When we talk about “coming out” in the gay and lesbian community, what we’re commonly referring to is the moment we acknowledge we’re gay or bisexual to the people closest to us. But for most LGBT people the process of coming out is perpetual; it doesn’t stop once we tell our parents we’re queer. When we make new acquaintances, revisit relationships with people who knew us before we were out, acquire new work colleagues, run into extended family around the holidays, we have to choose whether to “come out” over and over and over again.
Being a celebrity adds another layer to that perpetual coming out process because celebrities have to choose whether or not to make a grand public announcement to the world. Well, many of them have to choose; for some celebrities, the choice is made for them. If, say, Taylor Swift started dating a chick, we’d know about it immediately, because the paparazzi live in T-Swizzle’s grill. But in the case of someone like Meredith Baxter, whose popularity really peaked in the ’80s, she could probably have remained under the radar forever if she hadn’t been photographed on a cruise with her girlfriend.
And that puts media outlets like AfterEllen.com — which is to say, media outlets with any sort of integrity — into a bit of a pickle. If a celebrity is out to all of her friends and family, and we know she’s gay, do we say she’s gay — even if she hasn’t announced it publicly? For the most part, no. Until someone explicitly tells us (or another media outlet) that she’s gay — or talks to us (or another media outlet) about her girlfriend — we figure it’s not our business to make her business the world’s business.
Now don’t get me wrong: we want celebrities to be out. Out celebrities change the landscape of the equality battle. Out celebrities are personally validating to most LGBT people. Out celebrities matter a whole lot.
The question of “outing” is part of a larger question about celebrity culture: Where’s the line between public and private? What belongs to them (the celebrities) and what belongs to us (the public)? The reality of entertainment reporting these days is that real life is real news.
Sometimes we have to make a judgment call — “women who are ‘out’ in their actions, if not in their words,” Sarah Warn used to say — but we’re never going to bully someone to come out the way Perez Hilton & Co. bullied Meredith Baxter to come out.
Life is sometimes more free on the outside; Meredith Baxter knows that now. In fact, she’s become a vocal part of the equality movement, and we’re all better for her decision to acknowledge she’s gay. But at the end of the day, every person — including celebrities — should have the right to choose which side of the closet door they want to stand on.