by Linda Rosewood Hooper
SantaCruz: "Lesbian Paradise"
Santa Cruz is right there with San Francisco, Portland, and Bloomington as being towns with "lots of lesbians." "Open to lesbians." "A big lesbian community." Santa Cruz has the reputation that there is no place in the world easier to be an out lesbian than Santa Cruz and its university. At UCSC, lesbians are professors and staff at every level of the hierarchy, and people joke about how many female students come out here. Individual women may have a personal struggle coming out, but as they do, they can't help but encounter positive role models and support to be an out lesbian. Some lesbians have real experiences contrary to the reputation, but there is no doubt of the reputation, and there is no doubt that in comparison to almost every other place in the world, Santa Cruz is a very easy place to come out and live lesbian.
Not only is it easy to come out and be out at UCSC, but of all the scandals I can remember, I can't think of one where a closeted lesbian was outed and denied it, was blackmailed to stay in the closet, or was fired after being outed.
UCSC has lesbian-related sexual harassment incidents and ugly breakups, but those aren't about the closet. And while students in residence halls may come to UCSC with various degrees of lesbian-hating, a student outed or persecuted by her hallmates enjoys wide professional, judicial, and cultural support.
In this context, I have wondered for years about rumors that there are closeted lesbians working as staff and faculty at UCSC. Most people I know have heard the same. What does it mean to the out lesbians at UCSC if some lesbians here are in the closet?
At this time in the history of the campus (2002) it seems that for many people, race, religion, ableness, and class are public attributes of our identities, as are our families, especially with professors and executives in leadership [positions] such as deans, provosts, and chancellors. While private lives of University executives have been private, they have not been secret.
But what about lesbians? Unlike heterosexuality, homosexuality is considered a "private matter." And even if we know about a heterosexual's spouse and children, whether or not a University official is a lesbian is a question polite people don't ask, because it would "invade her privacy."
When it comes to lesbian University officials, I can easily imagine that the rumor is true and that a lesbian in a leadership position would be closeted. I can imagine that a newly arrived executive could make the decision to stay closeted, despite UCSC's reputed openness to lesbians, even if she had been out at a previous post.
I imagine a lot of reasons why a lesbian professor or administrator who had been out at another campus might keep her private life a secret when she was appointed at UCSC. Maybe the donors wouldn't like it. Maybe it would be a national news story and parents would fear their daughters would be recruited. Maybe the lesbian's partner wants to be closeted. Maybe she is afraid people would not respect a lesbian in her job.
UCSC and the Lesbian Closet
Having to hide the way you live because of fear of punishment isn't a "right," nor is it "privacy." Being in the closet is not an objective, neutral, or value-free condition. It is maintained by force, not choice.
In spite of UCSC's reputation as a comfortable place for lesbians, a lesbian may explain that she stays in her closet while at UCSC because of her mother's religion, or her ex-husband's clever use of family court judges--or maybe she and her lovers are simply ashamed to be out lesbians because of self-hatred. Maybe a lesbian is closeted because she wants to be for reasons I could never understand. People tell me that the personal reasons to stay in the closet, like those preceding, are "personal," and personal means private, and private means none of my business.
Does a closeted lesbian at UCSC harm me and other lesbians in any way? Well, yes, she does. So-called "personal" and "private" reasons have, at their core, hatred of lesbians. That hatred takes a few different forms, but at bottom, the hatred of lesbians means we can't enjoy the same civil and human rights as straight women.
After twenty years of living here, and watching lesbians come out or be closeted, I have to believe that the crushing burden of closet is NOT the lesser evil between itself and The Horror of Being An Out Lesbian at UCSC.
When a lesbian is closeted, either the lesbian herself, or someone who coerces her, believes there is something wrong with being lesbian. The closeted lesbian, or someone who controls her, has restricted her freedom and cannot enjoy the most basic and public human and civil rights.
I don't care if any particular woman working at UCSC is a lesbian or not. I do care if an out lesbian can never reach the highest appointments. In fact, I care if ANY lesbian must closet herself to hold ANY job at UCSC. Until I started considering the rumors, I assumed that an out lesbian could work at anything at UCSC, if she were qualified. But now I'm not sure.
Closeted lesbians annoy me because once I learn about their closet, I am supposed to keep their secret for them.
The Immorality of "Respect"
"Lesbianism: not a lifestyle, it's more fun than you could possibly imagine!"
--mid-1980s graffiti on the wall of The Liquor Barn (now Eastside Post Office)
One interesting thing about the closet is that it is a form of oppression that gay and lesbian people perpetuate on themselves. We do it in an attempt to protect ourselves from evil. Yet it doesn't protect us from evil, it just saves the evil the trouble. The closet is a traumatic form of that game that bullies play, where they hold your arm and slap you silly, while taunting, "Why are you hitting yourself?" For each of us in the closet, that's one less dyke that doesn't need to be personally terrorized into knowing just how dangerous it is to both be lesbian and have children, or be lesbian and a soldier, or be lesbian and keep a job.
Furthermore, every closeted lesbian is a lesbian that "doesn't exist." That lesbians "don't exist" is our special stereotype. People who want to be free can never tolerate the perpetuation of their particular stereotype. Every target group has one: blacks are lazy, Chinese are untrustworthy, the Poor are immoral. The special hatred of lesbians is that we aren't real: that we actually are men, that we actually want men in the long-term, that we are just good friends in a passionate friendship, that we are two women lovers but we are bisexual, or that we are a secret.
Richard Mohr, who wrote a famous essay exploring the nature of the closet and outing, calls the closet door held firmly in place by lesbian and gay culture a "shared convention" where closeted individuals in our community claim the "right" to demand that we support them in their shame. But there is no right to stay in the closet hiding something that is a joy for all lesbians and a positive force in the world.
I think it is a little late in lesbian history to have to assert, again, that there is nothing shameful about being lesbian, and especially at UCSC. There is nothing secret about being lesbian. The members of your household are no more secret than your race, religion, or class. Private, yes; secret, no. If you're keeping your lesbian life a secret, I call that shame, not modesty.
Just as I wouldn't tolerate a lesbian being fired for being out, I wouldn't tolerate a lesbian closet to keep a job. No one who wants to see lesbians as free as other women could do otherwise. It is completely specious to argue that we should "respect" another lesbian's "right" to hate herself. It is equally immoral to support the position that because some people "feel uncomfortable" about lesbianism, if lesbians are hired for particular jobs, they must keep themselves closeted.
The Myth of Paradise
"I don't care what they think; I don't care what they say. What do they know about this love, anyway? "
--Melissa Etheridge, "Come to My Window"
Despite UCSC's lesbian-friendly reputation, it is quite possible, it is even a reality, that it is personally, and politically, and professionally prudent for lesbian women to be closeted at UCSC. For all our assimilation and success, we are not as free and safe here as the other women are. It means that lesbians at UCSC are not done fighting for our freedom. And yes, the freedom to be lesbian does have to be fought for, in private little battles mostly against our own fears and shame, wielding little arsenals of courage.
Until we can imagine no closeted lesbians anywhere at UCSC, then we are still fighting for our freedom, and we are not yet living in paradise.
© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.