Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out

One irony of Jodie Foster’s speech at last month’s Golden Globes has been its lauding – despite her statement, ‘There won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight’ – as a closet-leaving moment.

‘It has been been widely known in Hollywood circles for years’, the Guardian’s story read, ‘that Foster … is gay’; the actor, according to the Indian Express, ‘confirmed long-running speculation that she is gay’. What Foster did, in fact, was refer in passing to a female ex-partner and state, uninterested in giving further details, that she came out decades previously while ‘a fragile young girl’. (At no point did she specify that she came out as gay, or identified as such, but we all know everyone with a same-gender partner does.)

Given the recent trend of celebrity self-outings, it’s difficult to blame the press for wanting another. ‘Living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it’, Zachary Quinto wrote in 2011, ‘is simply not enough’; the following year, Anderson Cooper told Andrew Sullivan and his readers, ‘The unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle.’

We’ve all known people hesitant to come out, and the privacy defence is a common one. ‘It’s my business,’ they’ve told us. ‘Why does anybody else need to know?’ Coming out, the usual answer goes, is political: creating visibility erodes established stigmas, and the more people are openly queer, the less extraordinary it will seem not to be straight, making others feel less marginalised, alienated and alone. If some of us are able to be out, Cooper’s and Quinto’s statements argued, we ought to be.

Foster’s speech was notable for its departure from this loud-‘n’-proud narrative, informing us her coming out took place ‘a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age’ as a gradual, private process, before the average star was made to share ‘the details of their private life’. ‘Privacy,’ she said. ‘Some day in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.’

The politics of erotic privacy have always been contentious, and while each of us deserves the time to go public (or not) when we feel we can, it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment that all those who can come out should, in whose face Foster’s emphasis on privacy flies. As long as our society punishes non-straight identities, after all, they aren’t a purely personal area, and if the closet means anything, surely it means the public presumption of heterosexuality?

Insistence on queer desire as private, too, has often worked to shame it. Arthur Gore, the Conservative whip who co-sponsored the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, asked that those aided by it act ‘quietly and with dignity’, without ‘any form of public flaunting’ – in other words, that they deviate as much from sexual norms in private as they wished, but never think of acting out (that is, acting ‘queer’) in public, instilling in the straight populace a troublingly more-than-academic awareness of their lives. (The Act itself legalised gay sex in private, but public displays of even the mildest affection stayed subject for decades to police harassment).

It’s worth considering on the other hand that in practical terms, Jodie Foster was already out before the Golden Globes – not just to the ‘trusted friends and family’ her speech made mention of, but to her industry and the world beyond. As Robyn Harper has pointed out in the Huffington Post, her relationship with Cydney Bernard was publicly acknowledged in a similar speech from 2007 while still ongoing, and their split the following year was covered in the press. Anyone who’d wanted to find out if Jodie Foster was a straight woman could easily have done so, and no doubt many did. Vilifying her refusal, then, to come out explicitly as gay, lesbian or anything else ignores that she already served as a queer public figure, and was never required to utilise received identifiers. (Some of us, myself included, aren’t willing to define ourselves except as non-straight).

The retroactive pressure exerted on Foster by her critics demands not just that she be out, but that she come out, with all the PR bells and whistles we’ve grown used to in the last few years. As with Jaymi Hensley’s coming out on The X-Factor last autumn, the subtext is that famous people are straight until they announce otherwise. The closet, in this sense, is recuperative: the more loudly and dramatically one exits it, particularly as a public figure, the more surprising the disclosure is made to seem, thus reinforcing straight identity as the presumptive default. If anyone is anything but heterosexual, then like contraband at an airport, this is something to declare; straight people are in danger, otherwise, of being forced to acknowledge those around them as potentially queer.

It isn’t just celebrities, of course, whose revelations can cause a stir – hence we’ve found ourselves historically trapped, wedged captive between erasure in the closet and the othering co-optation of theatrical comings-out. What Jodie Foster models is a radical third option, a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.

Kaftans and camp eunuchs – pop culture’s neutering of visibly queer men

“This”, Stanley Tucci says of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, “is a shining beacon of hope for oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.”

