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On celebrity queers, coming out and the politics of visibility.

June 19, 2010

I have been hemming and hawing and fretting and writing and deleting and undoing this post about celebrity queers and coming out vs. being closeted for days now. And I just realized why: I think I really don’t give much of a fuck about celebrity queers and whether or not they come out. Do I think there are people who may benefit from them coming out and feel represented or positive about themselves? Sure. Do I think that some people might have their homophobic minds changed when they realize a beloved celebrity is also gay so maybe they should reexamine their homophobia? It could happen. But do I also think we live in way too much of a celebrity obsessed culture where we expect them to reflect us back at ourselves and represent us in ways that aren’t realistic for any other human being? I sure do!

I remember way back in the day when Melissa Etheridge was one of the only really high profile out celebrities. And I also remember reading or hearing stuff she said in interviews that bugged the shit out of me and made me hate that she was being held up as some representative of The Community. And then there was the whole recent Elton John playing Rush Limbaugh’s wedding debacle. Which apparently was Sir Elt’s attempt at building bridges but I also think it was his attempt at making one million dollars. But here’s the deal: I don’t really like Rush Limbaugh OR Elton John, so I really don’t give a fuck! I can totally understand why people are upset and I get how it could seem like Elton is thumbing his nose at the gay marriage movement. But I also don’t think that he has some requirement to act on behalf of all gay people and our myriad wants and needs. But the call for that sort of representation and accountability by The Community is daunting to say the least and *part* of what may play a role in some celebrities being less out on a massive scale.

But a lot of my lack of caring about which queer celebrities are out or not has a lot to do with the fact that I have long since let go of the idea of coming out as the be-all end-all of a queer person’s life. When I came out at 17 and in the years closely following, it was a huge, major, earth-shattering part of my life. But now, 20 years later (yikes!), there have been some equally huge and major events in my life that have nothing to do with my being queer like my father dying or changing my career path or moving from one coast to the other. Coming out is a pivotal point in a queer person’s life but it is not EVERYTHING. But I think it gets framed as everything because it’s the moment we became Real in the eyes of a largely heteronormative culture. Until we came out we existed in this limbo of is he or isn’t he? Does she or doesn’t she? Will they or won’t they? Straight people get to live in this privileged certainty and don’t have to question anything about their sexuality because the world around them reflects them back at themselves and reinforces their identity in hundreds of ways. But until a queer person comes out it’s like we might just be normal and oh, nope, we went the other way! And then that coming out moment is supposed to frame our entire lives and never be eclipsed by anything else because nothing is as important as the moment we declared ourselves to be Not Heterosexual.

What gets thorny for me is when you bring celebrity into the mix and I take a look around at who gets to be a high profile Hollywood homo. Two people who spring to mind first are Ellen and Neil Patrick Harris – two celebrities who I enjoy and find funny in lots of ways but who, let’s be honest, are not going to frighten the horses. The only time one of them displays any kind of sexuality is when he plays an overblown, heterosexual womanizer. Otherwise we get nice, safe, sanitized, asexual entertainers who don’t really threaten anyone in any way. This is not to put either one of them down or diminish their decisions to come out in such a public way – I think the situation I just illustrated has way more to do with the power structure of Hollywood and American celebrity. But I also think that it’s indicative of a trend within the mainstream gay movement in general. It’s become so single-minded and marriage focused and really conservative since the early 90s heyday of Queer Nation and Act Up and there’s more and more of an emphasis on the clean cut, family friendly images that the HRC pumps out than on the actual diversity and variety that exists among queer people in the world.

I was looking at these two pages of slideshows of gay celebrities and aside from being surprised at the numbers, I was unsurprised by how most of them are white men and women. There’s still a lot of difficulty around queer people of color being able to come out and live and be welcomed in their various communities and in the world at large. Stereotypes around race and sexuality abound in this country and aesthetic and stylistic expressions outside of a white/euro-centric standard are often misapplied to people of color as signifiers of they must or must not be queer. And this is something the larger gay/queer movement – which is very white-centric –  still refuses to really look at or acknowledge or own or work to change. But what I do think is fantastic is that celebrities of color like Wanda Sykes and Ricky Martin have come out – because they challenge a lot of notions people have around race, ethnicity and sexuality. At the same time though, Sykes and Martin are both in long-term partnerships and both have children. So they definitely tow more traditional lines in their lives. And I am not saying they shouldn’t – they should do what the fuck they want! But again, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the celebrity queers who get to be out and relatively high profile are people who lead fairly traditional lives. Even though those traditional lives may be perceived by some as a complete threat to every tradition they hold dear.

In the end, I feel like my opinions about queer celebrities are often in a state of flux and very obviously reflect my feelings about queer identity in general and how it relates to the larger gay rights movement. But as far as celebrities are concerned, while I don’t begrudge anyone looking up to any as role models or wanting to see themselves reflected in the celebrity world, the fact is they aren’t like us! Their lives are totally unusual and they have weird jobs compared to the rest of us and live in a whole world of their own that only overlaps ours. This isn’t to say that they aren’t human, just very different humans from most of us mere mortals. Try looking to the world around you for queer role models – there’s some really amazing ones out there among your friends, your family, your coworkers, your community. But remember, the only person that can represent you is you. So try looking in the mirror too and being your own queer role model.

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