False Bennett: Gay-Bashing by the Numbers

First appeared in the New Republic January 5 and 12, 1998.

WASHINGTON IS THE CAPITAL of awkward alliances, but few are more revealing than Bill Bennett's recent espousal of the work of one Paul Cameron. In an appearance on ABC's "This Week," and then in the pages of The Weekly Standard, Bennett has openly declared that research shows that the average life span for a male homosexual in America is 43 years. In the Standard, Bennett was so thrilled and shocked by this discovery that he repeated it in italics: "Forty-three."

The source for this information, as Bennett subsequently revealed, is a researcher named Paul Cameron. Loyal TNR readers will fondly remember this curious character. (See "Queer Science," by Mark Pietrzyk, The New Republic, October 3, 1994.) As Pietrzyk reported, Cameron was expelled by the American Psychological Association in 1983 for misrepresenting the findings of others and engaging in dubious research techniques. Among Cameron's "findings" are that 52 percent of male heterosexuals have shoplifted and that twelve percent have either attempted or committed murder.

Over the years he has also argued that gay men are responsible for up to one half of all child abuse cases (despite making up maybe two percent of the population), that they are ten to 20 times more likely to molest children than heterosexuals, and that fully half of all sex murderers are homosexuals. One of Cameron's "studies" included 41 gay men out of a total sample of 4,340 adults. Another was based on interviews with 34 serial killers. One of his "pamphlets" is illustrated by a photograph of an adult male arm dragging a small boy into a public restroom. This is what the former secretary of education thinks is social science.

Bennett's favorite Cameron statistic -- the average life span of 43 for all gay men -- is based on obituaries from gay newspapers during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Useful for some things, that plague! But even then, the statistic is misleading. As any student of these papers knows, the obit sections -- which scarcely existed before AIDS -- are primarily ways to commemorate openly gay people who have died early deaths. (An indication of this is that the same study found that the average age of gay men who died of causes other than AIDS was 42.) These neighborhood papers -- with very limited pages -- in no way attempt to record all homosexual deaths, and rarely do so. In fact, there's no database, in a still closeted world, that could. The statistic, in other words, is based on a skewed sample of a subset of homosexuals in a grotesquely atypical period. It's about as reliable as basing a statistical survey of death rates in the general population from people admitted to emergency rooms.

But this, in some respects, is hardly revealing. There have always been hate-filled cranks out there. What's revealing is that Bennett clearly couldn't care less about the source of his data. It's a great sound bite, the kind of thing that sticks in the mind, something that, even when it's exposed, carries a useful political punch. In the letters section of the Standard, Bennett cites not only Cameron for his early death point, but another man, this time with a medical degree: Jeffrey Satinover. Satinover has argued in print that all gay men are pathological and compulsive; that the most effective policy for them is a fundamentalist religious conversion; and that the Renaissance "could have just as easily been called 'The Great Death,'" since it killed off the anti-pagan hegemony of "Judeo-Christianity" in favor of modern science.

I have no idea whether Bill Bennett regrets the Renaissance, but there is little doubt about his facile use of "facts." Just as typical was Bennett's casual reference on "This Week" to "the great continuing interest of the homosexual male community into [sic] recruiting children into its ranks." Note the generalization. Bennett blithely accuses a whole group of people of wanting to commit the most heinous crime against innocents, with no evidence whatsoever. It was the device once used by anti-Semites. Why should it not now be used by a leading conservative intellectual? And among his "plain evidence" for this in the Standard were remarks by gay leaders condemning pedophilia! Go figure.

No, what's truly revealing is what he infers from his recitation of a gay male life span of 43 years. Does he argue that this shocking "statistic" makes it more essential for gay men to practice safe sex? No: Bennett seems uninterested in that debate insofar as it pertains to gay men (and he has opposed safe-sex education for gay teens). Does he argue that gay men should be monogamous to cut down HIV transmission? Well, not if it means implementing any measures to foster gay monogamy, such as the right to marry or even domestic partnership. Does he argue that the social costs of AIDS make it even more vital to finance HIV research? Funny, Bennett hasn't exactly made a cause of that.

