I was on work travel from the northwest to the east coast last week and returned home on a hideously early flight. A 6 AM flight departure meant a rise before 4 AM, and that was east coast time. I set the alarm clock for 3:40 or so, but a sharp crack of lightening that sounded like a bomb explosion near my hotel got me up just before the alarm clock anyway. My initial flight from Georgia to Chicago was on a small plane with only three columns of seats: one column on the left side of the plane and two on the right. I wondered how the plane stayed balanced. I was assigned to the middle column and sat next to a guy of about my own medium-sized stature dressed in military fatigues. Often I am shy and don't readily open up with strangers, but this time I started up a conversation.
The army guy was friendly and told me about his 7-8 years in the military, his two tours of duty in Afghanistan and his education at West Point. In his late 20s, he was a captain already, in charge of some 100 soldiers. He was trained to fly Blackhawk helicopters and he could fly smaller helicopters too, but not planes. He showed me a schematic of the Blackhawk design from a digital “owners manual” he had on his iPad. I wondered if I needed security clearance to see it. I didn’t ask.
The Captain’s duty that day was a sad one, a trip to North Dakota to attend the funeral of a soldier who had died overseas in a Blackhawk crash. It was not someone that he knew personally, but he was to be a part of the support system for that grieving family.
Towards the end of the flight, I worked up the courage to ask him about the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. I didn’t come out to him, but that could be an unusual question for someone to ask without some personal interest in the matter. He said that the change in the policy was really no big deal. There were some guys who came out after the repeal, but he said that their sexual orientation was suspect anyway. As an officer with oversight and administrative responsibilities in the army, his biggest worry was that some guys would be uncomfortable with their now-openly gay comrades and would ask for re-accommodation. That concern did not materialize. The gay thing was a non-thing, it turned out. Our conversation moved on from there.
For decades as a society, we have worried about homosexuality. The worries have spilled all over, a mess we are only now beginning to clean up: gays will recruit impressionable teens to their immoral “lifestyle”, gay marriage will undermine the foundations of a “traditional” family, homosexuality is incompatible with the masculine culture of the military. Perhaps these stereotypes were built originally on small kernels of truth. But common sense, empirical data, and getting to know a real live gay person usually quickly dispels these stereotypes.
Perhaps the origin of many of society’s misconceptions about homosexuality lies in fear. Homosexuality is something many people don't understand, probably because it is so foreign to their own emotions and thoughts. But fears aren’t usually rational emotions, so the conclusions we derive from them generally should be suspect. Fear tends to discourage us from seeking out rational answers to our concerns or questions. Fear tends to shut doors to other people. Fear provides a quick and easy answer, but it may very well be the wrong one.
One of the manifestations of society’s fears about homosexuality is when those opposed to or uncertain about gay rights decry “social experiments” such as gay marriage or allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Even during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments this week about California’s Prop 8 case, Justices Kennedy and Alito hinted at the sentiment that gay marriage was a “social experiment” by saying, “We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more”, and “Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new…So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect”. (1)
I find that labeling progressive changes in society like gay marriage as “experiments” can come across as pejorative. That sort of language focuses on the novelty (the gender part) and ignores the commonality shared across the human experience. In the light of shared experience, openness in the military about one’s identity is not a social experiment. It is a reaffirmation of principles – honesty, integrity and pride – that are integral to military culture. Likewise, gay marriage is not a social experiment. It is about love and commitment and family, cherished values that virtually all of us seek. What is so experimental about that?
But if we ditch the condescension, and still insist on calling these societal changes experiments, I can get on board with that. After all, I am a scientist and I recognize that experiments are fundamentally one of our most valuable tools as human beings to learn and make progressive changes in society. By conducting such experiments, we will likely confirm what common sense already suggests to us: gay marriage will not unravel the fabric of western society; talking openly about LGBT experiences with young people will help them be more inclusive and compassionate, but it isn’t going to “convert” a generation of teens to homosexuality. In fact, we can look to the most recent experiment – the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” – to learn that it hasn’t undermined the nation’s armed forces. It was really just, no big deal…