Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Kiss Too Far? (by Guy Trebay, the New York Times)

Snickers withdrew a commercial featuring an accidental kiss that many people did not find amusing.

February 18, 2007
A Kiss Too Far?

THE spot was only 30 seconds, almost a blur amid the action at the Super Bowl. Yet the hubbub after a recent commercial showing two auto mechanics accidentally falling into lip-lock while eating the same Snickers bar went a long way toward showing how powerfully charged a public kiss between two men remains.

Football is probably as good a place as any to look for the limits of social tolerance. And the Snickers commercial — amusing to some, appalling to others and ultimately withdrawn by the company that makes the candy — had the inadvertent effect of revealing how a simple display of affection grows in complexity as soon as one considers who gets to demonstrate it in public, and who, very often, does not.

The demarcation seemed particularly stark during the week of Valentine’s Day, when the aura of love cast its rosy Hallmark glow over card-store cash registers and anyone with a pulse. Where, one wondered, were all the same-sex lovers making out on street corners, or in comedy clubs, performance spaces, flower shops or restaurants?

“There’s really a kind of Potemkin village quality to the tolerance and acceptance” of gay people in America, said Clarence Patton, a spokesman for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “The idea of it is O.K., but the reality falls short.”

Provided gay people agree to “play a very tightly scripted and choreographed role in society, putting your wedding together or what have you, we’re not threatening,” Mr. Patton said. “But people are still verbally harassed and physically attacked daily for engaging in simple displays of affection in public. Everything changes the minute we kiss.”

The lugs in the Snickers commercial recoiled in shock at their smooch, resorting to “manly” behavior like tearing out their chest hair in clumps. Alternate endings to the commercial on a Snickers Web site showed the two clobbering each other, and related video clips featured players from the Super Bowl teams reacting, not unexpectedly, with squeamish distaste. The outrage voiced by gay rights groups similarly held little surprise.

“This type of jeering from professional sports figures at the sight of two men kissing fuels the kind of anti-gay bullying that haunts countless gay and lesbian schoolchildren on playgrounds across the country,” Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation condemned the advertisement as “inexcusable.” Masterfoods USA, a division of Mars and the maker of Snickers, withdrew the offending ads.

But for some the commercial left the lingering question of who owns the kiss? How is it that a simple affectionate gesture can be so loaded? Why is it that behavioral latitudes permit couples of one sort to indulge freely in public displays lusty enough to suggest short-term motel stays, while entire populations, albeit minority ones, live real-time versions of the early motion picture Hays Code: a peck on the cheek in public, one foot squarely planted on the floor?

The freedom to kiss in public is hardly the most compelling issue for most gay rights advocates, or perhaps even in the minds of many gay Americans. Yet the symbolic weight of simple gestures remains potent, a point easy to observe wherever on the sexual spectrum one falls. “Whose issue is it? Why is it only a gay issue?” said Robert Morea, a fitness consultant in New York.

Although Mr. Morea is heterosexual, his client list has long included a number of high-profile professionals, the majority of them gay women and men. “The issue is there because for so many years, people got beaten up, followed or yelled at,” he said. “Even for me as a straight man, it’s obvious how social conditioning makes it hard for people to take back the public space.”

After considering herself exclusively lesbian for decades, Sarah Van Arsdale, a novelist, not long ago found, to her surprise, that she had fallen in love with a man. At first, as she wrote last week in an e-mail message from a writer’s colony in Oaxaca, Mexico, “ Whenever we would hold hands in public, I felt a frisson of fear, waiting for the customary dirty looks or at least for the customary looking-away.”

In place of revulsion, Ms. Van Arsdale was startled to discover that, having adjusted her sexual identity, she was now greeted by strangers with approving smiles. “I felt suddenly acceptable and accepted and cute, as opposed to queer,” she said.

While few are likely to have shared Ms. Van Arsdale’s singular perspective, her experience is far from exceptional. “I’m a very openly gay man,” said Dane Clark, who manages rental properties and flies a rainbow flag from his house in Kansas City, Kan. “My partner and I don’t go kissing in public. I live in probably the most liberal part of the State of Kansas, but it’s not exactly liberal. If I was to go to a nice restaurant nearby and kiss my partner, I don’t think that would go over very well.”

