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LGBT Celebrities Do Not Owe Coming Out To Anyone

Everyone’s got an opinion on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes last night. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video with a transcript.

In the speech, Foster spoke affectionately of her ex-partner, with whom she raised children, and explained that she “already did [her] coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age” but values her privacy too much to make it a big spectacle.

That’s not a good enough excuse for one writer, though (watch out, it’s apparently Low-Hanging Fruit Day over here at Brute Reason):

I mean, is it 1996? Jodie’s defensive speech, in which she seemed to blame Honey Boo Boo and reality TV for supposedly creating a climate that forced her out of the closet, harkened back to a time when it was a big deal to proclaim your sexual orientation. Hello, it’s 2013! People are getting “gay married” and homos can be out in the military and stuff!

[…]Why am I so angry? Because I’m roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago.

I honestly don’t see what is “defensive” about Foster’s speech and where exactly she “blames” current pop culture for “forcing” her out of the closet. She does joke about how celebrities are expected to live very publicly and have their own reality shows and fragrances and whatnot, but the part where she blames this for making her come out seems to be entirely in Baer’s imagination.

Baer goes on and calls Foster’s need for privacy “an excuse” and then offers this bizarre caveat:

A lot of people will criticize this piece and write angry, hateful comments saying that it was up to her when and where to come out, and they’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t mean she wasn’t a coward, and it doesn’t change the fact that she could have helped millions of people by coming out years ago.

A bunch of things jump out at me:

1. This article seems to be more about the author than about Jodie Foster.

As in, it’s all about Baer and how courageous she was for having come out a long time ago. Even though she doesn’t dedicate that much of the article to talking about her own courage, that’s clearly the main theme–she was courageous and Foster was not.

Baer undoubtedly deserves respect for coming out so early (well, for coming out at all), but that doesn’t mean Foster is a “coward” for not being so public about her sexual orientation. As she explains in her speech, everyone that she wanted to know, knew. That may not be “out enough” for Baer, but it’s still out.

Whenever someone’s done something awesome–come out, for example, or recovered from a mental illness–there’s a certain tension in figuring out how to talk about the people who haven’t succeeded in doing that thing yet without being a total asshole about it. My reasoning is that you don’t know why they haven’t and it’s best not to assume. I suppose Foster could really be a coward, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely that she had other reasons for not coming out publicly (assuming that the ways in which she has already come out don’t matter, which is what Baer seems to be assuming).

2. Considering Foster’s history, Baer is incredibly dismissive of her stated need for privacy.

Many celebrities guard their privacy carefully, and not all of them have any desire to be in tabloids all the time. But Foster has a unique story in that regard. In the 1980s, a fan of hers named John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessive and started sending her love letters. He then attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, stating that he was trying to impress Foster. The resulting intrusion of her privacy by the media is something that she’s known to have had a lot of discomfort with.

Given this, one would think that Foster could get away with needing privacy a bit more than the average celebrity, but in rushing to condemn her, Baer misses these nuances.

As Foster said in the speech:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.

3. It’s not Foster’s job to “help millions of people” by coming out.

It’s not anyone’s job, actually. Foster’s job is to make movies. Baer’s job is to write articles about the entertainment industry. All of us should probably try to be decent people and to help others when they need it, but not at the cost of our own well-being. Chastising someone for failing to “help millions of people” just seems odd to me because it presumes that Foster is somehow failing live up to her responsibilities as a person.

It’s undoubtedly true that many people would’ve been happy had Foster come out (or, again, come out more publicly in the way that Baer apparently wanted her to). Perhaps she would’ve been an inspiration for a lot of LGBT kids. But that doesn’t make coming out an imperative. I would probably inspire lots of people if I won a marathon or donated all of my worldly possessions to charity, but that doesn’t make it a moral imperative for me to do so.

4. Baer’s reaction shows an incredible amount of entitlement.

We consider ourselves entitled to a lot from celebrities. They must be Good Role Models. They must always be grateful for their fame, even if they never asked for it and even if it often causes them enormous personal difficulties. (Consider the never-ending excoriation of Kristen Stewart for failing to appear cheerful and grateful enough.) If they’re queer, they must always come out and be willing to serve as advocates for LGBT causes.

You could argue that it’s not healthy or “right” for any queer person to live in the closet (though in my opinion you’d still be wrong). But that’s not what Foster was doing. Given that she had already come out to everyone who matters to her and has lived her life as a gay woman–for instance, by dating another woman and raising children with her–Baer’s presumption that Foster owes us anything more than that is predicated on the fact that she’s a celebrity.

Like many others, Baer assumes that celebrities’ lives exist for her consumption and that celebrities who happen to be queer exist solely to validate her and other LGBT folks. But Foster is a human being. She is a human being who happens to be a famous actress and who also happens to be gay.

