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Silence of the Gays – why celebrities should come out and speak up!

“I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that gay celebrities have a social or moral duty to be open about their sexuality. But I am prepared to argue that by refusing to acknowledge that they are gay – or that once, not that long ago, they were scared to admit it in public – they’re perpetuating an inhibiting and heteronormative status quo.”

Josef Church-Woods

Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster

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In case you somehow managed to miss it, Jodie Foster used her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night, to plant her feet firmly outside of her admittedly already rather flimsy glass closet.

It was an emotional speech, in which she talked about a whole life lived in the public eye and the value of privacy, as well as her love for her female ex-partner, their joint children and her mother, among many others.

It wasn’t exactly a coming out speech, nor was it the first time she’s acknowledged her relationship with the co-parent of her children, but it was nonetheless a bit of a big deal, set in the unusual context of a major, Hollywood A-list event. So, good for you Jodie, and good for everybody else who believes in equality – we need all the positive, gay role models we can get, flying the flag for ‘modern families’ and the notion that love is love, regardless of sexuality.

However, watching the clip of Jodie on stage (see link below), I couldn’t help wondering why exactly, in the 21st century, such a successful, intelligent, supported and loved person would feel that talking freely about being a lesbian amounts to an invasion of her privacy.

I find it frustrating that so many people seem to confuse sexual orientation with their private selves. It’s perfectly possible to be open about your sexuality, without talking excessively to media outlets about your personal relationships, or sharing every aspect of your life with the world. Lots of people who are in the spotlight have mastered this balance. Even intensely private, straight celebrities do not hide or refuse to acknowledge the fact that they are sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex. Why would they? The fact that Paul Rudd likes women says virtually nothing about him as a person, how he lives his life or what kind of a family he has.

Obviously, coming out as gay is not quite the same thing as being openly straight. It’s not my intention to trivialise the struggle that many LGBT people face by likening a queer person’s experience of dealing with their sexuality to that of a straight person, who is automatically welcomed into the majority fold. Heterosexuality is the norm – the default setting – and homophobia is still a very real and tangible threat for most of us. For many it has devastating consequences, even in western countries with political leaders who candidly endorse LGBT equality.

And this is exactly why I think it’s so important that people who are considered role models speak out. It’s why it rubs me up the wrong way when someone like Jodie Foster stands in front of the whole world and half comes out, then swiftly makes it clear that the reason she still refuses to let the word ‘gay’ pass her lips, is because it’s a personal matter and sharing this side of her being with the public amounts to a violation of her privacy. There’s no need for a press conference or a reality TV show – but unless you think there is something wrong with being gay, why would you refuse to confirm something which is just as generic as the colour of your skin?

No offense Jodie; I know that you came out to your family and friends many years ago and I don’t mean to call into question your honesty or integrity. It’s just that I believe your long and somewhat ambiguous journey to that Golden Globe acceptance speech is symptomatic of an oppressive catch 22.

The reason famous, gay people keep their public persona in the closet is because they are worried about the reaction that their coming out might provoke, and the potential impact on their careers and families – not because they are ‘private people’. This is something I feel needs to be expressed, because when it’s brushed over, it sends a very clear ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ message. And even the US army has conceded that that particular approach to diversity is both unjust and harmful.

I do understand that there is a lot of extra pressure to handle when your every move is observed, recorded and generally regarded as public property. Fear of judgment, damage to career trajectory and potential loss of earnings are all valid enough reason to feel nervous about stepping out in public with your same-sex partner.

As such, I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that gay celebrities have a social or moral duty to be open about their sexuality. But I am prepared to argue that by refusing to acknowledge that they are gay – or that once, not that long ago, they were scared to admit it in public – they’re perpetuating an inhibiting and heteronormative status quo.

I hope, as we move forward, more famous men and women feel able to be open, not just about their sexuality, but also about the reasons why perhaps they hesitated within the familiar comfort of their closet walls.

Josef Church-Woods (@JosefCW)

Update:  Since the original publication of this blog entry, it has caused quite a stir.  Though most of the feedback has been very positive and it has encouraged debate, there have been some less than savoury comments regarding the subject matter.  Here, Josef Church-Woods responds to one such comment.

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155 replies

  1. Great post!
    I think for many LGBT people, coming out means that you know them as being gay. The lesbian comedian or the gay talk show host.
    Of course, many people manage to surpass this level of recognition, but it must be frustrating to be known for your sexuality rather than the good or funny or interesting things you’ve done, which are the reason for your fame.
    I know that, without being remotely famous, I get frustrated when people say “my friend… you know, the lesbian one”, because that’s not a recognisable feature, nor does it define me. To have the whole word do it must be extremely frustrating.
    But I think the only way to overcome this is for society to reach a stage where sexuality is no big deal, which is something which can’t happen without more people coming out.

