Just don’t mention the boyfriend

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.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, Politics

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. Don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s a presumption most queer people engage with rather than reject outright. The academic literature included. The ‘natural/unnatural’ discussion is pretty complex, and engaging with it doesn’t make a person homophobic, it can be an interesting way of looking at the continuum of ‘normal’. Humans do some stuff that is ‘natural’, that is similar to the behaviours of other animals (this definitely includes homosexual sex) and stuff that is special and ‘unnatural’ that is just us (like full body waxing). Looking at the stuff we have in common with other species is interesting, looking at what makes us different is interesting too.
    It just isn’t relevant to discussions of whether or not gay couples should have their civil rights recognised – that’s about culture and law and politics. There are lots of good reasons to help people stay closeted if they feel they need to – some families do still reject their children when they find out they’re queer. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person who ‘leaked’ and lead to a domestic gay bashing. That said, I have no sympathy at all for gay (and lesbian, although they tend not to have much Republican power) political or journalistic figures who hang the rest of the queer community out to dry. I’d put Alan Jones firmly in that ‘camp’ (if you’ll excuse the pun), and the recent outcry from conservatives about Jones’ right to privacy was just plain weird in light of the hysteria that surrounded Justice Michael Kirby a few years ago (when he clearly hadn’t done anything wrong at all).

  2. I agree with what Kate said. And I’ll add that much of the debate about gay marriage and rights is between people like us and people who are forthright about the “badness” of homosexuality. If you try to frame the argument along the lines of “it simply is, we needn’t try to define whether it’s normal or not” your conversational partner will simply shut down, because that’s the core of his argument. And that core deserves to be challenged.
    And careful with that ice cream analogy. I like dark chocolate, but if it’s not available I’ll be happy with toffee. And I didn’t always like dark chocolate, it was an acquired taste. However, I like men, always have, always will, and if men were to disappear from the face of the earth I couldn’t simply switch flavors.
    And that’s key. Perhaps a better analogy would be handedness. No one cares if I’m right or left handed. More people are right handed than left, but imagine making a fuss in the press when you catch a Senator writing with her left hand! No big deal, but inborn and difficult (impossible?) to change through force of will.

  3. comparing sexual orientation to handedness leaves out political sexuality tho. what about radical feminists who choose to only have sex with women, even tho they experience sexual attraction to men?
    i realise they’re relatively rare, but they do exist. i also know a few queer blokes who aren’t unattracted to women but prefer to have intense emotional relationships with other men. maybe it’s not so much like icecream, but more like people’s taste in shellfish – some people never touch it, some people can’t get enough, some people choose it sometimes but not others.
    altho, isn’t arguing about the best analogy another intenseive examination/justification exercise?

  4. I’m not sure it’s a question of refusing to engage with people who denounce the “badness” of homosexuality, as refusing to accept the underlying assumptions that they hold.
    People who use “natural law” as the basis of their argument tend, in my experience, to have no valid justification other than their own limited experience or their religion.
    I don’t personally accept that there is an element of choice in being lesbian/gay, just a choice in acting on that intrinsic fact. To me, any analogy to do with “liking” sounds like is boils down to a choice of being L/G to me. On the case of the few, highly politicized, women mentioned who, it seems to me, merely choose not to act in accordance with their innate preferences.

  5. Sorry, that comment was very badly edited.

  6. It’s tricky, at times, being a queer-friendly straight interesting in gay issues, because at once you need to be aware of not dominating discussions and making unconsciously ridiculous assumptions, but you also don’t want to be silent lest you implicitly condone homophobia or others’ ridiculous assumptions.
    I guess it’s the (very minor) problem that any member of the dominant culture has when attempting to be sympathetic and respectful of people who are othered and excluded.
    Of course, even by saying this I’m turning the conversation into something all about me the straight gal rather than, you know, listening to what gay people have to say, so it’s probably best if I shush myself before I shove my foot even further into my mouth. (Insert rueful smiley face here.)

  7. That should be INTERESTED of course…

  8. I don’t personally accept that there is an element of choice in being lesbian/gay, just a choice in acting on that intrinsic fact. To me, any analogy to do with “liking” sounds like is boils down to a choice of being L/G to me. On the case of the few, highly politicized, women mentioned who, it seems to me, merely choose not to act in accordance with their innate preferences.

    I agree that we don’t choose our sexual orientation, I just think we don’t choose lots of other orientations/preferences either, so that comparing sexual orientation to food preferences didn’t seem demeaning to me. I apologise for giving any offense: of course tastes in food/colours/stylings are inherently more trivial than sexuality with its burden of reproductive capacity and heteronormative expectations.
    Still, our favourite [foo] just is: we don’t choose our favourites, we just know which they are. As you say, you can choose not to act on an attraction/orientation/preference for a wide variety of reasons: how many vegetarians and piscatorians actually don’t have any liking for the taste of animal flesh? Vegetarianism is actually going against a taste/orientation preference for many people, yet they still choose to do it for ethical/political reasons.
    Homosexuality goes with, not against, an orientation/preference, yet often the debate is so often framed as demands for justification of same-sex coupling at a level of intensity far greater than the justifications generally demanded of vegetarians (although I know intense challenges to veges/vegans happen too frequently). I just never realised this so clearly until this week.

  9. On reflection I think Vicki’s handedness analogy is definitely more appropriate. Plenty of left-handed people were rigidly disciplined away from following their handedness-orientation only a few generations ago for no good reason except a traditional taboo, so for those who choose not to follow their orientation/inclination, it is possible to live and even prosper in some ways without engaging it.
    The traditional taboo, in both handedness and same-sex attraction, is irrational.

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