A Death in Newark Exposes Problems With the Way We Think About Sexuality
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Most people consider anonymous sex in public places to be a crude, rude and immoral act. But "all that is rude ought not to be civilized with death," as Walter Raleigh said. Police say Defarra Gaymon was cruising a Newark park for sex on July 16. Even if that's true, he didn't deserve to be shot and killed by a police officer.
Gaymon, a credit-union executive and married father of four, was in town for his high-school reunion. His family disputes the account of Essex County Sheriff's officer Edward Esposito, who said he tried to arrest Gaymon in Branch Brook Park because Gaymon had approached him, masturbating and soliciting sex. This long piece in last Sunday's New York Times kind of suggests the police version might be accurate. The area is known for anonymous sex hookups, for example, and Gaymon had made two different appointments elsewhere for the time he was walking in the park (that made it possible to explain to each party that he'd skipped because he'd kept the commitment to the other).
Still, we don't know if Officer Esposito's account is the whole truth. Gaymon's family says it isn't, and is calling for an investigation. True or not, though, there are some certainties about this sad incident, all of which contradict conventional wisdom:
1. The "down-low" is not a "gay thing." Many gay men wouldn't be caught dead in cruising spots and many men who are caught there are officially and sometimes sincerely heterosexual (one fact that is not disputed about Gaymon is that he was married to his high-school sweetheart). As one commenter put it on this blog: "Furthermore, many men identify as straight—fully functioning straight—yet have sex with men on the side occasionally for fun."
2. Undercover stings are not a good tactic for maintaining order and decency. "If people comply with the laws, we won’t need this undercover operation anymore," Essex County Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura said. Strictly speaking, if people complied with the laws, we wouldn't need sheriffs at all. Given that people don't always comply, though, the policy issue is: Does law enforcement discourage public sex by tricking and trapping those who seek it? Is it necessary to put cops in the ambiguous position of appearing to encourage passing strangers to have sex? (As Michael Wilson and Serge F. Kovaleski reported, people arrested in the county's sting operation have said they were egged on by the cops who then arrested them.)
Uniformed officers who could be spotted a mile away could also discourage law-breaking. Because they'd be visible, there'd be a lot fewer arrests. But deterrence without punishment (as in the conspicuous radar gun on the highway shoulder, making people slow down without actually ticketing anyone) is for respectable citizens, not perverts, right?
According to Officer Esposito's account, Gaymon panicked at the prospect of arrest and started fighting and threatening Esposito. Suppose that really is what happened. It means one man is dead and another lives with the terrible fact that he took a human life—to keep Newark safe from furtive blow jobs in the shrubbery. Wouldn't a cop riding by on a scooter have been a better approach?
3. If you want to understand human sexuality in all its variety and vitality, don't ask the advice of homophobes who'll explain to you that gays are a degenerate offshoot of the normal human race. Avoid, too, homophiles who would condemn the dead man for not being gay enough—who, believing that Gaymon was both a conventional family man and a guy who cruised other men, can explain this only by tut-tutting over his supposed hypocrisy. The husbands and fathers arrested in these stings can't be sincere; they have to be categorized as an inferior species of gay man. For instance, by this guy: "The trouble is, if you decide to stay in the closet, your life will be a constant struggle to suppress your true orientation, which will try to assert itself with great force. That's what ultimately put Defarra Gaymon in that park, and that's what got him killed." Yes, it's hard being an out gay man in a homophobic society. But I do enjoy the omniscience.
The common theme in these idiocies is a binary, yes-no, on-or-off conception of sexual identity. It says every person is either gay or straight, and every sex act is either good or despicable, healthy or sick. So a man on the "down low" must be gay, and a man trying to hook up anonymously in the woods must be a fake husband, and he can't possibly be fit to take his daughter to school and then go run a bank. Police departments deploy to catch and punish the sickos. Some men arrested in these situations don't feel embarrassed, but totally ruined. (Of course, others just brazen it out.)
There will always be types of sexuality society can't tolerate, like getting off on child abuse or murder. So there will always be arguments, in courts and in politics, about where the frontier lies. (I personally would put "crush videos" on the wrong side of the fence, for instance, but last spring the Supreme Court let them in.) And those ongoing conversations do move the boundaries: it's now possible in American society, for instance, to be both a respectable citizen and an "out" sadomasochist, foot fetishist, or (occasional) cross-dresser. Not so 50 years ago.
So categorizing sexual actions—as legal or illegal, harmless or harmful—is an unavoidable mental activity. Categorizing people, as if their sexual behavior was always consistent and unambiguous, as if some are worthy and others not, is just an error. It's a mistake that, as Laura M. MacDonald has pointed out, wastes a lot of resources. Perhaps (I don't know, I'm not omniscient) it's also at the root of what happened in Branch Brook Park.
Photo: Branch Brook Park