Scroll To Top
World

Kinder, gentler
homophobia

Kinder, gentler
homophobia

J_michael_bailey

What was up with 60 Minutes' bizarrely unbalanced report on the origins of sexuality? In part the answer is disgraced "scientist" J. Michael Bailey, who thinks gay men tend to be girly and bisexuals don't exist

When it comes to the state of things today in the LGBT community, most of us would be inclined to think the glass half-empty rather than half-full. The "religious" right continues to fulminate, and bans against same-sex marriage are working their way though sundry states with varying results.

Yet the public as a whole, according to the latest polls, doesn't find the subject a rallying point. And as more of us live our lives openly and freely, forming families complete with children, the facts of LGBT life have been faced in courts throughout the land, no matter what "moral" opinion any heterosexual jurist might harbor.

And then there's Brokeback Mountain.

So it's with some surprise that we watched the venerable 60 Minutes' March 12 segment "The Science of Sexual Orientation," replete with the sort of cliches about gay men and effeminacy that haven't been seen in a network news context since the 1967 CBS broadcast The Homosexuals, narrated by the now-just-about-to-retire Mike Wallace.

Leslie Stahl--lower lip quivering and eyes trying desperately to focus as always--did the honors on the 60 Minutes piece, which featured a set of 9-year-old fraternal twins, one effeminate, the other interested in toy trucks. "Science," we were solemnly informed, had verified that the two boys were respectively gay and straight even prior to puberty. The main deliverer of this news was J. Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., described by the program as "a leading figure in the field of sexual orientation."

What 60 Minutes failed to note is that Bailey resigned as chairman of the university's psychology department in October 2004 after being investigated in 2003 for his research practices when formal complaints were filed against him by several transgender women who declared they were his unwitting subjects. Part of that research was disseminated in Bailey's book The Man Who Would Be Queen--which became something of a scandal in and of itself when its nomination for a 2003 Lambda Literary Award in transgender studies was withdrawn.

"We decided we would just look into what the science was showing and report on that, and let people react to what was out there however they will," 60 Minutes segment producer Shari Finkelstein said. That meant not including what Finkelstein called "people more associated with the cultural debate, such as those who argue that homosexuality is a choice, a position most scientists reject. We just did not want to get into that controversy, because it was not about the science."

Many would argue that what Bailey has confected isn't science either. But when proffered a list of authorities on the subject, including gender researcher Judith Butler, historian Jonathan Ned Katz, journalist Michael Bronski, and world-famous bisexual Gore Vidal, Finkelstein replied, "The 60 Minutes story 'Gay or Straight' is a fair and accurate report on the state of scientific research into the origins of sexual orientation and conforms completely to CBS News standards."

CBS News "standards" being what they are, I sought out Professor Bailey myself. While he's far from an acolyte of NARTH (the rabidly antigay and antiscience National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), Bailey's insistence on his authority in defining what does and doesn't qualify as gay and his dedication to discovering a "cause" for gayness is only temperamentally different from those who insist on finding a "cure."

Bailey's "research" is most remindful of "Culture of Certainty"--one of the best production numbers from John Greyson's 1993 AIDS musical Zero Patience:

Let's all be empiricists Victors of the brain Through our wit and brilliance We can know the world again We'll classify and label Find the answers out A culture of certainty will banish every doubt A culture of certainty will banish every doubt

On behalf of The Advocate, I reached Bailey by telephone. Following is the essence of our conversation:

How did you come to appear on 60 Minutes?I believe their initial interest was motivated by a Boston Globe magazine article by Neil Swidey ["What makes People Gay?" August 14, 2005]. It's a very well done interesting article if I may say so. 60 Minutes is interested in genetics, and the environment--whether there's a social environment and what the biological environment might be [that results in homosexuality]. They were interested in the link between sexual orientation and gender-related traits.

Well the article is certainly highly complimentary of you. In your book you claim "most gay men are feminine, or at least they are feminine in certain ways." It's the "in certain ways" that I'm questioning. What does that mean? That's a hugely vague designation. These things would include their pattern of recreational occupational interest, their ways of moving or speaking--and there are ways in which gay men are not at all feminine. This would include their anatomy and some of their sexual patterns--casual sex.

There are any number of boys who might be considered feminine in speech or manner or are interested in dolls or getting into women's clothing, but wouldn't be as insistent upon it as Danny, the child you deal with in your book. You seem to be drawing a lot of conclusions from what I would call a very extreme example. I very much made the point that most cases were not like him; they were less extreme in their femininity. We have studies of gay men and straight men which show a large difference in recalled femininity. Most gay men don't recall wanting to be girls.

But you never write about such men.We study all gay men who volunteer for our studies. Our results include these gay men who are just as masculine as straight men. I have said nothing inconsistent, and we are not hiding or excluding the masculine gay men.

The focus of your work is entirely feminine-identified gay men. It hardly takes any amount of scientific research to guess that a feminine-acting child will probably grow up to be gay--or even transgender. What about those who don't and what about everybody else? Apparently you don't believe in bisexuality. Only among men. I certainly don't doubt that women can be bisexual. But for men we have done a study that questions whether bisexuality exists as a sexual orientation as distinguished from an identity.

If there are men capable of having satisfactory sexual relations with both men and women, would that man not qualify as bisexual? Well, we're talking about sexual orientation. So, for example, if a hypothetical man is married to a woman and only has sex with her, but in order to do so fantasizes about men, and all his sexual fantasies are about men, but he thinks of himself as a heterosexual man, what's his sexual orientation?