As many gay men have before him, Mr. Clark chose to live in a city rather than the sort of small town where he was raised in the hope that Kansas City would provide a greater margin of tolerance and also of safety. Even in nearby Independence, Mo., he said, “if you kiss your partner in a restaurant, you could find somebody waiting for you outside when you went to the car.”

But haven’t things changed radically from the days when lesbians and gay men were considered pariahs, before gay marriage initiatives became ballot issues, before Ellen DeGeneres was picked to host the Oscars, and cable TV staples like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made a competitive sport of group hugs?

In some senses and in certain places, apparently, they have. The landscape of acceptance, as the Snickers commercial inadvertently illustrated, is constantly shifting — broadening in one place and contracting somewhere else. The country in which anti-gay advocates like the Rev. Fred Phelps once drew headlines for picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral and preaching what was called “a Day-Glo vision of hatred” can seem very far away at times from the laissez-faire place in which an estimated 70 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay.

“We don’t administrate public displays of affection,” said Andrew Shields, World Church Secretary of the Community of Christ, a Christian evangelical church with headquarters in Independence. “Homosexuality is still in discussion in our church. But our denominational point of view is that we uphold the worth of all persons, and there is no controversy on whether people have a right to express themselves.”

The tectonics of attitude are shifting in subtle ways that are geographic, psychic and also generational, suggested Katherine M. Franke, a lesbian who teaches law and is a director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia University. “I’ve been attacked on the street and called all sorts of names” for kissing a female partner in public, Professor Franke said. “The reception our affection used to generate was violence and hatred,” she added. “What I’ve found in the last five years is that my girlfriend and I get smiles from straight couples, especially younger people. Now there’s almost this aggressive sense of ‘Let me tell you how terrific we think that is.’ ”

Yet gay-bashing still occurs routinely, Mr. Patton of the Anti-Violence Project said, even in neighborhoods like Chelsea in Manhattan, where the sight of two men kissing on the street can hardly be considered a frighten-the-horses proposition. “In January some men were leaving a bar in Chelsea,” saying goodbye with a kiss, Mr. Patton said. “One friend got into a taxi and then a car behind the taxi stopped and some guys jumped out and beat up the other two.” One victim of the attack, which is under investigation by the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, was bruised and shaken. The second had a broken jaw.

“The last time I was called a faggot was on Eighth Avenue,” said Joe Windish, a longtime New Yorker who now lives in Milledgeville, Ga., with his partner of many years. “I don’t have that here, and I’m an out gay man,” said Mr. Windish, whose neighbors in what he termed “the reddest of the red states” may be fundamentalist Christians who oppose gay marriages and even civil unions, but “who all like me personally.”

Tolerance has its limits, though, as Mr. Windish found when he and his partner took a vacation on a sleepy island off the coast of Georgia. “I became aware that if I held my partner’s hand, or kissed him in public, the friendliness would stop,” he said.

What Mr. Windish calls a level of peril is possibly always in play, and this no doubt has something to do with the easily observed reality that a public kiss between two people of the same sex remains an unusual occurrence, and probably not because most are holding out for the chance to lock lips over a hunk of milk chocolate, roasted peanuts and caramel.

“We forget here, because New York has been relatively safe for a while, that hate is a problem,” said Roger Padilha, an owner of MAO public relations in New York. The reminders surface in everyday settings, he said, and in ordinary ways.

“My boyfriend and I always hold hands and, when we feel like it, we kiss,” Mr. Padilha said. Yet some weeks back, at a late movie in a Times Square theater, as Mr. Padilha went to rest his hand on his partner’s leg — a gesture it would seem that movie theaters were invented to facilitate — he recoiled as sharply as had one of the Snickers ad guys.

“He was like: ‘Don’t do that. It’s too dangerous,’ ” Mr. Padilha said. “And afterward I thought, you know, my dad isn’t super into P.D.A.’s, but nobody’s ever going to beat him up because he’s kissing my mom at a movie. I kept thinking: What if my boyfriend got hit by a car tomorrow? When I had the chance to kiss him, why didn’t I?”

