Tag Archives: queerness

The apotheosis of straight allyship

TW: sexism, heterosexism

Freddie DeBoer has become a problem.

His most recent post which caught the blogosphere ablaze with contentious argument, was about the saccharine but ultimately irrelevant depiction of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie as a same-gender couple having a moment after the announcement of the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Hollingsworth v Perry and United States v Windsor (which overturned California’s Proposition 8 and section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, respectively).

(A comic originally published here, about how many queer activist spaces like pride have become increasingly inhabited by only certain types of queer people and straight people.)

DeBoer’s argument should be immediately suspect since he is speaking on the issue of how queer people should be national represented while being straight (and cisgender) himself. He has a track record for actually silencing marginalized and oppressed groups of which he’s not a member as a means of actually proclaiming himself to be the only true advocate for the rights of the people he’s speaking over.

The form that often takes is one in which he declares someone or something else to not be serious, and consequently unable to represent a group or issue effectively, and while that’s not central to this argument, there’s an implication of it. He charges that the presentation of Bert and Ernie as a (closeted?) queer couple works with “liberal” stereotypes of queer people as (among other things) “childish” and “silly”. I’ll admit that I’m sympathetic to this view point, but DeBoer’s argument here seems to be that presentations of queer people as either of those attributes are to be struggled against.

His problem isn’t the pigeonholing of queer people – it’s pigeonholing them “wrongly”. As he argues, “I don’t think that a group that has for decades labored against a brutally oppressive regime that humiliated them, assaulted them, and systematically denied them equal rights should be analogized to imaginary characters that have been built out of felt for the edutainment of children”. This is, of course, deeply ironic coming from someone who until recently wasn’t very interested in the whole “marriage” thing since that’s assimilationist, but of course, DeBoer might be willing to talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. One side will be fallacious arguments about “assimilation” while another centers the struggles of queer people exclusively around marriage rights. That’s another issue, but that he can so easily switch between these supposedly antagonistic perspectives says something both about DeBoer’s queer-positive activism and the nature of those positions.

In any case, DeBoer’s whole argument seems very much like a straight guy trying to speak to queer issues like queer people do without acknowledging his own ignorance on them. The New Yorker was making a flawed statement, sure, but it was one that treated the “triviality” of a fan interpretation of Bert and Ernie’s relationship as a serious issue. Granting marriage reforms the status of “important” is something even queer individuals often have trouble doing, declaring it irrelevant compared to either other queer issues or other systemic discrimination or patterns of violence. If we want DeBoer’s support we have to remain “serious”.

Similarly frustrating, the major thrust of DeBoer’s argument was that Bert and Ernie are sexless in a way that real queer people aren’t. Sure, but the presentation of queer people (by both queer and straight people) as defined through their sex lives is something many queer people find upsetting, damaging, and even triggering. There is a discussion to be had about how popular acceptance of queer people often corresponds to the perception of them as sexual, but arguing that every presentation of queer people should push those limits polices the representation of queer people too. That’s beyond fighting fire with fire, but an example of another straight person privileging his opinions about how we should be represented in the media, just with slightly unusual opinions.

In effect, this isn’t being an ally, but co-opting a liberation movement. This isn’t about modifying the public representations of queer people so that queer people decide how they want to be viewed, but fitting the depictions of queer people to DeBoer’s (non-standard) expectations. This isn’t a thoughtful evaluation of queer people’s issues that avoids clichés of “assimilation” or “marriage before all”, but rather the mixing and matching of those two tired and inadequate perspectives.

Freddie DeBoer isn’t calling out the problem – he is the problem.

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When progress stalls

TW: heterosexism, violence against protesters

I’m a bit short on time today, so I’ll just offer some quick commentary on Masha Alexandrovna Gessen’s interesting piece in the New York Times. She does an excellent job of describing the current situation in Russia – one in which queerness is often a political identity as it comes at odds with visions of politically acceptable and even legally protected action and speech. She alludes to, but doesn’t directly call out the sort of cult of masculinity the modern government has created for itself which undoubtedly plays a role in the both sexist and heterosexist attitudes of many powerful institutions in Russia today.

