11 October 2010

Why I'm out online

ResearchBlogging.orgExactly a year ago today, I came out of the online closet. Now it's another National Coming Out Day, and it seems like as good a time as any to think out loud about why I made that decision.
Image borrowed from Wikipedia under fair use rationale.
My reasons aren't going to surprise anyone who has even a passing familiarity with gay rights history:
  • Familiarity breeds acceptance. This is mainly a political argument. It's widely accepted (and supported by ongoing public opinion surveying) that people who personally know GLBT folks are overwhelmingly more likely to support treating GLBT people like full citizens. The psychology isn't hard to understand—it's easy to hate the nebulous, faceless, unknown Gays; it's rather harder to hate your son, or your niece, the nice neighbors who let you borrow their lawnmower, or (I hope) the guy who writes that one not-entirely-terrible science blog you check every so often.
  • Gotta give'em hope. And an example. This is more personal. I grew up without knowing any out gay people, which was, to put it mildly, not helpful. I was, to paraphrase the Onion headline, The Only Homosexual in the World; I didn't have any of the support, or visible examples, that would've helped me think critically about my sexual orientation or imagine a future in which I was out, and happy about it. (Which I very much am, these days.) By being open about my orientation, maybe I can help someone else figure out his (or hers) in a way I couldn't, and even show that, as confusing and frequently miserable as growing up gay is, it gets better.
And if there's one impression I hope to give a confused, lonely (and presumably nerdy) gay kid reading D&T, it's that it did get better for this formerly confused, lonely (and unquestionably nerdy) gay kid. And a large part of how it got better, for me, has to do with going into science.

Evolutionary biology has turned out to be a good field for me, in this personal respect. When I started my first genuine biology-related internship, I was surrounded for the first time by people who didn't talk about gays in the hushed, scandalized tones I'd heard through a lot of my childhood and schooling. Biologists are as human as the next ape descendent, but they're also a generally open-minded bunch who tend to be more interested in the quality of your work than what you do after you leave the lab. And, for what are probably obvious reasons, evolutionary biology doesn't attract the sort of people who hold doctrinaire conservative religious positions on any subject.

Evolutionary biology is also a pretty good academic discipline for me because evolutionary biology has something to say about sexual minorities, just as it has something to say about humans in general. Humans are biological beings, and we're part of an animal kingdom that exhibits a wide array of sexual behaviors, as elaborately documented by the evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden in her book Evolution's Rainbow. Exactly how to explain this diversity, particularly in the case of humans, is still quite controversial [$a]—but it's a question for which I have some expertise, and one I'd like to weave into the writing I do for D&T in the future.

References

Futuyma, D. (2005). Celebrating diversity in sexuality and gender. Evolution, 59 (5), 1156-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2005.tb01052.x

Roughgarden, J. (2004). Evolution's Rainbow. Berkeley: University of California Press. Preview on Google Books.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Jeremy, I don't know if you remember me or not but I was at EMU the same time you were (albeit a few years behind) and we were in "Comedy of Errors" together.

    In a successful attempt this afternoon to avoid studying for my mid-terms I was looking up old college friends on Facebook and stumbled across your profile. I must admit that I was rather surprised to learn that you are gay. It brought to mind the many discussions we had as a cast around this issue and I must say that my opinion has undergone a dramatic shift since those discussions six years ago. This was due in no small part to (as you note above) my interactions with my gay and lesbian friends. Perhaps the most influential of these (although she doesn't know it) was my graduate advisor at JMU. The way in which she was open and candid about her personal life, her acceptance of my Christian faith, and her accomplishments and guidance as a biology educator and researcher spoke volumes to me and led me to seriously reconsider the beliefs on same-sex relationships that I was raised with. Theologians such as EMU professor Ted Grimsrud also played a key role in my philosophical rethink.

    All of this is to say that I want to express to you my support (as a Mennonite Christian) for you and my other gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Sometime when I'm not unsuccessfully studying for mid-terms I'll also check out your purely science posts. Also, your shirts are kind of awesome, you wouldn't happen to ship internationally would you?

    -Ethan Horst

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  2. Well, hi, Ethan. It has been quite a while! It sounds like your experience is pretty much exactly what I was talking about, and I'm glad to have your support.

    But I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the Mennonite Church, as an institution, is still heavily dominated by people who are much less supportive—recall the reception PinkMenno was given at the last denominational convention, or how the theater professor who directed "The Comedy of Errors"—a gay man who agreed to be celibate in order to take a position at EMU—was treated the very semester we performed that play. All of which is to say, I hope you're sharing your experience, and your perspective, with the rest of the church.

    (Regarding the t-shirts: Spreadshirt, the company that prints them, does indeed ship internationally. I had an order from a colleague in Sweden not that long ago!)

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  3. I do remember the controversy surrounding the professor that directed "Comedy of Errors," although I was rather young and naive at the time and I don't know that I was ever fully aware of all that was going on. The Mennonite Church does have some things to work on, however, in my conversations with friends (including delegates at the last convention) I get the impression that many are dissatisfied with the status quo but they aren't quite sure what and how to change things without causing the acrimony and divisions currently engulfing the Anglican Communion.

    When it comes to personally sharing my experience and perspective with the church I have thus far tread lightly. I have found that friends from our generation are open and often have similar experiences to my own. However, when family members seem ready to "tar and feather" you for accepting the scientific reality of evolution and climate change it makes broaching more controversial topics a bit challenging. But I am starting to work on them.

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