Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is it time to dump the term openly gay?

I'm not for sure that it's not nearing a time when we should ditch the phrase "openly gay," and in fact stop referring to sexual orientation altogether when we're talking about politicians and public figures.

Why is it relevant? What do we get out of knowing whether a candidate is gay or straight? Yet "openly gay" is a ubiquitous tag line. The media carefully use "openly" to signal they are not outing someone, deliberately or inadvertently.

Homophobia is still out there, in lame jokes, in both urban and rural settings, and in communities across a broad ethnic and religious spectrum and in political campaigns where it flares up in nasty ways. In fact, there may be a danger that no longer referring to a public person as "openly gay" could create an unwelcome return to the closet.

Most gay public figures are well aware of the pressure on them from within the LGBT community to be "out" role models who can offer comfort and reassurance to young people worried about coming out or even just appearing to be gay.

Last summer, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper publicly came out, at 45, stating, "In a perfect world, I don't think it's anyone else's business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted."

Knowing a public figure is gay can add to their lustre — it takes courage to be out in a predominantly straight world.  Yet the millennial generation, which will one day rule this world (so be nice to them), is quickly moving beyond noting or caring about gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, differences that their parents can't resist mentioning in casual conversation. Mom and Dad, your kids don't really give a damn if your stockbroker is gay, unless they are taught to hate and look at such matters.

In politics and in life, which can still remain two separate entities, the more people come into contact with someone who is gay — in their families, at work or socially — the less they "otherize" them.
Even in the American heartland, long-held prejudices fanned by the religious right are melting away. In last week's election, gay marriage initiatives passed in several states (although it's still constitutionally banned in 31) and Wisconsin voters elected Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator.

I loved her line when asked if she thought her presence in that august chamber would make a difference to gay rights: "If you're not in the room they talk about you, if you're in the room, they talk with you."

So is it still fair to proclaim someone is "openly gay?"  How important is a label?  Because of where I live and work, it is easier for me to make it a non-issue.  Some people think I am gay, some don't, but for my students, it's actually a non-issue.  It is not something I will discuss with them, now will I confirm whether I am or not, but kids are smarter than we think they are.

I do believe that we are not quite there where we will stop saying "openly gay," and that is because we do still need some openly gay role models.  People need to see that we are essentially no different from them. We just happen to have an attraction to someone of the same sex.  To which I say, "So what?"


Jason said...

There are many issues at play here, when I worked in radio, we had to say 'openly gay' when reporting someone who had come out as gay, to ensure we weren't 'outing' someone and therefore opening ourselves up to legal action.

Also, by publicly announcing someone who had come out as gay, by referencing them as openly gay, it re-enforces the much needed visibility in the wider community of gay people, showing that we come from all walks of life, in all different positions of all different ethnicities and not just the flamboyant camp people marching at gay pride events or similar.

I would much prefer a world where sexuality doesn't matter, where it is irrelevant, where we are all equal, sadly we're not at that place yet.

Greetings from Brighton!

Coop said...

Hi Joe, I hope you're feeling better. I kind of agree with you on this. But I'm not sure that someone will return to the closet just because they aren't described as "openly" gay. Anderson Cooper came out. He knows he did.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is enough condemnation for anyone who "outs" a famous person as gay. The homophobes have someone else to pick on and *some* gay people celebrate.

And nothing in "gay world" annoys me more than people who believe they can force others out of the closet. Or, saying that so and so "is" gay they just haven't admitted it. M.Y.O.B.

SEAN said...

About 30 years ago (god that's a long time) a man who had been burner over 80% of his body and disfigured answered a question about how he dealt with people staring at him. He said, 'At first, it's survival instinct. People are notice something different from what they know and look to evaluate any danger. People do this with amazingly beautiful people, people who dress differently, very short or very tall people, people of different races, different weights - anything on the extreme of the bell curve."

I think it is the same with gay people, because we are a small percentage and able to blend in (like religion, political affiliation, some disfigurements and illnesses) people will assume that we are just like them. "Oh, you're a Republican or HIV+ or have diabetes." So we will always have to confirm our orientation but it will cease to be a reason for discrimination.

Will said...

I do not think it is time yet. The Republican Party and its camp followers (who consist of some of the most vicious homophobes extant) have recently been shocked by losing an election they felt they would win in a walk.

Part and parcel of this election victory was unprecedented victory for same sex marriage and for gay/lesbian candidates for the Senate, House, and for regional legislatures and state houses across the nation. Republicans were shocked because they had lived through the campaign denying polls that showed Obama ahead, and denying that gays, lesbians and their rights could prevail. They need to know just how many of us there are out here, and how many of us are now a frequent and serious part of government on the national, state and local municipal levels.

So yes, we need to identify as openly gay our men and women in every stratum of society and public life until they can deny no longer, accepting us as the vital, intelligent, creative, dynamic, patriotic and valuable members of American life that we so truly are.

Coop said...

So what's the difference between saying that Anderson Cooper is gay vs. saying that he is openly gay? He came out and identified himself as such.