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People in Glass Closets: Anderson Cooper and Straight Responses to Coming Out

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

25 Comments

  1. Trish wrote:

    As a straight woman I have to say I HATE the snark as well. I wish we were in a world where the “glass closet” didn’t exist (Or as we call it among my friends “the closet door got blown off and the bead curtain in the doorway is losing beads everyday”). I have stood by many friends as they fought through their fears … some stayed in publicly, some came out, but all were torn by the decision.

    That is a shame. I can walk down the street with my husband, holding hands, with no issue but my sister and her partner can’t walk with us and do the same (and they are the ones with 3 kids)

    Anderson Cooper, Zack Quinto, Chris Colfer, Matt Boomer, Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin …. they all have made it a bit more accepted, a bit more difficult to ignore, and a bit more in the face of the folks out there who are hiding their heads in the sand.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  2. I constantly learn from you. Until now, I never read “male genitalia” and recognized it as the cissexist phrasing that it actually is. Thanks for dropping science in this post. Thank you for explaining what’s wrong with the assumed and enforced “norms”.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  3. Regina wrote:

    Beautifully written and expressed – thank you.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  4. Vilhelm S wrote:

    What phrasing should be used instead of “male genitalia”?

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  5. “‘Why did it take so long for him to come out,’”
    “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.”

    Great post! I had just been thinking about how the “gay joke” has evolved in TV and movies and how it fits right in with what you’ve said:

    15 years ago the “gay joke” was that a (supporting) character was gay. Period. Gayness WAS the punchline. While that still happens it seems to have evolved so that now the “gay joke” is that someone is obviously gay *but closeted.* The first is “funny” only if being gay is not allowed; the second is “funny” only if remaining closeted is silly and unnecessary.

    The second revolves around the assumptions that we are all progressive now and all heterosexual people accept GLBTQ people and homophobia is a thing of the past (or for weird people). Not only is that sort of jumping the gun in a time when same-sex couples can’t marry in most of the US and most people don’t know the meaning of “cis,” it panders to the part of heteronormativity which is tired of hearing about the GLBTQ struggle for civil rights and social justice.

    I really enjoyed how you broke down these sorts of jokes.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  6. MikeV wrote:

    @Vilhelm S: Penis.
    (Which is of course only one of many organs associated exclusively with MAAB folk but it is a convenient stand-in.)

    Also, thank you Emily for getting at the heart of this bullshit. I’m expecting an email from my mother in the next day or two (because every time something gay-related happens she feels the need to let me know) filled with exactly the sort of joking/winking tedium you just deconstructed.

    This ish makes me want to scream “Straight people: you are NOT ALLOWED to comment on Anderson Cooper just BE QUIET!” but it would probably be more productive if they just read this post.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Tomio Black wrote:

    I truly appreciate this post for helping me understand why Mr. Cooper’s statement is important. I also want to thank you for helping me understand how it relates to me, a heterosexual white guy who supports full equality.

    I’m always a bit awkward when I come face-to-face with my privilege, so I’ll stop for now. Thanks.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  8. Judd Ruther wrote:

    FYI, sodomy is STILL a crime in many states. Just because Lawrence v. Texas invalidated these laws IN PRIVATE, the supreme court ruling did NOT extend to acts IN PUBLIC. Since this article is about coming out as placing oneself in the public eye, while it may be a rare or salacious nuance, there are STILL laws that carve homosexual sex out as a separate felony if in public.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Judd Ruther wrote:

    By the way, great article!!

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  10. Chris W wrote:

    Judd Ruther: forgive the uninformed question, but where in the US are public heterosexual acts not illegal? Are you referring about explicitly sexual acts or what I’ll call “affectionate” acts (kissing, etc)? And if so, where are homosexual acts of that type still illegal?

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  11. Veronica Z. wrote:

    I’m sorry if this sounds ignorant, but could someone please explain why “male genitalia” is cisexist?

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  12. @Veronica, because it equates a penis to manhood.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink
  13. Robert wrote:

    I remember putting my husband’s picture on my desk at work, around fifteen years ago. Of course, it WAS in San Francisco, and I WAS a Federal civil servant, so the risk of losing my job was minimal. But, even though I’d been out since high school, the first time someone asked, ‘oh, who is that?’ saying ‘that’s my husband’ felt. . . dangerous. Daring, almost.

    I have great respect for Mr. Cooper. He and I, I suspect, share a desire for a world in which ‘admissions’ of this sort are superfluous.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  14. Gillian wrote:

    Yep. It bugs me when straight people think they’re being supportive when they react with exaggerated indifference, like “big deal, who cares if they’re gay, straight, purple, whatever.” This is oppressive in the same way it’s oppressive when white people say they don’t see race.

