One of the hallmarks of a repressive state, particularly in the twentieth century, is the use of blackmail against gays and lesbians in order to get them to collaborate and inform on their friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and other potential or actual dissidents. The Stasi was notorious for turning gays and lesbians into collaborators (see pp. 567ff); one of the key figures in Timothy Garton Ash’s The File—Schuldt—is just such an informant. So pervasive was the use of this type of blackmail during the Cold War that it also figured prominently on the US side: one of the main justifications proffered for drumming out gays and lesbians from the federal government during the McCarthy era was that they were susceptible to being blackmailed by the Soviets. Though no one ever found a single instance of that.
One of the most frustrating arguments in the post-Edward Snowden world is the argument that you should have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. This is wrongheaded for any number of reasons, but sexual practice is a perfect example. This is because many people enjoy sexual practices that a) are perfectly moral, consensual, and legal, but b) we have no interest in sharing with the public. Clearly, in this instance, part of what we need to do is to continue to chip away at the edifice of homophobia, and I am willing to admit that this is a particularly acute problem in the Muslim world. But defeating homophobia will not lead to a world where we all want to share all of our private sexual practices with other. Indeed, it’s my intuitive feeling that many people enjoy private sexual moments in part because they are taking part in practices that they don’t feel need to be shared with the wider world, in contrast with a society that has become so public in so many ways.
I always thought the best book about totalitarianism wasn’t 1984, but A Tale of Two Cities. And in that book, the most constant, important symbol is the eye– the omnipresent eye. Being free means being free to do things that you don’t want other people to know about. It has to.