Gay brothers and sisters,... You must come out. Come out... to your parents... I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives... come out to your friends... if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors... to your fellow workers... to the people who work where you eat and shop... come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene --Harvey Milk
Coming out...it is commonly considered a rite of passage for all lgbt people. We regard it as a singular act of courage and truth telling which is said to set us free. It's sometimes it can be as large as bringing conversation at thanksgiving dinner to a screaching halt or as small as only being able towhisper the truth to yourself in a mirror. But however it's done...it always takes courage and still more to to bring that truth out to others. We know...because many of us have been there with our heart in our hands waiting for parents or friends to respond to our finding the courage to tell them about ourselves...each second of silence feeling like hours.
Many of my readers may have watched my husband Jay's opinion video of Jodie Fosters kinda coming out speech at the Golden Globes. It got so much heated and angry backlash that Jay got called all kinds to things from selfish, to a bully, to a couple of death threats. To me...the response to Jays Criticisms of Jody Foster were way out of proportion to what was actually said about her. Not that Jay was the only one to have some strong opinions about the topic...many notable and well respected voices also had some raised eyebrows including radio host and Huffington Post editor Michelangelo Signorile. Yet, anyone who had something critical to say about Jodie Fosters speech was vilified and got the full wrath of the internet. Now...while you would expect that her fans would want to defend her...the response was so large and heated that it made me wonder if something else was behind their reactions beyond the effect of celebrity. Perhaps Jay had touched on a nerve that many of us are sensitive to...what we believe coming out is and what we impart to the person doing it?
Many of you may be tired of hearing about the whole Jodie Foster thing...and to be honest, I am too. Even though I may use Jodie as an example at times, would like to take this issue out of the realm of any one persons circumstances and take a look at the act of coming out itself....and then, if being a celebrity alters how we view it. Is coming out something so personal and intimate that no one is allowed to have opinions about it?
For myself...and again, in my opinion only...I do believe that coming out of the closet is not only an act that can lead to better emotional health, I also believe that it is something that can make the world a better place for all LGBT people. The more the world can see us and know us as we are, the less those that hate us can spin lies about us. Those lies only find fertile ground to grow in because there is such a great void of ignorance about the lives of LGBT people. That void then becomes filled with the lies of people who want the public to believe we have a shadowy agenda to ruin marriage and recruit children...all of that complete B.S. However, it is harder for someone who understand that those things are not the truth until they come to know someone who is LGBT. Then they come to understand that none of what NOM, or Tony Perkins, or any anti-gay talking head says is true. In this way more people come to understand their LGBT cooworkers or neighbors as people worthy of dignity, respect, and equal treatment under the law. The act of coming out not only helps that person live freely...it ultimately helps all of us. this is what I believe to be the essence of Harvey Milk's quote above.
but that doesn't mean that coming out automatically makes our lives better....nor does it mean that being able to say the words "I'm gay" translates to self acceptance. Often times coming out is just the first step on what can become a lifelong journey. Some of us have enough confidence to blow the doors of the closet on the way out...others stick one toe out at a time and them retreat back in until they can again find their courage. Each persons path is different...and I think that's why more than a few people felt taking Jodie Foster to task for her comments about those who are already out as needing a "fragrance, a press conference, and a reality show" to honor their outness were jumping down her throat for her opinions instead of supporting her for finally being out. I admit, her remarks bugged me too and as some have pointed out... Anderson Cooper, Jane Lynch, and Ricky Martin did none of those things. Still, instead of being offended, others saw her words as the marks of a woman struggling with the some of the terrible effects that fame has had on her life....like being stalked by a man who tried to kill a President just to get her attention. But regardless of how we each chose to view those remarks, there is no denying that the fact that they were being given as a coming out speech changed how we viewed them...and her.
