Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The First Martyr for the Cause

Some of the material in William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America seems excessively digressive and speculative to me, but sometimes even the digressions are suggestive in ways Benemann probably didn't consider.  Late in the book he devotes a chapter to forms of political protest the English colonists brought with them from the Old Country, including men who cross-dressed and blackened their faces with burnt cork before engaging in vandalism, sabotage, and riot: some of the Boston Tea Party vandals, for example, chose to masquerade as women rather than Indians.  This was not necessarily, as Benemann points out, because they really expected to pass as female or Indian, but also to symbolize the breakdown of social and political order.  What this has to do with male-male intimacy, even on Benemann's account, isn't clear to me, but it is interesting.

Even farther from Benemann's ostensible theme is his account of the use of boys in American revolutionary agitation and outrages.
Little attention has been given to the fact that prepubescent boys were deliberately employed as agents provocateurs in the years leading up to the rupture with Britain.  Many of the Stamp Act rioters in Boston were “Boys and Children,” and when a crowd attacked the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the scapegoat for the colony’s anger, the assailants were described as “a number of boys from 14 to sixteen years of age, some mere Children which did a great deal of damage.”  In New York the Stamp Act was protested by “a great number of boys carrying Torches & a scaffold,” and in the succeeding weeks hundreds of boys “frequently tramped the streets at night shouting ‘Liberty and No Stamps!’”  By 1769 boys were regularly employed to harass merchants who failed to comply with the nonimportation embargo.  Boys were even viewed as the vanguard of the Continental Army.  A song published in New York in 1776 gleefully boasted, “Our Children rout your Armies, our Boats destroy your Fleet!”

The use of boys was a deliberate policy followed by the Revolutionary leaders, but the reasons for the policy are somewhat complex.  Certainly one motive was to create a public disturbance and deliver a political message without provoking a strong response from the colonial government [256-7].
This immediately brought to my mind the role played by boys of the same age during the First and Second Intifadas, though Palestinian adolescents often suffered a stronger response from the colonial government.  I seem to recall some indignation among American pro-Israel commentators that the Arabs would use their children in this way; probably they were unaware of this aspect of American history, which allowing for differences in technology was surprisingly similar.  Even to this:
On February 22, 1770, a group of “many hundreds” of boys picketed the shop of Theophilus Lilly, a Boston merchant who refused to acknowledge the nonimportation boycott.  The boys were confronted by Ebenezer Richardson, a customs informer, who in turn became the target of the mob.  Richardson retreated to his home, and when the boys began to break in, he fired his rifle into the crowd, killing eleven-year-old Christopher Seider.  Seider was given a grand ceremonial funeral.  School was adjourned for the day, and a procession of 500 boys marching two by two, followed by more than 2,000 adults, wound its way from the Liberty Tree to the place of burial.  It was one of the largest funerals ever witnessed in colonial Boston.

Revolutionary leaders seized upon Christopher Seider’s death for its symbolic value.  Poet Phyllis Wheatley called him “the first martyr for the cause” [260].
Can it really be that I've never heard the story of Christopher Seider before?  It seems not to have played any part in my own schooling about American history.  I wondered if it might have been considered a bad or disturbing example for American's children, but apparently Seider's martyrdom is still being taught in Boston schools, even (see the photo above) to the point of reenacting it.  And its relation to male-male intimacy in early America is murky to me.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Leave Kinsey Alone!

Jeez.  I finally got off my butt and after nearly a year I'm again reading William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America (Harrington Park Press, 2006).  I'm moving along pretty smoothly, just past page 70, and there's some interesting stuff in it.  I've been making notes for a longer post, maybe more than one, because this is a subject I've been procrastinating on for a long time.  But occasionally Benemann puts his foot in it, and I'm going to write about that too.

At the end of the introductory material that bogged me down before, Benemann rejects the "bifurcated" view of people as either homosexual or heterosexual.  That's a good thing, though it occurs to me that just about everybody -- certainly every scholarly writer -- who addresses this subject pays lip service to Rejecting the Binary.  What counts is whether you can actually apply that concept to the material you're discussing; so far Benemann is trying to.  And, as most such writers do, he cites Alfred Kinsey:
A more useful model is the one presented by Alfred Kinsey in 1948.  Kinsey described sexual orientation as a continuum, a scale from one to six with one being entirely heterosexual and six being entirely homosexual.  Most human beings fall somewhere between the two extremes of the scale [xvii].
So, first: the scale doesn't run from one to six; it runs from zero to six, with zero (not one) being entirely heterosexual.  In an endnote Benemann cites Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin's 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, page 638, so he could have seen for himself.  On that page is a diagram like this one:

Zero to six, right?  But that's minor.  Second, Kinsey didn't "describe sexual orientation as a continuum" -- he didn't describe sexual orientation at all.  The continuum is a map of data points based on individuals' sexual histories.

Third, most human beings do not fall between the two extremes of the scale.  The interval from zero to one includes half (50 percent) of Kinsey's male histories.  The interval from five to six includes one twenty-fifth (4 percent) of his male histories.  Those who fall between the two extremes are the remaining 46 percent.  I don't know who originated the belief that the histories are distributed in a bell curve, but it has no basis in Kinsey's data.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders

For the past couple of days I've been reading David F. Schmitz's Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (University of North Carolina, 1999).  The larger picture of US support for right-wing dictatorships around the world is of course not news to me, but Schmitz provides lots of detail drawn from internal documents, and I'm learning a lot.

One place where I disagree with Schmitz is his choice of the word "paternalistic" to describe US elite attitudes toward the citizens (including political and other leaders) of other countries.  He evidently prefers it to the more inflammatory but still accurate "racist," but if the shoe fits, it should be worn.  So, for example:
President Truman, as his most recent biographer, Alonzo Hamby, has shown, might have "remained a racist only in the narrowest sense of the word and was considerably less so than the the vast majority of white Americans in the years after World War II."  Still, he used words such as "nigger" in private to describe blacks and held to the racial categories and stereotypes of his youth.  He found Latin Americans to be, "like Jews and the Irish, 'very emotional' and difficult to handle" [148].
I don't know that much about Harry S. Truman, so maybe I should look at Hamby's biography and see on what basis he thinks that Truman was "considerably less racist" than his peers in his day, or what "narrow" sense of the word "racist" he has in mind.  It certainly sounds to me like he was racist in a fairly broad sense of the word, not just for his use of "nigger" but for his adherence to racist categories and stereotypes.

Schmitz goes on:
State Department records are riddled with comments such as how Guatemalan leaders were known for their "mental deviousness and difficulty thinking in a straight line," or that trying to reason with Latin Americans was "rather like consulting with babies as to whether or not we should take candy away from them."  Descriptions of Latin Americans as children were common.  Spruille Braden opined that "our Latino friends were playing at economics, just as a child will pretend in his games to be something he isn't and has no immediate possibility of becoming" [149].
This view of foreigners -- just about all non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners, in fact -- as childlike fits the word "paternalistic," but it is also racist, since it casts whole populations as inferior by nature, and despite a certain amount of pious rhetoric to the effect that someday these childlike people may be fit to govern themselves, that day was always safely in the indefinite future.  The same rhetoric characterized a good deal of foot-dragging by whites about people of African descent (who'd always been stereotyped as childish) in the US itself.

The same theme recurs throughout Thank God They're On Our Side:
[FDR held] that the Vietnamese, along with many other Asians, were not yet prepared for self-government.  "With the Indo-Chinese," Roosevelt noted, "there is a feeling that they ought to be independent but are not ready for it.  They needed to be educated in the same manner that the Filipinos were.  In that case, "it took fifty years for us to do it."  He agreed with Queen Wilhelmina of Holland that because of Dutch rule the "Javanese are not quite ready for self-government, but very nearly," and would soon gain independence.  In contrast was the case of New Guinea, where the people were described as the "lowest form of human life in the world, their skulls have least developed."  They were probably "two hundred years behind the rest of the world" [169].
Notice, incidentally, Schmitz's use of the blind passive in "the people were described as..."  Why not say "Roosevelt described them as ..."?  Is it because he wants to dodge the unpleasant reality of FDR deploying such embarrassingly crude scientific racism?  It also occurs to me that if the people of New Guinea were "two hundred years behind the rest of the world" in 1944, when Roosevelt said this, that would put them in 1744, when American colonialists were moving rapidly toward independence.  You wouldn't think that was so backward.

The reference to the Philippines there is ironic, as is a 1959 remark by Dwight Eisenhower that "If we had not trained the Filipinos in democracy for forty years, the Philippines would now have become a military dictatorship" (225).  In 1972, that dream became a reality as Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.

