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

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 29 2005 12:00 AM ET

But there are risks in ambiguation. It is important to be sensitive to the fact that this strategy will not be appropriate always and everywhere. At times it might run counter to the goals of LGBT groups and individuals. To avoid these pitfalls, we suggest that allies ask themselves the following questions:

Am I trivializing sexual orientation?With ambiguation comes great responsibility. Ambiguation can be viewed negatively if it appears to be “playing” with homosexuality in trivializing ways. Will my audience think less of me if they think I’m gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Ambiguating is most constructive if your audience is likely to hold a negative view of homosexuality. When you allow such an audience to place you in a disfavored category, you gain an opportunity to challenge some of the assumptions behind their prejudices. If, on the other hand, your audience is gay-friendly or gay-neutral and your ambiguating act won’t make a difference to them, then you may merely be misappropriating gay identity.

Can I entertain some internal ambiguity about my own sexual orientation?All of us, straight and gay, have absorbed negative messages about homosexuality. If ambiguating helps us examine and perhaps resolve some of these negative messages, then it’s constructive. Ambiguation should be authentic and true. So much harm has been done by the closet and the deception it requires. We should avoid deceptive remedies, even if the intent is noble.

Would gay people approve?The LGBT community is unlikely to support trivializing or self-aggrandizing attempts at ambiguation and more likely to support ambiguation that reflects genuine introspection or that actually encourages people to rethink or question their prejudices. Think of these questions as a window into the kinds of concerns that community members have often raised.

How exactly does one go about ambiguating?Below are a few suggestions. The idea is to inspire others to rethink their assumptions about when and why sexual orientation is relevant—not misrepresent who you are.

• Avoid gender-specific terms like “husband” or “father” and instead use terms like “partner” and “parent.”

• Fly a gay pride flag from your home or put a gay pride sticker on your car.

• Wear a pink triangle button or other gay-affirmative symbol. Simply wearing a T-shirt that says I SUPPORT GAY MARRIAGE can send a powerful message and raise questions.

• When discussing LGBT people and their perspectives, experiment with phrasing that aligns you with gay and lesbian people without clearly identifying your own sexual orientation. For example, say something like “Gay people might take offense at the claim that same-sex couples can’t be responsible parents.”

• When people suggest that they’ve misperceived your sexual orientation, think carefully before jumping to correct. If correcting the misperception will raise that person’s estimation of you, think about remaining in their disfavor.

The unifying element in all of these examples is a willingness to occupy a large, uncharted space in which sexual orientation is unassigned, where multiple realities or possibilities are entertained, and where heterosexual people reflect long and hard before they distinguish themselves from LGBT people. As we near the end of LGBT Pride Month, let’s think about the ways we can engage the people in out lives all year round. The LGBT community is certainly under attack every month of the year.

Creating critical masses of straight people willing to take these risks could be one of the central challenges of gay rights advocacy in the 21st century.

Tags: Commentary

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