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    1. I completely agree with you. Why should anyone have to announce their sexuality? I certainly didn’t proclaim to the world that I’m ” straight” (a term that irks me by the way), so why should someone else have to discuss their sexuality. “Coming out”, is something I truly would love to see come to an end. Accepting each person just as they are without the need for declarations , that is a future worth looking forward to.

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      1. I agree with you, Franco. Celebrities are people, too. Not everyone feels comfortable putting themselves in that position. They don’t want to deal with the potentially hatred-filled responses. Uncalled for or not, insults still hurt.

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  2. Coming out is a personal choice, and everyone should do it in the way that is comfortable for them. I think it’s hysterical that we expect celebrities to have to say publicly that they are gay, especially if everyone in their inner circle already knows it anyway. I never had a coming out, I just lived my life the way I saw every straight person living theirs, no one questioned it, and I felt comfortable with the way I chose to be who I am.

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  3. Much more than regarding her as a gay person, I regarded her (especially after seeing her speech), like a strong woman, mother and also daughter, who feels comfortable with who she is, with what she gives up and most of all with what she is going to do, opening a new chapter of her life. There is much more to learn from this than to speak of her sexuality or in fact anyone’s sexuality. And exactly this would lead (in a sort of twisted way) to a new kind of openness about sexuality in general.

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  4. What you remarked about people who confuse their sexual identity with who they are as people, is great. There are many gays who become attached to the notion that heterosexuality is somehow a higher degree of normalcy, which is hilarious. Wonderful, eye-opening post!

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  5. Remember what she is about…She is a private person and those who have known have known for many years. She has been in the public eye since she was three years old (booty on the Coppertone display) and I could really care if she screams she is queer or not. I’m proud to be an old dyke with nothing to lose/gain so let it be; you know, I know, and who gives a flying crap if anybody else knows. So be it.

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  6. I think there is a middle ground between being worried about the reactions of others and declaring that you’re just a “private person”. Speaking as a gay man (though not as anyone’s role model), my issue is that I resent the very notion that sexuality is a question to be answered. I resented the entire idea that, even if my friends and family should love me *more* for being gay, that I should even have to confirm it. Doing so turns it into an admission of a secret, an acknowledgement of deviation from the norm, and a response which implies, “Oh don’t worry, I’m completely fine with your deviation!” is not good enough – the kind of society I wish to live in is not one where no one cares about people’s sexuality, but one where they’re not even interested.

    Sure, if you’re asked about it, I think it’s only right to be honest because the flip-side is that you would be denying it again as though it is a dirty secret, but underneath the façade of such a ‘harmless question’ is the simple fact that is an insult to even ask in the first place – this is why I have particular respect for (presumably) straight celebrities who refuse to answer rumours about their sexuality because, in doing so, they’re making the statement that they neither wish to deny being homosexual because there is no problem with it, but also that it’s ludicrous in the first place that people should even ask such a thing. Perhaps an underlying cause of all this that could be rectified is the fact that heterosexuality is regarded as a default setting and we all go around assuming everyone is straight until we have confirmation to the contrary – how about we assume nothing and take no interest in who people are attracted to. It is and ought to be a non-issue.

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  7. I still don’t know what I think about her rant. Don’t know if she was making a joke or half coming out or telling people it’s none of their business. Se never really did or said anything. I felt bad for her. Se is clearly in some sort of confused state but I don’t know what about. But I’m with you, it would have been so much better if she said thank you to my family and friends and to my lover whatever her name is and a special thanks to my kids and then said something interesting about her career. She looked to me like the most confused person in show business and it made her look odd. Gay and secure is just as normal as straight and secure. I just don’t get her. And to your point she makes it harder for other people to have an open conversation about it because she made it seem odd by her behavior. She spoke for 10 minutes all the way around something she said is private and didn’t want to share. Wy say anything?

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  8. Yes, exactly! You’ve got it right when you say that it’s possible to admit one’s sexuality without delving deeply into their personal lives; it’s a double standard that straight people can let it be known that they’re straight and then say they want to keep their personal lives private. I wish Ms. Foster could read your post – it’s polite but convincing. Great work!

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    1. I oppose this behavior, and I am not a hater of gays, I simply do not promote this life style. However, we are living in a free country, and everyone is allowed to choose what life he or she is willing to live, but the reality is on the table. When I hear stories likes these I am not surprised, rather I am hurt for those who feel being gay and coming out will change their lives.
      I can see in

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  9. I really liked how Jodie Foster handled the ‘issue’ – as a non-issue for her and those closest to her. She has chosen neither to deny or confirm her sexuality, and to keep it private in the sense of public knowledge. Maybe, like many people, she is not interested in placing a label on herself or having other people label her? So what label would you give her?!

