Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"I Don't Regret Outing Anderson Cooper": A Moment of Truth in Activism, Or Self-Promotional Rhetoric?

Walk-in or not, the closet can be a lonely, dangerous place, and not just for those who are afraid of the dark. It's a treacherous domain, whether you're hiding inside of it or standing on the outside, waiting in vain for someone you love to emerge. I've languished on both sides of that closed door, and believe me, nobody wins until it has been flung wide open.

But despite the pain of playing that waiting game, I steadfastly believe that only the person on the inside should have access to the key that unlocks the door.

When my best friend broke the news to me yesterday that Anderson Cooper had come out of his own closet (via an email to the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan), I shrugged. Hadn't that already happened ages ago? I blamed my misinformation on being a bit too plugged in when it comes to such matters and also to what has been called "the new coming out," where celebrities like The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons acknowledge that they're gay without announcing it on the cover of Time (Ellen Degeneres "Yep, I'm Gay"-style), or in the pages of People magazine, as Chely Wright and Clay Aiken did before public pronouncements were no longer a coming (out)-of-age rite of passage.

But getting back to Anderson Cooper, I, like many gay journalists in the know, assumed that everybody knew. Was Cooper living a lie? As far as I know, there were no "beards" being paraded about in public in order to maintain a squeaky-straight image. When he interviewed me on CNN years ago about Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher's then-burgeoning courtship, the rapport between us was decidedly one of two gay guys gossiping. Years earlier, he'd briefly dated an acquaintance of mine. If there was any hiding going on, he was doing it in plain sight.

Then my friend, the same one who broke the news to me, sent me a link to a Guardian Op Ed piece in which Brian Moylan, a former Gawker staff writer, defended his "outing" of Cooper over and over, over the years. It pushed me into sad reality: Just because my gaydar is functioning at 99.9 percent, doesn't mean the rest of the world's is. I'm sure many of the same people who had no idea that Adam Lambert was gay until he made his own announcement are still coming to terms with the fact that the guy who plays Sheldon Cooper (no relation) on The Big Bang Theory is one of them -- us, if you happen to be gay, too.

While I understand and agree with Moylan's assertion that more successful and out people like Cooper could benefit young homosexuals struggling with their sexuality by showing them that sometimes, it does get better, I'm saddened by his lack of sensitivity regarding what is perhaps the single most important decision any homosexual will ever make. Coming out of the closet is something that should be up to each one of us to decide, and just because you are a public figure does not mean that you should suddenly have to forfeit that privacy. Even the word "outing" has such an aggressive connotation. It sounds hostile and angry, which used to be the opposite of "gay."

By making such a big issue over how Cooper publicly acknowledges his sexuality, Moylan was and is, in effect, widening the gap between gay and straight people. Straight people never have to defend or explain whom they sleep with by announcing that they're straight, so why should gay people be obligated to do so? I'm not talking about homosexuals who marry while having clandestine affairs with people of the same sex. They become fair game in much the same way that actors and actresses who lie about their age do.

But to suggest that a public figure who lives openly and honestly without publicly sticking a label on himself (or herself) is somehow doing his (or her) gay brothers and sisters a disservice is ludicrous. Especially when, as with Moylan, it comes down to not how a person lives his or her life, but which words one uses to describe his or her life, and the person he or she sleeps with. (Apparently, "companion" is not good enough for Moylan -- it's "partner" or out of the closet you're pushed!) No one expects, say, Mark Wahlberg to appear on the cover of Us Weekly to call himself "straight," and if he did, some would probably criticize him for not wanting to be mistaken for a gay man.

Furthermore, I fail to see who the big beneficiaries of Cooper's coming out are, other than Cooper himself (complete freedom, at last) and people like Moylan who will use this story to promote theirs. Most young gay people struggling with their sexuality probably have never even heard of Cooper, and it's not like people who oppose gay marriage will change their stance just because Cooper was pushed out of the closet. A change is gonna come, I guarantee it will. But if we're looking for a celebrity to set it in motion, it's going to take someone of Zac Efron's or Channing Tatum's stature, not a television journalist.

If we want gay people to be protected by the same laws that protect straight people, we can't start enforcing a completely different set of rules on them. I don't know Moylan personally, but I'm suspicious of his motives. It would have been one thing if he had revealed Cooper's sexuality as a simple matter of fact (which is how the New York Times "outed" Parsons), and then let it go. But he had to make it an ongoing personal crusade (or so he says now) and then wave his rainbow flag in an editorial, inadvertently appointing himself the savior of the gay people and the judge of what words they should and shouldn't use to describe themselves and their lives.

Kudos to Cooper, and congratulations, too, for finally publicly acknowledging that he's a gay man. But shame on Moylan for sticking himself in the middle of Cooper's personal journey and taking credit for doing something that's not nearly as honorable as he seems to think it is.

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