November 11, 2011 at 10:16 am EST | by Kevin Naff
A gay alumnus reflects on Penn State tragedy

When news broke this week about the heartbreaking tragedy unfolding at Penn State, a few easy predictions came to mind: iconic coach Joe Paterno wouldn’t survive; the university president would have to go too; and anti-gay hate groups would try to exploit Jerry Sandusky’s sick crimes for financial gain.

On Wednesday, my first two predictions came to pass, as the university’s board of trustees fired both Paterno and Graham Spanier. Then Thursday, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality launched its inevitable broadside against gays and the Westboro Baptist Church announced plans for one of its protests at the Penn State-Nebraska game on Saturday.

Sandusky faces 40 charges related to the alleged abuse of eight boys over 15 years, including allegations he raped at least one young boy in a shower on the Penn State campus. He used his charity, the Second Mile, which ostensibly helped at-risk children in Pennsylvania, to meet his alleged victims.

I am reluctant to address the canard that gay men are disproportionately predisposed to molesting children, as it has been debunked and disproven by dozens of studies. But in anticipation of the right-wing extremists trotting out that old lie, here goes.

AFTAH’s leader, Peter LaBarbera, is a man oddly obsessed with gay people and has devoted his life to demonizing us. You know what they say about those who doth protest too much. In his recent commentary on the Penn State scandal, LaBarbera labels Sandusky as “homosexual,” and contends, “There IS a long history connecting homosexuality to pederasty, and a disproportionate link between homosexuality and pedophilia.”

AFTAH was labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has a long record of attacking gays using junk science to bolster its false claims. So consider the source.

Simply put, “homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.” That’s from the American Psychological Association.

LaBarbera cites pedophilia, but that term refers to an “adult psychological disorder characterized by a preference for prepubescent children as sexual partners,” according to medical experts. A preference for children has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

“Many child molesters don’t really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children – boys, girls, or children of both sexes,” according to experts at University of California-Davis.

And Sandusky was married with two grown children, an inconvenient fact that further undermines LaBarbera’s labels. Surveying the faces of the Penn State scandal — Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, coach Mike McQueary, athletic director Tim Curley, vice president Gary Schultz — all are straight men. This scandal isn’t about gay men; it’s about greed and a culture that prized money over doing the right thing.

I’m a Penn State alumnus and have served on the board of the campus LGBTA Student Resource Center for several years. The Center is an important and even life-saving resource for students there. Many Penn Staters come from rural parts of the state where acceptance and understanding can be tough to find. Some are disowned by parents after coming out. The Center is there to help and support them, offering a safe space on campus to meet and socialize, educational programming and scholarships and other resources. Only about 7 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities operate such LGBT centers on campus and I’m proud that Penn State has emerged as a national leader in this area.

I’ve watched the incredible changes on campus since my graduation in 1992 with a sense of excitement, optimism and relief. There’s so much good in Happy Valley — from the pioneering work of those at the LGBTA Center, to the student athletes whose graduation rates rank No. 1 among the NCAA’s top 25 teams. Paterno wasn’t a stereotypical college football meathead. He emphasized education; the school’s library bears his name. In four years there, I met him just once. On the morning of my graduation, I stepped outside my apartment at 6 a.m. for a cup of coffee. And there, standing on the street corner alone, was JoePa. The street was deserted at that early hour and I introduced myself. He asked about my graduation, what I’d studied and my future plans. He was a grandfather figure to everyone on campus.

All of that makes what’s happening now so unimaginable to those of us who know the university. How could this happen on our campus? How could so many turn a blind eye? I fear the answers lie in details of an extensive cover-up yet to be revealed. The fact that Mike McQueary — the witness to rape who failed to intervene — remains on the coaching staff while Paterno is gone strongly suggests that we don’t have the full story yet. Did McQueary call university police only to have senior officials bury the report? Nothing would surprise me now. Regardless, Paterno, Spanier and the rest got what they deserved.

But the scandal raises deeper questions about our society. There’s been much indignation expressed about then-graduate assistant McQueary’s actions. He witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers yet reportedly did nothing. Commentators and bloggers have insisted they would have intervened. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Last month, a two-year-old toddler was struck by two vans on a busy street in China. Eighteen pedestrians and cyclists passed by the child, who later died, before someone finally stopped to help.

That incident — and the Sandusky scandal — reminds me of a lecture I attended while at Penn State. My political science professor was talking about nationalism and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. It was a frigid February morning and just before class started, she walked to the back of the room and opened a window. As she spoke, the classroom grew colder and colder and students began donning coats and hats. As the professor talked about the circumstances under which societies turn to nationalism and xenophobia, student after student expressed their doubt and indignation — “That could never happen in the United States.” Finally, when the cold became too much even for the professor, she said, “How can you be sure you would stand up to the government and its weapons and tanks, when none of you even had the nerve to ask me to close the window?”

It’s a lesson that rings tragically relevant today. Were senior officials afraid to call police because they wanted to protect the lucrative revenue stream provided by the football team? Were custodial staff who reportedly witnessed Sandusky’s crimes deterred from reporting him out of fear for their jobs? It’s comforting to think we’d all have helped that 10-year-old boy, but an entire network of adults failed him. And so many others.

To the students at Penn State: The eyes of the nation are upon you this weekend, so demonstrate the grace and compassion and leadership that was so lacking in your coaches and administrators. The anti-gay protesters headed your way are clowns who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers and AIDS patients. Ignore them and cheer on your team to victory.

To Penn State alumni who are disillusioned and angry: There are good people and institutions at the university and in State College who still need our support and involvement. Don’t walk away. Give your time, money and talents to those who are making a positive difference.

