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March Madness and Hoosier hysteria

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The Kinsey Institute logo

Coming from a small town in southern Indiana, I know that there are three absolute truths. First, humanity peaked at the invention of the pork tenderloin sandwich. Second, the best corn and melons will always be found at the sketchiest roadside stand on the highway, not the grocery store. And third, basketball is not just a sport, it’s a way of life.

This may come as a surprise to many of you who read my blogs. Many people who do not know me well don’t clock me as someone who cares about sports. After all, I’m a 5-foot-5-inch nonbinary lawyer and musician with arthritis. My preferred forms of movement are walking, yoga and dance. But I played basketball from the time I was old enough to hold a ball until middle school, when I wisely realized my motor skills were better suited to being in the pep band than on the court. Every Saturday and Sunday in the winter and early spring when I was a kid were spent in a gym, either at team practices or the separate fundamentals class that I and pretty much all of the other girls at my school went to. This wasn’t because my parents had any grand aspirations for me to become a professional or even college athlete. It’s simply what you do in small-town Indiana.

During my time as an undergraduate at Indiana University, I had the opportunity and honor of being in the Big Red Basketball Band, which meant I got great seats at both men’s and women’s home basketball games. I got to travel for tournaments, and generally contribute a small part to the long and storied history of IU basketball. If you watched an IU home game between 2015 and 2019, and caught a glimpse of a way-too-enthusiastic clarinet player in the band section, that was absolutely me.

My fellow FFRF Legal Fellow, Sammi Lawrence, has joked that she’s never met someone who went to IU who doesn’t love to mention that they went to IU — and never is that more true than during March Madness.

Despite the state’s negative reputation, I am proud of being a Hoosier, both by birth and education. I think Indiana is, at its core, a great place with good, honest, hard-working people. Hoosier hospitality isn’t just a slogan, it’s a major part of the culture. Indiana University, while certainly not without its problems, is also a great school.

That doesn’t mean my feelings toward my home aren’t complex. Indiana has been, and continues to be, a case study in Christian nationalist politics clashing with scientific advancement and civil rights. There are also plenty of recent examples in Indiana politics I could point to as an example of this complexity, but perhaps one of the biggest is the Indiana Legislature’s choice to ban public funds from going to the Kinsey Institute, and the subsequent battle to keep it alive.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the Kinsey Institute, it is one of the preeminent research centers on gender, sexuality and reproduction. The Institute was founded by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s. You might be familiar with the “Kinsey Scale,” which was used to demonstrate that most people do not actually fall into a strictly heterosexual or homosexual orientation. While some people were categorized as exclusively heterosexual (a “Kinsey zero”) or homosexual (a “Kinsey six”), most people in his study fell somewhere in between. This scale was created based on interviews with a large number of individuals regarding their sexual and attraction history. Those who reported experiencing no sexual response or history were recorded with the designation of “X.”

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The original diagram of the Kinsey Scale published in “The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male” (1948)

This type of statement seems obvious now, but at the time of publication, very little formal research had been done on people’s experiences with same-sex attraction. When queer identity and expression are illegal and heavily stigmatized, it is incredibly difficult to get accurate data. The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and its 1953 companion The Sexual Behavior of the Human Female are collectively known as the Kinsey Reports and are considered to be some of the most influential scientific books of the 20th century, marking the beginnings of a major shift in American attitudes toward sex and sexuality. At times this can feel like a completely bygone era — then I remember my own father was born in 1952, and it feels far more recent.

The Kinsey Institute continues to be one of the most important centers for expanding human knowledge of gender and sexuality. It holds one of the largest research archives on sex and sexuality, and it is a hub for researchers across a variety of disciplines. It’s home to The Kinsey-Kelley Center for Gender Equity in Business, a joint program between the Kinsey Institute and IU’s Kelley School of Business studying gender equity and sexual harassment in business; the Sexual Assault Research Initiative, which focuses on the experiences of sexual assault victims and risk factors for both victims and perpetrators; the Disability and Sexual Health Initiative, and a number of other projects. A large number of academics across the country are also associated with the institute, to the benefit of students everywhere. I personally had the privilege of taking a seminar in Critical Race Theory while in law school taught by Professor India Thusi, who joined Indiana University as both a member of the law faculty and a Kinsey senior scientist.

In short, if you in any possible way have studied gender or sexuality on any level, you have benefited from the work of the Kinsey Institute.

As the Kinsey Institute and other academic institutions have worked to advance human knowledge and understanding of gender and sexuality, Western society has come to increasingly accept that these concepts are far more complex than many of us were initially led to believe. Though this process has been a slow one — laws criminalizing same-sex relations were only declared unconstitutional in the 2003 case, Lawrence v. Texas, for instance — it is undeniable that progress toward collective human liberation is in fact being made. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, however, and that is certainly true when the said action threatens the power and influence of Christian nationalists.

