October 18, 2006

Penguins, Pedophiles, and Paul Cameron

Posted at 5:30 am (Pacific Time)

Want an insight into recent attempts by the Christian Right to link homosexuality with child molestation? Just remember New York’s “gay” penguins.

In 2004, news circulated around the world that penguins in the Central Park Zoo had formed long-term same-sex pairs. Reports soon surfaced of “gay” penguins in other zoos as well.

One of the most memorable accounts of the phenomenon was created by Samantha Bee for Comedy Central’s Daily Show. She accompanied antigay activist Paul Cameron to the Zoo’s penguin exhibit and got his take on the birds.

(Cameron is a gold mine of material for The Daily Show. Last month, Samantha Bee’s real-life husband, Jason Jones, interviewed him for a piece about the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.)

Cameron declared the notion of gay and lesbian penguins “silly” and told Bee “There is no such thing as gay penguins.”

But in other contexts Cameron has argued that a single homosexual act makes someone gay. When interviewed recently by the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, he asserted that a man who thinks of himself as straight, is married with children, and has sex with women is nevertheless gay if he sexually abuses a young boy.

“If a fellow molests a boy, why would anyone consider him heterosexual even if he has a girlfriend or a wife?” Cameron asked.

Cameron isn’t alone in promoting such ideas. As I discussed in a previous post, the Family Research Council and other Christian Right groups are all in accord on this. Never mind that many pedophiles and child molesters aren’t even capable of relationships with adults and that their sexual attractions are directed solely at children. If they molest boys, they’re gay, according to Cameron and the FRC.

But if Cameron et al. count men who have sex with little boys as gay, surely they must also count men who’ve had consensual sex with other adult men. This may be more than 14% of US men, according to recent research I described in my September 29 post. Using the criteria Cameron applied to child molesters, they’re “gay.” And if we count adults with any same-sex attraction at all, the studies suggest 1 in 6 (or more) are gay.

Yet, Cameron, the FRC, and their fellow travelers staunchly maintain that only a small segment of the population — between 1 and 3 percent — is homosexual.

So let’s review the Christian Right’s rules for counting the gay population.

When the topic is molestation, male + male = gay. And female + female = lesbian. Always.

But when the goal is to minimize the size of the sexual minority population, most men and women with same-sex attractions are not counted as gay.

When it comes to the penguins, the male + male = gay equation leads to the conclusion that being gay is natural. That’s inconvenient for Cameron. Therefore, the penguins aren’t gay.

In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Cameron and his Christian Right compatriots have taken a page from Humpty Dumpty’s playbook. “Gay” means what they say it means. And they choose whatever meaning best serves their agenda of stigmatizing sexual minorities and making them invisible.

Maybe Cameron will eventually find some penguins that molest their young. Now those would be birds he could call gay.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 17, 2006

Antigay Hate Crimes: The Numbers Game

Posted at 1:53 pm (Pacific Time)

Are hate crimes against sexual minorities still a problem?

Throughout the 1990s, each annual release of the FBI’s hate crime statistics was accompanied by news stories about that year’s disturbing increase in antigay violence and victimization. The rising tide of crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation was repeatedly cited as proof that more funds were needed for victim services, and that law enforcement agencies should devote more resources to preventing and prosecuting antigay attacks.

Sure enough, the number of officially documented antigay crimes increased each year: from 425 incidents in 1991, to 767 in 1992, to 860 in 1993. With few exceptions, the count continued to climb annually until 2001, when it peaked at 1,393 incidents.

Then it began to decline: to 1,244 (in 2002), to 1,239 (in 2003), to 1,197 (in 2004).

Yesterday, the FBI released the latest data, which show another decrease. In 2005, 1,017 antigay crime incidents were reported by local law enforcement authorities.

So are antigay hate crimes still a problem?

The answer is yes, for several reasons.

First, the FBI statistics understate the true extent of hate crime. As I explained in a previous post, at least half of antigay crimes aren’t reported to the police. Victims don’t report for a variety of reasons: They anticipate further harassment by the police, they fear discrimination if their sexual orientation is publicly revealed, or they simply don’t expect the police to catch the perpetrators.

Second, in addition to the physical trauma that hate crimes inflict, they have a more negative impact on victims than do “routine” crimes. As shown in a 1999 study, gay and lesbian victims of violent hate crimes suffer more serious and longer-lasting psychological effects than gay men and lesbians who are victims of violence that isn’t based on their sexual orientation.

