Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sexual orientation as a personal identifier

Several of my friends are gay, and none of my friends, to the best of my knowledge, has the tiniest smidgen of homophobia (I doubt they'd be friends for long if they did). Like anyone else, I have friends that don't know other friends of mine that well (in spite of all the social networking). Sometimes I find myself giving one friend the bullet-point summary of another friend, and when this happens, I'm never sure whether "gay" should be one of the bullet points.

Generally if I know that someone's gay it's because they are definitely "out" about it. I'm not discerning enough to tell any other way. So the fact that I know means that it's someone who isn't trying to keep it a secret. (Sure, they might not mention it in every job interview, but they don't keep it secret generally.) So it's not a question of giving anything away.

It's just that, suppose I tell my friend Able that my other friend Baker is gay, as part of a short list of basic stats (he's male, about my age, lives on the West Coast, works in healthcare) (note, all this is made up!), am I highlighting it too much? Does it sound like I'm mentioning it because it's a bigger part of defining who Baker is than it ought to be?

After all, there are certainly a lot of ways in which it doesn't matter. I don't expect it to change how Able feels about Baker. And yet it almost seems like saying it is making it out as being important enough to mention, and thus making it out like Able's opinion of Baker ought to be affected by it.

It seems clear to me that fifty years from now, mentioning that Baker is gay will be precisely as ordinary and unladen with importance as mentioning that he's male is now. But I wonder if we're not there yet. If one group is treated badly, we have to go through a period where the pendulum swings the other way before we can get to the proper balance. Bill Cosby once made this point about the kind of roles black actors got. They were always villains or idiots, then for a while, they had to be always good and sympathetic characters, and Bill suggested that equality would be evident when black actors could play the villains again. His point: eventually, it won't matter what color your skin is, what role you play, because black people are just the same as white people in terms of whether you can be a hero or a villain. But to get there, for a while, we had to make up for centuries of insensitivity with a few decades of oversensitivity before we could find the happy medium. So too might it be with gayness: in some ways, in terms of cultural acceptance, being gay is somewhat similar now to where being black was in the 1970s, and it may be a while before being gay is really so much no big deal that we can just toss it off like it's nothing.

As always, I probably am overthinking it. But these kinds of issues are tricky and it's easy to be doing the wrong thing, for the long-term goal, because of not thinking about the tiniest little behaviors.

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