Friday, September 26, 2008

"I'm Coming Out... I Want the World to Know."

"I'm coming out, I want the world to know, I’m got to let it show…”

So sang Diana Ross in her seminal hit, “I’m Coming Out”, a ditty that in more recent years has been co-opted by the LGBT community as a rallying cry for just that – coming out of the closet and declaring ones homosexuality.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Vienna, wherein I befriended a mildly famous Viennese celebrity. Cedric - a judge on an Austrian reality TV show a la America’s Next Top Model – was a transplanted American whom I met in Vienna’s only passable gay bar – the Village (yes I know, rather touché). When you’re traveling solo through Eastern Europe best friendships aren’t really on your radar; you’re merely looking for someone who won’t bore you to death over a couple of beers. Political and moral commonalities are far less important then fluent English and tips on where to get good local food on the cheap. While Cedric may not have fit the bill for a potential new bestie– he did meet the requirements for a couple of boozy nights of mayhem.

On my last night in Vienna, as the bartender continued to ply this poor “Toronto Boy” with shots of Vodka, the topic at hand turned to celebrity gossip, as one is wont to do when other topics of conversation run dry. “Britney Spears…” is safe for a good thirty minutes of conversation with most anyone. But as if by a cruel twist of fate the stereo turned from a classic Madonna number to Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca”, prompting yours truly to state: “I wonder why more celebrities aren’t openly gay, shouldn’t Ricky just come out?” Cedric – perhaps imbued with his own sense of celebrity – was shocked at my suggestion (no, not that Ricky Martin was gay), but that a celebrity would choose to “come out of the closet”.

“Sexuality,” he argued, “is an intensely private issue. Who or what I do in my bedroom should not concern my fans.”

Then and now I remained unconvinced with Cedric’s reasoning. While sexual proclivities are surely no one’s business, sexuality, whether we like it or not, clearly is.

Now, back in North America – less then one month later, the third estate has been graced with yet another People Magazine cover featuring some celebrity proclaiming: “I’m gay.” Thanks Clay! No shit.

A friend called me yesterday announcing the non-news that everyone was stuck between acknowledging and yawning about. She wondered my opinion about Clay’s acknowledgment of his homosexuality. At first, I gave my usual: rah rah sis coom ba… another ‘mo to add to the team! And truthfully, remembering my own rather unhappy times in the closet, I’m always glad to cheer someone who has the courage to come out. Moreover, another public figure to add to the too short list of openly gay celebrities is always welcome. However, the more I thought about Clay, the more I became bothered by his decision to come out when he did and in the manner in which he did it. Clay’s People Magazine article splashes its headline on the cover “Yes. I’m gay” – admitting, to everyone in the Loblaws checkout line, that something anyone with half a brain has suspected for years is true. Clay’s magazine cover, also hints at something a bit more insidious – for the last four years Clay’s been effectively lying to most of Middle America. "Yes, I'm gay," acknowledges the rumours and idle gossip which dogged Aiken for the last few years. Rumours which he rarely addressed.

When a celebrity, like Clay Aiken, Lance Bass, Rosie O’Donnell, or even Ellen DeGeneres, comes out, it confirms months, maybe even years of speculation over their sexual preference. Subsequently a celebrities decision to come out of the closet is a bit different then your typical announcement over thanksgiving dinner in first year of university: “Mom, dad… you know how some people like dark meat, and some people like white meat and everyone thinks I really like white meat? I think I’ve realized that I actually really like dark meat. A lot.” The difference is that in most cases, celebrities who come out publicly do so years after coming to terms with their sexuality themselves; as most gays will tell you - coming out to yourself, is a major part of the battle. In Clay’s case, the singer has said that he came out to his mother four years ago [around the time that rumours oh him hooking up over the internet hit the airwaves]; but it was the birth of his first child, which prompted him to come out to his fans and to the public. As Clay himself says, "I cannot raise a child to lie or hide things." So why lie to the public for four years?

