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February 17, 2005

"Out" heterosexual

Given the choice, David Velleman would prefer to remain a closet heterosexual. By this he means that he would prefer a society in which everyone's sexual identity is regarded as entirely private:

Here are two ways of thinking about gay rights. According to the first, people can be categorized according to their sexual orientation, and members of each category should be protected against discrimination and harrassment from members of the others. According to the second way of thinking, a person's sexual feelings and behavior are private matters, which may not be taken into account by employers, schools, proprietors of public accommodations, or agents of the government, and which common courtesy requires even friends and acquaintances to leave unacknowledged in public.

Velleman argues convincingly that a sharp division between public and private life is liberating and humanizing. Yet it would be difficult to imagine what society would look like if all manifestations of sexuality and gender identity were banished from the public square. I agree that everyone has the right to as much privacy about their sexual orientation as they like. However, it's almost impossible to live a normal life without disclosing a lot of information about one's sexual orientation.

Heterosexuals simply take the public aspects of courtship, marriage, and family life for granted--asking someone out on a date, introducing a companion as your boyfriend or girlfriend, having a wedding, wearing a wedding ring, putting up family pictures at work...

I think Velleman arguements for privacy conflate sexual activity and sexual identity. He argues that privacy is desirable because shields people from mutual scrutiny without shame, furtiveness, or deciet. The norms of privacy give everyone a bubble zone in which nobody else's opinion matters. These are powerful arguments for personal privacy in general and they suggest standards against which our current social norms can be evaluated.

However, these are arguments for discretion regarding the nitty gritty details of one's sexual and emotional history, not the broad strokes that define who a person is and how they live. There's a big difference between broadcasting the intimate details of one's sex life and being open about one's overall way of life. Our society probably has an unreasonably narrow and essentialist concept of sexual orientation and no doubt too much effort is wasted trying to assign labels. However, inequality fuels these preoccupations. If every sexual orientation has the same rights, privileges, and opportunities, there's much less incentive to loudly assert your membership in the privileged group or to scrutinize other people's "credentials."

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» Closet Heterosexuality from Left Center Left
Majikthise has a good post riffing off another blogger David Velleman's suggestion that rather than focus on protecting the legal protection of gay rights against discrimination, harassment, etc., we can simply make all sexuality private. [I]it's almos... [Read More]

» Very enlightening discussion from Bless Our Bleeding Hearts
I would only add this thought: that as enlightening as these articulate posts all are, there is an additional element to real progress toward the beautiful ideal put forth, it is time. In time we will move closer to this ideal, I'm confident. I know ... [Read More]

Comments

Thanks for this response, Majikthise. Your comments, and those in the discussion of my post, have led me to change the title of the post and offer this clarification

I had a similar response. I think that "sexuality" obscures the fact that the term refers to aspects of our lives and psychology that are basically fundamental commitments, in that, we would cease to be ourselves, or feel to be ourselves, in giving them up. And, in this instance, it is a commitment which is also partly but necessarily realized in the social world. It isn't hard to find instances where the failure to publically acknowledge a heterosexual relationship in the social sphere--to the extent that sexual relationships implicate companionship, the ways we see the world in part, etc.--leads to suffering. To that extent, I don't know to what extent a sharp division between public and private is either feasible or desirable, that is, liberating. Others have asked what heterosexual relations would be like or even could be like if sexual identity was privatized. I think people would be miserable if they couldn't publicly acknowledge to some extent their romantic companionships.

To make these deep aspects of life private seems hopeless, but also politically a confusion, because it suggests that the ideal way to achieve the (correct and decent) goal of ending sexuality and "sexual orientation" as an axis along which rights, goods, advantages and disadvantages are allocated is to pretend like it doesn't exist at all.

I agree with you, Robin.

I think that the distinction between public and private is essential if we are to take privacy rights seriously. I also think that communities benefit from strong mutual respect for privacy.

However, I also believe that our society would be much worse off if we arbitrarily pushed so much social, psychological, and cultural information into the "private" sphere. This is information that people ought to be able to share with each other without fear of "burdening" others or inviting disconcerting negative scrutiny.

Back when Ellen came out, I remember hearing a lot of homophobes claiming that they didn't care if she was gay in her private life, but why did she have to make a big deal about it in public. After all, straight people don't go on the cover of Time magazine to anounce their sexuality, do they?

And I thought, man, I would love it if Time and Newsweeks stopped telling me about the hetrosexuality of the Kennedeys, the Windsors and the Clintons.

What whould People or Us look lilke you removed all references to hetrosexuality?

You mean that Time and Newsweek reported that the Kennedys, the Windsors, and the Clintons were hetersexuals? Where? I missed that report.

No, what you mean is that Time and Newsweek showed the Kennedys, the Windsors, and the Clintons spending time together, holding hands, and doing lots of things that led you to infer that they had sex together. But what you inferred was neither shown nor stated.

I never said that people of the same sex should never do in public any of the things that would lead people to infer that they have sex together. I never said that they should keep their relationship secret. All I said was that the sexual aspect of their relationship should be left for others to infer -- not made explicit.

The point is not that privacy will somehow protect same-sex couples from discrimination because no one will know that they are homosexuals. Of course, people will know. The point is that their right to be free of discrimination for being homosexuals is based on the right to have their private feelings and behavior left out of account in how they are treated. But in claiming sexual-privacy rights, people (all of us, not just homosexuals) should treat their sexuality as genuinely private.

"No, what you mean is that Time and Newsweek showed the Kennedys, the Windsors, and the Clintons spending time together, holding hands, and doing lots of things that led you to infer that they had sex together. But what you inferred was neither shown nor stated."

