the glass closet

The Way We Come Out Now: Ambivalently

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It must be weird to be Jodie Foster, going to bed having given a speech that she explicitly declared was “not her big coming out speech,” only to wake up to headlines that she had given her big coming out speech at the Golden Globes last night. Not least of all because she has been on the record about her same-sex relationship for more than five years. But Foster’s seven-minute speech did have a lot in common with recent celebrity self-outings, in that it wasn’t really about being gay. It was about how she’s more than the LGBT label a traditional big coming out speech would have attached to her career.

Last year, the Observer reported that the splashy and sometimes career-damaging “I’m gay!” confession (à la Ellen DeGeneres) had given way to “well-managed, low-key affairs.” The newspaper cited Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, and Matt Bomer, whose nonchalant mentions of same-sex relationships would appear at the end of a newspaper profile or as an aside in an award acceptance speech.

Photo: People

But Foster’s primetime speech was no minor aside. It was high-profile as a magazine cover, but without the clarity of an “I’m Gay” cover line. While Clay Aiken and Lance Bass exclaimed their homosexuality from covers of People in 2008 and 2006, respectively, Foster’s speech didn’t even include the word gay or its synonyms. Her only allusion to her sexuality was the charming description of Cydney Bernard, her “ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life … confessor, ski buddy, consigliere, most-beloved BFF of twenty years.” (Anyone else planning on stealing that to refer to exes?) The instant reaction on Twitter reminded me of Frank Ocean’s summer Tumblr post describing a relationship with a man, which was widely taken as confirmation of the bisexuality hinted at in his lyrics. Not that an interviewer for GQ could get him to say as much. Ocean told the magazine he wasn’t selling sex, he was selling love stories, which are the same whether you’re gay or straight. “I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel,” he said. “The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label. Don’t get caught up in that shit.”

He’s not the only one worried about labels. New York Times blogger Nate Silver, the election season’s star statistician, angered some when he joked to Out that he is “sexually gay but ethnically straight.” He added, “I don’t want to be Nate Silver, gay statistician, any more than I want to be known as a white, half-Jewish statistician who lives in New York.” He later explained in a Reddit AMA that “people are too quick to affiliate themselves with identity groups of all kinds.”

For better or for worse, Silver’s belief seems to be the future of the mainstream gay rights movement in this country. Identity politics can reinforce the generalizations bigotry thrives on, while personal relationships breed tolerance. Thanks to the bravery of earlier generations (and despite  underrepresentation in Hollywood), virtually everyone now knows someone who is openly gay. When President Obama stammered out his endorsement of same-sex marriage on ABC, the basis of his “evolution” on the topic wasn’t basic fairness, but all his gay friends, family, staff members. He said:

“You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I– you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table. And we’ve been talking and– about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would– it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And– and frankly– that’s the kind of thing that prompts– a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated– differently, when it comes to– the eyes of the law.

But even when LGBT rights are equally protected under the law (and I think it is when), there will still be inequality in the burden of “coming out.” Last night, Foster chalked up her burden to the changing demands of celebrity. She had been out in the industry for years, she said, “but now apparently, I’m told that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance, and a prime time reality show.” That may be true, but I think Anderson Cooper got closer to the point when he momentarily abdicated his romantic privacy to come out in a public letter to Andrew Sullivan. “In a perfect world,” Cooper wrote, “I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted.”

When it comes to members of the LGBT community, “privacy” is too easily equated with cowardice or secrecy, and not just for “public figures.” I always thought it was unjust that my gay friends had to stage a conversation with their parents about their sexuality (and often at an awkward age), while I could feasibly skate from menarche to motherhood without anyone batting an eye. That probably won’t change until we stop projecting identity politics, “coming out” confessions, or labels on any moment of emotional authenticity, constructing closets around those we know to be living and loving happily and without shame.

The Way We Come Out Now: Ambivalently