The Evolving Politics And Ethics Of The Closet

John Tabin says I have no consistency on this topic. He's well within his rights to link to pieces (or mere sentences in posts) I have written over two decades to find evolution or shifts, but I think he's wrong to say my slight evolution on this is simply out of pique. I have always found the coercive exposure of details of people's private sex lives to be appalling and cruel. Readers may have noticed that I have barely touched the story of George Rekers, just as I was not among those most eager to pounce on Larry Craig. My core reason is that exposing the complicated lives of people by single acts or humiliating moments is a form of cruelty, and no civil rights movement can or should be built on cruelty to others.

I haven't budged on this an iota, but on the question of homosexual orientation outside of any sexual acts, the world has indeed changed. To begin with, it has gone from a taboo subject to one of the most urgently discussed. It has shaped our current politics in church and state. It has become one of the most vital questions before the courts. Whereas two decades ago, there were virtually no openly gay figures, there are now countless, especially lesbians (and we do not need to know anything about the details of their private lives to know they are who they are). I'm all for privacy; I am not for dishonesty about simple facts of a person's public identity. That can be a fine judgment, but it must be related to shifting mores and standards. In my NYT magazine piece, I tried to adjust my 1991 position to 1999, after one of the seismic decades in gay rights. And my point then was precisely that time had changed things a little:

There comes a point, surely, at which the diminishing public stigmatization of homosexuality makes this kind of coyness not so much understandably defensive as simply feeble: insulting to homosexuals, who know better, and condescending to heterosexuals, who deserve better. It's as if the closet has had every foundation and bearing wall removed but still stands, supported by mere expediency, etiquette and the lingering shards of shame. Does no one have the gumption to just blow it down?

And of course, it has largely been blown down. Because the other thing that has changed in those two decades is the media. Whatever we believe should be public knowledge is largely irrelevant now. Google reveals all. Blogs talk about things previously sealed from view. The Internet has made the MSM's role of what is "fit to print" more declarative than decisive. The NYT's bizarre profile of Kagan, which plumbs every minute aspect of her most intimate and private life while saying nothing whatever about her emotional relationships, home, dating, or indeed anything that might even touch upon her sexual orientation, gay or straight, is so contrived in its avoidance of the obvious it is almost comic. To put it bluntly: the NYT can produce 4,500 words on a person and barely address the three most common Google searches on her name. There is some kind of disconnect here, no?

So I stick to my guns. If Obama had not publicly declared someone's life experiences to be essential to his pick of a Supreme Court Justice, it would be one thing. If I were invading one iota of someone's privacy when the press has already ransacked it, it would be another. If there were no openly gay public figures or officials and a justice's sexual orientation would make it impossible for her to be confirmed, it would be another. But when every aspect of someone's life is for public view except for one, and when that one aspect is as pertinent to a person's life experience as ethnicity or gender or religion or family, then I am not required to uphold a double standard I do not share, and which, in fact, I find to be riddled with prejudice. So I feel it is completely defensible to ask the question and print the answer. That's all. No exposure of private matters; just honesty about public ones. No search and destroy mission into private affairs; just fair-minded clarity about public ones. And that matters.

That goes for liberals as well as conservatives. It is others who are being inconsistent on this, not me.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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