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True story: Although the maternal side of my family knew, I didn't tell my biological father that I was gay until (quite literally) the day of my sister's wedding nearly year ago, just before he was about to walk her down the aisle. What began as an incredibly awkward moment involving me in
drag a dress and makeup and weird conversation before the wedding, resulted in an embrace and my father's loving (for him) utterance of "We deuces," to let me know that we were still cool by the time we were taking post-nuptial photos; he even took the time to tell my girlfriend she was welcome to visit anytime. It was a tremendous relief. Sure, I probably should have done it much sooner, but procrastination is a tough drug to kick. Besides, I had never hidden anything from my dad or ever talked to him about relationships, so the idea of me sitting him down and telling him that he could add dating women to the list of things he and I had in common seemed really forced and inauthentic. Although it has always felt as if coming out was a ritual reserved for privileged white folks and Logo series, once I figured out that my dad inquiring, "So you cut your hair again, hunh?" wasn't a euphemism for "Are you gay?" I knew I had to say something.
Perhaps it's the fact that we are within sniffing distance of Memorial Day barbecue–and hence pride season for my Roy G. Biv crew–but last week, a noticeable number of notable folks had to say something, too. Former Villanova University basketball player, Will Sheridan, Phoenix Suns president and CEO, Rick Welts, and CNN's Don "Double Minority" Lemon all came out publicly. I'm happy for them. It's great that they now get to live their lives openly and honestly…and that they were remarkable enough for the media to pick up their stories in time for music video premieres and books being published. Hopefully they can Sheryl Swoopes their way into an endorsement deal or two. It was nice getting a hug from my father, but a contract with Olivia cruises or a Bravo reality show would have been even nicer. /sarcasm.
In addition, Charles Barkley (I swear I could listen to him talk all day) and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow have made recent comments about the topic. Barkley, whose heart and mind almost always seems to be in the right place (even if his grammar isn't), not only said that he knew he had played with gay teammates, but pushed back on the idea that athletes are especially homophobic, "It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: 'Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.' First of all, quit telling me what I think. I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play." For her part, Maddow, who is openly gay, explained that when she stated "if you're gay you have a responsibility to come out," she was not referring to fellow television anchor, Anderson Cooper. On her blog, Maddow clarified her beliefs about coming out:
- Gay people — generally speaking — have a responsibility to our own community and to future generations of gay people to come out, if and when we feel that we can.
- We should all get to decide for ourselves the "if and when we feel that we can" part of that.
- Closeted people should reasonably expect to be outed by other gay people if (and only if) they prey on the gay community in public, but are secretly gay themselves.
I also believe that coming out makes for a happier life, but that's not a matter of ethics, that's just corny advice.
Lemon seemed to agree with Maddow saying in an interview, "I think it would be great if everybody could be out [...] I think if I had seen more people like me who are out and proud, it wouldn't have taken me 45 years to say it, to walk in the truth."
And I seem to just be, well, annoyed. Perhaps it's the combination of these PR projects cloaked as coming out stories and the deeply problematic "It Gets Better Campaign," but I've had my fill of public figures coming out in ways that ostensibly forward their career goals then encouraging others to do the same because then the world would be really, really gay and hence more awesome.
For a lot of folks–black and not, athletes and not–it doesn't get better. For a lot of folks, it gets worse. For a lot of folks, the Times won't carry an interview that will help promote a new memoir or your league's new "Saying Gay is Bad" campaign–which apparently isn't working (Hello, Joakim Noah). For a lot of folks, corny advice cannot be heeded. As anxious as I was about my father rejecting me, what helped me was that fact that I knew that at the end of the day my mother still loved me. But I know that that's not a lot folks' reality. And I think it's time for would-be memoirists and musicians to acknowledge that in their interviews. It seems to me that it's a lot easier to be gay when you're HGTV's newest and hottest interior designer. When coming out means you may become a homeless teenager? Not so much.
It seems to me that coming out in a way that conveniently promotes a pet project caters more to individual interests than it does to some anonymous Michigan teenager who has gone from suicide watch to inspired now that the latest public figure has been able to exorcise some gay demons in a memoir or that Woody from Toy Story says it's all good. How, then, can we come out in one breath and then somehow suggest that those less famous and/or fortunate have a responsibility to a gay community that is more often than not white, elitist, racist, classist, etc. and refuses to acknowledge that sometimes there is safety in the closet, especially when Bravo doesn't need you for this season of Top Chef?
It gets better when we're honest about our motives and the privilege implicit in coming out. The only responsibility those who are gay and less famous and/or moneyed is to trust themselves and their ability to navigate their world safely. To echo Sir Charles, these tv anchors, etc. aren't role models–and shouldn't be until they acknowledge that being on tv makes being gay a little bit easier. As do the residuals and/or advance money they got for the book.