The decision to explain nothing about my life left an odd void where a life should have been.
Andrew Holleran, Nights in Aruba
One of my freshman advisees caught me buying flowers in White Plaza on Valentine's Day. "Who are they for?" he asked. I quickly summoned up one of my genderless terms and replied, "Someone special." He asked again and I dodged again, leaving us both in an uncomfortable silence.
This is just one of the many instances where I have been forced to choose whether to open up about my sexuality or whether to hide it. Gay people make such choices constantly, most often choosing silence rather than sharing.
If I were heterosexual it would be different. I could say, "I have a girlfriend named Michelle," and this would be just one more fact about me. If, however, I were to say, "I have a boyfriend named Mike," I am saying much more. This conjures up all of the gay myths my listener might believe, so I am in effect saying something like, "Stuart has a boyfriend, which means he's gay, which means he's had thousands of sex partners, and he's a child molester, and he's sad and suicidal, and he'll never have children, and so on."
Because I don't want to shock people, I usually don't reveal my sexuality when questions like this are asked. I instead wait until I have the chance to open up and talk about my sexuality, answering any questions that might come up. I realize how ignorant I was of the gay community before I made contact with it, so I am understanding of other people's ignorance.
Until recently I have been ambivalent about opening up to advisees and students. A few years ago I started believing that I shouldn't. I was making the transition between being a Stanford student and being a Stanford staff member and was trying to figure out what it means to be "professional." Several people convinced me that it isn't professional to discuss your sexuality with your students, nor to write articles like this one. The people who convinced me had the power to prevent my being hired and also had the power to cause me to be fired afterwards, so it was more than just a casual suggestion. I was coerced into becoming an antiseptic professional, doing my job and leaving my private life at home.
Three years of considering this question have convinced me that I was wrong to give in. In theory we all have jobs to perform, and those job descriptions do not include anything about our personal lives. But in practice we are people, and we are bound to interact the way people do, even on the job. Most such interaction is ignored. The rule about not discussing one's personal life is only invoked when the personal life is potentially objectionable.
Let me give an example. Since I am a teacher, I tend to think back on teachers that I have known. There were many teachers in high school that I was very close to, especially those who sponsored clubs that I belonged to. I usually knew a lot about these teachers' private lives. I knew if they were married, what their children were like, what religion they were, and so on. Some of the teachers, however, guarded their personal lives and avoided all inquiries. I have since found out that those teachers are gay and didn't talk about it for fear of being fired.
This is a form of institutionalized morality. Rules exist to control people (e.g., "Teachers shouldn't discuss their private lives with their students"), but are only enforced when an individual crosses a moral boundary. Teachers can talk about being married and having children and going to church, but mentioning that you're gay is unprofessional and forbidden. This attitude is unfair and should not be tolerated.
The main argument against gays opening up has always been, "If we want our children to be heterosexual, we have to shelter them from any knowledge of the gay lifestyle." This argument stems from the idea that homosexuality is acquired and not innate.
Most concerned parents seem to think that homosexuality is something like drug abuse or Moonyism. Healthy children are exposed to evil practices that somehow trap them. The healthy children can usually be brought back to normal, however, through prayer and love and psychotherapy and, if necessary, deprogramming. The parents sometimes agree that "those people" should have the right to do what they want, but they shouldn't be allowed to trap their children.
Gay people like myself, however, see homosexuality as something like left-handedness. We feel that it is natural for a small portion of the population to have a different orientation than the rest. This orientation is determined at such an early age that for all practical purposes we can consider it innate. Trying to make a left-handed child use his right hand only causes frustration all around, mostly for the child. Keeping the child away from "left-handed role models" and other "left-handed influences" will not change the child's basic orientation. Conversely, presenting left-handedness as a viable option will not increase the incidence of it. It will merely make left-handed children's lives much more pleasant.
Left-handedness is a nice parallel, because it previously had almost the same status as homosexuality. In medieval times it was considered a sign of possession by the devil. The word "sinister" derives from "on the left". The Japanese still have a taboo against it. Yet we now know that it is natural for some children to use their left hand rather than their right.
Many studies have come out in the last twenty years about the origins of sexuality. These studies support the "left-handed" model much more than the "drug abuse" one. They disagree about what can be ascribed to homosexuality versus heterosexuality and what are causes versus effects, but they have almost universal agreement on one point: a person's basic sexual orientation is determined very early in life. Most experts feel that it happens before the child even makes it to kindergarten. Even Masters & Johnson's famous report, which many hailed as the long awaited cure for homosexuality, said that heterosexual dysfunction can often be cured by their techniques, but that the basic orientation remains unchanged. In less fancy words, many gay people can be taught how to have sex with members of the opposite sex, but the basic gay orientation remains.
I, therefore, don't accept the argument that gay role models somehow turn children gay. I believe they only serve to ease the frustration felt by those children who are trying to become something that they aren't.
The people I talked to three years ago said, "If you want to get anywhere, you've got to be quiet about being gay. You can be gay, just don't talk about it." This reminds me of what blacks and women have been told for years. The only way to make it is to renounce any connection to our communities. If we act white and male and heterosexual, then we have a chance of being accepted even though we might not fit one or more of those categories. "The losers," our friends warn us, "are the blacks who act black and the women who act feminine and the homosexuals who act gay."
For three years I've tried to be a winner. Why, then, do I feel that I've lost so much? I've lost my openness and my individuality, my spontaneity and my charm. I'm not a whole person anymore. I'm just now realizing what a loser I've been. The real losers, though, have been my students and the people that I work with. They've missed the opportunity to share my life and to understand the culture that I'm part of. They've missed an important opportunity to learn.
I realize now that gay people like myself need to start opening up about our lives. Only then will people start understanding gay concerns. Only then will people start realizing that it isn't an "us versus them" issue, that gay people are everywhere. Only then will young people have the role models they need to help them accept their gay feelings.
This week is Gay Awareness Week, a time for straight people to ask questions and a time for gay people to answer them. I hope that all of the gay people at Stanford will take the opportunity sometime this week to open up to someone new, so that he or she can understand us better. And I hope that all of the straight people will take the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of their gay friends and teachers and coworkers.