“I don’t want to…” he began hesitantly, “you know… start anything.”
“You mean you don’t want to say something controversial.” said Dr. Mills. “That’s okay. Controversial is okay. This is human sexuality! It’s controversial stuff!”
“Right.” said James, looking around at the other students apprehensively. “To me, it just feels like they’re trying to force their lifestyle on us. I mean, okay, I understand that they’re not straight and that’s fine, whatever. But do they have to make such a big deal about it? I mean, I just think that’s private.”
“Is sex private?” asked Dr. Mills, folding his arms and cocking his head.
“Well sure,” said Amanda, glancing briefly at James, “what two people do between the sheets is their own business. Nobody else needs to know about it.”
“How many of you have taken Dr. Essley’s intro sociology course?” Mills asked, surveying the hands that went up amongst his students “Most of you, that’s good. So I know that in her class, she likes to show this slide, and I’ll just draw it out for you, but the way it works,” he picked up a dry erase marker and drew a stick figure near the top of the whiteboard, “let’s say this person here is you and let’s assume that you’ve had two sex partners—now some of you may have had more and some less, but let’s work with just two for now.
“Now, let’s assume that both of your two sex partners have also had two sex partners. You’ve come into intimate contact with your two sex partners, and both of them have made intimate contact with their two sex partners, so their sex lives and their sexual histories have become a part of your sex life, too. Suddenly, you haven’t just made the decision to have sex with two people. You’ve decided to accept all of the past decisions that those two people have made about their bodies, as well. So you’ve actually come into sexual contact with six people.”
He tapped the little pyramid of stick figures he had drawn, “Now, let’s say that each of your two sex partners’ sex partners had two sex partners. Now how many sex partners are we talking about? Let’s do it again, your two, had two, who had two, who then also had two. It doesn’t take long before your private sex life involves a few more people than you probably bargained for. This is starting to look pretty public to me, especially where health is concerned. What if one of these people here in this line at the bottom,” he circled one of the stick figures on the lowest row, “had a sexually transmitted disease? Then sex becomes a matter of public health, right? So sex isn’t necessarily private. Its consequences certainly reach into the public sphere, don’t they?”
“Sure,” said James, “but I mean, it’s not like my partner’s partner’s partners show me pictures of them kissing or something. It’s just like every time you hear about gay rights or whatever, you have to see a picture of two dudes kissing. I get it, they’re gay. It should be private. Why do I need to be seeing that? Why do they get to force their sexuality on everybody else?”
“Well –” Dr. Mills began, but Graham interrupted him as politely as he could.
“Actually, Dr. Mills, I had a couple of slides about that,” said Graham.
“Right! Sorry,” smiled Dr. Mills. “I’ll let you get back to what you were saying.”
Graham nodded and exited fullscreen mode on his Powerpoint presentation, flipping through the column of slides on the left till he found the one he was looking for. Graham was a sociology student in the university’s graduate program. Dr. Mills had asked him if he might be interested in getting a taste of what it was like to teach, and offered him an opportunity to lead one of the undergraduate classes for a day.
“People actually ask that question a lot,” said Graham. “Why do gays get to force their sexuality onto heterosexuals? Why do we have to see all these gays kissing if we’re not gay? Let’s find out what the deal is with that. And to do that, let’s look at some of those gays kissing.” He clicked on a video embedded in one of the slides, but paused it while it was loading, “Most of you have probably heard of Doctor Who, right?” The whole room seemed to be nodding and grinning, or rolling their eyes—they had all, indeed, heard of Doctor Who. “Well, this is a clip from a spinoff of Doctor Who. It’s from a series called Torchwood, and in it, we’re going to see the main character, Jack Harkness, the guy in the blue button-down and suspenders –”
“Oh my god!” Bethany interjected with excitement. “Tell me this is the scene I think it is. In the Ritz dance hall?”
Graham grinned. “Episode twelve, yeah. ‘Kiss the boys goodbye!’” He considered giving the class more background on the show, but decided against it. “I’m sure you’ll all pick it up pretty quickly,” he said, pressing the play button.
“I have to go,” said Capt. Jack. “It’s my duty.” The class watched, some of them with baited breath, as the heartthrob of Torchwood hesitated at the edge of the light. Bethany gave a muffled squee, putting her knuckles to her mouth in anticipation. Capt. Jack turned and gave the soldier a long, passionate kiss, then pulled away, setting his hand on the other man’s breastbone in a last, affectionate farewell.
