Penn State Scandal: Everybody’s Talking About How Nobody’s Talking About Homosexuality

In this Sunday’s New York Times, author and Bard professor Daniel Mendelsohn talks about that thing we don’t really want to talk about — and me, personally, I would have to say that I also do not want to talk about it — how big of a role homophobia could’ve played in the cover-up at Penn State.

I personally don’t want to bring it up because the conversation around homosexuality and pedophilia is LOADED, to say the least. I wrote about this at length last week when a radio host decided to use the Penn State case as a launching pad into discussing the controversy around LGBT people adopting children. Psychologists hold that that pedophiles do not actually possess adult sexuality at all, so the gender of their victims has no link to “gay” or “straight.” Regardless, a group of conservative commentators are already blaming the incident on homosexuality — but I’ll get there in a minute.

First, this column from The New York Times, which acknowledges the national confusion regarding Mike McQueary in the locker room, wondering, as Mendelsohn does:

“How could a grown man have left the scene without taking the child with him? Mr. McQueary wants us to imagine that his brain was racing during those “30 to 45 seconds,” that he “had to make tough impacting quick decisions.” But it seems clear he wasn’t thinking at all — and it’s hard not to wonder why.”

Mendelsohn goes on to suggest that it was partially discomfort about homosexuality, a discomfort which is pervasive throughout professional sports and particularly in football, that stopped McQueary from acting. He also says that most people believe that if a “burly graduate student” had walked in on a “58-year-old man raping a naked little girl in the shower,” he would’ve called the police, tried to rescue the girl, or at least gotten more appropriate advice from his father, who he called immediately after escaping the scene:

Mr. McQueary’s refusal to process the scene he described — his coach having sex with another male — was reflected in the reaction of the university itself, which can only be called denial. You see this in the squeamish treatment of the assaults as a series of inscrutable peccadilloes best discussed — and indulged — behind closed doors. (Penn State’s athletic director subsequently characterized Mr. Sandusky’s alleged act as “horsing around,” a term you suspect he would not have used to describe the rape of a 10-year-old girl.) Denial is there in the treatment of the victims as somehow untouchable, so fully tainted they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be rescued. For Penn State officials, disgust at the perceived gay element seems to have outweighed the horror of the crimes themselves. 

If we all agree that the reaction may have been gender-specific, do we then have to agree that it was sexuality-specific? There’s really no compelling evidence that Sandusky was gay. But maybe to McQueary or the other guys at Penn State, it seemed that way. It was 2002, which in gay-years is a really long time ago, especially for McQueary’s father, who helped Mike make the call to keep what he saw on the DL.

I, probably like you and like Mendelsohn, do believe that McQueary wouldn’t have so easily fled the scene had Sandusky been raping a little girl. Many argue that this is because we see girls as victims but we don’t see boys that way.

But honestly it’s also surprising to me how quickly, and without hesitation, journalists and other human beings have stated this as fact — that a man would absolutely intervene if it’d been a girl there rather than a boy. Because the thing is that since the beginning of time, men have literally stood idly by as women were raped . They’ve watched it happen. Earlier this year in Texas, 18 boys allegedly took turns raping an eleven-year-old girl in an abandoned trailer and, due to many reasons including the horribly racist history of law enforcement in that area, many are both blaming the girl for “dressing provocatively” and supporting the suspects as wrongly accused. In July 2000 at a parade in New York City, not one of the million attendees did anything to stop or report a group of drunk men from stripping and groping 60 women. Date rape often occurs when others are close by and do nothing to stop it. Female victims of rape have never exactly been a class vigorously protected by all who witness their violation.

Anyhow — was the cover-up at least partially motivated by an unease around homosexuality, because “…in a culture that increasingly accepts gay life, organized athletics, from middle school to the professional leagues, is the last redoubt of unapologetic anti-gay sentiment”?

In football, after all, it is gay behavior that gets you called “fag,” not actually being gay. Mendelson says that Sean Avery’s decision to make a pro-gay-marriage PSA earlier this year has made him a subject of ridicule on the New York Rangers.

But Mendelson’s wrong that nobody’s talking about homosexuality, because the other side is. They’re not really concerned about the cover-up and how that happened, or how if a cover-up hadn’t happened then unspeakable violence could have been avoided; their primary focus is using this as an opportunity to spread lies.

Bryan Fischer, spokesperson for the American Family Association:

“I think the main takeaway from this, and this is what people do not want to focus on, this is what the media does not want any attention drawn to, is that what this illustrates is the truth, it’s a simple stubborn fact, that homosexuals molest children at much higher rates than the heterosexual population. And this is a fact of life that the gay lobby does not want us to know but this illustrates it.”