    Also I, like Veronica, don’t understand how Warner is being cissexist, he’s describing the cissexist assumptions of the dominant culture.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  15. Gillian wrote:

    ahh sorry, mods please delete the 2nd paragraph, I didn’t see the question had already been answered. Or the entire comment; sorry about that!

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  16. Vi Berlin wrote:

    I believe it was Warner who also said that the “closet” was a societal construct built around queers as a form of suppression; and that the process of “coming out” is an act which forces the heterosexual majority to reconcile themselves with OUR sexuality, not the other way around.

    In regards to the Lawrence V Texas decision, it should be noted that in many states there are still laws in the books which classify sodomy as a “crime against nature”. Although declared unconstitutional, it is still fully within police jurisdiction to arrest, hold, and fine you (up to $500 here in Michigan). They can no longer sentence you to jail for this crime, but as long as the laws remain written in the books they send a powerful message that intends to humiliate and invalidate queer lifestyles.

    Here’s a link about state sodomy laws: http://equalitymatters.org/blog/201108080012

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  17. Fede wrote:

    Great post. This straight person will endeavour never to make anyone feel that I see them as ‘dishonest’ for not having come out to me, or as ‘making a big deal’ for having done so.

    I hate it myself when people who have privileges over me put me in lose-lose situations like that. Rood. And so mindless.

    Good for Anderson Cooper, and good for all of us.

    Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  18. rengeko wrote:

    maybe i’m way off, but i actually thought he had come out already. i guess it was just a very badly kept secret. not that it should be, of course. he absolutely has the right to his privacy, and i think it’s wrong that he has to come out and make a deal out of it. maybe i’m being wrong about it?

    Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  19. GallingGalla wrote:

    FYI, to those questioning why the term “male genitalia” is cissexist, consider this: (1) I have a penis; (2) I am a woman; therefore (3) my penis is very much female genitalia.

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  20. A wrote:

    @those wondering why “male genitalia” is cissexist:

    Bear in mind that biology is nothing more than a collection of observations *made by human beings* about nature. Nature exists apart from whatever organizational structure and _nomenclature_ human beings choose to foist upon it. So at the end of the day, no matter how well you may feel that “male” and “female” describes what we see in nature, it’s still stuff we made up for our OWN benefit; it’s stuff we use to compact all of nature’s beautiful diversity into neat little boxes to assist in our comprehension.

    So “male genitalia” is basically nothing more than a term of convenience designed to allow the greatest number of people to simultaneously know what you’re talking about, i.e. it’s ultimately an arbitrary term. And calling it “male genitalia” conflicts with how many trans women experience their bodies. So really, the only way to argue that it should be called “male genitalia” is to say that trans women’s experiences of their own bodies do not matter. Which is cissexist.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  21. Danna wrote:

    “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.”

    I would like to point out that, as someone who is also queer (of the more bi/pansexual variety), just because you see two people who appear to be of “opposite” cisgenders kissing on the street, that doesn’t make them heterosexual. I agree with your point about there being no
    risk in that particular act as long as onlookers assume that they are straight and cis. I constantly feel invisible and definitely identify with the “never-ending process” that is coming out. With a male partner, I am assumed to be straight. With a female partner, I am assumed to be a lesbian.
    I really appreciated your post, including the literal footnote which has been commented on numerous times now, but I am tired of feeling like I don’t exist in the LGBTQ dialogue.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  22. Nanasha wrote:

    I think that the most frustrating thing about sexuality is that it is often fairly fluid. For example, I’m pansexual-my sexual attraction to other human beings includes all permutations of gender and sex, with other preferences (smell, aural) that rank above them. I have some bi-gendered gender dysphoria. My husband is very solidly bisexual. But we are exclusive to one another because we are monogamous. It’s still complicated, but everyone seeks to explain us simplistically.

    There is this assumption that you are not only heterosexual but also Christian (we are atheist), White (he is part Spanish/Basque and I am mostly Italian with several Native American tribes mixed in- both of us have dual citizenship to other countries/nations), etc.

    And I’ve run into many things even as a “socially viewed heterosexual” that, honestly, piss me the fuck off. For example, my husband wished to change his last name to mine after we got married. Legally, a woman in heterosexual marriage can just change her last name to her husband’s without any legal preceding. My husband had to PAY to put out a legal ad in a newspaper for some-odd weeks, then schedule and pay for a court date to have his last name officially changed. He had to take off a lot of time from work to do this and pay a considerable amount of money. And then there was all the crap we got from family and friends about it. We had to come up with some bullshit story (his last name was infuriatingly misspelled all the time because it is very similar to a common other last name) beyond the fact that we simply liked my last name better and decided as a couple that it would be great for our children to have parents with the same last name.

