Query a Queer: July/August 2012

Question:

Do people in the public eye have an obligation to come out?

Answer:

Staff writer Erin Rook takes on the tough questions.

As more and more celebrities come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, the debate grows over whether we are owed these declarations of identity. Public figures (an increasingly broad designation in this age of reality TV and YouTube stardom) who are suspected of being “family” are increasingly pressured to come out and criticized if they persist in avoiding the subject.

On the surface, it’s a relatively simple debate between the right to privacy and the responsibility to use one’s influence for the greater good.

Celebrities who’ve made a second job of deflecting the gay question often assert that they want to keep their private life private. After Queen Latifah’s remarks at Long Beach Pride had some claiming that she had come out, the singer-rapper-actress made clear she had not, and likely would not.

“I’ve never dealt with the question of my personal life in public,” she told Entertainment Weekly following her May 2012 performance. “It’s just not gonna happen.”

I get the curiosity. I want to hear Queen Latifah say she loves a lady as much as the next queer. (Who wouldn’t want her on our team?) But I don’t think she owes me that. I don’t mean to belittle the impact it would have for someone of her position and influence to come out as a lady-lover, but it’s not her job.

It’s the same song you hear sung by concerned Christians and armchair feminists: So-and-so should be a better role model. As if there exists an unwritten contract in which society grants celebrity/prosperity in exchange for a particular brand of upstanding morality.

The idea that all LGBTQ celebs must publicly proclaim their identity also serves to uphold a double standard of outness. That standard says that if a public figure hasn’t come out to the general public, they aren’t REALLY out (and are therefore closeted). When it comes to the regular non-famous LGBTQ folks, being out to their friends and family (or not actively hiding their identity) is usually sufficient to be considered “out.” No one expects Johnny Queer or Trans Tina to come out in the media — or, for that matter, to Queen Latifah.

Journalist Anderson Cooper spoke to this distinction when he came out publicly via an email to writer and friend Andrew Sullivan.

“I have always been very open and honest about this part of my life with my friends, my family, and my colleagues,” Cooper wrote. “In a perfect world, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted. I’m not an activist, but I am a human being and I don’t give that up by being a journalist.”

Cooper also spoke to the issue of safety — a valid concern for folks considering coming out. Though the journalist was primarily concerned about the dangers of revealing personal information in foreign war zones, there are legitimate safety concerns for LGBTQ folks closer to home. While celebrities aren’t immune to hate crimes, a more likely risk comes in the form of boycott by anti-gay segments of society.
So why do we hold celebrities to a higher standard of disclosure than the average LGBTQ person?

It probably has something to do with the life-altering impact out role models can have on LGBTQ kids and teens. Humans are social creatures and it gives us great comfort to know we are not alone in our struggles. Increased visibility of LGBTQ people also leads to greater acceptance in society, as being queer or trans becomes less sensational.

But there are plenty of out and proud folks in the media these days, one might argue. Why do we need more? Because we are multi-dimensional and, as such, require complex representations of ourselves to feel truly and accurately reflected.

I suspect this is one reason there has been so much interest in Queen Latifah’s coming out fake outs. There are arguably fewer out public figures in the African American and other marginalized communities, so the demand is greater. But the fact remains that coming out is a very personal act, best done voluntarily and on one’s own timetable.

Coming out is more than slapping a label on your forehead (“It’s a gay!”) and going about your day. It’s a (lifelong) conversation. If some folks aren’t ready or willing to have that conversation with a stranger, I have to respect that.

I think there are very few personal facts anyone has a duty to disclose (even privately). Most of those are tied to specific circumstances. Got an STD and about to get it on? You need to share that. Friend wants a ride and you’re too drunk to drive? Better ‘fess up. But when a reporter or fan wants to know what sort of people you’re into or what’s in your pants, I figure you’ve got every right to say “no comment.”
-Erin Rook, PQ Monthly staff writer

Are you a lesbian puzzled by gay men? A transgender person pondering bisexuality? A straight person perplexed by queers of all stripes? PQ is here to help you through your “questioning” period. Send your questions to info@pqmonthly.com and put Query a Queer in the subject line.