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Richard Cohen

The Mary Cheney Flap: a Gaffe vs. Ignorance

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page A23

Back when I studied anthropology in college, I had to determine the sex and race of skulls. What we did, as I recall, was go from table to table where, on each, was a skull of some dear fellow or gal who was making a contribution to science. Like Olivier in "Hamlet," I would hold up the skull ("alas, poor Yorick") and determine its sex and race. In absolute desperation, I concluded that one had belonged to a gay American Indian. To my utter surprise, the teacher said I was right.

But I wasn't -- not exactly. The skull actually told me nothing about behavior, just physical traits -- mostly masculine, but some feminine. Yet my guess was a reasonable one, and ever since that day I have believed that there is a biological basis to homosexuality, just as there is to heterosexuality. (I don't remember choosing to be straight.) It's a belief that has become a conviction as scientific study after scientific study confirmed that we do not choose our sexual orientation.

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If by now you suspect that I am wending my way to the whole Mary Cheney (non)outing controversy, you are precisely right. I am obligated to start by administering a smart slap to my man John Kerry for being such a political klutz and, if I may say so, no gentleman. For reasons that I find hard to explain -- after all, Vice President Cheney himself had at least twice referred to his daughter's homosexuality -- I flinched when Kerry referred to "Dick Cheney's daughter" as a "lesbian." It is just none of his damned business.

But having said that, let's turn our attention to what President Bush said on the same topic. He was asked by Bob Schieffer whether he thought "homosexuality is a choice." This is what Bush said: "You know, Bob, I don't know. I just don't know."

In the best of all possible worlds, Schieffer would have asked, "Why not? How could you not know? Don't you know any gay people, Mr. President? Have you ever asked them? Don't you know any parents of gay children and have you asked them about their kids and when they knew, sometimes at a very young age, that their son or daughter was homosexual? In all those private lunches with Cheney, all the time you two have spent together, didn't you once have the intellectual curiosity to ask your vice president about his daughter?" After all, Bush was making policy in this area -- trying to bar gays from ever marrying in these United States.

Such intellectual obtuseness, the fervid confession of ignorance, is somehow not worthy of comment when it comes to Bush. Ever since 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association ruled that homosexuality is not a mental disorder requiring treatment, stacks of studies have reached this consensus: Homosexuality is not a matter of choice. That does not mean that it is never a matter of choice. It just means that normally it is not. Bush -- maybe alone among Yale and Harvard alumni -- seems never to have never heard of these studies.

On the other hand, there is the remote chance that Bush, along with many social conservatives, does believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice and that it can be cured by faith-based therapies. If that's the case, he should have said so. My guess is that this is not what Bush believes. By falsely confessing ignorance, Bush was pandering to his base. On this issue, and this issue only, it is willing to tolerate agnosticism.

Deep in his heart -- which too often functions as his brain -- Bush knows he has pandered to ignorance and homophobia. The effort to ban gay marriage by constitutional amendment is so patently not needed -- states can do what they want in this area -- that it is nothing but a statement of theological or cultural conviction. It does not belong in the Constitution, and Bush, I promise you, will instantly neglect the matter if he wins a second term.

Kerry either made a mistake by mentioning Mary Cheney or callously attempted to "out" her to those Bush supporters who somehow did not know that their vice president has a gay daughter. Either way, he should simply say he is sorry, because, really, he ought to be. Come on, John, be a mensch.

But if and when he issues such a statement, he ought to ask Bush if he wants to rethink his answer to Schieffer's question. Homosexuality may not be a matter of choice -- but willful ignorance sure is.

cohenr@washpost.com


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