Invoking the standard paternalistic views that guided policy toward Latin America throughout the century, the secretary of state [John Foster Dulles] argued that the "most significant fact that throughout most of the world and certainly in Latin America there had been in recent years a tremendous surge in the direction of popular governments by peoples who have practically no capacity for self-government and indeed are like children in facing this problem" [220].
And so on.  But as I read on, the more I was struck by how childlike and emotional the US leaders were.  They were suckers for dusky men in uniform, from Benito Mussolini, who "was seen [by US diplomats and their bosses] as a moderate and the only reliable implementer of the policies essential to order, economic recovery, and development" (39) --
American businessmen were no less enthusiastic about Mussolini and his government.  Thomas Lamont of J. P. Morgan remarked after his first meeting with Mussolini that the Italian dictator was “a very upstanding chap.”  He wrote later that Italy was “going to be a great country despite its very limited resources.”  Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb, praised the recent change of government in Italy at the 1925 meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce.  “Parliamentary wrangling and wasteful impotent bureaucracy” had been replaced by an “efficient and energetic … government,” which had united Italy in “a spirit of order, discipline, hard work, patriotic devotion and faith.”  Ralph Easley of the National Civic Federation wrote to Thomas Lamont after visiting Italy, “I think, were we in Italy, we would all be with Mussolini.”  And Judge Elbert Gary of United States Steel remarked while in Rome in 1923 that “we have here a wonderful renaissance of youthful energy and activity.  A masterhand has, indeed, strongly grasped the hand of the Italian state.”  Gary added that he felt “like turning to my American friends and asking them whether we, too, need a man like Mussolini” [40].
-- to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza --
[Former Secretary of War Colonel Henry L. Stimson] immediately liked Somoza, who sought to ingratiate himself with Stimson.  The colonel described Somoza as a "very frank, friendly, likeable young liberal" and noted that, because he spoke fluent English, Somoza "impresses me more favorably than almost any other" person.  So impressed was Stimson that he had Somoza act as his interpreter for the next few days while he finished the agreement [53].
-- to Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar --
Dean Acheson, in particular, was impressed by Salazar ... In his memoirs, Acheson described Salazar as one of the few people he was immediately drawn to upon first meeting.  He had come to power "to run a country that for twenty years had been sinking into economic chaos and political anarchy."  Acheson recalled that he saw Salazar not as "a dictator in his own right as Stalin was, but a dictator-manager employed and maintained by the power of the army ... "A convinced libertarian -- particularly a foreign one -- could understandably disapprove of Salazar.  But," Acheson wrote, "I doubt that Plato would have done so" [164].
(A Portuguese military philosopher-king!)

-- to South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem:
Senator [John Fitzgerald] Kennedy praised Diem for making South Vietnam "the cornerstone of the Free world in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike," while Mike Mansfield argued that the fact "that a free Viet Nam exists at the present time ... is the result of the efforts of Mr. Diem."  The Saturday Evening Post referred to Diem as the "mandarin in a sharkskin suit who's upsetting the Red timetable," and Life magazine, with no apparent sense of irony, justified Diem's refusal to hold the unification elections [mandated by the 1954 Geneva Accords] on the grounds that Ho [Chi Minh] would win.  "Diem saved his people from this agonizing prospect simply by refusing to permit the plebiscite and thereby he avoided national suicide."  The New York Times titled its 1957 profile on Diem "An Asian Liberator."  The paper of record applauded his work to "save his country from falling apart" and how he tirelessly toured the countryside so that the people would get to know him and perhaps like him more than they did Ho Chi Minh."  This effort was paying off as the "Vietnamese learn to respect their new Government and their new leader" [208].
Didn't the people already know their new leader?  They could hardly have done so, because Diem, "a Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist nation... had spent the entire war for independence in Europe and the United States" (205).  This material should also be borne in mind the next time someone laments the glorious days when American media were "adversary."  Not in the 1950s they weren't.  Or the 1960s.  But I digress.

Of course our leaders were often uneasily aware that our clients weren't always as docile as they would like.  Mussolini was an obvious case, but in Latin America especially they just didn't seem to know when they'd worn out their welcome.  When Rafael Trujillo's regime in the Dominican Republic began to look shaky, for example, the Eisenhower administration began looking discreetly for someone who could be "'a forceful leader,' albeit not necessarily as extreme as the generalissimo" (229).  Unfortunately, the generalissimo had killed or imprisoned anyone who might represent a threat to his tenure, and the respectable elements of Dominican society weren't about to stick their necks out signalling their availability to the US.  The American embassy warned that "the people are not now politically educated to accept democracy as it exists in the United States" (ibid.), hardly surprising since the US and Trujillo had considered any opposition to Trujillo to be communism, not democracy.  Trujillo refused covert US entreaties to step down voluntarily, even if he got to take his money with him.  (In the end he was assassinated by elements of his own army, none of whom proved strong enough to take his place.)  This is why there's an endless litany of complaints by apologists for US domination that our clients are sneaky, clever, irrational, corrupt, and so on.  As James Traub put it in The Freedom Agenda (FSG, 2008), "Some leading members of the [Filipino] elite absorbed the ethos of self-reliance and equality; others learned how to parrot it back to their gullible masters" (28-29).

The US elites Schmitz discusses and quotes kept saying that American "intervention" had to be avoided if at all possible.  I suppose by that word they meant sending in the Marines, because they used it even when they were intervening assiduously, not just through behind the scenes diplomacy but through covert action.  Negotiations with the local military about overthrowing a government, sending a naughty general into exile (with his Swiss bank accounts intact), training the police and army in American institutions (which Schmitz doesn't mention that I noticed), giving and taking away military or supposedly non-military aid and loans as a regime came into or out of favor -- none of this seems to have counted in their minds as "intervention," let alone interference.  After the US-supported ("contacts with the military were increased and planning begun for the overthrow of the government" [271]) coup that overthrew Brazil's President João Goulart in 1964, for example, President Lyndon Johnson "asked why the Brazilian Congress could not just make the president of the Congress, Ranieri Mazzili, the legal president pro tem to provide the cover of legitimacy, [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk responded that 'Ambassador Gordon was using the resources available to him to encourage Brazilian legislators to do just this'" (276).  They merely took it for granted that the US had the right to decide what happened in any country in our sphere of influence anywhere in the world; any objection to US domination was, by definition, communism, to be put down by any means necessary.

When Congress began to question these policies, its efforts were met with protests that are still familiar.  Gerald Ford, for instance, "wrote [Senator Frank] Church at the end of October 1975 to urge the committee not to make public its findings on assassinations and covert actions.  The president asserted that any public disclosure of allegations on the overthrow of foreign governments would 'result in serious harm to the national interest'" (297).  Oh yes, we've heard that one recently.

Schmitz argues in his conclusion that "U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships was always morally questionable.  Because American leaders used moral arguments and appeals to gain public support for their Cold War policies, those policies can be fairly judged on moral terms.  The United States has to accept varying degrees of responsibility for aiding in the oppression of people around the world by supplying economic assistance, military goods, and political legitimacy to a large number of despots … Worse, the United States often was responsible for the very existence of many of these governments and undermined genuine efforts at reform, self-determination, and democratic change around the world" (308).  Another conclusion that I think emerges from his book is that despite their arrogant assurance that they were the best and the brightest, exemplars of the noble Anglo-Saxon race that is naturally qualified to dictate to the lower orders, our leaders have consistently shown that they aren't nearly as smart as they think they are.  That's another thing that hasn't changed.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Every Man Does Not Look Like Brad Pitt"

Dave Zirin interviewed the gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis for The Nation, and alas, Davis (who is "now the executive director for the You Can Play Project", which indicates he thinks he's some kind of spokesman) didn't do a very good job.  When the inevitable "objectification" (aka "What do I do if a gay guy looks at me in the shower?") question came up, Davis said:
You know, it all comes down to having experiences. I guarantee that if Jonathan Vilma has a chance to sit down with myself or any other gay person, he’d be like, “You know what? These old ideas that I had about gay people… they really aren’t true.” It’s not all Jonathan Vilma’s fault. Our country has a very monolithic way that they show gay men—the Modern Familys and what not. The exposure’s great, but let’s have some nuance to show that there are different types of gay people, so Jonathan Vilma’s mind can expand and he can say, “Oh, every gay man doesn’t want me.” Most guys look terrible naked, and I should know. And, straight guys look too… there’s a perception that straight guys don’t check out other guys’ penises, and that’s a lie. The one difference is that some straight guys get uncomfortable and think that every gay man wants them. Wrong. Every man does not look like Brad Pitt.
The best thing here is Davis's pointing out that "straight guys look too."  It's not necessarily erotic, it's more the expression of competitive anxiety over penis size -- though such anxiety doesn't necessarily exclude erotic interest.  But yes, having spent some years in locker rooms, whether under compulsion for high school PE or of my own free will when I was working out, I know that if every man who looks at other men's bodies in a locker room is gay, there are hardly any straight guys in locker rooms. 

