Does coming out even matter anymore?
Is it possible, here in Canada, we’ve reached a tipping point where the most personal of political acts is no longer necessary to woo the hearts and minds of our straight peers, to win rights and acceptance and a place at the table? Now that we know that Anderson Cooper is family, that the world’s most valuable brand, Apple, is run by an openly gay man, that Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman rule daytime TV, that former Canada AM co-host Seamus O’Regan got married to a man without our noticing, that we have a lesbian premier and that Ellen remains the most popular celebrity after Oprah—I mean, hasn’t all the heavy lifting been done? It used to be newsworthy to be a confident and proud lesbian; now it’s newsworthy to be a tormented one. Look at how few ripples Kathleen Wynne’s orientation has made.
Obviously, people should come out for their own reasons. Staying in the closet makes it hard to invite people to your same-sex wedding. Your boss needs to know so you can attend the company’s LGBT Network parties—a closed closet door should never come between you and an open bar. Nobody wants to go through life lying to other people about who they’re dating, who they find cute or what kept them out until 10am Sunday morning. Coming out changes people’s lives for the better. But does it still change society?
When you look at the demands we put on the famous, we obviously think so. Come out! It will help us and it won’t change your career! But I’ve noticed that most celebrities who come out end up adopting their outness as a project. If it’s not a major part of their oeuvre, then they’ll take up a cause. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Sean Hayes take gay roles, Rosie O’Donnell does her gay family cruises. Neil Patrick Harris plays his gayness off his suave dude-ishness, turning his every performance into a conspiratorial wink. Canadian comedian Trevor
Boris, who came out on stage while his father was watching, knows that his gayness is a component of his fame.
“Maybe being openly gay has kept me from getting certain things, but it has also opened a lot of pretty fab double French doors for me,” Boris says. “I don’t want to be known as a gay comedian, as I think I’m much more than that, but I also sometimes think I get things because CBC needs a gay comedian to round out a panel and, listen, I’m just happy to be working.”
In Canada, at least, it seems possible to put the information out there and walk away. Although Rick Mercer came out in Maclean’s magazine in 2004, his gayness failed to register with most Canadians, even when he started promoting groups like EGALE Canada and CANFAR at Pride events. Only when he delivered a 2011 rant on his show, about an openly gay teenager who committed suicide after being bullied, did Mercer become “officially” gay. Douglas Coupland came out quietly and that was that. Ann-Marie MacDonald? Didn’t she get married to that guy? You have to wonder: if an out person doesn’t keep reminding the world of their homosexuality through the characters they play, the subject matter they write about, their charity work, camp sensibility or penchant for adoption, do they cease to be LGBT, regardless of who they’re sleeping with?
This inability—lack of interest?—in distinguishing between a famous person’s interests and their sexual orientation is a quintessential ingredient of James Franco’s allure. His superqueer indie projects like Interior Leather Bar and role as gay activist Scott Smith in 2008’s Milk have fuelled more gossipy dinner party conversations than any number of photos of Zachary Quinto shopping with his boyfriend. Gossip columnists like Perez Hilton see sexual identity encoded in clothes, party choices, musical tastes and facial expressions. Zac Efron’s abs are too ripped to be straight. But then, some people are obsessed with gay-spotting and these zealots are rarely straight.
When straight media gets excited about a prominent gay person—say, this fall, when openly gay Brigadier general John Fletcher was appointed Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces—gay people often yawn. A 51-year-old clergyman in a 16-year-relationship is exactly the kind of out person who makes gay people seem “normal”—but perhaps a little too normal. We have grown accustomed to out ministers, out healthcare workers, out journalists and perhaps even out design gurus and fashion designers. Now if Fletcher was a Canadian Forces sniper—that’d be something.
It’s as if only novelty will deliver the social change needed in the hinterland of our suburbs and small towns. Each new outing requires something extra to earn its bold type. The coming out this summer of Wentworth Miller, best known as star of Prison Break, was perfect for the times. He leaked his letter declining an invitation to attend the St. Petersburg International Film Festival, citing Russia’s treatment of LGBT people. There was no presumption of his own importance; he let the veil slip only to make a political statement. Humble and worthy! Miller will be doing lots of gala fundraisers in the future.
Jodie Foster’s coming out—or non-coming out, because we’re not judging—at last year’s Oscars was so awkweird, it might actually outshine Ellen’s Time magazine cover. The sports world equivalent of Ellen’s coming out, NBA player Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated this spring, came 16 years later, a longer lag than anyone would have liked. But professional sports is a tough world, one of the last bastions of socially acceptable homophobia. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the NFL adopting Foster’s self-indulgent insouciance. Jason Collins earned any kudos he got.