    Interesting blog, thanks :)

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  10. ‘Being gay doesn’t have to be anything at all that has to be discussed openly because it’s really just an ordinary thing, why draw attention to yourself because of it?’

    This is not my opinion, but an attitude I noticed in Nova Scotia where I lived for a few years. I had a few lesbian friends there who lived like that: they were who they were and everyone knew they were lovers but no-one ever talked about ‘it.’ To me that was a major difference because I’d lived in Johannesburg for a long time where gays and lesbians flaunt their sexuality and it was a much discussed topic. Damn, I was disappointed! :)

    Yet, I kinda dig the Nova Scotians’ attitude also!

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  11. I think we need more heterosexual people raising awareness of the GLBT community. Please see my blog at malialitman.wordpress.com. I address a variety of issues including those related to GLBT issues. Thanks, Malia

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  12. I’m not so sure that the public, vaguely speaking, has a right to expect anything from a celebrity. Celebrities are just people put in a spot light. It’s always nice to see celebrities brace their selves for who and how they are, though, why should they necessarily, because of their position in the public eye, behave more boldly than they would otherwise? The thought that they have a special responsibility to the general public makes for an empty reason to place blame somewhere for when people act like assholes; for instance, Marilyn Manson during the Columbine stuff. Not saying that you’ve implied this, just makin a point that celebrities are just people, and they’ve issues that they deal with on their own, just like people.

    Aside from my rant, nice post.

    Ultimately, it would be much nicer if everyone, of all walks, would accept their selves more thoroughly, for who and how they are.

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  13. Thanks to everyone that’s sharing their opinions on this blog. It really is appreciated and all of your messages are being read and considered. Josef (the author) is currently travelling overseas and won’t be back online until next Wednesday.

    I think it’s appropriate that he responds to points made and not me as it’s very much his opinion piece so please bear with us.

    In the meantime, please have a browse of the rest of the site and let us know what you think. We’re very much a work in progress and always looking for suggestions on how to improve it (we have no budget) and we are always looking for suitable content. Being that most of you are already bloggers, let us know if you’d like to share anything.

    Regards

    Barry

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  14. Reblogged this on Musings of a Manxie and commented:
    Though I generally agree, I think everybody deserves a right to privacy, and though it really would does so much good when a person in the public eye can be honest about their sexuality, if they are comfortable with who they are, then I don’t think it should be ‘expected’. That’s when true equality will manifest itself, when people who are perceived as ‘different’ now, won’t have to ‘come out’. Having said that, good on Jodie Foster, she seems like a super awesome mum, and a brave one at that.

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  15. Interesting point of view. Not sure if I agree – is that OK? :) What you share with anyone is up to each person. On a side note, I had a really hard time reading your blog as the print is not black. I know I’m old, and have bad eyes, but even with my super strong glasses it was difficult.

    Like

    1. Ha! WELL, the world would be a better place if everyone thought exactly what we think… actually we’re all about debate and discussion and really like to hear other peoples opinions.

      Thanks for pointing out the type issues. There’s a definite irony when your writing about equalities is inaccessible. I’m a bit of a heathen technically but hopefully I’ll figure out a new template that works for all readers. (Barry).

      Like

  16. I oppose this behavior, and I am not a hater of gays, I simply do not promote this life style. However, we are living in a free country, and everyone is allowed to choose what life he or she is willing to live, but the reality is on the table. When I hear stories likes these I am not surprised, rather I am hurt for those who feel being gay and coming out will change their lives. I can see in

    http://cfcspnnw.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/homosexuality-the-new-age-and-judgment/

    Like

  17. I disagree. I viewed her speech as very much her own statement. It was very bold of her and in any way, a possible trend-setter. I know I am going to out myself as gay in front of everybody, for my graduation farewell speech. This is actually empowering!

    And as for the privacy bit, yes we need A-list celebrities who happen to be gay. But let’s make another then, rather than mould a 50-year-old into something she definitely is not. I know this article is a wishful article, but there are other more important wishes that are yet to be fulfilled. This is second such article and there would be many more. But why?

    Her times of youth were very differetn from ours. And her times would have been very difficult, I can imagine. Yet she came out like she has? That needs guts! Even I, who always knew would be gay and nothing else, can’t utter the word out loud. There is hesitance. Over the last few months, it has got better. But the resistance is there to hide myself from the world. Not the strangers, but my dear loved ones who could reject me possibly. They haven’t but the fear persists.

