Devon Chenelle | University of Notre Dame
Asserting “it’s a yes or no” question, in a 2005 interview political commentator Bill Press asked former judge and current US Senate candidate Roy Moore whether homosexuality “should be illegal.” Without pause, Moore, who in his thirties routinely dated high school girls, replied “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” doubling down on that fit of insanity by, after comparing homosexuality to bestiality, lamenting the 2003 [!] Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy statutes. Moore has echoed such views as recently as 2015. Ironically, a man so obsessed with regulation of the bedroom is now under a barrage of sexual misconduct accusations, most seriously involving the sexual assault of a 14 year-old girl while Moore was 32. In spite of his own depravity, Moore supported his position by condemning homosexual behavior as “immoral” and “detestable,” and thus deserving sanction from the state. There are many viable responses to Moore’s despicable comments, but I will strike at the heart of the argument: that homosexuality is a cancer in the body politic, a source of social rot so dangerous it demands state prohibition and punishment. This argument is not just false but the opposite of the truth, for homosexuality enriches and enlivens a society, its salutary social effects so clear they demand the acceptance and embrace of gay people.
Last week, Notre Dame’s Debartolo Performing Arts Center hosted a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, a play by Irish stylist Oscar Wilde, notable for, besides being possibly the greatest aphorist of all time and among the finest English-language literary stylists, his homosexuality. While Wilde’s magnum opus The Importance of Being Earnest was still in its initial stage run, Wilde pursued a libel suit against his lover’s estranged father, the Marquess of Queensbury, with disastrous consequences. The proceedings rebounded against Wilde when the Marquess produced extensive evidence of the dramatist’s homosexuality, and as a result of his importune suit Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency with men, and sentenced to two years hard labor. Ruined by this prosecution, Wilde died in Paris five years later, destitute, alienated, and so enervated he could hardly leave his hotel room for months before his death. A genius was destroyed, and all humanity robbed of his future works, over a victimless crime. Such are the fruits of sexual intolerance, and so goes the negative case against anti-gay discrimination. The positive case for sexual tolerance is subtler and more difficult, raising questions about the connection between human achievement and homosexuality, but similarly powerful. Wilde the artist was destroyed for his homosexuality - might Wilde’s artistry, which captivated all Europe with its ethereal brilliance, have been a product of that homosexuality?
I became aware of the connection between homosexuality and genius about a year ago. It came, like most intellectual revelations, at a time of desperation and deprivation, having fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole at 3 am, mere hours before my philosophy midterm. While reading the entry for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th century’s most important philosopher, I discovered he was conspicuously and openly gay. So gay, in fact, he was notorious for frequenting hookup spots in Vienna and other European cities. Perhaps I was a little too taken aback by this, but this wasn’t caused by latent homophobia but rather my (possibly ill-founded) conviction that knowledge of the circumstances of great thinkers’ lives is profoundly important for studying and understanding them. I was riveted by the fact that not only was the greatest thinker of the last century gay, but also that no one seemed to talk about it. I was compelled to delve further into the rabbit hole. My initial interest was buoyed and vindicated when, googling and combing through Wikipedia pages’ footnotes for evidence of homosexuality amongst history’s most rarefied intellects, I found an article in German inquiring “how gay was Kant?”, concluding that Kant, modern society’s formative philosopher and the most influential mind since Aristotle, was probably in several long-term romances with men. At this point my jaw made an audible thud on the floor. Though many people are gay, most aren’t - recent studies find that around 4% of the population is homosexual. But, shockingly, the 18th and 20th centuries’ most brilliant men both were. Was it mere coincidence - or something else?