(An online rhyming joke poster, which can be translated as saying “A friend told me where the gay pride parade was passing”. The original site of this has been deleted, thankfully.)

It seems incomplete to let that go mentioned without acknowledging how that’s a development, not some constant fact of Russia politics. That’s often the political framing of liberation movements, especially the quite contemporary queer liberation movements – as a slow but inevitable movement towards selfhood and enfranchisement and away from old bigotries and inequalities. Russia today is an excellent counterexample to this linear view of history.

The early revolutionary period was in fact defined by a tentative sexual liberation –  explicitly seen variously in the new marital laws (which secularized marriage and permitted divorce), in the legalization of abortion, in the decriminalization of мужеложство (muzhelozhstvo), roughly comparable to “sodomy” in the US and English legal systems (although with implications of bestiality and pederasty as well). There were absolutely limits to what began occurring during the immediate post-Revolution period (namely for queer women), but it’s notable that those new found freedoms were challenged (particularly in the case of queer sexual conduct) in the ensuing decades of dictatorship, which neatly leads up to the modern dominance of ex-KGB Vladimir Putin.

So among the questions worth asking is not only why Russia has, as Gessen describes it, a “gay-bashing ritual”, but how it gained one.

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Dismantling queer families

TW: heterosexism, custody dispute

Let’s talk about how a lesbian couple is being sued for cohabitating in Texas. The logic behind this is that the father of at least one of the two children both of them are raising has the right to sue them for cohabiting together along with the child without being married. Such stipulations are common in many parts of the US as conditions for a divorce, so while this is a particularly public iteration of this phenomenon, the threat of this is a real issue that confronts many queer families.

To pick this apart, the problems here run deep. Cohabitation (widely defined as making a specific property the default sleeping space) is a comparatively odd issue to focus on within divorce papers. Even for male-female couples (who can easily avoid this issue by marrying), it seems like an arbitrary line to draw in the sand. While the ostensible point is to regulate who has access to the children as a means of protection, the policy seems designed to defer power to non-cohabitating legal kin at the expense of those who live with and potentially are more important if legally unrecognized within the household. As a protective measure, it only makes sense when assuming that pre-existing legal kinship is proof of having the best interests, and consequently should have de facto veto power over the introduction of new kin in their stead. It seems more interested in guarding recognized kins’ egos than their children.

(Just when you thought legal kinship norms couldn’t get anymore patriarchal, heterosexist, and cisnormative… from here.)

But to treat this as an issue that transcends heterosexist values and bigotry specifically towards queer families is to frustratingly miss one of the broader lessons here. The very existence of a shared social space is central to many conceptions of family in the United States – and the blatant attack on that for the Price-Comptons is consequently quite recognizable. But what about the nebulous issue of custody? Following a tragic or unexpected death, what if a non-biological mother is a more desirable candidate for sole custody than a distant, perhaps even former father?

Again, unlike male-female couples, same-sex or same-gender couples can’t easily transfer custody in cases of emergency to smooth out difficult transition periods for their kids. But, what’s more, in those often contested situations, queer parents often have their standing challenged not only for their lack of biological relationship with the children, but also for simply being queer.

In essence, there is no way of guaranteeing effective social protections for queer families without providing them means of establishing kinship, which male-female couples currently have easy access to. Dismantling onerous expectations of who can sleep where at what point is clearly a good idea, but ending the discussion there ignores the unique difficulties faced specifically by queer parents.

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The impossibility of queerness

Niall Ferguson’s “apology” reminded me in one of the worst ways of a long running facet of a lot of heterosexist speech: that it’s not even about queer people or queerness. As I mentioned yesterday, his almost apologetic response to being told that he misrepresented the details of Keynes personal life seems to be the justification for his response, more than actually absorbing a larger point about queer families and queer people. In a very real sense, his declaration of Keynes’ queerness to be a mark of unreasonableness if not inferiority is centered around heteronormative standards and concepts. It’s not merely that Ferguson devalued queer conceptions of kinship, but that while doing so he didn’t even acknowledge that those exist.

