The joy of ambiguity

Let them think what they will: Straight Americans brave enough to appear more ambiguous can learn much about the daily experiences of their GLBT brothers and sisters—and advance the cause of equality



In 1959 a white man named John Howard Griffin took extreme measures to adopt the perspective of African-Americans: He chemically darkened the color of his skin and traveled the South for two months in the guise of a black man, an experience he recounted in Black Like Me. The book became a national best seller and opened the eyes of many white Americans to the evils of Jim Crow and gave Griffin a greater sense of solidarity with black Americans.

Today, straight Americans have similar—if less dramatic—opportunities to adopt the perspective of their brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual. There’s no dye or Magic Marker for the body for straight people to follow in Griffin’s footsteps. Instead, the key to having “Gay Like Me” experiences lies in something Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig calls “ambiguation.”

Ambiguation is what happens when heterosexuals allow others to wonder about their own sexual orientation. We all know that ambiguation is the modus operandi for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who are in the closet. But coming out can be ambiguating too, because people who come out often defy the preconceptions of their audience—by being individuals, not categories. It’s much harder to hate an entire group of people once you get to know a few. Study after study has shown that people who know gay people are much less likely to support discrimination.

So what if we ask the straight people in our lives to go out on a limb a bit? They can see not only what it’s like to be ambiguous but how it can have an impact in educating others. In other words, ask the straight people in your life to take a shot at “going in.”

Just as Griffin promoted civil rights for African-Americans by temporarily assuming a black identity, so too can heterosexuals promote gay rights by tolerating greater ambiguity about sexual orientation. This “going in” for heterosexual people can take various forms, and there are some ideas to pass along to your family and friends later in this piece.

But first let’s consider the case of King Christian and the Star of David. Legend has it that when the Nazis invaded Denmark and demanded that Danish Jews wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing, Denmark’s King Christian X began wearing a Star of David too. Soon all Danes were wearing the star, confounding Nazi attempts to isolate the Jews from their countrymen.

We emulate this spirit of defiance and solidarity today when people of all sexual orientations wear buttons or stickers of the pink triangle on National Coming Out Day. For that one day at least, sexual orientation is ambiguated, because it is not clear: Does a person wear a triangle to come out or to express support for and solidarity with LGBT people as they come out? And does it matter why we wear the triangle that day?

Or consider our friend (a lesbian we’ll call Sarah) in Madison, Wis. Vandals broke a window and burned the rainbow flag Sarah had flown from her front porch. When Sarah talked with her neighbors about the attack on her home, one of her neighbors, who is heterosexual, suggested that all of the houses on the street should display rainbow flags to show solidarity and support. The flags would say to the vandals, in effect: “Do you want to persecute gay people? Well, you’ll have to come after all of us too.” Like the non-Jewish Danes who wore the Star of David, a street full of neighbors flying gay pride flags could protect and support.

Tags: Commentary