Anderson Cooper, Frank Ocean, and the Closet: Why is The Media Fixated on Gay Identities?
Many of us have heard the recent news of Anderson Cooper coming out as gay. Additionally, Frank Ocean released a letter which describes his falling in love with a man back when he was 19. What is troubling, however, is how these narratives are reported and speculated upon by the media and general public alike.
Our society seems to have developed a fascination with the “outing” of individuals who engage or are suspected of engaging in non-heterosexual encounters. In a society where non-heterosexual sexualities and non-normative gender identities face discrimination and disenfranchisement depending upon where one is able to live, it is truly courageous for those with public relevance to make bold assertions of who they are.
Sharing such intimate parts of one’s identity can inspire various audiences, especially the youth who benefit from seeing successful figures demonstrate the ability to deviate from normativity and still thrive. Making such a decision takes great time and internal contemplation. Yet, there are those in and out of the queer community who continue to speculate upon celebrities’ sexualities and their likelihood of being “in the closet.” With the “closet” being such a temperamental and turbulent state, I feel as though our media needs to be more respectful and considerate in its reporting of sexuality. Insensitive handling of that aspect of someone's life can have serious mental and emotional effects for both the celebrity as well as our culture at large.
To expand, being “in the closet” is not an exciting or fun way to live. For many individuals, it is a space of perpetual anxiety and self-criticism. Feeling the need to mask one’s sexuality often forces an individual to become hyper-aware of their actions and presentation in the world around them, fearing that anything ze (*) does in public must “pass off” as straight and typical of their gender. The last thing a closeted individual wants is to do something that causes another to wonder about hir (*) sexual preferences. Being found out can result in loss of family, friends, employment, shelter, and also senses of security and physical and mental harm. Of course, great strides have been made in recent decades which have generated more safe spaces for persons with non-normative sexual preferences to congregate and live, but not every individual is ready or able to make such a bold move.
Before “coming out” to others one must take the time to “come out” to hirself. It can be an intense and traumatic experience to find a sexuality label (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Pansexual, etc.), if any, that fits, let alone accept the fact that one has sexual preferences different from the mainstream and privileged. After going through the aforementioned introspective process, an individual then has to evaluate how sharing such an identity with others will affect them moving forward.
Personally, it has affected the way I view my career options, areas to live securely with equitable legal protections, the path I seek to take establishing a family, my faith, and the relationships I foster with people I encounter. Although being out is a luxury enjoyed courtesy of the environment and supportive networks I belong to, it took time to reach this point. There is no set pace or path to reach said point, and unfortunately many never reach it due to a variety of internal and external factors. However, when external persons such as those in the media seek to define a person before ze (*) publicly defines hirself (*), the media displaces the individual’s autonomy and potentially causes hir (*) trauma because ze (*) occupies a temperamental state in regards to hir (*) sexual identity.
Taking all of this into account, I urge the media to tone down its judgmental and harsh rhetoric in regards to reporting on celebrites' sexualities. Abandon use of words such as “finally” that signify a supreme knowing of another human being’s most personal characteristics. Stop rushing to claim in headlines that an artist is gay or bisexual before they actually select a label that fits; separate same-sex actions and desires from identity labels.
Lastly, quit playing sick games that involve ranking the odds of a celebrity coming out. My requests are addressed especially to the media outlets who identify as LGBTQ and/or LGBTQ-Allied. We need to show camaraderie and respect for our folks that may be/are dealing with their sexualities in a “closet.” Moreover, perpetuating the notion of “gaydar” is a push towards judging and defining others before they openly define themselves. Although some of us may display rainbow flags and attend a Pride parade or take a silly photo for laughs with a friend, let’s not support the media in jumping to conclusions that a person is gay. Some of our greatest and most vibrant allies out there identify as straight and look damn fabulous doing so. Thus, I congratulate Cooper and Ocean for their bravery, but we must let other stars enjoy their lives without having to worry about their sexuality being the next scandal due to the unfair presumption that people are straight until (personally) claimed otherwise.
*ze/hir/hirself are gender-neutral pronouns.