When I was at Woodhull Freedom Foundation‘s National Sexual Freedom Day press conference on September 23rd I participated in a video interview project exploring what sexual freedom means to people. To me, sexual freedom means the freedom to be my whole self instead of having to hide the parts of myself that relate to my sexuality.
Paul Berese, the videographer (from quimera.tv) asked me for an example of a place where I don’t feel free to be my whole self. The first place that came to mind was “at work.” I stumbled around a bit trying to explain. At work I do not discuss the lovers I have but to whom I am not married. I do not have many family pictures out, but the ones I do have are only of my legal family. If I am invited to a campus event and Will, my life partner and the person to whom I am happily married, cannot come, I do not bring another partner. I have a few friends at work to whom I am out as polyamorous, but it is not something that is easy to share routinely.
There are much starker examples of where people have had their freedom limited because of their sexuality. This week alone I read about Melissa Petro, 30-year-old New York City school teacher who was removed from her classroom and placed on administrative duty because she had the audacity to write freely about her past experiences as a sex worker and about, Anderson Cooper reported on Michigan Assistant Attorney General … writing a blog that stalks the openly gay student body president of University of Michigan, including an image of a rainbow flag superimposed with a swastika and the word “resign” (YouTube here, with image at :48), and a college student who killed himself after his sexual interactions with another man were broadcast live via iChat without his knowledge (and this in a month where at least 5 gay teens have committed suicide.)*
Simply speaking about your sexuality can cost you your job. Shame and stigma surrounding sexuality can cost one one’s life.
The regular imposition of Informal sanctions like bullying and violence, and of formal sanctions like firings or imprisonments provides ongoing evidence that we do not live in a society where sexual freedom is understood for the fundamental human right that it is.
And it is a fundamental human right. We are born sexual and our sexual desires develop and change over the course of our lives. The right to express ourselves sexually – provided we do so consensually – is an inalienable right. But it is a right that is infringed by individuals, communities, and governments all the time.
Here’s the paradox: Societies like the United States are full of erotophobic and heterosexist prejudice. That’s one of the reasons they impose limits on sexual freedom. The best way to challenge those values and attitudes is to live openly so that people encounter a great deal of diversity. Yet living openly comes with significant risk of serious negative consequence because of the erotophobic and heterosexists prejudice and the reinforcement of limits on sexual freedom.
One of the most challenging things I heard at a National Sexual Freedom Day panel was a statement by Zack Rosen of TheNewGay, who, when asked to name one thing everybody could do right away and which would affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right, answered that we can go out and act as if we already have the freedom we are trying to create.
I vow to try to do that more frequently, but the more of us who do it, the safer it will be. Are you in?
*Important resources for struggling teens include Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and other Outlaws. (Kate tweets regularly with the #stayalive hashtag. Look for @katebornstein on Twitter) and Dan Savage’s new It Gets Better video project on YouTube.
**Please consider leaving a story in the comments about a moment when you chose not to withhold something related to your sexuality despite fear of repercussions**