Out Magazine has a new column up today by Michael Musto, in which he revisits his controversial 2007 story about the concept of the ‘glass closet‘. In short, people in the glass closet are celebrities who, according to Musto, live relatively open gay lives in private and are careful never to deny that they are gay if asked, while never acknowledging that they are, either. As Musto quite triumphantly points out, several of the people he singled out in his initial piece – Clay Aiken, Wanda Sykes, Sean Hayes – have since come out, but he bemoans that Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper, two of the most prominent celebrities in his initial ‘glass closet’ have not come forward yet (or at least not in a way that satisfies Musto, considering Foster went a big step toward outing herself by thanking her female companion publicly a few years back.)
Which brings me back to my conflicted feelings on the issue of outing celebrities, and whether or not they somehow owe it to themselves or to the wider world to come out. I have swung back and forth on this repeatedly, whether it be in discussing Harvey Milk’s political tactics, Susan Sontag’s bisexuality, Ramin Setoodeh’s queasiness with out actors playing straight, or Daniel Radcliffe and Taylor Lautner’s continued efforts to quell gay rumors. But the way the ‘glass closet’ argument is put makes it a little easier to come down on one side. Out‘s strategies have been debated for years (like their Gay Power 50 list, which regularly features people who have not come out), and the way the new article not only insists that Anderson Cooper is gay, but that there are others, like Queen Latifah and Ellen Paige, who are implicitly joining their ranks, rubs me the wrong way. The article doesn’t provide any evidence to support the latter claim, and the rumors about Cooper also strike me as based on observations that are hard to refute because they are presented in a way that makes it hard to locate and consider the trustworthiness of the source(s).
As a man who is very happy with being out, and who felt like a burden was immediately lifted off my shoulders when I told someone, I’m sympathetic to some parts of Musto’s argument. Like him, I believe that, if people are actually gay, many will feel a sense of liberation by not having to hide it anymore. But one of the central questions here concerns the operative word if: We don’t know if Anderson Cooper or some of the other people in Musto’s article are in fact gay, we just have to assume that they are, thanks in no small part to a) that they haven’t denied it and b) that writers like Musto continue to insist that they are. And, like Musto also touches on, if only in passing, in his 2007 piece, it might be because as gay men who find Anderson Cooper attractive, we want him to be. But the next question has to be: Does that gives us the right to demand of people that they come out, or even to advise them to?
In the context of the ‘glass closet’, my answer is a qualified no. Don’t get me wrong: I would love to see more openly gay people in all walks of life, and particularly in the most public professions, like politicians, musicians, actors, athletes, etc. I have, for instance, written about how I think the presence of a first-class gay soccer player would make a huge difference and do a world of good, not only to fellow players, but to fans and future players as well – and, if only to prove Ramin Setoodeh wrong, I am waiting for an actor who has played convincing straight roles his entire career to come out and then continue his successful career like nothing happened. And yet, however convinced I am that it would be immensely helpful to the broader acceptance of LGBT people to have more role models – these are professions that profoundly influence how we view the world around us – I cannot quite get myself to demand of celebrities that they put the constantly evolved common good that would result from their coming out ahead of their right to privacy and self-determination.
In my opinion, privacy is one of those complicated questions that Musto brushes aside much too easily. If, for the sake argument, we accept the premise that the people he has assigned to the ‘glass closet’ are in fact gay, that doesn’t mean we know all the reasons why they haven’t decided to come out (yet?). There could be career or commercial reasons behind the decision, of course, whose somewhat self-serving nature does not necessarily make them any less real. Or it could be that these celebrities are truly conflicted about either their sexuality or their willingness to, for some period of time, put it front and center in their public lives. For all we now, even celebrities could fear repercussions from family, friends or associates if they came out. The point is, only the individuals know a) if they are gay, and b) whether they it would be worth it to let the rest of the world know. As much as we want them to be available 24/7 for our entertainment as stars that are always on, in the end, these too are mere humans. And here I won’t even bring up the possible conflict between what people engage in and how they identify themselves sexually.
Even over the course of writing this post, however conflicting arguments have been racing through my head, so in addition to the previous point about my wish that there be more role models, I wanted to attempt to bring a little more nuance to my stated position. First, I realize that there are limits to my overall argument. Not the least of which being that without the courage of pioneers, whether celebrities or activists, who forfeited the right of privacy in favor of visibility and openness (think everyone from Harvey Milk to Ellen), which in turn is why homosexuality at least in some circles and professions is now considered such a non-issue that the ‘glass closet’ is a livable place to be in the first place (again, this assumes that the people we are talking about are actually gay, no minor assumption).
Seond, I respect that this issue might look a little different to people with other experiences than my own. I live in Norway, a country that while nowhere near a homonormative Utopia, is a place where the gay rights agenda has come a long way (that’s not to say it hasn’t been a long struggle, or that these victories – from decriminilization, to the age of consent, to anti-discrimination and anti-bullying campaigns, awareness of hate crimes, civil partnerships and marriage rights – have been easily won, or won once and for all). From the perspective of the young farmboy in Montana, whom my friend Bryan Borland writes about in his poetry collection My Life as Adam, (2010, “In Defense of Existence”, p. 106) the need for a role model might carry more weight than a comfortable celebrity’s right to privacy.
Third, my opposition to outing is by no means absolute. I guess I just don’t share what I consider to be Musto’s implicit view that the ‘glass closet’ types are in some ways hypocrites or con artists (he writes of Anderson Cooper that his coyness about his sexuality helps heterosexual women and homosexual men see in him the fantasy that suits their preferences.) Instead, I want to go after the really harmful hypocrites, those politiicians, powerbrokers and opinion-movers who vote or speak out against gay rights while being privately gay themselves. That is why I was conflicted when Ken Mehlman, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out as gay and as an equal rights advocate last year. I was happy for him personally, but I just wished he’d had the courage to stand up to those in his party who decided to run the 2004 George W. Bush re-election campaign in large part on state-based anti-gay marriage initiatives. But back then, Mehlman sat quietly and said nothing.
What, then, is the constructive, if ever-negotiable middle way between skepticism toward outing and the wish to smoke out political hypocrites? The closest I get to a solution is this: Embrace people who are out, but also embrace those who may or may not be on their way out. And just as importantly, embrace people who raise issues of importance to the LGBT community, as Anderson Cooper has actually repeatedly done, with his focus on anti-gay bullying in schools. If you are straight celebrity, or if you just want to guard your privacy, I simply want you to stay on a positive message about the whole gay thing, as both Cooper and Radcliffe have done. I might be repeating myself here, but whatever my personal views on the virtues of being out, neither I, nor anyone else for that matter, should feel like we are in a position to demand of non-hypocrites that they come out. A subsiding pressure may even help them crack the door open, should it be that they have a closet they want to come out of someday.