Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Sullivan on outing

Andrew Sullivan, “Sleeping with the enemy,” Washington Diarist, The New Republic, 9 September, 1991.

In all the recent brouhaha over the “outing” of alleged homosexuals, one fallacy has remained virtually unchallenged. It’s the notion of a simple “closet” and the crude assertion that one is either in it or out of it. I know of no one to whom this applies. Most homosexuals and lesbians whose sexualities are developed beyond adolescence are neither “in” nor “out.” They hover tentatively somewhere in between. And most outings are not essentially about dragging someone out of anything. They are crude assertions about invariably complex people, which have very little to do with the nature of someone’s sexuality, and all to do with who controls the disclosure of it. Properly understood, outing is not a resolution of something, a final act. It’s when the intricate steering of self-disclosure, with which every homosexual is intimately familiar, is suddenly seized by someone else, when one’s ability to describe oneself, one’s freedom to say who one is, is peremptorily taken away.

Most gay lives, by virtue of the culture we live in, know dozens of such moments of powerlessness. I remember in my early 20s being casually asked in the back seat of a car by an open-minded acquaintance “are you gay?” and not being able to answer yes or no. The question was as benign as it comes, but the effect was temporarily terrifying. The panic, for most homosexuals, periodically returns: when the subject comes up and the throat becomes intolerably dry; when the insult is hurled across the street, and shame mysteriously returns. What’s worse is that one is complicit in such moments: without a sense of embarrassment, there would be no loss of power, no handing over of control. But the trauma is real nonetheless. It is the sense of asphyxiation you feel when someone defines you without your consent.

This element of uncontrol, of course, is not exclusive to homosexuals. The racial slur has a similar effect. It demeans a person because it defines him against his own particular self-image. The word “nigger” stings because it hammers an intricate human achievement into a communal blur. It erases dignity because it denies individuality. But with homosexuals, this expression of contempt can find a way of sounding legitimate. Because homosexuality is largely invisible, the act of control can often be disguised as an act of revelation. Declaring someone gay can come in the guise of news; it can be sanctified with the mantle of a fact. And what, after all, can be wrong with a fact? And who can oppose it, except those who are themselves “homophobic,” who choose the hypocrisy generated by shame over the liberation afforded by fact?

In the world of intimacy, however, there are few such facts. Human sexuality is too mysterious and too fluid to be reduced to such simplicities. Honesty can destroy relationships; candor in the affairs of the heart is almost always a means to assert some sort of control. And there is little moral difference between a straight person forcing one to hide one’s identity and a gay person forcing one to declare it. But the most disturbing element of the outing craze is not simply that it is initiated by gay people, whose lives, one might think, would be testimony to the cruelty of others’ control, but that it is done in the name of political conformity. All the targets have been gay people at odds with the agenda of fringe activists. All have been justified as ways of exposing “hypocrisy,” but have, in fact, been ways of enforcing control. A recent outing, for example, was of a congressman who had a 100 percent legislative record from a leading gay group, but who still failed to please one particular activist. In New York a politician felt obliged to declare he was HIV-positive, after a mounting whispering campaign to that effect. In another case, a man was outed for whom there was no proof of his hostility to homosexuals, and some evidence that he may have been doing good, but who was employed by an institution that is anathema to the outers -- the Pentagon -- and so was fair game. No crimes were cited, except an imputation of cowardice. Regardless of his own motives, the taint of collaboration (he is a civilian in the Defense Department) was enough. In one last-resort defense of the outing, a leading gay activist actually said “[His] silence in the last couple of years has hurt us. And I think his silence now is hurting us.” His silence?

There are times and places, to be sure, when silence is indeed a culpable act, and the way in which the Pentagon treats gay and lesbian soldiers in its ranks is a disgrace -- brutal in its bigotry, callous in its effect, as this magazine has repeatedly pointed out. But the sacrifice of another gay man, deemed “guilty” before proved “innocent,” as an indirect means to undermine the policy requires an ethic of a peculiarly twisted kind. One is reminded of Orwell’s remark about the morality of those “always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” One is also reminded of all those other political movements around the world in which silence is invariably an unacceptable form of conduct. They demand an active, even eager, participation in a particular politics, a mouthing of certain words, a performance of certain actions. Inaction is the same as treachery; weak souls in the ranks are treated with greater viciousness than any putative enemy. But they have rarely been sympathetic to a liberal society. And they have never been tolerant of homosexuals.

Not so long ago I thought this was an exaggeration about some fringe elements in the gay movement. Whatever the differences among gay men and lesbians, there was always a sense that everyone was essentially on the same side. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not so much that, within the gay world, there are now those who have assumed the rhetoric of the historic enemy. Nor even that, in the heat of battle, some have taken to desecrating others’ religious beliefs and practices, embracing the very forms of intolerance that homosexuals, of all people, have historically shrunk from. It is that they have attacked the central protection of gay people themselves. They have assailed the ability to choose who one is and how one is presented, to control the moment of self-disclosure and its content. They have declared that the bonds of common sympathy must be sacrificed to ideology, that the complexities of love and loyalty and disclosure can be resolved by the uniformity that is the classical objective of terror. The gleam in the eyes of the outers, I have come reluctantly to understand, is not the excess of youth or the passion of the radical. It is the gleam of the authoritarian.

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