Excerpts from a Letter to a Friend

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by John Dentinger

You cannot have met only three gay people.

You simply don't know how large a number of gay people you've met. (As I say, that is good evidence of the awful repression in our culture.) Lots of gay people are married and/or have children. Even those who are not do not make a point of their sexuality.

If you think I'm wrong about that, there are no doubt meetings of gay student groups on campus at Madison; perhaps even gay scientist groups, such as there are out here. Try attending such a meeting. (The suggestion is intended as ecumenical, not evangelical.)

Now, you might say, why bother? Although you are probably wrong, you think you don't deal with any gay people on a day-to-day basis; so why learn anything about them? Because you express your attitudes -- to me, if no one else. The alternative, of course, is to stop expressing them -- as seems appropriate, since there are only three gay people in the world. The real value in your expressing those notions is that they can be exposed to criticism and modified to something more closely resembling reality -- that you can have in this area the sort of openness to being changed which you ascribe to the great novelists.

In any case, I am not a great one for trotting out the gay equivalents of George Washington Carver as tokens to show how great "my group" is, since I don't ordinarily think of myself as representative of a group -- except when attacked as such.

I infer that my personal abrasiveness came primarily from my resolutely heterosexual parents. (Another cause, I think, is society's hostility toward those of intelligence, those who rock the boat.) For what it's worth, an assertive populace is less likely to put up with what it perceives as injustice than is a pack of sheep; if this means occasional abrasiveness, so be it.

* * *

There's always something suspicious when both sides on an issue leap on some new piece of ``evidence'' with glee. The suspicion is that the evidence proves nothing.

A researcher -- based on a small number of autopsies -- found that a particular region of the brain (the interstitial nuclei of the anterior hypothalamus) was smaller in gay men than in straight men.

To some gays, this was good news. It ``proves'' (supposing the research to be valid) that being gay has a biological basis, therefore ``we can't help it,'' therefore ``gay is okay.'' But this argument persuades no one; the stock response (a legitimate one, I think) is: what if they discovered some part of the brain of murderers was distinctly different from non-murderers? Would that make murder okay?

To some anti-gays, this was also good news. (And therefore to some gays, this was bad news.) It meant that being gay had a biological basis, therefore it can be treated, therefore we should start looking for a treatment or a preventive measure. In other words, the breeders are going to stop making more of us. (The inconsistency doesn't bother them that the same homophobes who hope for a ``cure,'' complain that gays ``recruit'' their children.)

Both of these responses seem overdrawn. They assume reductionism -- that what we are and do is determined by our brain structures. This may be true, though I doubt it. Suppose that the brain is not just a repository of information, like a book or a computer disk, but a channel to access information, like a TV or radio. If we performed autopsies on a bunch of radios, we would find that certain transistors were different in AM/FM and C.B. radios. Would we therefore assume that the reason different kinds of transmissions were picked up on the different radios was that the transistors were different? Or could it just be that they tuned in to different broadcasts? I don't claim this analogy is valid -- merely that it might be valid, and it shows that the reductionist model of brain/behavior is not the only possible one.

The argument we need to make is not: ``We can't help it, so it's okay'' -- but rather: ``Hey, there's nothing wrong with it, whether we chose it or not.'' Specifically: ``No force, no fraud -- no crime.'' I think more people will buy that argument.

* * *

Back in February, a friend of mine noted the way Ann Landers passed along homophobic nonsense in her column with no effort to correct it. Consider Landers' response to a reader in her October 2 column in the Times. The reader says,

``My wife and I have several children, most of whom are married and have children of their own. One daughter has a different lifestyle. She has been living with another woman for several years, and we have accepted this as best we can. I want to have a picture taken for the purpose of recording our family genealogy.... Our daughter insists that her `friend' be in the picture since she has lived with this woman longer than her brother has lived with his wife. I am opposed to this and she is furious....''

