Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thinking Kevin Clash: Elmo and Queer Perversity

A second accusation seems to have solidified what many suspected or feared about Kevin Clash--he's a homosexual(1).  Yes, on the surface the concern is that he potentially had sex with a minor, or as some are eager to say, that he's a pedophile.  Some seem just generally grossed out that a male would have sex with another male 15-30 years younger.  And all of these may be actual concerns of people, but underlying it all is an implicit (and often explicit) policing and punishing of homosexuality.

I suspect Clash's career in puppetry was ruined by the first accusation.  Homosexual men working with children are generally seen as perverts, regardless of what they do or how "well behaved."  As Eve Sedgwick and David Halperin have pointed out, neither being "out" nor "in" the closet is refuge from being indicted about one's sexuality.   Those who would accuse Clash of getting in trouble because he never publicly discussed his homosexuality or because they presume he was a closeted gay man looking for sexual or emotional gratification in any place he could find it miss the larger point that being gay is always precarious for those working with children.

And even if Clash did have a relationship and/or sex with a 15 or 16 year old, we can't know whether or not it was abusive or coercive based on age alone.  Depending on where he had sex with a 15/16 year old it might have been illegal, but that doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't consensual.  I'm not interested in constructing an apology for Clash or for man-boy love.  Neither of these things interest me, although I think we might all benefit as a society discussing an ethic of consent: who can give consent and under what conditions, rather than imposing arbitrary age delimiters(2).  We need to realize that many teens and pre-teens regularly engage in sexual activity and may be more experienced or knowledgeable about sex than people older than them, and may be fully able to consent to sexual advances.  I am not saying this is the case with Clash nor do I know if he acted ethically or not, if these allegations are true.  People seem all too willing to believe (and here I read fearing and "holding our breath," as Jezebel puts it, as being very ready to assent to this proposition) that Clash must be guilty, presumably because he's a homosexual man who has been caught metaphorically with his pants down.  

Which is my point: I'm very disturbed by how quickly I've seen people, gay men prominent among them, quickly accuse Clash with very little evidence  and with a knowing tone of condemnation, despite these kind of accusations being quickly and easily levied against gay men for decades and up to today.  It's as if they're eager to distance themselves from the gay behaving badly, as if this will provide the cover they need to hold on to their claim to full citizen status.  Never mind the fact that the most tame of their sexual practices almost certainly qualify them as repulsive, immoral, perverse, and depraved, regardless of the age of their sexual partner, with many people, simply because they do them with other men.

Rubin's Sex Hierarchy from "Thinking Sex"
Gayle Rubin covered this territory almost thirty years ago now in Thinking Sex, "For over a century, no tactic has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children."  There are many additional ideas that Rubin offers useful to this discussion, but I shall only tackle one more: sexual hierarchy, or, as Rubin calls it "the charmed circle."  Those whose sexual identities and practices closest to heterosexual, monogamous, procreative, vanilla, paired, same generational, and private (among others) are considered "good, normal, natural, blessed."  For those who start to deviate from any one of these, they enter "the outer limits: bad, abnormal, unnatural, damned."  The contested ground (e.g., masturbation, promiscuous heterosexuals) may vary by local and time, but some acts remain clearly in the "bad sex" category, and Clash at this point has violated several of them.  As a man who has engaged in homosexual acts and has had those acts come to public attention, it doesn't matter about the other conditions: he's guilty of "bad sex" de facto.  Having a job with children makes his now-public sexuality especially damning, as children are not to have any contact with the sexual.

It probably does not help his case that both his accusers still are young and effeminate looking.  This  almost certainly reinforces the idea of Clash as predator to many.  Paradoxically, there is something of a "rough trade" and/or "rent boy" aspect to these young men, especially with Sheldon Stephens, that further serves nonetheless to place Clash further out on the outer limits, firmly entrenching him in the "bad sex" camp, regardless or whether the age allegations are true or not.  In short, Clash was and is damned if he did and damned if he didn't.  His crime at this time is not that he sexually preyed on children, but that (especially as a man who works with children) he committed homosexual acts that became public knowledge.  Much of what modern gay rights builds itself on is predicated on hiding our sexual lives--we forward our love and relationships that fall closer to the charmed circle--we run from the queer and homosexual sex practices of ourselves and others.

In 2006, Dustin Lance Black, gay activist and Milk screenwriter, was reviled for pictures showing him having bareback sex with his then-boyfriend, leading to Black apologizing.  Despite being in a a relationship that in many ways conformed or seemed to conform to the charmed circle, one public depiction of homosexual sex (and condomless at that!) was sufficient to shame him and punish him.  This simple case study shows the precarious position gay men, and all who fall outside the charmed circle, inhabit and how easily collapsible the security we so eagerly seek is.  All queer people stand to be Kevin Clashes so long as the sex hierarchy remains unchallenged.  

(1) It is unclear how Clash self-identifies.  All that can be said at this point is that he appears to have engaged in same-sex sex at some point.  I refer more to how society will and already has labelled him.  Clash is divorced with a daughter, but, of course, once a man has sex with another man in our society, he is labelled a homosexual or gay.

(2) Foucault explains, "an age barrier laid down by law does not have much sense. Again, the child may be trusted to say whether or not he was subjected to violence. An examining magistrate, a liberal, told me once when we were discussing this question: after all, there are eighteen-year-old girls who are practically forced to make love with their fathers or their stepfathers; they may be eighteen, but it's an intolerable system of constraint."  Or, as a friend of mine put it another way, "21 to drink, 16 to drive, 18 to serve in the military or sign contracts; perhaps we should wait until 25 when the brain is mostly formed to allow anybody to consent to anything." 

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