What a week it has been for casual coming-out stories. Tuesday CNN news anchor and daytime talkshow Anderson Cooper came out, and then a couple of days later R&B singer and songwriter Frank Ocean of Odd Couple set the Twitterverse on fire by revealing that his first love had been a man. Both in their own way represent potential game-changers in traditional bastions of heterosexuality – Cooper as the alpha male who addresses the camera from a war zone, and Ocean as a symbol of diversity in the notoriously homophobic R&B/hip-hop scene – but perhaps the most interesting is how elegantly they revealed the news.
I’ll return to that, but first I want to update something I wrote a few months ago, regarding speculation about the sexuality of celebrities and whether a closeted celebrity has any kind of “moral responsibility” to come out if they could function as role models for others. In my struggle with Michael Musto’s recent piece on the so-called “glass closet” – famous people who live relatively open gay lives while refusing to talk about it publicly – I advised some carefulness about appeals to a moral code. Not because I don’t want openly gay role models, but because the act of coming out is so personal that I don’t think anyone other than the person him- or herself can really decide. There’s also the small matter that no one else could possibly know for sure whether that person is actually gay. In retrospect I know it seems naive that I went so far to underscore that we couldn’t know for sure whether Anderson Cooper is gay, even though many people more or less in the know had already been referring to him as “openly closeted” for some time. But my point was a broader one than whether Michael Musto was “right” about Cooper’s sexuality. I wanted to make a point about privacy and how the pressure associated with talk of outing and glass closets is almost impossible to make go away.
I still stand by what I wrote at the time, but this week the man in question, Anderson Cooper, revealed that his own thinking on the subject has evolved significantly recently. In a beautifully written and deeply moving email to Daily Beast blogger and gay activist Andrew Sullivan, Cooper explains how his views on professional privacy and what we could call “the importance of visibility” has been changing over time. He says he has been open about his sexual orientation vis-a-vis colleagues, friends and family, all the while trying to keep a personal space for himself. However, after having worked for years trying to bring attention to important gay issues like bullying in schools and the effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he started to fear that his own evasiveness when faced with questions about his sexuality was giving people the impression that he was somehow ashamed of who he was; that he had something to hide.
This is where Cooper’s statement turns political, in a safe, non-partisan but nonetheless unmistakeable way:
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. (…) 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.
Anderson Cooper, in his quiet demeanor, wants to move the world forward, not as an activist, necessarily, but, as he says it, as a journalist and a human being. He concludes his letter by saying that sometimes it can be more important to contribute to visibility than to insist on your own privacy. I’m glad he reached that conclusion for himself, and I think the world would be a better place for everyone if more people followed his lead. That said, I still believe that the decision to come out has to be an individual one, and, with the risk of repeating myself, I think the most important we can do is to create an environment in which at some point in the near future, this will cease to be a potentially controversial issue. At the same time, we have to embrace straight people who speak up for civil rights, instead of fixating on whether an interest in these issues might mean that they’re secretly gay themselves. In this regard I have previously used the examples of Taylor Lautner and Daniel Radcliffe, two straight guys who have repeatedly had to answer questions about their sexuality. These are examples of how the outing hunt sometimes gets out of hand, We have to watch out so that every person who does not at first glance live up to the heteronormative expectations of what constitutes a (straight, “real” man), is not by definition labeled as gay, and instead work toward an acceptance of diversity that includes people who are not comfortable with just “straight” or “gay”, or “male” or “female”, for that matter.
Nonetheless, even as I write this, I can see how this line of argument can seem to implicitly assume that it is more frustrating for a straight guy to be perceived as gay than the other way around. That is not my intention. The second thing I want to bring up is something I heard on Slate Culture Gabfest this week. The panel discussed whether Cooper’s statement, at the same time optimistic and defensive about what had led to his coming out, was grounded in a sense that society still feels like their should be shame associated with coming out as gay, and they took issue with parts of Cooper’s optimistic take on the country’s attitude towards LGBT issues. As Slate’s June Thomas wrote in a blog post, “[w]henever people come out, be they public figures or bus drivers, the announcement is inevitably met by complaints that they’re “flaunting it,” which is just another way bigots mask their queasiness in the language of tolerance (“if only they wouldn’t be so forceful about it”, etc.) but true to form, the diplomatic Cooper is very low-key about it. It is encouraging that his coming out has mostly garnered a positive response.
R&B singer Frank Ocean has contributed in his own way to the increased visibility of people with same-sex attractions. I phrase it in this way because he does not label himself in his Tumblr post. By talking about his first love in the way he does, he addresses a theme that is absent for Cooper’s announcement; that of love, at the same time the most normal and the most controversial aspect of same-sex attractions, because of the inevitable sexualization of the issue. Responding to Frank Ocean’s unwillingness to label himself, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece in which she made a very simple point: «We’re all oriented – across a broad continuum, by the way – in our own directions. But nobody falls in love with a gender. We fall in love with a person.» Note that she doesn’t say that homosexuality is a choice, only that personal chemistry plays a huge part in who we fall in love with. Like her, I hope that Frank Ocean’s brave announcement will give homophobes something to think about.
This is not necessarily the time to discuss which of these two is the most influential poster boy for a new openness about homosexuality, but this week I think we can tweak the rules to say that it takes two to make a very desirable trend.