Several aspects of the continuing discussion of Prof. Hadley Arkes’s published contentions about the term “sexual orientation” deserve critical analysis. Of particular concern to me is Amherst’s response to his contention that the term supposedly is so “broad” as to “encompass sex with animals” (or “zoophilia,” to cite his language in another part of the same publication) as well as “pedophilia, even necrophilia,” and that therefore, according to his statement, there supposedly is serious doubt whether sexual orientation is a valid concept at all (March 26, 2013.)
In her statement of October 1, 2013, President Caroline Biddy Martin observed that contentions such as these made by Prof. Arkes are a form of “legal reasoning” directed toward “testing of claims.” Although she does not explain the implications of this point, I urge readers to recognize that such contentions about the term “sexual orientation” are not merely rhetorical gestures made simply for the sake of argument, as her statement might seem to suggest. Instead, these contentions must be recognized for what they are: part of an effort to discredit the concept of “sexual orientation” and to deny its validity by associating it with behavior which is repugnant, coercive, destructive, and rightly criminalized and punishable by law.
The term “sexual orientation” is fundamental to institutional and legal protections of LGBTQQIAA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies) people from discrimination, harassment, and violence. Amherst College, like many other colleges and universities, has an official institutional Non-discrimination Statement which explicitly rejects discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. An increasing number of local and state governments also now have laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrediting the meaning of the term “sexual orientation” is a step toward invalidating such institutional and legal protections, and there are many homophobic jurists, including members of the Supreme Court, who would endorse such contentions about sexual orientation. Amherst’s Non-discrimination Statement also guarantees protection from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” and “gender expression”– will these categories be the next to be attacked as invalid, by being falsely associated with criminal actions?
I believe that the problem at Amherst is more than a question of “freedom of speech.” A faculty member at the institution is engaged in efforts to invalidate the meaning of a fundamental term used by the institution in official policy statements to identify a category of people which the institution explicitly guarantees that it will protect from abuse. I am a gay man, and I use the term “sexual orientation” in describing myself. Many other LGBTQQIAA people, including many at Amherst, also do, I am sure. LGBTQQIAA people rely on the term in their struggle to stop discrimination, harassment, and violence against them. Along with many other LGBTQQIAA people, I have actively supported the adoption of institutional and legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation. To witness this fundamental term being attacked by a member of an institution which explicitly claims to protect those who identify, and who are identified, by the use of this term is very troubling. I believe that such an attack urgently requires a public statement from leaders of the institution, explicitly addressing and rejecting arguments that seek to invalidate the term “sexual orientation.”
President Martin’s failure to explicitly reject the attempt to invalidate the term “sexual orientation” allowed the National Association of Scholars (N.A.S.), on October 8, 2013, to strongly endorse her statement regarding Prof. Arkes’s words (and reactions to them by others) under the guise of “defending freedom of speech.” Thus, by failing to disavow Prof. Arkes’s attack on the validity of the fundamental term “sexual orientation,” President Martin’s statement, whatever her intentions, has the effect of lending her name and words to the purposes of the N.A.S.
It is important to recognize what the N.A.S. is. A prominent member of the Board of Directors of the N.A.S., the wealthy financier, Thomas Klingenstein, also chairs the Claremont Institute, of which Prof. Arkes is a Senior Fellow. The N.A.S. both funded and conducted the recent attack on Bowdoin College’s curriculum and policies, presented in the N.A.S. report, “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students” (April 3, 2013.) The N.A.S. report particularly attacks Bowdoin’s emphasis on diversity, multiculturalism, and gender equality; its commitment to environmental sustainability; its concern about problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault; and, as President Barry Mills of Bowdoin especially emphasized in his statement refuting the N.A.S. attack on his institution (April 10, 2013), its courses in Lesbian and Gay Studies.
The N.A.S. report focuses extended ridicule on one literature course which had the word “Queer” in its title, dismissing the course as supposedly not teaching students “critical thinking,” and condemning it as “altogether trivial.” The report treats Bowdoin’s efforts to challenge the marginalization of LGBTQQIAA students, particularly efforts to affirm their open and safe participation in athletics, in a manner which clearly is dismissive and contemptuous. The word “marginalization” itself is targeted for ridicule in the report. As a gay man who has worked actively for LGBTQQIAA inclusion and equality, I would be acutely ashamed if I had made a public statement that an organization such as the N.A.S. could successfully exploit, as it has President Martin’s.
I hope very much that members of the Amherst community will discuss these issues, and that the leaders of the College will address them specifically. Attacking the identity category of “sexual orientation” is not merely an insult, and it is not merely a rhetorical gesture made for the sake of argument– it is part of an effort to destroy institutional and legal protections for LGBTQQIAA people against discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Eric Patterson, ’70
Eric Patterson, B.A. Amherst, summa cum laude; M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D. Yale, teaches American literature, American cultural studies, and GLBTQ studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
Links to publications referred to above: