This year Out has named Nate Silver its man of the year. This is very cool.
I had no clue Silver was gay. He's got a nice, interchangeably Jewish name, which, in the context of politics and journalism, just seemed normal. Therefore, I assumed he was "normal" for that job in most other ways: mid-50s, white, heterosexual.
But he's not. He's 34 and gay, which is awesome. The "Out 100" has, for most of its history, been dominated by performers (most of whom came out well into their careers) and activists working to promote gay rights -- professional gays or folks in gay professons. So now, at long last, we have a dude who's doing something unrelated to homosexuality who killed it this year. Good for us, no?
Well, no, actually. "To my friends, I'm kind of sexually gay but ethnically straight," Silver says in the Out feature. He is also said to consider "gay conformity as perfidious as straight conformity."
"He recalls a series of flagpoles in Boystown in Chicago memorializing various gay Americans. 'There was one little plaque for Keith Haring, and it was, like, "Keith Haring, gay American artist..." and I was like, Why isn't he just an American artist? I don't want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician, any more than I want to be known as a white, half-Jewish statistician who lives in New York.'"
So is identification with homosexuality dehumanizing to us? Does it turn us from individuals into a lumped-together mass of stereotypes? Not remotely. Silver's refusal to fully participate in gay identity is the real problem. I'm not saying he's a bad guy but that we must acknowledge the cultural forces that allow a person to participate in homosexual sex while feeling like the concerns, bigotries and culture that surround homosexuality do not apply to them.
I've previously argued that the distinctive qualities of homosexuality as a marginalized status are our relative invisibility in society, our diffusion and isolation within the population and the construct of us as frivolous. Silver's discomfort identifying with gay culture is reflective of the forces that help impose that isolation.
One of the key requirements of being gay is having someone else to be gay with. Gays aren't (usually) born to gay families, so we don't grow up with organic connections to other gays. We also look just like everyone else, so we can't easily identify our potential sexual partners or members of our community. The only way we can meet guys or girls, and thereby be gay, is finding each other. It's also how we become politically powerful enough to protect ourselves and our rights. It's how we become whole as people. We live in a culture that was built to stop us from externalizing our homosexuality, primarily by keeping us scared of hatred and retribution from heterosexuals if they could identify us, but also by making us fear associating with our own kind.
Nate Silver is participating in a continued construct of homosexuality as a behavior rather than a culture, perspective or neurological atypicality. It is not uncommon for people to say, "Gay is something I do, not who I am." We are able to conceive of race and gender as aspects of a person's identity without overwhelming it, but we, as a culture, persist in a terror that any cultural identification with homosexuality overwhelms and displaces all other aspects of one's being.
One reason our culture prefers perceiving homosexuality as a behavior and not an identity is severability. Homosexuality as an act can be a sin or a crime. You can ask forgiveness for it. You can serve your time. You can resign from Congress and go back to your wife, and everyone still gets to act like you're a regular "real" man.
The basic fact is that if you are attracted to people of the same biological sex, you will see the world differently and need some different cultural institutions to go about your life. Being gay means you understand people of the same sex and opposite sex differently than most people do. Being gay means you need to have ways of finding gay people to have sex and relationships with. It also means an increased risk of alienation from your parents (until recently), growing up without conceiving of the possibility of legally marrying someone you're sexually attracted to and being rejected by most traditional Western religions. Though we are spread throughout the population and look just the same as heterosexuals, gays have things in common.
Silver's point about being ethnically straight is undercut by his own words. He prefers the gay life in Chicago because New York's homo scene is "too diffuse," and he speaks fondly of a nightclub in Chicago with "good house music and good strong drinks." Silver recognizes the advantage of a city where gay guys are congregating based on sexuality instead of "just being people." As I've said, how to find other gays is one of the core questions our culture has to answer. Gayborhoods may be ghettos, but they also answer that question. We also have to get full-grown men tipsy to flirt with them, so we need stronger drinks than a bar that's structured for men to get women drunk enough to make bad decisions. Silver may not realize it, but he needs gay culture just as much as it needs him.
So why the refusal by many, gay and straight, to define gay men and women as a culture or subculture?
