By Kaylia M. Metcalfe
The LGBT community is made up of men, women, individuals who don’t identify as either, tall people, short people, liberals, conservatives, gun-wielding rednecks and Ivy League elitist types. There is, however, one thing (besides the obvious) that they all have in common: the issue of coming out.
Coming out: when to do it, who to do it to, how to do it…and in many cases, whether or not to do it at all.
The decision can be difficult and as counselors to LGBT youth, we are encouraged to remind them that coming out isn’t always necessary. If you feel your life will be in danger, if you are likely to get kicked out of your home, if there are mitigating circumstances, then we caution people to wait, to protect themselves and to come out later.
But beyond that, the decision of how and when and why to come out is a fairly universal conundrum—which manifests itself in a variety of ways. There are those who come out quietly, in a one-on-one conversation. There are those who stand up at Thanksgiving dinner, throw down a cloth napkin and make a loud proclamation. There are those who never officially come out but hope that it is subtly implied through the use of the pronoun game (where you intentionally structure all references to relationships, both past and present, in vague ways to avoid ever having to say “he” or “she”).
And it makes sense that there is this variance in how and when and even if. We are, after all, a community made up of all sorts of people.
Last month, Jodie Foster came out in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. She referenced her longtime life partner (co-parent) and called it her coming out, but as many were quick to point out, she never said those keywords: “I’m gay.” To a fair number of bloggers and journalists, her coming out wasn’t gay enough.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. Her coming out was obviously not a shock to many (including her nearest and dearest whom, she pointed out, already knew), but her coming out was…her coming out. Her word choice is far from important. What is important is that she felt the need to do so and then she did it. Who are we to judge her methods or motivations?
Her “loud and proud” moment is interesting because she referenced those quiet coming out conversations that took place years ago with people who were dear to her heart. It seemed that everyone who mattered to her already knew. So why did she feel the need to come out again so publicly?
Obviously, I have no idea of her motivations. Perhaps she felt truly safe for the first time, perhaps she was getting pressure from fans or family members, perhaps she wanted to be at the top of the media circuit for a few weeks. Who knows, and really, does it really matter?
I don’t think it does because as the world changes, as people on both sides of the aisle become more accepting and as marriage equality slowly becomes a reality, we still need famous well-respected celebrities to come out and proudly represent their community. No matter why she came out, and why she came out now, the important thing is that she did.
Some will say that it is the responsibility of those in positions of power or spotlight to come out publicly and loudly, that they should lead by example. That their sacrifice of privacy is called for in the name of all the suffering scared closeted people out there.
I would have to respectfully disagree.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing to come out—especially as Ms. Foster did in a pretty dress surrounded by your extended work family and friends while accepting an award. Honestly, outside of a private dinner party, there was probably no friendlier room for her to be loud and proud in. And yes, adding another successful beautiful and talented woman to the ranks of Out Gay Americans is a boon.
But her choice of when and how was her choice. Her words were her choice. Her method and timing were her choice, and these choices ought to be respected. The notion that anyone can judge another’s choice in this matter is preposterous.
Had she not come out publicly, she would still be the same successful beautiful and talented lesbian. Her identity would have stayed privately known to those who needed to know it—a situation that many in our community will find familiar.
Let us remember that the days of it not mattering how we identify ourselves aren’t quite here yet. Getting the chance to celebrate another out and proud celebrity is a wonderful gift. But it is just that, a gift, a privilege. Knowing the sexual orientation of another person is not a right.
So, thank you, Ms. Foster, for coming out.
And for those of you who are not quite ready, that’s okay too. It is, after all, your journey. You didn’t choose to be gay. You do, however, get to choose who knows it.
Kaylia Metcalfe is a writer, blogger and activist in Fresno. She is a co-founder of Skeptics Without a Cause and serves on the Gay Central Valley Board of Directors. Her short story collection “Links” is available at www.amazon.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.