A quandary

Recently I’ve gotten two requests from acquaintances to remove a posting from this blog — one from a woman I’ll refer to as F, one from a man I’ll refer to as M. Both F and M are in long-standing relationships with a same-sex partner, people I’ll refer to as pF and pM, respectively. Both pF and pM have professional lives that are significantly associated with their homosexuality; they are “publicly gay”. F and M have notable professional lives, neither associated in any way with homosexuality, and both believe that their sexuality is a “private matter” and that their professional and personal lives should be entirely separate. I’ve posted about F and about M, in each case referring (in my posting) to their relationship with their partner, with the result that my postings identified F and M as gay. F and M objected to my making their sexuality public, and asked me to delete these postings from my blog.

The cases turn out to be significantly different, however, in ways that caused me to dismiss F’s request out of hand but to worry about whether I should take M’s request seriously.

Background. Discussions in which homosexuality is labeled as a “private matter” automatically produce a bad taste in my mouth. To start with, heterosexuality is almost never so labeled. And worse, there’s a long sad history of kids who come out as gay (or bisexual) being attacked by authorities as illegitimately talking about private matters and also as talking about sex acts, and frequently are severely punished for this by school authorities.

The bigger message, of course, is that many straight people don’t want to hear or see anything about homosexuality — it’s so icky —  so they insist that lgb people should be closeted. Or should be “cured” of their sexual affliction, or should be placed in internment camps, or should be put to death (it’s God’s Law, after all: Leviticus 20:13 in the KJV: If a man … lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”).

F’s situation. pF’s professional life has led her to grant interviews in which she refers to her own homosexuality and also refers to F, by name, as her partner. In addition, F and pF have a social life as a couple, with friends and colleagues of all sorts. Given that, I found it preposterous that F should insist that her sexuality was a private matter that should not be broached in public. Indeed, in e-mail I called her a closeted hypocrite.

M’s situation. pM’s career is closely tied to his homosexuality, and he is thoroughly out, “publicly gay”. However, I don’t think he has talked publicly about being in a same-sex relationship himself, and he certainly hasn’t identified M as his partner. As far as I know, the only social life they have as a couple is with other gay men; otherwise, they are separate actors socially. Certainly, M is not out in his professional life, and in professional contexts he makes no reference to pM as anything more than a friend, if at all.

There’s a reason for that: his (very successful) career regularly takes him to (among other places) Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Turkey, places where the news of his homosexuality (made perfectly clear in my posting, which also talks about pM) would at the very least create a barrier to his work and might even, he fears, threaten his life. So I take his request seriously.

That posting (from some years ago) also makes affectionate mention of two other people, so I wouldn’t want to just delete it completely. But I could cut it down so that M and pM disappear from it.

I’m musing on the matter.

[Added a bit later: I have now edited that old posting to remove M and pM.]

4 Responses to “A quandary”

  1. Chris Waigl Says:

    Quite a quandary. It’s very hard to use analogy to illuminate the problem as whatever we can use as a stand-in for homosexuality is either related to illness/disability and therefore unsuitable, or the disapproval and potential risk is just not strong enough. Few would blink an eye about someone being referred to as left-handed, for example, or being a child born out of wedlock, and even being Jewish or Roma or atheist doesn’t work too well. Maybe having had an abortion could have real impact.

    I think you’re putting the line in an arguably ethical place, and agree that there is value in removing “private life” as a convenient blanket for homophobia, where the lives of GLBT people as considered more private than those of straight people.

    This all said, I’m also very aware that in the culture I’ve been brought up a boundary between private and public information is considered desirable and respected in a way that just isn’t the case in the US. This includes not just one’s sexual orientation but the presence or absence of any family relation and in general facts about one’s background. It’s still hard for me here to undergo questioning about facts I consider my personal prerogative to reveal or not: whether I have siblings, where my parents live, where I went to school, etc.. For me, questions like these belong into rituals of letting people into one’s life — as friends, love interests, confidantes. That strangers and colleagues feel free to ask comes across like a violation, an infringement of my agency: I should be able to decide whether to provide this information in public or not. So if my brother posts pictures of his daughter online, I feel free to say I have a niece (otherwise, strictly speaking, I should ask first); and if I talk about my niece, my friends can also refer to [my name’s] niece or to me as someone who’s an aunt. But otherwise?

    These were the thoughts that went through my mind regarding F’s position, as you note that pF mentioned her by name as her partner but not that F herself had done so. She may very well be the hypocrite you think she is (and given you know her, well, she likely is!), but I do wonder if there isn’t a small chance that the topic is one of conflict between F and pF. Still, this wouldn’t answer the question of what F might do about it. It seems to me it should be seen a bit analogous to my problem above: if I socialize among a mixed group including semi-strangers, then what I reveal and do (whatever these qualities may be — being left-handed, having a Jewish partner, being born out of wedlock and, yes, being in a relationship, same-sex or not, with a particular person etc. etc.) apparently, according to US mores (but not German ones!), become free to be reported upon, and it would be small-minded of me to call the reporter on it, absence material and rational concerns, such as M’s.

  2. bratschegirl Says:

    Everything you say about the sad history of straight society’s abuse of LGBT folk, and the sadness of what so many had to do to protect themselves from it, is correct. And I’ll stipulate that, as someone who is straight but has many gay close friends and colleagues, I can’t see this through the lens that you do. But I find your decision to, as you say, dismiss F’s request out of hand, ethically troubling. This is her story, to tell or not to tell. When the gay community was largely closeted, it was because others took upon themselves the power to prevent them from speaking. Here, you have taken it upon yourself to make the decision that she must speak, or have her story spoken for her, whether she will or no.

  3. thnidu Says:

    FWIW, IMHO I’m using too many initialisms. Nevertheless, FWIW, IMHO your decisions in both cases were entirely reasonable.

    I cannot agree with bratschegirl that “This is [F’s] story, to tell or not to tell”. Having been brought out publicly by pF as you describe in your post, in what you imply is an ongoing pattern of behavior, it can no longer be considered confidential— even without the literal publication you mentioned in answering b’girl, and much more so since that event.

    And absent any such outing of M by either himself or his partner, I also agree with your removal of that part of the old post.

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