That’s why public universities like Indiana University have seen state legislatures massively threaten their funding unless they defund or otherwise cut ties with departments that engage in this critical research and teaching. Anti-DEI efforts have been targeted at not only gender and sexuality research but also ethnic studies departments, history departments and other social sciences, arts and humanities departments. These departments challenge the predominantly white Christian status quo, encouraging students to think about the world with complexity and nuance — something radically antithetical to Christian fundamentalism.

Thanks to the colonial influence of Christianity on American culture, sex is one of our greatest societal taboos. Talking about sex at all is already a fraught topic, much less any type of sex that might deviate from the standard formula of two cisgender heterosexual people in a monogamous relationship. The anti-transgender moral panic is connected to this, not because there is any actual connection to sexual behavior and gender identity/expression, but because many Christians have been incorrectly taught that gender nonconformity is a fetish. This has leaked into our broader culture, much in the same way that many non-Christians celebrate a secular form of Christmas, but with far far more harmful consequences.

Christian nationalists have found an easy pathway to enforcing their morality and worldview on a secular nation by leveraging this cultural taboo. Public academic institutions like the Kinsey Institute have repeatedly debunked the religious belief that homosexuality and gender diversity are anything other than a natural part of human diversity. The Christian nationalist movement is working hard and fast to dismantle these institutions in order to keep the American public ignorant, afraid, and right in their pocket.

If all of this feels familiar, there’s a good reason for it. This has happened before — in Nazi Germany.

The world’s first transgender health clinic and research center on sexuality and gender was founded in Berlin by pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1919. Hirschfeld was one of the first researchers to propose an affirming approach to homosexuality and transgender identity, and in 1930 the Institute for Sexual Research performed the first gender-affirming surgery for a transgender woman named Lili Elbe. The work done by scientists at the Institute for Sexual Research rapidly advanced our understanding of sex and gender, as well as increased public access to contraception. A gay man himself, Hirschfeld knew first hand how important this work was in order to protect himself, his partner and his community. The Institute housed one of the largest libraries on sex and gender, and also employed several transgender individuals who struggled to find work post surgery due to social stigma. By all accounts, the Institute for Sexual Research was where the scientific quest for truth met with the social need for community.

It is unsurprising then, that it became one of the earliest targets of the Nazi regime.

One of the identifying characteristics of fascism is an emphasis on hierarchy, which often manifests in part as a focus enforcing traditional gender roles. A large part of the Third Reich’s propaganda efforts focused on encouraging German women to limit themselves to traditional domestic roles, both by limiting their access to education and employment, and by awarding women who had four or more children with “the Cross of the German Mother.” Newly married couples were eligible to receive a government loan that would be completely forgiven if they had at least four children. Similarly, men were encouraged to embrace an ideal of cisheteronormative masculinity, and same-sex relationships were criminalized. This was also strongly tied with Christian supremacy, in which German Protestant families specifically were considered the ideal family structure.

Building a large population of the preferred race was an important part of the Nazi’s long term vision of world domination, and the findings and community coming out of the Institute for Sexual Research presented a major source of opposition to that goal. The Third Reich publicly demonized LGBTQIA+ people, actively listing them as “lives unworthy of living” alongside Jewish people, Roma people, Soviet and Polish citizens, and disabled people.

On May 6, 1933, the Nazis raided the institute, an act that led to one of the largest book burnings of the entire period. Over 20,000 books, many of which were irreplaceable, were engulfed in flames, setting back by decades our understanding of gender and sexuality.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that the Indiana Legislature’s efforts to remove public funding from the Kinsey Institute are identical to the Nazi raid on the Institute for Sexual Research. But I do think we should be alarmed by how similar the attacks are becoming in our current era, and what direction we could be headed if this is left unchecked. Any censorship of academic research should be met with skepticism, particularly when it comes alongside a political trend of demonizing a marginalized group. The attacks on DEI programs, legitimate gender and sexuality research, and cultural and humanities programs are not based on any legitimate problem in need of a solution. This movement, like the movement to destroy the Institute for Sexual Research, is purely motivated by the fact that access to this knowledge threatens the social and sexual hierarchy required to make Christo-fascism viable.

Thankfully, while the Indiana Legislature might be trying to force the closure of the Kinsey Institute by banning state funds from going towards its operation, the IU Board of Trustees voted to preserve the institute’s affiliation with the university in early March. The Kinsey Institute will continue to be funded through the many private donations that the university receives, and IU is working to ensure that it will be able to carry on its vital academic work without involving state funds.

I am at frequent odds with my alma mater’s administration, but this is one of those rare times where I get to be immensely proud of where I come from. It’s a strong reminder that even when state legislatures try to dismantle civil rights and access to knowledge, there are still ways to resist, so long as people are brave enough to do so. And it is also a strong reminder that we should not give up on states that we might consider to be a lost cause. There are strong, brave people fighting for the separation of church and state and secular laws everywhere, and to abandon any state is to abandon us all.

There is still an immense amount of work to be done — and I intend to roll up my sleeves and continue to do it. In the meantime, however, I’ll continue to dream of a world where research is not dictated by religion, where all people can know the joy of fresh corn on the cob, and where Indiana basketball finally brings home another national championship.

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