I have not the slightest doubt that somewhere, someone seriously believes that U.S. President Barack Obama is gay. Despite there being not a trace of evidence, despite his widely known devotion to his wife and daughters, and despite common sense, some people must be saying he is covering up being gay. He has been accused of everything else. It only makes sense that he would be accused of being one of us, too.
What else could explain his full-fledged support of gay rights? What else could he be, as good looking as he is? He moved a lot, isn’t that what gays do? Just ask yourself, has he ever let us see the relative length of his ring finger to his “pointer” finger? What’s more, his father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas. “K and K and that rhymes with gay.” Need I say more?
Let me be perfectly honest. I have my doubts about whether he is homosexual, but not for any of those reasons I just mentioned. Just the other day somebody published another book suggesting that President Abraham Lincoln was gay. I’m not sure about it. I’m not even sure Oscar Wilde was gay, or Andy Warhol.
The reason is that I now doubt that anybody will ever be able to scientifically identify or describe what being gay is. Unless we can do that we do not have a valid gay category. About 75 years ago it was thought to be only a matter of time before we would be able to diagnose who was gay. The famous Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Indicator came out in 1939 with a primary purpose of identifying homosexuality as well as other psychopathologies in order to safeguard the security of sensitive government operations. It has proved to be useful in all sorts of ways but failed at its primary purpose. No gay gene has turned up, to the great disappointment of geneticists and chagrin of Time magazine. Upwards of 1500 types of animals have been shown to exhibit same-sex behavior, thus muddying the water about what is natural. Sociologists have failed to distinguish between gay and non-gay forms of socialization. Psychologists have given up trying to find causes of homosexuality and have begun to doubt the efficacy of the term.
That’s where I am, a doubter about the word “homosexual”.
In the first place, homosexuality was coined to describe a medical condition. We now know there is no such medical condition. The whole idea that there was such a condition was harmful, and its effects linger. The use of the term perpetuates the notion that a condition exists which cannot be pinpointed. In other words, the word homosexual is invalid because it is vague.
In the second place, although we know there are individuals who are indisputably “gay” and others who are clearly “straight”, the categories in the middle defy precise delineation. The role of circumstance confounds this even more. We might have, I’d say we probably do have, a continuum. The problem is how to identify who is where on the line. Kinsey’s 0 to 6 scale was a big help, but we have grown to need more precision and to account for more factors. What are the gay key performance indicators (as we say in working on evaluation scales)? What are the criteria and how much do they “weigh”? Does a same-sex experience at age 6 count as much as one at age 36? Is a short history of same-sex activity in the navy at sea significant if one was doing it with his eyes closed thinking about his mother? How do you “weigh” a preference of a lesbian for having sex with a male to female transgender partner? These are no more ridiculous than Thai guys insisting they are “real men” as long as they are doing the penetrating.
The conclusion most obvious to me is that the term gay is useful only in the socio-cultural sense. It is used to indicate belonging to a particular group. “Are you friends of Dorothy?” “Do you go to the Babylon (gay spa) in Bangkok?” “This gym is for men only.” Something like that.
In some contexts one’s affiliation with a particular group would have cultural implications and have an impact on how one fit into a cultural sub-set. For example, when Pramote and I set up housekeeping together and defied the taboo against letting people know, it was equivalent in Thailand to “coming out.” It was a public declaration. The consequences were a general exclusion from the Christian Church, whereas I had been a leader before. I also agreed to an untimely release from my missionary appointment. A level of shunning and threat was real, but only in certain confines. When I transferred into higher education administration being gay hasn’t been an issue. Maybe I have been lucky; just the other day a story was reported about a teacher losing a job when she was “outed” in her mother’s obituary in a newspaper. Here in Chiang Mai it appears to make little difference to the way we are treated at the Big-C shopping center because in that context one’s cultural sub-set counts for very little. Even one’s cultural sub-sets are contextual, however. Being a Buddhist monk going from BKK to CNX on Thai Air entitles one to special treatment that would not apply on a trip from ORD to LAX on United. My point is that the whole idea of how important one’s being gay is and what it means is only pertinent in particular socio-cultural contexts.
So the efforts to bring about change in the way gays are understood and treated are socio-cultural. As long as we are considering greater inclusion it is not quite so important to define and delineate who is gay and what the signs are. The goal is to erase distinctions. But whenever, as has happened in history, the issue is exclusion then the failure to understand that there is no valid gay category can be disastrous. Exclusionary processes are predominantly political (and they are matters of what the body politic says is law). Since all other criteria ultimately fail, the laws have been about actions. Being gay, in the eyes of the law, is usually inadmissible even as evidence, to say nothing of being a legal offense. However, certain actions are permitted and others are not. Breaking the law will have to be about what we do since who we are cannot be determined with any legal or scientific precision. Repeatedly the question has been asked, “Does society want to criminalize actions between individuals that they have consented to and that cause no harm to them?” Repeatedly societies have first said yes and then changed their minds.
In recent times some societies have tried to control and criminalize being gay. We need to oppose those efforts on the grounds that it is impossible to define the terms scientifically. If the very same cluster of facts is one thing in one context and another thing in a different context it is invalid as a criterion for describing a human type.
Other societies have sought to control gay people by postulating a prevailing cultural norm. Since that is, by definition, a qualitative rather than a measurable matter, monitoring groups, juries, or committees have been set up to decide on specific cases. These committees are authorized to decide what a cultural standard is. They do it on a case-by-case basis that can be swayed by outside influences and events so that their decisions are inconsistent. We need to oppose this method of social control because it is biased to arbitrarily exclude and criminalize cultural minorities.
Most societies until recently have assumed control over universal social institutions such as families and sometimes religious entities. The cost of doing this in terms of limitations on human freedom has been great. We need to oppose this trend because it inevitably leads to suppression of expression of basic conviction in behalf of increased state uniformity to benefit a more and more elite minority. We can only be harmed by this form of cultural exclusivism.
Those who are agitating for or trying to maintain these forms of control are fairly clear about their opposition to those of us who feel good about gender diversity. What they are unclear about is who they are talking about.
Is a Boy Scout gay because he says he is or because somebody else says he is? At what age is a boy capable to making that self-identification, and what are the social consequences of doing so? Are boys supposed to exclude themselves from the Scouts if they know they are gay, or if they just think they are, or if they are afraid of concluding later that they might be?
Today the hot topic is gays in the Boy Scouts of America. Last month it was gay marriage. A little longer ago the hot topic was gays in the Roman Catholic priesthood. Tomorrow’s hot topic about gays is dormant today and we can’t predict what it might be.
The one thing that is certain is that it will be a matter of bias, discrimination, injustice and potential harm to innocent people unless a clear, scientific, verifiable profile can be developed to identify exactly what is illicit in the vast panoply of human sexuality in all social contexts. That is not possible.
Meanwhile, in my book President Obama is not homosexual and nobody else is either.
By a vote of 44 to 77 the New Zealand parliament passed a marriage equality act this week, adding a bright spot to a week of devastation and mayhem. “Social media” have been sprinkled with vignettes from New Zealand. Two that stand out are a brilliant and humorous speech by a member of parliament and then the announcement of the vote with the celebration and singing of a love song in the country's indigenous Maori language.
I have been waiting for volcanic eruptions to tear the islands apart, but so far, just as the MP predicted, the sun has come up, a plague of skin disease or toads has not broken out, and life has apparently gone on in that endangered sector of the South Pacific. All that happened, according to the MP, is that a percentage of the citizenry of New Zealand have been granted the benefits and protections of marriage as have long been enjoyed by heterosexuals. The institution of marriage has not been undermined, simply expanded. Society has not been imperiled, rather it has been enhanced.
Apparently the enactment of this social legislation has not affected the tectonic plates under the surface of the earth, the meteorological configurations above, nor otherwise incurred wrath from the theological sector. New Zealand has not been, and appears not to be going to be, invaded by armies of queers. In other words, as New Zealand has demonstrated, this issue need not be politicized or theologized. It can be addressed on its merits without additional, irrelevant concerns being raised. It is no more transcendental, and possibly less, than de-criminalization of homosexual acts was. In fact, marriage equality is a logical, sane and progressive step towards fuller recognition of LGBTIQ persons as people in society.
Songkran is April 13, but the holiday has been expanded to 3 days to April 15. Because it includes the weekend, this year the holiday will end a day later, April 16.
For centuries this was the New Year in this region. The dates were changed to coincide with international traditions when Siam was making a concerted effort to join the modern, civilized world. At that time Sunday became a weekly holiday and New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. Clothing, hair styles, education, and transportation also assumed fusion forms. One or two governments actually tried to mandate some Western styles by law. That was long ago.
In the Lanna portions of modern Thailand, here in the North, the traditional New Year was lunar. It fell on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. As all Thai people know, that is the night of Loy Kratong, the other major popular festival. Songkran in April is the water festival, and Loy Kratong usually in November is the festival of lights.
