The danger of coming out

Thanks to television darling Anderson Cooper and hip-hop recording artist Frank Ocean, coming out is back in the news again in a big way.

And, of course, people are posing the usual questions about celebrities and whether it’s a good thing for them to admit to being gay. Does the right to privacy trump whatever good famous people might do by publicly saying they are gay?

There is a side to this debate that often gets missed. Both Cooper and Ocean are excellent candidates to examine when posing the question: is it sometimes too dangerous for some people to come out?

Anderson is a globetrotting journalist, and his work has often taken him to places where being publicly out could have a detrimental effect on the way he does his job, or perhaps even threaten his life. For example, if he has to interview some powerful anti-gay religious figure, could the integrity of the interview be coloured unfairly by the fact his subject hates everything Cooper represents? Or could his being gay and out make him a target on the streets of some African or Middle Eastern country when he is covering a news event there? These are valid concerns, and I know of a number of queer journalists who play their cards very close to their chests for this very reason.

In the case of Frank Ocean, the admission has even further-reaching implications since Ocean is part of the notoriously homophobic (and often misogynistic) hip-hop community. No doubt there are many queers and bi people doing the “down low” in this genre, but for Ocean to admit to having been profoundly in love with a man for two years takes mega cojones, because he’s not just talking about sex, but about actual, deep, intimate emotions for another man, which, I suspect, is much scarier for a lot of his peers and listeners than simply thinking about sucking someone’s cock or taking it up the ass.

Interestingly, Ocean seemed to invite the attention that led to his coming out by refusing to change the pronouns in a song from “he” to “she,” a handy little bit of concealment many gay singers having been pulling off for years. It was questions about these lyrics that led to his revelation, and I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of the office of his collaborators Jay-Z and Kanye West when Ocean told them. Neither rapper is known for being friendly to the gay community. Are they and the rest of their ilk admiring of what Ocean’s done, or are they looking for ways to push him out of the business? And what of the music buyers who are now being asked to purchase the songs of a man who admits to loving a guy? Will they continue to support him, or will they support the artists whose work doesn’t challenge them in any way?


What I find most encouraging about the steps these men have taken is that they have decided to do it while they’re at the height of their fame and power, rather than, like so many gay celebs, when their careers are in definite downswings and they’re desperately in need of some major attention.

The Queer Star Hall of Fame is full of such folks. The world-famous athlete who’s hit his or her expiry date, whose lucrative endorsement deals have dried up and who needs an attention-grabbing hook to sell a memoir or call attention to some new job. The coy politicians who spend decades in office laughing off questions about why they aren’t married or referring to partners as “travelling companions” or “assistants” until they retire and admit they’ve always been out, just not to anyone outside their immediate circles of friends. The pop star/actor/television host whose once brilliant career has faltered who then decides it’s time to announce the fact he or she’s been living a secret life and spill all the sordid details to keep the gossip vultures feeding and the public’s interest for another 15 minutes.

While I like to think of the act of coming out as personal and liberating for anyone who does it, at any point in one’s life, it is sometimes hard not to look at these “Johnny-come-out-latelies” as somewhat opportunistic in their actions. But, in the end, the important thing is they did come out and have provided examples for the many young people in the world who are struggling with the same issues.

Some of these people live in countries where being publicly gay is extremely dangerous. They could be imprisoned, tortured or killed simply for being who they are. And yet many of these people, just like gay cops, soldiers, athletes, freedom fighters and rebels all over the world, still have to admit to who they are despite the danger, proving, along with Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean, that closets, in the developed world at least, really are only for clothes, brooms and cowards.

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