I am as glad – and grateful – as anyone for Anderson Cooper’s non-coming-out coming out. There are some lessons in this story worth talking about.
People who know Cooper seem to agree with him that he was not really in the closet except with respect to the general public. That is a telling fact. As the walls of the closet have come down on the private side of people’s lives, there is still that remaining door that can be opened or closed to the public. The people we know on our side of the door – the private side – are far more likely today to know we are homosexual than they ever have been. Cooper enjoyed that private side of the closet with his family and friends.
But Cooper is not like the rest of us (and not just in what he does for a black t-shirt). For those of us without a public face, the need to come out or not to others – to decide whether to open that door — is a recurring issue; we are always meeting new people, and regularly face the problem of how much to reveal to whom, and in what circumstances.
People like Cooper who have a large public reputation have to deal with this a little differently. Word spreads about the famous, particularly about something as personal and controversial (or at least pretty interesting) as homosexuality. News of my homosexuality never hit Twitter; it never really achieved a threshold of being news. For Cooper, opening that door once to a world that knows him as a personality pretty much brings him out in toto. There will still be pockets of cluelessness, but for the most part, this is a one-time deal for someone of Cooper’s stature.
The Entertainment Weekly story that got this story moving makes the point that it’s possible for even celebrities today to come out without its being a big deal, and Cooper’s example contradicts that (in the short term, since it was kind of newsish) but reaffirms the larger point, having such a short shelf-life. Writing this post all of two days after Andrew Sullivan broke the story already feels like I’m stretching it out.
But that’s where the political aspect of sexual orientation comes in. For me, when it comes to sexual orientation and politics, I was born this way. It has taken me a long time to accept that some people – a lot of people – are not born political, or at least don’t take to politics naturally. I see a need for lesbians and gay men to take political action, but as people who are more activist than me can tell you, it’s always been an uphill battle.
Cooper reports on political stories, but as a journalist he should not be an activist. As a gay man, that puts him in a difficult spot.
A lot of politically active lesbians and gay men resent celebrities who are privately lesbian or gay, but have not opened the public door. We have an enormous public relations job to do, and need all the help we can get. That is one of the things that animated the movement to out politicians and celebrities – the idea that they had an obligation to use their public face to help us all gain equality. The worst of the worst were the ones who worked against legal equality, but the desire for even neutral or supportive public figures to come out – or be dragged out – came from the mathematical problem of being a minority in the first place. We start out with numbers that are staggeringly against us in a democracy, and then have the additional problem of members of our group who won’t even admit they belong.
Cooper seems to have struggled with that. He mentions “the unintended outcomes” of maintaining his privacy, and says he may have given the impression that he is trying to hide something that makes him uncomfortable, ashamed or afraid. His coming out was intended to – and does — clarify any misimpressions.
But those misimpressions are, and always have been, a perfectly natural consequence of silence. If about 95% of the population is heterosexual, and someone doesn’t positively identify as homosexual, is it unreasonable for people to assume that individual is straight? The open discussion of homosexuality over the last quarter century or so changes the bet somewhat, since silence now looks more telling, when it isn’t downright implausible. Yet many people still cling to the fig leaf of privacy as if it were without consequence.
In this impressive compilation of Cooper in the field, one quote stood out: “Journalists don’t like to become part of the story, but unfortunately they have been made part of the story. . . . “ That, I am afraid, is true of sexual orientation as well. Our inequality is embedded in the status quo that recognizes only heterosexual relationships, and if we say or do nothing, we are part of a story that tolerates and accepts our second-class status. We cannot get out of that story, or create a more appropriate status quo unless we act, unless we speak, unless we stand up as lesbians and gay men.
The false neutrality of silence is clear in this story about Jitters and Bliss Coffee. The company claims to be neutral when it comes to marriage. They say they don’t have a public position on the matter, and “respect the views of all their customers.” To demonstrate that neutrality, they joined up with the National Organization for Marriage to offer NOM members a non-Starbuck’s coffee option, since Starbuck’s has taken a position supporting marriage equality.
That is the neutrality of the status quo, being nakedly manipulated to preserve itself. Our silence, their silence, anyone’s silence is a vote for NOM, is a vote for the bias and prejudice that are woven into the fabric of current law.
In this politicized environment, privacy equals silence, and silence equals — well, not death anymore, but certainly some spiritual damage. That was the unholy balance that Cooper upset. Neutrality is a primary virtue of the journalistic profession, but when “neutrality” means “the status quo,” and if the status quo is, itself, biased, then neutrality is not neutral. Anderson Cooper’s coming out helps expose that truth.