A friend of mine recently complained that too many famous out people are entertainers. Where were the out philosophers and scientists? I asked him to name a scientist of any orientation. He suggested David Suzuki—who also happens to have been an entertainer. I called the CBC science show Quirks and Quarks to see if they could think of any out Canadian scientists and, after putting me on hold for a while, they confessed they were drawing a blank. It just doesn’t come up. For all we know, all Canadian scientists might be queer—perhaps that’s why Prime Minister Stephen Harper has muzzled them—but nobody has bothered to ask.
Nerds have claimed computer scientist Alan Turing as a queer hero, partly because he was treated so badly. (Speaking of the James Franco effect, Benedict Cumberbatch—he of the Cumberbitches and officiating a gay wedding—plays Turing in an upcoming film.) I think there’s a reason why Turing is a rare bird. The best scientists profess to leave their feelings and personal baggage behind in pursuit of “the truth.” The best entertainers flaunt their feelings and baggage in pursuit of an artistic truth. “What careers lead us to know about people’s personal and family lives? I don’t think scientists or corporate people. Unless they’re dirty or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it doesn’t have the same impact,” says comedian Maggie Cassella. “That’s why we keep coming back to politicians and entertainers. It makes a difference when we don’t talk about it.”
For a long time, former NDP MP Svend Robinson was probably the only gay Canadian most people could name. Sure, there were others, but Robinson was all over the national news—you couldn’t avoid him. Robinson came out in 1988, the same year The Kids in the Hall debuted. One might imagine a rural Canadian, whose only available channel was the CBC, making vague connections between the tidy white dude in Question Period and the lisping barfly that was Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole. At one extreme, sexless political purpose; at the other, a sleazy underworld- fueled wit. By the time Robinson pled guilty in 2004 to stealing a ring at an auction, declaring mental health issues and ending his political career, Canadians knew enough about LGBT people—their friends, family and co-workers who resided between the two extremes—that Robinson was able to retreat quietly, not as an unmasked Buddy Cole, but as somebody who was genuinely struggling. Average Canadians had filled in the gaps celebrities didn’t.
Setting aside scandals, which are always delicious, the relationship between the personal and public life of politicians is a nebulous thing. Nobody is surprised when an MP from a farming community advocates for an agricultural bill, but is that good for the cause (“He knows exactly what farmers need!”) or bad (“Of course, he wants to boost potato exports, he’s from PEI!”). The closeted politicians I have known have kept a distance from LGBT issues, their personal vulnerability diminishing their capacity to improve their own world. (Female politicians sometimes distance themselves from women’s issues, as if to closet their own femininity.)
Closeted politicians advocating LGBT issues are such rare creatures—unicorns, really—we hardly know what to do with them. Even the most extreme advocates of outing propose outing only enemies. Is there something to punish about a person who’s advocating for what he really believes while pretending to be someone he’s not? That seems an incredibly high bar. I’d rather see the world change for the better than know every detail about everybody’s personal life, but that’s just me. I don’t assume anybody’s sexual orientation until they announce it or I experience it or witness it firsthand. But others want to judge by appearances, which is why flamboyant types, the flamers and butches, have been the gay rights pioneers whether they liked it or not.
Bill Siksay was out when he was studying to be a United Church minister before he went into politics. He was also Robinson’s assistant before winning his vacant seat in Parliament. “It’s not as onerous as it once was to come out. I used to tour around the country doing workshops and people’s understanding of what a gay man looked like looked a lot like me, because I was the only one they had ever met,” says Siksay, who retired in 2011. “That puts certain pressures on you about how you lead your life. When there are more people out, you don’t have that same pressure and that’s a good thing because no one person can represent a community.”
When Cassella started doing stand-up comedy 24 years ago, she tried to represent. She knew exactly who she didn’t want to be: that lesbian comic in comfortable shoes, taupe pantyhose and short hair. She wore pumps, short skirts and fashionable suits. “I did it on purpose. I did it because I was trying to represent myself as a lesbian. I call it my oppressive foot-binding period because I wasn’t comfortable.” It’s hard to imagine a younger lesbian comic feeling that pressure.
That’s the enduring value of coming out. Comfort rather than representation. And by living in comfort and abandoning defensiveness, the caricatures that may have formed in the minds of straight people dissolve around us. We’re left with our own actions, not worrying over what our supposed ambassadors are doing.
But then again, it’s fun to speculate.
“I don’t think you have to be out if you are well-known because I do believe everyone is entitled to their privacy,” says Boris. “At the same time you should be aware of the message you are sending by not coming out—I’m looking at you, Taylor Lautner! Actually, I’m hoping he’s gay and that I have a chance with him.”
Now that’s a good reason to pressure someone to come out.