(Jokes on him, there’s even artistic deconstructions of queer families nowadays, from here.)

Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of that sort of thing going around lately, for centuries even. It’s practically a trope at this point for straight people to discuss queer people’s romantic interests, flings, partners, and even spouses as their (followed by an apparently obligatory pause) friend. Ferguson thankfully avoids that pitfall in his not-apology, mostly by not actually discussing any same-gender relationships so much as same-gender attraction (and that even pales in comparison to his main point, which was a presumed lack of attraction to women felt by Keynes). In the past few months, however, several prominent figures in the US failed to avoid the apparently very uncomfortable issue of discussing queer relationships, as marriage policies became a focal point with gathering efforts to recognize (some) queer marriages in some states and two different Supreme Court cases.

For instance, congressional representative Steve King (R-IA) published a deliciously idiotic opinion piece in the National Review, where he explained, “You do not need a license to begin a new friendship, start shopping at a new grocery store or pharmacy, or even begin a new dating relationship. Likewise, one does not need a court order to terminate any of those relationships. This fact indicates that there is something unique about marriage that necessitates government involvement.” After all, long-term relationships between people of the same gender are obviously more similar to shopping at a specific store, or going on a single date, or being in a friendship than long-term relationships between men and women. On a similar note and within the same week, Jennifer Roback Morse, spokesperson for the National Organization for [some] Marriage, complained that recognizing same-gender couples as married amounted to “nothing but a government registry of friendships” – almost as though she and King were reading the same notes!

An integral part of heterosexism, as suggested by Ferguson’s strategy of avoidance and King’s and Morse’s use of the always awkward “… friend” discussion tactic, is to avoid acknowledging queerness as a phenomenon even exists. As I’ve written about before, this is a widespread problem in terms of how acknowledging the needs and wants of queer people, queerspawn, and queer families is treated as a distraction. Unlike the invalidity assigned to the words and deeds of women, however, it seems to acknowledge the actions of queer people (or at least, queer men), but without really examining their queerness. In a confusing way, there’s a lot of discussion of queer people without any admission of the existence of queerness.

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How to miss the point

Sigh, I’ve been trying for a while now to work out something approaching civil to say to Niall Ferguson’s “critiques” of Keynes and his astounding not-apology for the implications of it. Yes, his sorry-you-were-offended response contains an on the nose reiteration of his main point: that Keynes was (some variety of) queer and that’s a valid point to raise in analyzing his policy recommendations.

As several other members of the “self-appointed inquisitors of [the] internet” (as Ferguson called us) pointed out, this is not a new point for him, which he’s been making in several forums for almost a decade now. The only substantive evidence of this he’s ever pointed to is that, as a British public figure assessing the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, Keynes pushed for lighter punishments for Germany for “starting” the war (which every modern historian worth their salt tends to credit to a French interest in payback for the embarrassing Franco-Prussian War). Ferguson in 1995 credited that perspective in whole to Keynes falling “so hard for the representative of an enemy power”, Carl Melchior. Meanwhile, in the modern day, Ferguson explains that Keynes’ “strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath”.

You know those queer men – they’re just like women (whether straight or queer) in how they fall all over themselves when around someone they like like! They’re just so illogical when it comes to math, or science, or engineering, but those few “good ones” that are passable just fall apart near attractive people because their tiny brains can’t take it. Now, what exactly did Keynes miss because of his googly eyes over Melchior? After all, his most famous work of the aftermath of the first World War in Germany is largely seen as prescient of the destabilization of Germany and rise of power of Adolf Hitler. Seduced as he was, history has largely proven him correct, but sadly at the cost of millions of lives, including the thousands of queer men imprisoned as degenerates by the Nazi regime (and, in most cases, after the Allies liberated the concentration camps, they were merely incorporated into the rest of the prison population).

(Above, queer men imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, from here.)

