When is your sexual orientation my business?

An exchange with Michael Connolly on who has a right to know what about whom.

A year ago — the last time someone tried to make a public issue of David Dreier’s sexual orientation — I wrote

Atrios reports gleefully that a Republican Congressman, asked point-blank about his sexual orientation, refused to answer.

Good for him! (The congressman, I mean.) The right answer to that question, from anyone except a potential sexual partner, is “None of your f—ing business.”

I really, really disapprove of gay-baiting, even if the gays being baited hold disgusting political positions. And I thought that attitude was part of the definition of liberalism.

When did that change? Did I miss the memo?

My link to that post in my comments on the latest Dreier flap drew a strong and thoughtful response from Michal Connolly, which I quote with his kind permission:

Sexual identity and sexual behavior are very different things – but you

seem to equate them when you say, ” If you’re not planning on taking Congressman Dreier to bed, why should you care about his sexual preferences?”

Until now, I have thought of you as heterosexual without ever having imagined you in bed. Apparently you cannot do the same thing with

respect to gay people. Why must you assume that a question about a gay person’s sexuality involves (or should involve) a sexual motive or thought?

Should I assume that you never ask about someone’s marital status unless you are “thinking of taking [that person] to bed” or, if it is a straight man, stealing his partner? Why DO you know the marital status and sexual preferences of your heterosexual friends?

On the day that you get outraged that heterosexual politicians are asked about their marital status (a private, heterosexual issue everywhere in the US, except here in Massachusetts), then I’ll buy

your argument about not liking gay-baiting. In the meantime, you seem to be operating with a double standard: It is natural for heterosexuals to flaunt their sexuality; gay people should wear chadors.

To which I replied that the “potential sexual partner” line was intended as a wisecrack, not a serious proposition, adding:

Of course I can think of someone’s sexual identity without considering that person as a sexual partner. But I doubt that I have, or that anyone has, a right to inquire into someone’s sexual identity without a specific reason to do so (of which an erotic interest in that person would be an example, though obviously not the only example), and in particular I doubt that a reporter has a right to ask that question of a public official or office-seeker.

Marital status is a somewhat different issue; given our social conventions, I need to know whether someone is married (or equivalently committed) in order, for example, to invite that person to dinner. But I would regard it as inappropriate if a student, a business contact, or a potential employer demanded to know whether I had a girlfriend (or boyfriend).

It’s unfortunate that many of our fellow-citizens harbor irrational prejudices about gay people. I’d be delighted if more gay politicians found it possible or desirable to come out of the closet. But

prejudices are what they are, and Dreier has obviously decided that he’d rather not talk about his sexuality in public. That’s a decision I think others have an obligation to honor (except, as turns out to be the case with Dreier, where a politician gets his bedroom and his office confused).

Connolly responded:

I don’t agree that sexual identity is private in any significant way – and don’t think it should be. It is necessarily interpersonal even when not erotic, and it is political. Political = public. Making sexual identity a private matter makes as much sense to me as making ethnicity private.

Insisting, as usual, on having the last word, I wrote back:

Ethnicity is an interesting comparison case. If someone decided to “out” a Southern Republican for having a black great-grandmother, I’d be disgusted. Wouldn’t you?

Being Jewish no longer has that sort of stigma, but half a century ago “What was your name before you changed it?” had a real, nasty bite. I don’t think “outing” the Grants who used to be Granitovskis served the cause of Jewish liberation, and I think it was a mean thing to do, even though I also thought (and think) that there was something a little bit contemptible about Jews who tried to “pass.”

Of course there’s nothing disgraceful about being Jewish (one can say “of course” today, in as one couldn’t have in 1955, when there were still “restricted” clubs and neighborhoods, and Jewish quotas at elite colleges) but to an American ear, even to an Russian-Jewish-American ear, “Grant” is a good, strong, normal name, while “Granitovksi” sounds like the punchline of a joke. Dealing with prejudice is hard.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com