Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,

[BRIEF NOTE] On Nate Silver's statements about gay identity

World-famous statistician Nate Silver was named Out magazine's person of the year. An article by Out's Aaron Hicklin caused a certain amount of unhappiness in the blogosphere on account of Silver's quoted statements about his identification with gay culture.

If these pastimes—poker, baseball, debating Chinese–U.S. relations—seem atypical of the average twentysomething gay guy, perhaps it’s because gay nerds have a low profile in our culture. “To my friends, I’m kind of sexually gay but ethnically straight,” explains Silver, who came out to his parents after spending a year in London studying economics—“I don’t know how I got any work done”—and considers gay conformity as perfidious as straight conformity. He supports marriage equality, but worries that growing acceptance of gays will dent our capacity to question broader injustice.

“For me, I think the most important distinguishing characteristic is that I’m independent-minded,” he says. “I’m sure that being gay encouraged the independent-mindedness, but that same independent-mindedness makes me a little bit skeptical of parts of gay culture, I suppose.”

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, 1962 to 1981,’ or whatever [actually 1958 to 1990], 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.”

Silver, who once worked with the dating site OkCupid to calculate the best nights of the week to meet someone for a casual encounter (Wednesdays and Thursdays, apparently—“Friday and Saturday are a clusterfuck”), is not a fan of New York’s gay scene, which he thinks is too diffuse, but recalls many fond nights at Berlin, a nightclub in Chicago, where he met his former boyfriend, Robert Gauldin (the two recently separated but remain close; friends are optimistic for a reconciliation). “It was mainly a gay clientele but not entirely—they actually had good house music and good strong drinks, and it was about the right size,” he says. “And it’s also always the same—if there were a nuclear holocaust, it would live on.”


One of the more thoughtful responses to Silver's announcement was in Guy Branum's Huffington Post column, wherein he argued that Silver should be out--and more strongly gay-identifying, apparently, whatever that means--in order to boost gay visibility generally.

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.

[. . .]

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.
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Well. Besides noting that Silver was out back in 2008, his experience does illustrate some of the issues with what Andrew Soloman has called a "horizontal identity", an identity that an individual doesn't inherit from parents but is instead shared with non-relatives. These horizontal identities seem to me somewhat more unstable than more traditional vertical ones, on account of the greater difficulties associated with enculturating norms across heterogenous groups. Expecting anyone associated with one of these heterogenous identities, with their diverse memberships and widely--and legitimately--varying understandings of what this identity should mean in practice, strikes me as unreasonable. IMHO.

(You?)
Tags: glbt issues, politics, popular culture
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