    My grandmother (who was generally a very feminist person who was completely fine with abortion and homosexuality) even gave us grief about it by saying, “but how will your children KNOW where they came from if he changes his name?”

    And this is something as simple as a NAME.

    I can only imagine how hard things would be if I announced that I would no longer like to be referred to as female and would like to be treated as a male. I can only imagine what would happen to me if I had fallen in love with a woman or transgendered person. I remember going to a dance with a black young man from my school and my parents freaked out going on about how I would have “splotchy babies” even though I was simply attempting to go to a dance with someone who I liked.

    I remember how enjoying sports and being competitive with guys often led to me being harassed for being a lesbian, even though I was hopelessly obsessed with this one boy who I was too shy to talk to all the way through high school. I remember being annoyed that people would think that being a lesbian was a reason enough for harassment, and felt ashamed that people had felt that “not constantly dating guys” was enough to substitute formally “coming out.” I loved rainbows so much, but was afraid that wearing or displaying rainbows on my clothing would get me attacked or intensify the harassment. It was only later, when I got married, that I became more comfortable wearing the colors I love, because I had the privilege to show as “heterosexual” and therefore the rainbow became something innocuous.

    Once again, I am severely troubled that these simplistic things can lead to such outright attacks or discrimination, and it bothers me that due to my own privilege, I can sidestep some of these things simply because I have the option to do so….but many others do not.

    I am who I am, and I see others and think, “it is not my job to judge or categorize that person- it is my imperative to ask questions about how they would like to be treated and what boundaries they would like set, or to respect their right to not share these things and go on my way respectfully.

    I think that, honestly, the sooner we break down and dissolve the strict boxes and classifications of This or That, the sooner we can get to a place that is more genuine and Human- something that truly frees the Individual while also freeing the Whole. And that is the world in which I want to live.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 4:07 am | Permalink
  23. Fay Brewer wrote:

    Hello. I m in intersexed person. I didn’t find out that I was intersexed until late in life, partly due to the fact that I had starved myself to keep the weight off my hips and bust. All this was in keeping with trying to fit ito the heteronormative world, so perhaps you can appreciate it when I say that I appreciate this discussion. Oh, and in addition to liking the article I must say that I also like Nanasha’s comment, just above this one. It all pretty much sums it up. Imagine the difficulty of telling the family that they all made a mistake and had a little girl and not a little boy? History has to be rewritten.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  24. HeatherMae wrote:

    ” If you are born with male genitalia,* the logic goes, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women…”

    It’s interesting that a queer theorist, in describing heteronormativity, stepped right in cisnormativity. I think this rewording would take that assumption out:

    “If you are born with a penis, the logic goes, you will identify as male, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women…”

    Also, thank you for this analysis on coming out; I find it really valuable.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  25. April Q. wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post. It helped me figure out why I so strongly feel the need to come out to people (usually pretty casually) when I am making their aquaintence; a habit which causes some of my straight friends confusion over its necessity.

    I know that if whoever I’m befriending has some misconceived ideas about queer people, it would be easier to set those to rest by ‘surprising’ them with my orientation later in our relationship. But, if they need some views changed, then that is their problem. I have endured too much difficulty figuring myself out and trying to learn how to be comfortable with myself amidst a tornado of media images and societal expectations (and I’m cis and white and TAB, so very priviledged on the whole) to deal with the idea that I might be perceived as someone straight, someone who is not me. If they have a problem with it, then that is 100% their problem, and I have no interest in repressing my self-expression for the sake of their comfort. I refuse to allow the people I spend my time with – at work, at school, at home – ignore the reality that queer people exist, that we are real people, that we are someone you know and study and work with.

    Lastly, I feel that coming out is important because ‘straighness’, whether subjectively experienced or perceived (correctly or incorrectly) by others, is *not* a neutral state, though half the time part of my brain is convinced that it is. I come out as often as I can, because there are specific ideas and values attached to heterosexuality (as discribed in the OP), and this is the way I choose to distance myself from them (as opposed to, say, coming out as feminist; though I also do that quite a lot).

    (I hope it is clear that I refer only to my own choices here, and if they are strongly worded, it is only because I feel so much relief at finally being able to express them. Coming out, or not, and in what circumstances, is an exclusively personal decision, and as much as I wish for a world in which everyone “fe[lt] safe enough to do so,” I believe we cannot put the responsibility for creating that world on the shoulders of those who feel unsafe in this one.)

    Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink