Hey news media: what’s wrong with being gay? asks Pam Spaulding, noting that the American news media have a double standard about discussing the domestic relationships of political figures.
If the pollie is straight then family life is part of the story of electability without the politician ever making a public announcement about sexual orientation – spousal photo-ops, perfunctory references to schooling and domestic management issues are utterly unremarkable. The same is not true for pollies with same-sex partners: unless the pollie has had a press conference explicitly stating that they share their bedroom with someone of the same sex, the media never mentions it, even if the pollie is openly “out” to their relatives, friends, staff and legislative colleagues.
The same goes for many lobbyists and other non-elected office-bearers working in the political arena – everybody inside the Beltway knows that they are gay, but it’s never mentioned in the news media. These privately-out but publicly-closeted gays tend to be Republican men voting and lobbying the social conservative line against gay marriage, gays in the military, anti-discrimination regulations etc.
Understandably, this public closet for homo-hypocrites infuriates many political advocates working for equality under the law for homosexuals. There is a volatile ongoing debate in the LGBT community about whether such should be outed to the public to highlight their hypocrisy, with many believing that since these people are openly gay to everyone except the electors that outing them is no big deal. Others, mindful of the distress caused to fully-closeted gays in the military and general community when outed, say that outing is never justifiable in any situation.
The media have been tiptoeing around mention of sexual orientation for many reasons, but do those reasons stand up to scrutiny? Pam quotes Phoenix journalist Adam Reilly (who happens to be straight) on the issues:
A few considerations make it tempting to leave reporting of this sort to advocate-journalists in the blogosphere and the alternative press: fear of libel lawsuits; recognition that these stories have a human cost; a genuine conviction that the personal and the political should be kept separate. But there are solid counterarguments. If a particular individual stridently criticizes gays and same-sex marriage, for example, but turns out to be gay himself, this tension casts his motives in a markedly different light. More broadly, repeatedly treating sexual orientation with great delicacy tacitly endorses the notion that being gay is something to be ashamed of.
Reilly goes on to say:
on some level, it seems, even well-intentioned straight observers seem to think there’s something vaguely unseemly about being gay or lesbian. That sentiment may not be the only reason the media handle the issue as delicately as we do. But it’s part of the equation.
Fernmonkey, in comments to Pam’s thread, noted that it’s not just the media where discussion of sexual orientation implies “something vaguely unseemly”:
Similarly, last week there was a poll at a board where I post, asking people whether in their opinions “gays were made or born”. People were going on and on about it, and I finally said that that question is only important if you believe homosexuality is bad and wrong. Otherwise, why is it more important to determine the cause of being gay than the cause of, say, disliking chocolate?
This reminded me of the long thread over at LP in response to my post Unnatural? about 6 weeks ago, where I tied together two stories from Norway (one about homosexuality, the other about asking little boys to pee sitting down in a kindergarten’s toilets) with the reaction against both stories from social conservatives on the grounds of being “unnatural”.
Several commentors, both progressive and conservative, took issue with framing the debate about homosexuality in terms of whether or not it was unnatural at all, because there’s plenty of natural behaviours our society condemns – greed, sloth, theft etc- and plenty of unnatural behaviours it approves – driving, photography, stockbroking etc. As Mark said:
Very few human behaviours are “natural” and the entire concept ought to be put into question. Same-sex attraction should be defended on libertarian grounds, not by buying into some sort of “natural law” or pseudo-scientific argument.
At the time I certainly saw his point and agreed with it, but I didn’t fully realise until reading Pam’s post just how much the entire “unnatural” argument, along with the “born or made” argument, epitomises the axiomatic stance that homosexuality must somehow be justified because it isn’t right. Any debate where sexuality is framed in terms of normal or deviant, instead of framing sexuality as a spectrum wherein any consensual adult sexual interaction needs no explanation or justification, is conceding too much ground to the heteronormative.
I realise that I’ve been tone-deaf to this underlying framework in arguments about same-sex attraction in the past, and am humbled to realise that I am one of those well-intentioned straights who has at times unthinkingly bought into the premise that somehow sexual orientation has to be examined and justified much more intensively than a preference for one flavour of icecream over the other.
Does this mean I’ll never attempt to debunk the “homosexuality is unnatural” argument again? Probably not, but I’ll be a lot quicker to point out the inherent bias in the premise.
I’m not so unequivocal on the outing issue for the homo-hypocrites. I can see both sides of the outing argument, but I do see that if the media refuses cast a veil of invisibility over the same-sex partners of privately-out public figures some of the “something vaguely unseemly” aura will be nullified, and that can only be a gain for activists campaigning for legal equity for same-sex relationships.