I got in a spot of trouble lately over a difference of opinion on that question, and the situation is still ongoing. This question is at the heart of the debate. Is sexual orientation one of those private matters that decent people simply don’t discuss?
It seems obvious to me that the answer is no.
Andrew Sullivan gave a similar answer lately in a post about former New York mayor Ed Koch and whether or not he was gay. Koch insists that prying into his sex life is flattering but ultimately an invasion of his privacy, that the public is looking to know something that’s essentially TMI. But Sullivan points out, “the plain fact of your orientation is not the same as the details of your sex life”.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe our parents’ generation doesn’t feel as comfortable with discussions of sexuality as ours does. Maybe it’s hard to talk about orientation if you grew up with the idea that there was only one, and everyone who failed to conform to it was a sinner or a deviant.
But here’s the thing I really wish our parents’ generation would think about for a minute or two.
Nearly everyone I know is advertising some aspect of their sexual orientation on a near-constant basis, and has been since around high school. Think about it. They’re dating, marrying, having babies. None of that is secret – it’s open, on constant display, and it’s considered normal. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t shy away from having a picture of your (opposite-sex) spouse or your kids on your desk at work, or mentioning to your friends that you’re crushing on some (opposite-sex) movie star.
Those situations, so simple and innocuous when you’re straight, have historically had serious, sometimes dangerous, repercussions for LGBT people. They kept their orientation secret, not because it was impolite to reveal information about your sexual identity, but because disclosure could get them fired, disavowed, blackmailed, beaten, or killed.
In some places, it still can.
The ability to disclose information about your sexual identity without having to think twice about it is a privilege straight people have. It’s a privilege I’ve had since, at maybe seven or eight years old, I started having crushes on neighbourhood boys and not neighbourhood girls. Hell, four years ago last week I had a big expensive party to celebrate being straight. Okay, yes, a wedding is a celebration of love, but that’s kind of the point here. When you’re a straight person and you talk about your sexual relationships, you’re talking about love, commitment, mutuality, trust, and a whole host of other things. When you’re not straight, people want to know why you think it’s appropriate to discuss your sex life in public.
My sexuality passes for mainstream, so the places where it pops up in the course of daily life aren’t seen as being about sex, even when they involve a relationship where anybody can reasonably assume sex is happening. Even when, as in the case of a marriage, sex is seen as being an integral part of the relationship. Even when there is actual evidence that sex is involved, like a pregnancy. Weddings and babies, two of the most celebrated life milestones in our culture, are both very strongly tied to sexuality, but because it’s mainstream sexuality, nobody seems to think the garter-toss ritual is TMI or tells a woman with a baby belly to quit advertising her sexuality to the whole world.
I abandoned some of that mainstream-ness when I started dating somebody who was out of the closet as bisexual, and when we agreed that we didn’t want to pretend he was straight just because we look like an ordinary straight couple. That seems like a responsible thing to do in a world that’s so mean and judgmental towards people who are out of the mainstream, you get kids killing themselves because they can’t imagine living LGBT and still being happy.
The message of our relationship is simple: you are not alone, there are people like you out there, and they are not miserable or lonely or desperate. They are leading happy lives and they are okay. You will be okay too.
That doesn’t come without a cost for poor little privileged me, but it’s worth it. Thus far, this is the happiest relationship I’ve ever had. My partner is bisexual, but the really relevant information is that he’s a wonderful person who treats me better than anyone else does or has, and our life together is (generally) full of happiness and common purpose. Those are the really important facts.
But it would also be a betrayal of everything we believe if I shoved him back into the closet and pretended our relationship rests on a rock-solid heterosexual base when that’s just not so.
It’s not TMI. It’s real life. Some people aren’t straight. So what?