Tuesday, February 5, 2008


On a recent episode of The L Word, the character Alice outs a [fictional] NBA star after he appears on TV spouting some homophobic drivel. She posts on her website some secretly taken footage of said star and his boyfriend, and before she knows it the footage has gone viral. Shortly afterwards she is invited to appear on a news show where viewers are essentially posed the question: when, if ever, is it acceptable to "out" someone?

There are some who believe that celebrities or other influential individuals that are lesbian or gay have a responsibility to be open about their sexual orientation in order to set an example and increase acceptance. Gossip bloggers such as Perez Hilton have made a career out of speculating on the private lives of the famous. He is said to be responsible for the rumors that led to the eventual outings of both Grey's Anatomy star T.R. Knight and former Doogie Howser celeb Neil Patrick Harris. Many of these gossip bloggers, especially those that are also gay, seem to feel that stars who choose to remain closeted are living a lie and feeding into the homophobia that exists in both Hollywood and the larger society. Others have rightly pointed out the problems that a no-longer-closeted star faces.

For someone like Ellen Degeneres, for example, being out has ultimately not hindered her career. But for a younger celebrity, whose career has been built on sex appeal, coming out of the closet just might be the kiss of death. Another recent L Word episode explores this, when Alice sort of outs another character: the sexy young actress Niki Stevens. Tina, who is producing Les Girls, the new film Niki is starring in, is furious. She says to Alice, "
We want this movie to reach a large, mainstream audience, all right? And if everyone thinks the lead of our movie is gay, then that makes it a small, little niche film." Niki's agents are equally nervous about her being outed, saying that no guys are going to want to watch her on screen if they think that she's only interested in women. Applying it to real life, would all the young girls go crazy over tween sensations like Zac Efron or the Jonas Brothers if they thought that they were gay?

But beyond the issue of potential career damage, there is the matter of personal choice and integrity. Celebrities are human beings, not products owned by the public domain. It's true that being famous means being in the public eye and being scrutinized to a higher degree than the average person. But there comes a point when a line is crossed. Everyone, after all, deserves a degree of privacy, especially when it comes to family and loved ones. Do we really want to force someone out of the closet who is not ready? Doesn't that diminish both the importance of the act and the courage that is required to take that step? Ellen Degeneres is praised both for coming out at a time when not a lot of gay celebrities were openly revealing their sexuality and for the integrity surrounding her decision. Doesn't everyone deserve to have that kind of integrity surrounding what is likely to be the most difficult revelation of their life? Recently out former NBA-player John Amaechi says,
"I wanted to [come out] in a way that I could control to make sure that the message was confluent and coherent and that I was mentally, physically and emotionally resilient." Should not every person have that amount of control over something so important?

Then there is the matter of those individuals, such as Jodie Foster, who have already had long and successful careers, and who have been long-rumored to be gay. Many think that they should just come out already because they don't really have anything to lose at this point. This is a tough issue because, on the one hand, it certainly can be infuriating to lesbians and gays who are desperate for increased visibility. For them, it seems that someone who refuses to come out after so many successful years in the industry is only perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is something shameful that should remain a secret. But then again, does a person's age or the length of their career mean that they should have any less right to their privacy? Just because they have "nothing to lose" doesn't mean that they are necessarily ready to admit their sexuality to a still largely homophobic society -- that they are ready to be "out and proud" or be spokespeople for LGBT rights. It's unfortunate, of course it's unfortunate. And at times it might feel like a slap in the face to the many individuals who took tremendous risks and suffered huge losses by being open about their sexuality. But does the lesbian and gay community truly want to be represented by those who are uncomfortable with being out? A better and more honorable goal might be working towards ending the attitudes and the other reasons that are keeping celebrities and others in the closet. Or perhaps supporting and getting into the mainstream performers who have been out from the start, such as actors Leisha Hailey, Jill Bennett, and Michelle Paradise, comedian Bridget McManus, or musicians Tegan and Sara (among many, many others).

Finally, we come back to the initial question, which asked when, if ever, it is okay to out someone. Although I have touched upon some gray areas, I think mostly I have given scenarios where it is probably better to leave the outing up to the person who is coming out. But I still haven't explored Alice's situation -- namely, is it alright -- maybe even imperative -- to out those who are perpetuating homophobic hatred? On The L Word Alice thought so. When she made her appearance on the news show Hardline, the interviewer attacked her for destroying a man's family and career and for violating his privacy. Alice says:

No, I'm talking. I'm not finished. Listen. Gay people are bashed and harassed and killed every day. And then you've got this guy who's gay himself, and he's saying this garbage? It's disgusting! I totally respect someone's choice to stay in the closet. I do. If that's what they want to do, I get it. But I don't think it's OK to kiss your boyfriend one day and then go out and trash gay people the next. Especially if you're a public figure and you have people looking up to you. No, I don't feel bad. I do not feel bad about what I did."

Hmmm ... now here is where we come to perhaps the most ethically ambiguous area of the "outing" debate. Alice, while a fictional character, holds an opinion that is probably shared by many people. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, for example, holds that it is acceptable to "out" gay politicians who act in homophobic ways. He says, "
The fact is, yes, the Republicans do think [homosexuality] should be a crime. And I think there’s a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy...people who want to demonize other people shouldn’t then be able to go home and close the door, and do it themselves," Still, others believe that even homophobic actions do not justify outing any individual because it implies that there is something wrong with being gay and because it is probably going to be harmful to that person's family. A 2005 article from Tacoma, WA's News Tribune explores this issue in further depth.

So is outing a homophobic individual justified? My opinion? I just don't know the answer. I definitely feel a certain level of satisfaction in seeing a bigoted individual get his or her comeuppance, but at the same time I would like to see less negative press surrounding homosexuality. Perhaps it is much better to focus on getting positive press for the LGBT community than to carry out some kind of vendetta against those who have harmed the community. Again I want to stress that I think the most important thing is to work towards creating a world where people
want to live freely and openly, and are able to do it without fear of negative consequences.