Oh My God, Karen, You Can't Just Ask People Why They're White!

I had not intended to return to this subject so quickly, if at all (rather, I had intended to one-up Peter Beinart, and I think I still will do that, but I need more time than I’ve had to do that argument justice), but Andrew Sullivan keeps drawing me back in.

In this case, with:

In some ways, I’d argue that the closet makes one’s orientation more central to your identity than among openly gay people. . . Sustaining the closet for a lifetime must necessarily change you deeply. It reaches into the core integrity of a person, and his courage and self-worth. Closet-cases can enable crime (look at the Catholic church); they can over-compensate by trying to win universal favor at all times; they can subliminally try to prove their straight credentials by opposing gay equality; they can get enmeshed in conflicts of interest which cannot be exposed without exposing their actual reality.

This is why the question matters. And why, much as we might like to, we cannot simply wish it away.

This is a substantive argument! This I get!

If I understand correctly, he’s making an old fashioned argument about the importance of personal character for anyone aspiring to great political power. Individuals who are closeted, whether only to the public at large or to themselves as well, are living a lie, and as such should be presumed to have questionable character.

On some level, I imagine Andrew would make this argument about any important aspect of a person’s life. But one’s sexual orientation is so fundamental, it’s hard to think of any aspect of one’s life that could be more central. If your public (and maybe even private) identity is wrapped tightly around a fundamental lie, then you are fundamentally a liar. So that’s something we have to care about.

And I basically agree with this point. Somebody who is not out to themselves is somebody who has some real, fundamental work to do – and they should do it now. Somebody who is out to themselves, but only to themselves is living in a very dark, lonely place. And they’ve probably also got some work to do.

The closest comparable I can think of to someone living in the closet is somebody passing for white who is “actually” black (i.e., has significant black ancestry and was raised with a black identity), and while this analogy is problematic on multiple levels, it’s hard to imagine that if the public discovered that such-and-such politician was passing, that they wouldn’t conclude that fact was a real problem.

Nonetheless, as Gretchen said, you can’t just ask people why they’re white. There are people who are out to friends, family, colleagues – but not customers. (I have a friend whose partner, totally out on his home turf, does a lot of business in Africa. He’s not out to anybody in a business context because it would create problems in some places, and deciding case-by-case who to be out to would be just too complicated.) There are people who are out to friends, colleagues, neighbors – but whose mother would just never understand, and why can’t she die happily deluded? Or what about the fellow who, thankfully, was honest enough to talk over with his wife what he finally understood about himself, but you know, neither he nor his wife want to move on to new lives until the kids are in college. (Two friends of mine grew up in homes where this was the case.) There even are people – particularly women – who went through a queer phase and then, well, straightened out. (Actually, I’ve never met any men who followed this arc, but I certainly know women who have. My original post on this subject was entitled, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been A Lesbian.”)

Andrew’s standard is an exacting one. There’s a sharp line between straight and gay, and between in and out, and you need to be on one side or the other of the first line and, wherever you are, you need to be out about it, or we’re not sure we can trust you with the kind of power that a Supreme Court Justice has. That’s it, right?

I’m not willing to be that tough. Sometimes life is messy and it doesn’t mean that you yourself are a mess. And besides, I’m not really sure how Andrew would actually implement his preferred rule. After all, if you did ask everybody who applies for a given job, “are you gay?” – well, unless somebody comes forward to out them, how are you going to prove someone who answered, “no” is lying? Is it just going to be open season? Because if it is, then all that stuff that is not analogous to fundamental sexual identity – all the sexual kinks and quirks that abound across humanity – well, it’ll be open season on all that as well. It’s just the way it is.

Which is why my initial response was: the way Andrew is talking is just plain rude, and if he wants to be rude he should man up and be rude in person.

I agree with Andrew on the goal. I would like to see a world where everybody is out to themselves and to the widest practical circle of the rest of us. Truth, honesty – all that good stuff. I think you get there, over time, by leading by example (getting to know yourself, and being honest about who you are), and treating other people as if they are doing the same (treating “out” as the default condition even as you respect the privacy of anybody who isn’t out to everybody). And if Andrew had said, “you know, lots of people I know are gossiping about whether so-and-so is gay, but I have no evidence she is, and she’s never said she is, so if she is then she’s a closet case – and all I want to say is that I don’t want a closet case on the Court; in fact, in this day and age, I think it should be an automatic disqualifier” – if he’d said that, and left it at that, he’d have been making a clear, direct point, and one that could be debated as a matter of principle by, well, even by the nominee herself, without forcing anyone to give the lie direct.

Much virtue in if.