International Issues · Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

The Politics of the Closet

Anderson Cooper’s coming out message to friend Andrew Sullivan is probably the email read all over the world. After years of keeping his personal life under close scrutiny, he finally decided that the closet was too tight a space for him and took a comfortable step under society’s huge microscope.

For those who missed the memo, Anderson Cooper came out as being gay on June 2nd. (Photo courtesy CNN)

While there are some that jokingly say that it’s about time that he said it, there are some like myself that applaud his courage. After all, this isn’t a musician or actor, whose job is still secure for the most part. This is a journalist, who has to objectively speak to people of different religious, moral and sexual points of view. This is a journalist that has done media coverage in extremely sexually conservative Middle Eastern nations during war times. This is a man that at least could’ve gotten fired. And he had the bravery to declare that position, knowing that would bring his objectivity into question and make certain types of news out of reach for him.

Having said that, there’s a bigger question there for me – why?

This is not ignoring the fact that LGBT people have to be deliberate about how they disclose this and to whom, something that heterosexuals don’t have to deal with. But is the power still with those with fame and privilege and authority coming out? I wanna immediately contradict my previous paragraph by saying that Cooper is relatively safe. CNN cannot fire the most famous out journalist in the world, and anyone who harmed a hair on his head could be instantly charged for a hate crime. If I, a humble journalist in training, said I was gay on a popular website, I probably couldn’t even get work at a tabloid.

I’m sure that a lot of you guys don’t know what standpoint epistemology is, so I’ll keep it simple – a rich, affluent, white gay male can’t truly be the voice of victimhood for the LGBT community. His job, housing, healthcare and life are all still in safe hands, aren’t they? He’s definitely no David Yost.

Yep, that David Yost. He played Billy on the very first Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and was teased by crew of the series because of his sexuality. Think Anderson Cooper gets that?

There is a politics to disclosure around sexual orientation, and the more labels you have the harder that is. For David Yost, a struggling young -adult actor in the US, his sexual orientation still had a very strong chance of getting in the way of him keeping his job and making money to sustain himself. For David Yost, his sexual orientation was a plot point, that dictated whether chapters of his life would end good or bad. For the rich and successful Elton Johns and Matt Bomers and Anderson Coopers, it’s just a character trait.

And me? I’m a young, middle-class, unemployed afro-Trinidadian male. To most, that means that the only way that I would be involved in LGBT rights work is if someone close to me or I myself were gay. I’ve been asked on television, by family members and friends and even members of the community, and to everyone that doesn’t know me personally I say that my sexuality doesn’t matter. But even that allows people to believe that I am gay and ashamed to come out. However if I say I’m straight, I’m a liar or experimenting or (and this has happened) the person that the religious fundamentalists corner to say that this work is wrong.

As far as how to come out goes, there are possibly more impacting ways. Singer Frank Ocean revealed his bisexuality, but not in a press conference or interview. He came out in his album. Of course this means that it’s something that he’ll still have to deal with in the public eye, but it also means that people are exposed to and asked to deal with his sexuality with a bit more analysis, and a lot more thoughtfulness. It’s something that they experience artistically along with him by enjoying his music, and can respond to bisexuality as a natural human experience that can be responded to in that way.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Mr. Cooper. After all, he didn’t just become gay yesterday. But I think we need to rediscover the impact of coming out of the closet. That impact has never been with those who could say it safely, but rather those who say it in their fight for that safety.

9 thoughts on “The Politics of the Closet

  1. A comment from a friend: There is indeed a good point to be made about the relative safety of his positionality. it would indeed be a celebratory day when coming out is so normalized that it need not be done. however, global society is far from that. there is a potency when those, within ‘safe’ quarters, come out. it lends a certain legitimacy to those without celebrity; it helps to normalize the lives of LBGTQ folk. And even those who seem to dwell in ‘safe’ quarters, they too have had their struggles, pains and awakenings. In the end, we are all flesh and blood with real pains, dreams, victories and inner and outward demons. thx for sharing ur piece! keep on writing my brother! bless

    1. And a lot of people would say that exact same thing…but I truly believe that the true value is with the Average Joes that live and breathe the average life and are met with an additional hurdle – how people treat them because of their sexual orientation. It’s the school teachers and garbage men and struggling artists and bank tellers and students – the people who can still be victims but are courageous to demand their rights – that will eventually bring about a change in my view.

  2. Coopers coming out may not matter to you on a personal level but I can tell you it has a huge impact on changing the uneducated straight public’s attitudes & perceptions towards LGBTQ people. YOU may live in a secure protected environment surrounded by love and the camaraderie of other LGBTQ people but many do not and live a completely isolated life. The visibility and reassurance that these personalities create for them is is invaluable. Every community needs heroes and to me and many these people are heroes! They may not validate who I am as an individual, but they certainly validate the LGBTQ existence.

    1. I can appreciate that. I do think his courage is to be applauded, and it does put him in a place of heroism for the community, much in the same way that it did for Elton John or Ellen DeGeneres. But I don’t think the treatment with Mr. Cooper’s sexuality reaches the entire community. Regardless of his coming out, doesn’t the entire community live the same life? Doesn’t it, then, serve us more if those from all walks of life – not just the Coopers and Johns – own our sexuality in public ways, even if as subtle as Frank Ocean?

  3. This felt like a blogpost in search of a subject: a straw man you set up (your sense of Cooper’s courage in coming our, as opposed to those of us who yawned) to shoot down (that he’s got way more privilege than someone like you so his coming out really doesn’t take a lot of effort). Cooper’s sexual orientation isn’t news; his coming out formally deserves some observance; but analysis of his privilege is even less interesting than, and has very little to do with, either. He’s a rich, White blond man who has a lot of media power. My beef, though, is with this idea that being LGBT is about victimhood and harassment, and those who come out should be appropriate icons of oppression. I don’t need a voice of victimhood. I’m cool Cooper’s formally out. It will do some good. Sorry: very famous people coming out does more public good than, say, you coming out. What you don’t talk about is the powerful work ordinary people coming out does to mitigate homophobia in their families and neighbourhoods and offices and networks. And that that work is as important as Anderson Cooper’s.

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