Equating sexual orientation with "sex life"

Demands that this topic remain off-limits are premised in some obsolete myths about homosexuality

By Glenn Greenwald

Published May 19, 2010 9:20PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Perhaps it's naïveté, but I've been amazed by the outraged objections of many Good Liberals to the mere discussion of Elena Kagan's sexual orientation.  Without realizing it, they've completely internalized one of the most pernicious myths long used to demand that gay people remain in the closet:  namely, that to reveal one's sexual orientation is to divulge one's "sex life."  From the first moment that Ben Domenech wrote his now infamous CBS post mistakenly stating that Kagan is "openly gay" -- something which a slew of Good Liberals at Harvard also long believed -- the furious reactions have been extremely eye-opening about how many people continue to equate sexual orientation with one of those dark, sexualized topics that all polite and decent people should be willing to avoid. 

In objecting to Andrew Sullivan's argument that asking about sexual orientation is completely innocuous and legitimate, Kevin Drum offers one of the most extreme examples yet of this well-intentioned though harmful confusion, which I had really thought (but no longer do) had been left behind in the 1980s (which is why classic 1980s closet defender Ed Koch is now also advocating it).  Kevin wrote:

I get why Andrew feels this way. And if that really were the only thing off the table, he'd have a point.  But here's a short sample of other questions that are generally off limits when you're interviewing public figures:

* So, have you ever had an affair?

* Do you masturbate when your wife isn't around?

* Have you ever had a three-way?

* Do you download a lot of porn from the internet? Or do you prefer buying it old school on the newsstand?

* I think Asian guys are really hot. How about you?

Notice a trend? They're all related to your sex life. And they're all generally off limits unless (a) you've put it on the table yourself, (b) there's a specific reason to ask about it, or (c) you're part of the gossip circuit where nothing is off limits in the first place. I mean, this is common sense. If you're interviewing Ricky Martin or Silvio Berlusconi, that's one thing. If you're interviewing someone who's obviously eager to talk about their sex life, go to town. But if you're interviewing a Supreme Court justice or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you just don't bring this stuff up. Come on.

I find it truly unfathomable that people still think this way.  As Sullivan says:  this "could only be written by a straight person" -- and not just any straight person, but one who does not really believe their rhetoric about gayness being a value-neutral attribute.

Kevin has written before about the fact that he is married and that his spouse is female ("My wife, Marian, is a systems analyst in the MIS department at Lantronix.  We've been married since 1991").  When he wrote that, or when he introduces his wife, does he actually think that he's revealing things about his "sex life" -- let alone things on par with:  "Do you masturbate when your wife isn't around?" or "Have you ever had a three-way"?  To ask the question is to illustrate how inane is the suggestion.  At most, one knows from Kevin's revelation that he is heterosexual, but not anything about his "sex life" -- i.e., how many times a week does he have sex, how many partners does he have, what positions does he most enjoy, what type of women does he find attractive, etc. etc.?

Identically, if an individual introduces their same-sex spouse, or self-identifies or is identified as being "gay" or "lesbian," are you actually learning anything about their "sex life"?  No.  I've written before about the way the Defense of Marriage Act denies my right to have my same-sex partner, a Brazilian national, obtain the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex spouses of American citizens.  When doing so, did I reveal anything about my "sex life"?  Of course not -- at least no more so than when someone like Kevin reveals that he's "been married to Marian for 18 years."

The fact that someone would equate "are you gay?" to "do you download a lot of porn from the internet?" is astonishing to me.  The latter question really is about someone's "sex life," while the former is about who they are.  The premise that being gay is about one's "sex life" has long been the foundation of the dictate that gay people remain closeted (we don't need to have your "sex lives" rubbed in our faces; keep that to yourself).  I don't mean to single out Kevin here; the point he's making -- being gay is about your "sex life" and thus should be deemed off-limits unless the person voluntarily raises it -- has been repeated over and over during the last month by countless people who fancy themselves quite progressive on gay issues. 

Indeed, the very notion that it is "outrageous" or "despicable" to inquire into a public figure's sexual orientation -- adjectives I heard repeatedly applied to those raising questions about Kagan -- is completely inconsistent with the belief that sexual orientation is value-neutral.   If being straight and gay are precise moral equivalents, then what possible harm can come from asking someone, especially one who seeks high political office:  "are you gay?"  If one really believes that they are equivalent, then that question would be no different than asking someone where they grew up, whether they are married, or how many children they have.  That's what made the White House's response to the initial claims that Kagan was gay so revealing and infuriating:   by angrily rejecting those claims as "false charges," they were -- as Alex Pareene put it -- "treating lesbian rumors like allegations of vampiric necrophilia."

Sexual orientation is not about one's "sex life," at least not primarily, but instead is a key part of one's identity.  Along with a whole variety of other factors (race, socioeconomic background, religion, gender, geographic origin, ethnic background), it shapes one's experiences, perceptions, and relationship to the world.  As is true for all of those other attributes, there is vast heterogeniety within one's sexual orientation; there's as much diversity among gay people as there is among, say, Christians or Latinos or women or heterosexuals.  But there's no doubt that it is a very substantial factor in one's life experiences and understanding of the world.  

It's ironic indeed that so many progressives -- who spent months during Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation process insisting that one's life experiences (growing up as a poor Puerto Rican in the South Bronx) play a crucial role in how one understands the claims of litigants -- are now demanding that sexual orientation be permitted to be kept hidden as though it's completely irrelevant to one's perspective.  If there's nothing whatsoever wrong with being gay, why the double standard?  Just as Sotomayor's background would undoubtedly affect her ability to understand (or "empathize" with) claims of discrimination or other forms of oppression, wouldn't the same be true of a judge's growing up gay -- or choosing to remain closeted?

Those who object to the assumption that any unmarried woman must be a lesbian if she's middle-aged and with a successful career have a valid point, as do those who argue that women are subjected to greater scrutiny over their personal lives than men are.  But those are separate questions.  If being gay or straight are complete moral equivalents, then there can't possibly be anything wrong with asking if someone is gay -- no more so than asking if one is married or asking about someone's religion.  And those who want to hold themselves out as enlightened progressives on this topic should really stop acting as though "I am gay" is the equivalent of "let me tell you the sexual positions I most enjoy" -- or that asking "is she gay?" is the same as asking "has she ever had a three-way"?  To see the two as comparable reveals the presence of some extremely misguided beliefs that such people would likely be eager to deny that they hold.


UPDATE:  Regarding the claim of several commenters that sexual orientation is a "private matter," that it's "nobody's business," etc., two points to make about that,  even though it's not really responsive to the argument I'm making here:

(1) When someone seeks political power, they give up certain aspects of their privacy.  The more political power one seeks, the more privacy they give up.  Even though a person's finances are generally private and "none of anyone's business," Kagan was just compelled to file detailed disclosure statements describing all aspects of her personal finances.  That's how it should be:  the public has the right to know about people who seek substantial political power, so the mere fact that X is typically considered "private" for a private figure does not mean it's off-limits for a political official.

(2) If Kagan were married to a male, but refused to disclose any information about her husband (including even his identity, what he did for a living, etc.), would that be OK on the ground that it's her "private life" and "nobody's business"?  Would anyone ever argue that was the case?  What's the difference?

Glenn Greenwald

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