guest posting: on securing more (or less) closet space

Here, for your amusement, are a handful of rambling ruminations on the perils of passing and the cost of closet space, inspired by your electronic missives.  Feel free to quote or delete at your pleasure.

First of all, especially in our culture, but generally among humanity as a whole, any non-heterosexual (inclusive of persons who experience themselves as homosexual, bisexual, asexual and the like) is closeted.  This is due, in part, to a general presumption of heterosexuality—generally, we presume others to be heterosexual barring evidence to the contrary; a notable exception to this is the rather naive presumption of asexuality which is typically applied to our elderly, especially widowed grandparents, but I digress.  At any rate, certain facts about a person, not immediately apparent, are given a default setting which must be overcome, and in this case, that default presumption is that of heterosexuality.

Of course, being an argument ad ignorantiam, this is structurally invalid–it were better that we withold any assessment of another’s sexuality than simply assume, based on the lack of evidence to the contrary, that a person is heterosexual.  The problem with that is that we encounter sexuality as a fundamental human reality—I would not be the person I am were my sexuality othe than it is, and the differences extend well beyond the bedroom.  The oft-cited (and generally regarded {mistakenly, in my opinion} as dubious) phenomenon of “gaydar” speaks to this.  A person’s sexuality influences her use of haptics and proxemics, the tone and cadence of her speech, and especially the argot she employs.  This is at least part of the reason why homosexual subcultures spontaneously emerge throughout history and seem to exhibit recognizable patterns; this is further attributable, in part, to a common set of reactions to social marginalization and oppression, though I strongly suspect there is an innate component as well.     

So, granted that we are compelled to assign a sexual identity to those we know, or risk perceiving them as fundamentally incomplete persons, why the presumption of heterosexuality?  One common supposition is that such a presumption is, on balance, the most probably true of all available.  And, indeed, it would seem to be, with some ten percent of the population being homosexual and less than three percent being asexual (I know of no reliable statistics on bisexuality, largely because it is not a well-defined phenomenon) you are most likely to be correct if you presume the person you encounter to be heterosexual.  Sadly, this is not how such presumptions work.     

Let us take, for example, arguably the most famous such presumption, that of innocence in criminal matters.  We all know, or at least those of us who watch Law & Order do, that criminal defendants are to be considered innocent until proven guilty.  Further, this presumption cannot be justified probabilistically—if we presume even a modest level of competence on the part of our police and legal system, it follows that the majority of criminal defendants will, in fact, be guilty.  Where, then, does this presumption originate?  Obviously, since any pronouncement guilt or innocence (or heterosexuality or non-heterosexuality) will be generally underdetermined by the available evidence (that is, the evidence is seldom such as to remove all doubt), and given that such a pronouncement must be made anyway (for the reasons stated above), we feel compelled to err on the side of caution.  Indeed, this position is best encapsulated in Karl Marx’s famous dictum that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent to be punished unjustly.     

And the parallel is a strong one, for there are, and always have been, sanctions for nonconformity, and those sanctions have been especially strong in the arena of sexual nonconformity, especially in those cultures with strong Semitic and Mediterranean roots, such as our own.  Moreover, there is an intuited recognition that a person is likely to take great offense at being falsely “accused” of being non-heterosexual, or, to use a more loaded phrase, “sexually deviant.”  Whatever the etiology and historical justification of this institutional bias, the fact remains that is exists, and those of us who wish not to be bound by it face an uphill battle in becoming explicitly aware of it and reprogramming our accepted values systems to resist it.     