Joseph Farah of WorldNewsDaily appeared on FoxNews to share these ideas, and also published them on his website which gets over 1.5 million page views a month:

“But now that being accused of homophobia is considered an offense, while practicing homosexuality is considered a virtue, should it really surprise anyone that such behavior would go unreported or unchallenged for so long?

In an age when government schools are actually teaching children how to perform homosexual acts and that there is nothing wrong with them, it would seem that an environment conducive for predators of children is being created under the watchful eye of the state and the media.

Remember also that Penn State is a public university. There is probably no institution more conscious of the new “sin” of homophobia than the American college campus. There are few imaginable offenses more grievous than homophobia in that environment. One pays a price for exhibiting any symptoms of this dread disease – especially in academia.”

What’s fascinating is the two radically different portraits each side paints of college football culture. On the one hand, Mendelson says the school covered it up because they didn’t want to be seen as homosexual, meanwhile the conservatives say the school covered it up because they didn’t want to be seen as homophobic. The latter opinion could be quickly deconstructed by any number of logical methods, but at the end of the day, this remains the world we live in. The world where all of these things happened, and all of these things were said.

If we can agree on the basic fact that pedophilia is an entirely different occurrence than homosexuality, it seems that we can also agree that regardless of whether we think homosexuality is a “sin” or a “virtue” or just “a completely normal thing that a statistically significant number of consenting adults identify as in terms of their relationships with other consenting adults,” the equation of pedophilia with homosexuality isn’t helping. It turns the conversation into one about what we are and aren’t comfortable with when it comes to adult sexuality, and how we feel when confronted with consensual sex choices that are different than our own — and it turns the conversation away from protecting children from violence and persistently, repeatedly violent people. If we believe Mendelson, the preoccupation with homosexuality literally turned McQueary away from a chance to rescue a child who didn’t have anyone else to rely on. Homosexuality has to do with how consenting adults live their lives; pedophilia is a nonconsensal, violent act against children that they have no control over. Are we really so hung up about the former that we’re going to let the latter go on in silence? Or are we ready to finally recognize and respond to pedophilia for what it is — for the sake of the children?

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3202 articles for us.


  1. Mr. Farah – I wish my government-run school taught me how to perform homosexual acts.

    Good article, Riese. I think you put into words what I couldn’t.

  2. I’m the daughter of a victim of incestuous sexual abuse within the family system. My grandfather is a pedophile. My mother and her sisters were the victims. Whenever issues of pedophilia or incest pop up in the news I want to start screaming at everyone that they’re handling the issue absolutely horribly. Except for you, Autostraddle. You’re awesome.

    I don’t think most people can really imagine how they would respond in McQueary’s situation. Most people don’t want to really think about what it would feel like, the amount of shock they would be in. He didn’t walk into a room and catch a perfect stranger raping a young child. He walked into his colleague’s room and caught a friend of his doing something horrible. It’s an important distinction. It takes time to process. He didn’t want to know that someone he had known for years could be such a monster. So he probably compartmentalized it. Mothers ignore their own husband’s terrible behavior all the time. Behavior that will ruin their own children’s lives. Because it’s so awful and damaging, most of us would rather believe anything else than believe that pedophilia even exists, and until you encounter it yourself you really have absolutely no idea how you would REALLY react to a situation.

    I don’t think that homophobia is the issue with how McQueary handled the situation. This article is right to point out that young girls are sexually abused very often without anyone speaking up about what’s happening. It’s such a broad issue and for the most part, as a society, we don’t know how to talk about it and not enough is being done to prevent it from happening or to help victims either speak up or get the help they need. To me it doesn’t matter the gender of the victim. A child was tortured by someone he trusted. It has nothing to do with sexuality.

  3. Excellent post. The last paragraph was SPOT ON.
    Hey Penn-dumb-asses, how could you not see the GIANT ELEPHANT in your locker room you pathetic morons!

    The NY Times will be calling you one day riese; you are ready.
    (me write good someday too)

  4. I think that, rather than talking about homosexuality, we need to discuss the fact that what Sandusky is accused of, forcing anal sex on a 10 year old boy, is not considered rape in the state of Pennsylvania. I read an article earlier today about this fact, and the author, a male victim of sexual abuse as a child, blames lack of McQueary’s immediate intervention on that fact. The law, and so many citizens, don’t view boys or men as capable of being the victims of rape, thereby changing the way these acts are viewed. I find that idea appalling, as clearly rape is the ONLY word that describes what happened, and it should most definitely be used in this case.

  5. My question is, “Why did McQueary keep working at Penn State?” How could anyone stay in that environment after having seen what happened and know what was going on? Surely, as a Paterno assistant, he could have gotten jobs at dozens of other schools. Why did he stay if he was so repulsed by the Sandusky scene in the showers?

      • Watch “The Franklin Conspiracy” on Youtube. It wasn’t the money. He could have made more in a dozen other places…more than likely it was fear.

