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Faculty members talk homosexuality

Katie Peralta | Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Four Notre Dame faculty members from different fields of study responded to the recent Mobile Party comic controversy and addressed campus attitudes toward homosexuality in a discussion titled “Gay Penguins and ‘No Homo,'” held Tuesday in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library.

“Many among the faculty were as upset as students and staff about the cartoon earlier this year,” professor of American Studies Heidi Ardizzone said. “We are not done talking about issues of humor, homophobia and gender identity. We are here to share our ideas and knowledge.”

Assistant professor of psychology Michelle Wirth opened the panel discussion with an overview of biopsychology and the natural causes of sexual orientation.

“Our sexual orientation is a feature of our brains,” Wirth said. “Our brain is changing all the time as we learn things.”

Wirth detailed the brain’s involvement in sexual orientation, citing the influence of certain hormones in a baby’s brain development.

“Exposure to androgens like testosterone during brain development in utero may influence sexual orientation and, therefore, gender identity,” Wirth said.

The hypothalamus additionally plays a significant role in sex and reproduction.
Wirth said a part of the hypothalamus area affects homosexual men and heterosexual women similarly and also heterosexual men and homosexual women similarly.

Wirth continued with a description of the sexual activity of bonobos, primates closely related to humans.

“They use sex to diffuse conflicts,” she said. “They have sex about once an hour with same-sex and opposite-sex partners.”

Dr. Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology and Director of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA), continued the discussion with an examination of the social nature of sex.

“Penguins will just pair up if there are not enough sexes,” he said. “Male with male, female with female, whatever — they just nest up. Are these penguins gay? No, they’re penguins.”

Many mammals, Fuentes said, engage in sex outside the reproductive context in a more social context.

“The more social an organism, the more sex it will engage in,” he said, citing male sperm whales having sex with other males.

“Humans are the only species that target homosexuality with aggressive acts,” he said.

Fuentes said sex is complicated and varies between societies.

“Each society considers what it does to be the right thing,” he said. “Some societies engage in homosexual behavior until marriage … every culture is different.”

Fuentes said our culture has different expectations of the representations of male and female bodies.

A fully naked woman, he said, can be portrayed in an R-rated movie, while “a fully erect penis is an automatic NC-17.”

Carlos Jerez-Farran, professor of Spanish and fellow of the Nanovic Institute For European Studies, continued the discussion with a psychoanalytic examination of sexuality,

especially in light of the January Mobile Party cartoon that appeared in The Observer and featured a reference to violence against homosexuals.

A joke, Jerez-Farran said, is consisted of a teller, a listener and an object of the joke.

“Jokes like the ones made on the expense of a third party are made for the benefit of male bonding,” Jerez-Farran said. “The hypothetical reader … bears witness by his laughter.”

Jerez-Farran explained how the heterosexual male feels the need to overcompensate for fear of being homosexual through acts of hypermasculinity and violence. 

“The feared other is inexorably in and around him,” he said. “We all have homosexual tendencies — most of us repress these tendencies.”

Society tends to tiptoe around masculinity, he said.

“When you defame masculinity, unfortunately it’s a lot worse [in our society] than when you defame femininity,” Jerez-Farran said.

Ardizzone concluded the panel discussion with a family account of homosexuality.

“My first experience was in the 1980s with a family member coming out to his extended family, most of whom were Catholic,” she said. “Each generation of the family responded differently. My grandparents were curious, while his parents and my parents were nervous and shocked but hard pressed to find explanations.”

As time has progressed, she said, society has become more receptive to open dialogue about homosexuality.

“In the 20th century, things got clearer because people like [psychologist Sigmund] Freud and [biologist Alfred] Kinsey started talking,” she said.

Still, homosexuality was something seen as very strange.

“Homosexuality was something to be stigmatized and feared,” Ardizzone said. “My family was fearful for my cousin because they knew what was coming for him.”

Ardizzone explained what she meant by “guy culture,” or the tendency of heterosexual men to distance themselves from any vestiges of homosexuality, as well as the term “no homo,” which, she said, is what some young men say to other young men to affirm they are not gay.

Most of the fear of homosexuality, Ardizzone said, is directed toward homosexual men, not homosexual women.

“The ‘Girls Gone Wild’ phenomenon is not about lesbian identity,” she said. “From my understanding, it’s about straight women acting on behalf of what straight men want.
“Masculinity is defined in ever narrowing ways. You can’t cry, you can’t express strong emotion unless it’s anger, you can’t hug another man unless you’re wearing football pads or any other super-masculine guise.”

Jerez-Farran echoed Ardizzone’s insight.

“The more sex-sensitive a society is, the more homophobic it is,” he said.

The panel concluded with an examination of what the University is to do next about continuing dialogue about homophobia.

Graduate student Christopher Andrew, said he has been completing his masters of fine arts photography work, but much of it has recently come under scrutiny by the University for its “queer nature.”

“Pieces that they deem most troubling might be taken out,” he said.

Andrews said Tuesday’s panel discussion and dialogue like it are good ways to initiate public conversations about homosexuality, especially in light of its presence at a Catholic University.

“This is the problem with closeted institutions like Notre Dame,” Jerez-Farran said.