Closet Space

Jose Antonio Vargas's coming out as ''undocumented'' spurs media critics to confuse the closet for a con

For many of us, the issues that touch our daily lives are the issues about which we care the most. It’s certainly a reason that I’ve spent more than two decades working in and around the LGBT community — as a gay man who grew up in the ’80s, my involvement in the politics and pursuit of equality has always been less a choice and more a necessity.

My interest in immigration issues came much later in life, thanks to my (not-yet-legally-certified) husband being a naturalized citizen. Flipping through his three-ring binder of citizenship materials — certificates and documents and photos proving his path from Vietnam to the United States was legal — I can’t help but think about my own citizenship, which required absolutely no effort from me beyond crying when the doctor slapped my newly birthed butt.

I have friends and acquaintances who, unlike my husband, are undocumented. Some came as adults, others as children, all of them want to be citizens. Through their stories I’ve come to understand how stacked the deck is against them and how hostile our political discourse is to their futures.

Still, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s revelation last week that he, too, is an undocumented immigrant came as a shock. His story of being sent to America as a child and not discovering his ”illegal” status until a teenager is moving, and the story of what lies he had to tell to stay in the U.S. is too familiar in many ways. As a gay man, Vargas had come out of one closet but was forced to construct another.

Some pundits and others have expressed some level of skepticism about Vargas’s story, which is fair enough, though I don’t share it. It’s valid for people to ask tough questions. Journalists such as Vargas should be able to handle that.

What’s bothered me, though, is some reaction from media critics, specifically Slate’s Jack Shafer, who confuses the closet for a con: ”The trouble with habitual liars, and Vargas confesses to having told lie after lie to protect himself from deportation, is that they tend to get too good at it. Lying becomes reflex. And a confessed liar is not somebody you want working on your newspaper.”

Now that we’ve advanced far enough that it’s impossible to swing a dead cat in the Washington Post newsroom without hitting an openly homosexual reporter, it’s easy to forget how strong the closet recently was for gay and lesbian journalists (and let’s not forget that it’s as strong as ever for transgender journalists). There are plenty of working journalists who have ”told lie after lie” to protect themselves from anti-gay discrimination or termination, only to come out later. By Shafer’s logic, formerly closeted gay journalists are no more than confessed liars who can’t be trusted.

I generally hesitate to pull out the concept of privilege because it’s too often used inappropriately, but I think it applies here. It’s easy as a straight white guy for Shafer to casually dismiss people who’ve struggled with the closet as liars and untrustworthy, because I’m willing to wager that he — like his fellow media critic Erik Wemple at the Post, who makes pretty much the same category error writing about Vargas — never needed a closet to keep his job.

There’s a difference between a closet and con. Shafer and others would do well to try and comprehend it.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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