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why Do Clothes Wrinkle? (by David Grosz, the

explainer: Answers to your questions about the news.
Why Do Clothes Wrinkle?The U.S. Army faces its most pressing question.
By David Grosz
Posted Monday, Feb. 12, 2007, at 6:02 PM ET

The New York Times reports that by May 2008, the U.S. Army will have completely phased out its old Battle Dress Uniform in favor of the newer Army Combat Uniform. The ACU includes such technical enhancements as infrared shoulder flags for nighttime identification and a new digital-pixel camouflage. But the innovation most likely to change soldiers' daily lives is that the new uniform, unlike its predecessor, is wrinkle-free. What causes clothes to wrinkle, anyway?

Heat and water. Every fabric has what is known as a glass transition temperature. Below this temperature, the material is in its "glass" phase, with a crystallike structure holding its fibers in place. Most fabrics are made of long chains of repeating molecules called polymers, held together by crosslinking bonds, like the rungs of a ladder. However, at temperatures above the glass transition threshold, the fabric enters a "plastic" phase in which the crosslinking bonds break. This allows the polymers to shift in relation to one another and form new crosslinks as they cool down. When the fabric returns to the glass phase—after it's been taken out of the dryer, for example—the altered structure gets locked in place in the form of wrinkles.

Some fabrics—like cotton, linen, and rayon—can also wrinkle if you throw your laundry into a cold wash, enter a wet T-shirt contest, or simply begin to sweat. That's because these materials are highly absorbent and their crosslinks are hydrogen bonds—the same bonds that hold together molecules of water. Add moisture to a cotton T-shirt and H2O will penetrate the regions between the long stringy polymers, bringing the fabric into a condition that resembles its plastic phase. As the water evaporates, new hydrogen bonds lock in place any creases that formed when the shirt was wet.

In the 1950s, a researcher with the Department of Agriculture named Ruth Rogan Benerito found a way to make a wrinkle-free fabric, in which the crosslinks between polymers were water-resistant. Early "permanent press" garments, however, were plagued with problems. The treatment weakened the fabrics by eliminating some natural elasticity. More alarmingly, the catalyst for the chemical reaction that made the bonds waterproof was formaldehyde, which would sometimes leave clothes itchy and smelly.

Chemists developed an improved treatment in 1992 that eliminated almost all of the formaldehyde from the surface of a garment. Using this technology, Haggar initiated the modern generation of wash-and-wear clothing with its wrinkle-free all-cotton pants.

Modern wrinkle-free fabrics still pose issues of durability, which is why they are often combined with sturdy, flexible synthetic materials like nylon. The ACU, for instance, is a nylon-cotton blend. Another potential downside is cost, though this can cut two ways. The ACU goes for about $30 more than the old uniform. But as the Army points out, the wrinkle-free fabric will save soldiers money at the dry cleaners.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Janet Brady of Philadelphia University.

David Grosz is a writer living in New York.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Brokeback Mutton (by William Saletan, the

Note to the Capture: "I totally quit ewe!"

human nature
Brokeback Mutton
Gay sheep and human destiny.
By William Saletan
Posted Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, at 7:08 PM ET

Just up the road from Brokeback Mountain, closeted away in their own private Idaho, the gay sheep were getting it on.

Well, it wasn't exactly private. They were doing it in front of scientists at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near the Idaho-Montana-Wyoming border. The scientists arranged the trysts. It's called "sexual partner preference testing."

According to an article by researchers involved in the project, here's how it works. In a 15-by-10-foot "arena," a young ram is offered four choices: two ewes in heat and two rams. "The four stimulus animals are restrained in stanchions so that they can only be approached from the sides and rear." For 30 minutes, the unrestrained ram does as he pleases. The scientists count his "anogenital sniffs," "mounts," and "ejaculations."

A bare majority of rams turn out to be heterosexual. One in five swings both ways. About 15 percent are asexual, and 7 percent to 10 percent are gay.

Why so many gay rams? Is it too much socializing with ewes? Same-sex play with other lambs? Domestication? Nope. Those theories have been debunked. Gay rams don't act girly. They're just as gay in the wild. And a crucial part of their brains—the "sexually dimorphic nucleus"—looks more like a ewe's than like a straight ram's. Gay men have a similar brain resemblance to women. Charles Roselli, the project's lead scientist, says such research "strongly suggests that sexual preference is biologically determined in animals, and possibly in humans."

