Note: This originally aired in late February, in response to Michael Sam’s coming out. Having revised this piece several times, this is the version I’m most comfortable with. Enjoy.
Over the last week, articles, interviews, and sound bites having been flying fast, loudly wondering why anyone should care when a celebrity comes out of the closet. Coming out is over, right? I mean, marriage equality across the country is a matter of time, QUILTBAG people are everywhere, and everyone’s used to it. Sure, there are little pockets of resistance here and there, but in America, we’ve mostly moved on – it’s the twenty-first century, after all! Get over it!
The first openly gay NFL hopeful risking his career isn’t news? If you think the players and coaches are shrugging over this, you haven’t been paying attention. You don’t see how it matters that an actress publicly admits to what amounts to an open secret? There’s hardly any risk in Liberal Hollywood – why does it matter? They’re the same as everyone else; it’s not news.
I will not get over it, and I will not go away. I am not the same as you, and I won’t pretend to be. This angry queer will not be shoved into a closet of comfortable conformity again. Do you know what all this “same” crap says to me? “I don’t mind if you’re gay, so long as you don’t act like it.” I spent enough time not acting like it when I shoved myself back into the closet to work construction, and it’s bullshit. I’ll take equality, but I do not need to behave the way you do to deserve it. You do not have to be the same to be equal. That’s just basic math.
At the risk of alienating any allies reading this, I don’t want tolerance, I want acceptance, everywhere, not just the ghettos and gayborhoods. I don’t have to flaunt my queerness, but damn it, if I want to I should be able to. The more Mom and Pop Ohio have queer faces shoved in theirs, the more used to it they’ll get; the more used to it they get, the less likely they’ll be to spit on their son, their cousin, their neighbor, a stranger. These things haven’t stopped being true, just because there’s a celebrity coming-out story every week. It hasn’t stopped changing the country, just because it’s not the most exciting headline. It’s still essential work. As much as it might feel passé in this day and age, the fight isn’t over. Until the very act of being visibly queer isn’t an act of defiance in itself, until a simple scarf or hairstyle isn’t subversive, there will be a need for LGBT visibility – everywhere, all the time, not just during Pride.
Each of these coming out stories is a triumph, impossible just ten years ago, but I’d argue that there aren’t enough of them, that they don’t go far enough. Almost all out celebrities toe a heteronormative line – with broad strokes of equality and victory, the QUILTBAG community has been whitewashed, except during Pride. It gets better? For whom, precisely? For those of us neatly paired off, bow tie to bow tie and pearl to pearl? If we don’t fit that neat little pattern planned by the Mattachine society all those years ago, are we still accepted, still safe? Don’t be naïve.
Alright, I’ll admit, it is better than it used to be, but it’s important that celebrities keep coming out, especially in new spaces, new venues traditionally denied to us, to ensure that it keeps getting better. Even if you’re femme or confused or still trying to figure out your identity or not neatly defined – but you have to work to make it better; it doesn’t magically get that way on its own. We need to be seen having careers, living all sorts of varied lives, to exist at all outside of our safely queer enclaves. Seeing yourself represented in the world around you is essential to accepting yourself, to coming to terms with the fact that you’re not just like everyone else, that you never will be, and that you will have to cope with that for the rest of your life. Seeing that you’re not alone, when you feel like a unique specimen – the only freak of nature in a hundred miles – it continues to be important, internet communities aside. We still need to come out of the closets and into the streets, and we always will, even if we’re straight-acting or can pass – not everyone can, and we have to stand up for each other, because despite the strides we’ve made, there’s an overwhelming ocean left out there that doesn’t draw those subtle distinctions.
There will be a need to be out, to be in public and enraged, as long as an assumption of heterosexuality, of being cisgender is the norm. As long as those are the default expectations, there will be a need for celebrities to come out; there will be a need for individuals to come out, to be seen, unashamed. Even in that far-off distant day, we should have the option to be highly visible, to be represented on the world stage. We’re not going away, and we’re not shutting up.
In a way, I’m glad of this dismissive attitude that seems so widespread. It’s meant to show that the LGBT community has arrived, that we’re fully integrated. It’s meant to show that we no longer have anything to fear, or worry about, or that any separate concerns we might have about our tenuous position in society are relevant. After all, we’re free to marry in a rapidly increasing number of states, and our straight allies generously assert that we’re the same as them. What more could we ask for? The right to continue to be seen and heard seems like a good place to start.