Here’s a piece I did for The Prospect sharing my experience coming out as bisexual six years ago:
One such study, released in 2005, came out a few months before I did. The New York Times headline blared, “Gay, Straight, or Lying?” I hadn’t told the person who showed me the article—or anyone else, for that matter—that I was wrestling with my own sexuality. I had promised myself that I would use my last year of college to figure out what my deal was. Seeing that article reinforced a fear that, however dishonest it may have been to portray myself as a gay-friendly straight guy, there was nothing I could say about my identity that would be both honest and perceived as such.
The piece discusses how suspicion of bisexuality is hurting the LGBT community. Check it out.
Monday Daniel Denvir wrote an excellent takedown of the journalists attacking Jose Antonio Vargas for the crime of Reporting While Undocumented. Vargas came out as an undocumented American in a New York Times piece last week. What I find most striking about the attacks on Vargas is the tension they reveal on the boundaries of perceived American normalcy.
Take this Romenesko piece published last week: “Vargas wrote at least 4 stories about immigration for San Francisco Chronicle, not 1.” The alleged offense is that Vargas continued writing about immigration and undocumented immigrants after, according to his editor, he had said he would stop to avoid a conflict of interest. Romenesko is run by the Poynter Institute, which exists “to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism—the kind of journalism that enables us to participate fully and effectively in our democracy.” Rather than counting how many times an undocumented immigrant wrote about other undocumented immigrants, it would be more interesting to see them explain what problem – if any – they think readers should have with it.
Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:
Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?
My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.
I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?
That last post draw a bunch of comments, mostly thanks to Michael J.W. Stickings’ link from Crooks and Liars (thanks!). A few favorites:
Alek Felstiner posted on Facebook:
This is why Tim Bayliss was such an uncomfortable character for everyone else on Homicide. I think, related to your point about lesbianism not being “sex,” there’s a sense in which male homosexuality is contaminant (except perhaps, notably, in prison, where the concept of masculinity is by necessity revised, and that revision recognized and tolerated on the outside), whereas female homosexuality is tangential and easily disregarded – if not encouraged and fantasized-over.
I make that point because most narratives, especially on TV, are about redemption. Ending up in a heteronormative relationship is a satisfactory conclusion for a mainstream American audience, but it only really works if it’s a woman (who finally finds the right man). A bisexual man eventually finding the right woman doesn’t offer the same narrative closure, because he’s already been “contaminated.
My friend Alyssa Rosenberg has teamed up with Lux Alptraum to start a new site, Pop Culture Pen Pals, and they’ve kicked it off with a great exchange on the impoverished portrayals (or lack thereof) of bisexual or sexually fluid characters on TV. As Alyssa writes:
As long as studios are anxiously divining what audiences want, and audiences don’t know what they want from queer characters, no one’s going to pay attention to what realistic, deeply sketched queer characters themselves might actually want.
It’s a thought-provoking – and agitating – discussion, and I agree with most of what they each have to say. One dimension I’d be interested to hear them take on is gender. TV characters that aren’t exclusively hetero or homosexual are few and far between – but the ones that we do see tend to be women rather than men. In GLAAD’s survey of LGBT characters on Network TV, the LGBT male characters were all homosexual (14 to 0); the LGBT female characters were mostly bisexual (7 to 2). The number’s were more balanced on cable, but the pattern was the same.
Why is this? There are a lot of potential explanations. The (overlapping) ones I’m drawn to are all downers.
The past week’s Slate Culturefest podcast had an interesting discussion of what Ricky Martin coming out suggests about progress in gay male celebrities’ ability to come out of the closet (what it’s like for women is of course an equally complex topic), but I think it’s too too sanguine about how far we’ve come. I’m glad that at the end of his career, Ricky Martin finally feels free to share who he is, but as they discuss, he’s made a point of evading it with reporters in the past (to the point of talking to reporters about ex-girlfriends) in a way that makes it hard to read the timing as coincidental – unfortunately I think it says more about the maturation of his career than the maturation of our culture.
It’s great to see Neil Patrick Harris’ success, and like Martin’s choice to come out it’s a sign of progress, but it’s also bounded progress – there’s a big difference between an openly gay guy playing a hetero-lothario stereotype in a TV sitcom and a gay guy playing a hetero romantic lead.
And the culturefesters got the chronology wrong on T.R. Knight – he didn’t come out until after his co-worker called him a “faggot.” Speaking of which, in googling to confirm that I found Knight’s quote about it:
I’ve never been called that to my face. So I think when that happened, something shifted, and it became bigger than myself…I could’ve just let it slide and not said anything, but it became important. It became important to make the statement.
