I’m generally quite happy with how The New York Times covers coming out and LGBT issues. It’s pretty much the reason I subscribe to Sunday Times — I’m usually rewarded with at least a few gay news tips or stories, like recent features on The Kids are All Right and the science of homosexual animals.
So I have to say I was a little perturbed with this weekend’s story, "Celebrities Come Out, Without Fan Fare." Mostly because I disagree with some of their major points.
First, I would like to echo what Heather Hogan wrote about Chely Wright when she first came out earlier this month, and has continued to write about as Chely makes her press rounds: Everyone’s coming out matters. Even if you had no idea who Chely was before she came out, now you do, right? She’s gay, she’s advocating for the mental health and wellness of others in the closet so that they feel comfortable coming out and not living a lie like she had for so many years. I hope you wouldn’t dismiss that.
The Times writes that "Americans greeted [Chely's coming out] largely with a shrug." Which could be true — I’m not sure who they surveyed, but it seems to me that there was equal shruggage with a whole lot of supportive and new fans of Chely’s. There were also a lot of pre-existing fans that swore her off for being a lesbian. All of these people count, too.
If we discount her coming out, or Ricky Martin or Sean Hayes, for that matter, we’re saying you shouldn’t bother coming out unless you are going to make an impact. So, only if you’re shocking — like the president or Julia Roberts maybe.
But the article’s main point isn’t that these celebrities (Chely, Ricky, etc.) shouldn’t come out — it’s that the general public doesn’t care. It doesn’t have an affect on their tolerance of gay people, should they not have any already. Writer Eric Marcus told The Times:
There’s the assumption among gay people that if only this famous person came out, things would be better — and that’s never been the case. The most significant effort any of us can make in moving the ball forward in terms of promoting awareness and acceptance of this issue is for those of us who are gay to come out to those closest to us. It isn’t ultimately the celebrity that changes people’s minds, or the politician. It’s the individual, one on one.
I completely agree — coming out to the people in your lives (or, as Melissa Etheridge once said, even to the cashier at your grocery store) is important, but to say that public figures coming out makes less of an impact diminishes the idea that it makes an impact at all. Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way: Are we expecting Chely Wright and Ricky Martin to make homophobic people become gay friendly? You’re right — that’s not going to happen. But will these public figures and their words inspire and inform closeted youth and otherwise shamed or unsure gays, lesbians, bisexuals and everything under, in and around the rainbow? Yes, I’m quite sure of it.
If you ask most people about their coming out journey, so many of us will share an anecdote from pop culture. Depending on your generation, it could be the music of k.d. lang, or seeing the first televised lesbian kiss on L.A. Law. It could Ellen‘s coming out, Shakespeare’s cross-dressing gender play in Twelfth Night, The L Word or when you first learned Marlene Dietrich wasn’t just into men’s suits.
Something, somewhere in society had an impact on you. Somehow you learned what gay was, an idea of how to be gay, who else was gay, that gay exists and you are not alone. No matter who you are, you have been affected by the media, entertainment, culture and society-at-large, and we are all informed by the same people, places and things. It’s inevitable that someone coming out or kissing another girl or discussing sexual fluidity in a big, publicized way is going to affect you, consciously or otherwise.
The Times notes that a survey found "79 percent of respondents said that knowing someone who is gay contributed to their more positive opinions. Thirty-four percent who said seeing gay characters on television was a factor." I understand math, sir, and I’d like to say that I’ll take that 34 percent and attempt to raise it with even more visibility of lesbians on television, thank you very much.
Another facet of the argument: Gay celebrities just want money and more fame. They waited until it was "safe" for them to come out. Dan Savage said:
With more and more gays and lesbians coming out in middle school and high school, it’s hard not to view coming out post-peak in your career or whenever as cowardly, if not opportunistic. Now that I have my millions, now that it’s totally safe, now that I can scoop up a few more fans, I will come out. Forgive me, but I have much more admiration for those kids coming out in middle school.
Dan Savage is not someone I usually disagree with, but this is an exception. When we start judging people’s individual comings out, we do ourselves a disservice. We are saying that those who come out later in life are less authentic, or somehow less brave. Chely Wright faces just as many (if not more) skeptics and hateful people as children, but that aside, she spoke out on Oprah that those kids are the reason she felt it was necessary to come out now. She doesn’t want them to go through what she did — the shame, the self-loathing, the straight sex. Does she stand to profit off of coming out while releasing a new album and book? Sure — but she also stands to lose profit from fans that refuse to give money to a now-gay country singer.
And what did Anna Paquin have to gain from coming out as bisexual in a PSA for gay equality? Considering she’s immensely successful and not selling anything, I’d imagine she’s only going to bring awareness to the cause. And Wanda Sykes? By coming out, she helped draw greater attention to the fight against Prop. 8.
So you want to change someone’s mind about homosexuality? Come out to them. Tell them you exist. But we should still support those who are in the position of helping the gay community stay visible and reach the LGBT community who doesn’t feel part of a community yet. It’s not an either/or thing. Don’t tell me that the perceived success or amount of celebrity someone holds makes their sexuality matter to you more or less.
I would love to live in a world where no one has to come out — where we all just exist and our sexuality develops naturally, without question from anyone, and we all accept sexual fluidity for what it is — alive and well in everyone. Unfortunately, we live in a time where we have to tell our friends, family and grocery clerks that we’re gay and proud, and have to hope that they’ll accept that. Until acceptance is fully realized, we should continue to applaud each and every coming out as someone being true to themselves. That is always cause for celebration.