Ann Landers' response? ``Genealogists include only members of the family by blood relationships or marriage. Live-in partners, whether straight or gay, do not qualify. Perhaps it would help if you showed your daughter a statement from the Historical Society describing the guidelines.''

Ms. Landers qualifies here for the ``People Unclear on the Concept'' award. You don't settle a moral dilemma by looking up a word in a dictionary -- even a word like genealogy. Using this word as an excuse to keep the daughter's lover out of the picture is just a front for an insulting rejection of the daughter.

* * *

On the matter of bathhouses: actually, they aren't public places; they're private clubs. Every precaution is taken to make sure that no one who could be offended by what goes on inside, ever gets inside. The only stretch of the imagination by which they could be considered "public" is that fact that they are -- oh, anathema to the left -- businesses. But that bothers me not at all. I take the same attitude as did a libertarian candidate, who, challenged over his urging legalization of prostitution, said: "Prostitution is just a combination of sex and free enter- prise. Which do you oppose?"

* * *

The news and opinion and sports writers of America's papers have all found it necessary to repeat over and over Magic Johnson's insistence on his having contracted HIV heterosexually. There is an interesting double standard here: what the papers are implic- itly saying is: there, there, America, everything's all right -- no sports heroes like Magic Johnson could possibly -- gasp! -- take it up the ass.

This supposed fact is considered a legitimate subject for newspaper reporting. But rumors to the contrary are wholly unmentionable, except in the context of Johnson's denials. The race to reassure the great unwashed on this matter is remarkable, and it shows that there is more stigma attached to being gay than to being HIV-positive.

This desperate reassurance even occurs at the level of tabloids of the sort that found a guy who took a fee in five or six figures to give an interview claiming he'd had an affair with John Travolta. These same tabloids managed to find women to claim they'd had sex with Magic Johnson; they pointedly did not report having found any men making the same claim. I doubt they made the effort to find such men. (Surely for $10,000 they could have found men to say it whether it was true or not.) Why wouldn't they even look for someone to contradict Magic's story? Because even the scandal-loving tabloid readers do not want to read that America's sports heroes might -- gasp! -- well, you know.

When it came out -- posthumously -- that actor Brad Davis had had AIDS, his wife told the world he'd gotten it in his younger days, when he was a little wild and shared needles to shoot up drugs. Perhaps this is true. But the moral seems to be: shooting up drugs might be near the bottom of the totem pole of social acceptability, but even in death the suggestion of homosexuality is unimaginably worse.

Given that message, it's a good thing that people believe Magic Johnson's claim: more money will go to AIDS research.

But what remains ugly about his insistent story and its press coverage -- a point brought out by gay tennis star Martina Natrilova -- is the implication that if he were gay, he would not deserve any sympathy.

* * *

I ask you years ago exactly what it was you disliked about homosexuality and you gave me some insulting bullshit about how you couldn't explain to a pig why it shouldn't live in a pigsty. Jesus or Jehovah got tossed into the equation somewhere, as I recall, though I don't remember the exact wording. Now I would like a rational explanation of precisely what was wrong with homosexuality. Leave your primitive superstitions out of it. I want facts and logic.

Maybe if everyone were gay, why, the hUman race would die out? Not according to all the gay fathers I know, most of whom are paying alimony and child support. Actually, most of them broke up on good terms and the husbands pay more than they're legally required to; the kids are theirs, after all. (This although 80% of child support orders are not paid by the fathers at all, suggesting that divorced heterosexual fathers care less about their children than gay ones -- if those of my acquaintance are any indication.)

I am not asking for an apology for your years-old insult, and your current misunderstandings; I would consider it sufficient for you to overlook anything you find offensive here, which I've written with considerably more excuse.

One more comment: if the fundamentalists -- some of whom are calling for all homosexuals to be put to death -- took complete power, you would likely be on the death list too -- because the great enemy of religion is independent thought. You have joined not only my enemy, but your own.

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