Philosophical Advice For A Bisexual Activist With Potential Homophobic Housemate

Levi writes in with a difficult, nuanced problem:

Dear Dr Fincke,

I just recently found out that someone I will be housemates with fairly soon is an extremely religious Christian of the homophobic, anti-choice, etc. variety. I am a bisexual atheist — and we’re past the point where either of us could back out of the lease without losing a fair amount of money. On the one hand, perhaps it won’t be a problem, because I’ve known her for a while and never realized she’s this religious (so maybe she can keep it to herself). I grew up among fundamentalists and my family is quite religious, so I know how to live and let live when necessary. But I don’t particularly want to go back to the days when I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome as a queer atheist in my own house. I don’t have a problem with religious people, despite being one of the dreaded New Atheists, but I do have a problem living with someone who thinks that my rational opinions and sexual identity are the work of the devil and deserve eternal punishment.

Obviously, I need to talk to her, because I highly doubt, given what I’ve learned, that she’d agree to live with me if she were aware of my atheism and bisexual lifestyle. But this opens another can of philosophical worms, because I feel on principle that our culture, particularly the “coming out” culture and its closet metaphor, too often places the burden of “coming out” on the marginalized person.
I’m out, both in my atheism and my sexual orientation. Yet people are continually expecting me to come out, yet again, to them. Which is only a real problem when my friends start pressuring me to talk to this future housemate, because it would be unethical or unfair of me not to inform her of my sexual identity and atheism before moving in– and yet don’t see that I was just as uninformed of her religious
inclinations. I know it’s petty of me, but after dealing with this for years, I’d like, just once, for the burden of this to be placed on the straight, Christian friend. But my real, less petty, worry is relatedly that I don’t want my identity, as the “abnormal” one to be the one which, in some sort of live-and-let-live arrangement we come up with, is forced to be kept more hidden (I’ve dealt with the whole
“you can be out but don’t bring any LGBT friends over” attitude before). Neither, of course, do I want to ask her to keep religion in her room or whatever so as to “get even” or some sort of nonsense like that.

So question is how to, first, approach the topic and, second, negotiate some kind of agreement whereby neither of us has to abdicate our identities and principles, but also where the more marginalized identity is not the one expected to stay closeted.

Again, if this doesn’t fit the bill of “philosophical advice” feel free to ignore and move on.

Thanks for your time! (And your blog — long time lurker.)

Levi

Dear Levi,

I think the most important part of this issue to you sounds like your very good desire to challenge the power dynamic and moral assumptions whereby you would be the one who has to run yourself by the religious person for approval as an acceptable roommate. You risk being rejected in a way that is repulsive and unfair. But if you don’t mention your orientation or your atheism and work this out in advance you risk the extremely upsetting scenario of having to walk on eggshells in your own home–something I think you should see doing as a last resort. So, how can you flip the power dynamic or at least equalize it?

This may vary depending on how many people total are moving in. Let’s say there is at least one more person in addition to the two of you. If there is and your other housemate is pro-LGBT then this may be relatively easy. The two of you can be fairly straightforward and say, it is come to light that you hold views like that being gay is sinful. While you are entitled to your conscience, we want to make clear that Levi might have boyfriends or people unabashed about being LGBT in general over and that has to be something you’re comfortable with if you’re going to be able to live here. In this case, she’s the one being asked to either be tolerant or not be part of the equation. You two represent the dominant norm and it is up to her to accommodate herself to this dominant social, moral standard, rather than for you to ask permission to her.

Now if there is just the two of you, there’s a more equalized scenario for which I would recommend a different strategy since if there’s just two of you you can’t frame this as “we’re in agreement this will be the way of the house, either accept it or back out”, which would conveniently put all the pressure to conform on her. Or, alternatively, even if there are more people, this second strategy still may be preferable because it is a way to exert less overall pressure and be more compassionate and reasonable and equitable.

This second path is to drop the fact of your bisexuality out nonchalantly like it’s no big deal and like you expect her not to be phased. In other words, you act like the norm is already one in which you are fully respected and equal and have nothing to formally “come out” about. So, you can do something like ask all the housemates, or just the two of you if it’s only you two, to get together to go over house rules in advance because when people don’t do that they have greater conflicts down the road. In going over the house rules, you can nonchalantly say, “Okay, what should be our policy on guests and noise and use of the common spaces. Like, what if we both are going to have our boyfriends over at the same time…” Saying something like that presents you as so convinced of the normalcy and legitimacy and equality of your having a boyfriend just like she would that you are just assuming she will roll with it. This puts subtle pressure on her to accept it. People tend to want to agree with others, especially with values. You put it on her to make an issue of it.