But aside from that, Davis's remarks are a mess.  What "looks terrible naked" is open to considerable variation, and you don't have to "look like Brad Pitt" to be desirable.  (Not all gay men want Brad Pitt in the first place.  Or Channing Tatum, or whoever.)  This is just more of the same old garbage which puts down everyone who doesn't look like a model or movie star as too ugly to fuck.  Luckily, those of us who don't look like models or movie stars still do get laid, and checked out in the showers for that matter.

Besides, I wonder how many straight men really will be reassured by being told that they're too ugly to fuck.  Again, in my experience, many straight men -- and not only straight men -- are disappointed when they find out that a given gay man isn't secretly seething with lust for them.  And some, especially athletes like Vilma, may still want to ask "But what if some gay guy does want me?"  That's easy enough: you say, "No, thanks" or "Yes, please," depending on your own wishes.  It may help to reassure them that no matter what they look like, not all gay men will want them.  On the other hand, some straight men enjoy being admired and desired.  The real problem for people like Jonathan Vilma is that they think that just being looked at, admired and desired, unmans them.  But there's nothing much they can do about that, since they'll be looked at, admired and desired even when they're fully suited up for the game.

Zirin and Davis use the word "objectification" for this, but that's too easy: not all desire objectifies, and indeed objectification doesn't have that much to do with erotic desire -- it's about control, about seeing erotic relations as a power struggle from which the man must always emerge the victor.  (For many gay men, of course, being a bottom is victory.)  Should Zirin and Davis have gone into this?  If they're going to touch on straight male anxiety about being "objectified," yes.  I don't think we're going to be able to resolve homophobia and antigay bigotry unless we can think about such things.  About thirty years ago Joanna Russ wrote:
I’ve always thought that patriarchal male sexuality must be a rather difficult business. To over-simplify: A partner’s hostility or boredom is ordinarily a real turn-off – and yet this is exactly the situation under patriarchy, where so many women are not interested, not excited, not participants, and not happy. Yet men must penetrate and ejaculate if there are to be any babies – and so the problem for patriarchy (whether you think of this as a one-time invention or a constant process) is to construct a male sexuality that can function in the face of a woman’s non-cooperation or outright fear and hostility.
As long as that's the case, and I think it is the case, it's not surprising that the existence of openly gay or bisexual people is going to generate anxiety among many heterosexuals.  That means we not only need to talk about such issues, we need to do some hard thinking about what they mean in people's real lives.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All Along the Kinsey Continuum

This weekend I reread Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation (NYU Press, 1999), by Janis S. Bohan, Glenda M. Russell, and several other contributors.  The book is an attempt to sketch out a social-constructionist approach to sexual orientation in clinical practice and in public policy; I first read it soon after it was published, and remembered that some of it was interesting and useful.  I decided to reread it to see how it looked to me now, especially after having read a lot more on the subject in the past fifteen years.  I'll probably have more to say about it later, but for now I want to lament that the authors have made the same error about Alfred Kinsey's work that so many other writers on sexual orientation have made.

Bohan and Russell write:
Perhaps more striking is the persistent plausibility of this dichotomous portrayal given that, even within this culture, its inadequacy was established more than forty years ago, when Kinsey and his colleagues demonstrated that this binary depiction of sexual orientation is flawed.  Their work revealed, instead, a range of self-reported sexual orientation described not by discrete categories but by a seven-point continuum, ranging from exclusive homosexuality (six on Kinsey's scale), through varying degrees of bi- or ambisexuality (scores of five to one), to exclusive heterosexuality (zero on the scale)...

Kinsey's work also suggested that sexual orientation is not entirely defined by sexuality per se; an individual's placement along the continuum reflected both overt and "psychic" reactions.  In addition, Kinsey's findings indicated that people's self-defined positions along this continuum may change over time and that many subjects identified periods in their lives when their sexual orientation was quite different from how they later identify themselves.  Thus, sexual orientation is portrayed by Kinsey's work is composed not of discrete categories, whatever the number, but of vague, permeable, and potentially shifting "locations" along a continuum [86-87].
Kinsey's work does not "portray" sexual orientation, self-reported or otherwise.  The Kinsey continuum represents sexual experience or "outlet" (to use Kinsey's term), overt behavior or "psychic" response.  I remember that his colleague Wardell Pomeroy wrote later about someone (who may have been his client rather than someone whose sexual history he took for Kinsey in the 1930s and 1940s) who thought of himself as homosexual until Pomeroy pointed out that he had more heterosexual experience than homosexual, but I don't recall Kinsey addressing this sort of thing in his big books.  He did, as I've mentioned before, refer once to "orientation" in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, when he referred to "younger males" who "may even have all of their overt experience in the homosexual" because they "have not ventured to have actual intercourse with girls, while their orientation is definitely heterosexual" (641).  But that's the only time he uses the word in the book, and in context it's clear that by "orientation" he means something like "predominant interest."  The Kinsey continuum refers only to sexual experiences, not to sexual orientation as it's talked about today.

I have no idea where Bohan and Russell got that bit about "many subjects [who] identified periods in their lives when their sexual orientation was quite different from how they later identify themselves."  I suspect it's because of the way Kinsey and his colleagues organized their data, for example, that 10 percent of the male subjects' experience (again: not "orientation") was more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.  That's not the subjects talking, it's the researchers.  And since the data refer to experience, whether overt expression or conscious attraction and desire, it doesn't necessarily indicate a change in "sexual orientation": it may indicate a change in circumstances, opportunity, environment, or something else.

For example, a friend was shocked to find that while his father was stationed near San Francisco in the military before he married, he had some sexual experience with other men.  Being 1) young, 2) in uniform, 3) unattached and 4) located near a gay mecca made him accessible to gay men who are attracted to military trade and cultivate them, often generously.  When he was discharged and moved back to the rural Midwest, such opportunities dwindled.  He could have begun seeking out male partners -- they can certainly be found here -- but apparently he didn't.  It appears that he viewed his experiences with men in the Bay area as something that didn't count, since he was far from home and the military was a temporary gig; think of him as a sexual tourist.  He married heterosexually and raised two sons, one of whom turned out to be gay.  So my friend's father could have been a 4 or 5 on the Kinsey continuum based on his youthful experiences -- it's compatible with having a lot of homosexual experience for three years, followed by decades of exclusively heterosexual outlet -- though without getting his full sexual history it's impossible to know.  Did his "orientation" change?  There's no way to tell, because we have no way to measure sexual orientation.

True, the kind of experience a person has over time may tell us something about his or her "sexual orientation," but only a part of it.  Maybe it's like a student's grade point average as a sign of "intelligence" (another murky concept): chances are an intelligent student will have a high GPA, and a less intelligent student a lower one.  But the actual number will depend on various factors: which school he or she attends, for example.  A highly intelligent student may do badly in school because of stress, the inability to focus because of the distracting diversions of campus life, having chosen the wrong major, and many other factors.  A less intelligent student can still have a high GPA through working hard and consistently, choosing one's courses strategically, and so on.  And -- rather like the Kinsey continuum -- a student's GPA can move up or down the scale, but it's not likely to move from a 1 to a 4 GPA in four years, just as one's position on the Kinsey scale is not likely to move from 6 to 0 or vice versa.  One's declared identity can change that drastically (for equally diverse reasons), but one's sexual history is cumulative, and not directly a measure of one's inner nature any more than average grades are.

Perhaps some reader will ask me how I can claim I'm right about this, when all these other smart, credentialed people get it wrong.  I read the damn book, that's how.  I do wish I understood how so many smart, well-trained people can get Kinsey's work so wrong.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Already It Was Impossible to Say Which Was Which

(Updated below.)
I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning when something grabbed my attention.  They were doing a story on the failure of the United Auto Workers to unionize a Volkwagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee.  As one would expect, the Right, including Republican politicians in Tennessee, waged a strenuous campaign against the drive, resulting in a very narrow loss (by 86 votes) when the workers voted.  DN! talked to Steven Greenhouse, a New York Times reporter who works the labor beat.  He said: 
Some Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature said that if the union comes in, they’re not going to approve incentives to help bring, to help woo Volkswagen to bring a second production line to make SUVs at the plant. And then Bob Corker, Republican senator from Tennessee, former mayor of Chattanooga, said that he had heard from people at Volkswagen that if the union loses, then Volkswagen will bring in this second auto line.
Wait a minute.  Republicans want to vote for government "incentives to ... help woo Volkswagen to bring a second production line"?  That is socialism, if not communism, just like in Communist China: 
When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day.
(Boldface added.)  Of course I'm being sarcastic here, but it's always good to remember that "economic freedom" means massive government subsidies for big corporations.  Even for foreign corporations like Volkswagen.  Times have changed from the days when foreign auto makers were destroying domestic industry.  What "economic freedom" really means, of course, is freedom from unruly workers who might organize for their own interests.

