Tea and sympathy

There's a moment in James Jones' biography of Alfred Kinsey (Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life), when Paul Gebhard -- the young, Harvard-trained anthropologist who, famously, would succeed Dr. Kinsey as director of the Kinsey Institute -- was interviewed in 1946 for his first job there. As book/daddy wrote in 1997, "Dr. Kinsey's pressing need in the 1940s was to find field associates who, in face-to-face interviews with people, would be nonjudgmental, would be familiar with the most unusual sexual terms and practices. Interviewers couldn't be shocked, couldn't be confused about what was being discussed" because they'd only scare away subjects. Hence, the "human resource" practices that today would get Dr. Kinsey brought up before an ethics panel if not a judge: picking mostly gay or bisexual men (and only men) for his associates, testing their sensibilities by exposing himself to them, talking provocatively about sex with them, even having sex with them.

In the case of Dr. Gebhard, it seems the interview never got as far as any fluid exchanges. But it was eye-opening, nonetheless. Dr. Kinsey asked him about the prevalence of gay men in American society. Rare, said Dr. Gebhard. The two were in New York City, so Dr. Kinsey took him to the men's room in Grand Central Station, which Dr. Gebhard had used previously. Dr. Kinsey asked him to time the men visiting it. Dr. Gebhard -- for the period, an educated, knowledgeable straight man -- was astonished at the number of men clearly cruising the "tea room" for sex.

book/daddy brings this up, of course, because of the country-wide surprise, disgust and amusement over the details of Senator Larry Craig's arrest and resignation, notably the foot tapping and hand-wagging "secret code," which seems to have been in widespread use even in Dr. Kinsey's time. (For my money, Phil Nugent had perhaps the drollest, most enlightened response to the entire episode. He expressed concern for both closeted gays and undercover cops. Now that the media had gotten ahold of it, the poor guys would have to develop a whole new code.)

After the so-called Kinsey Report, perhaps the most revelatory study of tapdancing-in-restrooms was Laud Humphreys' 1970 Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, which, for obvious reasons, has gained renewed attention the past few weeks and which book/daddy encountered in a college psych course eons ago, sometime before the earth cooled. What book/daddy didn't know was the whole back story (the uproar over "informed consent" among sociologists), the uproar in Humphreys' own life and the subsequent cratering of his career -- an affecting and highly relevant tale related in a 2004 biography, Laud Humphreys: Prophet of Homosexuality and Sociology.

Scott McLemee, once again, has the story with some especially poignant (and pointed) late-in-life insights from Humphreys into what he termed the breastplate of righteousness. This is the frequent congruence between a closeted gay's secret sex life and what often turns out to be his proper, law-and-order persona. Practicing homosexuality while publicly damning it: Call it self-loathing or hypocrisy or even split personality. It offers perhaps the best answer to both why Senator Craig keeps insisting he's not gay and why, as conservative pundits have angrily asked, why do Republican "outings" get so much more media time than Democrats'?

September 13, 2007 11:30 AM | | Comments (1)



I thought the best discusion of the incident compared it to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Phil Nugent get's off a little too easily to suit me with the inference that he could solve the War on Terror by allowing homosexual Arab speakers as translators but Noooo! the puritanical etc. You brought up Kinsey's picking mostly gay or bisexual men (and only men) for his associates. This was done in part to be able to ask extremes of questions. It was also done, as probably was in part Kinsey's sexual behavior toward the group, for unit cohesion. Now it is the same; the unit is going to be basically homosexual or not. To think that isn't going to be the case is to be more enamored of a mythic diversity than interested in unit function.


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