    I am not brave. But she is. She defiantly is. I mostly salute her really. She wanted us to private yet she gave us huge glimpses of her life. Her ex-partner, her children, her mother and her loneliness. Having accepted numerous awards before her and many co-stars and directors, she could afford the time for all this and she did it perfectly.

    And that is my opinion. And I like the fact that you don’t actually think it is a moral duty of LGBT/queer celebrities to be open about their sexuality.

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  18. I truly don’t understand why gay people have to come out or let it be known publicly. Please forgive me if I sound a bit insensitive, I just can’t help but to feel that everyone should be treated with respect no matter what their sexual preference may be. Heterosexual people don’t have to express themselves nor should anyone for that matter. If someone illustrates a particular behavior over a period of time we are bound to catch on. I knew this woman was gay when I first laid eyes on her when she was a child star and now it’s a surprise to everyone. Gayness has been here sense the beginning of time and surely it wont dissipate before we leave this earth. Let everyone be viewed as human first and just be happy that we are alive to enjoy life and stay out of people’s bedrooms or where ever. And I truly don’t mean any offense to anyone.

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  19. My niece K brought her partner C home for Christmas in 2011 (they live 13 hours away) and C got to meet our enormous family here in redneck bitter flyover country.

    The question C asked K illustrates how the meet & greet went: “Do they know about US?” (Nobody made a big deal about it, not even K’s 90 year old grandma.)

    And the answer was: “Yes, they know. They don’t care.”

    C was surprised, since some of her sophisticated intelligentsia relatives had disowned her after her coming out.

    Things are not always as they seem.

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  20. I would also like to add that I think it important that key leaders in the church eg. Pastors ” come out” and voice their disapproval of all the homophobic stuff that is going on. There is a growing number of Christians who acknowledge error but fear how expressing view openly will impact them. Need more good people to fess up. Agree with your post

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  21. Great post. It must be so difficult for some celebrities to be in the public eye so much (I say ‘some’ because there are a few attention seekers out there). As much as I agree that your sexuality shouldn’t have to be defined to anyone else, celebrities are viewed as role models and I think her speech was more about feeling comfortable with who she is, and encouraging others to do the same.

    There are people out there who haven’t got the confidence to live their lives how they wish, so she is setting a good example.

    Like

  22. I just posted about traditional family.

    It is so sad that traditional family no longer has role models. All the studies indicate traditional family is much better for the children and for society.

    And then I get to read your blog.

    It would be nice if traditional family got as much free advertisement as non-traditional does …. Would that be fair?

    ghost.

    Like

  23. I feel like there is a really unfortunate double standard where nobody is ever expected to acknowledge their heterosexuality, yet we expect homosexuals and bisexuals to loudly announce it. It a unfortunate pressure that every non-heterosexual teenager and in this case celebrity has to deal with. We live in a heteronormative world and I think it would be tiresome to have to go about officially announcing something like that to the world, just like it was hard for all of my gay friends in high school to sort out who they’d actually come out to once it became common knowledge in our social group. Yes they should be role models, but why do they have to make a big announcement out of it?

    Like

  24. Pingback: Mensch vs Maschine
  25. The more of a big deal sex is to everyone the more money can be made on it. Ultimately its nobody’s business and we all know it. Intimacy issues are common to everyone that fears rejection from the group and that leads to secrecy. But its no secret that people do what they want no matter what anyone thinks and maybe that’s the beauty of our life.

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  26. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I agree with much of what you and many of your commenters have said. I particularly like your point that there’s a difference between our sexual identity and our “real” self. I’m an old man now, at least the body is, and still I am seeking connection with who I really am. And I’ve experienced the best (and worst) of both the hetero and the homo sexual worlds.

    Given my own path to openness, I tend to believe the issue of coming out should be guided by the old admonition about religion. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The circumstances of everyone’s strength and fear and need is different, hence everyone’s way out is theirs to explore.

    As a father and grandfather, I agree that we need positive models who acknowledge their sexual identity, so the best I can do is be that for those in my little corner of the world. We need more people who are willing to be themselves openly and then to be the best representative of that model that they can be.

    On that last goal, I am still working.

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  27. Thoughtfully done! I’d never considered the nuance of being open about orientation and private about partner choice. It seems obvious now …

    Still, if orientation weren’t such an over-emphasized thing (as in, “If the world were really made of frosting and flowers”), would it matter much? Is it just the fact that it’s a charged thing now, that makes it important?

    That said, I think I want my celebrities, specifically those whose “job” is celebrity (and not merely a prominent actor), to be open about their stories. I don’t know where Jodie Foster fits in that, but I like openness.

    Like

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