That's one very singular instance. I've known men who started out as gay, got married, and were entirely heterosexual for the rest of their lives. I've known men who've done the opposite, and I've known men who've gone back and forth throughout their lives. You've got to be precise. Obviously you know people who in terms of their sexual behavior, or in terms of their sexual identity--what they call themselves--go back and forth. In terms of sexual orientation I don't think that there's any evidence that people go back and forth. What I think sexual orientation is for men is a directed sexual arousal pattern. If they're strongly aroused by men, they're homosexual in respect to their sexual orientation. Much more strongly aroused to men than to women--they're homosexual. If they're much more strongly aroused to women than to men, they're heterosexual. If they got strongly aroused to both sexes, they're bisexual, but that's what we found no evidence for. Even men who claim bisexual feelings in the lab are aroused to one sex more than the other.

You're setting a very particular bar on all of this that seems to be discounting heterosexual activity entirely and places you and other researchers as the sole arbiters of sexuality. We identified a group of men who claimed strong bisexual feelings and measured their erections to male and female, and we had precise predictions on what we should find under the hypothesis that true bisexuality exists as an orientation.

Doesn't this amount to "It's not bisexuality unless I say it is"? I gather you would dismiss Kinsey's 1-6 scale. I also gather that unless the men you've studied react to heterosexual erotic stimuli in precisely the same way they react to homosexual erotic stimuli they're not bisexual. Aren't you privileging homoerotic response? For years sex researchers have been using techniques like we used to measure men's true sexual orientations in circumstances when men may not be open about them (e.g., pedophilia). It is obvious that some men who are homosexual do not admit this to others (sometimes to themselves). You suggest that we have been arbitrary in "privileging" objective physiological measures over self report. I think we are being reasonable and good scientists, and furthermore, we don't deny that bisexual men may be different in some respects. They must be, because they call themselves bisexual. We simply doubt that these difference reflect sexual orientation.

There have also been some studies recently that have claimed that homophobes, particularly violent ones who wanted to attack gay people, were aroused by gay pornography. I'm very familiar with one of those studies. These were college students who scored high on a psychometric scale in terms of sexual attitudes. I'm not sure exactly what to make of that study. It might be true. There might be a technological or methodological flaw in it. I don't have a big problem believing that it might be true that guys who are struggling with their homosexuality might react by kind of trying to convince other people and perhaps even themselves that they're not gay because they hate gays. On the other hand there's a technical issue that makes me believe the study should be repeated before I'm going to put much stock in it.

You seem unconvinced.Well, I'm resistant to believing anything unless it's been well established. Even my own data--I try to repeat them. It's got to be consistent with a lot of other things before I insist that people should believe it. But the particular issue here is that the apparatus used to measure erections is not very sensitive at low levels of arousal. In fact, as the penis initially gets erect the circumference gets narrower because low levels of arousal can cause reversals of the apparent basis.

You deal with gayness continually in terms of the visible. On the show, for example, there are these twins. One is exhibiting obviously feminine behavior, painting his fingernails, playing with dolls, even talking about the concept of being a girl. The other twin playing with trucks and G.I. Joe dolls is seen as completely unproblematic. Who is to say that the other twin isn't gay? Well one couldn't be absolutely sure. But just on base rates alone, 3% or so, it's possible, and that's not even knowing how he plays. These are fraternal twins.

Why is gayness always problematized?To be honest about honest average differences is not the same as problematizing. It seems to me, for 25 years studying this area, you're always supposed to say gay and straight men are just alike other than who they want to have sex with--otherwise you're stigmatizing gay men.

Well, in terms of the law that would be the case. A gay man should have as much right as a straight man to a full and successful life. Why does saying gay men tend to be feminine mean gay men have less of a right to live than straight men? On average gay men have more feminine occupational interests than straight men.

Maybe.That's true on average. That's what science has shown repeatedly.

There are huge numbers of gay people in the world whose lives science doesn't touch. You have no way of knowing the occupational interests of gay men outside the particular individuals you choose to examine. I'm trying to get to something you were worried about before, which is that legally gay and straight men are different.

Different before the law in that anything related to femininity is downgraded in this culture. Well, women certainly get equal rights.

The struggle for equal rights is far from over--especially now with antiabortion laws being instituted in South Dakota, thereby making women's uteruses the property of the state.I think that feminine men are great and deserve every bit of the rights as masculine men. I would rather hang out with feminine men.

Gee, that's swell. I think a lot of gay men have an issue with femininity, and I think that's too bad.

It has been traditionally a way of putting us down.Yes, that's right. I agree with you. But I don't think the solution to that is to say that gay men are not at all feminine. It avoids the real issue, which is, Why is it wrong to be a feminine man? Why is that bad?

But it's not as simple as that, because "masculinity" in all its forms is never problematized, never examined, never questioned. There's a considerable imbalance here that creates a vast array of problems for people both gay and straight. You're preaching to the choir. I'm straight, but given the choice of hanging out at a gay bar or a straight bar, I'd prefer the gay one.I've no doubt your remark was intended in good faith; nevertheless there's more than a dash of patronization to it. Huge numbers of gay men give nary a thought to falling within your good graces. I don't know how to respond to this. I must say that your questions are unnecessarily aggressive, and they suggest a bit of defensiveness to me.

And as we all know, aggressiveness is such an unattractive quality in a "woman."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

David Ehrenstein