In the meantime, the presumption of heterosexuality is a brute fact of our existence.  And, because of this, a non-heterosexual begins every fresh encounter “in the closet,” which I define as allowing (or even encouraging) others to falsely believe one to be heterosexual.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as GQBLT support groups and gay bars, but the closeted status still holds generally.  As such, some degree of closetedness is inevitable, and even morally neutral—the overwhelming majority of people in this world don’t know enough about any hypothetical subject that they could approach an understanding of that subject as a whole person, sexuality included.  For example, were I to tell you that Xu Hong is an executive for a Chinese Oil company, and nothing more, your mental representation of him would be extremely limited: you may safely infer that he is Chinese; if you knew enough about Chinese baby names, you could probably even come to the conclusion that he is male.  You would not know that he is in his forties, that he is addicted to Mah Jongg, or that he has a teenage daughter.  Nor would you need to; your initial representation of him provides sufficient structure to contextualize everything that you do know about him, and unless you wish to communicate with him for some purpose, your representation is more than adequate epistemically, even if it is not sufficiently robust to characterize an actual person.  Thus, allowing the overwhelming majority of people to persist in that default characterization is a simple matter of avoiding wasted effort—they will never know enough about you to reasonably believe that they “know” you anyway, so there is no compelling interest in wasting the effort to inform them (“Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m a non-heterosexual.”  “Hi, Bob.”).  Of course, were a subject to find the presumption itself onerous, there are ways of subverting it in particular cases, as when AIDS activist Luke Montgomery had his name legally changed to Luke Sissyfag, but that is an extreme case, and one without parallel, so far as I know.     

In the remaining cases, to wit, those who know a subject well enough that their representation of her is sufficiently robust, allowing others to persevere in that presumption is an instance of deception.  Of course, Kant aside, deception is not always morally culpable: for instance, the mother who tells her four year old son that the transplant heart he recieves was brought by Santa, thus sparing him the guilt associated with knowing that another child had to die so that he could continue to live, while practicing deception, is nonetheless acting in a morally praiseworthy manner.  (In case you can’t tell, I borrowed this example from an episode of Grey’s anatomy, a particularly rich source for dilemmas concerning health care ethics.)  To assess the moral weight of this act of deception, we must look (in my opinion) to both the consequences of it and the motivation which informs it.     

On the issue of consequences, results are mixed.  If one of these persons acts in reliance on their belief that the subject is heterosexual, and is damaged by such an act, then some harm has resulted from the deception.  Of course, such a scenario is extremely improbable, and typically results when the deception has carried on over a protracted period of time and results in a wholly inappropriate marriage or other unlikely scenario.  And even in such cases, it is possible to forclose such options without revealing one’s non-heterosexual status, ending the relationship for any number of perfectly legitimate reasons before it reaches so problematic a juncture.  (That said, it does occasionally happen.)  Of greatest interest, at least to me, is the effect of a continued presumption of heterosexuality on the degree to which others are willing to engage the subject in open, honest discourse, especially on matters related to sexual orientation.  On the one hand, violating the presumption can open the subject to charges of bias and, especially in fundamentalist circles, that her natural reason has been corrupted by sin.  On the other hand, maintaining the presumption, while blunting these charges, does not entirely forestall them, and one is left open to the charge of failure to understand the issue, especially when none is discussing the unfortunate experience of non-heterosexuals in Christian communities.     

The major negative consequence of allowing others to persevere in that presumption, however, may outweigh all the other considerations—to deny so fundamental a part of yourself in relation to those close to you is to deny the greater portion of the blessing that is your sexuality, namely, the sharing of it with those you love.  There is a reason marriages are announced in newspapers and proclaimed openly in Churches, and it is not so that the public will be aware that ownership of a woman has transferred from her father to her husband, historically literate cynics to the contrary.  A wedding is a feast, a celebration of two people coming together in an enduring union that, at its best, gives a foretaste of the ultimate union in heaven, and an important part of that is that it is a communal reality: the spouses become “as one flesh” and relate to those closest to them in a manner transformed by the concrete experience of enduring, unconditional love.  Granted, this is the ideal, which romantic relations more or less nearly approximate, but the transformative power of the union of lover and beloved is a plain fact of experience.  At the risk of quoting a smelly dead Frenchman: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”  Taking this image further, to truly make love to another person is to touch the face of God, a position best articulated by Ronald Rollheiser in The Holy Longing. 

Of course, there are many other factors that merit consideration, and this analysis has been off the cuff and slipshod at best, but I hope it has been at least suggestive of some of the issues related to closeting.  For my part, I’m rapidly losing my ability to articulate coherence, so for now, I’ll sign off.

This post was written by Bubba.


2 thoughts on “guest posting: on securing more (or less) closet space

  1. flayed Hypatia Post author

    I have three thoughts to supplement this, at least one of which is generally irrelevant to the discussion, but interesting (to me) nonetheless.

