Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Dangers of Being “Out” in the Open

If we've learned to keep our expectations modest to low when two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is playing herself, it's because the fiercely private star has trained us not to expect bombshells from her. She didn't really drop any at Sunday night’s Golden Globes telecast, but her acceptance speech after being presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award still ended up being one of the most talked about parts of the evening. As usual, what she said seemed to be most notable for what she didn’t quite come out and say.

"Did she or didn't she?" pundits everywhere seemed to ask in unison afterwards.

"Did she or didn’t she what?" you wonder? Well, if you have to ask, then good for you. Maybe Foster's lifetime achievement in film matters more to you than whether she's a lesbian. At this point, I'd say Foster's sexual preference is a pretty moot point. After so many years of speculation, if you still care, you probably already know. From a political or social standpoint that doesn't take tabloid value into consideration, at this point, it would seem fairly pointless for her to make a grand gesture of a statement or start waving a rainbow flag.

There are some who argue that with so many young gay men and women struggling with their homosexuality, celebrities should feel compelled to step out of the closet and live and love in the open. Although I have a problem with bulldozing people out of the closet, I do understand the value of having positive role models, especially when most of the world is telling you what you are is wrong.

But in Foster's case, I wonder, just what would the message be to a 22-year-old to have a screen icon finally reveal, at age 50, that she is gay. From a social or political standpoint (and even from a tabloid's) wouldn't it have been more effective 20 years ago when she actually had a hot career to lose?

I don't mean that as a dis to Jodie Foster. I think she's a beautiful and fantastic actress, and I have no problem with how she's chosen to live her life, openly to the people who are close to her, but not hanging her laundry (not dirty laundry, just laundry, because there’s nothing dirty about sexual preference) out on the clothesline for all the world to see. As she explained in the Golden Globes acceptance speech in which she came out without actually coming out, she's lived in the public eye since she was 3. Hasn't she earned the right to guard her privacy even more fiercely than most famous people do? (Her implied question, not mine.)

Maybe so, but I suspect that her years of silence has had more to do with concern about her professional standing -- or what would happen to it, if she were to come out -- than any burning need to guard what should belong solely to her. (And is saying "Yep, I'm gay" invading one's own privacy anyway?) Although I think staying in the closet to protect your professional standing is a pretty cowardly thing to do, I understand why anyone who wants to remain bankable as a movie star would do it.

Although I can't say that I've suffered on a regular ongoing basis from being out since the moment I launched my own professional career at age 22 in New York City (where it's much easier to be out and gay, even if you're singing and dancing on Broadway, than in Hollywood), I'd be lying if I said it didn't sometimes work against me. And just because the Obamas support gay marriage doesn't mean the times they are a-changing as much as we'd like to think. Despite the ongoing proliferation of gays, both real and fictional, in the public eye, being gay and out continues to work against me in ways both subtle and glaring.

Sometimes the main offenders are people who aren't necessarily homophobes and don't realize the fine line they're crossing. Recently I received a message from an editor for whom I was writing several freelance travel articles about luxury hotels, and he made the strangest, most unexpected request: He didn't want my work to be too gay.

He said he didn't have any problem with gay content personally, but some of his ultra-conservative readers might not understand -- as if being gay is something that must be understood. That's as ridiculous as when straight people give gays a pass by way of saying things like "I don't judge." Does that mean only gay people are eligible to be judged based on whom they sleep with? By bringing judgment into it (even to say that you won't go there), the implication is that there's actually something wrong with being gay.

I bristled at the editor's suggestion that I'm an obsessively gay man first and a professional writer second, and I let him know how insulted I was by it. Does he warn his straight male writers not to include the best places to pick up hookers? Does he instruct his straight female writers not to write about the best lobbies for public breastfeeding? Of course not! He knows he doesn't have to. So why did he feel like he had to tell me not to write a review of a five-star luxury hotel from a non-gay angle?

"Why would I even do that unless I was writing about about a gay hotel?" I asked. "'Gay' doesn't permeate and influence every single aspect of my life." (Which seems to be what many straight people, even the ones who are accepting of gays and don't "judge" them, seem to think.) Was he afraid I would throw in a first-person account of some trick I might bring back to my room? How unprofessional did he think I was anyway?

It wasn't the first time I'd been warned about "gay" content. Among the overly cautious, it's right up there with the "black" angle as a must-avoid. I've been told by a number of people -- including my mother, who, apparently, is more savvy about these things than I thought – that I should consider removing the word "black" from the title of the book I’ve spent the last year working on. Publishers, they reason, won't touch a book about the "gay" experience, much less the "gay black" experience because they don’t think it will sell. So far, that does seem to be the general consensus among publishers and agents, none of whom would actually come out and say that.

I suspect that my book would be an easier sell if I were a more neutral gay black man and wrote about uncontroversial and non-threatening things like teenage vampires, or the escapades of a straight white man in Provence, or even a gay white British expat couple living in Turkey. But "gay" and "black" are like double shots of publishing poison.

I'm not crying woe is me -- not yet. Maybe my proposal needs more work. Or perhaps my book is a crashing bore. I know I'd better prepare for more pointed negative feedback because once it's out there, my critics will be merciless. But if people end up hating it, they'll be hating not another Twilight knockoff (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine there must be tons of them out there) but a book about a gay, black man written by a gay, black man for people of any race or sexual orientation who are interested in the human experience.

"Write what you know." That's one of the first lessons I learned in journalism school. The most valuable advice I've received (from several people) since I embarked on this particular project is to be completely honest and not hold back. I've got to put myself completely out there, get emotionally naked, so to speak, to pull in readers (at least the ones who can get past the "gay" content and the word "black" in the title). How can I do that without being overtly gay and black? They are to me what Barbra Streisand's nose is to her -- not everything I am, but essential to who I am. And despite being urged to snip it at the start of her career for the sake of superstardom, Streisand has never changed nor has she hidden the nose she had at birth.

Actors like Jodie Foster get to spend their professional lives hiding behind characters, sometimes ones that aren't even scripted (while walking the red carpet, doing interviews, or giving acceptance speeches). I'm no good at acting (believe me, I've tried). I'm much better just being myself. I'm happiest when writing what I know, and right now, I know nothing better than what it feels like to be a gay, black man living abroad, far from home.

"Black" and "gay" don't define me any more here (in Melbourne, at the moment) than they did there (in New York City, in Buenos Aires, in Bangkok), but they're significant parts of who I am and who I will continue to be. They may be difficult and unbankable in terms of publishing, but they've been that way in my life, too. I've never taken the easy road most traveled in that life, so why start now?

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