Jul 30, 2010

preliminary thoughts on Jennifer Keeton

The story of Jennifer Keeton is making the rounds these days--the spin is different depending on who you get the story from, but the facts are these:

Jennifer Keeton, a grad student at Augusta State University, was allegedly issued an ultimatum: pursue a "remediation plan" regarding her views on homosexuality, or else be removed from the program.  She is now filing suit against the university.

I say 'allegedly' because privacy laws have prevented precise details about her academics to be made known to the public; that, in general, is as it should be, but it is somewhat frustrating for those like me who are interested in the case.

We'll start with the easy part: according to the Fox news article, "[she has] affirmed binary male-female gender, with one or the other being fixed in each person at their creation, and not a social construct or individual choice subject to alteration by the person so created."

On one level, the problem with this statement is merely that it is wrong.  Lots of conditions create gender ambiguity--both in phenotype (whether genital or brain structure) and karyotype.  Homosexuality is only one of them: hermaphrodites, Klinefelter's syndrome (XXY karyotype), and chimeric twins (which can be of non-matching gender) all come to mind.  There are more than just these, of course, but the point is made.

But on another level, imagine if you will what it is like to be a personal suffering from these or any number of other conditions creating gender ambiguity.  Like any condition, there are some who get by, some who are made stronger, and some who are embittered.  I do not wish to project or condescend, but sexuality touches us in the core of who we are, the more so because it determines who we can love and be with--it can't be easy, and must surely prompt sleepless nights and questioning.  A person--especially a teenager--with such a condition might well wonder if they would ever find someone capable of accepting them and loving them.  Keeton was studying to be a school councilor; suppose that a high-schooler, struggling with these issues, were to seek her out for help, only to receive the glib assertion given above.

One understands then, on the basis of this belief alone, why an ultimatum was necessary.

Now on to the more charged subject, her views on homosexuality. The homosexual lifestyle, she claims, is the result of, or a case of, "identity confusion."  She also claimed that sexual behavior is the result of "result of accountable personal choice rather than an inevitability deriving from deterministic forces."

There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye; those statements aren't simply innocuous convictions, but dog-whistles and subtle redefinitions.  'The homosexual lifestyle' is a term used by the anti-gay movement--rather than defining homosexuality as an innate desire, they instead define it on the basis of external behaviors.  It's a neat trick of language whereby they seek to justify discrimination (you can't discriminate against something innate, but you can certainly judge people on the basis of their behavior, right?), prove that homosexuality is a choice (in any give situation, you can choose not to have gay sex, right?), and use celibacy as proof that ex-gay therapy works (no more gay sex = not participating in the homosexual lifestyle = not gay!).  "Identity confusion" is yet more conversion therapy psychobabble invented to avoid admitting that biological impulses might have biological causes.

So even if she's not directly advocating conversion therapy and discrimination, she has adopted the vocabulary of the subculture from whence such things stem, and it is a subculture viewed by everyone but its members as being highly homophobic and discriminatory.  One understands, then, the school's hesitation about putting their good name on the line by endorsing her as a counselor.

And that's what this case is really about: endorsement.  She is perfectly free to make whatever assertions that she wants about the causes and moral implications of homosexuality.  But she's not asking for the right to think or say what she wants, she's asking for an academic institution to give her its seal of approval in a field where her stated beliefs are absolutely irreconcilable with the views of those whose endorsement she seeks.  She can't have her diploma and eat it, too: she cannot reject the requirements of the program and still demand the recognition for fulfilling them.

I will close by heading off a potential objection: I have argued before that it should be illegal to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality, just as it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of color.  Here, I seem to be advocating for the right to discriminate against those who think that homosexuality is wrong.  Is it a double standard?  No; first, because it is comparing apples to oranges: homosexuality is an innate biological feature, whereas the opinion that it is morally unacceptable is not.  Second, by analogy: I think that discriminating against blacks should be illegal, but I don't have any moral compunction about requiring a racist to change his mind before being allowed to graduate from a counseling program, no matter what his religious views on the subject.

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