Visibility Matters: Lindsay Lohan and the New Definition of “Out”

REDEFINING “OUT”
Ronson and Lohan have never verbally defined their relationship in public, and as a general rule (with some exceptions), we don’t out celebrities on AfterEllen.com.

But this rule used to be much easier to follow.

In the olden days of, say, the 1990s, you had to say actually say the words “I’m gay” or “I’m in a romantic relationship with so-and-so” to some kind of reputable press outlet to be considered openly gay, or “out.” Otherwise, you were considered “in” (or closeted). (See: Neil Patrick Harris pre-2006, or Ellen DeGeneres pre-1997.)

There are and will continue to be those who come out with words, and those who choose not to come out at all. But beginning in the early part of this decade, a new way of being out emerged that was characterized by living openly in a same-sex relationship and not denying or hiding it from the press, but refusing to actually define it with words.

Jodie Foster is a prominent example of this. We didn’t cover Foster on AfterEllen.com when I started the site in 2002, because I didn’t consider her to be “out.”

We have begun writing about her more in the last few years, however, as Foster began to live her life a little more openly — thanking her alleged then-partner Cydney Bernard in a speech, putting her children’s full names (which include “Bernard”) on display, and wearing what she referred to as an “eternity ring” — even though she has never openly declared her sexual orientation or defined her relationship with Bernard.

In an interview with More magazine in Sept. 2007, Foster declined to answer direct questions about her relationship with Bernard, as usual, saying “that would be trivializing my life, selling it for a magazine.”

But, she added, “I don’t have any problems with anybody reporting on my life.”

This is what has changed — both the increased willingness of the mainstream press to actually report on the lives of gay, lesbian and bisexual celebrities who have not openly declared their sexual orientation, and the increased willingness of (some) celebrities to let them.

Foster during a Nim’s Island photo shoot in April 2008

There have always been gay, lesbian and bisexual celebrities who have lived openly in their day-to-day lives, but stayed closeted in their public life. This was only possible because the press went along with it. Rock Hudson, Raymond Burr, Greta Garbo, and Bessie Smith are just a few of the names of people whose sexual orientation has only been revealed to the broader public posthumously.

Less reputable tabloids have always been willing to expose the “secrets” of celebrities, but their information was tainted by a lack of credibility, in part because readers didn’t usually know or have reason to trust the people behind the tabloids.

Their distribution was also limited, confined primarily to supermarket checkout lines and paid subscriptions.

But the internet suddenly allowed millions of Americans to access this information in the privacy of their own home, and provided by influential online editors, writers and bloggers, whose credibility has been painstakingly built over time, and whose personality (in contrast to the tabloids impersonal style) builds trust and intimacy with readers.

The line between what topics were reserved for tabloids versus more mainstream news outlets also became blurred. As information about celebrities’ personal lives became more widely available, and reported more online, traditional press outlets were forced to address previously out-of-bounds topics in order to stay relevant.

This included reporting on celebrities who have not announced they are gay, lesbian, or bi, but live their lives as if they are.

And that’s why we find ourselves in 2008 opening up the latest issue of one of the top women’s magazines and reading, with little fanfare, about the “no brainer” rumors that one of Hollywood’s most-talked-about young actresses is in a serious lesbian relationship.

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