These days many Thai people call Songkran the national New Year (pii mai myang) as it was for the Ayuthaya kingdom. Even Chiang Mai natives will say that the Thai New Year is Songkran. The central cultural traditions are dissolving the regional and ethnic ones.
Songkran has three aspects of observance.
IT IS AN AGRARIAN FESTIVAL, which is what the water is all about. The main idea is to remind Mother Nature (Mae Toranee) that it’s hot and dry. “Don’t forget to send rain.”
IT IS A RELIGIOUS FESTIVAL. The main features at temples here in Chiang Mai are the building of a sand mountain and washing the Buddha images. The sand mountain is called a chedi, a traditional Buddhist stupa representing the connection between heaven and earth. Families bring paper flags of various designs to stick into the sand mountain. These are “air-nets” catching the breezes, as if the wind is made up of invisible spirits, including the spirits of departed ancestors. That is how past generations are included. It is one of the many ways the social, agrarian and religious aspects of Songkran overlap. Another is the washing of the Buddha images which not only cleans them, thereby venerating them, but also reminds Buddha to think about rain. In many temples a major Buddha image is ritually bathed with scented water, and that water is collected and put to pious use.
IT IS A SOCIAL FESTIVAL to renew family and community connections. One of the ways to transfer blessing is to pour water while chanting a blessing. During Songkran here in Chiang Mai the water to use contains a traditional infusion of flower petals. A second way to confer blessing is by tying a cotton string around the wrist of one you want to bless while intoning a blessing or chanting one from a Pali text. Elders tend to tie strings on younger people’s wrists, whereas the younger people pour water over the older people’s hands, which they transfer to their own heads with a wiping motion. In Chiang Mai the tradition is called simply “rote naam dam hua” (pouring water on the head). It is traditional to bring gifts to elders, especially parents and parent figures. The gifts include fruit (especially mangoes which are in season) and an item of clothing, plus things made of rice. The full ceremony includes the scented water and string tying, and its high point is the blessing.
For closer friends the ceremony is shortened and may simply be the pouring of a small dipper of water over the friend’s hand, or head, or shoulder.
That’s where the excesses began to intrude.
Photographs from 1960 show large crowds at the iron Nawarat Bridge across the shallow Ping River in Chiang Mai. Already by that time it was considered fun to expand from the ceremonial to the celebratory. A community-wide water fight was the result, involving stationary and mobile groups. Clusters of children and adolescents waited on street sides with big containers of water and garden hoses for roving groups in pick-up trucks with 50-gallon drums of water and high-powered water guns and buckets. The three afternoons of Songkran were turned into Songkram-Songkran (a Songkran war).
To a lesser extend this is going on all over the country. In Pattaya, the whole festival was moved to next week to catch an influx of travelers who want to endure this twice.
As tourism became a goal in the 1960s, the city found ways to capitalize on its two famous festivals of Songkran and Loy Kratong. First they dredged and repaired the square moat around the old city making sure it was full at those times. Access to the riverbanks was increasingly blocked by construction, so the most frantic action moved to the moat. The cheapest tourist accommodations were also within walking distance.
Tourism is at maximum capacity during this long weekend.
Downtown Chiang Mai is a mad-house these afternoons. It can take an hour or more to drive along one side of the moat where mobs of young people are heaving water at one another. Adding great chunks of ice to the water creates another level of reaction. Since alcohol is a beverage of choice for many of these revelers, care and caution are abandoned. Among the most careless water-warriors are the foreign tourists who may also be the least keen on adhering to Thai standards of modesty. They take the state of pandemonium to be a license to exempt themselves from public decency and respect of other persons.
That is also the case in the central districts of Bangkok. There, however, in addition to water in unsafe, unsanitary condition and excessive amounts, Songkran includes talcum powder, often colored and scented. That is applied to other people by hand in paste form. The main complaint one hears about this is that males may actually molest females in the guise of “blessing” them. Hands stray. Assault happens. Tempers flare. Consequences result.
Obviously, these celebrants are having fun and care little for the agrarian, religious and social meaning of Songkran. Songkran is not what it used to be. But what is?
It’s a coincidence that last week I happened to come across a notice of the death of British actor Richard Griffiths (most recently and best known for his role as Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon Dursley) on the same day I finished reading Edmund White’s 1988 gay classic, The Beautiful Room Is Empty. But that coincidence set my mind in motion.
In the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling tells us, “For years, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had hoped that if they kept Harry as downtrodden as possible, they would be able to squash the magic out of him. To their fury, they had been unsuccessful, and now lived in terror of anyone finding out that Harry” was a wizard.
