Journalist Anderson Cooper made headlines this week by surprising no-one. The award-winning reporter and television host announced, “The fact is, I’m gay.” This was long-suspected by most people and well-known by his family and close friends. Given the turbulence of gay rights issues today, however, the explicit statement gives the LGBT community another friendly, familiar face. Cooper’s message, via friend Andrew Sullivan on the Daily Beast, is a powerful and articulate statement of both the personal and the political.
Even though my job puts me in the public eye, I have tried to maintain some level of privacy in my life. Part of that has been for purely personal reasons. I think most people want some privacy for themselves and the people they are close to. [...] Recently, however, I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. 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.
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand. 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.
Cooper’s announcement is part of a larger — and relatively new — trend of out celebrities. Fifteen years ago, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out story was a major media event beyond even what she expected. Today, of course, she is blithely invited into millions of living rooms every day. The past five years, however, have seen a massive spike in celebrities outing themselves, so much so that Entertainment Weekly made the topic into a cover story.
There are as many ways to come out as there are people, and it’s no different for celebrities (although they have to choose a press strategy too). Up and coming star Zachary Quinto simply dropped the phrase “as a gay man” into an interview. Emmy magnet David Hyde Pierce, late of Frasier fame, used the common mention-the-partner strategy. Comedian and activist Wanda Sykes chose a marriage equality rally for her announcement. Neil Patrick Harris opted for an exclusive interview with People, often seen as a friendly environment for LGBT stars. Singer Clay Aiken used the same strategy to defuse the swirling rumors about his sexual orientation.
Because celebrities are by definition in the public eye, gossip and rumors often play a critical role in their coming out stories. Recently, celebrity chef Anne Burrell acknowledged that she was a lesbian after Ted Allen accidentally outed her. Burrell echoed Cooper’s concern about balancing a personal life with a public life, especially as it affects her partner. Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons’ orientation was such an open secret that his coming out was treated with a distinct lack of fanfare.
Other celebrities treat the rumor mill with open hostility. Queen Latifah has a famously “none of your damn business” approach to her sexual orientation. After her recent appearance at a gay pride event had stories about her coming out swirling, she was adamant in her stand.
I’ve never dealt with the question of my personal life in public. It’s just not gonna happen.
That kind of balancing act is getting harder to manage. Just ask John Travolta, a long-time subject of gay speculation, who recently faced a new round of gossip and scandal including same-sex harassment charges and an alleged long-term affair with a male pilot.
Perhaps the champion when it comes to hostility to gay rumors is Tom Cruise. With his third marriage coming to an end, the speculation is amping up again, so much so that gay dating site Manhunt has offered him a lifetime membership. Certainly multiple celebrity marriages do not indicate sexual orientation (just look at Elizabeth Taylor). What dogs Cruise is the intensity of his opposition to the rumors. He has even sued people who suggested he was gay, winning one famous case and getting an out-of-court settlement in another. This strategy won’t work much longer, since a Federal judge has recently ruled that “gay” is not defamation. It is also interesting to compare the way Cruise is treated with another star who gets a lot of speculation.
George Clooney, who has said clearly that he is straight, is also very easy-going about the whole issue. Rather than jump on furniture and file lawsuits, Clooney treats gay rumors casually, saying
The last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing.
A celebrity’s field of performance also makes a difference. In general, singers and dancers have a much easier time being out, although this is much less true in country music. Openly LGBT athletes are extremely rare, especially during their active careers. Despite jibes from the right hinting falsely at bias on LGBT stories, Don Lemon and Rachel Maddow are still very successful journalists.
Times are clearly changing. Adam Lambert was comfortable coming out at the very beginning of his career just a few years after Clay Aiken delayed his announcement until after the hits started flowing. Neil Patrick Harris actually saw a spike in his popularity and his hit show has hardly suffered for his being out. This is a stark contrast with someone like George Takei, who heartily embraces his status as a gay icon now but would likely have lost his Star Trek gig if he’d been openly out in the late 60s. Just barely pre-Ellen, Rupert Everett has famously declared that being out has been a major hindrance to his career.
The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn’t work and you’re going to hit a brick wall at some point. You’re going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they’ll cut you right off.
Everett’s career certainly stalled after one dud film in a way that Travolta’s or Cruise’s did not. The rapid rise in out and successful celebrities indicates he may be wrong about how much impact being out has today. The booming trend in honesty and success should help things get better, not just for celebrities, but for LGBT people in all walks of life.