More celebrities come out of the closet: Why does it still matter?
It's been quite the banner week for celebrities coming out of the closet, hasn’t it?
While Anderson Cooper clearly took the top spot for all the media attention he garnered for his emergence from his glass closet, there were several others who also let their sexual orientation be publicly known as Pride Month wrapped up.
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe showed she has balls for announcing she's a lesbian prior to the London Olympics. R&B singer Frank Ocean, affiliated with hip-hop collective Odd Future, made waves for blogging about his experience of falling in love with a man. And Jamaican reggae fusion singer-songwriter Diana King (best known for her 1995 hit "Shy Guy") also came out, by declaring herself a lesbian on her Facebook page.
And then there were the responses, from audiences across the internet, from reader comments and tweets to blogs and articles.
While there were expressions of support, there were the inevitable "Who cares?" And the "It's none of our business" responses.
As an out gay male, I do in fact agree that it really shouldn't be anyone's business. It shouldn't matter if a person is gay, straight, bisexual, two-spirited, intersex, trans, questioning, queer, three-legged, or sometimes Y. And the idea that it shouldn't matter is certainly the ultimate goal for equality between queer and straight people. Theoretically speaking.
But I also think it's premature to say that it doesn't matter.
We have made a lot of progress, some huge strides, and even some paradigm shifts. (Take that, One Million Moms!) And perhaps it doesn't matter for some people, particularly for straight people who are accepting of queer sexuality and have no problem with it. (And who are therefore fabulous. Absolutely.)
What many people might not realize is that we're still not on a level playing field.
The fact that people need to come out still speaks to heterosexist assumptions, that everyone's presumed straight until proven gay. Generally. (Some restrictions may apply.)
One of the more obvious and commonly touted reasons for celebrities to come out is that queer youth do need role models.
In response to the wave of gay suicides across North America, numerous people, including the likes of the CBC's Rick Mercer, have been calling for more public figures for queer youth to look up to, to draw hope and inspiration from, and to know that, as bleak as things can sometimes get, It Gets Better. Homophobia and homophobic bullying still remain a problem (not just for queer youth but also for straight youth who can be targeted as well with gay slurs and insults) and we need to look no further than our own backyard when it comes to opposition to antihomophobia policies.
Something else that is easy to lose sight of is the fact that many queer people can potentially remain an invisible minority. Those who are publicly out remain only a fraction of the total queer population that exists. There remain an unknown number who stay closeted to varying degrees. It's possible we could be seeing only the tip of the iceberg. The more public figures who do come out can help to contribute to a critical mass that may help numerous others to surface.
For myself, growing up as a teenager in the closet, the only representations of gay men I saw were in the news, either dying of AIDS, pedophilic priests, or flamboyant drag queens. Compounded by a dearth of visible gay celebrities, these severely limited images merely served to reinforce my own internalized homophobia. Other queer people have experienced something similar and more visible representations of queer people can help to counter that.
We are still in need of a diversity of images of out queer people, not just in terms of ethnicity, age, or religion, but also profession, personality, and more, to counter queer stereotyping that still runs rampant.
Artists like Ocean and King, as well as country artists like Chely Wright, are brave for coming out in genres and industries that have been long criticized for being queerphobic and heterosexist.
With the exception of Jodie Foster (whose so-called coming-out speech has been open to interpretation and debate), there's still a glaring lack of A-list out Hollywood celebrities, many of whom still remain closeted in order to protect their careers. But when a celebrity the stature of Cooper announces he's gay, with little or no negative impact upon his career, it does send a powerful message to other celebrities and non-celebrities.
And we need only to consider where things are at regarding queer rights (homosexuality is still punishable by law with everything from fines to death sentences in numerous countries), same-sex marriage (félicitations to France, which announced this past week it will legalize gay marriage by 2013), and more on an international level to realize there is still plenty of work to do be done around the world.
There are numerous other reasons to list, but when it comes down to individual decisions about coming out, identity politics are always a tricky thing. It's where the public and personal intersect (or don't). There are varying degrees of coming out, and it doesn't always have to be in a grand announcement (some have taken a more low-key route, like actor Matt Bomer).
But for those celebrities that do, I applaud their contributions to the overall evolution of our society and for the sake of our collective mental, emotional, physical, and sexual health.
We've come a long way, baby. But we've still got a long ways to go.