The Undocumented Closet

One of the most buzzed about stories of the week is the revelation by openly gay journalist Jose Antonio Vargas that he is an undocumented immigrant.  There are two nice summaries of reactions inside the journalism world at Richard Prince’s Journal-isms blog at the Maynard Center, including the reaction by the Asian American Journalists Association.

What I hadn’t seen much is how all of this relates to LGBT issues.  Fortunately, Sean Bugg at MetroWeekly has taken a look at this issues, comparing being an undocumented immigrant to being in the “the closet” for LGBT people.  In the provocative piece, he challenges the suggestion that Vargas’ deceptions raise questions about his ethics as a journalist.

Now that we’ve advanced far enough that it’s impossible to swing a dead cat in theWashington 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.

It’s a fascinating argument, although I’m not sure it completely holds up.  Admittedly, it’s the lawyer in me (who has written about immigration issues in the workplace) that bristles at the suggestion that being “in the closet” about your immigration status is comparable to being “in the closet” about your sexual orientation.  Lying about who you are dating doesn’t put your employer in jeopardy for violating a host of federal laws.  Lying about who your gender identity doesn’t represent a fraud that can result in your being permanently removed from the country.

I agree with Bugg that criticisms that Vargas is no longer reliable as a journalist because he so actively lied and deceived is overstated, but there is a significant difference between being deceptive about your sexual orientation or gender identity and being deceptive about the documents you are mandated to provide before being legally hired.  Telling a boss that you are gay and asking him to keep a secret is different on many levels than asking a boss that your are an undocumented immigrant and asking him to keep a secret (even if it puts the company into legal liability).

So what do you think?  Are the two “closets” similar?  Would Erik Wemple and Jack Shafer have similar concerns about LGBT journalists who have consistently lied about their sexual orientation or gender identity?


3 Responses

  1. And let’s not forget that one chooses to be an undocumented immigrant, whereas (we hold that) sexual orientation is out of one’s control.

    Furthermore, much of the doubt that’s being cast on Vargas has to do with his decision to become an “activist” on the immigration issue, as much as it does with his dissembling over the years about his immigration status.

    • There are tons of undocumented immigrants who did not choose that status, notably all those who came to / were brought to this country as children. They had no say in the matter.

      “Choice” is a complex concept in this context. Considering the conditions that many immigants leave behind, there are factors there that hardly feel like choice.

      I do think that the closet analogy parallel for undocumented immigrants and LGBT folks is useful, especially if it can help build common political agendas.

  2. […] and he thoughtfully deconstructed an argument. Here’s an excerpt from his NLGJA blog post The Undocumented Closet from July 1, 2011 where he looked at a column by Metro Weekly’s Sean […]

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