That rang a bell. All at once, after nearly a decade and a half, I realized one of the reasons why I connected with Harry so much. Harry’s being magical is like our being gay. We know gay people who have parents trying to get them to stop being gay and are terrified that relatives and neighbors will find out what we are.
Toward the end of the second book of White’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the hero summarizes what his quest has been about.
“I wanted to be heterosexual, or so I told myself. As a budding writer, I knew I’d never be able to give a convincing account of marriage, birth, parental love, conjugal intimacy, the spicy anguish of adultery – none of the great occasions – until I’d rid myself of this malady which was so narrowing. O’Reilly [his psychiatrist] had warned me that homosexuality would condemn me to an embalmed adolescence, that I’d never grow out of a stale narcissism.” And a bit later, “Homosexuality did not constitute a society, just a malady, although unlike other maladies it was a shameful one….” (pp. 148-9).
Harry was on his way from a loveless but necessary relationship into an alternative universe where he really belonged, with people his own queer type. White took a long time to adjust to his queerness, whereas Harry felt at home for the first time once he got to the magic castle. Harry found a magical society from the first day learned he was magical. It took White a lot longer to find that there is a homosexual society available.
From the age of twelve to about twenty-eight, White tells in precise detail how desperate and futile were his efforts to squash the homosexuality out of himself. What he apparently lost, on the last day of the story, however, was not his homosexuality but his self-loathing and concern about being a non-conformist.
So that’s why I resonated with Harry.
If one were to transpose “gay” for “wizard” we have all the dynamics of our own sub-culture in Harry Potter’s story: heroes, villains, monsters, saints, sleaze, government incompetence and suppression, misunderstanding by outsiders, insider slang, and special ways of surviving and relating.
Of course, the parallels are not exact. Rowling was not writing an allegory, nor was she thinking about the gay life, but rather about adolescent life, neither affirming nor denying it might have homosexuals in it.
Nevertheless, “the Dursley Solution” is one thing we run across in the LGBT village.
White says that the summer after he finished his first year at the University of Michigan his father put him “on a strict regime of yardwork.” “When my stepmother finally arrived, she revealed that my father thought he would drive the queerness out of me through manual labor.” (pp. 48-49)
That did not work, of course.
White tells what ought to have worked. In a short visit with a graduate psychotherapist the fellow asks, “ ‘Why are you going to a shrink at all?’ ‘I want to change.’ ‘Change what?’ ‘My object choice.’ He looked at me intently in the eye and now I could see that he, too, must be homosexual. ‘But people don’t really change,’ he said. ‘It’s useless to try. It’s more a question of adjusting, of learning to play the hand you’ve been dealt.’ ‘Oh, no,’ I said, angry. ‘I am changing. I must change.’” (p. 152)
Although deprivation is all the Dursleys could come up with to squelch the inherent magic in Harry, there was a larger but equally useless arsenal available to use on White. Years of psychotherapy failed. The summer of labor at least ended without homicide, although it may have been contemplated. The step-mother confessed, “At first your father was so angry I was afraid he would kill you.” Medical incarceration was hinted at. Of course, the time-honored sure-cure of hetero-sex didn’t work either.
White’s narrative does not say that the hero was reconciled to his parents. By the end, however, he was out to them and had freed himself from their control and from dependence on them.
In Harry’s case, finally, by volume 7 the Dursleys have to come to terms with Harry’s magic. The result is sort of a stalemate in which Harry doesn’t have to forgive them for their misguided abuse of him and they don’t have to thank him for saving their lives. They do, at least, recognize the reality of each other by the end.
Their parting scene resonates with many LGBT people whose relationship with family has been rancorous.
“Then Dudley held out his large, pink hand… ‘See you, Harry.’ ‘Yeah…’ said Harry, taking Dudley’s hand and shaking it. ‘Maybe. Take care, Big D.’ …Aunt Petunia … stowing her wet handkerchief into her pocket said, ‘Well – goodbye’ and marched towards the door without looking at him. ‘Goodbye,’ said Harry. She stopped and looked back. For a moment Harry had the strangest feeling she wanted to say something to him: she gave him an odd, tremulous look and seemed to teeter on the edge of speech, but then with a little jerk of her head she hustled out of the room after her husband and son.” (pp. 40-41)
It’s not the best-case scenario, but far from the worst. These are times when 40% of the kids living on the streets in America are gay, homeless from the day they come out to their parents.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.