I recently attended a baby shower for a male colleague and his wife in Bogotá, Colombia. Thanks to the abundance of wine, it wasn't long before the event turned into a matchmaking fest for the scattered singles in the room.
"So who are we going to match Michael with?" a colleague named Gloria asked. The room grew quiet as all eyes fixated on me.
"Yeah, what are you looking for in a woman?" the father-to-be asked, his arm wrapped around his wife. "Blonde? Tall? Dark-skinned? Colombian?" He spoke using only feminine adjectives (we were speaking Spanish), meaning that there was no other choice but for my "type" to be a woman.
"I like unique people," I said, remaining as gender-neutral as possible.
"Unique?" Gloria asked. "But what makes them unique?"
If only I had had the cojones to respond the way Lady Gaga did when she was asked a similar question.
Instead, I sat up straight, crossed one leg over the other, and took a deep breath.
"I love women, but I don't make love to women."
If a roomful of people could collectively deflate, that was what happened. Gloria let out a tremendous sigh and said, "What a waste!" I searched the room for signs of solace, but the partygoers' eyes had either shifted to the floor or remained partially hidden behind their wine glasses.
This story of being backed into the corner by a roomful of people who should have known better isn't a unique one. Many lesbian and gay people living in a straight world experience a moment where they are forced to lie, pretending to be something they're not, or to like something that they don't just to blend in with the heterosexual norm. Sometimes, for the "closeted," this chameleon-like act is perpetual. Other times it's circumstantial, a one-off sort of thing that is performed to avoid dealing with the awkwardness that ensues once a straight person is corrected for making assumptions. The alternative is to rupture the moment with truth. It's a simple-sounding act but one that tends to shock, disappoint or inspire self-directed guilt among all parties.
That these types of situations continue to transpire in the 21st century seems like a mystery. Why, after all the media coverage of the "comings out" of Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Martin and Anderson Cooper, after all the LGBT-oriented songs by Lady Gaga, and after all the fad television romances, do people continue to be shocked by the revelation that someone is gay? A part of the answer lies in the contextual. We all live in a straight world where being heterosexual is the norm and being gay isn't. This is why gay people are still expected, and essentially required, to declare their sexuality to the straight masses in a way that straight people aren't. The lives of gay people are defined by this public act of self-identification, an expected step for assimilation into a heteronormative and inegalitarian context.
How did it come to be that lesbians and gays still have to contort themselves to fit into some straight mold? While the reasons are both varied and complex, an undeniable factor is leadership. The LGBT community lives in a world that has been designed by and for straight people -- or straight white males, as is the case in the United States. Deflections from the path of straightness are often the cause of identity crises, efforts to reject the self and conform to the norm, or tragedy, as observed in the cyclical suicides of gay teens that take U.S. media by storm every few months or so. Of course, sexual orientation is not something that can be forcibly changed, as hard as some might try by zapping themselves with electro-shocks or carrying out numerous soul-wrenching conversations with God.
Some straight leaders who have helped maintain this system have offered concessions. The occasional conservative or moderate might mumble something about allowing gays the right to things like hospital visits. But the truth of the matter is that there is a whole lot of life that happens before a gay person's partner dies that most world leaders aren't discussing.
The United States is a country where sodomy was criminalized in many states until 2003. Until just last year, you couldn't be openly gay and fight for our country. Even today, we still hear stories about anti-gay bullying and gay teens who take their lives just to escape the torment. Many people don't realize that widespread discrimination in the workplace still exists. According to a 2012 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), in 29 out of 50 U.S. states, a homophobic employer can still legally fire an employee on the basis of sexual orientation.
The persistence of this type of discrimination boils down to leadership. There has been a readily apparent incapacity, mixed with unwillingness, of leaders across the world to acknowledge or positively address equality. In many instances this is because leaders are unable to separate their political leadership from interpretations of their religious faith. Instead of honoring the timeless principle of separation between Church and State -- or, as Thomas Jefferson worded it, making "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- they turn to policies inspired by religious dogmatism that incite and legitimize actions of intolerance.