As I watched her on stage her nervousness was palpable. That is a pretty significant thing to note about a woman who is no stranger to camera's and public attention. I could almost feel it come through my computer screen as I watched. But as she told her awkward joke about coming out single all I could see was a woman struggling to find the courage to speak ...and on a deeper level, as I watched her nervousness as she fumbled for the words, I felt as if I was coming out again with her. That's how easy it is to identify with the fearful hesitancy of "Am I really gonna do this?!" .....The butterfly's in your stomach, the shakiness in your knees, the sweat on your palms, and the terrible thoughts of rejection and danger that I had come to think could happen as soon as the words left my mouth. All the while, trying to get the words stuck in my throat to come out. Many may not agree with me on this, but that's exactly what I saw in her...and felt with her. Her words would not have been mine...I think they were ill chosen and hurt a few people...but I can't help but see the obvious apprehension she radiated and wondered if she was just all making it up on the fly. It's no wonder to me that regardless of how much I may not have liked the content of her speech but I can acknowledge that it took some courage for her to get up there and say it...or that others would see her in a sympathetic light.
Many argue that she has been out since 2007...which is both true and not true. Even then she let people know she was gay by thanking her partner...that is another kind of coming out by not just coming out and saying it. It has been asked why...in a day when so many less famous stars are coming out of the closet, does such a well respected and established actress still avoid saying directly that she is gay? Could that point to a lack of self acceptance or a degree of internalized homophobia on her part? Why if she has been considered to be out since 2007 did she not say anything about prop 8?...or bullying and suicide? How is it possible that one of the most powerful women in Hollywood still can't say "I'm gay" without hinting around it. Also...as my husband put it...when out community is under attack and we are fighting for our rights, at what point can we as fans ask or expect them to step up on behalf of us all?
Now...this is where the internet blew up.
Some regarded coming out at something no one can judge. It is simply too vulnerable...too personal a moment and the person doing it seen as taking a courageous risk. Other's pointed to the glass closet of Hollywood and Jodie's personal history of being harassed and terrorized. Still others simply saw her in a sympathetic light as someone they looked up to for her work and went on a counter attack meant to nuke her attackers and salt the earth on which they had been born. The response was intense and it taught us a little bit about how others hold the act of coming out...no matter how it happens it is regarded as a largely untouchable moment.
From memory of past news events I found this be true, even when the person coming out has actively done things to hurt the community the gay community. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the movie Outrage...which attempted to shine a light on the hypocrisy of certain politicians who were gay in private and used their power and influence to appose gay rights in office. Among those outed were Senator Larry "widestance" Craig and then Governor of Florida Charlie "the perennial bachelor" Crist. That movie sent some people into a frenzy who felt that outing anyone against their will....EVER....was morally wrong, even when that person was actively using their influence to literally hurt others or themselves. Coming out and being sensitive to the privacy of the individual was seen as more important than the harm these men were doing to the gay community, while still having sex with other men.
And then there is good old Ken Mehlman...remember him? He worked to help elect George Bush Jr.to the presidency in 2004 as his campaign manager. This was the year in which George Bush expressed his support for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and Ken was right there with him managing his campaign. He has since apologized and expressed regret for his action at that time but Ken Mehlman stands out as an example of someone who done palpable and demonstrable harm to the gay community....but once he came out and it seems as if the way we saw him changed. While some(like myself) saw it more as political opportunism...others called it a "coup" for gay rights and immediatly given a job lobbying for marriage equality as a voice within the conservative party.
Now...It's not my intention to re-demonize Ken Mehlman or reopen the rancor over Jodie foster but more to ask the question about how these examples speak to how we regard coming out and how it changes the way we think about the one who does it. Clearly people had some very strong feelings about the act and a dim view of anyone who's feelings on the matter were percieved as impinging upon the one coming out.
My opinions on the issue of coming out are these:
When I was coming to terms with myself and being encouraged to come out, I was told that not only was it an act of telling the truth...but also that it was an act of love to the person you are coming out to. We come out to the people we care about most simply because they are so important to us and we want to know us completely and with honesty. But...coming out is also many other things...scary, wonderful, risky, awkward, freeing, and vital thing we all need to do if we want to live lives that are authentic, open, and honest. We each of us deserve the right to live our lives without having to hide who we are or who we love as if those things are shameful. And as much as the truth can set you free it also comes with real risks that each individual has to come to terms with....among those the fact that our families and friends may not accept us as gay people and we may lose our relationship with them. They may even decide to do us harm. No one can make that decision for someone else. But for those that do take the risks, sometimes our loved ones surprise us in wonderful ways by loving us just as we are. But we have to take the risk in order to know.