Some of the students laughed quietly, and there were a few awwws!, mostly from female students, but there were some grimaces and winces, too. Graham took note of the discomfort in the room, “So I can see that not everybody was okay with that. Let’s try something else. Let’s compare that to another video. It’s long, so we’ll only watch the first forty or fifty seconds.” He also took note of the looks of relief he saw on the faces of the students who had been uncomfortable with the first video.
The second video wasn’t embedded like the first one had been. Instead, Graham clicked the url he had pasted onto the slide, having first made sure that he was logged out of his Google account. The link took him to a Youtube video called “Best Movie Kisses” posted by a user named MariaBlueStar.
As promised, he played the first fifty-eight seconds of the video, then paused it and scanned the room. None of the uncomfortable faces looked uncomfortable anymore. “We just saw six separate couples kissing in under a minute. Doesn’t that bother any of you?”
“I mean, it’s mushy,” shrugged James.
“Sure,” Graham nodded, “but it doesn’t actually bother you, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that’s because all of the couples we saw were heterosexual, right? There is another seven minutes of this.” He stopped for a moment while he switched back to his Powerpoint slides, “I’m going to show you some more images of gay couples in advertising.” The slide showed three magazine ads which featured gay men.
“Okay,” said Amanda impatiently, “why is this necessary? I didn’t want to see it once, let alone four times. They should keep that to themselves.”
Graham gave her a sly look. “I was hoping someone would say that, actually, so thank you. I want to show you some other ads of couples kissing, and then we’ll talk about that, alright? I promise, we won’t forget to dig into that one.”
Though clearly begrudging the delay, Amanda seemed satisfied that her criticism of his lecture wouldn’t go unanswered. She still didn’t believe that there was any point to what she was being asked to look at.
“Here are a few ads of couples kissing,” continued Graham, showing ten more magazine advertisements “but you’ll notice that all of them are heterosexual. So here we can see what the straight couples are doing. Now, how about what the ladies are up to? Because lesbians are gay, too, obviously. We actually see a lot of images of women kissing women.” He showed five more images. “Anybody who’s been to a frat party recently, though, can probably guess that a lot of these women aren’t actually lesbians. Much of the advertising that features women kissing isn’t about women at all; it’s about getting the attention of straight men. A lot of these women are looking at us, the viewer, rather than at each other, like they’re wanting us to notice them. And look at the positions they’re in. They’ve been posed to show off certain parts of the female body. This is often referred to as ‘the male gaze.’ We didn’t really see the male gaze playing too big a factor in the heterosexual couples from the kissing video, and we didn’t see it as much in the heterosexual advertisements, though it’s still definitely there. So when we see homosexuality between women in ads, usually it’s not about the women at all. It’s about getting seen by guys, and that’s not exactly homosexuality, is it?” He looked at the students for a moment to see if they seemed to be following along, then glanced at Dr. Mills, who gave him a subtle nod of encouragement and a slight smile.
“Okay,” said Graham, “so let’s see a few more ads, shall we? Let’s just add them to the slide, here.” He clicked forward and more advertisements appeared on the slide, so that there were nearly forty of them in total. “What do all of these have in common? All of these couples?”
“They’re all straight.” said a young man in the back wearily. “We get it.”
“It was sort of an unfair question, actually.” said Graham. “Other than being people doing something suggestive in ads, you could say they’re a pretty diverse group, relatively speaking. But this one, this one, and this one,” he pointed out three advertisements out of the tens of ads displayed, “have gay men. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the whole picture, though. With all of the ads together, this is looking like a lot of straight sexuality, isn’t it? If this is what we see in ads, let’s look back at the kissing video.” Graham switched back to the web browser and pointed to the column of suggested videos, “I logged out of my Google account to make sure that my browsing history wouldn’t throw off the videos Youtube would suggest, and as I’m scrolling through here, I’m seeing that people have put together a lot more of these movie kissing montages. I’m also seeing that all of the thumbnails for these videos have straight couples in them. So not only do we get eight minutes of that from this video, there’s a ton more of them to wade through. All of this raises a question, doesn’t it?” He paused for dramatic effect, watching the room to see how the class was reacting. “If sex is so private, why are we seeing so many straight couples breaking the rules by making their sexuality public? The answer is actually pretty simple: It’s only against the rules for gay couples to kiss in public. They see us kissing every day—on tv, when they open a magazine, when they walk down the street. By comparison, we hardly see gays at all, and when we do, we feel offended or tell them that we shouldn’t have to see things like that in public. Aren’t we the ones forcing our sexuality on them?”