Greenhouse also had some interesting comments on the UAW's response to the Republican campaign.
And Bob King very much indicated, "We are a new UAW. We are going to be more cooperative," and he signed this neutrality agreement with Volkswagen where he actually pledged to help keep Volkswagen’s wages competitive vis-à-vis some of the other automakers. So, he’s like bending over backwards to say, "We’re not the old confrontational UAW of old." So, on one hand, many workers kind of were uncomfortable with the UAW because they thought it would be too confrontational and hurt business image, hurt Chattanooga’s efforts to bring jobs. On the other hand, you know, some workers voted against the union because they thought it was being too accommodating and like bending over backwards and saying, "Well, we will restrain wages to help assure that the factory would be competitive."
This is nothing new -- as David F. Noble showed in Forces of Production (Knopf, 1984), unions have often appeased management in its drive to impose automation production lines. And once again, the left was caught flat-footed by a right-wing propaganda campaign.  No one could possibly have foreseen that business interests would react to a unionization drive in an anti-union region by fighting dirty!  The really depressing thing is that despite the union's failure to anticipate such a move by its opponents, the vote was still very close.  It could have turned out differently.

P.S. I was imprecise when I wrote of "business interests" opposing a unionization drive.  While the Republican politicians and others who mounted a propaganda campaign against the UAW drive to unionize Chattanooga's Volkwagen plant certainly represent US business interests, they don't represent Volkwagen.  The company also has workers' councils for most of its plants around the world, and is used to dealing with unions; so much so that VW expected unionization to succeed in Chattanooga.  Ironically, the failure of the union drive may mean that, contrary to the Republican anti-union line, Volkswagen will be less likely to build new plants in the US, at least in especially anti-union regions like the South.  I didn't know this until I read Richard Seymour's latest post at Lenin's Tomb, and then a friend sent me the links I included in this postscript.  Thanks to Seymour, and especially to CHH for filling me in.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Social Construction of Social Construction; or, This Is Just Dumb Critical Theory

I actually meant to write about something else on Saturday, namely "social constructions."  I got into an interesting exchange in comments under the link my friend posted.  One of her friends, presumably an academic also, commented on the story, first:
who cares because this is just dumb science. these people need to put down their microscopes and study critical theory
and then:
i mean even neurobiology shows there's no good reason to believe in two sexes only; so how the hell is some gene going to tell you who to go out and fuck?
You don't even need neurobiology: gross external anatomy is enough to cast doubt on a simplistic two-sexes model, though that is a relatively recent development even in 'The West."  A one-sex model is older and persists in folk psychology to this day.  The newer social construction of "intersex" is built on mostly visible differences between bodies that have been known for millennia.  Since sex in this sense (as opposed to copulation) is a social construction, science (dumb or otherwise) can't settle the question of how many sexes there are, any more than critical theory can settle how many genders there are.  What anatomical differences constitute a sex?  Among the more chilling examples of medical malfeasance that I know of is the treatment of infant males born with a "micropenis" by cutting off the inadequate appendage and trying to raise them as girls, or the corresponding removal of supposedly oversized clitorises from females.  At what point does a relative difference became an absolute one?

And if science is "dumb", what is the relevance of neurobiology here in the first place?  (In fairness, I don't know whether the other commenter meant that all science is dumb, or just the kind of science that seeks to explain sexual orientation.)

Going from here, it makes no sense to ask "how the hell is some gene going to tell you who to go out and fuck?"  For one thing, as the article under discussion admitted, the scientists involved do not claim to have found a single gene for homosexuality, nor do they believe there is such a thing.  But that doesn't mean that sexual desire and preferences in sexual partners have no relation to the body.  What that relation is, or if there is one, no one has any idea.

The same person added:
and there's that pesky problem of "homosexuality" being a historically constructed category...
At this point I indulged in an intervention.
but then, "neurobiology" [and, I might have added, critical theory] is a historically constructed category too; so how can it, really, "show" us anything? So is just about everything that human beings interact with, think about, talk about. I'm really beginning to think that there should be a moratorium on the use of terms like "social construction" and "historical construction." For one thing, they imply another bogus binary, namely that there is a clear dividing line between social constructions and 'real' things (FSVO of 'real'). They also tend to be used, as you seem to be doing, to imply that social constructions are unreal, trivial, illusory, etc. None of this follows, and it just adds to the general confusion.
The constructions of critical theory would have to be viewed with as jaundiced an eye as those of "dumb science", but that doesn't seem to be the table here.  The other commenter replied:
to suggest that the idea of historical construction implies a distinction from "the real" would be a very serious misunderstanding of the concept
I intervened:
Yes it is, but many people who deploy the term misunderstand it in just that way. But "social constructions" like sex and race certainly have biological aspects: social constructions are constructed of/with bodies.
To which the other commenter answered:
lol so in other words you want a moratorium on one of the most powerful, foundational concepts of twentieth-century thought because some straw men might possibly misunderstand it? hahaha good luck with that
Appeal to authority and to what everybody else is doing; she loses.  Of course, biological determinism is one of the other most powerful, foundational concepts of twentieth-century thought, most often tied to Darwinian evolution misunderstood as a linear progression from primitive to advanced organisms.    So I wrote:
Oh, I don't expect any luck at all; but it's not "straw men" who "possibly misunderstand it" -- the misunderstandings are endemic among the academics who use it, to say nothing of non-academics who've picked it up and used it without understanding it. (The use of Foucault as Scripture is also a real problem in the US academic queer theory I've read, and I've read a lot of it.) It's this confusion that makes me wonder whether something wouldn't be gained by not using the term for awhile, so that people would have to say more explicitly what they mean, rather than merely gesturing at it.
It's not clear to me that this person doesn't "possibly misunderstand" social construction herself.  She did, after all, offer up "a historical construction" as a better explanation of "homosexuality" than the biological determinism of Dean Hamer and Michael Bailey. "Social/historical construction" is not an alternative to "born that way," any more than the Big Bang Theory or Natural Selection are alternative Creation Myths.  When the gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay said that his friends dismissed his interest in finding a biological cause for homosexuality by asserting that 'we know it's socially constructed', I wondered if it was he or they who had misunderstood the concept.  Both, probably.  "Born this way" and "socially constructed" are answers to (at least) two different questions.

A third commenter criticized me, rather more cogently, but still (I think) missing the point:
Social constructions are patently not made from bodies. They are made from -perceptions- of bodies. Race, for example, has no biological aspects that can be used to meaningfully understand morphological and genetic differences between humans. The reason for that is simple -- the genetic diversity expressed by people currently living on the continent of Africa actually subsumes the rest of the genetic diversity in the world. An African will be more different genetically from another African than a European will be from an aboriginal Australian. Humans are radically homogeneous as a primate species anyway...and any differences we want to see as racial are uniformly better explained because of clinal variation, or historical, social and cultural context.
Without bodies there are neither perceptions in general nor perceptions of bodies.  "Race, for example, has no biological aspects that can be used to meaningfully understand morphological and genetic differences between humans."  This is probably true, but that begs the question of what race 'is.'  It's not as if it was ever a well-defined concept, and its history mainly shows people who are convinced that it must mean something, and try tirelessly to get the evidence to justify that conviction.  The number of races increases, and then decreases.  (Rather like genders.)  A century ago, there were numerous "races" in Europe: the Celt, the Teuton, the Mediterranean, the Slav, and so on.  No one takes these seriously anymore.  Past classifications are dismissed as self-evidently misconceived but their replacements are no better.  And these classifications -- much like gender and erotic ones -- are the successors to older categories that are just as essentialist.

"... and any differences we want to see as racial..." Who's "we"?  I don't particularly want to see any differences as racial; I don't see it as a useful concept.  I feel the same way about "gender," though I don't get the impression that most social constructionist theorists of gender would agree. "... are uniformly better explained because of clinal variation, or historical, social and cultural context."  Again, I'd agree.  But that doesn't really affect my point.  She was quite right about the differences within groups opposed to differences between groups, but the tendency to turn average differences into absolute ones is not confined to essentialists -- social-constructionist scholars of gender can't seem to shake it, for example.  Whether biological, cultural or historical differences are significant, or how much or in what way, is also open to dispute. That people think they're significant is a datum in itself, of course.  And "better explained" according to whom?  The kind of academic, systematic approach this person invokes, which I also find valuable and useful, is still a social and historical construct, a product of a very specific and limited social and cultural context.  There is no approach that isn't.

