I do a lot of speaking and research about gay and lesbian issues in Ontario; things aren’t as bad as they once were, but even here there are still many examples of negative attitudes toward LGBTQ people. In every county, around the world. The examples here in the West are, perhaps, a bit more subtle… but no less dangerous. Indeed, that very subtlety may make them even more dangerous. There are a lot of myths that have dominated the world over the centuries: they may not be quite as strong these days (unless in religious circles) but they are there nonetheless.
If you don’t keep track of financial websites (I usually don’t) then you might not be aware of a comment that was made in May of 2013 to a conference of about 500 financial advisers in Carlsbad, California. There has been for a number of years significant debate regarding the approach of large governments in times of economic stress: whether they should “stimulate the economy”, building more debt that can be paid in times of surplus, or they should take “austerity measures” to cut spending even if the results are high unemployment, loss of consumer confidence, and an increase in social ills. John Maynard Keynes (“Keynesian economics”) would recommend the former. Others today would recommend the latter.
One of the more “austerity” crowd is Niall Ferguson (“Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University”), who believes that Keynes’ views are short-sited and will ultimately lead to the collapse of the western economy (ZeroHedge.com). In the comment at the conference above, Ferguson made out that Keynes’ policies were a direct result of his being childless, which was (logically) because he was gay. It’s a bit of a sound bite, but the Huffington Post put it simply and concisely: “Harvard Professor and author Niall Ferguson says John Maynard Keynes’ economic philosophy was flawed and he didn’t care about future generations because he was gay and didn’t have children.” (It actually gets worse: see the the Financial Advisor.)
Ferguson quickly came out with an “unqualified apology”. Normally I’m pretty forgiving if someone apologizes… but this “open letter” is less than specific. I noticed two things about it. One is that he was motivated not because he’s actually done anything wrong… but because he did not want “prospective students” to misunderstand. “Nobody would want to study with a bigot.” He said his comments were “stupid”, but not wrong. Am I splitting hairs? Perhaps. Except that the original comment came from somewhere. He obviously believes that Keynes being gay affected his economics, even if he won’t say it quite so bluntly any more. My second point… he never actually apologized to the gay community. People who don’t have children: yes, he apologized to them. Not only does he not take back his comment about Keynes being gay affecting his theories adversely: he defends it. “But nor can it be true… that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man….the German hyperinflation of 1923… Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.” (Ibid; emphasis mine)
And this is the problem. Ferguson sees Keynes’ letting his attraction affect his judgement as something that stems from his sexuality. From his orientation. He says it, explicitly. But it does not. It stems from his sexual indulgences, perhaps: from his lack of control and inability to separate his sexual appetite from his work. But it is not from his “sexuality”. There is a HUGE difference: and the fact that Mr. Ferguson does not see it (and even defends his point) is fundamentally worrying.
Keynes happened to be gay. Apparently quite the expressive gay man. But what if one of the heterosexual members of the delegation had “fallen in love” (or had a “strong attraction”: according to Ferguson) with a woman on the German side? (I don’t think there were any, so the question is moot: this was in the height of global male dominance. But there are today. What if there had been then?) What if that man had allowed himself to be manipulated by her feminine charms? Would we have said that his hetero-sexuality had historical significance? Would we have made a point to say that his hetero-sexuality was relevant to a historical understanding of the man?
No. We would have said he was an easily manipulated negotiator. Or he was subject to his emotions. Or something like that. But his sexual orientation would not come in to it.
This is not a product of Keynes’ sexuality. It’s a product of his morals, and his interpersonal weaknesses. These qualities are completely independent of his being queer, related only in the choice of who Keynes could be manipulated by.
This is actually a common the myth, but it’s worrying that it’s being expressed by someone in Ferguson’s position, in this modern day… and that he remains unconvinced of his error. It’s the same myth that is at the root of the Boy Scouts wanting to exclude gay men from troops: the myth that we’re gay therefore we’re not moral. It’s the myth that kept gay men from being allowed to fight in wars or to be in the more responsible levels of government: the myth that we’re gay, therefore we’re more susceptible to coercion and manipulation. The myth that we’re gay, and therefore can’t be fully trusted. It may not be what Mr. Ferguson intended to say (after all, he made a big point of being friends with Andrew Sullivan, though I’m not sure what the relevance of a token friendship would have on his homophobia, except to allow him to pretend respect for the gay community… to himself and to us), but it is what people have heard. Brian Fischer and the American Family Association have jumped on this quote; no matter what subtleties Ferguson may have intended (if any), they used his logic to conclude that gays don’t care about “future generations” and therefore “homosexuality in the end is going to be responsible for the collapse of the Western economy” (RightWingWatch.org)
So, let me say it right out: I am gay and I know what it’s like to be attracted to a member of a delegation on the opposite side of a team of negotiators. I’m sure most know what that’s like these days, since such teams regularly consist of both men and women. (Perhaps negotiators should be asexual?) I am very aware of the possibility, and I am careful to not let any attraction impact my judgement or my decisions. Indeed, I’m out and happily married and have no need for the kind of activity that Mr. Keynes apparently enjoyed. I do not have children, partly because I do care about the world’s future and I don’t want to add even one more life to the burden we’ve placed on the planet. I’ve spent much of my life teaching the younger generation and have great relationships with both women and kids. Although I do think that an LGBTQ perspective can be beneficial to a negotiation and even have “historical significance”: it’s not because we feel “attractions”, sexual or otherwise, to members of the opposite teams. That can be done by anyone. It is, however, precisely because we’re sometimes able to bridge the masculine and feminine positions and and add a fresh perspective to a long discussion. We try to rise to a new factor, rather than sink to the common denominator.