  6. This is what you get when people have dominant power over younger people, and there is no sex ed.

    Its hardly different then rape of women. It would be nice if the bigots would shut their mouth and just have their fun with someone who is an adult. Most of the high end hate group heads are obviously gay btw.

    And terrified of being outed , they become a source of more hatred in a never ending snowball of hate rolling down the mountain.

    And lets not go with the “its the homos BS.” Rape is a crime of power and humiliation, with sex simply being the bludgeon. It occurs in all prisons, and is nothing but a way to establish the pecking (hi) order among the prisoners.

    And re the catholic church, lets not forget that the biggest crime is not that it happened, but that it was hidden by the vatican for most likely since the dawn of the church.

    their reputation, money and power was more important then the children they were sworn to protect

    So they simply used their code of OMerta to cover up their vile crimes.

    • “And re the catholic church, lets not forget that the biggest crime is not that it happened, but that it was hidden by the vatican for most likely since the dawn of the church.”

      Seriously. I went to a church where the priest was removed for allegedly molesting an altar boy. This happened when I was in middle school so I just googled his name to see what happened to him/if there were any details I missed because I was 11 when this happened.

      There is pretty much no information on the internet. It appears he was never charged and after he got removed he just bought a retirement home and lived happily ever after.

      This makes me sick.

  7. I think that the major reason it was covered up wasn’t homophobia – it was the economic engine that is Penn State football for the university and everyone involved in the program. College football is big money, and Penn State was big college football for decades. Exposing Sandusky meant irreparable damage to the financial juggernaut that was keeping them all in cash, and killing the cash cow to save a handful of little boys wasn’t worth it to them. People will overlook a lot if they think their job is on the line.

    I think the homophobia and sexism is what comes in now that it’s all been exposed. Because everyone knows that raping little boys is WAY WAY worse than raping little girls, who pretty much are going to end up getting banged someday anyway, so who cares. But boys are supposed to do the banging, not the getting banged, so they have to be protected at all costs. (This is of course, not my opinion; I’m being really sarcastic.)

    If they really cared more about little girls than little boys, the fact that something like 80% of all child molestations are men molesting little girls would be in the news WAY more often.

  8. McQueary went to his office and called his father, who had been a medical corpsman and physician’s assistant. Weren’t either of them concerned about medical care for the boy?

  9. The writer who said that if it was a girl that was being raped then McQueary would have intervened is full of shit. Women and girls have been raped/are raped all the time and plenty of people don’t care.

  10. Penn state is desperately trying to divert attention and any further investigations into it. Joe Pa was thrown under a bus which successfully diverted public attention and media from further investigations which slightly backfired.

    Now sexuality is being used to divert further attention and investigations- which ,again, backfires.

    Search Penn State RENE PORTLAND

  11. I don’t think that pedophilia should be equated with sexual violence against children. A child molester or rapist is a criminal; a person who suffers from pedophilia but controls his desires is not.

  12. Yeah, the Rene Portland thing is a bit off topic, but it shows how truly screwed up that Penn State program was with power. I never thought I’d say this, but a locker room with the mantra “no drugs, no alcohol, no lesbians” seems like heaven compared to Sandusky’s locker room.

    We really need to focus as much as possible on finding ways to prevent and stop these things from happening in the first place although that’s tough when we are constantly defending ourselves. Hopefully those in the Penn State community can reach past any of these pity arguements about sexuality and prevent it from ever happening again.

    • Rene Portland is totally on topic! I’m so shocked I hadn’t heard of this until now; then again, my only previous knowledge of Penn State came from This American Life’s party school episode.
      This is an illuminating contrast and tells us a lot about how they conceive of both sexual freedoms and aggression.
      So the policies at Penn State re: sexuality are:
      1. consensual lesbian/queer relationships are bad and you’ll be kicked off the team even if you simply associate with these monsters.
      2. it is however okay to rape children and we’ll sweep that under the rug.

      Knowing the Portland story blows all the bigoted ‘the-homo-friendly-sky-is-falling’ bullshit out of the water.

  13. This is a totally wee detail, but the Rangers are a hockey team, not a football team. I’m sure there are plenty of problems with hockey culture, but I also suspect that the fact that so many players — like Sean Avery — are Canadian might tilt the dynamics.

  14. There’s all kinds of what-the-fuck going on in my head after reading this. This ‘he didn’t tell the cops because he was afraid of the gay’ thesis? I’m sorry Mendelsohn, but no, that makes no sense. Raping a child is raping a child, whether it’s a boy or girl. And what is the qualitative difference, really? As some have mentioned above, it is often seen as worse to rape a boy than to rape a girl because at least a girl is ‘supposed to be on the receiving end’ (exact quote from a relative). That conversation distracts from the fact that adults do not have the right to sexually molest children, no matter what the gender configuration. But hey, thank god there were no lesbians in that locker room. That’s a real relief.

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