Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.
With all of the activism I’ve been doing over the past couple of weeks around GLBT visibility and rights, I’ve been thinking a lot about queer ethics. I spent high school figuring out what gay identity meant for myself and how that got negotiated in individual relationships. I was, generally speaking, in the closet.
And yet by the time I graduated I had a close circle of a dozen or so friends whom I had told, and another half-dozen or so guys with whom I had never had a conversation about gay identity, but I assure you they got the message.
I came out to my parents the day they dropped me off at college. A week later, as the period for choosing classes began, I discovered a freshman seminar on the subject of Homosexuality in American Literature and Culture since 18something something. Freshmen seminars were small classes of fifteen or fewer students with one professor. They were highly selective, with an application process that involved writing essays and having a one-on-one interview with the professor. And I knew I had to be in this class. Thus began stage two of my gay-identity formation: understanding who I was in relationship to a community and a history.
I don’t remember what I wrote by way of an essay, but I distinctly remember meeting Jay, the professor, for my interview. He asked me if there was a text I would include in the course were I setting the syllabus. I made a case for Falsettos. (I still stand by that answer, although it was not in fact part of the course syllabus. Falsettos is a deeply important text in my own development, but I also think it’s critical in understanding the discourse in America around homosexuality at the end of the last century. More on that in a later blog post, I’m sure. Plus, how do you teach a course on the literature and culture of homosexuality in America without included at least one musical? The closest we came was Pillow Talk, which isn’t a musical but has a hell of a title song and the sensibilities of a musical.)
Needless to say, I was accepted into the class. One of the first reading assignments was the “Axiomatic” chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. I had never read anything like it before in my life. First of all, it was written in a language that claimed to be English, but I only understood every fifteenth word. I had to read the entire thing sitting in front of my computer with Microsoft Bookshelf loaded up to work my way through the vocabulary. (Yes, kids, this was before Google and Dictionary.com and all those web-based tools we rely on now.) But even more than her diction, Sedgwick’s assertion that the experience of the closet can and does shape the way the world works simultaneously astonishmed me and confirmed some things I had been trying to put together in my own head for a while.
That sounds a lot more arrogant than I mean it to. Obviously, she was a great scholar and so far beyond anything my 18-year-old self was putting together. But I had begun to understand the ways in which being in the closet not only affected my relationships with others, but my very relationship to notions of hiddenness and revelation, of inside and outside. Sedgwick points out that this is not a phenomenon limited to those of us who have been in the closet. The nature of society in which the hidden/revealed dynamic is at play is profoundly shaped by that dynamic.
Since encountering Epistemology of the Closet, I have had a continued fascination with queer studies and other academic writing about gender, sexuality, and identity. (Juggling the dual-minority statuses of Jew and Queer has foregrounded identity work in my life. That’s probably clear even to any casual reader who may have stumbled up on this blog without knowing me.)
One of the books that I read a couple years after Epistemology of the Closet that really challenged me was The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life by Michael Warner. The book was published in 1999, when Hawaii brought the concept of same-sex marriage to the national stage for the first time. In short, Warner argued against the establishment of same-sex marriage because of all the ways in which the institution of marriage denigrates those of us outside the institution. It’s a bold claim, and not one I particularly embrace (although I see his point).
What I found — and still find — compelling about Warner’s book was the idea of queer ethics. Are there ways in which the experience of being queer, of being other, outside, however you want to put it, gives us a different perspective on ethics? And does this perspective obligate us to revise conventional ideas of morality?
For example, conventional morality said that same-sex romance was inappropriate. We argue that it’s not. Fine. But how do we evaluate where to draw the ethical line? Warner examines queer behavior including anonymous sex, non-monogamous relationships and so on and pushes hard on conventional wisdom. What, exactly, is wrong about promiscuity between consenting adults? You are free to refrain from promiscuity yourself, but what ethical high ground does anyone have to say that their monogamy (which, let’s remember, more often than not ends in divorce) is better than someone else’s rejection of it? To put a finer point on it, isn’t it better to have consenting adults acknowledge their inability to stay monogamous than create a culture of cheating and lying such as we have in the realm of conventional marriage?
He’s got a point. I personally remain committed to the ideal of finding a single partner with whom I can have a till-death-do-we-part monogamous relationship, but I can’t really fault my friends who see a different path for themselves.
Or can I? This is where the juggling of my identities starts to get difficult. Doesn’t Jewish tradition have something to say about ethics? True, Biblical Judaism makes lots of room for non-monogamous relationships, at least the kind where a man has relationships with many different women. But contemporary Judaism isn’t ancient Israelite religion, and there are plenty of other ethical mismatches between my queer instinct to say “everyone should make grown-up decisions, and as long as they don’t hurt anyone else, what do I care?” and my Jewish instinct to say “we can elevate ourselves by taking on obligations that may run counter to our natures.”
Each is a slippery slope. If I am queer by nature, then why can’t I take on an obligation to nevertheless marry a woman and sire a family, even if that runs counter to my nature? Well, that feels like too much of a sacrifice, too all-consuming or soul-killing. And perhaps most importantly, it’s too much of a risk that the charade might all fall apart, and then others do get harmed in the process. So it would be unethical to take on such an obligation.
On the other hand, lobster is yummy, but I have taken on the obligation to keep kosher. Food and sex, why do we always equate the two in hypothetical Jewish legal debates? But the truth is, we know that food and sex aren’t equivalent, because there are foods other than lobster that satisfy, nurture and sustain me. A relationship that challenges my orientation can not satisfy, nurture, and sustain me. That’s an important distinction.
A few years after reading Warner’s book, I came across The Dignity of Difference, by Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief (Orthodox) Rabbi of the British Empire. In its own way, this book is queer theory of Judaism. Rabbi Sacks makes the case that different religions and cultures exist because each has something to offer to the world; each has its distinct mission. This is the most pluralist reading of being a “chosen people” that I’ve ever encountered, so much so that I didn’t believe it came from an Orthodox rabbi.
Now, I don’t think Sacks would take kindly to my coopting his message to wonder if queer people don’t also have their own mission in this life, with its own obligations and ethics. And I’m not sure how he reconciles the increased blurring of boundaries and overlapping identities on our generation. We can be queer and Jewish… and we have identities related to class, and gender, and geography, and ethnicity, and these all intertwine to create a complex braid of ethical obligations and questions. It’s easy to say that this means we each have our own distinct mission in this life. But do we each have our own distinct ethics?
Of course we do. Each individual makes ethical choices every minute that add up to her or his own ethical code. But is that a problem? Are ethics, well, ethical if they only apply to one particular person?
You might be wondering what “Freedom” from Shenandoah has to do with this line of reasoning. The refrain “freedom is a state of mind” haunts me. Do our ethics free us from barbarism, or do we need to be freed from our ethical systems? Do my queer ethics free me from the thousands of years of calcification that has marred Jewish ethics, or do my Jewish ethics free me from the short-sightedness of queer ethics? Are we ever really free of ethical debate? Do we ever achieve ethical clarity? What does it really mean to be free?