The joy of ambiguity

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com June 29 2005 12:00 AM ET

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.

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.