None of this means I reject social constructionism, least of all in favor of essentialism.  I've argued before that essentialism is how social construction happens, and I still think that's true.  Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the border that tenuously and porously divides them.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Defending the Faith

An old friend linked to this article from Slate on Facebook today, about religious opposition to same-sex marriage as voiced by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.  The post quotes Jindal as follows:
No church or church-affiliated organization, or individuals whose business is run in a manner consistent with their faith practices, should be required by the state to take steps in conflict with their religion. Nor should they be legally punished for how they treat marital arrangements outside the teachings of their faith. …
The writer of the piece, William Saletan, compares Jindal's remarks to the stand taken against interracial dating, also defended on religious grounds, by Bob Jones University "fourteen years ago," though it is actually decades older than that: the university had lost its tax exemption for racial discrimination in 1983, despite the support of then-President Reagan.  The particular stand Saletan discusses took place during the 2000 election campaign, when Republican candidate George W. Bush was criticized for having paid the obligatory visit to to BJU.  I've written about that before, and as Saletan points out, BJU dropped its policy against interracial dating immediately after mounting this defense, admitting that they couldn't cite a verse of Scripture to support it.  (The link I had to this information is broken.  Damn CNN.  But Saletan has this link to a contemporary account, which in turn links to a transcript of Bob Jones III's appearance on Larry King admitting that he had no Biblical support for the policy.)  Saletan points out several parallels between Jindal's defense of religious antigay bigotry and BJU's defense of racial bigotry, and rhetorically challenges Jindal to explain whether he'd support a religiously-based ban on interracial dating.

One of the most entertaining parallels Saletan draws is to a statement from BJU which declares that in its precincts "Students of all races attend here and live in racial harmony and respect for one another as Christians. … Each person dates within his own race. For there to be discrimination, one race would have to be treated differently than the other."  As Saletan says, this parallels the common claim that homosexuals can marry as long as they marry someone of the other sex.

But I objected to this related part (the statement in bold type is the antigay argument Saletan wants to refute):
4. Homosexuality, unlike race, is a choice. Empirically, all the evidence runs against this belief. If the science doesn’t convince you, the personal experience overwhelmingly reported by gay people, combined with the spectacular failure of “ex-gay” ministries, ought to shake your confidence. Yes, it’s possible to concede that homosexual inclination is involuntary while insisting that to act on that inclination is a choice. But the same can be said about race: You’re born black, but the decision to date a white person is on you.
As I keep insisting, the evidence supports neither claim: you can't prove scientifically that anything is a choice, and the evidence that homosexuality is somehow inborn is invalid.  As for "the personal experience overwhelmingly reported by gay people," that's a datum but proves nothing: people defend all sorts of bad-faith decisions by claiming that they can't help themselves, and they may even believe it.  (Lately, for example, I've encountered some gay people who claim that coming out wasn't a choice for them.  What else could it be?  How does coming out get into one's genes?)  The same goes for the spectacular failure of ex-gay ministries: it shows that sexual orientation, whatever it may be, is difficult to change, to the point of impossibility.  But forced religious conversions are equally ineffective, and no one (I think) wants to claim that religious affiliation is genetic.

A number of people, gay and antigay, have tried to confuse the issue of analogies between "race" and "sexual orientation" in the service of their agendas.  True, same-sex marriage isn't equivalent to race, but it is arguably analogous to interracial marriage.  As I've also pointed out before, interracial marriage was not legitimized by appeal to a "racial orientation" that forced people to marry spouses of the opposite race; why some people made such a choice was not even discussed seriously, certainly not in the Supreme Court decision which struck down state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.  (It concludes, "The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.")  I've known people who were only attracted to people of other races, as well as others who stuck to intra-racial relationships.  Some of the latter, especially, might appeal to Nature as a basis for keeping it all in the Race, but there's no basis for this notion and no one, that I know of, has even tried to find one.

Is being gay like being black?  Parallels and analogies can be and have been drawn, and they can be argued for and against.  But since American civil rights laws protect both innate conditions and chosen ones, whether homosexuality is inborn, mysteriously acquired, or freely chosen is irrelevant to the question of religious exemptions under those laws.  Religious freedom, like any other freedom, has limits, and those will have to be debated, litigated, and decided; but it's dishonest of opponents of same-sex marriage to pretend that such questions are anything new.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Model Dressed as Scientist Inappropriately Touching DNA Molecule
One reason I've been feeling blocked lately is that so much of what I see these days is stuff I've written about before.  When I think I should write about it, I remember I've written about it before, so why bother?  But I know that's no excuse, if only because it's normal practice; and if the same themes keep turning up in the media, they also need to be addressed anew.  (Another possibility is that I should try harder to read about different things.)

Anyway, a friend of mine linked today to an article that The Raw Story recycled from The Guardian, about allegedly new research allegedly showing a genetic factor in homosexuality.  Her comment was "Who cares?"  Many people do, alas.  And, as noted, I've written about this subject before, in posts that I think hold up quite well.

Perhaps because of this, I did a bad thing: I reacted to the article in comments to my friend's link before I'd actually read it.  Then I began reading the article and added some postscripts to my first reaction.  On the other hand, the comments to the article at Raw Story are even less well-informed than mine on Facebook.  The comments at the Guardian are not much better.  But let me say some things about the article itself.

The study in question is a followup to Dean Hamer's research from the 1990s, as the article mentions.  The relationship of Michael Bailey (who did the presentation) to this new study is not made clear.  And it manages to get some things right about Hamer's work.  Among other things:
The gene or genes in the Xq28 region that influence sexual orientation have a limited and variable impact. Not all of the gay men in Bailey’s study inherited the same Xq28 region. The genes were neither sufficient, nor necessary, to make any of the men gay.
This was true of Hamer's original work too.  What it means is that some straight men had this genetic marker, and some gay men did not.  Nor did the work establish how many gay men had the marker, or how this "gene or genes ... influence sexual orientation."  Until those questions, among others, are answered, it seems to me extremely premature to trumpet research like this as establishing anything at all -- especially since, as the article notes, it raises
the more dubious prospect of a prenatal test for sexual orientation. The Daily Mail headlined the story “Abortion hope after ‘gay genes findings’ ”. Hamer warned that any attempt to develop a test for homosexuality would be “wrong, unethical and a terrible abuse of research”.
I'm going to be harsh but not, I think, unfair: this was a tremendously stupid thing for Hamer to say.  Scientists like to claim that they're not responsible for the uses to which their work may be put, and perhaps they aren't.  But to whine, when confronted with a very likely consequence of one's work, that it would be "a terrible abuse of research," to be shocked! shocked! that it could be so used, is to reveal a detachment from reality that deserves derision at best.  Knowing what we know about the consequences of detecting a fetus's sex for sex-selective abortion, it's naive to think that being able to detect a fetus's sexual orientation would have no consequences.  (On the other hand, even on the most charitable evaluation of Hamer's research, it doesn't promise to determine sexual orientation at all, before or after birth.)  It would be less embarrassing if Hamer had simply tried to maintain a pose of Olympian detachment.  I believe (I'll try to find some citations) that Hamer has even hoped piously that born-gay research would somehow help the quest for gay and lesbian equality, probably because it would show that we didn't choose to be this way, as if that made a difference.  As I've also argued before, the moral acceptability of homosexuality, or its legal status, has little or nothing to do with its etiology, and numerous 'lifestyle choices' are protected explicitly by American civil rights law.  Hamer is evidently a very good geneticist, but when it comes to interpreting his data or thinking about social dimensions of human sexuality, he's a bit slow.

The article goes on to quote some other researchers on "the biology of sexual orientation."
Qazi Rahman, a psychologist at King’s College London, said the results were valuable for further understanding the biology of sexual orientation. “This is not controversial or surprising and is nothing people should worry about. All human psychological traits are heritable, that is, they have a genetic component,” he said. “Genetic factors explain 30 to 40% of the variation between people’s sexual orientation. However, we don’t know where these genetic factors are located in the genome. So we need to do ‘gene finding’ studies, like this one by Sanders, Bailey and others, to have a better idea where potential genes for sexual orientation may lie.”
I don't doubt that sexual orientation has a biology, just as language does.  But while biology can shed some light on the mechanisms that govern the production of language in general, it has nothing to do with languages: that I speak English instead of French or Japanese is not the result of biological differences between English speakers and Japanese speakers, but of historical and cultural differences.  One could point to some meaningless correlations, such as that Japanese speakers are more likely to have black hair and brown eyes than English speakers (though the percentages are changing as English has become a world language), but these do not indicate that black hair and brown eyes somehow produce the Japanese language.  Analogously, it's clear that human beings form preferences for sexual partners and sexual practices, but so far I have not seen any reason to believe that these preferences have any basis in biological variation.  As you can see if you read this article or most writing on "the biology of sexual orientation," these scientists have not been able to discover how these genetic markers or other factors produce a partiality for male or female partners -- because they are generally unaware of such partiality as a psychological factor, and assume that biological femaleness (for example) automatically produces a desire to be penetrated in both males and females.

