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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.


Categories: Celebrities Coming out Gay Lesbian LGBT Opinion Role Models

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156 replies

  1. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read this piece and comment – great to get so much feedback and such a wide range of views. I’m not going to attempt to reply to each and every comment, but I would like to reiterate that I do not feel anyone should be forced out of the closet and I do not think Jodie Foster is a coward. The point I was trying to make was that after hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination, it’s extremely valuable for the LGBT community to have positive role models and I think that it’s a shame that even in the 21st century, so many strong, successful and secure people feel the need to hide the fact that they are gay, something that should not have to be any more ‘private’ or ‘personal’ than being straight, white or black. If you have any specific questions or want to discuss further, feel free to tweet me: @JosefCW Thanks again all! Cheers, Joe


  2. I don’t give a rats ass whether whoever is gay or not – the only “role model” I need is myself – and so should you. But there is the issue: if you feel worthless, or less, because of your sexual preference then you have an issue with yourself. And no coming out by whoever is going to change that.


    1. I see your point Emilio, however, often the reason they feel bad is because of the voices they here from society from all sorts of angles – many need to hear positive stuff as well – sometimes people need help


  3. I’m planning to raise my baby to understand that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight as long as you have love in your life. I hope that in time the world will also see it as just love regardless of what gender it is aimed at, and I hope that as more people in the public eye who are respected and admired acknowledge their sexuality publicly, without going into details just being who they are, that it will become normal for everyone. Some people like men, some people like women. It’s just how it is.


    1. I couldn’t agree more, judieannrose. It’s not about parading your sexuality around and mentioning the fact that you are gay every time you speak. It’s about feeling able to be who you are and not have to hide the fact that you like people of the same sex, if that’s the case. Unfortunately, for many, that’s still not a reality yet. The vast majority of straight people never try to hide the fact that they are straight, whereas lots of gay people (and especially gay celebrities) feel the need to do so. Personally, I don’t think that’s because gay people are more private. Some people are lucky enough to have exceptionally thick skin – or better still, lots of unconditional love in their life – but when you grow up feeling different from everyone you know and rejected by those you love, having strong, positive role models can make all the difference – and even save lives. Sound to me like your baby will be very lucky, regardless of their sexual orientation, judieannrose. 🙂


    2. It works, judieannrose. I raised my two babies–now 14 and 18–to believe that it just doesn’t matter–that it’s like Joe said… as generic as the color of your skin. When I was having my babies, I was married to a man and so repressed that I didn’t start to clue in to my own sexuality till my 40s. So I had no idea that I would be the one needing the acceptance I taught my children. When I told my younger son, he had a few questions but ultimately his response was…It’s cool, Mom. My older son is also gay–courageously out as a 16-year-old–so it was a no-brainer for him. I’ve made a gazillion mistakes as a parent, but I’m happy to say that teaching tolerance wasn’t one of them. Happy Parenting, judieannrose! 🙂


      1. Loving hearing these stories. As someone that was lucky enough to have parents that taught me to worry about who people choose to hate, not love, it’s moving to hear your accounts! (Barry)


    1. Thanks so much for sharing that its fantastic. I was raised like that. My uncle is gay, my aunty is lesbian, and various family friends were gay so to me it was the norm just as we have friends and family of different races. I can’t remember my family ever actually sitting down with me and explaining that sometimes people love the same sex, I was always just aware that it happened. Uncle nick had boyfriends, uncle Simon married a Pakistani lady, aunty lori had girlfriends, it was just something normal. I never knew different. Being raised to just accept is wonderful and I love to know that it has worked for others too! Love this blog, very uplifting.


  4. I agree with the thrust of this post. Once you come out, there should be no shame in acknowledging your sexuality in public, in a frank way. That doesn’t mean you need to make a spectacle out of your sexual preference and shove it in everyone’s faces every chance you get, but if you’re openly gay, own it and say what you are because once you come of the closet, the fact that you’re gay is no longer a private matter, although how you live out your sexuality should be no one’s business but your own.