Against this backdrop of Ferguson’s career-long contention that Keynes was really, really gay, Ferguson recently made an “unintentional” remark that of course Keynes famously joked “in the long run we’re all dead” because he was queer, and queer people don’t have children or reproduce, and not having children is tantamount to declaring the future is dead to you. Having won the idiots’ bingo, Ferguson is only making this non-apologetic apology after being reminded (read: informed) that Keynes’ wife did become pregnant at least once, but that that only tragically ended in a miscarriage. Ferguson outright implies an apology in this trainwreck, saying, “This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’ wife Lydia miscarried.”

Within the context of heterosexism (or as Ferguson oh so with it writes, homophobia), this misses the point that Ferguson is only valuing biological reproduction and automatically discounting a queer person from having any status understandable as parental on the basis of their queerness. Among the questions this writing raises is what exactly Ferguson is “apologizing” for – being wrong about the particulars of Keynes life? Or about the assumption of how kinship and family function? It seems like he errs rather close to the former and doesn’t even realize how he has come across on the latter.

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More straight people feels

It’s my birthday, so I’ll just briefly state that the parade of straight people’s feelings on queer families and marriage equality is continuing for the moment. Over at The Beast, Megan McCardle, who in the past gleefully imagined the violence that could have been doled out against Iraq War protesters, has a lot of concerns over whether marriage equality would coercively assimilate queer couples into a nightmarish middle class hellscape of manicured suburban lawns and homeowners’ associations. It’s adorable how she assumes that queer families won’t exist until poof the law allows them to. It’s difficult to say if this is the result of flawed descriptions of “legalizing” or “banning” those marriages, rather than acknowledging the kinship systems that many queer families have used for decades if not centuries that are easily accommodated by existing laws.

But, as I suggested yesterday, the discussion she sets up carefully avoids much analysis of actual queer people – they’re discussed as a group, faces in a crowd, a monolith, even while dropping conservative, straight politicians’ names and specific sexual histories at the drop of a hat. The legal freedoms of and social mores governing queer people are merely barometers to popular perceptions of monogamy apparently. Her eventual point is evidently this: “One can imagine a Republican politician fifty years hence ruining his career when he throws over his husband and children for a younger man.” The bad part of this is… decidedly unclear. McCardle seems incapable of understanding duplicitous or disrespectful sexual habits from non-marital and polyamorous ones, and mixes all of that together with queer sexualities.

(Neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive: polyamory, queer sexualities, and sexual ethics. Also Batman. From here.)

Meanwhile, from the purportedly more accepting camp, Brian Palmer (who was still married to his wife in the eyes of both New York state and the federal government as of 2012) at Slate decided to play what we in the business call “Oppression Olympics” with interracial and same-sex/same-gender marriage rights. For instance, were you aware that in Loving v Virginia, racists “didn’t merely critique the parenting skills of interracial couples—the state attacked their very mental stability“? Gosh, because if there’s one group of people that aren’t talked about as being categorically mentally unwell, it’s queer people, right? And it’s not like there was a concerted effort to fabricate results to prove that queer couples were categorically not only “bad” but actively damaging parents? One of the factors in that study was specifically that being raised by a queer family increased the risk of children to experience physical abuse (but note, they didn’t bother to ask if it was the parents who would have done that violence or if they would have tolerated it).

Straight people: actually experts on life experiences they’ve never had.

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The lack of space for queerness

Something quite terrible is going on within the struggle for queer liberation. That’s not a new idea. In 2011, Bell Hooks famously said that marriage equality was primarily rooted in expanding the number of couples that could share resources, access to healthcare, and other economic privileges, rather than actively fixing the problem that anyone lacks those resources or the ability to fully access them.

Spurred by the recent court cases in the US involving marriage laws, similar points have come up a few times. A popular response to the cissexist Human Rights Campaign’s campaign on Facebook explained that “marriage is often touted as important because it grants access to immigration, healthcare, etc. but … we really need immigration reform, universal healthcare” rather than a minimal expansion of access. In a similar vein, pictures from older protests have been shared anew which presented mutually exclusive options of legally recognizing queer marriages or dismantling the prison industrial complex.

(“Now that I can’t plan my wedding I guess I’ll just destroy the prison industrial complex.”)

