Vargas: The politics and policing of gay sexuality

Alex Morse was just 22 when he was elected the first gay mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Last year, Morse decided to run for Congress against the moderate Democrat Richard Neal in the 1st District.

Morse was a serious contender for the seat, until the UM Amherst chapter of the College Democrats, possibly in coordination with the state Democratic Party, leaked a letter in which they made vague suggestions that Morse had been making inappropriate sexual advances toward students.

The story turned out to be a fabrication. Morse had done nothing wrong, but the College Democrats knew they could make it seem like a scandal because, despite the great strides gay men are making to join society, Americans are still deeply suspicious of gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) sexuality.

This distrust is deeply rooted in fears of sexual liberation. In order for gay men to have healthy emotional and sexual relationships, we must first break free of the social conditioning that tells us same-sex relationship are taboo. The self-exploration at the heart of sexual liberation is why we have such an incredible diversity of personal and sexual expression in the LGBTQ+ community, including a wide variety of sexual and quasi-sexual identities (such as bears, twinks, leather daddies, etc.) and an embrace of non-sexual and polyamorous relationships.

In 2003, when gay sex came before the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia perfectly captured the fear this sexual liberation elicits in some Americans when he wrote that accepting “homosexual sodomy” would lead to acceptance of incest, bestiality, adultery and various other sexual taboos.

To those who fear it, sexual liberation is a moral slippery slope, and GLB sexuality is the gateway.

Suspicion of GLB sexuality leads to social policing of GLB people, particularly gay men. Mayor Pete Buttigieg offers a distressing illustration of this. Buttigieg was a gay man in a heteronormative monogamous relationship (which, ironically, created some tension between the candidate and the broader LGBTQ+ community), but even this was not enough to avoid close social scrutiny of his relationship. A public kiss between Buttigieg and his husband was all it took to spark a debate about the appropriateness of gay affection in public.

The experience of Congresswoman Katie Hill should, therefore, come as no surprise. Hill was openly bisexual, but when it came out that she and her husband were engaged in a consensual non-monogamous relationship with another woman, she was subjected to an overwhelming onslaught of hate and homophobia. Even LGBTQ+ allies like Nancy Pelosi called her “undignified” (among other patronizing remarks made behind closed doors) and forced her to resign. Experiences like those of Hill and Morse have a chilling effect for other LGBTQ+ people looking to run for office.

However, fear of GLB sexuality is so strong that GLB people are even effectively barred from talking about sex at all. Sen. Scott Wiener recently proposed a bill to equalize criminal penalties for LGBTQ+ offenders, only to be accused of being a pedophile. Kudos to Wiener for his courage, because the specter of being unjustly accused of being a pedophile and the violence or extortion that can result, is still one of the most potent weapons used to oppress LGBTQ+ people.

This is not an issue limited to GLB people in public office. I personally know a gay professor who hides his sexuality from his school and his entire community for fear that the details of his exciting sex life will get him fired. I personally know a single gay teacher who can’t be on dating apps for fear that he’d be fired if a community member found it. Every member of our community hides a part of their sexuality at some point for fear that it will be weaponized against them.

GLB people are, and should be, challenging the policing of GLB sexuality. Rep. Brian Sims in Pennsylvania has playfully embraced his status as a “Bear” and a “sex symbol.”

Here in Silicon Valley, Alysa Cisneros, who is a candidate for Sunnyvale City Council, re-posted a delightfully provocative Facebook post earlier this week about not being afraid of “candidates who f—.” A few weeks ago, Cisneros and a group of local bisexual and queer activists also wrote an op-ed challenging the policing of their sexualities. And let’s not forget that all women are also still fighting the weaponizing of their sexuality too, as illustrated by Angela Mayfield, who was recently shamed by a Georgia newspaper for having the audacity to casually mention oral sex on Twitter.

So, let’s just stop all that nonsense. There’s no slippery slope, except maybe in the paranoid nightmares (or repressed fantasies) of Jerry Falwell, Jr. If you were titillated by 50 Shades of Grey, but still want to play sex police when GLB people are involved, please take a seat. Gay people have sex. It’s probably different than how you have sex. Get over it already.

Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.

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