Rahman also makes a very elementary mistake in his quoted remarks: the degree of "heritability" of a trait does not necessarily say anything about the mechanism of heritability involved.  Heritability is a complex factor that I don't pretend to understand, but then it's not my profession to understand it.  Different scientists differ on what the concept even means, and the terminology itself leads to confusion, as numerous scientists have pointed out -- Richard C. Lewontin, for instance, in his review of Evelyn Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture:
A major problem in understanding what geneticists have found out about the relation between genes and manifest characteristics of organisms is an overly flexible use of language that creates ambiguities of meaning. In particular, their use of the terms “heritable” and “heritability” is so confusing that an attempt at its clarification occupies the last two chapters of The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture. When a biological characteristic is said to be “heritable,” it means that it is capable of being transmitted from parents to offspring, just as money may be inherited, although neither is inevitable. In contrast, “heritability” is a statistical concept, the proportion of variation of a characteristic in a population that is attributable to genetic variation among individuals. The implication of “heritability” is that some proportion of the next generation will possess it.
 Back at the Guardian, Qazi Rahman continues:
Rahman rejected the idea that genetics research could be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. “I don’t see how genetics would contribute more to the persecution, discrimination and stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people any more than social, cultural or learning explanations. Historically, the persecution and awful treatment of LGBT groups has been because politicians, religious leaders and societies have viewed sexual orientation as ‘choice’ or due to poor upbringing.”
Rahman is even more embarrassing than Hamer.  Of course genetics research could be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Such research has already been used to justify discrimination against people on the basis of their sex, skin color, class, level of intelligence, and other traits; why should sexual orientation be any different?  Rahman is historically ignorant, and probably dishonest to boot -- it's hard to believe that any educated person nowadays could be completely unaware of the twentieth-century history that belies his claim.  But hey, The Two Cultures and all.  His second quoted sentence supports my suspicion of dishonesty, in the way that scientists often try to pretend that their work has no social consequences because they're ignorant of those consequences and prefer not to think about them.  This reminds me of Noam Chomsky's criticism of scientists who try to brush aside questions about the social consequences of their research:
Similarly, imagine a psychologist in Hitler's Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards antisocial conspiracy and domination, and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that “a neutral commentator ... would have to say that the case is simply not settled” and that the “fundamental issue” is “whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance”? I think not. Rather, I think that such a response would have been met with justifiable contempt. At best, he could claim that he is faced with a conflict of values. On the one hand, there is the alleged scientific importance of determining whether in fact Jews have a genetically determined tendency towards usury and domination (an empirical question, no doubt). On the other, there is the likelihood that even opening this question and regarding it as a subject for scientific inquiry would provide ammunition for Goebbels and Rosenberg and their henchmen. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value ["Psychology and Ideology", in For Reasons of State (Random House, 1973), 360].
So what is the scientific significance of discovering that homosexuality is correlated with finger length?  As Chomsky says of racial science, one would like to see an argument.

One other thing I should point out: the study mentioned in the Guardian/Raw Story article has not yet been published, which I take to mean it has not even passed peer review yet.  Why should it be touted in major media at all, when it's not even certain that it will stand up to this most basic scrutiny?  This is an unfortunately common tendency in mass-media science reporting, where the presentation (in this case by a notoriously publicity-hungry academic of doubtful ethics, Michael Bailey) makes grandiose claims that mysteriously vanish by the time the study sees print -- if it ever does.  But it's the initial headline that will be remembered and passed along, not the later correction.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Few Brief Notes

I mentioned the other day that many people conflate or confuse "sexual identity" and "sexual orientation."  Earlier this evening I was on a GLB panel speaking to an undergraduate class on human sexuality.  I noticed when we walked in that the instructor had projected a PowerPoint slide on the classroom wall, listing some "sexual orientations."




I'm quoting that list from memory, so I may have left out some.  I don't remember if GAY and/or LESBIAN were on the list, but they might have been.  I'm sure about those I quoted here, however.  The alert reader will have already noticed that some of the terms are not sexual orientations but identities: queer, and (I would argue) pansexual.  The latter is disputable, depending on what you consider a sex; several of our younger volunteers prefer the label pansexual because they are attracted to transgender and intersex people, so bisexual doesn't include enough sexes.  I think that pansexual is an identity that covers the same ground as bisexual, but maybe I'm an old fogey.  (I first encountered pansexual in the mid-1970s, in a rock-magazine article about Country Joe McDonald that I'll try to track down, but of course it meant something different then.  Just as bisexual has different meanings depending on context.)

Queer, however, is definitely an identity and not a sexual orientation.  The same would be true of gay or lesbian, had they been listed.  So why, in a college-level course on human sexuality, was this misinformation being disseminated to students?  I'm wondering if I ought to write the instructor and ask about this.  But for now, I just want to point it out as an example of the confusion I talked about before.

A big news item of the past few days is the coming-out of Michael Sam, a college football player who's moving into the pros this year.  Sam had told his team about himself in his senior year, and they all evidently adjusted with no problems, going on to a very successful year.  This is a novelty for professional sport, the first time a player came out at the outset of his career, rather than in its twilight or after it was over.  Of course the media are all trembly about this prospect.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good piece on the story, which includes a quotation from another player, Jonathan Vilma of the New Orleans Saints.  Here's a longer version of the same quotation, and you can see him say it on camera in this Daily Show clip.
"I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted," Vilma added. "I don't want people to just naturally assume, like, 'Oh, we're all homophobic.' That's really not the case. Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?" 
The Huffington Post article quotes "OutSports' Cyd Zeigler [who] suggested Vilma respond the way someone would to anyone who's looking in the shower: Tell a joke or just keep chatting like it never happened."  I think even this is reading Vilma too generously.  What Vilma seems to have meant by "looks" was something like "undresses me with his eyes" -- never mind that he's already "dressed, naked ... the whole nine."  After all, when a bunch of people are naked together they will look at each other; it may or may not mean anything.  What Vilma is afraid of is that a gay player would admire him, look at him in order to lust after him.  He knows he'll be able to feel the scorch of that lust, his tender skin will grow hot under it.  And then who knows what will happen?  I know it's unfair to suspect all homophobes of harboring secret gay desires, but Vilma really seems to be fantasizing there.

At least no one seems to have jeered that no self-respecting homosexual would want to have sex with an ugly toad like Jonathan Vilma; we're talking about a professional athlete here, it's very likely that many gay men would love to enjoy the riches of his body.  Jon Stewart handled the issue better.  I think there's no real way to reassure the Jonathan Vilmas of the world, and my answer to questions like this has always been that they can never know that other men haven't been scoping them out in the shower all along.  Indeed, the more men they've shared showers and locker rooms with, the better the odds that there have been gay or bisexual men among them, some of whom very likely just so happened to look at him.  He wouldn't have noticed.  What terrifies Vilma is knowing that one of his teammates is gay.

One commenter under some article I can't remember right now demanded that if there are going to be gay athletes out there, we must have segregated shower rooms -- one for the gay ones and one for the straight ones.  But that won't work, because the gay room would only house openly gay or bi players.  The closeted ones will still be lurking amongst the straight players, just so happening to look at them.  The only solution I can think of is private locker rooms and showers, or perhaps special locker room and shower garments so that modest men like Jonathan Vilma can cover their nakedness from the lustful eyes of other men, and of themselves.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

The initial right-wing and corporate-media reaction to the Congressional Budget Office's forecast that the Affordable Care Act would enable many workers to work fewer hours without forfeiting health insurance coverage was, of course, that Obamacare was a job-killer.  This had to be corrected, but now the Right is trying to show its wisdom by jeering at people who don't want to work sixty- or eighty-hour weeks just to have health coverage, and who might want to spend more time with their families or even engage in other activities, such as the arts or entrepreneurship.

Roy Edroso put up a post today, appropriately mocking right-bloggers who are obsessed with the mental image of lazy proles writing poetry instead of standing behind a counter at McDonalds or "hold[ing] an entry-level office job [thus] foregoing not only the drab cubicle but also the corner office that might have been hers 25 years of diligence later."  Oh, my goodness!  A corner office, who could ask for anything more?

As usual, Edroso and his commenters are shooting fish in a barrel, though some of the poetry parodies in the comments are amusing.  A few people had something of their own to say, like this commenter:
This is evidence of how conservatives have not only changed American politics, but also change American sensibilities. We used to look at our neighbor with the union job, high wages, and guaranteed pension and say, "Gee, why can't I have that?" And then work to attain those. Now, we look at that same neighbor and say, "Goddamnit! I don't have those things, and neither should he!" And how we work to impoverish everyone.
Well, true enough, though as so often when people are playing Ain't It Awful, a historical perspective is lacking.  Back in the Sixties we saw the same thing: people who'd worked hard for decades in jobs they hated, were furious that a few people were Turning On, Tuning In, Dropping Out, and choosing lives they enjoyed, or hoped to enjoy. Sometimes the critics came near to saying it explicitly: why should they be happy when I'm miserable? So I suspect that the "sensibility" this commenter observed is not so new after all, nor a unique product of the age of Reagan.

