in the closet or in your face?

Facebook. What a phenomenon.

This post has been lurking about in the corner of my mind for a while now, and I’m trying to truck through a really long and boring editing contract after a long and exhausting day of live interpretation, so what better to do than procrastinate by writing out the Facerant that has been yearning for expression?

So here it is. For those of you who haven’t yet been bitten by the Facebook bug, here’s the short version: it’s a social networking site, much like Friendster or Tribe or MySpace or LinkedIn, except that it’s (in my humble opinion, and clearly that of thousands of other people too) better designed, far less annoying, and more practically useful than most other personal-profile-type things currently out there.

It also happens to have well-documented ties to the CIA, and is occasionally used by the police to nab criminals and shut down quasi-illegal gatherings. Just so y’know.

But laying aside the Big Brother aspect of it, the site is really cool. And really, what website isn’t trying to find out your blood type, voting history and consumer habits these days? It’s almost refreshing to see it done so (sort of) up-front-like.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Facebook is the way in which it seems to encourage people to reconnect with folks they haven’t spoken with or seen in decades. I was very unsettled when someone I didn’t like much in elementary school, and haven’t seen since age 12 or so, sent me a friend request. Of course I spent a few days wondering what would happen if I rejected it. Would a big red beeping icon appear on her profile saying “Andrea has REJECTED YOU!” or would her request simply slip into the twilight of cyberspace? Luckily I found out it’s nothing dramatic.

On the up side, I’ve now reconnected with people I haven’t seen in a long time but with whom there’s no bad blood, just lots of time and space.

Here’s where it gets interesting though. The average Facebook user may or may not be interested in reconnecting with people whose vomit they cleaned off their mom’s carpet in 1991; fair enough. But the queer or otherwise sexually alternative Facebook user has a whole additional set of concerns. It’s the politics of the closet in microcosmic form.

In my case, I’m aware of those potential concerns specifically because I don’t have them. I don’t keep any big secrets. I’m not given to posting the intimate details of my romantic involvements in public places, no, but in principle I’m pretty public about the various alternative elements of my identity. Not everyone in my world is particularly happy about that, but a few years ago I pretty much decided that I was more interested in being myself than waiting for people to approve of me. But this is a privilege I carry, and not everyone does. I’m self-employed in a field full of queers and kinksters – I mean, I’ve gotten more than one corporate writing contract through people I’ve met at bondage nights or seen in head-to-toe latex. I don’t have any kids presenting me with potential custody issues; I don’t have a position in a religious or community organization that would be threatened by my publicly advertised proclivities towards Sapphic socializing, multiple partners and sadomasochism.

In short: I’m so out of the closet that I’d need plastic surgery, a name change and a move to Turkey if I ever wanted to go back in.

This is why my Facebook friends list isn’t a problem for me. It includes such people as my 13-year-old cousin, a couple of former work colleagues, the first woman I ever kissed, a few people of various genders whom I’ve slept with, my uncle, a number of hotties I’ve beaten black and blue or stuck full of needles, all three of my brothers, my old high school friends who are all having babies these days, a couple of (straight) writer friends, various members of my extended queer family, a former Mr. Leather, a couple of professional contacts, and my ex-boyfriend’s ex-roommate’s ex-girlfriend. And while the idea of putting all these people in the same place might be a little jarring or weird, it doesn’t freak me out. If my 13-year-old cousin learns that I teach S/M workshops, oh well. Whatever. She knows I’m a bi-dyke, and if you Google me you’ll find out the rest anyway. Not my problem.

Flip the scenario to someone else though. Say, that of my best friend and platonic life partner, who’s heavily involved in the Unitarian Church – which you’d think would be open-minded, and which in many respects is, but which is still more than a little dubious about bisexuality (according to a church survey last year, we’re less desirable than gays in ministry positions) and hasn’t quite yet addressed questions of kink and polyamory. Or take that of another good friend of mine, who is a hardcore sadomasochistic dyke and part-time professional singer who’s often employed in churches. Or perhaps that of a trans friend or two, who may not have disclosed to everyone in their world that they have a past in another gender – what would it be like to reconnect with elementary-school friends in their new identity? What would it be like to put their work colleagues into a network where they can read the note a friend wrote saying “thanks for coming to Tyler’s top surgery party, you’ll have to refer him to that doctor you went to”? Or take the situation of another friend, a teacher, who’s actively non-monogamous… but does she really want all her students to find out about that?

Facebook collapses our otherwise comfortably separated and sometimes overlapping social worlds in a way that raises all kinds of questions about information – who’s got it, how easily, what’s appropriate, what’s safe. If you’ve only got one face, that’s not a big issue, whether you’re relatively traditional (and thus unlikely to upset anyone) or so non-traditional that the detailed list of your proclivities is already part of the public domain. But for the many, many people out there who are somewhere in between those two – who blend into the fabric of society without necessarily revealing all their cards at every moment – this kind of poses a whole new set of challenges. I know dozens people who are currently struggling with the nuances of closetedness vs outness, and Facebook serves to exacerbate that in a really unavoidable way.

I think a lot of people see being out of the closet as an activist move, an act of resistance, as the sine qua non of happy queerdom. The flipside of this stance is that any instance of non-outness, of continued or chosen closetedness, is often seen as retrograde, an example of internalized homo/kink/bi/poly/trans-phobia, a desperate grasping onto perceived or real privilege… in short, shamed and shameful. But while these things are often true in some ways, shame is not always the only reason to keep your cards close.

