Last week, Senator Stacey Campfield (R-TN) made the news (again) for being kicked out of a Knoxville restaurant because of his views on homosexuality. Campfield rose to notoriety back in May of 2011 when a bill he co-sponsored (SB 49/HB 229), the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, passed in the Tennessee Senate. This bill bars teachers from discussing homosexuality in K-8 public schools and limits instruction in public classrooms “to any age-appropriate natural human reproduction science.” The bill is back on the docket in the Tennessee House and was expected to be presented to the House Education Subcommittee on January 18th, but was delayed because several committee members “needed more time to understand its implications.”
Ironically, two days after HB 229 was re-introduced, a 14-year-old gay student named Phillip Parker committed suicide after experiencing daily harassment and bullying at school. That’s a pretty severe implication to me.
Instead of focusing on the severely problematic nature of silencing homosexuality, however (which I think is obvious – and which I explore in a previous blog post, “Is ‘neutrality’ really neutral?”), I’d like to offer Campfield up as an example of what happens when we fail to use critical thinking when considering psychological research. Several days before the restaurant incident, an interview with Campfield was published on the Huffington Post, where he made the following comments:
“I just think there are situations where some kids maybe sexually unsecure [sic] in themselves or sexually confused and don’t necessarily know clearly what direction they are. If someone, a person of influence, says maybe you’re gay, maybe you should explore those things — maybe the child, who is young and impressionable, says maybe I am gay.”
“Homosexuals represent about 2 to 3 percent of the population yet you look at television and plays and theaters, it’s 50 percent of the theaters, probably more than that, 50 percent of the theaters based on something about homosexuality.”
“Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community — it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.”
“My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex…very rarely [transmitted].”
“What’s the average lifespan of a homosexual? It’s very short. Google it yourself.”
Where is Campfield getting his information? This is a critical thinking question I ask my students routinely, so I think Campfield, who is in a powerful position to influence public policy, should be held to the same standard.
The idea that adults can influence our highly impressionable, sexually confused young people to take a wrong turn towards homosexuality isn’t supported at all by the psychological research – in fact, it sounds like it comes straight out of Anita Bryant’s playbook.
While Campfield’s estimate of the prevalence of homosexuality (2-3%) isn’t out of the ballpark, he certainly hasn’t been keeping up with the annual GLAAD reports tracking the number of gay characters on television (which actually declined in 2011). Of course, theater – particularly musical theater – has often been associated with homosexuality, although no clear statistics exist regarding the prevalence of gay characters or themes in theatrical productions. If anything, these statement seem to reveal Campfield’s fears of “the spread of the gay.”
In support of the idea that HIV transmission via heterosexual sex is rare, Campfield himself cited a web article dated – no, that’s not a typo – 1988. Since then, many public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, warn that the main route of HIV transmission for women is through heterosexual sex.
The idea that homosexuals have shorter than average lifespans than their heterosexual counterparts likely comes from Paul Cameron’s 1994 “gay obituary” study – which has been discredited by many well-respected scientists. If Campfield had Googled it, he would have discovered that himself. He would have also discovered that Paul Cameron was expelled from the American Psychological Association for ethical infractions, and the American Sociological Association and Canadian Psychological Association have both accused Cameron of misrepresenting social science research.
And the screwing the monkey thing? On his blog, Campfield cited a Wikipedia article (NOTE: Wikipedia isn’t considered by most academics to be a rigorously scholarly source), which links to an article about Gaëtan Dugas, a flight attendant and alleged “Patient Zero” who is thought to be one of several highly sexually active men who initially triggered the spread of HIV throughout North America. No mention is made in the article about Dugas ever having had sex with a monkey.
Coming full circle, probably the most serious critical thinking infraction involves Campfield’s “don’t say gay” bill. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist, right? That’s what we call “magical thinking” – the idea that our thoughts and beliefs have a direct effect on the world. If we don’t talk about it, maybe we can control the spread of the “gay issue.” If we don’t mention it, maybe it will just disappear altogether. Freud considered magical thinking to be a childlike, immature cognitive state. And the opposite of a magical worldview is a scientific worldview, where hypotheses are either supported or falsified through the rigorous collection and analysis of evidence.
Let’s raise the bar and require our public servants to use social science research accurately, ethically, and responsibly. And let’s ask our public servants to engage their constituents in a thoughtful and intelligent level of critical thinking and conversation.