We are still in that time in our history where public figures come out of invisible closets largely built by a public insatiable in its desire to know all the intimate details of the private lives of very public people.
We want to know everything. In this information age, we are inundated with information, to which at times we feel entitled. We also like taxonomy, classification, definition. Are you a man or a woman? Are you a Democrat or Republican? Are you married or single? Are you gay or straight? We don’t seem to know what to do when we don’t know the answers to these questions, or worse, when the answers to these questions do not fall neatly into a category.
When public figures don’t provide outward evidence of their sexuality, our desire to classify intensifies. Any number of celebrities are dogged by “gay rumors,” because we cannot quite place them into a given category. We act like placing these people in categories will have some impact on our lives, or that it is our responsibility, when, most of the time, it won’t change anything at all. There is nothing in my life that is impacted by knowing Ricky Martin, for example, is gay. The only thing satisfied by that information is my curiosity.
Sometimes, this zeal to classify has resulted in public figures being outed against their will. In particular, politicians who have gone on record for legislation that suppresses civil rights have found themselves in the glare of the spotlight. Congressman Edward Schrock was outed in 2004 because he voted for the Marriage Protection Act. There have been many others. When people have been forcibly outed, those doing the outing have said they were acting for the greater good or working to reveal hypocrisy as if the right to privacy and the right to determine if and when to come out is only afforded to those who are infallible.
This is, in part, a matter of privacy. What information do we have the right to keep to ourselves? What boundaries are we allowed to maintain in our personal lives? What do we have a right to know about the lives of others? When do we have a right to breach the boundaries others have set for themselves?
People with high public profiles are allowed very few boundaries. In exchange for the erosion of privacy, they receive fame and/or fortune and/or power. Is this a fair price? Are famous people aware of how they are sacrificing privacy when they ascend to a position of cultural prominence? Only they know but we do take it for granted that privacy for fame, fortune and power is a fair exchange.
There are many ways we have surrendered our privacy in the information age. Many people willingly disclose what they’ve eaten for breakfast, where they spent last night and with whom, and all manner of trivial information. We surrender personal information when registering for social media accounts and when making purchases online. We often surrender this information without question or reflection. These disclosures come so freely because we’ve long been conditioned to share too much with too many.
In his book Privacy (Picador), Garret Keizer explores privacy through a series of essays that consider privacy legally, from the feminist perspective, through the lens of class, and more. He demonstrates a real concern for how little privacy we have, how cavalier we sometimes are with our privacy, and how unthinkingly we might infringe on the privacy of others. He says, “We speak of privacy as a right but we might also think of it as a test, as a canary in the mine of our civilization. It lives or dies to the extent that we remain willing to believe that the human person, body and soul—our blood relatives in his or her flesh, and beyond reduction in his or her grandeur and nobility—is sacred, endowed with inalienable rights and a microcosm of us all.”
We tend to forget that culturally prominent figures are as sacred as the people closest to us. We tend to forget that they are flesh and blood. We assume that as they rise to prominence, they shed their inalienable rights. We do this without question.
One of the most striking arguments Keizer makes is that privacy and class are intrinsically bound together. He asserts that people with privilege have more access to privacy than people who don’t. Keizer notes, “Social class is defined in large part by the degree of freedom one has to move from private space to public space, and by the amount of time one spends in relative privacy.”
I would also argue that this relationship between privacy and privilege extends to race, gender and sexuality. When a woman is pregnant, for example, there’s increasingly less privacy because, as she reaches full term, her condition becomes more and more visible. Keizer remarks, with regard to pregnant women, that, “Her condition is an unequivocally public statement of a very private experience, begun in circumstances of intimacy and continued within the sanctum of her own body—yet there is no hiding it for her, nor any denying the feeling we have that somehow she belongs to us, that she embodies our collective future and represents our individual pasts.”
Anytime your body represents some kind of difference your privacy is compromised to some degree. A surfeit of privacy is just one more benefit the privileged class gets to enjoy and often takes for granted; to the same extent, heterosexual people take the privacy of their sexuality for granted. They can date, marry and love whom they choose without needing to disclose much of anything about themselves. If they do choose to disclose, there are rarely negative consequences.
In recent years, celebrities have started coming out with little fanfare by way, perhaps, of an interview where a man might casually mention his male partner or refer to himself as a gay man, or a woman might thank her partner in an award acceptance speech. The public reacts when celebrities come out quietly but the spectacle is somewhat muted. When celebrities come out in this manner, they are generally saying, “This is simply one more thing you now know about me.”
In July 2012, popular journalist Anderson Cooper came out of one of those invisible closets built by someone else’s hands, in an email to The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan, who then published that email on his blog.
The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.
I have always been very open and honest about this part of my life with my friends, my family, and my colleagues. In a perfect world, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted.
There was a range of responses to Cooper’s email and his coming out. Many people shrugged and said Cooper’s sexuality was presumed, an open secret. Others remarked it was important and even necessary for Cooper to come out and to, as he puts it, stand up and be counted.
This is often what is said when public figures do or do not come out: there is a greater obligation that must be met beyond what that person might ordinarily choose to meet. We make these demands, though, without considering how much less privacy that person might have not only because they are a public figure but also because they are part of an underrepresented group. I am not suggesting that we cry for the celebrity who enjoys a lush lifestyle; I am saying we should give thought to the celebrity who would prefer to keep his marriage to a man private for whatever reason, but isn’t allowed that right, a right that is, for heterosexuals, inalienable.
In Privacy, Keizer notes that, “The public obligations of prominently powerful people can also constrain their private lives.” We see these constraints time and again when celebrities and other prominent figures sidestep questions about their personal lives they are unwilling to answer. They may be hesitant for any number of reasons—protecting their privacy, protecting their careers and social standing, protecting loved ones. The public rarely seems to care about those reasons. They—we—need to know.
At the same time, we live in a complex cultural climate. Things are improving and we are inching slowly, ever closer, to equal rights for all.
Prominent gay people need to stand up and be counted, because the word “gay” is still used as a slur. Nine out of ten LGBT teenagers report being bullied at school. LGBT youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide. The bullying and harassment of LGBT youth was so pervasive that, in 2010, Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller created a YouTube video to show LGBT youth how life can, indeed, get better beyond the torments of adolescence. That video spawned countless other videos and a foundation dedicated to continuing this project of showing LGBT youth there is a light at the end of an often very dark tunnel.
Gay celebrities like Cooper also need to stand up and be counted because there are only six states where gay marriage is legal. Those marriages are only recognized at the state level because the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, does not recognize gay marriage—or what it really is, marriage—federally. This act denies gay couples 1,138 federally preserved rights afforded to heterosexual couples. Twenty-nine states have constitutional provisions explicitly defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. There are states where LGBT people cannot adopt children. Depending on where they live, members of the LGBT community may lose their jobs because of their sexual orientation. They may face ostracism from family, friends and community.
LGBT people are the victims of hate crimes. There is the young lesbian couple in Texas, Kristine Chapa and Mollie Olgin, who were both shot in the head by an unknown assailant and left to die. In Lincoln, Nebraska, a lesbian was attacked in her own home by three men who carved the word “dyke” and other slurs into her body. A gay couple in northeast DC were attacked two blocks from their apartment by three assailants who were shouting homophobic slurs. One, Michael Hall, remains in the hospital. He has no health insurance and has a fractured jaw. In Edmond, Oklahoma, a gay man’s car was vandalized with a homophobic slur and set on fire. In Indianapolis, Indiana, there was a drive-by shooting of a gay bar.
These incidents have taken place within the past month. Hate is everywhere.
It gets better, sort of. It gets better unless you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the wrong place is your very home, which is the one place where you should be able to feel safe no matter what the world is like.
Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut, who died in July 2012 at the age of 61, is survived by her female partner of 27 years. Her widow will not be able to receive her federal benefits that would normally be given to a surviving spouse. Sally Ride was able to fly into space and reach the stars but, here on earth, her long-term relationship will go largely unrecognized. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted, “Sally Ride ranks among the greatest pioneers. I count myself among the millions of Americans she inspired with her travel to space.” Music group The Mountain Goats replied, “Kind of despicable and grotesque that her partner of 27 years will be denied her federal benefits, don’t you think?”
Despicable and grotesque, indeed; but in her death, Sally Ride stood up and was counted. She became even more of a hero than she already was.
The world we live in is not as progressive as we need it to be. When a celebrity comes out, it is still news. The coming out is still culturally significant. When a man like Anderson Cooper comes out, people feel like it’s a step forward in achieving civil rights for everyone. At the very least, it is one more person saying, I am here. I matter. I demand to be recognized. Cooper is, by many standards, the “right kind of gay”—white, handsome, successful, masculine. Many celebrities who have successfully come out in recent years fit that profile—Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto and so on. These men are held up as examples—not too flamboyant, not too gay.
It’s a problem, though, that there’s a right kind of gay, that there are LGBT people who are warmly encouraged to step out of the closet while others who don’t fit certain parameters go largely ignored. It’s easy enough for a man like Anderson Cooper, living in fairly liberal New York City, to come out. He will likely continue to be very successful. He has a supportive family and a welcoming community to embrace him. Coming out stories for every day people are often far different, complicated and difficult. We lose sight of that. We forget what it’s like to come out in the so-called flyover states. It’s not easy.
In July 2012, musician Frank Ocean, a celebrity with a lower profile than Cooper but with, perhaps, more to lose, came out as having once loved a man via Tumblr by sharing some of the liner notes for his critically acclaimed album Channel Orange. Once again, cultural observes noted that Ocean’s coming out was important and significant.
For a black man to come out as gay or bisexual, particularly as part of the notoriously homophobic R&B and Hip Hop community, Ocean was taking a bold step, a risk. He was trusting that his music would transcend the prejudices, if any, of his audience. So far, that risk seems to have paid off. Many celebrities have vocalized their support of Ocean including Russell Simmons, Beyoncé, Fifty Cent and others. He is standing up to be counted. His album has been well received and continues to sell well.
Of course, Ocean is also part of the Odd Future collective. His friend and collaborator Tyler, the Creator’s debut album, Goblin, contains 213 gay slurs. Tyler, the Creator continues to assert that he’s not homophobic with that old canard of having gay friends. He stepped up his defense by also claiming his gay fans were totally fine with his use of the term “faggot” over and over and over—immunity by association. I do not know the man. Maybe he is homophobic, maybe he isn’t. I do know he doesn’t think about language very carefully. He believes that just because you can say something, you should. He is not shamed by using slurs 213 times on one album, no matter how that frequency reflects a lack of imagination.
For every step forward, there is some asshole shoving progress back.
Despite our complex cultural climate and what needs to be done for the greater good, it is still an unreasonable burden that someone who is marginalized must bear an extra set of responsibilities. It is unfair that prominent cultural figures who come out have to forge these inroads on our behalf, to satisfy our desperate desire to know. These figures carry the hopes of so many on their shoulders. They stand up and are counted so that someday things might actually be better for everyone, everywhere, not just the camera or radio-ready celebrities for whom coming out is far easier than most.
I am reminded of the Iowa lesbian couple whose son Zach Wahls testified in 2011 before the Iowa House Judiciary community about how a child raised by two women turns out. He spoke in support of gay marriage in Iowa. He was passionate and eloquent and a real credit to his parents. The video clip of his testimony was shared across the Internet. Every time I saw it I was both thrilled and angry—angry because queer people always have to fight so much harder for a fraction of the recognition. No one ever asks heterosexual parents to ensure that their children are models of citizenry. The bar for queer parents is unfairly, unnecessarily high, but young men like this one keep vaulting that bar nonetheless.
Perhaps, we expect gay public figures and other prominent queer people to come out, to stand and be counted so they can do the work we’re unwilling to do to change the world, to carry the burdens we are unwilling to shoulder, to take the stands we are unwilling to make. As individuals, we may not be able to do much, but when we’re silent when someone uses the word “gay” as an insult, we are falling short. When we don’t vote to support equal marriage rights for all, we are falling short. When we support musicians like Tyler, the Creator, we are falling short. We are failing our communities. We are failing civil rights. There are injustices great and small and even if we can only fight the small ones, we’re still doing something.
Too often, we fail to ask ourselves, what sacrifices will we make for the greater good? What stands will we take? We expect role models to model the behaviors we are perfectly capable of modeling ourselves. We know things are getting better. We know we have far to go. In Privacy, Keizer also says that, “The plurality of intrusions on our privacy has the cumulative effect of inducing a sense of helplessness.” We are willing—even anxious—to see prominent figures in a state of helplessness as they sacrifice their privacy for the greater good. How helpless are we willing to be for the greater good? That’s the question that interests me most.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.