And to everyone else shaking your heads on the sidelines: Let this sad spectacle remind us of the need to be better people, to look out for one another and, especially, the most vulnerable among us.


Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

  • Hmm: more child-molesting by men claiming to be heterosexual (or celibate Roman Catholic priests). Perhaps this explains their virulent hostility to gay marriage. Maybe they are “ex-gays”; another crowd of unscrupulous, and homophic pretenders. Heterosexuals are such a strange bunch: when the topic of same-sex marriage comes up, they immediately start talking about animals and close relatives. Weird.

  • I have been reading about this scandal for days and I found your article one of the most thoughtful I’ve read. Thank you.

  • Your points, while largely correct, do not establish this coach as not being gay. Until the gay community has the strength to stand, say “Yes, this is one of ours” and accept the same guilt that the heterosexual population has, then it will always only pay lip service to the notion of equality.

    • Why should they? This guy is heterosexually identified, heterosexually married, and though he has a propensity (and easier access to) boys, there is no evidence to suggest he has attractions to adult males. And even if he does have that attraction, how does this have anything to do with open gay couples fighting for equality? He isn’t in a gay union (and is not directly affected by the anti-gay laws you’re seemingly trying to tie to him).

  • Thank you Kevin, for the thoughtful and thought provoking expression of balanced feeling and emotions. I have a difficult time feeling any compassion toward Abusers, and that includes both Sandusky, and McQueary. his accomplice by being the do nothing person, who could have stopped the rape he witnessed, he would have stopped other rapes that followed! McQueary is Guilty by his complicity, and should be dealt with accordingly. I regret that this has hurt Penn State (your Alma Mater), BUT moreso, I regret that we even have to have these discussions about men, who through Greed and Need for Controlling people, plague those who are not able to defend themselves. Rape is wrong! No question, but complicite Rape is equally wrong, and Mike McQueary needs to be held accountable, and prosecuted for his action and inaction. He was the key to stop this, and the people who are trying to equate this with Homosexuality definitely have NO CLUE in the realities of life!
    Thank you for your contribution to attempt to set things on the rightful place!

  • Very sadly, the male gay community takes the brunt of the blame after incidents like this occur. Pedophiles are far more prevalent in the straight community, but people seem to forget this. Pedophilia is not gay or straight–it’s just sick no matter who performs it. It doesn’t have to be labeled straight or gay–just sick. It’s a disease there is no cure for, and it’s long overdue for people to accept that.

  • Jerry Sandusky raised six kids with his wife. They are all adopted. Some gay bashers have used this as evidence that they had a problem with their marriage (i.e., he’s “a secret gay” as one of those einsteins put it). Obviously no other explanation can be considered for their not reproducing. FYI

  • On a separate but related note, calling the sexual preference/taste/fetish for children “a disease” is not something I like to echo. Don’t get me wrong–I consider it wrong for adults to inflict sexual attentions of any kind on any sentient being without their consent, and to grant that consent, they must be able to. Thus animals cannot consent, people with developmental disabilities cannot consent, those directly refusing consent cannot consent, and children younger than the age of consent can not consent. It is the job of an adult–particularly an adult employed in providing care, guidance, or coaching to those who cannot consent–to understand these boundaries, live by them, and demand that of others as well.

    The reason I make this distinction is to stay out of the trap of calling a “disease” (an effectively individual pathology) what is in fact a long term disconnect from society’s standards, as Sandusky seems to have manifested (and indeed the entire PSU football program and administration). Even his lawyer tried to pitch the media for that, saying that he “was just an overgrown kid” “horsing around.” Well, sorry, dood, but the time is past when a man can breach another’s confidence and trust and beg off the harm they caused by saying, “I’m just a little boy in a man’s body.” A man charged with caring for youngsters must leave behind childish things and be a man. Period. Some say he was “from an earlier, more innocent age,” and that really angers me. It is not innocent to cover up one’s actions, to conduct a secret life, to wheedle and stalk and lie and hide. Any man should know that the moment his psyche tells him to lie or distort or evade, then he is doing something wrong. That inner voice calling us to be honest and courageous is what used to be called a mature conscience. And it seems to be largely lost, for many people. Many more enable unconscious or unconscionable actions and patterns of behavior (consider the issue of infidelity to the commitments one makes to one’s partner).

    That Sandusky, Paterno, McQueary, the AD, and higher ups in the PSU administration were so out of touch with society’s views on these matters strikes me as sickening in the extreme. They created a little bubble of sportsoholism there in Happy Valley (yuck! the name!), and no greater social realities have been welcome to intrude. It was all about securing Joe Pa’s legacy.

    This I think is Mr. Naff’s point. I too was braced for a widespread backlash against gays (etc.). And it didn’t happen! One evening last week I sat down with my partner and noted this, and was surprised to burst into tears for a moment. It was this huge sensation of mixed relief, and joy, and a bitter sadness that it took something of this horrendous sort to be the litmus for our social, psychological, emotional, and moral evolution as a nation and as a people. I have also felt great empowerment reading comments from people across every imaginable walk of life–every race, religion/belief system, class status, geographic location, sexual preference, and any other set of identity characteristics–joining together to revile these crimes, and the men who committed, enabled, and hid them…while not playing the gay bashing card.

    U.S., I love you still, for even when you disappoint me, you are the laboratory for human enlightenment and courageous evolution of what it means to be human.

  • Your and the APA’s contention that homosexuals are not more likely to sexually abuse children is not born out by the facts. Boys are something like 4 times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse. Men are something like 4 times more likely to sexually abuse children. So you’re trying to tell us women are raping these boys? Because if a male has sex with another male, that’s a homosexual act. And homosexuals are defined by homosexual acts.

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