But if she makes an issue of it under this circumstance and says you can’t be housemates, then, again, like in the previous scenario, it’s her religious problem that makes her the one who walks away. You are just living under the new and morally improved conventions in which this should not even be a controversial question that you are entitled to have boyfriends (and have them over). Now, there is no avoiding this: you risk being treated unfairly. Under any scenario, her finding out in advance means her rejecting living with you out of bigotry. Under some scenarios where she finds out after you’ve moved in together, you risk living feeling judged in your own home. I think that last feeling, of not being able to comfortably express your sexuality and your religious views in your own home is likely far less tolerable than finding out in advance someone is too bigoted to live with you.

In both of these scenarios, both the confrontational one and the nonchalant one, the key is to frame things in such a way that it is undeniable and non-negotiable that the norm for your house is that you will express your sexuality as freely as were you heterosexual. Either this is done by coordinating with another housemate to affirm accepting this as the precondition of living in the apartment in the first place. Or this is done by tacitly accepting her religiosity and acting as though you simply assume she will accommodate your bisexuality. This all puts the onus on her to come out explicitly to you as a homophobe if that’s what she chooses. If it matters enough for her to do so, then she will. If it doesn’t, then she may be in for some internal wrestling but now you have the leverage if after moving in she starts passive aggressively showing disapproval or outright complaining. If it was all clear in advance, you can shut that stuff down by saying, “Well you knew in advance and I’m not changing for you.” And having clarified it all in advance, you will probably feel all the more emboldened to assert yourself because you will be in the right.

This means that you may want to creatively imagine house rules to discuss that are general enough that they don’t sound like they’re built around protecting your right to be openly queer with openly queer friends but that unambiguously involve that. Other rules might be: “How do we deal with debates over religious or political between us?” Negotiating that can be done nice and abstractly. That’s not something uniquely a problem for LGBT folks. It is an issue of “do you want to make home a safe space away from such conflicts?” (I have a terrible memory the semester I deconverted in college of getting into bed only to have my roommate prod me over how I had any reason to be moral whatsoever. It was like, “I can’t be free from this even in my bed??”) So, establish how comfortable you guys both are with debates in general and where your boundaries will be. And that’s a great way to feel out how openminded she’ll be. It’s a great excuse to nonchalantly and on equal ground point out important things about yourself as part of just “revealing your politics” rather than “confessing your questionable sexuality for approval”.

Another rules discussion that can reveal yourself and potential issues in an even ground way: “What should be our take on using the common living areas to have friends over to discuss potentially controversial ideas? Like, what if you want to have a Bible study or I want to plan an LGBT awareness event? Should we let each other do that even if it will make each other uncomfortable with some of what we say?” In that case it is up to her in advance to decide what matters more to her: her ability to hold a Bible study or her ability to stop you from having a pro-gay themed discussion. She might opt to say “no discussions of controversial ideas in the living room”. If that’s the case then you decide if you want to put up with that. But if you do, at least it’s a rule that will be fairly applied. It won’t be you being restricted technically because you’re gay, but it will be a truce with an ideological opponent, formally similar to whether the issue was just Republican or Democrat.

In exchange for your not having activist meetings at home, she will be sacrificing something comparably important to her potentially, the right to have religious themed get-togethers. You may rightly walk over that. But if you choose to live with it, it’s knowing that she has to make a comparable sacrifice, so you’re not being treated as lesser in that way. And if you walk over it, it’s because a compromise in dealing with conflicting ideologies couldn’t be worked out. I hope that doesn’t feel as directly like being rejected just for being bisexual. But, again, that invidious rejection is an inevitable possibility somehow in all of this.

Your Thoughts?

This was an installment in my Friday’s Philosophical Advice column. I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. If you have a problem you think I can help with write to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject line “Philosophical Advice” and if I feel comfortable advising you and can get to it I will answer it here on the blog. All identities of those writing in for advice are kept strictly confidential. I use pseudonyms for all the letter writers when writing about them on the blog.

