Hilzoy is back, this time quoting Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine:
Later the same day, Powell came back to [Cabell Chinnis Jr., his law clerk] and asked, “Why don’t homosexuals have sex with women?” “Justice Powell,” he replied, “a gay man cannot have an erection to perform intercourse with a woman.” The conversation was especially bizarre not just because of its explicit nature but because Chinnis himself was gay (as were several of Powell’s previous law clerks.)”
Powell didn’t know that Chinnis was gay, or the previous law clerks, or anyone else he had ever met. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a homosexual,” he told Chinnis. This was in 1986, when Powell and the rest of the Supreme Court were deciding whether Georgia could keep gays from getting it on in the usual ways. As it happens, Powell and four other justices decided, sure, Georgia could do that. Hilzoy figures Powell might have decided differently if gay existence weren’t such a big blank spot to him. No word on Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, who also ruled with the majority and had got his start with that swinging Kennedy crowd, the fellows who were in the know about everything.
Powell, I expect, was highly intelligent, and he had certainly been out and about in the world, a president of the ABA, a lawyer with big clients. But the question he asked Chinnis is one I cannot imagine answering. That the answer appears to have satisfied him (we’re not told that he said, “Okay, but why can’t they get an erection?”) suggests that Powell wasn’t at sqaure one, he was at square zero. He was at the level of (made-up quotes) “What, they don’t like the feel? They want to stay close to their college buddies?” “Well no, sir, they can’t get an erection with women.” “Oh.“
When I was a kid, we thought of the pre-1960s crowd as being prehistoric, before the dawn of modern consciousness, trapped in the era when nobody knew anything about sex, race, or whatever else had bubbled up during the great upheaval. Then a few more years passed, various references in old books and movies forced their way into my awareness, and I realized that the old-timers, when young, had been on to more than I thought. Now I’m reminded that being on to more than I thought has its limits. The past, like the poet said, is a fucked-up place. I guess the present, as a past in the making, is too.