Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why It Should Matter

Ellen Page came out as gay last week. "I'm tired of hiding," she told a crowd at the Human Rights Campaign's Time to THRIVE Conference on Valentine's Day. She made the announcement "To help others have an easier and more hopeful time. Regardless, for me I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility." Thank you Ellen, that is very compassionate and responsible of you. But let's back up to that "hiding" part.
I am old enough to remember when "outing" wasn't such a voluntary thing. I remember when Rock Hudson "came out." It was 1985, and the secret shame that one of Hollywood's most dashing and virile leading men was dying of AIDS was a shock to the entire world, not just the film community that had kept that secret for decades. I remember the fear and outrage this announcement generated even as sexual preference was finally becoming something that could be discussed, albeit with that same potential for shame and anger that erupted when Mister Hudson found himself at the forefront of this very difficult cultural tipping point.
It was Rock Hudson that made it possible, for better or worse, to be gay and lead a public life. Announcing one's sexual preference became less of a promotional stunt, as many felt David Bowie's proclamation of his bisexuality in 1972. This may seem crass, but manipulation of public image is something at which David has always excelled. That celebrities may time or engineer the declarations of their personal lives sometimes feels a little disingenuous. As a white male heterosexual living in the United States in 2014, I feel comfortable making that assertion. That there is any kind of backlash or retribution for how consenting adults choose to carry on their lives behind closed doors or walking down the street should no longer be an issue in the twenty-first century.
And yet it is. Still. Al Gore's Internet is still full of "did you know?" hints and rumors. The game of "Who's Gay?" still gets played with regularity, primarily with celebrities and public figures. The most ironic part of this comes when we try to figure out if an actor is pretending to be something he or she is not. That's what actors do, after all. That we require of our movie stars and rock gods is an accounting of things that are none of our business is the real shame.
Now, on the eve of what could be another young person's career-defining moment, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam has chosen to come out and step into what may be some of the harshest light possible: The National Football League College Draft. What sort of athlete Sam is stopped being the question at the instant he declared himself gay. Can he drop into coverage? Can he manage the complexities of a 3-4 defense? Who cares when what we all really want to know about takes place not on the field but in the locker room. My guess is that over the next year Michael Sam will have plenty of time to consider whether he should have "stayed hidden." But that's where we are in 2014. The good news, whether you are a movie actor or barista, athlete or custodian, is this: It Gets Better.

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