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

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day and it caused quite a bit of chatter on social media.  Today, we revisit a piece by Josef Church-Woods that helped launch LGBTicons.

“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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Categories: Celebrities Coming out Gay Lesbian LGBT Opinion Role Models

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