    1. Exactly my thought – well put! And if it took you a while to come out was because you struggled with your sexuality or were scared of the consequences of being openly gay, then tell the world that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we still have a very widespread problem with homophobia, which is causing a lot of suffering for millions of people and which needs to be dealt with. Thanks for reading! 🙂


  5. Reblogged this on Jezabel 333 and commented:
    She truly fits into the homonormative lens, because she only decided to come out in public upon her success. what does that say about coming out. you can only come out if you’re a successful person, because “it gets better” only if you’ve achieved something in your life?


  6. I am a private person and I do think that being expected to speak “publicly” about one’s personal life is an invasion of privacy (not only the speaker’s privacy, but that of his/her family). The “public” is a group of complete strangers after all. I have a blog and I am very careful when writing any personal information on it, not because I have any particular secrets or because I think anyone will even care about what I write, but because personal information is personal information, whether it is popular, interesting, controversial, boring, or irrelevant.
    There are reasons for telling some kinds of personal information (to help others, or to foil a blackmailer for example) but if one does not feel the call to do so, then it makes no sense to do it and might leave the teller with a feeling of being socially exploited. Sometimes we exploit ourselves.
    There have been times when I have left a conversation with a friend or acquaintance feeling that I have been lured by a sense of personal intimacy into revealing information that they didn’t need to know and probably shouldn’t know. In this age of over-sharing, I think it is courageous and even somewhat difficult to keep personal information personal.


    1. Hi Rayme Wells – thanks for reading, and for taking the time to respond! As mentioned in the the above opinion piece (and reiterated / clarified further in my own blog, see: I agree with you that everyone has a right to keep their personal life private. My point though, is that I don’t believe your sexual orientation is a private matter. Or at least it shouldn’t be. No one thinks twice about making it clear that they are straight, so why should we hide our sexuality if we’re gay. The answer, of course, is that being gay is not always as easy as being straight, and for many people being openly gay still brings with it significant risks. That is why I feel it’s all the more important that people like Jodie Foster – who don’t feel at risk – speak up. It’s perfectly understandable that lots of famous, gay people stay in the closet – many of them probably struggle with their sexuality, or feel scared of what the reaction would be if they came out. I guess I just wish that if, like Jodie Foster, they did eventually come out, they would be honest and open about that struggle, as I think it’s important to highlight that we still have a long way to go. Obviously, if you’re in a situation where you think it’s likely you could get fired or beaten up for being openly gay, you may want to keep a low profile. But provided that’s not the case, there is no reason why you couldn’t let people know that you are gay, even if you are a private person – lots of gay people are open about being gay but still very private and closed about their personal lives and relationships. Anyway…those are just my thoughts on the matter, and I don’t mean to force them on anyone else. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves what they feel safe and comfortable with. Cheers, Joe 🙂


  7. Unbelievably, there are still many places in the United States where admitting you are gay will cost you your job, get you evicted from an apartment, get you beat up, or disowned from your family and the disinherited as well. There are pockets of progress which still exist within seas of backward thinking. In my own home state where thousands of gay people still live in the closet due to the above, Asheville up in the Appalachian mountains is one of the gayest and most OUT cities in NC for gay folks. But right down the road [ about 120 miles away] in the Piedmont Triad and the surrounding region, there are fundamentalist ministers exhorting their congregations to literally beat their “butch” daughters into submission and to “break the limp wrists” of their too feminine sons. These “sermons” [ if you want to call them that ] have been posted to YT as recently as 2011 and 2012.

    Progress comes slowly. As recently as 4 years ago I was nearly assaulted at knife point in the parking lot where I worked one night by an irate boyfriend of a peer after I came out to that peer at work. The boyfriend equated my coming out to “coming onto” his woman. This was in California no less. It’s still not always easy for gay people to know who is going to react with fear or rage and who is sophisticated enough NOT to freak out when they learn you are gay. We’re not exactly living in a normal society these days.

    Jody may have made her decision to keep her sexuality private to avoid there being just one more reason some jerk somewhere could use it to snap and stalk her and her family.

    I’ve had more than one moment through the years when I came out to someone and then genuinely REGRETTED it later when it was used to try to harm me, get me fired, get in my face with a religious rant [ hilarious as I am a Christian ] or whatever.