When I was 17, like a good, politically minded Jewish boy, I read Benjamin Netanyahu's book A Place Among the Nations. In it he explained that the Palestinians were not a people, just Jordanian tenant farmers with no distinct culture. I believed him. Then, a few years later, I was reading an article from Germany in the 19th century that explained that Yiddish wasn't a real language, just corrupted German, a jargon. I started to realize that denying the existence of a culture is a really great way of denying the needs of that culture. Yiddish isn't the language of a people, just bad German. Palestinians aren't a distinct culture, just some people who should move out of Israel. Gay bars and Grindr aren't the cultural tools of a people, just trashy behavior.
Keeping gays from identifying as a group is a great way of keeping us from supporting each other and our rights. But even the people who would deny our rights still acknowledge that we have shared culture. Any schoolyard bully or gender policing frat boy knows what a fag is. We have litanies of stereotypes for "fags" and "dykes," and they're just all kinda bad. So we want to define homosexuality as an act, define a culture associated with homosexuality, but insist upon the right of people committing homosexual acts to distance themselves from that culture.
So what's wrong with that? Why does Nate Silver have to be "gay"? When Ricky Martin, Ellen or Anderson Cooper were playing the glass closet game, people kept asking, "Why do we have to know? Why does it matter?" Can't Nate Silver just be a statistician?
No. Here's why.
There's a generalized presumption of heterosexuality in our society. If Nate Silver doesn't identify as gay, it will allow everyone to do what I did: presume that he's straight. We would thereby continue to define math as a thing straight people do. Gays and lesbians pretty much look like everybody else; we have names that are (mostly) just like everybody else's. Neil deGrasse Tyson challenges people's notions of what a black man and a scientist are when he shows up on TV, is visibly black and talks about science. Gays cannot be passively visible in the same way. We must be audible. If we want people to understand that gay people are just like everyone else, we can't just be like everyone else. A quiet gay or lesbian mathematician, postal worker or pro football player will be assumed straight, because everyone knows gays and lesbians are just florists and women's gym teachers. We need to make it safe for a person to be out in a non-traditionally gay field and not have it affect his or her work. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that.
Gay experiences are frequently ignored by society. White, heterosexual male perspective is integrated into all aspects of society, and any stuff that comes from a different perspective is viewed as tainted or a niche product. We need to accustom people to the idea that gays are more than a slutty parade and bathroom sex so that we can allow our perspective to enrich all disciplines. We need to make it safe for a statistician to be gay and have it affect their work, because some people are gay, some people are black, some people are women and all of those perspectives can enrich all fields. Nate Silver being a gay statistician will help that.
We cannot ignore that gays are a traditionally marginalized, stigmatized group. It's still illegal to be gay in most of the world. We elected our first gay senator this year. It's illegal for us to get married in 41 states. No NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA player has ever come out while playing. It is still hard to be gay, so deciding not to identify with gay culture cannot be seen as just another choice. It is the choice to avoid the bad thing. It is distancing yourself from all the negative stereotypes of gay culture. We can't behave like Nate Silver's choice to distance himself from gay culture is just another choice. It is the choice our society has engineered him to make, and him making it will engineer future gay men and women to make similar choices.
Look, gays are bad at identifying as a group. We're born to (usually) heterosexual parents, and we don't figure out we're gay until we're teenagers. We spend a long time not being gay before we are. If you're a white boy, it's easy to convince yourself that identity politics are for other weird, bad people. If you're not white, you spend a lot of years inhabiting a different identity that can feel incompatible with being gay. Despite Silver's concerns about gay conformity being as bad as straight conformity, the problem isn't that we allow ourselves to disappear into homosexuality as an identity; it's that we're terrified and terrible at it.
And homosexuality is intimidating. It is a sexual minority group. That means that our compatriots are also our sexual objects. We are usually more concerned with finding sexual parters than forming a group identity or protecting our collective rights. Imagine how much harder it would have been for Martin Luther King to organize African Americans if everyone at the AME church had been drunk and dressed kind of slutty. The sexual aspect of homosexuality involves a necessary aspect of danger and rejection that makes forming a supportive group culture really hard.