The class was still as a tomb, making Graham feel a bit hot under the collar as a room full of wide and not necessarily friendly eyes stared back at him. It came as a relief when Amanda finally broke the silence and voiced her disagreement.
“Look,” she said, setting her palms on the table, “I know that gays want rights and all that, and if they want to get married, that’s fine, I guess, but I go to church…” The whole room seemed to shift away from Amanda uncomfortably as everyone guessed what she was about to say. “…I go to church,” she repeated a bit more firmly so that her voice wouldn’t falter, “and the Bible is very clear on this: Homosexuality is an abomination. So gays can do whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. They act like just because they want to be that way, I have to accept them.”
“Well, you know, that’s a good point,” said Graham, “but at the same time, you have the option to reject them, which is an option they don’t have. You actually have more social power than they do because of your heterosexuality and your religious views. In other words, even though gays often find themselves in physically or verbally abusive situations simply for being gay, you are in a position to call them abominations with relative impunity. On a regular basis, gays, lesbians, and queers are assaulted and murdered for living as gays, lesbians, and queers, while the worst anyone will do to you when it comes to gay rights is disagree with your point of view and tell you so. After all, gays can’t call you an abomination.”
“They can call me whatever they want,” said Amanda, raising an eyebrow.
“Can they?” asked Graham. “Can they point to a passage in the Bible and say, ‘Do not have sexual relations with a woman as one does with a man; that is detestable.’?”
“No, of course not!” Amanda retorted. “Because the Bible doesn’t say that.”
“Exactly.” Graham nodded. “And why doesn’t it say that?”
“Because homosexuality is a sin,” said Amanda.
“Right, that’s what the Bible says,” said Graham, “but why?”
“Because it’s wrong!” snapped Amanda, who was growing increasingly agitated that something so easily comprehensible was being challenged.
“Again, though,” Graham repeated, “why?”
The room went quiet again until James finally spoke up to defend Amanda, “Because it’s unnatural.”
“Okay,” said Graham, “let’s work with that. Let’s accept as our premise that homosexuality is unnatural.”
Bethany made a sound of protest, but Graham held up his hand. “Just for the sake of argument, okay? Let’s say that homosexuality isn’t natural.” Bethany settled back into her seat, but Graham could see that she was biting her tongue.
“Does anyone,” he asked, “have their phone on them?” Every hand in the room went up, though some, like Amanda’s, were more reluctant than others.
“Great. Would you stand up,” he said, randomly pointing to a young man in the front two rows of desks, “and take a picture of the class?”
“Uh, sure?” said the young man uncertainly. “Just like… take a picture?”
“Yeah,” said Graham, “just snap a picture right quick.”
“Okay,” he replied, holding his phone up. “Smile, I guess.”
“So, now that’s everybody’s been blinded by the flash….” said Graham, earning him a laugh from the students, who were still blinking away the bright, colored spots obscuring their vision, “What’s your name?”
“Dominic,” the young man replied.
“Okay, Dominic,” said Graham, turning and writing his phone number on the board, “I want you to send me that picture.” Once this was done, Graham held up his phone so that everyone could see that he had received the picture Dominic had just taken. “There was nothing natural about that,” said Graham. “What Dominic and I just did there, was unnatural, but it’s also completely acceptable, right?”
“You,” he said, pointing to someone else, “what’s your name?”
“Rosie,” said the student Graham had called upon.
“Rosie, how do you feel about public speaking?” Graham asked.
“Um, I don’t know.” Rosie shrugged. “Nervous, I guess.”
“That’s okay. This’ll be easy, I promise,” said Graham. “I’m going to step out of the room for a second and when I do, I want you to call me.”
“Okay….” said Rosie, glancing around at her classmates as Graham left the classroom.
“Can you hear me?” asked Graham, answering her call.
“Yeah, I can hear you,” Rosie replied.
“Great,” said Graham. “Okay, just repeat what I say.”
