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The Coming-Out Speech Act: It's OK, Jodie, Saying 'I'm Gay' Is Optional

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It has been nearly 15 years since Ellen DeGeneres' famous TIME cover with the declaration "Yep, I'm gay," and if recent comings out are any indication, the new celebrity coming out is different. Ben Walters said of Jodie Foster's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, "[T]his was not your standard public coming out." I think we can all agree on that. That said, its unconventionalness need not disqualify it as a coming out. Walters emphatically stated that "it was a coming out," adding, "One would have to be willfully obtuse to doubt the meaning of Foster's remarks." I agree.

Linguists have long analyzed what are called "speech acts," the basic units of interaction. To paraphrase the title of J. L. Austin's seminal book published 50 years ago, speech acts are how we "do things with words," from thanking, promising or giving condolences to requesting, apologizing and commanding. Speech acts are considered to have three levels of meaning: locutionary (the literal meaning of the utterance), illocuationary (the force or intention of the utterance) and perlocutionary (the effect of the utterance).

A speech act may have a prototypical feature or combination of features that constitute a prototypical realization. In American English, for example, "thank you" is a prototypical way of giving thanks, just as "I am sorry" is a prototypical way of apologizing. What happens in real interaction, however, is not always the prototypical realization of the speech act. Lesley Jeffries of the University of Huddersfield described the most prototypical apology as one that is in the first person ("I") and the simple present tense ("apologize"), addressed to the wronged party by the offending party with the infraction in the recent past, and accompanied by additional features, including an expression of concern or an offer of reparation. However, not all apologies contain these prototypical features. The public apology of a celebrity or a political figure may employ the third person ("Mistakes were made") or the future tense ("I will apologize"), and it may occur months, weeks or decades after the infraction or focus on something other than the main wrong (e.g., an apology for the word used rather than for the insult itself). Members of a community may assess a given apology by comparing it with the prototypical apology in order to decide whether or not to accept it, or whether it even constitutes an apology at all.

Similarly, "I am gay" or "I am a lesbian" may be the prototypical realization of the coming-out speech act, against which all other coming-out speech acts are judged. Deborah A. Chirrey, a member of the faculty of Edge Hill University and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Language and Sexuality, explains,

[S]peakers make use of numerous locutions that they select as more or less suited to the particular hearer. One way in which locutions vary is in their directness in referring to sexuality. One can represent this as a continuum with, at one end, [the use of a] locution [that] involves the use of a term which clearly and unambiguously labels the individual's sexual identity.

Naming the process (coming out) but not the identity label is at the center of the continuum, while referring to partners is toward the less direct end of the spectrum and is "a strategy familiar to many lesbians and gay men." Finally, at the most indirect end of the continuum is expressing opinions and attitudes that "represent a non-heterosexist view of the world."

Last year Anderson Cooper came out to Andrew Sullivan in a publicly available email in which he said, among other things, "The fact is, I am gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn't be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud." Similarly, back in 2006, Neil Patrick Harris stated in a magazine interview, "I am ... quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man." These are but two examples of prototypical comings out.

However, does this mean that it is not a coming out if the individual does not utter the words "I am gay" or "I am a lesbian"? Reference to a same-sex partner, either by name or by pronouns, is not a new strategy and is an alternative that many gay and lesbian people use in their daily lives as a way of being open about who they are without, as Chirrey says, "demanding that attention be paid to their gayness." Astronaut Sally Ride, for example, in effect came out posthumously when she mentioned her "partner of 27 years" in the announcement of her death. While there was some debate as to whether or not she should have come out earlier, before her death, there was no debate that the act constituted a coming out. In fact, I had already considered Foster's thanking of "my beautiful Cydney" during her acceptance of an award a coming out back in 2007.

It is for the LGBT community to decide whether Jodie Foster's utterance categorizing Cydney Bernard as "one of the deepest loves of my life, my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life" is or is not a coming out. Personally, I agree with Ben Walters that, while not prototypical in form, Foster's speech does constitute a coming out. Though people may wish that she had done it sooner or more directly, I urge people to consider that while a simple declarative sentence may be the most prototypical realization of the coming-out speech act, it is not the only way that it can be realized. In Foster's case, the illocutionary force of the speech act, or the utterance's force/intention, was to come out, and that was its perlocutionary effect. She may not have uttered, "Yep, I'm gay," but Jodie Foster came out, and Jodie Foster is out.