Third, antigay hate crimes are attacks against an entire community and, as such, are a kind of terrorism. They convey the message that anyone can be targeted for violence if they’re perceived to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Thus, the impact of a hate crime extends far beyond the victim and her or his immediate circle of family and friends. Such crimes increase the feelings of vulnerability and danger experienced by the whole sexual minority community.

Let’s hope the hate crime count continues to fall in the coming years. But let’s not trap ourselves in a numbers game. Even if they decline in frequency, hate crimes against sexual minority victims are still a serious problem.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 15, 2006

Scapegoating Sexual Minorities: An Opinion Essay

Posted at 3:44 pm (Pacific Time)

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, antigay activists and their supporters seized on the scandal to revive the tired old stereotype of gay men as child molesters.

The Family Research Council, for example, complained that neither political party “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, was quoted by ABC News on the subject of gay men: “The reality is that many of them are interested in little boys. Not all of them, of course. But many of them.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters. It portrayed the Republican leadership (who previously have shown no reluctance to exploit the public’s unease about same-sex couples for their political ends) as fearful of offending gay people “in today’s politically correct culture.”

Although promoters of the child molester myth claim their arguments are based in fact, a careful reading of the scientific research shows otherwise. Relatively few studies have systematically assessed how many pedophiles and molesters can be considered gay, straight, bisexual, or none of the above. Those addressing this question, however, haven’t found any inherent connection between an adult’s sexual orientation and his or her propensity for molesting children. The ranks of sexual predators include straight and gay adults, but neither group is disproportionately likely to spawn molesters.

In fact, many child molesters fit the “none of the above” category. They lack the capacity for a mature relationship with another adult. Instead of being straight or gay, they are attracted mainly or exclusively to children — boys, girls, or both. Conservative activists are quick to label such men gay when they molest young boys (and sometimes even young girls). But this simplistic (and politically expedient) assumption doesn’t fit with the facts about human sexuality and pedophilia.

The lack of a linkage between homosexuality and child molestation is widely recognized by clinicians and child welfare advocates. This is why relatively little research has directly addressed the issue — proving something we already know simply isn’t a priority. Indeed, a commentary that accompanied publication of a 1994 study in the journal Pediatrics (which found no link between homosexuality and child molestation) noted that debates about gay people as molesters “have little to do with everyday child abuse” and lamented that they distract lawmakers and the public from dealing with the real problem of children’s sexual mistreatment.

Of course, congressional pages aren’t prepubescent children. They are 16 or older, which is the age of majority in some jurisdictions. Regardless of whether they’ve reached the legal age of consent, teens in the workplace need to be free from sexual harassment and coercion by their supervisors and superiors. Here again, sexual orientation isn’t a predictor of perpetrating abuse. Neither straight nor gay people are disproportionately likely to molest teenagers, use their positions of authority to abuse their subordinates, or engage in other reprehensible acts.

The gay-men-as-pedophiles stereotype is part of a long tradition of portraying disliked minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. In times past, Jews were accused of murdering Christian babies and black men were regarded as a threat to white women. Society’s out-groups make convenient scapegoats, and mustering public outrage against them is often disconcertingly easy.

Predictably the gays-are-pedophiles canard is now being touted by some conservatives. This move should be seen for what it is — an effort to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to more comfortable turf, namely, gay-bashing and scapegoating sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 12, 2006

New Census Data: More Same-Sex Couples in the US

Posted at 12:33 pm (Pacific Time)

The 2000 US Census had special importance for sexual minorities because it yielded data on the number of households headed by someone in a cohabiting same-sex couple.

Now a newly released analysis of data from the Census Bureau has found that the number of such couples increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation, Law, and Public Policy at UCLA. Gates examined data on same-sex couples from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS).

Unlike the decennial Census, which attempts to count every person living in the United States, the ACS is an ongoing survey conducted every year with a sample of households representing roughly 2.5% of the US population. By 2010, it will replace the Census long form. The 2005 ACS, the first to be conducted on a national basis, sampled 1.4 million households.

