Friday, July 25, 2008

Tales of the Closet

Gwendolen. I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma. [They rise together.]
Lady Bracknell. Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself...
But on to other burning issues. A week or so ago (time does fly) a straight friend told me he’d heard that Queen Latifah had come out. It’s a mark of how out of touch I am with today’s popular culture that Queen Latifah was not high on my list of people most likely to. I asked him where he’d heard this, and he wasn’t sure, so I did a couple of Google searches, which came up dry.

Well, not exactly dry, except by my standards. Last December it seems there was a flurry of speculation in the tabloids that Latifah was “officially engaged” to a woman she’s been tight with for several years. “Officially engaged” was the giveaway, since “officially” in this context has all the force of “literally.” (As in, “My head literally exploded.”)

An engagement, like a marriage, is a public event. If Queen Latifah were really officially engaged, our little county newspaper would have chronicled the fact by last December at the latest. Of all the material I found from last winter touting the happy event, nothing pointed to an actual announcement of the engagement. All of it was basically gossip-column chatter, with no real sourcing.

But then I found another flurry of links from this summer. It was inspired by the overturning of California’s ban on same-sex marriage by the state Supreme Court, and all of it was rewarmed versions of the items from last winter. I could almost see the tiny gears grinding in the tiny brains: hey! now that it’s legal, maybe Latifah and her honey will tie the knot. … Maybe they will, but so far there’s no evidence that they will.

From what I read, Latifah has mostly not denied the rumors that she’s gay, except for a tiresomely routine evasion after she played a lesbian in the movie Set It Off. "It's insulting when someone asks, 'Are you gay?'” she wrote in her autobiography. “A woman cannot be strong, outspoken, competent at running her own business, handle herself physically, play a very convincing role in a movie, know what she wants—and go for it—without being gay? Come on.” Aside from the fact that it is not insulting to be asked if one is gay, she had a point. I was writing yesterday about Americans’ dislike of (or inability to comprehend) irony: I linked it to our Puritan heritage, which like the Christian tradition generally is hostile to theatre and acting. To be one thing yet pretend to be another is as bad as having sexual intercourse in a standing position!

There was a mild flurry some years ago when Will Smith chickened out of kissing a man in his first movie role, Six Degrees of Separation. (A stunt double was used for the dangerous scene.) He tried to blame it on Denzel Washington, who he claimed had warned him that black folks have trouble separating the actor from the role, so “Don’t go kissing no man.” Many years earlier, on her 1975 album Modern Scream, Lily Tomlin did a routine in which an interviewer complimented her on her courage for playing a heterosexual (presumably in Robert Altman’s Nashville.) “I’ve seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk,” Tomlin said. “You don’t have to be one to play one!” True: a fair number of homosexual actors have done it over the years. The joke was a wink to her fans who were in on the open secret of Tomlin’s lesbianism and her relationship with her producer Jane Wagner. But an open secret it remained for another quarter of a century.
Lady Bracknell. To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
More recently, according to the gossip sites I saw, Queen Latifah has simply refused to discuss her personal life. That’s certainly her prerogative, and it’s a lot better than the denial. Could it have something to do with her apparent involvement with the woman the sites name as her girlfriend? She won’t confirm the relationship, but she won’t deny it either. Maybe now she can’t put the rumors down to her being a strong, competent, outspoken woman.

As Sarah Schulman wrote in 1990 during the big outing controversy,
As for the morality of dragging gay public figures out of the closet -- well, I'm not sure. What I do know, though, is that to call this an invasion of privacy is distorting and dishonest. Most gay people stay in the closet -- i.e., dishonor their relationships -- because to do so is a prerequisite for employment, housing, safety, and family love. Having to hide the way you live because of fear of punishment isn't a "right" nor is it "privacy." Being in the closet is not an objective, neutral, value-free condition. It is, instead, maintained by force, not choice. … The closet is not a right. It is something we want to make unnecessary, not claim and cling to.
I was struck by the report on one gossip site that “According to the National Enquirer, the couple are ‘planning an intimate ceremony with close family and friends.’” It occurred to me years ago that legal marriage would undermine so many closet cases’ argument that their love lives are nobody else’s business. Anyone can exchange vows, but it has no legal weight. If they apply for a marriage license, which is part of the process of getting legally married, their love lives will become everybody’s business, no matter how intimate the ceremony they have. Legal marriage is “private,” but it isn’t secret: it’s a matter of public record.

But nowadays, who cares? Lots of celebrities have come out publicly, so who needs people who lack the courage or integrity to do it, who choose (as Schulman put it so precisely) to dishonor their relationships? When Tomlin finally came out, she tried to put a good face on it, as did Rosie O’Donnell, by claiming that because ‘everybody knew’, or it was obvious they were gay, there was no need to say it aloud. But if everybody knew, why not say it aloud? (Nathan Lane did the same thing: “Look, I'm 40, I'm single, and I work in musical theater - you do the math!” But before that interview he’d complained because people did the math: “I didn't know I was supposed to make a public declaration. I didn't think anybody cared.” Girl, what planet were you living on? And don’t get me started on Janis Ian…)
Gwendolen. I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to any one.
Cecily. It is not a very pleasant position for a young girl suddenly to find herself in. Is it?