Business Standard

The professor and the player

There is something disturbing about the sort of restrictions that gay rights advocates seek to impose on speech

Vikram Johri
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The past few weeks have brought much excitement to consumers of news about the gay world. First it was the coming out of Jason Collins, an player nobody had heard of until he gave a cover-worthy interview, declaring his gayness, to Sports Illustrated. The whole world was forced to tune in. Oprah Winfrey, all-season arbiter of things newsworthy, met Collins at his house for a one-on-one interview. Sundry sportsmen expressed their support. Gay blogs went wild with ecstasy.

The other major news was the comments made by Harvard professor at a conference. Alluding to Keynes' homosexuality, Ferguson spoke of how the Bloomsbury member's economic short-termism might have roots in his childlessness. Criminal, shouted Ferguson's peers. "Anti-gay" was the general response. In a world where news spreads at the rate of tweets, Ferguson's harmless chatter grew into a maelstrom. With no exit route in sight, he was forced to tender an unconditional apology.

The oversize reactions to Collins' coming-out and Ferguson's remarks frame the changing nature of today's gay debate. Not only is flippant discrimination not allowed to pass muster, but any discriminatory act or speech is now lambasted. This has partly to do with the gay marriage debate in the United States, which has painstakingly brought durable arguments in its favour into the public domain. As The New Yorker said, when it comes to gay rights, the war is already won. Now it's only the battles that remain.

All of this makes one wonder if we are already seeing the makings of a post-gay society, at least in the domain of ideas. Yet, at another level, gayness is still about difference. It is still the black sheep that must be encouraged to turn into the dark horse. The mainstream reception to Collins' coming out would have you believe it was Jesus' second coming. Why, after all, must a man become a celebrity only because he decides to come out? Does it not speak of a subterranean discomfort with the idea of gayness that publicly accepting it becomes an act worthy of celebration?  

Similarly, why hound a man who merely said something that, some gay men such as myself will tell you, is right on the money about gay life? There is something disturbing about the sort of restrictions that advocates seek to impose on speech. Remember, I refer here not to the garden-variety discrimination of an earlier era, but the brouhaha surrounding Ferguson's remarks.

Cliches are cliches for a reason. Which is that they are true. Many gay men are effeminate. Promiscuity exists among gay men. Gay men have trouble forming long-term relationships. All of these things and others that are whispered, sotto voce, hold good, certainly to an extent. The point is not to go hammer and tongs after someone who references any of these or other stereotypes. The point is to accept these stereotypes for what they are, try and understand their pervasiveness, and not locate gayness as a system falling outside the dominant social narrative.

What has, on the contrary, happened is what I call the "twinkie defence" - used first by Dan White in the murder trial of Harvey Milk. In 1978, White, a city official in San Francisco, murdered Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office (District Supervisor) in America. The defence claimed that White had consumed, and been consuming, too much Coke to be in his right mind!

A bland sugar coat of this nature is being thrust on today's gay debate. The tomfoolery surrounding Ferguson's remarks does no one any service. Castigating him narrows the debate and is akin to preaching to the converted. Honest, expansive debate cannot happen in a climate of finger-pointing. As a childless, practising homosexual myself, I welcome any discussion that looks at gayness honestly. That does not shy away from bringing up questionable assumptions about gay identity for fear of political incorrectness. That does not seek to distance, and in so doing make other, gayness. I have enough faith in mine for it to withstand any argumentative onslaught.

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