It may be Knight really came out because he thought the story would get out anyway, but his quote rings more true to me than the things people are expected to say to the effect that it’s no big deal and the issue just never came up before – which as the culturefesters note, tends to have a real ring of protesting too much. I suspect the motivation for celebrities to stick with these “oh by the way” coming-out statements is some combination of not wanting to say you were concealing anything before and not wanting to suggest your hetero colleagues (or fans for that matter) are complicit in creating a homophobic environment that makes people worry how coming out would affect your career.
“Honorable” Mention: Dove: Men + Care – This one got edged (barely) out of the misogyny top 5 because instead of going full-on essentialist it acknowledges that guys suffer from being socialized not to show the “sensitive side.” But you’ve still got the man saving the family from a bad tire while his ungrateful wife waits in the car – and the general “Life is harder cause you’re a man, but you triumph cause you’re a man” shtick.
#5: Dockers: Men Without Pants – What’s become of our society? If the men don’t “wear the pants” are we doomed to wander the fields forever? Have the trappings of modern civilization collapsed because of insufficiently dominant men, or have they just been abandoned?
#4: Mars’ Snickers: You’re Not You When You’re Hungry – Hunger makes young men play sports like old women. Get it?
#3: Bridgestone: Your Tires or Your Life – This time the wife gets thrown out of the car as bad-guy-bait so our protagonist can save his tires. “Man’s best friend” etc.
#2: FloTV: Injury Report – Like the pantless guys in the field, without the subtlety. A man who fails to boss his woman around enough might as well be wounded, or a woman (same thing?). Like the Moynihan Report, just less racist and more homophobic.
#1: Chrysler: Dodge Charger – The most interesting thing about this one is the way, like the Fight Club guy, it grafts a free spirit anti-corporate message onto a macho anti-woman one. Your wife is another boss, women crush men’s spirits etc. And don’t you want your wife to be civil to your mother?
Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.
Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?
If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?
Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?
How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?
When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?
Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?
Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?
Last week marked the first firing of a gay linguist for violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the Obama Presidency. At the same time Obama has disappointed many equality supporters by not rising to the defense of service members attacked for their sexual orientation, his appointment of John Berry as director of the Office of Personnel Management opened the door wider to greater equality for other LGBT employees of the federal government. As my friend Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at the time, Berry is not just the highest-level LGBT federal appointee in our history:
During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service’s law enforcement standards — including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees…Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM’s benefits policy.
I was reminded of both of these stories today after a co-worker brought up Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers a quarter-century ago, a poignant reminder of the power a president’s handling of the federal workforce can exert for good or ill for workers across America, politically and culturally as well as economically. What could a progressive president do today with an equivalent impact?
Another question, as I contemplate the prospect of federal employees gaining domestic partnership benefits while service members continue being fired for having domestic partners: How are the rights and benefits of service members affected by those of the federal workforce? What about vice versa? (As Thomas Frank discusses in The Wrecking Crew, the disparity between public and private sector pay is a battleground in fights between liberals and conservatives over the role of government). Is there a relationship between the pensions of the military and civilian folks working for our government? While soldiers forfeit various rights of other Americans, I wonder how the conditions of the federal workforce affect their social and economic entitlements. And do organized federal employees speak out on these issues? Alyssa?
Jeff Sessions – who couldn’t get his own judicial nomination through a GOP Judiciary Committee even after flip-flopping to the correct position on whether the NAACP or the KKK poses a greater threat to the Republic – is now tying himself in knots over whether he would have a problem with a gay Supreme Court nominee per se, or just with one who believed gay people should have the same rights as everyone else. I’m sure when Strom Thurmond voted against Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Court, it had nothing to do with him being Black – just with him being a Black man who believed Black people should have their equal protection rights protected.
But while it’s funny/ sad/ ridiculous to watch Sessions and Co. squirm in saying first that “identity politics” are bad and then that we should be concerned that a gay nominee would make people “uneasy,” or hear the Family Research Council signal openness to a gay nominee without “pro-gay ideology,” there’s a reason these guys are struggling to say something coherent: Open gay-bashing is becoming less popular in America, but it’s hard to explain why LGBT people shouldn’t have equal rights if we’re not inferior Americans.
It’s not by accident that the right-wing opposition to gay equality is a moving target. Anti-gay bigotry is still prevalent in America, and will be no doubt for a long time. But as Americans, including many who are uncomfortable with gay people, become less sympathetic to politicians saying that there are no gay people, that gay people need psychiatric help, that gay people are sinners, etc., Jeff Sessions has to come up with different ways to explain why he opposes the “gay agenda” – just like he had to come up with new ways to explain his animus towards the NAACP a generation ago.