“Okay,” said Rosie, “he says he wants me to repeat what he says.” She paused to listen for a moment, then, “He says, ‘Our society has allowed … for the development … of all sorts of new things … from batteries, to cars … to computers and modern … medicine. You can get … Chinese take out, now … and we’re nowhere … we’re nowhere near China. … I got an email … today … from my friend in La Paz … which is in Bolivia … where I did my study abroad … she wanted to know … if I was on Tumblr … unfortunately, I’m not … that far ahead yet … but at least I don’t … at least I don’t still use … use MySpace.‘” Rosie and Graham paused while the students snickered, then Rosie picked up again. “It took me a couple … of long flights … to get to La Paz from … from here. It felt … like an eternity … but before planes … that trip would … would have taken weeks. … Instead, it took … less than a day. …Now, just think … a plane is … a flying metal tube … that stays up … by burning … dead sea creatures … really fast. …Isn’t that … Isn’t that a terrifying thought? …Metal tubes … don’t naturally fly. … Right now, I can…’ he can hear me, ‘and she can hear … ‘ I mean, I can hear him … through a solid … cinder-block wall … because our phones … are … ‘ Are what? Digitizing? ‘…our phones are digitizing our voices … then sending … those ones and zeroes … along four different radio … frequencies … two from each phone … which are … being bounced off a radio tower … kilometers from here … and sent … all the way … back to us. There’s nothing … There’s nothing natural … or Biblical … about that. …The point is … we do … we do any number of unnatural things … everyday, and we…‘”
“…don’t give it a second thought.” concluded Graham, returning to the room. “If something is wrong or ‘detestable’ simply because it’s not natural, then most of our daily lives as we know them become impossible. Imagine doing your homework without electric lighting. And trees don’t naturally grow into textbooks on their own. They don’t grow into Bibles, either.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Thank you, by the way, Rosie. You did an excellent job.”
Rosie bobbed her head and sat down, more than happy to be out of the spotlight though everyone agreed that she had conveyed the message well. Graham surveyed the room for a moment or two before he continued. “Let’s look at this mathematically. Everybody in here loves math, right?!” he joked. “This will be simple math, I promise.” He picked up a dry erase marker and began to write on the board. “You all know that if A = B and B = C then A = C, right? So if Homosexuality = Unnatural and Unnatural = Wrong, then by that logic Homosexuality is Wrong. Does that make sense?”
An uncomfortable murmur passed through the classroom, indicating that this made sense, whether they wanted it to or not. “Good, okay,” said Graham, “But that creates a problem, doesn’t it? Because we do lots of other unnatural things.” At this, he began making a list on the left side of the equation so that homosexuality was just one item among many. “Facebook,” he said as the list grew longer, “cupcakes, cat videos, cars, let’s see… pets, hand sanitizer, democracy, hospitals, combs, brownies, tires, school… what else, umm… Oh! How about deodorant? We don’t naturally produce deodorant. Wal-Mart. GameStop. Pizza, or I guess cooking in general is out… reading, writing, the internet, doctors.”
He stood back and looked at the list. “That’s quite a lot of unnatural things. And as our equation demonstrates for us, if it’s unnatural, then it’s wrong.”
“We’d be living like the Amish!” said Dr. Mills.
Graham stooped down and added farming to the bottom of the list. “Even the Amish are unnatural,” he concluded.
The class laughed and Graham picked up the whiteboard eraser. “So why is it,” he asked, “that all of these unnatural things are fine and homosexuality isn’t?”
“It’s because it’s about sex,” answered Dominic, “and the other things aren’t.”
“That’s a good point,” said Graham, erasing everything from the list but homosexuality, “and sex is certainly part of the answer. There are plenty of things related to sex that could easily be on this list, though. For instance….” Under homosexuality he wrote condoms. “Those aren’t natural. Rubber doesn’t just vulcanize itself and make itself into the shape of genitalia just so that we can put it on or in ourselves while we have sex, right? So does that make them wrong? I certainly don’t know of any other species that uses condoms, and they definitely thwart our reproduction. Should we prohibit the use of condoms? After all, they are related to sex, they are unnatural, and what is unnatural is wrong. If A = B = C, then condoms are wrong. And there have certainly been people—plenty of church leaders among them—who have used that exact argument, though it’s not very popular today, just like spending weeks on a boat to get to South America isn’t very popular anymore. Condoms are unnatural, but they have become an acceptable part of our sexual lives in the modern world. They’re even widely recommended and they come in some very creative varieties.”