I agree that these are vital points to make about the limitations of marriage equality. Much like the enfranchisement of male-female marriages, it assists very few people immigrate, access healthcare, or avoid unreasonable incarceration. But when the right of couples to “traditionally” marry (in a romantic sense that’s not much more than a century old) is raised, it’s seldom framed as a solution to systemic injustice with dimensions related to racial, economic, and other hierarchies. Rather, marriage is in part a means of regulating custodial rights, a person’s next of kin, and ceding right of attorney in cases of medical or other emergencies.

It seems necessary to ask why the recognition of (some) queer families needs to be justified by the solution of other broad, discriminatory policies that primarily relate to what we might call other modes of oppression. Should the Civil Rights Act have had to prove that it would have positively impacted queer and genderqueer communities? Should the Equal Rights Amendment have been expected to crack down on extralegal yet widely tolerated police brutality against people of color? The need for policies to acknowledge and examine intersectionality – that is, how a person can simultaneously be genderqueer, queer, of color, and female – is obvious, and policies should be criticized and avoided that reduce inequality in one of those fields but with extreme affects in others. It’s a few degrees removed from that, however, to expect improvements in one of those territories to actively resolve historied and systemic problems in another.

And again: what has created that expectation that legally recognizing same-sex and same-gender marriages is a remotely acceptable replacement for healthcare, immigration, and public safety reforms?

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Jeffrey Toobin: you’re another data point for us all

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about how in fashion it’s becoming among (seemingly) straight people to discuss the struggle against heterosexism, homophobia, or whatever we want to call it as though they were the people who should determine when queer people are liberated from the negative hostility against them. So far, it seemed like a phenomenon that was most visible over at MSNBC – where within two short months one all straight panel evaluated how irrelevant Chuck Hagel’s hostile statements about a gay man where and another evaluated the worth of Rob Portman’s new support for same-sex marriage. Jeffrey Toobin’s article at the New Yorker which was just published today, however, is a pretty clear indication that this has the potential to become a mainstream phenomenon in the worst ways.

The 'straight ally' flag with text reading: oh god, do not go down that ally
(Puns are always appropriate, from here.)

Toobin’s piece is a fairly well crafted one, to be honest, in how it lays out the steady drive towards legally enfranchising queer people’s relationships and families in a way straight ones already are. Unlike many analyses of marriage equality, it doesn’t present that issue as either existing in a vacuum or directly proceeding from the decriminalization of homosexuality, but instead as part of a broader group of struggles that queer people are currently engaged in. It even specifically mentions the often overlooked insecurity that queer people face to this day in the majority of districts in the United States where anti-discrimination laws (for housing, employment, wages, and so on) fail to cover queer people.

Still, Toobin declares, before the Supreme Court even hears its arguments, and as the wise straight man who married one woman and fathered an additional child with another, “the war is over” even as “the battles continue”. Because that makes sense. And it’s also quite original if you ignore that Michael Klarman used almost the same language in an article that’s more than a year old. Klarman, much like Ana Marie Cox on MSNBC, has made something of a career out of discussing the Supreme Court’s hostility towards the rights of marginalized people, primarily racial and gender groups that he is not a member of. Most descriptions of him don’t discuss his personal life much, so it’s unclear if he has any significant others, let alone their gender or genders.

In light of that, it makes some of his statements difficult to parse just as Cox’s often are. For example, in the LA Times piece from 2012, Klarman wrote, “As more gays and lesbians have come out of the closet, the social environment has become more gay friendly. In turn, as the social environment has become more hospitable, more gays and lesbians have felt free to come out of the closet. This social dynamic is powerfully reinforcing and unlikely to be reversed.”

When it comes to explaining how queer people being out makes it easier for others to be out, Klarman fleshed out an additional component of the process. He explains that as “more gays and lesbians come out of the closet, more parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors and co-workers know or love someone who is gay. Because few people favor discrimination against those they know and love, every gay person coming out of the closet creates more supporters of gay equality.”

