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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 and great find. As being “straight” I don’t understand a lot of the nuances involved. Personally, I care more about who you are than anything else. I despise the term “normal” as it limits what people are allowed to be…IMO.

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    1. i totally agree with you. Gay people seemed so obsessed with actors coming out of the closet. As she stated she came out to those people that are in her family and she knew. It is not the whole world’s business. i think it is disgusting that actors have to worry about someone like Perez Hilton outing them. Let each person have freedom to make their own way and not be coerced by media or a group like LGBT.

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  2. I completely agree that people should be free to be who they are; but I have to take issue with your post, better to say the wording of some parts of it, as I find certain aspects of it to be quite presumptuous and a bit high handed:

    People should be able to share as much or as little of their lives with the rest of the world as they are comfortable in doing with no fear of public speculation as to why their personal comfort zone is as it is.

    As for why Jodie Foster would perceive all this as an invasion of her privacy; because it’s in HER personal values to see it that way. Some may not agree, but that doesn’t give them the right to insinuate that she’s a coward or to be presumptive about her hows and whys for taking the stance that she does.

    As for celebrities, why should we not think that they value a clear divide between their professional and private lives as much as the rest of us do. They probably value it even more and who could blame them?

    You all but openly accused Jodie Foster of being a coward with terms like “half out”, but it’s rather hypocritical as you’re guilty of not being fully honest about something else: You prefaced your article by saying that you’d stop short of saying that gay celebrities had some sort of obligation to “come out”, but so much of what you’ve written says that you pretty much believe that they do have that obligation. They don’t.

    If you believe in equality, then you must believe in each individual’s right to be as open or closed about ANY aspect of their lives as they choose to be and not see yourself in a position to speculate about their reasons for being as open or as closed about this, that or the other in the measures that they choose to be.

    This isn’t about Jodie Foster the actress or Jodie Foster the lesbian; this is about Jodie Foster the citizen and Jodie Foster the individual.

    The individual that should be free to be as open as she chooses without fear of reprisals from either those who would say she’s being too open or those who say she’s not being open enough.

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  3. I really believe this gay and lesbian thing is so overrated, honestly!! Just get on with your life and be happy. Happyness is NOT a pursuit, that would mean we would be constantly chasing it without end. This is not the case. Just be who you are. end.

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  4. I’ve certainly been out all my life. Rob Eichberg, founder of National Coming Out Day, was my friend. But I have a lot of celeb friends who stayed in closet, far to long, for my thinking. Yet I don’t know if I agree with you. Great article-a great many points. I’m posting on my @judyschaumbug next Friday

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  5. I think she did a wonderful job. To me she addresses the hidden issue, and that is as long as there are all these labels, adjectives about objects, then there will be divisions.

    The emphasis needs to be about processes (verbs) such as love and caring and this applies to so much more than sexuality.

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  6. It used to be that people who ascribed to an alternate lifestyle wanted to have rights and be recognized. Now these same people want to take away the rights of everyone who disagrees with them. How much lower can we get before the bottom drops out?

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    1. Administrator – your comment illustrates perfectly the position of many conservative, religious and ‘anti-equality’ individuals in the UK. As you can imagine, I have a huge problem with the notion that encouraging an inclusive and anti-discriminatory environment – and introducing measures to give everyone in our society equal rights, privileges and protections – would somehow be unfair and mean towards people who feel homosexuality is wrong. It’s the equivalent of a racist shop owner arguing it’s unfair that they have to serve black people, or a misogynist complaining that letting ladies vote is infringing on his right to male superiority. They can think that if they want, but in this day and age, I’d like to think they’ll understand and accept that that the law, the government and the majority of the rest of the population won’t back them up. Some people may feel affronted and upset that not everyone wants to adhere to their belief system, but the fact is that they are still very much free to stick with it themselves. Take the issue of same sex marriage for example; no one is proposing to force religious organisations to marry gay or bisexual couples if they don’t want to, and those who do not believe in this type of union are under no obligation to be part of one in any way. Yet the mere idea that same sex couples could have a faith, and want to acknowledge that in their commitment to each other, seems to offend huge numbers of religious and anti-gay people no end. Like it’s somehow ruining religion for them. It’s got nothing to do with anyone other than the couple, their family and their church, so why would anyone else think that letting same-sex couples get married in church might take something away from them, or denigrate their own relationship? If their faith, or their marriage, is so fragile that its well-being is threatened by the lives of people they don’t even know, perhaps it’s time for them to reconsider their spiritual and emotional priorities? Bottom line is, we’re all free to our personal beliefs and opinions, but we still have to accept that other people have different beliefs. And provided they are law abiding citizens, they should have the same legal protection and recognition as everyone else in our society. As Jesus might have said: If LGBT equality is slapping you in the face, turn the other cheek.