My main issue with the argument that “sexuality doesn’t matter” is that if homosexuality doesn’t matter – then why is it still such a big deal for a celebrity to come out the closet? Why did Clay lie to the public for the past four years? Most likely Clay was afraid about how his sexuality would harm his career. With the exception of a couple of celebrities and politicians who have spent the majority of their careers as openly gay, most public figures either stay closeted or wait until their career is on the wane before coming out hoping to capitalize on the ensuing publicity grab. The ensuing media circus that occurs when a celebrity comes out (ie the magazine covers and the accompanying Barbara Walters interview) further proves the fact that sexuality still matters. If no one cared about celebrities being gay - People Magazine wouldn't run Clay on the cover. And subsequently would Clay have been on the cover of People Magazine this month if it weren’t for his newfound sexuality? In fact coming out often adds a whole new dimension to once moribund careers. In reality Aiken was bordering on becoming a career has-been and tabloid sideshow. Yet, by coming out, newly Gay Clay is suddenly relevant again.

When it comes to sexuality, heterosexuality is often a given; it’s a normative judgment. We assume people to be straight, until we know that they aren’t. And no matter how comfortable you are with your homosexuality – when a gay person meets new people he or she still has to “come out”. When I started my MBA program in the fall, I met 250 people to whom at some point or another I had to say or confirm, that – I’m a boy who’s into other boys. (I know this wasn’t a big shock considering I’m the only person in my class who decorated their name-tag, and the abundance of cardigan’s hinted that I was a bit off… but still…)

As society’s normative sexuality, heterosexuality is used by public figures for their own gain. Where would Brad Pitt be in the current celebrity obsessed climate without his wife and harem of children? For politicians heterosexuality is part of the package sold to voters. The current Conservative Party Tagline: “Stephen Harper is dedicated to building a stronger, prouder, more prosperous Canada by delivering real results for everyday Canadian families” drives home Harper’s commitment to heteronormative family values. Just as Brad Pitt uses his heterosexuality to sell films so to do politicians who strive to portray images of themselves as dotting fathers and mothers. Check out the last line of Stephen Harper's bio: “Stephen and his wife, Laureen, have two children, Benjamin and Rachel, and make their permanent home in Calgary.” Contrast that with the lack of information in John Baird’s biography and draw your own conclusions. The conclusion, at least, on the outside, is that heteronormativity sells.

The point being, however, is that we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly hetero. And as we live in that society - perhaps that's one of the reasons why its important to acknowledge that sexuality isn't just what you and I do behind our bedroom doors. If heterosexuality is normative and generally quite public - then shouldn't homosexuality allowed to be part of the public record as well. And with the exception of loudly "coming out" with a people magazine cover- how can we make it so?

In a perfect world I can see the reasoning in Cedric’s argument and in some way’s he’s right - sexuality shouldn’t matter. Yet in the world we’re currently living in – sexuality still does. Politicians and actors remain closeted for fear of angering their fans and constituents. For society to move beyond its current sensationalistic People Magazine announcements of faggotry, we still need queer heroes who are out and proud, regardless of the ramifications to their careers. In some instances this is already thankfully happening. American actor TR Knight regularly and with little fanfare shows up at events with his boyfriend. Two Canadian TV actor’s Adamo Ruggiero and Luke Macfarlane have been out almost since they became famous. Slowly we are inching our way towards the potential of a post “coming out” era. An era where indeed one could actually argue that sexuality doesn't matter.

However, still – in 2008 – does it make sense that we have closeted news anchors, actors, politicians and singers fearing that their sexuality will impact their careers? The fact that we are still willing to devote magazine covers allowing someone to shout (as if it matters): I’m Coming Out, I Want the World to Finally Know, argues that sexuality can still be an issue. And until we are able to move beyond sensationalist People Magazine cover's I'm still willing to argue with Viennese celebrities that homosexuality isn't simply a private matter.

I'm Out - Hope the World Already Knows.

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