My investigation was cut short by the necessity of studying for my imminent midterm, but not before my eyebrows raised upon learning, inconclusively but intriguingly, that two Enlightenment figures only superseded by Kant himself, John Locke and David Hume, never married nor had children. I returned to my Ancient Philosophy notes for further cramming, but this night there would be no escape from my epiphany about genius and homosexuality. The most-pressing task was a close reading of Plato, and returning to Phaedrus, the realization slowly dawned on me that Socrates, while conversing with the eponymous adolescent boy, was hitting on the youth so openly and aggressively his lines wouldn’t be out of place after midnight at a college bar. It couldn’t be denied - Socrates, after Jesus probably the most influential character in the history of Western Civilization, made Liberace look like a strait-laced Victorian.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by how many great figures have been gay, and recent experiences have supported my initial suspicion that a hugely disproportionate number of history’s greatest minds were gay. KJ Dover’s classic Greek Homosexuality revealed Socrates’ conduct in Phaedrus was more norm than exception in his time and place, and classes on Renaissance Italy and Shakespeare convinced me the two most intellectually and artistically fertile periods of Western History, Classical Greece and Renaissance Europe, were utterly profuse in homosexuality. During the awe-inspiring flowering of aesthetic beauty and technical mastery that was the Italian Renaissance, homoerotic themes are unavoidable in the period’s literature and art. So normal was gay behavior that Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, exhibited a breathtakingly erotic statue of young David in the center of their palace. Additionally, many of the period’s most notable individuals - Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Donatello, for example - were gay. Their society, thank god, was one that allowed them free expression instead of punishing them for their homosexuality. The mere possibility of a world deprived of David or the Pietà because some bigot killed Michelangelo over his sexual preferences sends a chill down my spine. Concurrence of an artistic golden age and widespread homosexuality also occurs in Elizabethan England, particularly notable in the oeuvre of the Bard himself. As it turns out, cross-dressing boys were the least provocatively non-heteronormative bit of Shakespeare’s works. It is strangely obscure that Shakespeare wrote the vast majority of his love sonnets to a man, or that his drama Coriolanus has homoerotic language so ridiculously suggestive it flirts with burlesque, and few remember Twelfth Night incites confusion about gender identity comparable to any campus discussions about xe and xir. The consequences of a homophobic repression of Shakespeare’s works are unthinkable. There could be no English without Shakespeare, and, if we believe Harold Bloom, there could be no humans either. The mind struggles to imagine the level of homophobia that could ever make paying this cost worth it.
Evidence for genius’s connection with homosexuality is hardly restricted to bygone times and faraway places, for the authors of contemporary America’s most hallowed macho creeds, Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), are both gay men. This should give even the most machismo-infused homophobe pause, for in 21st century America, nothing informs masculine behavior more powerfully than aspiration to its psychotic icons, Patrick Bateman and Tyler Durden, and their creation was only made possible by their authors’ protection against sexual persecution and guaranteed freedom of expression. Furthermore, the case for homosexuality’s connection with intelligence is not solely anecdotal - research indicates gay men do better in college, and earn more after, than their heterosexual peers.
Oscar Wilde was not the last genius Briton scourged for his homosexuality. In a similarly egregious case, World War II hero Alan Turing was subjected to forced chemical castration, likely leading to his suicide. Besides their mutual suffering for their sexuality, Turing and Wilde shared a staggering brilliance, a trait, apparently, far more common in gay men than in straight ones (aside: I haven’t been able to find much information on whether a similar phenomena occurs among women, as there is a massive paucity of data caused by the millennia-old and ongoing exclusion of women from intellectual spaces.) While about 4% of people are gay, a greater percentage of history's greatest thinkers and artists are, a phenomenon linked to homosexuality’s evolutionary development as a trait promoting group fitness, a role in which it continues, albeit differently and more abstractly, to this day. In light of such evidence, the unhinged ravings of those seeking to criminalize “homosexual conduct” are properly viewed as not just bigoted and problematic, but also, by advancing a position with disastrous consequences, as dangerous speech. Perhaps, then, it is not gays but rather gay-bashers like Roy Moore that we should confine as threats to our society’s well-being, as their rhetoric chills our culture’s artistic and literary expression, and their desire to persecute homosexuals not only violates gay citizens’ rights but also subverts the nation’s collective vitality.