I seem to recall articles in Time and Newsweek that suggested Clinton got a blowjob from Monica Lewinsky. Congress held hearings. DNA tests were run using samples from a stain on one of Lewinsky's dresses. In the end, there wasn't much left to infer.

(from LB) "..Our society probably has an unreasonably narrow and essentialist concept of sexual orientation and no doubt too much effort is wasted trying to assign labels. However, inequality fuels these preoccupations..."
"Inequality" fuels more than "sexual orientation preoccupations", however. Consider allegations of promiscuity (which loses a lot of its luster, when privatized)...
(from DV) "..But in claiming sexual-privacy rights, people (all of us, not just homosexuals) should treat their sexuality as genuinely private.."
I think you should have stated "sexual behavior" (or "sexual interaction") in place of "sexuality", since some do not feel that one's "sexuality" is easily hidden- nor should be. I can appreciate the civility of this position... and, yet, there's so much of a sexual nature that reaches beyond conversation. You may have to consider body language and even "dress code" issues, to realize the degrees of "communications" around sexuality, eg when the counterman at the auto arts store hollers at me (in the distant oil filter section) to ask if I'm buying a valentine for the oldest practicing hooker in our village, as a way of distracting himself from his fixation with the prominent nipples of the bra-less customer that he is serving at the counter. My own preference is to attain tolerance rather than civility. Otherwise I'm opting for "heterosapien" status... ^..^

"...their right to be free of discrimination for being homosexuals is based on the right to have their private feelings and behavior left out of account in how they are treated."

We are free so long as we don't act gay. As long as we are neutered in the public, it is ok. Our "right to be free of discrimination" is based on our private feelings and behavior being hidden? As long as we act straight enough? Or as long as everyone acts asexual enough?

It again comes down to power plays and controlling others. 'you just stay in your place, boy, and there won't be any trouble.' The suggestion that my 'rights' are bound up in my behaving appropriately in how I present myself in public is none too subtly threatening. There is an implicit threat in these suggestions that not behaving appropriately, not hiding one's private life enough carries with it penalties. And it again places the blame for the scorn and derision with which so many people have to deal squarely on the shoulders of the victim.

It is the same argument used against the rape victim ("Well, you did go over to his apartment. What did you think was going to happen?") or used to justify racism. Coming from the deep south, I have heard more than my fair share of bigots try to explain how they aren't racist in similar ways ("I don't think black people should be treated any different because they are black. When they know how to act, I don't mind them being around a bit, it's just so many of them don't have no manners or upbringing.") White (skin and culture) is regarded as the neutral point and anything else is a deviation and viewed as suspect. Straight is considered neutral sexuality.

"All I said was that the sexual aspect of their relationship should be left for others to infer -- not made explicit."

I would be be interested to hear what Mr. Velleman is refering to in terms of how folks make their sexual aspect of their relationship explicit. If knowing someone is gay does not suggest this, and holding hands or claiming your partner or hugging or kissing in public are not the offenses that should be hidden, what are? What is it that you feel gay (and straight) people should be doing less of in public?

But the essay perhaps hits me hardest not because I find it threatening, but because I find it familiar. It is arguments that I myself made when coming out wasn't safe for me and when I still considered being gay only being about who I had sex with and void of any external social component. It is a lonely place to be and an isolation to which I would never return or wish on anyone else.

But in claiming sexual-privacy rights, people (all of us, not just homosexuals) should treat their sexuality as genuinely private.

Name the practical difference between this and everyone living in the closet.

What Velleman is advocating with respect to sexuality is pretty much how American culture deals (or used to deal) with religion. It's worth looking at this to see how the principle works.

In public, in the workplace, and so on, the unspoken rule about religion is "don't ask, don't tell". Except for those who wear paraphernalia (crucifixes, bead bracelets, bulges from undergarments, turbans, beards with sidecurls, etc.) a person's religion is invisible. Talking about religion generates discomfort.

One effect of this is, in a society where a supermajority of citizens identify as Christian and most go to services regularly, is the illusion of secular atheism. When God is not mentioned in the agora, the agora's inhabitants are easily mistaken for the godless.

Another effect is that the typical becomes the default, and many people presume that everyone is Christian (although being appropriately quiet about their Christianity). Thus, distinctions between Lutherans, Baptists, and Methodists are overlooked, and a generic least-common-denominator Christianity prevails. The public effect is that carols fill the radio waves between Thanksgiving and Christmas, nativity scenes pop up in town squares -- and people who don't fit into the mainstream (atheists and agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, etc.) feel marginalized and oppressed.

We (the non-Christians) can't get the carols off the airwaves and out of the shopping-mall Muzak, but we can get the creches out of the town square (although a 'non-demoninational' decorated tree will remain), as a result of First-Amendment separation of church and state. And when we do, some of the Christians respond as if their faith is under attack, and many of the others respond to the pressure by saying, "Aw, c'mon, it's Christmas."

The result is a situation where non-Christians feel oppressed by the Christian majority; while at the same time a faction of Christians -- the ones who want to pray in school, put the Ten Commandments on monuments in the courthouse, and put creches in the town square in December -- maintain that they are being persecuted for their faith by the secular majority.

The basic problem is that religious diversity is rendered invisible (or at least hard to see with out paying attention) by the public consensus to keep religion out of public life. People in the mainstream don't see the problem, and the people on the margins are discouraged from talking about their experience of marginalization by that same public consensus.

Velleman's proposal is one that is convenient for members of the mainstream and is blind to the needs of those on the margins. Naturally so, since blindness to the marginalized is one of the occupational hazards of the mainstream.

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