No, the only use Bennett makes of this statistic is that it helps prove that homosexuality is bad and should therefore be discouraged, or, rather that, "if you're a homosexual male in this country, it takes 30 years off your life." And what does he mean by this formulation? Does he believe that gay men choose their orientation and therefore need to be encouraged to make a heterosexual choice? No, he doesn't. On "This Week," he said: "I think the best state-of-the-art science right now is the belief that some people are hard-wired this way." His argument, rather, is that if we don't continue to marginalize homosexuals, then a few "wavering" bisexual men might be tempted to "choose" homosexuality and therefore be more likely to die off at the tender age of "forty-three." Or, in his words: "Some people make the choice, and there are a lot of people in the middle. If there are a lot of people in the middle, if there are a lot of waverers, we should be sending signals ... of what society needs to prefer. And it needs to prefer heterosexuality."

So let's get this straight (so to speak). What Bennett is really saying is that one group of citizens should be publicly stigmatized, denied the right to marry, legally fired at will from their jobs, expelled from the military despite exemplary service, and thrown to the dogs of an epidemic without any social incentives to help rescue them, merely pour decourager les autres. Has Bennett thought for a moment, I wonder, about the morality of this little piece of social engineering? Has his conscience even twitched a little at the thought of using some people's lives (and with AIDS, this is not a metaphor) to adjust the social signals sent to others? One is led to wonder, in fact, if Bennett isn't actually in favor of gay promiscuity, because it's a far more useful didactic tool for him than the discomfiting vision of stable, responsible, homosexual couples.

Imagine if Bennett had made the same argument about African Americans. In that case, there are, in fact, reliable statistics that show that the life span for blacks is significantly lower than that of whites. Imagine if Bennett got on television and declared this to be a scandal, but subsequently opposed any measures to alleviate it. Imagine, indeed, if he used that statistic to defend the right of someone not to hire a black person because one could reasonably infer that a black person would be more likely to get sick. Imagine, in the most apposite case, if he declared that, because of this statistic, black people should not be allowed to marry whites because they would import into white society patterns of life-threatening behavior which need to be discouraged.

Well, the truth is: you can't imagine. Because all of those statements would be regarded as prima facie evidence of racism, and Bennett would instantly lose any credibility he once had. But with gay men and women, such statements are regarded as completely banal, and Bennett actually gains points among some conservatives for voicing them. He will argue -- with a straight face -- that he is not against civil rights for homosexuals, he just wants to tell them what is good for them. He believes, as he wrote in the Standard, that gay men and lesbians are entitled to rights "owed all Americans as Americans."

But that does not, apparently, include the right to serve one's country, a right granted to African Americans as a symbolic mark of their citizenship during the Revolutionary War and to heterosexual women and blacks equally this century. And it does not include the right not to be fired from one's job merely because one is gay, regardless of one's abilities. And it does not include the right not to be imprisoned because of private, consensual sex. And it does not include the right of mothers to the custody of their own children. And it does not include the right to visit a spouse of many years who is dying in an intensive care room. And it does not, critically, include the right to marry, a right declared by our Supreme Court to be one of the "basic civil rights of man," vested, again according to the Court, in the Declaration of Independence, prior to the Bill of Rights, and more fundamental even than the right to vote, a right guaranteed to murderers and prisoners and rapists and deadbeat dads and noncitizens, but not to gay and lesbian Americans for something that even Bennett concedes is "hard-wired" into their identity.

"Rights owed all Americans as Americans"? The truth is, Bennett, consciously or unconsciously, believes the word "Americans" does not include gay men and women. It's clarifying to hear him say it.

He will also argue that he is not demonizing people, he is demonizing behavior. But if he means by that behavior promiscuity, does he not have a moral and intellectual obligation to propose something to tackle it? Would he think, for example, that mere lecturing would be enough for heterosexual men if they too had no right to marry their loved one? What, I wonder, would he think would happen among straights if marriage didn't exist, if, indeed, domestic partnership didn't exist, if their relationships were accorded no public recognition and acknowledgment, their children no legal rights to their parents, their commitment to each other no moral or social support? From Bennett's writings, I have no doubt what he thinks would happen: social chaos. But the incentives Bennett believes are essential for one segment of the society are to be ruled out of bounds for another.

There is only one possible explanation for this. It is that Bennett considers gay men and women so beneath and beyond the concern of real society that it is incumbent upon him merely to echo the stigmas that perpetuate their exclusion. And if that isn't close to a definition of bigotry, then I don't know what is.

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