As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • cripdyke

    There are practical problems that may result from refraining from actions that allow you to be sure in advance that your future roommate knows your positions. I won’t deal with that, b/c those are considerations best addressed personally by you & also b/c of the nature of this blog. Instead I’ll deal primarily with principles and ethics.

    Dan is wrong.

    Here’s the thing: if your future roommate didn’t come out to you about her religion, how exactly did you learn?

    You are clearly out. The information that you are bi and atheist, then, is available to this person with or without talking to you directly about it. This is, in fact, how you know this about your future roommate.

    Does your future roommate care about living with and/or around queer people who have entire lives – they eat, they learn, they work, they care for pets, they fuck, they create, they play – or not?

    If yes, then she has the responsibility for finding out if she’s moving into that situation. If I refuse to live in a carpeted apartment b/c hardwoods are better for my allergies, I can’t sign up to move into an apartment without checking out the floors and demand retroactively that the apartment be changed to fit my needs.

    if this is important enough to her to cause her discomfort, the info is available to her to make a decision that incorporates it.

    If it is not so important or if she has already made the decision that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, no problem.

    The only problem comes when she has a specific need around her living situation and she fails to do any work to meet that need, then decides retroactively that you have to be responsible for meeting that need.

    No way.

    Your ethical job is merely to decide whether or not you are willing to live with someone who holds the beliefs she has made public.

    If you have specific ethical beliefs that someone might hold that would make that person someone with whom you cannot live, it is up to you to find out whether or not any roommate holds such beliefs or whether the odds of a person holding such beliefs (axe murdering human beings is a delightful Tuesday activity) is so slim as to make it reasonable not to inquire.

    Of course, then it is up to you to accept the concequences of having failed to inquire.

    Nonetheless, you are correct that you should have no burden to come out. It is well known that queer people exist. If not living with queer people is a housing concern for this person, then let her be concerned with it.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      What he doesn’t know is whether her behavior will become uncomfortably judgmental or passive aggressive. He doesn’t know that she just knows. He only barely realized her religious side. He probably hasn’t been so unambiguously bi-sexual that she can tell. He may possibly be dating a woman at the moment and so be assumed by many to be straight. He is not confident she knows. So, by just moving in without first coming out then he risks her finding out and being unpleasant. Does she have a right to be unpleasant? Of course not. But she might be. Now, yeah, he can mentally just be defiant and so secure in himself that living with someone judgmental is not a problem. But it’s a sucky way to live, being with someone who is silently looking askance at you because of prejudices. If she is going to have a freak out (whether big or passive aggressive), better it happen before you’re stuck with her as a housemate. It’s not because there’s something wrong with him but because there’s a possibility there will be something wrong with her. Having lived with Christians who couldn’t fundamentally handle me as an outspoken atheist, I know this can be serious.

    • cripdyke

      I agree with most of what you say here, but you’ve gotten away from the ethics into the practicalities. As an advice columnist, I might say something similar to what you’ve written.

      As an ethicist, I think it’s wrong to say that anyone “should” do anything other than be aware of one’s own needs and boundaries and then take responsibility for meeting them yourself.

      That could involve asking other people for things, but only as a favor.
      Finally, let me just say that I probably worded what I said above incorrectly, and maybe wouldn’t have approached it from that way in the first place had I been properly thinking about this series.

      You say, “Philosophical advice”.

      I was thinking, “Ethical advice.”

      I stand by my statement that I don’t agree with your advice from an ethical statement. But that statement is irrelevant to the extent that you aren’t trying to give ethical advice. It’s like saying I disagree with you that “City Slickers” had a good script when you were saying that the movie had great cinematography. I fundamentally misunderstood you, and for that, I’m sorry.

      Stil, It think that even in “philosophical” advice rather than ethical, the fundamental discussion of being responsible for one’s own boundaries is probably needed.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Well it is ethical advice. Ethically, I don’t think it is healthy for people to put themselves into situations that demand more than is fair of them. Sure, the greatest virtuous ideal may involve a mental fortitude that can handle even living with someone who is passive aggressively or actively judging you by an unfair standard without letting them get to you. But I think it is more likely that that will be very difficult to deal with and so it’s better to avoid having such a person as a housemate in the first place so you can spend more of that psychic energy on constructive thinking and not defensive sorts. I think it is ethically best that he do what helps himself flourish and helps advance a culture in which being lgbt is an uncontroversial ethical reality. These are strategies to do both, I think.


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