Senator Larry Craig’s defiant claim that he is “not gay” is an interesting one. He didn’t say “I don’t hang around in public restrooms where men commonly have sex with men.” He said he was not “gay.”
Is it possible for a man to have sex with other men but not be “gay”? I suspect that most people would claim that a man who has sex with other men is, by that very fact, “gay.” But is it that simple?
Scientist Alfred Kinsey argued that “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals” were both located on the same continuum running from “Exclusively heterosexual” to “Exclusively homosexual.” This continuum is represented in Kinsey’s scale of sexual orientation. He argued that society’s efforts to pigeonhole people into one type or the other was a political move. It was possible, according to Kinsey, that a man (or a woman) might be predominantly heterosexual, but only incidentally homosexual. Perhaps, this is what Senator Craig meant when he claimed that he was not “gay.” Perhaps he was honestly (and desperately) claiming that he liked sex with women as a rule, though he did the public restroom gig with other men on the side.
Senator Craig obviously feels the pain of the “gay” label a lot more than he feels the pain of being caught in a restroom where men commonly have sex with other men. Thus, his continued protests denying his alleged homosexuality. But maybe he’s protesting the “gay” label for yet another reason. Maybe he is honestly (and desperately) trying to communicate that he only has physical sex with men, but no emotional relationships. Preposterous? Not really.
Consider the numerous men who, though married to women and though living public lives as straight men, have repeated episodes of uncommitted sex with other men. Salon.com did an extensive piece on this phenomenon in African American communities. There, it’s called “on the down low,” or the D.L., where men lead seemingly straight lives but have sex with other men. There’s even a long tradition of how a man should solicit sex from another man in adjoining bathroom stalls–the flashing of a wedding ring in the process even makes it all the more alluring to some participants.
This phenomenon of the “down low” is not limited to African American communities. Consider this statistics reported by Medicinenet.com:
Nearly one in 10 men who say they’re straight have sex only with other men, a New York City survey finds.
And 70% of those straight-identified men having sex with men are married.
In fact, 10% of all married men in this survey report same-sex behavior during the past year.
This means safe-sex messages aimed at straight and gay men are likely missing this important subgroup . . .
There are many other examples of men who have sex with other men who don’t consider themselves “homosexual” or “gay.” These “situational homosexual” acts are reputed to be common on long tours of duty on ships and in prisons. Consider, also, ancient Greek men of stature, who commonly had sex with adolescent boys. Those boys would eventually grow up, leave their male lovers, marry yet have sex with their own male adolescent lovers.
Does this mean that Socrates was “gay”? I sometimes wonder what conservatives think, conservatives who so often preach the virtues of the Greek classics though it is clear that their literary heroes commonly had male-male sex. The Greek sexual practices have never been a secret. See, for example, Plato’s discussion of friendship in The Symposium. There is a big difference between the context of sex in ancient Greece and the current day U.S., however: “The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier, as Western societies have done for the past century.
Historian Jonathan Ned Katz wrote on Kinsey continuum and the social consequences making sexuality a binary enterprise:
Kinsey also explicitly contested the idea of an absolute either/or antithesis between hetero and homo persons. Stressing the variations between exclusive heterosexual and exclusive homosexual behavior and feeling, he denied that human beings “represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual.” The world’s population, he ordered, “is not to be divided into sheep and goats.” (That revealing Biblical metaphor positions heterosexuals as sheep, coupled with conformity, and homosexuals as goats, linked with licentiousness).
The hetero/homo division of persons is not nature’s doing, Kinsey stresses, but society’s. As sex-liberal reformer, he challenged the social and historical division of people into heterosexuals and homosexuals because he saw this person-labeling used to denigrate homosexuals. Motivated by a reformist impulse, he rejected the social reality and profound subjective force of a historically constructed tradition which, since the early twentieth century in the U.S., had cut the sexual population in two–and helped to establish the social and personal reality of a heterosexual and homosexual identity. . . .
Between the 1890s and the 1960s the terms heterosexual and homosexual moved into American popular culture, constructing in time a sexual solid citizen and a perverted unstable alien, a sensual insider and a lascivious outlaw, a hetero center and a homo margin, a hetero majority and a homo minority. The new, strict boundaries made the new gendered, erotic world less polymorphous. The term heterosexual manufactured a new sex-differentiated ideal of the erotically correct, a norm that worked to affirm the superiority of men over women and heterosexuals over homosexuals.
Maybe we struggle to find only two sexual types (straight and gay) because we’re simple-minded and intellectually impatient. It’s the same reason we struggle to believe that there are only two genders (male and female) despite clear medical evidence to the contrary. This field is known as the study of “intersexuality.”
It is ironic that Senator Craig decided to be an important part of a well-coordinated effort to shove all people having same-sex sex (not just self-avowed homosexuals) into a demonized category so that they could be, well, demonized. He thus ended up in a trap that he himself helped to construct. For this, he gets no pity for me. He would have been a better candidate for redemption in my eyes had he stood up to confess “I am a hypocrite.” On the other hand, when Senator Craig claimed he was not “gay,” perhaps it was not as clear a lie as it is being made out to be by so many people.
I’ve learned yet another lesson as a result of Senator Craig’s exploits. He has reminded me to listen closely to all of those prominent politicians and religious leaders who go out of their way to antagonize gays (whether personally or through their legislative efforts). Craig is only the latest prominent example of Freud’s concept of the reaction formation, a defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions are replaced by their direct opposites. In fact, I am now convinced that of the 100 political and religious leaders who are the most vocal against “homosexuals,” half of them are struggling with their sexual identities and half of that half have actually had sex with people of the same gender. Perhaps Craig and the Reverend Ted Haggard could start a little 12-step program together and send invitations to everyone who spews venom against gays. They should send one of those invitations to every person of national prominence who surrounds himself with his wife and children while pretending that “homosexuality” is one of the biggest threats to our country. Those people who act like this are certainly not confident heterosexuals and their policy-making judgment will be warped by such inner struggles. Perhaps we should not this danger on billboards along national highways.
Craig’s arrest reminds me that those who protest the loudest, and they include oh-so-many fine upstanding married conservative God-fearing men, often have the most to hide. Perhaps they aren’t “homosexuals,” but the story of Craig makes you wonder how many of those conservative Republicans are busy having conflicted “non-homosexual” sex with other men.