“One of my favorite passages from the Warner reading that you all have for next week,” Graham went on, “and yes, I had to do the reading for this class, too, when I was an undergrad—I’d tell you what to expect on the test, but I’m not sure Dr. Mills would appreciate that.” Everyone laughed and Graham smiled. “One of my favorite passages from Warner says, ‘Sex doesn’t need to be primordial in order to be legitimate.’ Why? Because ‘civilization…makes new kinds of sexuality. And new sexualities, including learned ones, might have as much validity as ancient ones, if not more.’ ‘Sexual autonomy has grown…by making room for new freedoms, new experiences, new pleasures, new identities, new bodies—even if many of us turn out to live in the old ones without complaining.’ ‘Pleasures once imaginable only with disgust, if at all, become the material out of which individuals and groups elaborate themselves.’ And I think that it’s about time we allowed our gay friends and loved ones to elaborate themselves without fear of reprisal or being told that their sexualities need to remain ‘private’ while we put ours very much on display.”
“Because this equation here—the logic that says homosexuality must be wrong because it seems unnatural to some people—just simply doesn’t stand up to the test of the real world. Too many other things don’t support it. For instance, here’s another big one for our list….”
Graham erased condoms and replaced it instead with clothes. “The Bible starts off very clear on this one, too, at least in Genesis. Adam and Eve discovered embarrassment about being naked after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was an unnatural, and therefore wrong, act in itself. God forbade it. Before that point, it was unnatural for us to wear clothes, and God knew that Adam and Eve had done something wrong when he saw them wearing their fig leaves. It’s only after something unnatural happens that wearing clothes becomes required. And whether you subscribe to Creationism or the Theory of Evolution, it’s pretty obvious that clothes aren’t naturally occurring.”
Graham sat down on the stool next to the computer and began untying his shoes. “If A = B = C, then clothes, just like homosexuality, are unnatural, wrong, and ought to be prohibited. When I wear clothes…” the graduate student said, removing his shoes and socks, and setting them aside, “I am actually forcing my clothing-related needs on others, who may not share my feelings. Because clothing is unnatural, and therefore wrong, I should only be allowed to wear clothing in private.”
Standing up, Graham began to unbutton his shirt, starting at the cuffs of his sleeves and moving to his neck after he pulled off his tie. “If homosexuality is wrong because it’s unnatural,” he said, casting his shirt off and pulling his undershirt over his head, “then so are clothes and cars, and nearly everything else. We would have to give up most of the modern world—maybe all of it.”
“So how far do I need to go,” he asked, unbuckling his belt and setting it on his shoes, “before it becomes clear that unnaturalness, whether real or perceived, has very little to do with whether someone’s sexuality is right or wrong?”
“All the way!” said Bethany. “You need to go all the way, then we’ll think about it.”
“I second that.” said Rosie.
“Amen!” said Dominic, to everyone’s surprise.
Graham re-buttoned his pants and straightened up. “Well,” said James with a sigh, “I guess I started something.”
“That’s okay, though,” said Dr. Mills. “This is human sexuality! Controversial stuff! Let’s all give Graham a big hand. Maybe next time I’ll strip for the class!”
After Dr. Mills reminded his students about the reading for next week, an excerpt from Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal, and the class had been dismissed, Graham stood in front of the mirror in the restroom. He fixed his tie and made sure that his shirt was tucked in evenly, then stepped out into the hall and left the building. Outside in the sunlight, his girlfriend was waiting for him. A graduate student like Graham, she had gotten out of seminar early that day.
“How did it go?” Lori asked, putting her arm around him as he kissed her cheek. “They weren’t too hard on you, were they?”
“Nah,” said Graham, “I think it went fine.”
“Really?” she asked. “That’s great! What did Dr. Mills say?”
“I think he probably found it a little bit unorthodox,” Graham replied with a smile.
“Yeah,” nodded Graham.
“I want to hear all about it,” said Lori, “but let’s start walking to the car. I want to get home. I’m starving!”
Graham laughed as he walked beside her, “Yeah, so am I.”
“Oh!” said Lori as they neared the car, “I bumped into Stephanie while I was waiting. I got to meet her little sister Amanda, too.”
“Really?” said Graham, pausing with his hand on the car door.
“Yes! And Amanda told me the weirdest thing!” said Lori. “She said that her professor invited this gay guy in to show a bunch of pictures of men kissing and then strip for the class. Can you believe that?”
Graham furrowed his brow and sighed. “Yeah,” he said, shaking his head, “I think I can.”
(Roggen Wulf, 2013)