Perhaps U.S. vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan summarized the Republican ticket's political philosophy best in the vice-presidential debate when he said, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith." While the statement was made in justification of Ryan's hostilities toward women's right to control their bodies, it also speaks to Ryan's intolerant record toward LGBT rights and his unjustified need to control gay people's bodies and their privacy. As acknowledged by the Human Rights Campaign, in the House of Representatives, Ryan voted against hate crimes protections for LGBT people on two occasions. He voted in favor of banning same-sex couples from adopting children in Washington, D.C., and he voted against repealing "don't ask, don't tell" in an effort to prevent openly gay people from serving in the nation's armed forces, consequently dishonoring the service of LGBT veterans.
Needless to say, Ryan does not support marriage equality. He has supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex couples from marrying, as well as a similar constitutional amendment in Wisconsin. Ryan has even referred to "traditional marriage" as a "universal human value." With this rhetoric, he not only invisibilizes the gay community but monstrifies it.
Mitt Romney's record on LGBT rights rivals Ryan's in its closed-mindedness and intolerance. Romney opposes same-sex marriage, and he has referred to a federal employment nondiscrimination act as a burden that would "unfairly penalize" employers. With respect to civil unions, Romney said, "If the question is: 'Do you support gay marriage or civil unions?' I'd say neither; if they said you have to have one or the other, that Massachusetts is going to have one or the other, then I'd rather have civil unions than gay marriage."
At the same time, Romney recognizes the power of the gay community, which, if channeled properly, can lend much more to prominent figures than mere votes or Facebook "likes." That's why Romney veils his disregard for the gay community by pandering, claiming to "advance the, if you will, the efforts not to discriminate against people who are gay." But the sentence is a contradiction. Romney is willing to uphold an institution for the majority sector of the population while supposedly supporting a separate-but-equal alternative. The political posturing is transparent, but even if Romney would support a separate-but-equal alternative across states as president (which he wouldn't), its second-class categorization would be inherently discriminatory by nature.
Romney provides no justified reasoning for his wanting to maintain or legalize discrimination. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he dodged saying whether or not homosexuality was a sin and claimed, "You don't begin to apply the doctrines of a religion to responsibility for guiding a nation or guiding a state," a belief that runs in direct opposition to what Ryan stated at the VP debate. But if Romney's decision to discriminate is not based on religious belief, then he has left no viable alternative other than pandering to conservative voters.
Or perhaps Romney still harbors resentment toward gay people from his prep school bullying days.
Straight male leaders come in all forms, with some "evolving" to understand the vital nature of true equality in a society that touts the word "freedom" while never truly enabling its full realization. While Obama took longer to evolve than most would have hoped, his changed stance toward the LGBT community and same-sex marriage has come about nonetheless. His position on equality is louder and clearer than ever, and he has done more than any other U.S. president in history to advocate on behalf of the gay population.
Lesbian and gay people are not destined to lose in the political struggle to achieve true equality. The reason they do is because of people in positions of power who are fundamentally opposed to gay people's existence and seek to ensure that this existence remains subhuman. These leaders rule in societies that haven't been structured to operate in the LGBT community's favor, let alone allow LGBT people to lead a dignified and equal existence.
The blame falls upon leaders -- past, actual and hopeful -- who establish and maintain the consequences for being born gay in a straight world. These are ostensibly heterosexual men of an undistinguished breed, leaders who want to set society "straight" by punishing supposed sinners for their crimes and denying certain values that would make gay people just as human under the law as their heterosexual counterparts. Whether these men realize it or not, the implications of their leadership trickle down to the masses, influencing perceptions and behavior.
Until this essential element is addressed, gay people will continue to live unequally in a straight man's world, denied human value, rights and all the opportunities those ideas afford.