Monday, March 22, 2010

Closeted Beyond Belief...

Some people make a living forming declarative statements without holding back fear of ridicule or offensiveness. But even such individuals can struggle with telling everything. And this weekend, a well-known skeptic and disbeliever in all things supernatural who built a career on being blunt made one of the biggest leaps of his life. It came in the form of two words, written in a post on his blog.

"I'm gay."

It was a major leap for 81-year-old James Randi, best known for his "Million-Dollar Challenge" offering a hefty prize to anyone proving parapsychological phenomena. He has written various books on psychic fraud and paranormal hoaxes and helped found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). For some, he's a hero. To paranormal enthusiasts, he's a naysayer. Yet no matter what your stance is on ghosts might be, he is now a brave man. After watching the film Milk and realizing the shift in climate and attitude toward sexuality, Randi broke his 70-year silence.

I applaud Randi for his public announcement. While we may disagree on various points and hold differing views on a variety of topics (and agree on many points at the same time), what he did took a lot of courage. When you're in the public eye making such a simple statement about who you are as a human being can be the biggest challenge in your life. You face ridicule and the possibility of losing disapproving individuals in your life. The world suddenly views you not for who you are but who you love.

Whether you're a skeptic or a paranormal investigator, admitting who you are and saying those two words is the ultimate example of speaking the truth. But it's up to the individual to make such a statement on however public a scale. Some people believe the more visible and famous you are the more important it is to come out of the closet. I personally understand the reservations that come with these things and while I may not be thrilled when someone decides to keep their private life private I can respect his or her reasoning. It's a sad truth that most people decide to keep quiet as not to face the small-mindedness of society which could destroy life as they know it. Like a haunted house, people fear the unknown and that with which they are not familiar. Rumors and misinformation are accepted as fact. Stereotypes are taken to be reality. Fact and fiction blur.

So now, the skeptic community has James Randi and Derren Brown. But who do we have in the paranormal community? Well, Ian Shillito makes one. Where are the others? Where are the big-name paranormal celebrities in the North America? Does the predominance of straight, white, Christian males on ghost hunting programs make coming out too terrifying? Quite possibly. Hopefully, that too will change. As Harvey Milk said in his final audio recording, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door..."


Buck said...

I think you nailed it in your closing. As we both have experienced being out in the paranormal field can be a challenge because of the hyper-religiosity of most adherents (even those professing "scientific" beliefs). It's not always blatant but it's there. I think it played a part in friction in my group in the months before I left. It was subtle with one or two people, but it was there.

But, I will point out something you said: who do "we" have. You have set up a false dichotomy. Yes, Randi and others (like myself) do not believe in ghosts without proof. However, the difference is that we COULD were there to be legitimate proof in that direction that swung the probabilities around in that direction. However, on the flip side of that there is no shaking "belief" even among the pseudo-scientific because it is an article of faith and, yes, religion, in a way. They are looking for "proof" to substantiate something that is actually a leap of faith and no amount of evidence to the contrary will shake that faith.

As for Randi. I've always found him something of a misanthrope. Perhaps that was due to his being in the closet for so many years. But, when it comes to laying out fact and logic he's miles ahead of anything the amateur ghost hunting crowd has going. (Sorry, but it's true.)

Cullan Hudson said...

Great post! I think the answer to your question lies in the fact that many of the big wigs in the paranormal field (those go-to guys) are all of an older generation. Perhaps some of them ARE gay but unwilling to come out. All the more reason for the field and those who interview, publish, etc... in the field start supporting some of the men and women who are in their 20's, 30's, etc... Often times, when someone is interviewed on a History Channel program or the like, he (almost invariably he) is a white male in his late 40's, 50's, or 60 +. These people didn't grow up in a very tolerant world. So, we have them; they're just not getting any attention.

Ken Summers said...

It's a microcosm of the greater society and it's closed-mindedness, just like in any field, business, etc. So I understand your experience far too well, Buck.

the "we" I meant was in a general sense, like the phrase "what have we here?" where it isn't speaking collectively about a fraction of people. It does seem too often skeptics and "ghost hunters" are a case of "us vs them" which I think isn't very fair. Both sides occasionally make decent points. LOL I think some approach it as pseudo-science while others tackle aspects of the paranormal with a more scientific eye, though that's generally parapsychology, not haunted houses. There's a broad spectrum between believer and skeptic. So, are ghosts an intelligence transcending the body, a case of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (as Rhine believed), or hallucinations or lucid dreams or other products of an imaginary mind? That's a heated debate... and some cases point to any one of those things. But it's not my ambition to sort out these things nor to prove or disprove anyone's view. Ghost stories are a part of our culture, of every culture, and worth recording for future generations. They keep history alive, so to speak.

I find Randi to be an extremist with skepticism. But many skeptics can go that far. Even scientific data pertaining to parapsychology discovered in laboratories is scoffed at, which makes it harder to gain full insight into these matters. Getting a scientific study of a haunting actually conducted is nearly impossible... most scientists wouldn't even try it for fear of ridicule. As I said, I've agreed with Randi on many points of fraud over the years, but we still disagree on many topics as well. I'm just a fence-sitter... one hand in scientific rationale and wonder, the other in bemused merriment.

And thanks, Cullan. I do believe there are LGBT people of high acclaim on ghost programs and such but it's always safer to keep quiet. But it's true even with Hollywood movie stars. We're not a very tolerant, open-minded, and laissez-faire society.