My jaw dropped down to the floor when I read Sunday's New York Times and realized that Susan Sontag's private journals are going to be published. The Times was running an excerpt from the first journal she kept, and they promised there would be more to come--many more.
According to the Times, Sontag kept a journal intermittently for most of her life. I quickly scanned down the article to see what Sontag's journals might look like. Would they be like ordinary journals, revealing the interior life of the public figure, or would they be more studied, almost like notes for her written works?
When I finally sat down to read the excerpt in full, I was even more amazed by what was revealed. For example, in this excerpt, from 1958:
My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.
It doesn't justify my homosexuality. But it would give me--I feel--a license.
I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer. With H., I thought it didn't bother me, but I was lying to myself. I let other people (e.g. Annette [Michelson, film scholar]) believe that it was H. who was my vice, and that apart from her I wouldn't be queer or at least not mainly so.
I had already heard Sontag was a lesbian before reading this excerpt from her journals. I knew it the way gay people know these things, through the gay grapevine. I also knew she was known to be reticent about discussing it, even though her sexuality was considered an open secret among her peers.
When Sontag passed away, I wrote several posts about how much I admired her, but chose not to mention her lesbianism. I guess I felt protective of Sontag's desire for privacy. It seems increasingly like gays and lesbians get called on the carpet for gossiping about celebrities or for saying someone's gay. For instance, take the recent rumors about Oprah. But what many people do not appreciate is how often we stay silent, because we know what the costs of exposure are.
I don't think I necessarily made a good decision in choosing not to mention Sontag's sexuality. In hindsight I think my protectiveness was misplaced. But then, I can point to my betters and say they did the same thing. For example, I noted that the obituary in the New York Times failed to mention Susan Sontag's longtime companion, even though it is ludicrous to suggest that the paper of record was unaware of the relationship. When asked about the omission by the gay press, the Times replied that they could not get confirmation regarding her lover's identity before press time.
I'd like here to make a distinction that often gets forgotten in discussions about outing. (If you are interested in the subject, I suggest reading the book Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing by Larry Gross.) The intent of outing is usually not to out people, it is to out the press. Outing points out the bad faith exhibited by the press in reporting "news" about celebrities and other personalities which they know to be factually incorrect.
In this way, outing shows that the press is not always committed to objective reporting of the facts. It also shows that the press is complicit with practices that oppress gays and lesbians. I don't necessarily agree with the practice of outing, but I think people need to understand what it is and what it is not. It has political and social implications outside the somewhat frivolous context of celebrity gossip in which it is often discussed.
Back to Sontag. I'm excited that Sontag's journals are going to be published, and that I will get to read about her own understanding of her sexual identity, perhaps as it evolved over decades. I hope I will also learn more about the decision to publish posthumously. I did some investigation before writing this and discovered that Sontag's son, a writer and book editor, is the executor of her estate. So I imagine it was a conscious decision on her part to publish the journals, which in turn prompted me to publish this reflection on my own writing decisions.