For someone who has sex with someone of the same sex, being in or out of the closet has never been a binary proposition. There are circles of outness, and you can avoid all of them if you like. You can tell the person you’re having sex with that you don’t do this, that you’re experimenting, or you’re only doing it because you’re drunk, or in prison. You can tell yourself the same things. You don’t have to be out to anyone.
But when you do come out about the nature of your sexuality, first to yourself, then to someone else, you’ve created a circle of those who know and those who don’t. You may like to keep the circle small. Friends yes, family no. Family yes, work no. Work yes, people on the neighbourhood hockey team, no.
For those with public personas, there are even more circles. To put a famous and well-rehearsed point on it, Rock Hudson was out for much of his career. Read articles and memoirs by people like Armistead Maupin and you see wide circles of people who knew. Read Tab Hunter’s memoir and you’ll hear Hudson apparently cruised the Meat Packing District at the height of his fame, when everyone he picked up could be expected to know exactly who they were having sex with. And yet, we say he wasn’t out until he was wheeled in a gurney from the private jet across the runway of Charles de Gaulle airport and we all knew he had AIDS.
Stories had run about Hudson, as they had about other studio-era stars, in publications like Confidential. Tab Hunter was called a “lavender lad,” film noir actress Lizabeth Scott was described as preferring the company of “baritone babes” and Van Johnson was outed as being unfit for military service for being homosexual, etc. So even though many of these people were out in their personal lives, and had been outed in the popular press, they could have been considered still in the closet because they had either not acknowledged it themselves publically, or had not been outed in a mainstream publication.
According to an expert on outness, University of Illinois emeritus professor of philosophy Richard Mohr, some of this difficulty stems from the fact that coming out is a process, not an act. In an email interview this week with Toronto Standard, Mohr calls coming out “an ongoing, somewhat repetitive process.” He talks specifically about gayness, but I think what he says applies to sexuality in general, or at least, any sexuality that doesn’t conform to a few “norms” (opposite-sex marriage, opposite-sex dating, opposite-sex adultery, opposite-sex vaginal intercourse, opposite-sex oral sex).
“To be successful it has to overcome what I call the heterosexual presumption, which is society’s default position: Presume everyone is straight until in particular cases that becomes totally impossible.
“It is a position that society is so invested in – person = straight – that it re-closets one unless actively barred from doing so….
“The re-closeting process is one of the means by which society maintains gays as abject, since it has the form of the ritual ‘don’t ask-don’t tell,’ the ritual by which something (say, flatulence in an elevator) is marked as abject. No one asks, no one tells, everyone knows — it’s the open secret.”
Much of the defence of Foster’s Golden Globes speech, and of people, public and private, who keep the basics of their sexual and romantic behaviour to themselves, is based on what Mohr considers to be a fallacious notion that all sexualities are basically the same.
“It is silly to suppose the gay person is similarly disposed to his sexual orientation as the straight person is to his. Thanks to culture there are asymmetries. To say, ‘Well, straight people don’t bring up their sexuality,’ is just part of the re-closeting process.”
In order to be out, that is, one must be perennially explicit.
What about Foster’s right to privacy? For this, Mohr recalls a fine but fundamental distinction he made in his 1992 book, Gay Ideas, between privacy and secrecy, where he equated the former with the specifics of your sex life and the latter with what he calls “status”.
“Her claims to privacy are bogus,” he says. “What she is actually claiming is a right to secrecy, and there is no such general right. She’s just embarrassed, like a corrupt government not wanting the citizenry to know what is going on.”
According to Mohr and her many detractors, Foster’s tense must always be present continuous. Saying she has already come out is not good enough, she must always say she is coming out, because that is the nature of public outness.
But one of the reasons that’s so is that the media’s default is the opposite of outing, it’s inning.
We have had a picture of John Travolta kissing a man on the lips, Carrie Fisher has said she knows he’s gay, and we have a picture of Kevin Spacey snuggling with a man in Central Park. The problem isn’t so much that magazines, newspapers, websites and TV shows don’t now always refer to Travolta and Spacey as gay. That would be an inference and possibly inaccurate. But to ignore this very public information is negligent.
The reason, one can presume, is that the nature of these people’s sexual or romantic behaviour seems confusing. Travolta is married with children. Spacey had a big, public relationship with Helen Hunt. And entertainment exec Barry Diller, long assumed to be gay, with unchallenged in-print statements to that effect, married Dianne von Furstenberg a decade ago. He may have done it to shore up an inheritance he wanted to pass on to her children, or because von Furstenberg needed it for some reason, because he did, or because he loves her. People are complicated and to presume sexuality is any more black-and-white that outness is to ignore history, our eyes and probably ourselves.
But thankfully, the news media is not called upon to draw conclusions. It’s there to report on facts. And that is where, in the case of celebrity outness, it’s failing to do its job.
For reporters to treat Foster’s Golden Globes speech as her first coming out is sloppy. As many of her own critics remarked almost immediately, she’s done it before, and it was widely reported. It was just as sloppy for similar reports of a coming out for Victor Garber, who talked about his longtime boyfriend to a blogger in an interview that was then picked up everywhere. He had talked about it months before (as People and the LA Times responsibly reported) in FYI and it had already made it onto Wikipedia.
Perhaps we do need Foster to say, “I’m a lesbian,” instead of referring to “my beautiful Cydney” in order to report that she’s a lesbian. But we don’t need her, or anyone else, to say anything at all in order to report on their actions. We just need the common sense to report on what we hear and see, as we do with the rest of our reporting.