Now, the question of whether this is a queer man or a straight man discussing this issue seems especially pertinent. Is Klarman decrying how social mores force queer people to depend on the good opinion of straight people? Or is he declaring that straight allies are the most important people in the room? There’s an ambiguity there, which I think most queer people would be more comfortable with were Klarman to be a queer man. So of course, that raises the question of whether Klarman is so private about his personal life so that he can pass as having the perspective of a group he doesn’t actually belong to.

I’m divided as to how that stacks up compared to Toobin’s assertion of what the fates of queer people are, while openly being straight.

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Two strikes, MSNBC

Much as I maligned Dan Savage’s discussion with Chris Hayes a few months ago, I have to give him credit – he at least asked an openly queer person to analyze and comment on policies and attitudes that impact queer people. Last Friday, while Alex Wagner was filling in for Lawrence O’Donnell, that was sorely lacking as MSNBC juxtaposed Rob Portman’s new public support for marriage equality with the most vocal voices at the on-going Conservative Political Action Conference. Instead of hearing a very specific gay man (who, of course, is cisgender, White, and an upper class celebrity) speak as though he represented the entire queer community, we actually had MSNBC ask for commentary from either closeted or straight people on one straight man’s opinions on queer people and associated policies. Oh dear.

There was, at the least, a variety of perspectives presented. I agreed fairly strongly with Ari Melber’s point that the Rob Portman’s “evolution” to a queer-friendly perspective is underwhelming in that it took one of his children being queer for him to even consider changing his publicly supported policies (and then took him two years to do so – because this should really be about whether he’s comfortable). Ana Marie Cox, who has been subjected to false allegations of having had an affair with a woman but didn’t comment as to her own sexuality in denying them, retorted, “I don’t think it’s necessarily sad that this is what it took Portman to change to his mind. I’m a supporter of marriage equality – I’ll take what I can get.”

The meaning of that statement cannot be divorced from Cox’s primarily undisclosed sexual orientation. If, though previously married to a man, Cox identifies as queer in some way, her disagreement comes from a very specific place. She is deciding that policies that impact her, which she wants altered in a specific way, are important enough that while Portman’s support might decenter people like her from the discussion, she’s willing to accept that as a price for political change. On the other hand, if she identifies as straight, this sentence is pretty damning. In that case, this was a declaration that as a supporter for that policy she has the right to determine what support for it is valid and what is not – that such decisions aren’t the exclusive property of those directly affected by it. In a literal sense, she would be giving herself permission to determine the shape and form of activism and policy-outcomes that don’t directly impact her, essentially speaking over the voices of actually affected queer people.

Before we cheer on Ari Melber or even Alex Wagner for avoiding such potential foot-in-mouth statements, it’s worth noting that not only were both of them party to this (presumably straight-only) discussion focused on straight people’s feelings about legal recognition of queer families, but they’ve been connected to other such discussions in the past. Melber, while sitting in for Wagner on her usual afternoon show, led a discussion at the end of last year on then Senator Chuck Hagel’s anti-gay comments in the context of his eventually successful installment as Defense Secretary. Like this (ostensibly straight-dominated) analysis of Portman’s opinions on his gay son, that panel was also entirely composed of straight or closeted people. To be charitable to MSNBC, it’s not like they have a resident expert on the intersections between their own queer activism and military policy (oh wait).

Naturally enough, the panel included Catherine Crier, who explained that Hagel’s commentary occurred so long ago as to be meaningless. After all, it was the Clinton administration! Back then dubstep didn’t even exist! And Crier was backhandedly hinting about how Janet Reno was a lesbian! If anyone’s an expert on whether that matters, it’s definitely Crier.

T shirt which reads - 'just another straight person for gay rights'
(Not pictured: an explanation of who gets to define what gay rights are and what the best or appropriate means for advancing them are.)

In a nutshell, this has happened twice. At least in the past few months, on two occasions has MSNBC put together a panel of exclusively straight (or closeted) people to talk about policies and attitudes that straight people have imposed on or developed about queer people. From this (perceptively) straights-only zone, twice now comments from people who haven’t publicly identified as queer have declared that a statement by a straight person aren’t nearly as problematic as some people view it to be. It’s wrong when this happens with regards to race, and the same dynamic is problematic when it happens with regard to sexual orientation.

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