Also, coming out is not easy, we all do it imperfectly, there is no one right way to tell someone something to personal and essential to who we are...oftentimes we are using all our strength and courage just to get the words out of our mouth. And....Coming out does not change who we are as people, it only reveals who are more completely. Furthermore, as I have already stated above, the more people that come out and live out, the more it makes less room for ignorance and bigotry to thrive.
Personally, I don't think anyone has an obligation to come out...holding people to that standard would force many to come out when they are not ready. Who among us doesn't remember the weeks or months of terror as you even contemplated the idea of coming out? It's something we all do in our own time and at our level of comfort....I told my dad in a letter and received tears but also love in return....I told my mom face to face only to get rejection. Sometimes you just never know how it's going to be. Both of those instances required a great deal of building up the courage and being ready to deal with what happened. I had to make that choice on my own and it took a lot of time to be ready. However, if I had stayed fearful of coming out...would it have been a bad think for one of my friends to challenge my beliefs?...I don't think so. That said...I am glad I did find the courage and my life is a million times happier today because of it.
When it comes to celebrities. I want them to come out.....I hope they will come out. I cheer when they do because I know that it puts the lie to the idea that gay men and women need to hide because there is something shameful in being who we are. However, making the claim that they have a "responsibility"to takes away their choice to accept the risks inherent in doing so. That's a choice most of us are afforded why do they lose it because they are celebs? The fact that many gay celebs are coming out when It has such risk to their career is something to be applauded and encouraged...but it is also made more valuable because they chose it.
On the flip side...while I don't believe that I can or should be able to somehow force a famous person to come out or participate in some form of activism....as someone that is a consumer of what those people put into the public sphere...I can sure as hell ask that they do or question why they don't. We vote with our attention and our wallets all the time, how is this different? If we don't like what Chick-Fil-A does we don't shop their. If I think Ted Nugent is a right-wing gun nut I don't listen to his music. While celebrities do have the same right to privacy we would want for ourselves and sexuality is largely no ones business buy our own, once someone does come out in a magazine or on TV aren't they really opening a dialogue with the public? I think so. That's why I found peoples uber defense of Jodie so puzzling...she came out on a nationally televised program, that's about as non private as it gets.
Finally....while coming out is often a courageous act, but that doesn't by itself elevate someone to a hero status...nor does it mean that their past still doesn't have influence on who they are or how we receive them. From my point of view Ken Mehlmans coming out and apology was a good first step...but only that. The gay community had simply been hurt to much we had a right to expect more from him than just and "I'm gay now" and an apology. In that regard I feel like the work he has been doing for marriage equality now, is of way more impact than his coming out itself.
I do not believe that we have the right judge how someone chooses to come out unless it's someone who has hurt us in some way. But.....neither do I view a person nervously admitting that they are gay as not responsible for the words they used while doing so. Many people were bugged by Jody Foster taking a swipe at a 7 year old girl as if she has something to be ashamed of because she was a reality tv star. She was just a little girl much like Jody was when her parents first put her into the spotlight. So, as good as it is that Jody Foster is out to the world now...It would be nice if she actually explained exactly what the hell she was talking about when she made it sound like other out celebrities were somehow fame whores who should have kept their orientations more private....or that being a reality tv personality was something to be ashamed of. Coming out of the closet doesn't really exempt her from that, and I think had she not been coming out at the time, peoples opinions about herd delivering those same words would have been received very differently.
But these are only my opinions and we know what they say about those. In the end I feel like we do need to be sensitive about how hard it is to come out...but the act itself shouldn't change how we perceive the person doing it. But it seems as if their is a very sensitive place for coming out and how we control the release of that information within the heart of the LGBT community. Sometimes our feelings about this run so deep that we simply respond from a place of pure unrestrained emotion instead of taking a second to think it through or to acknowledge that someone else's point of view may be just as valid as our own. Is this because we are remembering what it was like for ourselves to be that scared and vulnerable? Or do we look at the act itself as having it's own inherent virtue? Can we have this conversation without reverting to anger?
What do you think?
Until next time dear readers.....