There was also handwringing in those days about the perils of leisure: people would get into all kinds of trouble if they were kept busy constantly on the job. Noam Chomsky discussed that issue in "Psychology and Ideology," his great takedown of B. F. Skinner and Richard Herrnstein, which can be read in For Reasons of State.  The business strategy of the Seventies was a very conscious reaction to the relative affluence of the Fifties and Sixties.  It wasn't so much dropped-out hippies whom the elites feared as college graduates who, instead of devoting themselves to the creation of profit for their betters, were living cheaply, becoming radical journalists and writers, even public defenders, doctors in free clinics and the like.  Ellen Willis wrote in Don't Think, Smile! about how cheap rents and the proliferation of independent print media in the Sixties and Seventies made it possible for people to live in urban environments, thinking and questioning and organizing, without devoting all their energies to making a living.

The fear of the lower orders having leisure and Getting Ideas is, of course, much older than that.  David F. Noble has written (in Progress without People and Forces of Production) about the elites' (and wannabes') desire simply to eliminate the mass of humanity and replace them with machines.  That working people might be living soft lives, as opposed to their rulers and betters, was always offensive; it would lead to unruliness and chaos, and must be nipped in the bud -- as it always was.  But there have always been people lower in the hierarchy who were happy to stamp on the fingers of the people below them.  As Katha Pollitt suggested a couple of years ago in a comparison of the German nanny state with the American one, "a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too."  She was probably right, too: most important social programs, including Social Security at first, were limited to whites because whites didn't want blacks to get such benefits.  I've quoted her line to some white racists I know, and they confirmed it.  If whites are more selfish than they used to be in that regard, it may be because blacks and other nonwhites can't be excluded (at least openly) from any new social programs.  Which puts that "critical mass of white Americans" right into Pollitt's dilemma: they really would rather do without than share government benefits with The Colored.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You Take the Low Road, and I'll Take the Low Road

I've disagreed with the lesbian writer E. J. Graff in the past, but I agree with a lot of what she wrote in a fairly disorganized piece at The Nation last week.  "What's Wrong with Choosing to Be Gay?" is the title, and of course it set off a shitstorm of enraged comments that didn't address anything she said.  (There were about 300 of them by the time I read the article myself on Friday, and there were about fifty more when I looked again today.)  Going by many commenters' behavior elsewhere on the Internet, I think it's a safe bet that they didn't read past the title before freaking out and entering their comments.

So let me try to engage with what Graff actually wrote.  She begins by objecting to "the party line," the "orthodoxy" that gay people are born this way.  I agree with her there, of course, though I notice that she doesn't actually give a reason for objecting to that belief.  (And I'm not happy with her deployment of such terms; "gay marriage," or "marriage equality" as the party line has it, is just as much gay-movement "orthodoxy" as that we're born this way.)  She says that it's "often gay men who are more insistent on the innateness of sexuality, whereas many lesbian and bisexual women have pushed back at this argument, since we’ve often (not always) had different experiences with sexuality."  This also appears to be true; those interested could begin by consulting Vera Whisman's Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity (Routledge, 1995).  (It also appears to be mostly gay men who erupted into fury in the comments to Graff's article.)  Then she cites a recent article from The New Republic, "a challenge to that orthodoxy" by Brandon Ambrosino, which of course is "getting corrected by the LGBT thought police," among these "a writer I respect enormously," Gilbert Arana.

Ambrosino writes:
Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code, I feel degraded rather than empowered. It's like saying, “You can’t help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me? I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can’t change our limitations even if we wanted to.” (As if homosexuality was taken out of the DSM only to be written into the ADA.) In a way, this sentiment of obligation comes through in Macklemore’s "Same Love," a song I enjoy nonetheless. And insofar as it encourages many straight and gay people alike to be open to nontraditional forms of love, I hope he keeps singing it for many years to come.
I agree with this too, on the whole.  (Though I disagree that same-sex love is a "nontraditional form of love."  It's too old, widespread, and well-documented for that.)  I've argued the same point, perhaps more strongly: that gay people who say they can't help it, they were born this way, are conveying the message that they hate being gay and agree with bigots that they shouldn't be That Way.  I've told before the story of a gay graduate student whom I asked what he'd do if it were definitively proven that homosexuality was a choice.  After trying to dodge the question a moment, he said that in that case someone would make a lot of money helping him reverse the choice.  I'm not sure I quite believe him, since even in the days when neo-Freudian orthodoxy (ignoring Freud's own position, by the way) held that homosexuality could be "cured," very few homosexuals showed any interest in being changed; but I think his answer was revealing.

Graff goes on to discuss what is usually called sexual "fluidity" nowadays -- the fact that many people have erotic experience in various degrees with people of both sexes, even when they think of themselves as comfortably monosexual.  And she cautions:
No one this side of the rainbow flag is arguing that people choose the direction of their romantic and sexual desires in the way that someone might, say, choose between different brands of toothpaste. Desire happens unbidden.
Most of Graff's ensuing discussion is rather garbled.  She talks about "hijra" and "two spirit" as if they were more or less conscious strategies for dealing with the discovery of one's homosexual desires in other cultures, for example; and evidently buys the notion that homosexuality is a "gender deviation," which at best is an oversimplification.  And then she writes:
Gay isn’t the desire; it’s the social identity we layer on top of the desire—and it’s only yours if you claim it. Even men who have sex with men (MSMs, in the lingo) are not gay unless they say so.
This is arguable, at best a matter of definition.  I disagree, however, because it overlooks a key factor like stigma that explains why many homosexually active people deny fiercely that they're Like That.  And among gay people ourselves, as Graff surely knows, it is conventionally assumed that we can label other people as gay based on what we think we know of them, regardless of they say about their identities.  A closet case is the folk term for those who (according to the folk) are gay, and they know it, even if they pretend otherwise.  And it can hardly be denied that there are many people who are gay and know it but pretend otherwise, to themselves and to others.  Was Ellen DeGeneres gay before she came out publicly?  Of course she was.  Was Rock Hudson gay even though he denied it publicly?  Of course he was.  As for MSMs, the term was invented in the early years of the AIDS epidemic specifically as a way for such men to evade the stigma of homosexuality in order to make them accessible to safer-sex education and practice: it's a euphemism, and as such it may be useful in some cases, but it doesn't prove anything about the person or how he sees himself and his sexual activity.  As one black AIDS activist said of "MSM":
Quite frankly it was a phrase that was created by black gay men, and we created it because we knew that the CDC would not fund black gay men.  So we wanted to create a phrase that was palatable to them.  In the beginning we created it out of the air.  There was no statistical work to quantify the magnitude of this population of black men who were having sex with other men but didn't identify.  Now intuitively we knew that they were engaged in homosexual behavior.  However, the way the behavior manifested itself was not, or did not mirror the way it manifested itself in white gay men. But now the implication that there are no black gay men out there who identify as gay is absurd.  And so there for the longest time all the programs were, like, targeted to this group of folks who may or may not be gay.  And I used to say, what are we doing?  We're marching over the dead bodies in hopes of finding a people who may not be there.  And how many dead bodies do we have to march over looking for this theoretical body?  Besides who are these men who have sex with men fucking anyway?  They are fucking men who identify with being gay, that's who they are fucking.  How else do they connect?  Somebody has to have a clue about what is going on [Phil Wilson, quoted in Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness (Chicago, 1999), 107-8].
But all of this has little to do with the use of the word "choice" or "lifestyle choice" in the culture war over homosexuality.  If "gay" is an identity, then of course it is chosen, not inborn.  But if it refers -- and it does, much of the time -- to people who relate erotically and romantically to people of their own sex, regardless of what they think about it or how they label themselves, then we're back to square one, and where those desires came from.  The choice of the identity almost always is made after one has plenty of experience with same-sex desire, and often with overt erotic interaction.  This, I think, is the point Graff is aiming for.  She's correct, as far as I'm concerned, to argue that it wouldn't matter if we did choose to desire and fall in love and have sex with people of our own sex.  I believe we, as activists and citizens, should work from this position.  If most of us don't, I think it's just as clearly because we agree with our opponents that it does matter why we're gay.

