A gay alumnus reflects on Penn State tragedy

By Kevin Naff

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 editor and co-publisher of the Washington Blade.

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