Roselli's interest is in the science. He figured the political upshot, if any, would be gay-friendly. After all, surveys show that if you think homosexuality is biologically determined, you're less likely to be anti-gay.

Roselli didn't just prove homosexuality in rams was natural. He tried to engineer it. In a 1999 grant application, he proposed "to determine [whether male-oriented] preference behavior can be artificially produced in genetic male sheep" by depriving male lamb fetuses of estrogen stimulation. Seven months ago, he reported that the experiment failed. The point wasn't to promote homosexuality. The point was to learn what causes it.

You'd expect conservatives to demand that the government stop funding this research. But science is tricky. If you figure out how to make sheep gay, you can probably figure out how to make them straight. And maybe you can do the same to people.

Roselli studies hormones, brains, and behavior. He works at Oregon Health and Science University, a medical institution. But his collaborator, Fred Stormshak, is an animal scientist affiliated with Oregon State University, which focuses more on agriculture and economics. Gay rams are "a costly problem for sheep producers because breeding rams are worth $300 to $500 each," Stormshak told OSU's agricultural newsletter a decade ago. "Outwardly, there is no way to tell whether a ram is male-oriented, so the producer runs the costly risk of buying an animal that will never produce any offspring."

Identifying gay rams wasn't enough. In 2000, Stormshak described an attempt to "alter" them. The idea was to "enhance their sexual behavior or performance" by making them act like straight rams. Three years later, Roselli told an OHSU committee that, among other things, "information gained about the hormonal, neural, genetic, and environmental determinants of sexual partner preferences should allow better selection of rams for breeding and as a consequence may be economically important to the sheep industry." OSU president Ed Ray says the research "may define biological tests that can be used to identify" gay or asexual rams, "thus eliminating their use for general breeding purposes."

Notice the lack of animus in these explanations. Breeders don't care whether rams are gay or simply unmotivated. All that matters is "performance." And when Ray talks about "eliminating" such rams from breeding, he leaves open the possibility of a happy old age munching grass. But you can smell the slaughterhouse.

Which brings us to the animals whose breeding we really care about: our children.

Passing on your genes is life's deepest drive. You don't just want kids. You want grandkids. An Israeli woman, with court approval, is already using her dead son's sperm to inseminate a stranger. I know a guy whose future mother-in-law put him through a fertility test before approving his marriage. Then there are all the parents who pressure their adult children to marry and procreate. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Americans said they'd be upset to learn that their child was gay. To many parents, "I'm gay, Mom" means "No grandkids for you."

Roselli offers lots of evidence that human homosexuality is linked to biological conditions, some of them genetic. If he figures out how to manipulate sexual orientation in sheep, will others try to manipulate it in humans? We already have. Doctors used to "treat" homosexuality with hormone injections. Some still do. This idea failed miserably in adults, but it might work in fetuses, since their brains are forming. And if we can't engineer sexual orientation, maybe we can select it. Millions of Asians have used modern sex tests to identify and abort female fetuses. If we learn how to recognize gay brains in development, look out.

But killing is the horror scenario. The more likely path is gentler. Science will gradually convince us that sexual orientation is innate, more like the color of your skin than like the content of your character. Condemnation of homosexuality as a sin will subside. Freed from the culture wars, we'll turn to the biological differences between race and sexual orientation: Homosexuality defies the aspiration to procreate with your mate, and it's easier to isolate and alter in embryonic development. Resentment will give way to pity. We'll come to view homosexuality as a kind of infertility—a disability, like deafness. The rhetoric of "acceptance" will shift from liberals to conservatives. We'll inoculate our offspring against homosexuality out of love, not hate.

The sheep researchers intend nothing like this. But they didn't foresee the initial uproar over their work, either. It has come from the left, not the right. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has tried to quash their research, falsely depicting them as bigots. PETA, like President Bush, thinks that bad ideas come from bad people, and you have to stamp out the whole lot.

But bad ideas—communism, eugenics, wars of liberation—don't happen because they're bad. They happen because, in the beginning, they're good. What we do with the biological truth about homosexuality, for good or ill, isn't written in our hormones or our genes. It's up to us.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.

William Saletan is Slate's national correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War