Originally published in Antenna from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, 5 July 2012.
Anderson Cooper’s “outing” this week beautifully illustrates something I have been writing about for a while: the imperative of coming out. The paradox of homosexuality is and has been that one must at once not be gay while at the same time publicly (confessing/admitting/declaring) that (s)he is. But what does that mean, exactly? If the presumption is that we are straight until we say otherwise, then why are the most common reactions to Anderson’s outing, “We already knew!” or “It’s about time!” Hollywood legend might describe the alleged homosexuality of figures like Agnes Moorehead or James Dean as an “open secret”–something about which to argue at pretentious dinner parties. But I bracket “outing” with quotations marks because if everybody already knew Anderson was gay, why was he constantly hounded to declare it? And why aren’t people satisfied with his declaration?
I’ll admit some guilt here; as an Oprah scholar, I’ve long thought Anderson’s semi-successful talk show suffered by his Donahue-esque journalistic fourth wall, something Oprah deflated by making herself always already one of her own guests. I draw this parallel because soon after his “outing,” Star Jones quite ickily suggested on The Today Show that Anderson outed himself to boost his ratings just like when Oprah admitted she used crack, got pregnant as a teenager, and considered suicide.
“I’m a little bit of a cynic; you know I’ve been in daytime television a long time…. There are times that you generate information for ratings.” Shame on you, Star Jones.
But why didn’t Anderson come out on his talk show, instead choosing to write a letter to Daily Beast? Will that letter be good enough, or will he be expected now to discuss it on television? And, indeed, can he discuss it without the kind of appalling accusations constantly volleyed in the news? That afternoon, Anderson, his syndicated talk show, was a rerun (it’s on hiatus) and he was absent from his late night news program, Anderson 360. If he came out to help his ratings, he sure has bad timing.
Our media culture often portrays coming out as this great moment of personal achievement–a bourgeoisie notion of psychological wholeness or self-actualization after which (and only after which) we can become our true, complete selves. This trope is then used to justify our demand that celebrities (and by extension our culture of celebrity mimics) come out of the closet “for their own good.” Just look at Ellen DeGeneres, people (like Oprah) often say, ignoring the six or so years after her outing that she was out of work and out of money. We can throw all kinds of Foucault at this: although he never specifically addressed coming out as we understand it today, confession for Foucault functions not only as a mechanism of articulating but also making truth as well as establishing one’s own credibility and authenticity. In other words, the lie we tell ourselves now is that we come out for ourselves, when in reality, we’re mostly supplying the demand.
The coming out imperative comes from an old association between gayness and deception, dating back at least as far as McCarthy and the 1950s (the Lavender Scare) when homosexuals were indicted as deceptive individuals prone to blackmail. After gay activists in the ’60s and ’70s made the coming out process (as a political tool to combat invisibility) relatively commonplace, talk shows began quietly suggesting openness which ultimately became a demand when AIDS and HIV made homosexuality a “dangerous deception” for unsuspecting heterosexuals (see Gamson, Freaks Talk Back). We might say we’re coming out to our friends and family just for ourselves, but if that were the case, I might ask why the repeating line “they deserved to know the truth” is such a staple in coming out stories.
In her remarkably articulate response to Anderson’s outing, “fruit fly” Kathy Griffin deftly discusses the continuing dangers of outness: “[D]espite the very real, the very necessary, and the very life-changing progress we have made in this country … America–the world–is not fully represented by Chelsea in New York City … [it] is, in larger part, small towns like … Wichita, Kan., where I was [asked], ‘Kathy, how do you deal with so many goddamned fags?'” Foucault writes that our society believes confession “exonerates, redeems, and purifies … unburdens [us] of [our] wrongs, liberates [us], and promises [us] salvation.” But none of those attributes are particularly true of many coming out narratives in certain areas of the country (or the world) where outness can and does lead to greater isolation, bullying, suicide, or homicide.
In his letter, Anderson writes: “It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something — something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed, or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true…. The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.”
Anderson is an astute television personality–he could have exploited his outing for ratings, and who knows, maybe he will discuss it openly when his show re-premieres in Nate Berkus’ former studio this fall. But instead of folding to and perpetuating the cultural myth that public confession psychologically liberates us, Anderson decided to address his sexuality in a well-crafted letter that demonstrates a new, old reason for coming out: to break down invisibility. I applaud him for it.
As a culture we must be more sensitive of our demands and our expectations (of both our celebrities as well as our friends), for the realities of queer individuals all across the world are different–and just because someone isn’t out to you or your family, doesn’t mean they are living their life in a closet.