    1. That deception can sometimes be, indeed, sometimes is moral is argued for by yours truly in a Masters’ Thesis, some years before “Grey’s Anatomy” was ever even conceptualized. I feel so cheated. And my criteria for the morality of deception ran down the same lines as you suggest. Hmm.

    2. It certainly is, I agree, seldom the case that the ‘deceived’ person (the one who thinks you’re straight) is generally not harmed by the ‘deception’, rare exceptions notwithstanding. But I want to underscore two things here. First, I question whether being closeted, as you discuss it, is accurately categorized with ‘deception.’ True, people aren’t usually harmed by believing person A is straight, but in fact, (as you eloquently note) A usually is thereby harmed. Secondly, it is one thing for A to (as I did) actively (or even passively, I guess) try to convince people she’s straight (or even ‘ex-gay’), hence having the intention necessary for a circumstance to be deceptive; but it is quite another for person B to choose to believe without any evidence one way or another that A is straight. The former is deception. The latter is not.

    3. Allowing B to persevere in the belief that A is straight, however, may not be within the power of A. Certainly people can choose to ignore evidence, no matter how forcefully presented (“I’m not listening—la, la, la!”). For example, you have noted that, despite my best efforts to deceive, my gayness rang out for basically anyone who had eyes to see. My coming out has surprised nobody (well, my being gay surprised nobody; I have no idea if people were surprised that I finally came out). Now imagine I didn’t closet, but lived a life minding my own business like Jo average straight person. My gayness would likely still ring out, but people like my family would still be able to find defeaters to any beliefs that I am gay. Say, for example, they find my Christianity to be incompatible with my gayness, so because my faith is obvious, they conclude that I cannot possibly be gay. Now is it my responsibility to beat them over the head with my sexuality? If so, why must I do so? Because hetrosexism is the bias? Because the social presumption? I believe that it is superrogatory, not obligatory, that people actively debunk false assumptions. It would be a sorry world, indeed, if we all went around actively debunking each other’s cherished false beliefs (though certainly a more easy to understand one!). I think it is best for the gay person to come out (says Sally-come-lately), but not in order to debunk. It is best for one’s own spiritual growth and personal integration.

    And by the way,

    Thanks for a fantastic posting.

  2. Bubba

    On the distinction between active and passive deception, I suspect that you have something there, though I still maintain that persevering in the presumption (and the heterosexism informing it) is a species of mortal sin in that it is a voluntary self-alienation from God’s love. As such, if one’s sexuality is such that an ongoing relationship that acknowledges that fact has real potential to lead the other out of this sin, then such disclosure may be a moral responsibility; that said, the relevant variables are most likely the disposition and character of the other and the nature and strength of the relationship–it may better serve the interests of the other to allow her to remain ignorant, and I don’t presume to know what the right move woould be in any particular situation.

    Also, one of the main points I wanted to address (I can’t believe I just forgot it!) is the sometimes painful choices passing forces on us. To live as more-or-less openly non-heterosexual among one’s close friends, while avoiding the topic altogether with one’s family is a viable option, up to a point. For if a romantic relationship is to reach the fullness of its potential, in my experience, at some point, honey bear needs to meet the parents. As such a meeting necessarily entails a potentially dangerous disclosure, it is natural to postpone it until you’re sure this relationship will go the distance. There are two problems with this: first, the beloved may resent being a dirty little secret, and the covert nature of the relationship, in that it precludes affection in certain arenas and therefore impairs the spontanaeity of such affection, can undermine the stability of the relationship. Second, your reluctance to take that step of disclosure may translate into a reluctance to acknowledge that a romantic relationship has progressed to the point at which such a disclosure needs to take place. In other words, I tell myself that I will come out to my parents only if it becomes an issue. I further tell myself that it will become an issue if I believe myself about to enter into a life-long, non-heterosexual relationship. However, the idea of coming out to my parents makes me feel as though I just swallowed a live badger; consequently, my belief that any non-heterosexual romantic relationship I have may go the distance, by extension, fills me with a similar unease. Thus, I am left to wonder of every failed non-heterosexual romance in my past, did it fail because I was too afraid to commit to it? Did my fear of disclosure lead me to hold back from the commitment necessary foromance to flourish? Again, this does not translate into a duty to proclaim one’s sexuality from the rooftops, but it raises one more excruciating “what if?”


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