June 4, 2005 ·
In his 1995 Chicago Law Review article, The Regulation of Social Meaning, Larry Lessig discussed some of the rhetorical devices that can change a society’s shared understanding of the meaning conveyed by a given word or action. One of these, Lessig explained, was “ambiguation,” which gives “a particular act, the meaning of which is to be regulated, a second meaning as well, one that acts to undermine the negative effects of the first.” In Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, we argue that when heterosexuals tolerate ambiguity about their own sexual orientation, they use ambiguation to promote equality for LGBT people.
In 1959, a white man named John Howard Griffin took extreme measures to adopt the perspective of African-Americans: he shaved his head, chemically altered the color of his skin, and traveled the South for two months in the guise of an itinerate black man. He recounted his experiences of racial prejudice and hatred in Black Like Me, which became a national bestseller and opened the eyes of many white Americans to the evils of Jim Crow. By literally walking a mile in his brothers’ shoes, Griffin was able to gain not only a greater understanding of racism, but a greater sense of solidarity with Black Americans.
Today, heterosexual Americans have similar — if far less dramatic — opportunities to adopt the perspective of their brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual. There is no skin dye, no bodily marker, to allow a heterosexual to follow Griffin’s model, but we should consider the potential in words or well-chosen silence to allow straight Americans even momentarily to have “Gay Like Me” experiences.
Ambiguation has long been deployed by gay, lesbian and bisexual people when they are closeted. But coming out can be ambiguating, too, because people who come out are bound to defy the preconceptions of their audience — by being individuals, not categories. The process of coming out can thus ambiguate — in the core sense of producing multiple and more varied meanings.
If gay peoples’ “coming out” is ambiguating, so too might be heterosexual peoples’ “going in.” This “going in” for heterosexual people could include a variety of moves: permitting confusion about whether or not they are gay; foregoing opportunities to identify opposite sex partners as spouses; making affirmative statements that align them with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, and not qualifying those statements with disclosure of their own heterosexuality. And just as Griffin promoted civil rights for African-Americans by even temporarily assuming a black identity, so too heterosexuals can promote gay rights by tolerating greater ambiguity about sexual orientation.
To see how this might work, consider an example from Lessig’s Chicago article: the case of Denmark, 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, King Christian X began to wear a Star of David on his own clothing. Soon all Danes were wearing the Star, confounding Nazi attempts to set the Jews apart from their countrymen. As Lessig explains:
“The Nazis required Jews to wear yellow stars. Wearing a star had then a particular meaning, in part constructed by disambiguating who were Jews and who were not, thereby facilitating the expression of racial hatred. Danes who opposed the racism of the Nazis then began to wear stars themselves. Their action then ambiguated the meaning of wearing a star. Now wearing a star meant either that the person was a Jew or that the person was a Dane supporting the Jews. Their action also tied the Danes to the Jews: now Danes were seen as supportive of the Jews.”
Can we find contemporary analogs to the Star of David, symbols of homosexuality that could be appropriated by non-gay people in liberating directions?
Gay rights advocacy groups have taken advantage of opportunities to use ambiguation. On National Coming Out Day, many people wear buttons or stickers expressing gay-affirmative messages. When, even for a day, people identifying with a broad range of sexual orientations all wear the gay-identified pink triangle, they literally replicate the Danes’ legendary appropriation of the Star of David. For that one day, at least, sexual orientation is ambiguated, because it is not clear: does a person wear a triangle to come out (on that day of all days of coming 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, Wisconsin. 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 put up 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 through ambiguation.
Michael is another friend of ours whose sexuality became the stuff of conversations, all because of one simple action he took. In 1996, the Association of American Law Schools began to publish in its annual directory a list of law professors who self-identified as “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Law Teachers.” In 1998, Michael, then a junior professor at a Midwestern law school, first appeared on the list. The reactions were varied. Surprise: “I thought he had a girlfriend.” Political: “Maybe Michael placed himself on the list in an act of solidarity.” Postmodern: “Michael wants to subvert sexual orientation categories, which are artificial and oppressive.” Some of these conversations missed the point; others were helpful as they caused people to focus on the purpose of the list and the criteria for legitimate membership in the group it purported to represent.