5. Baer is shockingly dismissive of the negative consequences that coming out can have for celebrities.

She writes:

Nobody was asking Jodie to be president of the gays. Ellen [Degeneres] is a great example of someone who came out, had no interest in being the poster child and is just living her life honestly and openly. Though she occasionally fights publicly for LGBT causes, being a lesbian doesn’t define her. But here’s the amazing thing that happened to Ellen. At first her big announcement seemed to derail her career. She disappeared for a while and almost gave up on show business because she was “mired in depression.” After some dark days, which a lot of newly out people experience, Ellen ultimately was rewarded for being her true self. Today, because of her talk show, she’s arguably one of the most beloved stars on the planet, adored by millions, gay and straight alike (except for a handful of moms who now refuse to shop at JCPenney, but c’mon, they’re dumb).

First of all, I’m not sure why Baer thinks that Ellen isn’t a “poster child” when such a great deal of media coverage about her has to do with the fact that she’s a lesbian. But second, notice how Baer just skims right over the part where Ellen suffered from depression and nearly quit her career as a result of coming out. As though that doesn’t even matter because she gets to be “her true self” now. As though the bullying from One Million Moms is just a crappy little side effect.

What if that sort of public opprobrium and the depression that can result from it wasn’t something Foster felt capable of dealing with?

Nobody should have to suffer through bullying, depression, and possible career loss for coming out as gay or trans*. I think we can all agree on that here, and many of us advocate in various ways to make coming out easier and safer. But blaming an individual for not being willing to put themselves through this is unconscionable.

I don’t know what private struggles Foster has gone through with regard to her sexuality, and neither does Baer. It’s none of our business. That’s why calling her a coward for not doing what others have done is wrong.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    I fail to see what the fuss is. It has been a poorly kept secret for 30 years that Ms. Foster is gay. There were stories about it at the time of the attempted Reagan assassination by John Hinckley, where he stated that he had a crush on Ms. Foster and was only trying to attract her attention via the attempted assassination. There have been a number of Hollywood personalities who were in the closet, including Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Farley Granger, Tab Hunter, Barbara Stanwyck, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson, Robert Cummings, Lizabeth Scott, Randolph Scott, Harry Andrews, Meredith Baxter, amongst others.

  2. says

    I like a comment that someone on my Facebook said today about this issue:

    “I’m just going to just put out there, loud and proud – I’M SINGLE. Okay, jokes aside, all through my career I’ve wrestled with balancing my sense of right to privacy, with my own sexuality. I was a product of a different generation where some secrets could destroy careers. Youth today have advantages of a new open-minded world, but not all of them do. Some of them are still desperately afraid and rightfully so, and for that reason I think it’s important, for me, [Jodie] Foster, right now to say that I am an successful, confident, out-of-the-closet, gay woman. Not because anyone is entitled to that information, but because, today, it is IMPORTANT to say it.” – What [Jodie] Foster’s speech should and could have been, instead of a strange rambling almost-coming-out-of-the-closet speech.

    No one is entitled to that information, I agree. I also agree to the need for privacy and I find the obsession with celebrities incredibly disheartening. So much so that I hate standing in line at the grocery store because I just want to scream “I DON’T CARE and why does ANYONE care!” about all the celebrity “news.”

    Still, while she doesn’t owe it to anyone, I think what my friend said about it being important because she is a role-model, she is in the spotlight, and coming out with confidence sends an important message to so many teens and young adults who, as my fiend said, don’t have the advantage of being in an “open-minded world.”

    Celebrities don’t owe us anything, but, they are in a position to do a lot of good, and they are in a position where people listen to what they say. People can criticize this just as much people criticized you know, Taylor Swift, on saying she “doesn’t need feminism”. She doesn’t owe it to anyone to “need” feminism, but, she is in a position to send a good, strong message, and I think Foster is in similar position.

    It is sad that this is newsworthy, that people still assume heterosexuality, that people still need to “come out of the closet,” but that’s the reality (and better here, in US/Canada, than in so many other places).

  3. says

    She came out in 2007 so all this attention now seems pretty weird.

    I don’t have an issue with anyone attempting to hide their sexuality unless they’re trying to deny rights to those with the same sexuality. Then they’re fair game. Rupert Everett said his career was hurt by coming out, which I’m sure is true. Handsome, strapping lad like that I’m sure would have had many more leading man roles in his career. But the world doesn’t owe you a private life when you choose a public career. That goes for any public figure.

    It’s too bad about Rupert. But I feel much worse for the kids being bullied and the parents and kids denied equality under the law than any hits a celebrity takes to a career.

    If Foster wanted privacy she probably shouldn’t have told global audiences about her personal life – more than once.

    Of course, I have very little sympathy for her living in her sheltered world expecting her life to be perfectly private after she defended, more than once, her buddy, nasty homophobe (which is OK for her to defend since she is gay? you tell me) Mel Gibson for his racism (never OK for white people to defend) and antisemitism (never OK for goyim to defend) and misogyny (never OK, even for women, to defend). Sugar tits? N******? Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world? Holocaust denier? Living scum, but he’s OK because he’s nice to her.

    Celebrities do not have a right to privacy – by definition. But yeah, Robert Griffin III doesn’t have to represent black people any more than Foster lesbians. But their privacy is gone, just like it is for every other NFL QB and and celebrity promoting her movies, TV shows, perfume or whatever.