In any case, as Graff continues:
You can be born lots of ways that society demands you suppress. If someone could prove that being a child molester or serial rapist or homicidal sociopath were genetically predetermined, would we welcome those desires into our public square? Hardly. They fail the “I’m not hurting anyone” test. Which means the argument is really “I’m born that way and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I agree with this too, and have said so before.  As I've indicated, though, I think that the reason gay people find it difficult (impossible?) to say "I'm born that way and there's nothing wrong with that" is that they don't believe there's nothing wrong with being gay.  If they had been lucky enough to be born straight, they'd be throwing stones at queers too.  Maybe I'm wrong about this.  Give me some reasons to change my mind.

The resistance to acknowledging our own agency and choices is so strong that many gay people are trying to claim that their identity is inborn rather than chosen.  I think that's obviously ridiculous, but there it is.  It may be partly due to the confusion that reigns over what "identity" is; it's widely conflated with "sexual orientation."  We're not automatically smarter than our enemies; after all, we grew up in the same society they did.

Another problem is that, no less than "identity," "choice" is an unclear word.  Saying that homosexuality is a choice doesn't make much sense.  I've asked some people who tend to think of homosexuality in terms of a "choice" what kind of choice they have in mind.  I can't remember one who could explain it without prompting, and I tried to avoid leading questions, but when I asked, they generally agreed that they thought that gay people had been heterosexual before but decided, mysteriously, to pursue relationships with their own sex.  Why?  They have no idea.  That, surely, is the general antigay assumption: we are all naturally heterosexual, but some individuals choose to engage in unnatural perversion with their own sex.  I'd call this "folk psychology," if so many educated and more or less sophisticated people didn't believe in some version of it.  (It's not even a Biblical theory, since the closest thing to an explanation of homosexuality in the Bible is Paul's assertion in the first chapter of Romans that male homosexual desire/lust is God's punishment for idolatry.  The "choice," if there were one, would lie in being a pagan.)

Then Graff mounts the pulpit:
Because this one is the best argument we have: “Love makes a family.” That’s been our movement’s real contribution to the social discussion—that insistence that the building blocks of love needn’t be confined by sex or gender or reproduction, that how we care for each other is more important that who. And we’re winning on that one too, whether the social conservatives like it or not.
Love doesn't make a family; if anything, choice does, the decision and commitment to take responsibility for other people in certain ways.  "Love" is another propaganda word (well, so is "family"), meant to get the hearer to shut off his or her mind and subside into a big puddle of warm fuzzies.  But for all that, I agree that we're winning on more open, flexible concepts of family, because heterosexuals' families are more open and flexible too, and always have been.  If anything, the same-sex marriage movement is a reaction against such openness, intended to canonize only marriage as the sole definer of family, and to relegate other configurations to second-class status.

She concludes:
Our society protects chosen identities. One’s being a Seventh-Day Adventist, Sufi Muslim or Hasidic Jew may be strongly influenced by the culture one is born into—but it’s not genetic. People convert in and out, in a way that involves new conceptions of their core identity. In some parts of the world, and in large swaths of Western history, choosing the “wrong” religion can be a death-penalty offense. But in our era we protect your freedom of religion. It’s time to be neutral about orientation in just the same way, protecting personal freedom of choice. Because really, who cares?
Again, I agree, and have argued the point at length in the past.

None of the commenters under Graff's article addressed what she actually said.  Some asserted the certainty that we're born this way, usually without citing any evidence.  One person made claims about "hormones" as a factor, though that explanation has severe failings and doesn't really work;* another cited the work of a psychologist who, in his retirement, has become very active on the Internet arguing that our hormones did it, along with Biblical misinformation and other fun stuff.  One person dragged in social construction without really understanding the concept.

Graff hadn't addressed the question of cause; she was basically talking about the right approach to take in advocacy. So was Brandon Ambrosino, though like Graff he's confused about choice as a concept.  It appears, for example, that he accepts that the only alternative to "born gay" is "choice"; it's not.  And so was Ambrosino's critic Gilbert Arana, who wrote angrily that Ambrosino's
line of reasoning has a hip, "post-gay" appeal, but it is eye-rollingly naïve, a starry-eyed view you might expect from a college student who's just taken their first queer-theory class. From a political standpoint, it matters a great deal whether sexual orientation is inborn or a choice. Rightly or wrongly, social conservatives object to homosexuality on the grounds that it is a lifestyle choice.
I think Arana is ignorant historically, but the validity (or not) of Ambrosino's argument has nothing to do with whether it's "post-gay."  Myself, I'm not convinced that social conservatives object to homosexuality because they believe that it is a lifestyle choice.  I think it's the reverse: they assume that it's a choice because they object to it, as people also do with fat people or depressed people or others they disapprove of.  Generally their objections are more gut-level, less rational than that.  They assume that gay people can change because homosexuality offends them, so we must be doing it on purpose -- "by choice" -- just to ruin their day.  "Natural" and "unnatural" aren't truth statements, they're emotive terms of approval and disapproval.  That's why gay people want to believe that we're "natural."  Natural is good.  Except when it's not.

And as Arana admits, the born-gay claim isn't all that effective on our opponents: "Social conservatives dismiss outright the idea that homosexuality is inborn. They insist it is a choice.  From their point of view, biology is destiny."  But here the gay movement agrees with them: homosexuality is biology, so it's destiny, even if it dooms us to a life of misery and persecution.  As Graff says, though, just because our opponents say we chose to be gay, there's no reason to let them set the terms of the argument.

Then Arana falls flat on his face:
Those of us who support LGBT rights are committed to the "born this way" narrative not as a civil-rights strategy, but for the simple reason that it's true. The main problem with Ambrosino's argument is that he is conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, behavior, and expression. It is true that I have chosen to identify as gay, that I express myself in a way that makes it clear I am gay, and that I have gay sex. All of these are a matter of choice. But my sexual orientation—my underlying attraction for men—is beyond my control.
It's actually Arana who's conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, etc.  That he (and to be fair, I) do not experience my "underlying attraction for men" as something I can turn on and off voluntarily does not prove that I was "born this way."  That is, as I understand it, the whole point of social construction theory: that people experience as "natural" practices and institutions which are not built into our biology, but were invented by people.  (One analogous case is one I've been meaning to write about here: language.  As shown by the hysteria over Coca Cola's Superbowl commercial last week, many people experience their native language as natural, built-in -- and when they hear a familiar song [partially] translated into other languages, they experience that as unnatural, a violation of the nature of the song itself, which just naturally is in English.  English is in its DNA.  God made "America the Beautiful" that way, and he doesn't make trash, okay?)

Arana is simply wrong when he jumps from asserting his experience of his sexual nature to asserting that this experience is the true explanation of his desires.  The scientific evidence, such as it is, doesn't support the claim: the research which purports to show that homosexuality is inborn is at best problematic, and at worst thoroughly misconceived.  (Arana admits this, with some of the usual handwaving: we don't know where homosexuality comes from, we just know that it's Not. A. Choice.)  For that matter, gay people were claiming dogmatically that they were born gay long before this research was done, indeed before any halfway methodical research on the question had been done -- just as men claimed that women were biologically unfit for higher education, or whites made similar claims about blacks or Jews: conclusion first, evidence later if ever.  And after all, when social conservatives assert that homosexuality is unnatural, they're asserting their own equally strong subjective conviction that it's wrong.  Why does Arana's subjective belief trump theirs?  Of course theirs doesn't trump his either.  The question must be settled in other ways.

The title of Arana's article declares that "being gay isn't a choice, it's a civil rights issue", which besides being a false dichotomy, changes the terms of the argument.  And as Graff notes correctly, Civil Rights law protects certain lifestyle choices as well as inborn conditions: religious affiliation as well as "race" and "sex."  Even a lifestyle choice like interracial marriage, though not covered by the Civil Rights Act as far as I know, is protected by the Constitution according to the US Supreme Court.

And there's another issue, as far as I'm concerned.  I agree that "social conservatives" are wrong to assert dogmatically that homosexuality is a choice, whatever "choice" means -- both in fact and in terms of US law, it's false and irrelevant.  But what does it say about the US gay rights movement that it answers its opponents' irrelevant falsehoods with irrelevant falsehoods (e.g, that we're born this way) of its own?  Maybe it's politically necessary, but it's not the moral high road: it's more like sinking to our opponents' level.  And why not?  Is not one man as good as another?

*I've explained why it doesn't work at length before, but briefly, the hormonal theory -- that homosexuality is caused by overexposure to female hormones of the male fetus in utero, or to male hormones of the female fetus -- even if it turns out to have some validity, models "the homosexual" as "the invert," a feminized male or a masculinized female.  This might explain why, for instance, some men want to be penetrated by other males, but it doesn't explain why some males want to penetrate other males.  It's a theory of sex/gender, not of sexual orientation, and it is based on a reductive and impoverished model of human sexuality.  And whether sex hormones are a factor in homosexuality has still not been settled; like virtually every other scientific claim about homosexuality, it is still controversial.