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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.