    If you want to make money off the publicity machine, why should you be able to turn it off when you want and not when the folks you’re ripping off want it turned off?

    We may ridicule what’s reported about the celebs, but they’re part of our freedom of speech. Unless I’m deliberately lying about you, it’s OK – and I’m OK with that for the “public figures.” We’re better off with more transparency than less. Who’s going to be the arbiter of what is allowed? Their media flacks? Them? The folks banning books about evolution at the local school?

    In England they had the farce of Ryan Giggs’ girlfriend (he was married at the time) being made public while his identity couldn’t be legally revealed. Everyone, of course, knew it was him, but the poor girlfriend got harassed, not the celebrity. At least here the paparazzi are more likely to be chasing the celebs, bad as that may be.

  4. Greta Christina says

    My issue with her speech wasn’t about her stated desire for privacy. It was about her snide, back-handed slap at other people who had chosen to be more public about their sexual orientation and their coming out.

      • says

        Transcript

        I believe Greta is referring to this:

        But now I’m told, apparently that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show.

        Even today, when many celebrities have come out and found no harm to their careers, many more remain in the closet, for any number of reasons. Some activists have criticized this, claiming that the more role models we have, the easier it will be for young people around the country to accept themselves, reject the hate so often thrown at them by family, peers and community and grow up to be welcomed, productive members of society. Jodie Foster has been a common target of this criticism, as she lives openly but not publicly as a lesbian.

        I understand and, to some extent, agree with the criticism. At the same time, being LGBT does not come with a requirement to be a spokesperson for civil rights, certainly not when it would add to an already oppressive publicity burden that some people, like Foster, already have. I support her desire to lead a reasonably private life, but the barb was a bit much.

  5. Hunt says

    I tend to agree with you. First and foremost, one is never in a position to know everything that is going on in a person’s life, even if they are a celebrity. We sometimes think we should be so entitled, but we aren’t. But an even more important point, I think, is that even outside the realm of celebrity, we need to respect each individual decision about when and where is the right time for disclosure, and we aren’t entitled to any information that a person deems private.

    Let me provide two different stories to illustrate the point. About ten years ago, the co-resident in the duplex where I live was a young man who was very evidently gay, but who took pains not to reveal anything, not be out or open in any way. I have to admit, on occasion this offended me, since the implied message, or what I perceived as the message, was that I could not be trusted with this revelation. Ultimately, though, I had to realize that it wasn’t up to me to make demands on what another person revealed to me.

    Again about ten years ago, I was walking down a curved street sidewalk when two women holding hands rounded the corner down the street. When they saw me, a single man walking toward them, they immediately released their hands and pretended to only be walking side by side. Again, I couldn’t help the automatic feeling of offense (the opposite “offense” from the one they assumed). I was immediately the cast in the role of the intolerant hyper-conservative knuckle-dragging “redneck” male who would have aggressively or snidely remarked on them had they not taken evasive action. BUT, the thing is, there’s no way they could possibly have known that I wasn’t that guy.

    There is an information deficit on all sides. That’s what must be kept in mind.

  6. Hunt says

    Kind of funny to see Mel Gibson there. I know they’re friends. It’s like when I learned that Sylvester Stallone and Elton John are friends. You know, we live in a very strange world.

  7. Chris Lucas says

    Wasn’t that more of a criticism of the expectation that a celebrity has to come out in a certain way? I can see how celebrities who did make an event out of their coming out might feel a bit needled, but it seemed to me like her targets were public expectations and celebrity culture, not, say, Zachary Quinto.

  8. Chris Lucas says

    Yes, sorry! That was meant to be a reply to Gregory in Seattle. I must have clicked in the wrong place.

  9. Hoary puccoon says

    When she was younger, Jodie Foster was going for roles in which she played, as Hollywood says, “the love interest” to male characters. Letting everybody know she wasn’t really sexually attracted to her male costar wasn’t going to make those jobs easier to get.

    Now she’s reached the status of character actress, she may have less to lose.

    The discrimination she could face because of the particular issue of playing roles where heterosexuality is an important aspect of the character is a bigger potential problem than ordinary homophobic discrimination.

  10. says

    I relate to this post a lot – not as LGBT but as someone with a severe mental illness which is routinely stigmatized. I don’t think I would have survived becoming famous, despite so many people telling me how “talented” I am, or accusing me of “hiding my light under a bushel”. No, we can’t just ignore absolutely every single jab and jeer. That’s why bullying is hurtful and has lasting, damaging consequences. And yes, it’s a lot worse in a profession in which you are put in the position of constantly seeking attention.

  11. didgen says

    I may be completely wrong about her, as I really know very little about her private life. She has always seemed to me to be someone that looked upon her career as just that, a career. Why should we have any right to anything from her except that she do her job well? She always came across to me as someone that really didn’t enjoy fame, that it was painful for her to have her private life probed. I am glad that many celebrities are able to be open about their sexuality, but I can’t fault her for wanting to have boundaries and family and love on her own terms.