Why the right to privacy doesn’t apply to coming out

2 Jul

The more the conversation about coming out changes, the more it stays the same: we’re reduced to the fundamentally opposed sides of “celebrities have a moral imperative to come out” and “celebrities have a right to their privacy.” I’m less concerned with the former — while the world would certainly be a better place if all gay people felt comfortable identifying as such, and while LGBT youth could always use more role models, there’s an element of forced advocacy to suggesting gay people need to be voices for the gay community. Suddenly everything they say or do is viewed through the lens of the cause.

At the same time, the “right to privacy” argument is misguided. It equates sexual identity with sexual behavior — and though the two do go hand in hand, they’re not one in the same. We’re past the point of identifying as “sodomites”: what we do in the bedroom feels secondary to how we carry ourselves in public. Homosexuality may be defined by same-sex attraction, but it’s also cultural. In the same way race may be defined by origin or the amount of melanin in one’s skin, sexuality is based in the biological but not limited to it.

I’m not sure if Anderson Cooper timed his coming out with the New York Times’ debate “Do Gay Celebrities Have The Obligation to Come Out?” I doubt it, but it’s definitely convenient. Cooper is the latest in a group of “open secret” gays to come out matter-of-factly. (He follows Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer, both of whom prompted reactions of, “He wasn’t out already?”) His wording — “The fact is, I’m gay” — actually reflects the point I’m trying to make. Sexuality isn’t a preference so much as an innate characteristic.

(Brief aside: when Cynthia Nixon referred to her sexuality as a “choice” and got shit on by the queer community, I defended her. The difference is, Nixon was expressing her own journey of self-discovery. Everyone has the right to self-define. Moreover, there’s a distinction between arguing that sexual identity is not fundamental, and explaining one’s personal path toward realizing it.)

Publicist Howard Bragman takes the “right to privacy” argument in his debate contribution, “It’s a Personal Choice, Not a Moral One.” When phrased that way, it’s easy to see his point of view, but Bragman’s opening paragraph betrays the bias of this conversation.

If we suggested that gay celebrities have a moral obligation to come out, then any celebrity would have the same responsibility to acknowledge any hidden situation whose disclosure could theoretically help society. The heartbreak of psoriasis? Do a public service announcement. A victim of sexual abuse? You need to go talk about it on “The View.” Going bankrupt? Get ahead of this story and help other Americans in similar situations.

Implicitly or not, he equates sexual identity with psoriasis, sexual abuse, and bankruptcy — all of which, we can agree, are very bad things. I’m not suggesting Bragman is a homophobe: he’s simply articulating the fact that we conflate “things that are hidden” with “things that are wrong.” The right to privacy, no matter how noble a concept in origin, automatically implies some level of guilt, embarrassment, and shame.

Bragman continues, “We’re talking about people’s romantic lives, which are, by definition, notoriously confusing and fickle.” Are we, though? Aside from Cooper’s saying, “I love, and I am loved,” there is nothing in his email to Andrew Sullivan about his boyfriend or his sexual preferences. A celebrity’s right to privacy in terms of whom he or she dates is respectable (regardless of how difficult it is to maintain in an era of TMZ). But coming out doesn’t mean introducing the world to your significant other, or letting everyone know whether you prefer to top or bottom in bed.

Anderson Cooper gets it. From his email:

I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something — something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.

I question his assertion that, “I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something.” What is the act of not disclosing, or deflecting the question when asked, if not hiding? But I’m not going to criticize Cooper for taking his time to come out, not when I’m so glad that he finally did. Obviously I see this as a “the sooner, the better” situation, but the last thing he needs right now is the gay community rejecting him for not coming out sooner.

And that’s not what I’m doing — Anderson Cooper is only a jumping off point for what I’ve long tried to argue. Sexual identity isn’t private. It’s a characteristic as intrinsic as race and should be treated accordingly. Obviously it’s not as simple as that, because we live in a society where a disturbing percentage of people are still ass-backwards enough to view same-sex attraction as an abomination. But catering to bigots isn’t a solution. We don’t tell celebrities of color that they should hide their identity lest racists are turned off to their work.