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      1. There is one thing that you fail to understand is that the homosexual choice cannot be put on the same level as gender or race. Placing choice of lifestyle on the same level those who did not choose their gender of race distracts from the real issue of what a homosexual is.
        The real issue is not that homosexuals should be a special class of persons who deserve to be protected, but that any society who truly seeks enlightenment and progress should learn from the past. Homosexuality has always been historically seen as a symptom of the downgrading of any society. The selfish nature and prideful position that the homosexual and homosexual groups have should serve to show us that our society, culture, and now the family unit is in deep deep trouble. Not only does the homosexual seek to gain special privileges, but they want to take away the common-sense and natural rights of those who ascribe to any universal absolute. Why do you think Isalm, Facism, and totalitarianism are growing trends in the west? People are frustrated that basic moral behavior is being lost and are will to turn to anything that would protect them… even if it’s been already proven to over-step other basic human freedoms. It’s time you re-thought impact of what you think you believe.

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    2. Dear Administrator, since when has homosexuality been a choice of lifestyle? I think you may have missed thirty years of scientific discovery. You seem also to have received some history classes that none of the rest have. If your a Christian, please stop, your embarrassing the rest of us.

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      1. Oh sigh… 30 years of scientific discovery has not placed mankind in any better position than 300 year or 3000 years. We’re actually worse off. The last century was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind all due to the progress of science. If you’re going to hide behind the Wizard of Oz curtain and try to justify your mis-use of Basic Biology 101 and basic humanity; then please be honest. Science does not justify the homosexual choice… good science only verifies what we already know we should be. Just because genes mutate or that we may be pre-disposed some disease should not stop science from finding a cure. So, once again, be honest and just state that your lifestyle is a choice you make and you are willing to take responsibility or your actions. Therein lies the acceptance and tolerance so many homosexuals are willing to spill blood others blood for.

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  7. I never really thought of it that way, I saw it more as her sexuality does not define her as a person. A straight person is more than their sexuality and so is Jodie.

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  8. Maybe if we stopped giving people a medal for it every time they played the gay card they would come to see it for as petty a deal as the rest of us see it. Who cares. honestly. Ho hum.

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  9. The light color of the font used in your article is gave my eyes a workout, I fought to get through it. Maybe consider darkening the color?

    ____________

    I just wanted to chime in.

    I am not confused, yet I have chosen to associate my sexual orientation with my private self. The people that I love or have a relationship with, is not up for discussion in the public arena.

    I am a heterosexual woman and like J. Foster, I believe that I have the freedom to decide what aspects of my life should remain private and what aspects are up for discussion.

    I believe that vehemently denying one’s sexual orientation or alternatively, feeling the need to confirm/proclaim/declare it, is where the problem rests.

    Should an individual be moved to use their status in order to help normalize society’s view of homosexuality, then so be it. Otherwise, it is not necessary.

    In a nutshell, I do not agree with “coming out”. I never came out as a heterosexual.

    Homosexuality will become more normalized in society when people do not feel the need to “come out” as homosexuals.

    As long as a “closet” remains to come out of, then the separation of people based on sexual orientation will continue to exist.

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  10. In relation to the idea of icons/role models coming out being important, I’ve always thought Anderson Cooper’s journey toward this opinion to be inspirational. At first his insistence was that he kept private that he was gay because it was his detail, but since has retracted that, saying it’s important to come out because otherwise it seems like it’s something to be hid. As for Jodie Foster, she came out and said it to a large audience at an important event, so I can see why the different situations bred different admissions.