We may never know Michael’s motivations for joining this list (Michael has not responded to our efforts to discuss the list and his appearance on it — such conversations would, after all, be disambiguating; we thus obscure his identity and offer this analysis only tentatively, and decidedly not with the intent to judge him negatively). If Michael is indeed gay or bisexual, the story may be much simpler than all the gossip and analysis would suggest. Suppose for a moment, though, that Michael is heterosexual. Suppose that he joined the list not to come out but rather to change the social meaning of the AALS list of “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Law Teachers.” Suppose he joined the list as an act of solidarity (that is, to declare himself a member of the community which includes (but is not limited to) gay, lesbian, and bisexual law professors). Such a move would not only ambiguate the list, it would be a voluntarily self-ambiguating move.
More famously, Richard Gere has frequently refused even to acknowledge or discuss rumors that he is gay, except to say that “denying it would denigrate homosexuals.” By refusing to deny rumors of his homosexuality, Gere declines the invitation to place himself outside of a group of people he wants to validate and uphold.
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?
Ambiguation can be viewed negatively if it appears to be “playing” with homosexuality in trivializing ways. Much is at stake, so ambiguate with care.
Do I predict that my audience will think less of me if they perceive me to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
Ambiguating may be most constructive if the audience is likely to hold a negative view of homosexuality. When heterosexual allies allow such an audience to place them in a disfavored category, they gain an opportunity to challenge some of the assumptions leading to that disfavor. It is also in these settings that they follow most closely in John Howard Griffin’s footsteps, as they gain a chance to empathize a bit with gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
If, on the other hand, the audience for the ambiguating act is gay friendly or gay neutral enough that it would make no difference to them, then ambiguation may be merely misappropriation of gay identity. Assume for the sake of argument that Michael, the Midwestern law professor, is heterosexual. Did his act of ambiguation succeed? The AALS list is not a Star of David. It carries no negative connotations — for the AALS that created it or for the now hundreds of people who appear on the list. Standing in solidarity with an oppressed group of people who are under attack is one thing; joining the group when it is being affirmed is another thing entirely.
Should sexual orientation be irrelevant to the discussion or transaction at issue?
Ambiguation creates noise or distortion in the signal of sexual orientation. If people’s “true” sexual orientation — that is, sexual orientation as lived and experienced — is appropriately part of the conversation or transaction, then “noise” created by ambiguation will be disruptive. If, on the other hand, signals about sexual orientation are being used to disempower or oppress gay, lesbian, or bisexual people, then interfering with those signals might be the moral thing to do.
We’ve already seen an example of each situation. To the extent Michael’s appearance on the AALS list inserts some noise into the signal, it might actually run counter to the goals of the list. In contrast, when Sarah’s house in Madison, Wisconsin was vandalized and her gay pride flag burned, flags on every other home might have helped to take sexual orientation out of the calculus of who would be safe, rendering sexual orientation irrelevant.
Can I entertain some internal ambiguity about my own sexual orientation?
All of us, straight and gay, have absorbed negative messages about homosexuality. If the process of ambiguating and the rationales for it help us to examine and perhaps resolve some of these negative messages, the process is constructive. Still, these are extremely difficult questions for many people to ask themselves. One key point about ambiguation is that it 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 they have noble goals.
Would Lambda Approve?
The LGBT community is less likely to support trivializing or self-aggrandizing attempts at ambiguation and more likely to support ambiguation that reflects genuine introspection or is deployed when sexual orientation should not be relevant to the question at hand. In some ways, our substantive questions reflect the kinds of concerns that community members have often raised. To measure this, you could personify the community in an organization like Lambda and imagine the response your ambiguation would get.
Ambiguation in Action
Finally, if it’s OK, then how exactly would an ally go about ambiguating? The following list provides a few suggestions of the sort of thing one could do or say to create an ambiguating effect. Note that while these suggestions falls short of actual misrepresentation, they all raise questions about sexual orientation. And to the extent the speaker allows those questions to go unanswered, others might rethink their assumptions about when and why sexual orientation is relevant.
1. Avoid gender specific terms like “husband” or “father” and instead use terms like “partner” and “parent.”
2. Fly a gay pride flag from your home or put one in sticker form on your car.
3. 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.
4. When discussing gay 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 “those of us who are gay might take umbrage at the claim that child rearing does not occur in families headed by same-sex couples.” Particularly if the audience for this sentence contains people with anti-gay sentiments, a sentence that potentially aligns you with gay people may be an equality-enhancing move.
5. When a person says something to suggest that he or she has misperceived your sexual orientation, think carefully before jumping to correct. If correcting the misperception will raise that person’s estimation of you, it might be better to remain in their disfavored category.
The key 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 expend any energy to distinguish themselves from gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Creating critical masses of heterosexual people willing to take these risks could be one of the central challenges of gay rights advocacy in the 21st century.