Take the example of a teacher. A teacher’s job is to educate. Say that teacher works in a conservative environment. Say her students are interested in learning, and that teacher has a gift for conveying information in a really engaging way. Say that teacher takes opportunities, whenever possible, to slip in some sensitization to alternative realities, to lead by example in showing that homophobia is not acceptable in class, to encourage kids to become more open-minded and seek out information about ideas that fall outside the mainstream. That teacher may well be doing a really effective job.

If that teacher liked to tie her three girlfriends up on Friday nights and sodomize them, that’s probably entirely irrelevant to her teaching abilities. However, if that information got into her students’ hands, it might have a reasonably serious set of consequences. It might get the teacher fired for having inappropriate boundaries or values that were incompatible with the school’s mission. It might not get her fired, but it might cause her colleagues to see her differently – perhaps as a renegade, an unknown quantity, a shit-disturber, someone they might want to think twice about considering for tenure. It might get parents upset and cause them to pull the kids out of the class. It might quite simply alienate the kids, and cause them to see the teacher differently (“Miss So-and-So is a pervert!”) in a way that would make the teacher less able to convey all that alternative information and encourage them to think critically and non-judgmentally.

So where would a politics of full outness land the teacher in this case? Unable to do her job, that’s where. Unable to open young minds or quietly work to change the system and the educational institution’s culture from within. The very act of staying closeted might, in cases like this, be an activist move, not the other way around.

What I’m getting at is that there are shades and nuances in activist strategies. There are many ways to skin a cat; loud-and-proud is only one of them. It’s foolish to think that there’s only one acceptable manner to change the world when change has always taken place thanks to an interplay between forces of various natures, some strident and some subtle.

The “collapsing” effect of Facebook creates yet one more choicepoint for queers and other sexually alternative people – yet one more place where we have to wonder just how much we can say, just how real we can be, in a world where not everyone can handle who we are even if we ourselves are handling it just fine. It’s not the first such choicepoint and it certainly won’t be the last. But with Facebook I can log onto a single site and see this struggle being played out in ten or twenty friends’ lives in a matter of a few seconds, and that definitely puts the issue right in my face.


5 thoughts on “in the closet or in your face?

  1. It was a huge, major decision for me to “come out” on Facebook. While at college, I came out as bi to my friends, but my friends from home – many conservative, religious individuals – and my family (cousins & children of my mother’s conservative siblings) and members of the church where I was active for many years were all on Facebook. I dithered around for awhile, and after much agonizing left “men” up as my sex of preference.

    After awhile, I became incredibly frustrated. It didn’t seem fair to me that I had to hide what was such an important part of who I was. And so one day, for no particular reason, I sat down, opened up Facebook, and added “women.”

    I thought the world was going to cave in. I thought something would explode or my old pastor would crash through my bedroom wall holding holy water or… something. But nothing happened.

    Well, some things happened. An old friend who I’d known from high school opened up a dialogue with me regarding sexuality, confessing that he’d seen my profile and wanted to know how best to come out to his family and friends. I was so encouraged by this that I came out to my family at Christmas, and have (as I run into them over the summer break) slowly been coming out to old friends. It’s been refreshing and wonderful.

    In retrospect, it seems strange that I was so terrified of what seems like such a trivial thing. I am just amazed at what a tool it’s become – a positive tool that both I and the people around me have used.

    Ah, that was longer than I’d intended, but it really struck a chord with me. Thanks for writing it.🙂

  2. Yes, certainly that’s my dilemma with facebook. The end of compartmentalizing and like you I’m not convinced all compartmentalizing is morally odious. I’ve tried to email friends and say when they might wish to use the “send a message” feature versus “write on my wall” but not all of my friends see the need for boundaries. Like you, I’ve got family on facebook–my father, my daughter, both siblings–and then friends from the wild and wooly 1980s (the days of my pink and blue mohawk!) and my present day friends along with present day university colleagues and students. Largely, I don’t care…but I am also facebook friends with senior university administrators (our Assoc VP Housing, for instance)…and she might.
    And I can well imagine worse stuations than my own. I was reminded of the feminist university professor who was censured by many for putting a link to her flickr site on her university page because the photos there contained pictures of her topless. Worse yet, she had the nerve to be more than 18 years old and have breasts that showed her age. So in addition to a rebuke about the appropriateness of professorial nudity she also got nasty comments on her perfectly lovely breasts. For a discussion, see http://www.villagevoice.com/people/0621,bussel,73274,24.html. Thinking about it, her case is a little different since the link was deliberate and she was making a point about public nudity but still. Interesting times we live in. I enoyed reading your thoughts about it all.

  3. I have three younger brothers. The eldest of the 3 I haven`t seen or spoken to in 15 years. Thanks to Facebook, we’ve begun communicating again.

    My brother went onto my website, linked via Facebook, and discovered that not only do I talk about lesbians but am one myself. I thought for sure he wouldn’t want to talk to me for another 15 years…but not at all…he was very supportive.

  4. I enjoy the fact that people use their real name on Facebook. I like the fact that people will add other they actually know in real life. I decided to not check women or men in my profile. I am too busy with the paper boy to broadcast that anyway. I wonder about the comments I will get from former co-workers about who my friends are but I seem to wonder they were all wondering about me anyway. Time will tell.

  5. Thanks so much for all the comments and personal stories, folks. It’s really cool to see that people are experiencing their own productive dilemmas and positive situations here… lots of food for thought!

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