    1. You know, the point of privacy is that there are things about our lives that we regard as…..well, private. As in, none of anyone else’s business. We don’t have to qualify why we regard those things as private, and we don’t have defend, or shouldn’t have to defend those things as private. So when you say “you don’t understand why she regards speaking freely about her sexuality…..” would be an invasion of privacy. Well, it’s not incumbent on you to understand her why’s. They are basically none of your business.

      Yes, of course it’s perfectly possible to be open about your orientation, and you say you aren’t really intimating that she should set herself up as a role model for the LGBT , but that is what you are doing. It’s what you want her to do. The thing is, it’s her life, her choice. She mothers as she sees fit, she communicates what she wants to communicate in the way she wants to communicate it, regarless of what anyone else wants her to do. That is freedom. Freedom of choice. Freedom to define her privacy as she see fit, not as you wish her to define it.

      I remember a Rolling Stone article from about a decade ago….all about “do we have the right to know because we are curious?” Well, my answer is no, we don’t No one has the right to know about me just because they want to know about me. I will choose the information that give to people, and people will not decide what that information should be.

      I’m sorry, but I find your stance, as anyone’s who believes that because someone’s success has made them interesting in the public eye, that because she is who she is, she should stand up and declare herself to be gay, and then talk about and support the struggle for gay rights. We just don’t have the right to bully, or pressure people into doing what we want them to do, just as denying people basic humans rights and legal process is wrong. It’s just wrong.

      I’m very vocal about my belief in equality across orientational lines, racial lines, religious lines…..basically everyone who is human owns the same rights, just by being born. Period. But those rights do not include choosing for someone else, their level of support, if at all, of any stance. Those rights do not give me the choice to obligated someone else to choose what I choose or to defend or qualify their choice, just because it’s not what I want them to do.
      Heteronormative status quo….the whole point of owning equality, is that our sexual orientation doesn’t matter. We can work and parent and live and choose what we say about ourselves, and what we don’t. Ms. Foster obviously not only believes in her right to do this, she acts on it. It’s how she lives her life, without anyone else’s permission, without qualifying her choices.


      1. Hi henna red, thank you for taking the time to read my piece and comment. You raise some very good, valid points and I would have to say that on the whole, I agree with you. Perhaps I expressed myself clumsily in my column, but the point that I was trying to make was mostly that I find it frustrating that so many famous, gay people are reluctant to talk openly about their sexual orientation, and that I simply don’t believe this is due to the fact that they are ‘private people’. When do you ever hear of straight famous people, even very private celebrities, refusing to acknowledge that they are attracted to people of the opposite sex? My personal view is that this reluctance to be ‘out’, comes down to the still inherently homophobic world that we live in. I would never advocate bullying someone into coming out – there are always going to be a vast range of variables at play in any individual’s circumstances and ultimately, my view on ‘being openly gay’ is that it has to be up to everyone to decide for themselves what they feel safe and comfortable with. Although it was Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech that inspired me to write about this, my column was not really about her, or any celebrity in particular. Rather it was intended as a comment on a very discernible and unfortunate behavioural pattern in general, which I believe is symptomatic of the fear, stress, exclusion, prejudice and discrimination that LBGT people are still, in the 21st Century, subjected to in their everyday lives. Being vocal about these things is what triggers change, and having strong, successful people who are inspirational to the mainstream population can be hugely helpful in opening people’s minds. Therefore I wish that more gay (and straight) celebrities would speak up – and especially if they have personal experiences they feel able to share. It doesn’t have to entail becoming some kind of LGBT poster person – just calling a spade a spade in public. It’s true that I don’t really understand why a happy, confident, secure and supported person (again, not necessarily talking about Jodie Foster here) would perceive being openly gay an intrusion of their privacy. However, I do understand that what I think on this matter doesn’t really matter to anyone else, and at the end of the day, I totally agree that coming out is something you have to want to do for yourself first and foremost. Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to be a very convincing role model for anyone if you’ve been dragged out of the closet kicking and screaming! Cheers, Joe


  8. Your view that the once-contentious (non)issue has been normalised is accurate and it serves the cause of these maligned minority groups to promote this message. Well-written post. Kudos.


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