Monday, 19 April 2010

On Coming Out - and Celebrity Coming Out

I’ve been debating this for a while and with both Ricky Martin and Sean Hayes coming out and reporting on both – perhaps especially from the GBLT community.

The Glass Closet

For whatever reason, sometimes there is a general consensus that someone is gay before they have come out. And generally I disapprove – it’s not our place to decide that someone should be out or not. It’s not our place to decide whether they are ready to be out – no matter how sure we are that they are gay, no matter how sure we are that their sexuality is obvious. Even if they are gay. For that matter, too often our assumptions that someone is gay are based on ridiculous stereotyping which, frankly, is beneath us. We should know BETTER than to decide that someone’s demeanour/taste/hobbies/mannerisms make them gay or not. Seriously, guys, don’t we get enough of that from the damn homophobes without us doing it ourselves?!

But even if we do know they’re gay? Still – their choice when they decide to make that a formal, open statement.

I had a friend who came out to me about 18 months ago. He was gay. I was surprised – at him coming out. He spent more time in gay bars than I did. He was grossly unsubtle at checking other guys out. Oh and before Beloved and I were together, we had had a couple of intense make out sessions. Yet, he felt the need to come out to the man he had reached second base with. Are we clear that rational thought and the closet do not necessarily go together?

He was scared. He was afraid of what his family would say. He was afraid of what his friends would say. He was terrified of his life ending if he admitted he was gay. It was vital to him for his own mental well being to be able pretend he could control who knew and who didn’t – he needed this.

And no matter how “obvious” it may seem, that doesn’t mean that they are ready to come out. It doesn’t mean that their parents, siblings, aged grandmother and father confessor aren’t all being held at bay only by their denials (and, believe me, to a homophobic parent desperately hoping their child isn’t gay, even the most hollow denial will maintain that fantasy).

They have a DUTY to come out

The idea being that the more out celebs are out there the more normal being gay seems and the more accepted we are. And this is very very true – I can’t argue with it. More prominent out gay people will further push that we are normal people, just like everyone else. It is powerful, it does help us – and every out gay person can’t help but be an activist by sheer virtue of existing. Not because they have to march or campaign – but simply because in a society that denies we exist and fights our right to exist and merely existing in those circumstances, let alone being prominent, is an activist action. It's not a magic bullet that will end all evil - far from it, but the persistent erasure of our existence is much harder to do when there are so many of us out in the open

But we have no right to force people to sacrifice their lives for a gesture – no matter how important that gesture is. Let’s be honest here, as many actors and sportsmen have said, coming out can end a career. It’s sad, it’s wrong – but it’s true. This is likely (and I say likely because I have no right to speak for them) WHY many sportsmen like Gareth Thomas and Daniel Kowalski as well as musicians like Ricky Martin waited until after they retired or after their career peaked/was well established before coming out. And even aside from their careers, we don’t know what their personal life is like. We don’t know what personal daemons they wrestle with (and we know that no small number of us has to wrestle with self-loathing, low self-esteem and general internalised homophobic badness) we don’t know how their family and friends will react. We don’t know what the cost will be for them – and we have no right to ask that for them.

I love it when they come out. I’d love if they did it when still at the height of their careers. I celebrate every single person who comes out as a person who has achieved freedom. as someone who has transcended the closet – and yes, overly grandiose word fully intended. But we have no right – not now, not ever, to demand they come out, to criticise how long it took them to come out or, gods forbid, to out them****

Is coming out news?

The argument here is that being gay is so normal and acceptable now that some prominent celebrity coming out as gay shouldn’t really be treated as news – because it’s nothing special or amazing

But, frankly, we all live in the Straight Republic of Hetlandia. We turn on the television and there are straight people everywhere. We walk around and we’re surrounded by straight people. Open a book, play a computer game, watch and advert, straightness is everywhere. Part of that is simple demographics – straight folks outnumber us many times over, after all – and part of it is the fact that homophobia has driven us to hide while heterosexism has erased us (or stereotyped us etc etc, see earlier rants).

And in the Straight Republic of Hetlandia, it is still heartening to see that real gay people exist – and they can be anything and anywhere. It is still heartening to see that we can be sportsmen (including hot beefy rugby players and Olympic gold medallists), it is heartening to see that gay people coming from all groups and all places (I am told that Ricky Martin is a great role model for hispanic gays, though can‘t comment, obviously). It is a reinforcement for all the gay kids that we exist and are successful and a part of society and this is a good thing.

Now the caveat to that. WHILE I think people coming out as gay IS newsworthy, that doesn’t mean the way the news reports it is necessarily ideal. I’ve spoken above about the problems of demanding people come out or saying “We all knew anyway” but there’s also a problem with being so terribly shocked by the news. Yes, it’s newsworthy – but it’s not shocking, surprising or horrifying. It’s not worthy of the kind of reporting that would normally be reserved for “David Cameron has grown another head and it eats BABIES!” or “Sarah Palin completed a coherent sentence!” It’s news worthy, but it’s not shocking. It’s not earth shattering. It’s the not biggest and most stunning thing in the history of mankind.

Reporting a celebrity coming out is a positive and reinforcing thing for us. Reporting it as earth-shattering and freaky really really isn’t.

****For many years I have wrestled over the idea of outing homophobes, and the full reasoning would take another post – but I have largely come down on the side of believing homophobic closet cases working against us are fair game.