Michael Triplett raises some good questions about my Metro Weekly op-ed comparing Jose Antonio Vargas’s life in the “undocumented immigrant” closet to life in the gay closet, and specifically my argument that the telling of lies necessitated by either closet don’t necessarily imply some sort of serial mendacity once someone comes out of the closet. I said, “By [Slate’s Jack] Shafer’s logic, formerly closeted gay journalists are no more than confessed liars who can’t be trusted.”
At NLGJA’s Re:Act blog, Triplett counters:
It’s a fascinating argument, although I’m not sure it completely holds up. Admittedly, it’s the lawyer in me (who has written about immigration issues in the workplace) that bristles at the suggestion that being “in the closet” about your immigration status is comparable to being “in the closet” about your sexual orientation. Lying about who you are dating doesn’t put your employer in jeopardy for violating a host of federal laws. Lying about who your gender identity doesn’t represent a fraud that can result in your being permanently removed from the country.
What I was really focusing on in my argument is the case of undocumented immigrants such as Vargas, who were brought or sent to the U.S. when young and have as adults become, in every way but legal, Americans. The choices they have to make — lie and stay in their home nation or “come out” and risk be deported to an essentially foreign nation — are morally comparable to the closet LGBT people face. And while the closet certainly exacts a psychological price on all of us who experience it, it’s beyond the pale for Shafer and others to claim that the closet has converted those who come out into pathological liars. (And, just a legalistic nitpick: While it may not result in deportation, lying about your gender identity could certainly have some “fraud” implications depending on which U.S. state you happen to be in.)
This is why the characterization of Shafer’s anti-Vargas argument as “Let them pick fruit,” has some truth. It’s okay for undocumented workers to skirt the system to farm midwestern fields or nurse upper-class infants, but to lie to the Washington Post? Well, that just a step too far.
Pardon, but bullshit. It would be easy to make a sarcastic call for an investigation of the child rearing, lawn care and home improvement labor employed by the management of our major media outlets, but it would miss the point. There simply is no one in the D.C. metro area — or any other metropolitan area — whose daily life isn’t touched in some way by an undocumented worker.
Of course, I’m really focusing on immigrants who come here as children — those the DREAM Act would provide a legal path to citizenship — because that’s Vargas’s story, and it’s the story of other people in my life I care about. Those are also the stories where the two closets, undocumented and gay, most closely correlate.
I admit my argument breaks down if you’re looking at, say, undocumented immigrants who came here as adults — that’s a choice made by adults, and choice is what takes it out of the realm of the closet. (There is a counter to that counter: Gay and lesbian adults staying in the country illegally because they can’t get citizenship through marriage in the same way that heterosexual couples can — although that’s getting a little deep in the weeds for this particular argument.)
But the core truth, and the one I was trying to get at, is that all of us as LGBT people start out in a closet not of our choice or design. Undocumented immigrants who are brought or sent here as kids are put into a closet not of their choice. It’s the lack of choice that’s key and why Shafer’s argument is so wrong-headed and dismissive.