So the issue is: elitist judges trying to tell regular people what to do (this one gets more tenuous now that more people support same-sex marriage than the Republican party); schoolteachers depriving parents of control over how (and whether) their kids learn about sexual orientation; priests getting locked up for not officiating at marriages they don’t believe in; now Miss California’s Miss America candidacy was judged not just on her body but on (gasp) how she answered a question! Perusing The Corner suggests that National Organization for Marriage President Maggie Gallagher’s latest argument for why LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to get married is that opponents of gay rights will face social stigma as soon as gay people escape enshrined legal stigma. In the 90’s Mike Huckabee was decrying our culture’s decline “from Barney Fife to Barney Frank” – now he’s decrying a gay blogger’s intolerance towards Miss California.
So as more states and more Americans come out for legal equality, expect conservatives to get that much more creative in explaining their opposition as a defense of the little guy (the teacher, the priest, the voter, the beauty pageant contestant, the law professor), that much more eager to declare themselves tolerant of people with “gay tendencies,” and that much more fulsome in their outrage when intolerant liberals suggest they have a problem with gay people.
As our friends at The Corner debate whom conservatives should blame for losing the reigns of government, Jim Manzi argues that on social issues like abortion and gay marriage
many people who share the same country disagree in good faith, and are unlikely to be persuaded within our lifetimes. As I have argued at length, I think that the only workable compromise is not to try to force the creation of uniform national law when no national consensus on the morality of these issues exists. Instead, I believe that we should have an agenda of devolving as many of these social issues, as a matter of law, to as local a level as possible.
If we really want to devolve these questions – is abortion permissible? What about same-sex marriage? – to as local a level as possible, how about the individual? I can have my abortion, and my neighbor can opt for adoption (maybe by the gay married couple down the street).
Of course conservatives have all kinds of arguments about why my liberal choices will hurt my neighbor. And liberals have our own arguments about how our economic choices affect each other in a different way than our social choices (making it a good idea to ban $1/ hour labor but not condoms). But it’s just not true that a state is the most local level to which we can devolve decision making on charged issues.
Part of what gets lost amidst right-wing rhetoric about courts reaching down to take away Americans’ freedom is that in taking decisions away from state governments, actors that are bigger than particular states can uphold the autonomy of actors smaller than those states: individual Americans, who shouldn’t reasonably be expected to move from California to Massachusetts to get married because 52% of their neighbors don’t want them to.
At a time when November 4 seems to be shaping up to be a very very good night, it’s sad to see California’s Equal Marriage Ban (Prop 8) leading against the opposition in our nation’s biggest state. After months behind by double digits, the marriage ban brigades have pulled ahead on a raft of plentiful money and false advertising. They’ve moved votes by claiming that if civil marriage equality remains in place, churches will be forced to perform religious marriages they oppose and schools will become training grounds for homosexuality. That’s false. So is the slippery idea, promulgated by self-appointed hall monitors of heterosexual marriage, that letting the rest of us get married to the people we love will somehow force them to “not just be tolerant of gay lifestyles, but face mandatory compliance regardless of their personal beliefs.”
Maybe it’s a sign of progress that the “Protect Marriage” crowd can’t scare up a majority just by saying same-sex couples don’t deserve to get married, and instead they have to pretend that your right not to like them getting married is somehow under attack. Indeed, as Paul Waldman argues in Being Right Is Not Enough, what’s really striking about public opinion on same-sex marriage is how far left it’s moved in just a decade. When I was in middle school and domestic partnership seemed like a noble but politically unpalatable concept, it would have been hard to imagine that by 2004 our Republican president would have to say nice things about civil unions days before the election and dispatch his running mate to endorse full marriage equality as a sop to some swing voters.
The arc of history is bending towards progress here, and faster than we might have thought possible. California voters won’t stop it in two weeks, but they will make it go faster or slower.
Honestly, watching Marriage Protection Poster Couple Robb and Robin Wirthlin make their case for why discrimination belongs in California’s constitution, what disturbs me most as one of the people they want their marriage protected from isn’t the dishonesty about what’s actually at stake. It’s their honesty about what they want and what they’re afraid of. As much as they bend over backwards to borrow the language of the left (see, it’s their “rights that are being infringed upon,” and now “it’s no longer OK to disagree”), what’s brought this couple across the country to campaign for Prop 8 is dismay at the idea that their children would be exposed to “human sexuality,” by which they mean gay people (King and King is not a children’s book about gay sex, it’s a children’s book about gay people). They want their kids to “not have them face adult issues while they’re children…we just want them to have a carefree and protected childhood.” No word on whether Robb and Robin’s poor son has yet had his innocence spoiled with talk of America’s struggle against racial apartheid, or god forbid coming into contact with people of a different race from his own. And if their son or one of his classmates should be wrestling with “adult issues” of his own, one gets the sense that Robb and Robin would have little to offer other than cries that the child is oppressing them.