Manti, Jodie, and Privacy

Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye is the story of a young black girl, Pecola, so damaged by a society that denigrates blackness that she comes to believe she has blue eyes. The metaphor is fascinating, both that she cannot help seeing the world through the instruments of whiteness, and that blackness is so belittled that this girl cannot imagine a place for herself unless she's white. The novel is about race in America in the 40s, but it perhaps has as much or more to say about the state of gays in America today.

Some gays have blue eyes. That is to say we are not physically distinguishable from the rest of society. Gays look like everyone else. More importantly, some of us have the physical characteristics of privileged members of society: I'm white and male. This leads to a number of temptations to simply pretend that we aren't gay to continue to enjoy the benefits of this apparent privilege. It's a very dangerous option we all participate in on occasion. However much we may love being gay, love loving men or women, part of us will always long for the simplicity of fitting in to the world.

We may never know what motivated the curious falsehoods of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend. Since it became clear that his girlfriend and her well-publicized death were both fictions, there's been a lot of speculation, including that of LaVar Arrington and Cyd Ziegler Jr. that Te'o's invention of a girlfriend may have been an attempt to mask homosexuality from the world. We don't know if Manti Te'o is gay. He's 21. He may not know if he's gay. When I was 21 I was still publicly proclaiming my heterosexuality to the world. We don't know what's going on, but there are some things we can learn from this story.

The first is the repetition of "We cannot know". Because homosexuality is an internal inclination, it can only be self-identified. Because it is heavily stigmatized by society, it frequently is not self-identified. Sometimes people are scared to admit they're gay, sometimes they feel so much pressure from society to be straight, they don't identify internally as gay despite sexual attraction to the same sex. The inclination to continue the narrative of universal heterosexuality is powerful. It is presumed libel to call a person gay who isn't a officially declared gay. Saying someone is heterosexual isn't. When we discuss Abraham Lincoln sleeping in a bed with another man for several years, we must say that isn't enough proof to say he's gay. When Mitt Romney holds down a classmate, calls him "Nancy", and cuts off his bangs, we must say the classmate was "effeminate" or "presumed homosexual", we cannot simply say he was gay. This presumption of heterosexuality cuts us off from our history, and from people who are sharing our common experiences but who are not out gay people. It means that if Manti Te'o is going through this ordeal because he's attracted to men, we can't help him.

There are a lot of patterns in the Manti Te'o narrative that are familiar to me as a gay guy who was closeted into his 20s. My argument is not that Te'o is gay, but that possible gay readings of his situation should not be ridiculed as inappropriate projections. To every person who sneers at these readings with a "you don't know that he's gay", I would say that you don't know that he's straight. And while we know he purported to be in a relationship with a woman, we also know he never physically interacted with her. The uncertainty and familiarity are enough for me to be concerned as a gay person.

Part of the danger of interpreting the Manti Te'o situation is that we are reading it through presumptions about the behavior of collegiate and professional athletes. We assume that raping a few girls and kicking out a few surprise babies before leaving college is normal behavior. Manti embodies a kind of sexual naiveté we can't reconcile with an athlete. But he's 21. I've known a lot of 21 year old virigins, some heterosexual, some gay, some me. But Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, and the mainstream press are going to continue perpetuate a narrative of sweet, naïve heterosexuality cruelly played upon by bullies. I think it's the obligation of gay people to say that whether Manti's actions were the result of extreme sexual naiveté or an attempt to mask his lack of pro athlete hyper-heterosexual, these are patterns that are common in our community.

When I was closeted, I lied to seem more conventionally heterosexual. I know a lot of lesbians and gays who, when they were closeted, maintained close affiliations to fundamentalist religions so they would have an excuse to avoid all sexual activity. Until my 20s, I just avoided thinking about sex altogether to avoid having to face the social and religious problems inherent in my heterosexuality. The options in reading Manti Te'o's story are not a clear choice between him being a self-aware homosexual who perpetuated a lie to hide his life or him being a sweet naïve heterosexual boy whose trust was played upon by a cruel (and possibly gay) bully. There is the separate possibility that Manti Te'o was trying to be the best possible person he could in a world that does not have space for him. It is very possible that he doesn't know he's gay, but was trying to enact the semblance of sexuality without any substantial sexuality to comport with social expectations.

Looking at the photos of Te'o from the Heisman ceremony, I was struck by the garlands of leis around his neck. It was a reminder of the layers of tradition on him: as a Samoan, as a Hawai'ian, as a football player and an American. He had so much potential to be successful, to actualize who he's SUPPOSED to be under those traditions, that it is very understandable how he might have become paranoid that any divergence from conventional heterosexuality would undermine his chances. I can very much see how he wanted a girlfriend so bad he believed he had one. He is a big strong college football player, but I fear he is also Pecola from "The Bluest Eye", wanting to fit in so bad she loses touch with reality.

