excluded. I eventually found myself completing high school in a college environment. It was at this point that I actively started identifying as Asian American. I used this designation on forms I filled out.

Both in Joliet and in Federal Way, friends that did come around or into my house made comments or passed on comments made by their parents. In Joliet, two friends discussed how their parents didn’t think my house was clean enough. One of them was instructed not to drink from our cups, because she was told they were dirty. Our family was viewed as a being part of a lower socioeconomic status when I lived with my father in Illinois. In Federal Way, two sets of parents did not want me around their child or family. I believe it was due to being from a mixed family. My friends told me behind closed doors in their own way.

While having a multitude of conversations over the years, there has been a general and backhanded compliment expressed to me by many people, in every arena including education. The sentiment can be summed up with this quote: “You aren’t a minority. You are like one of us.” Members of my family have made these comments. One day, my aunt told me that people should marry their own kind. When I questioned her as to what my kind was, I was told that I was just like her and everyone else, and different than “them.” I wondered if I was supposed to say thank you for including me or for not persecuting me directly along with the others.

I developed an interest in Sociology, talking a great deal with some professors about their experiences with discrimination and often asked for input about why I was enduring so much hatred. On campus, I remember kids yelling racial slurs at me completely unprovoked later when I went to school in Bakersfield, California. I took a few main things from my classes that have helped me to understand things better than I used to. I learned about some of the socioeconomic factors that have led to prejudice and hatred between different racial groups, even those people that are minorities. Through one teacher, I found out that the Asian American family appeared to have a basic structure. My teacher’s experiences were unique but were quite similar to mine in many respects even though she had grown up in a Chinese American family. I took many classes about minorities and felt more connected to my minority status, largely feeling that I would accept that I was not part of the dominant group. I felt I didn’t need to be, and I was essentially in a category of “other.” This, I came to find out, was the reason I had it particularly rough. I simply didn’t have a community to connect with directly, being part of a complex, inter-ethnic and interracial family with discrimination internally present as well.

I had two experiences in Bakersfield and one in Seattle which profoundly shaped me as a person. I was refused seating on the basis of sexual orientation once. I went to get some food late one night with someone I was dating, and we waited 45 minutes to be seated when there were plenty of tables and no others waiting to be seated. I absolutely refused to leave as I was totally in shock. The second time I was not seated was close by where I attended school. I was with a close friend that was Native American. After 30 minutes of waiting, a busboy finally came to seat us. I really can’t remember. He might have served us also. Both times, I was filled with anger and that was a change for me. I felt they did the wrong thing, and although it was hurtful, I put the blame where it belonged. Prior to that, I was denied housing even in Seattle and caught the person when I called to check if the basement was still available. It was and I knew that once again, my skin color had caused a problem for me.

As a student at Oregon State University, and one that has experienced discrimination on multiple levels, I would openly share with others what I had experienced in my family and society with regard to discrimination. I would make myself available to people that felt marginalized in any way. Along the way, I know for sure that without my social science teachers all through my schooling, it would have been even harder. I know I could pass that on and make a positive difference in society and the lives of other people. I strive to do that in my everyday interactions, and it is my desire to help those that need help and protection the most in society.

 

New Etsy listing–a piece that says Portland and more…

With full legalization recently passed in Washington and Colorado allowing the use of cannabis, this seems a perfect time for the piece I designed and created.  I was thinking about the voters approving marijuana fully and not just for medical, and I thought of the show Portlandia. Then, I thought this is Potlandia.  It cracked me up.

Oregon may not allow for legal use but it truly is Potandia.  While out in public gathering, the scent of cannabis travels with the winds and sometimes without.  People act as though legalization took place here already and long ago.

This piece is a great piece for those that want legalization, better rights for patients in areas like Oregon that have just medical marijuana, or who just like the look of a clever piece.

To order, use the link.  Any special requests to personalize that piece can likely be done.  Please comment  or feel free to contact me at LaidBackPottery on Etsy if you have any requests.  Thank you! *

https://www.etsy.com/listing/155261066/potlandia-green-cannabis-leaf?Image

* Please note the copyright and initials TM, indicating trademark.