Here are some key findings from Dr. Gates’ analysis:

  • The number of cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S. grew from nearly 600,000 in 2000 to almost 777,000 in 2005. This is an increase of more than 30%.
  • Based on the 2005 data, 53% of same-sex couples consist of two men while 47% consist of two women.
  • The rate of growth isn’t uniform across the country. Of the ten states with the largest percentage increases, 8 are in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana). Their rates of increase ranged from 54% to 81%. These states had fairly small percentages of same-sex couples in 2000.
  • Also on the top ten list are New Hampshire (106% increase) and Colorado (58% increase).
  • Six states with a 2006 ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin — experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of same-sex couples in their population, even more than the national rate.

How to explain these huge increases between 2000 and 2005? Although some of the change may result from more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people cohabiting in committed relationships, Gates suggests that this factor is unlikely to account for the magnitude of growth documented by the ACS. Rather, it is probably the case that more same-sex couples are reporting their relationships to Census Bureau researchers.

This greater visibility could result from several factors, including more widespread awareness of the Census data about same-sex couples and a greater willingness to be out of the closet. That increased willingness to disclose may reflect a sense that sexual stigma has declined and it is now safer to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Coming out may also represent a decision to take a stand against antigay groups and ballot campaigns.

The Census only counts same-sex couples, and only those who are living together and in which one partner is the household head. Because it doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, the Census doesn’t tell us how many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Using data from another large-scale survey, however, Gates estimated that 4.1% of US adults identify as a sexual minority. This translates into an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Applying this estimate to the ACS data, Gates came to some additional interesting conclusions:

  • In terms of absolute numbers, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois have the largest sexual minority populations, along with the District of Columbia.
  • New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have the largest sexual minority populations among metropolitan areas.
  • Ranking states by the percentage of the adult population who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts and Maine come out on top.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland (OR), and Tampa have the highest percentages of sexual minority residents.
  • Same-sex couples are found in all Congressional districts in the U.S.

The full report, Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, and other analyses of Census data are available at the Williams Institute Web site.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 11, 2006

Let’s Talk About It

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Happy National Coming Out Day.

October 11 is the day set aside every year to remind gay, lesbian, and bisexual people about the importance of coming out, and to remind heterosexual people how they can support their sexual minority family members and friends in living open, honest, and fulfilling lives.

This year, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) have partnered in a campaign called Talk About It. As the title says, the goal is to encourage sexual minority women and men to discuss their experiences with their heterosexual relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Toward that end, HRC and PFLAG have created a A Resource Guide To Coming Out, which provides information and advice for sexual minorities, and A Straight Guide to GLBT Americans, which is designed for heterosexuals who want to support and assist their gay, lesbian, and bisexual loved ones. Both guides are available on the HRC Web site.

This campaign gets it right — in many ways.

Coming out is tremendously important for sexual minority individuals. While concealing one’s sexual orientation can be highly stressful, being out of the closet is often associated with better mental and physical health. Not only does being open about one’s sexual orientation eliminate the need to be constantly vigilant and secretive, it also creates opportunities to get help and emotional support from significant others in the face of society’s prejudice against sexual minorities.

Moreover, coming out plays a major role in reducing sexual prejudice. For heterosexuals, knowing someone who is openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual often leads not only to a better relationship with that person, but also to more positive feelings and less prejudice toward sexual minorities in general. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, compared to other heterosexuals, straight people with gay and lesbian friends and close family members tend to be less prejudiced against all sexual minorities.

However, simply knowing that a friend or relative is gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t necessarily reduce a straight person’s prejudice. It’s also critically important to talk openly. In my own research, I’ve found that the heterosexuals with the lowest levels of sexual prejudice are those who not only know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have also spoken directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority.

But many sexual minority adults don’t discuss this aspect of their lives with family members, friends, or coworkers.

In a recent national survey, I found that a majority of lesbians and gay men in the US consider themselves to be out to their immediate family members. However, substantial numbers never speak about lesbian and gay issues with their parents or siblings. A similar pattern holds in their relationships with other relatives, coworkers, and straight acquaintances. Bisexual adults are even less likely to talk with straight people about their sexual orientation and how it affects their daily lives.

Of course, coming out can be risky, and talking about one’s sexual orientation is often difficult. Here’s where the HRC/PFLAG project is right on target. The Talk About It guides offer practical suggestions to assist sexual minorities and straight people alike in getting those conversations started.

So today, on this National Coming Out Day, do something positive to fight sexual prejudice. Have a conversation. Talk about it.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


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