On Ben Carson’s comments on gayness and hetero fears of the sexuality spectrum

ben-carsonWith every public appearance leading up to his inevitable run for the presidency, Ben Carson further tarnishes his legacy. He used to be a celebrated neurosurgeon, the first to successfully separate conjoined twins that were joined at the head. Now, he’s basically Glenn Beck circa 2009, except he has a medical degree so people think they should actually take him seriously.

But when he says things like: “A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question,” you quickly realize you don’t have to.

Carson said that to CNN’s Chris Cuomo yesterday after being asked if being gay is a choice. He answered “absolutely” and offered this little ditty as a proof to bolster his stance. There are a number of problems with Carson’s statement, one major point being that he has no understanding of the dynamics of sexual relationships in prison. They are most often coercive, abusive, and forced, not consensual. As Carimah Townes at ThinkProgress put it:

Carson’s comments belittle a major problem within the incarceration system: high rates of prison rape. Regardless of their sexuality, thousands of inmates are victimized by fellow prisoners and guards every year. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics findings published last year, correctional administrators reported 8,763 instances of sexual victimization in 2011. Of the 537 cases that were substantiated, 52 percent involved inmate-on-inmate violence, and 48 percent involved a prison staff member. But those were just the reported cases, and authorities often turn a blind eye to prisoners’ complaints of sexual misconduct.

And it’s not always a matter of inmates raping one another, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig notes in a piece for The Nation:

One of the persistent myths surrounding sexual violence inflicted upon prisoners is that other inmates are chiefly responsible; according to the BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics], inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails all reported greater rates of sexual victimization involving staff than other inmates. Despite all this, sexual assaults that take place within prisons are generally not factored into national crime statistics, as if they are somehow expected.

But instead of seeking to understand the why of prison sexual assault, Carson simply repeated the homophobic scare tactic intended to keep kids from acting out. In some people’s minds, rape that occurs in prison or jail is a punchline or an integral part of the prison experience.

Beyond Carson’s ignorance on this, however, I have a problem with the question “Is being gay a choice?” being posed in the first place. And I’m not trying to wade into the conversation about identification and labels people choose based on their sexual attraction. It’s not my place to determine that for anyone. But I do feel like that question — “Is being gay a choice?” — when posed by people who identify as hetero, uncovers some fear around their own sexuality that hasn’t been explored.

The question itself seems to suggest that same-gender attraction is only legitimate if it’s “natural,” and there’s some way for a hetero person to determine that for someone else. Some hetero people really do believe we have the authority to define everyone else’s sexuality on the basis of only understanding our own. But it’s also a question of confirmation for hetero people — “Tell me it’s natural so I don’t ever have to wonder if I might become gay because that’s impossible.” If your sexuality is determined biologically, and remains static throughout your life, there’s no worry.

The whole idea of sexuality as a spectrum is a mindfuck for people raised on homophobia. The idea that you may one day be (or already are) attracted to someone of your same gender, and then have to identify and associate with those people… what a fright! I mean, what would you do? Have a fulfilling sex life with other consenting adults acting on your and their attractions??? WHY WOULD YOU EVER WANT THAT?????

And for folks like Carson in the “being gay is a choice” camp, it seems to be a reassurance that the people who make that “choice” are somehow abnormal or degenerate — something no self-respecting hetero person would ever have to fear becoming.

We want everything to be clear cut, but human sexuality is as clear as the before picture in a Proactiv commercial. Some people may never have same-gender attractions, some may have them exclusively, some may have them for a time, some may have them dotted through their lifespan. People across all of those different experiences will identify as gay, hetero, queer, or not at all. And it’s cool. It’s all legitimate. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I promise.

Except Ben Carson. Be afraid of Ben Carson. Shudder to think what would happen if he actually became president.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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