Monday, June 10, 2013

The Only Gays in the Global Village

I incautiously clicked on a link to a story at a gossip site, "Celebrities Who Didn't Surprise Us When They Came Out." Several examples are dubious -- Elton John? I doubt this writer was even born when he came out.
Celebrities always feel the need to make these grandiose announcements to tell people they’re coming out of the closet. But the fact is, the closet seems pretty open half the time. These celebrities made the brave steps to tell us they were coming out of the closet, but, really, we knew all along.
If "the closet seems pretty open half the time," it's because most GLB celebrities who come out in the media are already adults, who've been living gay lives for some time before they're ready to talk to the media about it.  This reflects the post-Stonewall meaning of "coming out," which previously meant having your first homosexual experience and making your debut in gay society, and "closeted" meant you were isolated from other gay people. Since about 1970 "coming out" has meant acknowledging one's homosexuality to everyone else -- straight friends, family, the general public -- often despite intense pressure from heterosexual society to go back in.  "Closeted" changed its meaning accordingly.

There were always celebrities about whom rumors circulated, but that was (and remains) the trouble: what circulated were rumors and urban legends.  Some of them were true, others were bogus, like the male celebrity having a gallon of semen pumped out of his stomach, or another having to have a gerbil removed from his rectum, or a certain female celebrity appearing on the Tonight show and telling Carson that she 'preferred female companionship.'  When I came out (in both senses) in the early 1970s, there was gossip intimating that just about every celebrity was queer, always shared with absolute confidence.  I soon learned not to take anything I heard seriously.  But in those days, when virtually no entertainers were openly gay, gossip was all we had to go on.

One thing that annoys me about the whole business was how much the gossip relied on stereotypes, often in people who at other times deplored the stereotypes about us.  So, Liberace?  Elton John?  Sean Hayes?  (I hadn't known Hayes did come out, though apparently he did, with typical bad grace, in 2010.)  During the great Outing controversy of the early 1990s, Armistead Maupin told an interviewer that Tom Selleck was gay, because he looked like a Castro Street clone, and Tim Curry should have been open about his sexuality because he "spent the better part of the '70s running around in a garter belt and a merry widow".*  As I've said before, white people have trouble telling the difference between actors and the roles they play; we're a simple, childlike race.

Quite a number of celebs have come out (in the post-Stonewall sense) while grumbling that they didn't realize they needed to say anything about it, because c'mon, wasn't it obvious all along?  Nathan Lane told an interviewer to do the math: he was 40, single, and an actor on Broadway.  But in the same interview he complained that people assumed he was gay, just because he was 40, single, and an actor on Broadway.  I sympathize, and I have to remember that you don't have to be particularly thoughtful to be a successful entertainer, so I can't really expect consistency or rationality from someone like Nathan Lane or Rosie O'Donnell.  But it's still irksome, and a reminder that someone isn't necessarily a role model just because they came out.

I was annoyed by the movie In and Out, in which an Indiana high school teacher is outed on international television by a former student.  It was inspired by Tom Hanks's acknowledging, in his Oscar acceptance speech, a gay teacher he'd known; as far as I know Hanks didn't out him, the teacher was already out.  In the movie version, the outed teacher is closeted even to himself, and as far as one could tell from the script had no sexual experience with anybody.  His gayness was signified as "obvious" in the film through (dated) stereotypes: he loved Barbra Streisand, for instance, how could he not have been gay?  Another familiar stereotype was deployed in reverse, when the teacher's father tells him that he's just an old farmer, so of course he knows nothing about homosexuality.  (Alfred Kinsey could have told him otherwise.  So could I.)  This could have made for good comedy if not for the interfering timidity of Hollywood suits, who toned down and distorted the script, but I think it ended up confusing people about coming out, and outing, even more than they were before.  It was a widespread accusation against gay journalists and activists who outed celebrities that they were picking on people who didn't know they were gay, they were just tender saplings being cut off above the root by heartless extremists.  The same mainstream media that wrung its hands over the invasion of privacy involved in outing, and the potential human cost, only a few years earlier routinely published the names and (often) the addresses of people arrested in gay bar raids, with no concern that they might (as they often did) lose their jobs and that their lives would (as they often were) be ruined.  There's a vast difference between, say, a scared Midwestern thirteen-year-old (whom the outing activists would never have singled out) and thoroughly experienced adults who knew very well who they were, were widely known to the press and the people they worked with, and despite protestations that their private lives were nobody else's business, talked freely to the media about their (mostly imaginary) heterosexual private lives.  There were certainly ethical questions involved in outing, but the public discussion rarely engaged them, preferring the usual sensationalism and melodrama.

These people had extensive adult love lives before they came clean, and they belonged to a generation that still expected the media to cover up for them.  Several years before she made it official, Ellen DeGeneres was spotted snogging another woman in a lesbian bar; I don't remember whether I read about it in the Village Voice or in the gay press.  Just as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy could rely on the press not to report their well-known (to those who knew) extramarital escapades, Hollywood stars could shelter under the wings of respectable press discretion and the clout of Hollywood; as long as they didn't go too far, it gave them some privacy and some breathing room.  Even before the Internet, the bargain between celebrities and the media was breaking down.  So it wasn't unreasonable for gay people to assume that what we knew was just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm not surprised when anyone comes out, just because I don't put much store by stereotypes. From my first years in a gay community, I met a wide range of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  I learned quickly from experience what I already knew in theory from reading, that we're varied and we're everywhere.  I know that Jason Collins isn't the only gay professional athlete out there; I just don't know who the others are.  And despite what some say, it still often takes courage to declare oneself publicly -- less in show business than in areas like male professional sports or elite politics, but one thing about coming out to straight people is that you can never be certain how they'll react.  Think of Chastity (now Chaz) Bono or Anne Rice's son Christopher: both Cher and Anne Rice were social liberals, entertainers, with plenty of gay friends and associates, but both reacted negatively when their own kids turned out to be homos.  Bono's conservative father, and Rice's poet father, took the news easily and gave the support their kids needed.  And in many parts of the US, as well as much of the world -- yes, America isn't all there is -- you're taking your life in your hands to live any kind of gay life at all.  A certain amount of fear isn't always unreasonable.

Ah well, it's my own fault for reading a gossip site.  The level of discourse in most American media, low as it is, is still on the whole a notch higher than at, despite the latter's affectation of world-weary sophistication.

*Quoted in Larry Gross, Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing (Minnesota, 1993), 204.