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.)
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.
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.
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