This is the sort of topic into which I normally don’t like to wade, but in the last couple weeks there have been two flare-ups around a public person’s ambiguous sexuality. First, a CBS blogger referred to possible SCOTUS nominee Elena Kagan as “openly gay.” Since, if she is gay, she is not open, this prompted a harsh response from the White House and a lot of conjecture about her sexuality. Secondly, a conservative activist challenged Lindsay Graham to “come out of that log cabin closet.” Which prompted this Colbert segment.
Statements on Kagan’s orientation have ranged all the way from Brad DeLong, who opined that “The dominant view is that Elena Kagan is not a lesbian,” to Julian Sanchez, who contradictorily said that “it was as unremarkable (and unremarked upon) to hear a reference to Kagan and her girlfriend having been at such-and-such an event as it would be to hear that Antonin Scalia and his wife had been seated across the table.” The gap between DeLong and Sanchez may mean little more than ignorance on DeLong’s part. But even so, it also indicates a big problem with discussing the matter at all: if they want to keep it private, who are we to speculate? Sanchez takes the position that it doesn’t matter until someone has a long-term partner (at least if they’re being confirmed by the Senate). That makes sense: mental state = private/subjective, behavior = public/objective.
This post by Jason Kuznicki – an excellent meditation on how gays relate to “ex-gays” similarly to the way straights relate to gays – reaches a similar conclusion (emphasis added):
Being an openly gay man means asking people to credit my inner experience in a way that, in Popperian terms, is not falsifiable. I declare that I’ve always felt this way, that I’ve never sincerely been attracted to women, and that I really, genuinely find intimacy with my husband appealing rather than uninteresting or repulsive. That’s just how I am, I ask you to believe, and I ask for this belief on no evidence whatsoever. And guess what? Most of you believe me!
It seems only fair, then, that I should credit others’ affirmed internal experiences as well, even if I can’t falsify theirs, either.
Thus: If ex-gays live up to the change that they declare has happened, and if they are happy with themselves, then I have no business doubting
Consistently crediting everyone’s affirmed internal experiences produces a very different picture of human sexuality from either the gay or the ex-gay conventional wisdom. It suggests not only that our sexual orientations are diverse as to object, but that they are diverse as to mutability, too. It appears that some people can change, and that others probably can’t, at least not by the methods they’ve tried.
The difference between Sanchez’s and Kuznicki’s positions, of course, is that the former is pragmatic – we should question the sexuality of public figures inasmuch as their sexual behavior applies to their job. Kuznicki gets to the philosophical heart of the matter. We shouldn’t doubt another person’s mental experience, since we don’t have access. Not only does this position suggest that we shouldn’t question whether a person’s self-description is correct, but it also suggests that we shouldn’t even ask for such description.
It is in this context that Sullivan says, “Kagan and Graham need to understand that kinda-ask-sorta-tell can’t work anymore. And the choice to clear the air is theirs’ if they want to take it.” Both Sanchez and Kuznicki would seem to oppose demanding a position from public figures, either since it’s none of our concern or because sexuality can be a fluid thing anyway. Sullivan, too, does note that “I remain opposed to outing anyone except the most hardcore hypocrites.” So what are the circumstances under which we can ask someone to give us a position on their sexual orientation? Should we only bother when they’re up for a seat on the Supreme Court, and then only if they have a long-term partner? Is it just a matter of public interest?
The biggest question is this: Sanchez notes that “some folks (myself included!) would consider it a nice milestone to have the first openly gay justice.” The sexuality of our public figures has become intensely political in a time when gay rights are gaining momentum, perhaps permanent momentum. At the same time that this shift has happened, people following (in part) Kuznicki’s logic increasingly question the binary opposition of straight and gay. We are all familiar with the acronym LGBT. Recently, the letter Q has begun to appear at the end. More recently still, I saw a use of the acronym LGBTQQIA (ahem: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Queer Questioning Intersex Allied). It has gone from an attempt to describe behavior that is deviant, to also including deviant physical descriptions. And the final word, allied, has particular significance, since it expands deviant behavior from the sexual domain to the political. The acronym now means not “people who don’t fit the model,” but “people who don’t agree with the model.” Has the gay rights movement transitioned fully from the demand for justice by a marginalized group to a philosophical debate between two radically opposed notions of sexual behavior? And is this transition productive?
If we’re still engaged in a struggle for the rights of gay people, then we should think about pressuring public figures to be out and proud. If, however, we’re trying to bring down the heteronormative paradigm, being out loses a lot of its meaning, and demanding that someone be out goes against the nature of the project.