A cursory lunchtime viewing of Project Runway will more than confirm it’s an industry of gay men – and more than that, the natural home of unreconstructed queens. On the catwalk, if not currently on Grindr, extravagance is a virtue, and it’s no doubt helped the careers of many designers that their mannerisms are as vibrantly theatrical as their work. This is a field where camp is not a problem.

Perhaps because of this, many influential gay men in popular fiction have been fashionistas. Tucci’s aforementioned character, Nigel, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Marc St. James and Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty, mincing Alexander from the British Queer as Folk – no series now seems complete without such a figure. Alexander, in particular, owns one of TV’s best ever throwaway lines: “So, I’m stood in Battersea Power Station in nothing but me Tommy Hilfiger pants, when he comes back in…” Unlike some, I’ve nothing against camp men being visible, but I do want to point something out.

Where they appear, these characters are often shown as objects and not subjects, reactive and not proactive, done-to and not doers. They’re depicted as victims, or as lacking sexual agency – especially compared with their “straight-acting” peers.

Justin doesn’t kiss straight-acting Austin, but is kissed by him…

Just as Kurt doesn’t kiss the “manlier” Blaine, but is kissed by him…

…and when Kurt is bullied, Blaine is the one who comes to his aid.

Alexander, similarly, is passive when his family disown him; Stuart, mistaken for straight at times, confronts his mother and destroys her car.

In The Devil Wears Prada, it’s Nigel who is ultimately victimised; in United States of Tara, pouting Lionel dies a violent offscreen death, outlived by his less flouncy boyfriend, Marshall; in Torchwood, sensitive Ianto’s relatives confront him over who he dates, before he dies in lantern-jawed Jack Harkness’ arms. Justin, unlike self-assured Austin, agonises over coming out.

The trope is inescapable. So how should we interpret it?

When gay male characters who are camp always seem to suffer more, it’s tempting to cry overt bigotry. Queeny, gender-atypical fashionistas are often those most accused of “flaunting it”: as long as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper don’t get flirty or make penis jokes, homophobes don’t have to acknowledge they’re gay, whereas in Chris Colfer’s presence or Louie Spence’s, there’s no dodging the issue. Camp men in fiction are most visibly queer, so it makes sense their storylines would be hardest hit by prejudice – then again, many of those mentioned were created by gay writers.

The alternative is still more troubling. Are we to conclude from these characters’ misfortunes that a harder life is to be expected if we don’t perform our gender conventionally? That Justin, Kurt et al. might have avoided pain by simply “butching up”? If so, queer liberation’s still a distant goal.

Certainly, their desexualisation speaks volumes. On Glee, the closest Kurt gets to making a romantic pass is a tribute in song to a dead canary; it’s Blaine who initiates their first kiss, who first instigates sex and who is led astray by the similarly “straight-acting” Sebastian; he, Nigel and the gay men of Ugly Betty are shown centrally as eunuch-esque GBFs, whose main role is to entertain and to make things – especially women – pretty, not to be players. Their sexual identity is worn proudly, a must-have accessory, but rarely played out.

Think what this says about gender roles. Sex, the constant subtext tells us, is the domain of manly men and womanly women: if you’re not the former, you don’t get to be a sexual being, and you’ll have to wait patiently until one chooses you.

It’s enormously disempowering, because camp male sexuality is radical. The mere sight of Julian Clary makes straight men in my family squirm, or sometimes change channels – the notion of being subject to a man’s sexual advances, as women are to theirs, genuinely disturbs them. Clary’s famous single-entendre about Norman Lamont was powerful and shocking, I’d suggest, largely because of his effete demeanour: the audience had no doubt he was really capable of penetrating the then-Tory chancellor. At Stonewall, too, it’s said the first bricks were thrown at police by drag queens.

Camp gay men are an essential part of our community, and fears of stereotype threat are misguided – if pop culture doesn’t show the full queer spectrum of gender expression, why infiltrate it? But these characters can be more than passive victims. Let’s give them the power their transgressive, real-world counterparts wield so well.