February 13, 1993

Article at Buffalo News

Why label people by sexual orientation?

If I were a journalist, I'd take a pledge right now not to write things like this for a whole week: "Roberta Achenberg, a lesbian, was nominated by President Clinton for a prominent position in the Department of Housing and Urban Development." Oh, it would be hard, I know, not to mention a person's sexual orientation when it is known. So I would take another pledge to write things like this for a whole week. "President Clinton, a long-time heterosexual, signed the Family Leave Bill into law today."

I would also write this: "Strom Thurmond, who recently became impotent, warned Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill today against lifting the ban." Of course, first I would check to make sure Strom Thurmond was, in fact, impotent. 

I would look into every public figure's sexuality, so I could modify all their names with a descriptive clause about their sexual preferences or idiosyncrasies. Some of my stories undoubtedly would start thus: "Colin Powell, who favors the missionary position, testified before Congress about the viability of U.S. intervention in Bosnia."

"Nancy Kassebaum, a non-orgasmic heterosexual senator from Kansas, has introduced legislation to. . . ."

Hopefully, you've had enough examples. No doubt these tidbits of information, tucked carefully between commas after the names of public figures, seem inappropriate -- probably embarrassingly so. Then why do we keep referring to Roberta Achenberg as a lesbian? Why was there such an effort to label Donna Shalala as a lesbian? Is their sexual orientation any more relevant to their ability to perform the jobs they've been nominated for than, say, Colin Powell's favorite sexual position is to his job performance?

The point isn't whether someone's out of the closet. I'm out of the closet about being heterosexual and Jewish, yet I don't expect the credit line at the bottom of this essay to read, "Jim Sollisch is a heterosexual Jewish free-lance writer from Cleveland."

There are certain labels we don't need to attach to people in public. I think sexual orientation is one. I think ethnicity should quickly become another. Why do we have to read: "Henry Cisneros, an Hispanic, was nominated to head up HUD"? Why not "Henry Cisneros, the long-time mayor of San Antonio, Texas, was nominated. . . ." Surely, that clause modifies his name a lot more relevantly than his ethnicity.

Every time we write that so-and-so, a black, or so-and-so, a Hispanic, or so-and-so, a gay, was appointed to this or that position, we are not implying as some would argue, that we are an open society. We are implying that anyone who is not a white, Anglo male is a "surprise" choice for the position in question. We are pandering to the idea that certain groups of people aren't capable of public service. Either that or we're implying that their blackness or gayness is somehow relevant to their ability to perform their jobs.

Who knows, Roberta Achenberg may want to be referred to as a lesbian. News reports I watched focused on how open she was about her sexual orientation. In fact, that's all the report on CNN focused on. In a two-minute segment, I didn't learn one thing about why she was qualified for the job to which she was appointed. And I assume she was very qualified, because being a lesbian in our society, she would have to be. But all I learned about her was that she is sexually active with women. Unless "lesbian" means more than that, and I just don't know.

My point is, let's be careful not to define people solely by their sexual orientation or ethnicity. Let's not reduce a job applicant with a wide range of experiences and education simply to "black." Let's not reduce a multi-faceted, complex person who wants to join the military and serve our country simply to "gay." And if you disagree with me, let me know your name, so I can write a story about you that begins," (YOUR NAME HERE), a homophobic, self-avowed heterosexual, believes that. . . ."

JIM SOLLISCH writes from Cleveland.