Manti is now at IMG football training camp, a kind of finishing school for men going into the NFL draft. He is surrounded by sports agents and former players. I seriously doubt anyone has told Manti Te'o that if he's gay, it's all right with them. The current scandal has already injured his value as a potential draft pick, no one wants to hurt his chances more by further diverging from the expected narrative. And we can't help him. My inclination is to say the kindest thing we can do for this kid is just change the subject, try to give him his privacy, and hope he finds his way out. But Manti is surrounded by people who are going to be telling him that publicly perpetuating the story of naïve, innocent heterosexuality played upon by cruel bullies is the best (and most profitable) story. That's sad.

Manti Te'o may or may not be gay, but we live in a world full of kids who will one day be gay, but are now living the lives that are expected of them. Are they gay? We don't know yet. We won't know until they tell us. We're not allowed to talk to them about it until they tell us. Many parents would consider it an insult if you suggested their teenage or pre-teen child might be gay. Our children live in other people's houses. As many of us know, a lot of the people raising gay children right now believe homosexuality is sinful, evil, or a cruel hoax played upon weak minds. We have no direct way of helping those children. They are alone.

Last week Jodie Foster kind of came out at the Golden Globes. She indirectly indicated she's a lesbian, but vehemently argued that she had no obligation to come out, and that people who urged her to come out were invading her privacy.

First of all, good for Jodie, good for us. In whatever terms, it is a good thing when a person publicly comes out. Every act of coming out is an act of civil disobedience: Like blacks at segregated lunch counters or Indians making salt against the prohibitions of the British occupation, coming out invites the retribution of a discriminatory system to prove its inequality. Anytime anyone comes out, we should (figuratively) slaughter a fattened calf: one who was lost to us is alive again.

Second, bullshit. Encouraging a person to come out is not a violation of privacy. Homosexuality is no more private than heterosexuality. It is no violation of Tom Hanks's privacy to identify Rita Wilson as his wife. It would have been no more a violation to identify Cydney Bernard as Jodie's girlfriend. Similarly, Jodie Foster has not been particularly private, choosing a well paid, very public professional life that involved a lot of interviews and magazine covers. It is entirely possible to be a professionally fulfilled actress under more private circumstances. None of the Steppenwolf Theater ensemble members are too famous to go to the grocery store, and that includes John Malkovitch. The prime ridiculousness of the diatribe was that it was made in front of cameras Foster voluntarily got in front of to receive an honorary award she could have easily declined. Jodie Foster did not avoid mentioning her homosexuality because homosexuality is private or because she is overwhelmingly protective of her privacy. She avoided mentioning her homosexuality because coming out is an act of civil disobedience which brings with it social and professional retribution.

So was Jodie Foster obliged to come out? No. She, like all of us, has the right to keep private what she wants to keep private. She is under no obligation to be political. She had no obligation to do anything other than lead her life as a private citizen. But she deserves no praise, either.

In 1900, Montgomery, Alabama passed a law which segregated their bus system. For 55 years, black men and women rode the bus according to the rules. It was difficult and humiliating, but they had lives that they needed to lead, so they played by the rules. In 1955, Rosa Parks broke the rules. She did not get home on time that day. She did not get her privacy. Thousands of others joined in a boycott of the Montgomery buses which ended their segregation. Rosa made a choice to be public so that a lot of other people could be private citizens, get home on time and ride in the front of the bus. I will not ridicule Jodie Foster, I will respect her privacy, but I will celebrate Melissa Etheridge, Ian McKellen, Elton John, and countless others who came out when they didn't have to, did something dangerous, and made the world safer for me. It cost them some privacy, it gained me some freedom.

We can't do anything to directly help Manti Te'o, if he needs our help; or any of the millions of kids out there who will one day be gay. But we can help them indirectly; we can help them by creating a world where the narrative of heterosexuality is a little less hegemonic. Jodie spoke fiercely against the people asking her to come out. When she said that, I wonder if she thought about the frightened teenage lesbians who don't have millions of dollars to hide behind, and fear they are a gross mistake of god or nature. When comedian Todd Glass came out, he did it in direct response to the spate of gay teen suicides. He understood that every bit of gay visibility makes the world a little safer for every other gay.

We have to show kids that you can be beautiful with brown eyes. We need to show kids that you can be a successful actress, comic, football player or Senator and also be gay. We need to show kids that there's space to be who they are.

Lord Byron, whose sexuality is as uncertain as Manti Te'o's, said "who would be free, himself must strike the blow." We often behave as though gay liberation has happened automatically, as the natural course of human history and American liberty. This is a disservice to the generations who have endured prison, torture, degradation and shame for openly loving people of the same sex, and in the process made us safer. There is more work to be done, and no honor in shirking that work. Frederick Douglass, thoroughly heterosexual and thoroughly awesome, said "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Jodie Foster doesn't want to make an awful roar, but I will, and you should, too. It is very possible Manti needs to hear it.