So Anderson Cooper officially came out, writing in a post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog that “the fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.” To many people who’d been paying attention, it was a not a surprise. Cooper, like many other celebrities had long lived in a glass closet – known (or suspected) by many to be gay, but not publicly “out” as a gay man.
Many of the reactions from heterosexual progressives that I observed around social media in response were, to be blunt, really fucking annoying and entitled. The salacious shock, the studied boredom and cynicism, the jokes, the questions about why he took so long or why he needed to come out at all. And on and on.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her landmark book Epistemology of the Closet, argues that
“closetness” itself is a performance initiated by the speech act of a silence – not a particular silence, but one that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.
What Sedgwick means is that to be closeted is only meaningful by its relation to heterosexual supremacy, heterosexual “normality.” Coming out, which only occurs in the first person, is a double statement – “I am [GLBTQ]” and “I am not [heterosexual and/or cis].” To not make this statement is to be very often, perhaps always, taken for heterosexual, because of what queer theorists like Sedgwick call heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity means, at its most basic, the assumption that one is, or should be, heterosexual. And it applies to almost everyone at every time – straight unless “proven” otherwise. It means, for queer people, negotiating a world in which coming out is a never-ending process. Few of us have national media coverage to speed the process, but even for a high-profile person like Cooper, coming out must have been a long process.
So when heterosexuals ask, “why does Anderson Cooper have to come out as gay,” I reply: “because you do not have to come out as heterosexual.”
Heterosexuals do announce their sexuality in public, all the time, of course. Walking down the street holding hands, kissing their lover, wearing wedding rings, clothing and other aesthetic codes. But it is not a movement from unacknowledged to public, it has no risk or social consequences in itself. In his coming out letter, Cooper notes that he didn’t come out because a reporter’s private life shouldn’t matter. Indeed. But part of the point is, being heterosexual isn’t private – it’s public.
Contrast this to the news stories which talk about Cooper “admitting” that he is gay, as though it were a crime he were confessing to. The analogy is not really so off, to be honest. Sodomy (the legal category covering anal and oral sex) wasn’t completely legal in the US until 2003 with the Lawrence versus Texas Supreme Court decision and indeed . It was a crime to be gay in Texas until then, to have sex in your own home. Criminal.
Even now, Americans like Mister Cooper still live in a country where there is no national anti-discrimination bill for such things as employment and housing. There are still parts of the country where it is completely legal to sack someone for being GLBT, or to refuse them housing, where parents lose custody of their children after coming out. Even in areas where there are local anti-discrimination laws, these are often still ineffective – it’s easy enough for a bigot to discriminate without being caught.
So there’s a good reason why so many people in the public eye wait until after their career is largely over–because they may well lose their careers, or part of them. It will cost them, in their career or their relationships. Or because they fear that they will. And that is a fear that no straight person ever faces for their heterosexuality.
So when heterosexuals ask, “Why did it take so long for him to come out,” I reply with a question of my own: “why did it take you so long to make him feel safe enough to do so?”
That’s the thing with heterosexuality. It’s not just about who you fuck – it’s a complicated set of norms and expectations about personal conduct, gendered and sexual behaviour, familial relationships, and so on. In his The Trouble With Normal, queer theorist Michael Warner argues that:
The received wisdom in straight culture, is that all of its different norms line up, that one is synonymous with the others. If you are born with male genitalia,* the logic goes, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women, desire them exclusively, have sex in what are thought to be normally active and insertive ways and within officially sanctioned contexts, think of yourself as heterosexual, identify with other heterosexuals no matter how tolerant you might wish to be, and never change any part of this package from childhood to senescence. Heterosexuality is often a name for this entire package, even though attachment to the other sex is only one element. If you deviate at any point from this program, you do so at your own cost. And one of the things straight culture hates most is a sign that the different parts of the package might be recombined in an infinite number of ways. But experience shows that this is just what tends to happen. If heterosexuality requires the entire sequence, then it is very fragile. No wonder it needs so much terror to induce compliance.
A terrifying word, compliance. Part of what it means, of course, is a cultural solicitation of certain kinds of performances, a cultural enforcement of allowable identities. A public performance of heterosexuality, even for those we supposedly know are queer, is demanded.
It means terrifying the last generation of queers so this generation doesn’t have anyone to look up to. It means “minority stress,” that whether you are out or not, you cannot win, heterosexual dominance takes its toll either way. To be closeted is to be “dishonest,” to be out, “making a big deal.” It’s not just about the fundamentalists and the queer-bashers – good, decent liberal people with the best of intentions can make negotiating the heterosexual world tiring, traumatising and even occasionally dangerous.
When someone like Anderson Cooper comes out, it changes things, just a little bit. There’s one less glass closet in this world, one more tiny shift in the public sphere. So as a queer woman, I find cynicism and snark from heterosexual people who’ve never experienced the pressure of either the closet or outness just a little much. It’s not the sign of your comfort with queer culture that you might think it is, and it’s not particularly supportive. We still face immense pressure, and that requires your empathy and compassion, not your judgment.
* cissexist phrasing