These problems are integral components of our identity and must be managed, but there's a bigger problem with gay group identity that's just the result of a homophobic culture: the construct of gays as vain, frivolous and embarrassing. Both Nate Silver and Out seem to be endorsing the idea that being simultaneously gay and a serious mathematician is unthinkable. Let's think about this for a second. There aren't really that many famous mathematicians in modern life, but undoubtedly two of the most famous are Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, and John Nash, the Nobel Prize winner on whom the movie A Beautiful Mind was based. What do you think these boys had in common with ol' Natie?
Both of them had sex with dudes. The two most famous mathematicians we've got were both gay or bisexual, but somehow Nate Silver can't imagine being culturally gay and a serious mathematician. It's not his fault; it's our culture, and we've got to change it.
Gay men are men and, as such, do many of the things stereotypically associated with men. We like science, engineering and games about shooting people. Just about every gay guy I know read science fiction novels and played with action figures when he was in grade school. Yeah, we're more comfortable sharing women's interests than straight men are, but it doesn't change the fact that we are still, chemically, men. Gay men go into all professions, but we are only allowed integrated identities if we go into traditionally gay (or female) professions. Choreographers, stylists and playwrights are allowed to be out gay men. NFL players, governors, Navy SEALs and mathematicians can and do have sex with other men, but they can't talk about it.
Hey, remember A Beautiful Mind? We sure saw John Nash with his wife, didn't we? But we didn't really see him having any relationships with men, because it "got in the way" of his story. That's because our culture won't let homosexuality be an integrated part of a man's life unless that life is risible. What was "don't ask, don't tell" but a legal regime to keep homosexuality dissociated from a way of life considered serious, important and masculine?
You might notice that the trend here is to define things that are serious and important as masculine. It's clear that the gender policing of gay men is a subset of a larger problem of institutionalized misogyny. If we let Navy SEALs admit that they smoke pole, we might have to realize that women can be serious scientists, too. We might have to admit that all those choreographers, stylists and playwrights of either sex might have something valuable to contribute to society.
So we have to keep gay men psychologically broken.
A few months ago, Todd Glass, a well-established comic, came out of the closet on the popular comedy podcast WTF With Marc Maron. I'd been a fan of Glass for a decade. He's a quick, rough, electric performer, the kind of guy other comics love. I had no clue he was gay -- not that he said he was "gay" precisely. On the podcast he said he has sex with men and he is in a long-term relationship with a man, but that he doesn't identify as "gay." He said he doesn't want to be associated with everything that word is associated with. Glass said he wouldn't let his coming out change his approach to comedy, and he'd continue to never mention it onstage.
Later in the podcast, Todd started making jokes about the jealousy and resentment he feels when he sees young heterosexual couples holding hands in public. It was great, harsh and funny, precisely what I love about Todd Glass. It was also something I have felt. Todd Glass is a talented, amazing comic who has amazing insight on my life and perspective but who vows not to share those observations. It made me really sad. I want to hear Todd Glass's jokes about being gay.
When Todd Glass said he wouldn't change what he does onstage, the host of the podcast, the nice, liberal, broad-thinking Marc Maron, said, "Yeah, I don't think you'll be touring with Scott Capurro any time soon." Scott Capurro is a well-regarded comic who's been out for all of his career, but a comic who isn't nearly as successful as Todd Glass is, in part because he's been out for all of his career. The conversation was clearly defining that Scott Capurro was a "gay comic" and Todd Glass was a "good comic." Todd won't change; he won't become a "gay comic"; he'll stay a "good comic."
So what the hell am I?
I am working my hardest to be a good gay comic. Nate Silver should be doing his best to be a stellar gay statistician.
When Phillip Roth started writing, he was a Jewish novelist, because real novelists didn't write books about masturbating with a beef liver. When Toni Morrison started writing, she was a black novelist, because real novelists don't have hair like a maid. In the intervening years, enough Jews wrote awesome, dirty books that Phillip Roth is now just a novelist. Toni Morrison still has to be a black novelist, but at least she's done enough work that when someone sees an 80-year-old black woman with silvery locks, they realized that "Nobel Prize winner" is one of her possible professions.
So, yes, Nate Silver, Barack Obama has to be a black president, Tammy Baldwin has to be a lesbian senator and you have to be a gay statistician. Otherwise, people will never learn.
Follow Guy Branum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/guybranum