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Senator Stacey Campfield Out-Does Congressman Todd Akin

Why did the Tennessee senator get his facts on HIV/AIDS so hysterically wrong?

It’s old news, perhaps. Sorry to arrive on the scene late. But in January of this year the Huffington Post reported some troubling quotes of Stacey Campfield, a Republican in the Tennessee Senate. He is the sponsor of that state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits schools from discussing with students any sexual orientation other than heterosexual.

According to HuffPo, on a radio show hosted by gay activist Michelangelo Signorile, Campfield said:

  • "Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community — it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall."
  • "My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex...very rarely [transmitted]."
  • "What's the average lifespan of a homosexual? It's very short. Google it yourself."

Since last week when Missouri’s Republican Congressman Todd Akin said, “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [sperm fertilizing egg] down,” the country has grown another skin on its ever-hardening nub of understanding that politicians occasionally get their science wrong. But that’s no reason not to set the record straight. So, for the record, AIDS is only one of about 80 infectious diseases that humans are capable of acquiring from animals.

Indeed, in 2001, scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine presented evidence that, of 1415 infectious organisms known to cause disease in humans, roughly 61 percent can be transmitted to humans from animals, and vice versa. Apparently Tennessee’s Senator Campfield believes that the 868 diseases that continue to cross species (they include chlamydia, plague, eastern equine encephalitis, influenza, rabies, ringworms, and mad cow disease) represent a veritable orgy of gay men dropping their pants for assassin bugs, bank voles, birds, cats, cattle, chimps, chipmunks, dogs, fish, fleas, foxes, geese, gerbils, goats, hamsters, horses, humans, hyraxes, marmots, mice, monkeys, opposums, pigs, prairie dogs, rabbits and hares, raccoons, rats, sloths, sheep, snails, squirrels, and wolves. In which case it makes sense that gay men live the “very short” lives he says they do. I mean, raccoons? Seriously? Ouch.

But perhaps Senator Campfield’s understanding of the “how”s of cross-species transmission is spotty. Perhaps it is better to consider his quotes as expressions of something first described by New York City psychotherapist and statistician George Weinberg. In the 1960s, he coined the term “homophobia” to describe a psychological malady sometimes typified by violence towards homosexuals but also sometimes merely by casual expressions of ill-informed vitriol.

Of course, long before it had earned its modern name, homophobia had been noticed by Sigmund Freud, who remarked on “vigorous counter-attitudes” among some heterosexuals towards homosexuals. Freud speculated that the counter-attitudes arose from yet-unresolved homosexual feelings that he believed are part and parcel of normal sexual development in any boy or girl.

When Freud formulated most of his thoughts on homophobia in the early 20th century, they caught the world’s imagination enough to become a handy part of psychological dialogue. But it wasn’t until almost century’s end that his idea about “vigorous counter-attitudes” was put to the test. Were people who loathed homosexuals actually afraid of their own latent inclinations? In 1996 a team led by University of Georgia psychologist Henry Adams conducted an experiment that measured the sexual arousal of 64 men when privately watching three different porn videos. One video showed men engaging each other in sex. One showed lesbian sex. And one showed male/female intercourse. All of the test subjects in the Adams study were were avowedly heterosexual. Before watching the videos, slightly more than half of them had scored as homophobic on questionnaires assessing the level of dread they felt when in close quarters with a homosexual. The rest had scored as non-homophobic.

After each test subject watched a video, the researchers had him verbally rank how “turned on” he’d been. To keep the test subjects honest, the researchers encircled each man’s penis with a penile strength gauge that recorded changes in circumference, video by video.

When published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, their paper “Is Homophobia Associated With Homosexual Arousal?” answered its own question with a resounding YES!

Both homophobic and non-homophobic subjects had been sexually aroused by videos showing heterosexual sex and lesbian sex. They said they’d been aroused, and their penis measurements showed they’d been aroused. However, even though homophobic men denied having been aroused by homosexual porn, their penises gained significantly in circumference when watching men have sex with men.

Tennessee’s Senator Campfield is avowedly heterosexual. But if, indeed, he was expressing homophobia when pretending to knowledge about cross-species transmission of infectious disease, it’s possible that homosexuality is not all that excites and terrifies him. In the very same HuffPo article he also expressed “vigorous counter-attitudes” towards bullies’ victims and towards teenagers who commit suicide.

If you’d like a good scare I recommend the HuffPo article highly. In the meanwhile, I’m also going to take a look at Sarah Schulman’s Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences and Mark McCormack’s more optimistic-sounding The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality. In my own fear and loathing (yes, it's of fear and loathing) I could be rushing to judgment. But both Schulman and McCormack strike me as far more informed—and way less hysterical—than Campfield.