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  11. I’ve never understood why famous (or normal) people are so scared to come out. I came out as a lesbian at 13 years old. Then I transitioned from female-to-male at 18 years old and have never hidden it. Yes, I’ve experienced a level of discrimination. But those of us strong enough to live with dignity and integrity to provide positive examples ought to do so. Because it is only when the world sees positive, productive and intelligent GLBT people that they can realise we are just like them.

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  12. Her speech was more concealing than revealing, but she did mention that she would be singing a different tune. I enjoyed this piece, but still believe regardless how famous someone is should be able to enjoy and practice privacy. I don’t think that their status obligates them to sacrifice their privacy for any particular cause, which is what makes it so special one someone does.

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  13. Jodie has been in the spotlight all her life so I think she was talking about being real behind the scenes. She was great and I was touched!

    “…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….”

    Invasion on her privacy …in general/for all aspects of her life!!

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  14. I struggle with this- because I like to see successful gay people in the media, so that young, scared, closeted gay people can be like “woahkay, I can still achieve” – but at the same time I believe that it is your right to keep anything about yourself personal. It’s tough to find a balance in that, but it should just be personal preference.

    I think it’s a question of whether gay celebrities feel pressure to become role models to the closeted masses- I think I probably would in their situation.

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  15. As I understood it, she didn’t say that “talking freely about being a lesbian amounts to an invasion of her privacy”, she meant more that for a celebrity to talk about her private life is an invasion of privacy.

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  16. Why is anyone surprised that Jodie Foster’s coming out is so welcome to so many same sex attracted people?

    It’s validating to us, pure and simple. It helps us feel less out-of-the-ordinary.

    Quit criticising her timing – that’s her business. Quit criticising her language – that’s her right.

    Quit making it about you, and just be glad for her, and maybe listen to her speech (again and again, if you have to) until you understand the intelligence of her technique, in the light of her unique journey … it all made perfect sense to me on the strength of one viewing.

    The woman is 50 – she would have been aware of her sexuality in the years when lesbianism was not widely accepted, and I can relate to that journey. Reality check – we live in a world where some lesbians’ lives would be in danger if they are publicly out.

    It takes enormous courage to come out – it always comes with loss of some kind, and the world is so heterosexist that it’s has not even begun to comprehend how many ways out same sex attracted peoples’ lives are compromised.

    Until it starts, it sees us as naughty people who must tell the truth.

    My message to the closeted is simple – if anyone has the guts to ask you if you’re gay, or if they have enough emotional intelligence to be inclusive about you (“So … do you have a boyfriend, or a girlfriend?’ is all it takes), then reward their courage by telling them the truth.

    If no-one asks, it’s none of their business.

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  17. I agree with what you wrote. However, I think coming out should not come in the form of a speech, declaration or statement. I believe it should happen within context, e.g. bringing your partner along to a work meal or sharing openly who you’ve spent your holidays with. I find that approach normalises homosexuality more successfully. There is no need to tell people you are gay (as I wrote in my post on the same subject: “have you ever seen a straight person coming out?”). They’ll work it out for themselves when they meet your partner. No need to explain yourself.
    Just another thought.
    Brilliant post, incidentally.

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  18. I have to say that in my personal opinion whether a celebrity or not, you should have the right as a human being to be who you want to be/are, being gay isn’t something you wake up one day and decide. I understand that a lot of celebrities wouldn’t want to ‘come out’ as they’re probably worried that it would ruin their reputation, and they’d be less respected by the population, it’s horrible really to think that these days society is so f****d that people can’t even be true to themselves for fear of how others will see them.

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  19. “[L]ove is love, regardless of sexuality.” Which basically means, “Go after your feelings,” since I guess love is a feeling in your vocabulary, separated from morality or reason and worshipped as something higher.

    But I guess you would not say the same thing to a “lover of children”. You know, they have a deep feeling too. As well as violators in India. Or those given to bestialism. Not to speak about those men that want to marry a great bunch of women, at the same time.

    No, love in ’tis our modern world is just a chemical reaction happening in our body. Same as that when you want to kill someone. You have to rationally prove which is good to follow, and that cannot happen without God.

    That why Jodie would see it as something negative, sir, is because it is. And we all know it.

    “We have found the enemy, and the enemy is us,” as one wise man(?) put it.

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