There’s a difference, of course. You don’t need to come out as a Black man, or a Latina woman. But that’s all the more reason to come out as gay. Unfortunately, not publicly identifying as gay means society sees you as straight — you are essentially “passing.” (Though in the case of the aforementioned Cooper, Bomer, and Parsons, not necessarily well.) That wouldn’t be an issue if we treated sexuality as more of a biological fact: “What color are your eyes?” “How tall are you?” “How do you identify on the spectrum of sexuality?”

I’ll leave the “moral obligation” side of the debate to someone else. (I think Kate Aurthur expresses it well in her debate contribution, “Be a Hero, Not Part of the Problem.”) What I’m advocating is a change in the conversation, a clear distinction between what is and isn’t private. March in the Pride parade or don’t — but accept your sexual identity as a personal characteristic that isn’t going anywhere. The less we talk about it in terms of privacy, the less anyone will care.

2 Responses to “Why the right to privacy doesn’t apply to coming out”

  1. Kim (@legallyfond) July 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    I’m not sure you can bifurcate those discussions. I respect that you want to treat it as a physical characteristic because it is (and I believe is widely accepted as) an innate and unchangeable characteristic. But, to draw a crude analogy, we can also change how a number of physical characteristics appear to the rest of the world. A celebrity may naturally have dark hair and opt to lighten it. That may be a simple aesthetic choice. But if society at large attached some stigma to dark hair on the level that it has historically to sexuality, and if that celebrity chooses to align their appearance with the majority as best they are able rather than take a risk by showing that there is nothing wrong with the characteristic that people have stigmatized, then I think it is fair to say that they didn’t make the superior “moral” choice.

    That analogy is made more complicated when we consider how many celebrities (and disproportionately female celebrities) of color have had their skin lightened, either chemically or by Photoshop after the fact. Of course you mention race as a not-so-physically-mutable characteristic. Certainly we don’t actually think those people are no longer the race that they are, but it definitely sounds like we would like to forget for a little while. Surely the blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of society, but can’t we hope that they resist that social pressure? That they stand up proudly and say, “this is who I am and there is nothing wrong with it”?

    And I think the word “stigma” is conspicuously missing from your analysis. Of course it makes sense that we should not lump homosexuality in with a number of incontrovertibly negative things–like surviving particular diseases or sexual abuse. I don’t think the point is to lump “bad” things together, I think the point is to lump “stigmatized” things together. It’s a tough analogy. What other characteristics or experiences may be perceived as negative by society, but aren’t actually reasons for shame, and aren’t immediately visible?

    To the extent that there may be a moral imperative to come out, I think a more apt analogy might be that of the politically liberal and devoutly religious individual. The vocal religious sidle up with the conservative right, and the liberal amongst them are largely silent, leading to the perception that liberalism is an inherently godless stance. This makes some liberals feel comfortable shaming the religious and leaves the religious and politically ambivalent feeling uncomfortable with embracing anything left of center.

    Perhaps its the phrase “moral obligation” that gives us pause. That’s fair: it’s pretty heavy-handed. And you mention the “right to privacy”–an important right, but a legal right. Your legal rights and moral duties are not meant to be congruent (except perhaps if you’re a very staunch libertarian). I doubt most of us feel that we SHOULD do absolutely no more than we are legally obligated to do.
    Still, it’s probably good to feel uncomfortable giving moral mandates to others, commanding them on what they “should” do.
    But, for what it’s worth, I’ve taught teenagers from staunch religious upbringings. I asked them their feelings about gay marriage around the time that Prop 8 was gaining traction. The ones that were against it cited the Bible.
    The ones that were in favor cited Ellen and Portia.

  2. Joe Wadlington January 31, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    I enjoyed reading this, especially considering the recent fog of the same argument surrounding Jodie Foster. It’s tough stuff when you know how alone gay kids feel; when you’ve personally felt that isolation, and an obviously gay celeb won’t pipe up because they barely have any privacy left and are greedy for that last scrap.
    While a culture of advocacy within the LsGsBs and Ts would be most propellant for our cause; it’s also pretty fucking cool to sit back and be normal — and certainly something the ghosts of gay rights past wanted for us.
    You’re doing it here; exposing your life for the benefit of yourself and others. I do the same thing. But I have that line. Every writer has something they won’t write about, and I think that’s just as important as the few updates a celebrity wants to keep to themselves. They are powerful people; but aren’t we all?

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