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Jodie Foster and the Queer Line Between Public and Private

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In a rambling acceptance speech for a special achievement award at the Golden Globes Sunday, Jodie Foster begrudgingly announced -- almost as though at gunpoint -- that she's a lesbian: "Now apparently I'm told that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a primetime reality show."

Foster's plea for privacy from the glare of the limelight -- while standing in the glare of the limelight -- brought to mind Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Like Foster, both were precocious child stars who probably never felt that they owned a private thought or feeling, something that the rest of us take for granted. Lacking this critical ingredient to forming a healthy sense of self must surely have contributed to their self-destruction at nearly the exact age that Jodie Foster is now.

They had something else in common with Jodie Foster: There was long speculation that they may have been gay. Queer people, like celebrities (and certainly queer celebrities), have a complicated relationship with privacy and revelation. Some of the deepest and most crucial yet most fragile and vulnerable feelings gays ever experience are, from day one, put under a microscope and judged against what's "normal." A human's single greatest need -- love -- is derided as the very thing that renders us unlovable.

Some react by withdrawing into a zone of privacy or even concealment that we zealously guard. But doing so makes it hard to ever feel truly known and thus truly loved as we are. So some react the opposite way, by exaggerating disclosure, yielding the theatrics and spectacle characteristic of queer culture. If we turn ourselves inside out, empty our dark pockets into full view, sing it loud, air our most suspect emotions and mannerisms so that our harshest judges won't be able to miss what they might judge most harshly, only then can we be safe. Only then might we feel the comfort of believing we've been fully accepted, warts and all. Only then is it clear that those still standing beside us remain in our corner while fully knowing us. This explains why some gay people -- and some aspects of queer culture -- seem to actively seek out shame. Announcing that we're bad and unworthy may be preferable to living a life ever worried that others will find us so -- and leave us behind for it.

The healthy balance, it would seem, is neither secrecy nor exhibitionism but confidence that at the core of who we are lies nothing better nor worse than what lies at the core of anyone else. And so pride became the antidote to shame. Coming out, we eventually determined, as with being queer itself, didn't need to involve performance, exaggeration and testing. It simply required authenticity, coupled with a dignified insistence that gay was good and not a source of shame. Nothing bad or dangerous or ultimately unlovable lurked in those dark pockets, so throw the closet open to light and get on with your life.

This is the journey Jodie Foster revealed so publicly last night. Many gay people have strong feelings about how that journey should look. Coming out is the single most effective way to rid straight people of the false impressions of gay people that linger when you don't know that your colleagues or loved ones are gay, and it tells LGBT youth -- who too often feel isolated and ashamed -- that they're not alone and have nothing to be ashamed of. That's why coming out has become a sacred duty to some. Anything less than full disclosure can mightily irk, especially among the rich and famous, who have the power to influence others and the luxury, it would seem, to absorb the shock of rejection.

It's true that hiding hurts. Research shows mental health consequences to holding major secrets over time. And yes, it's absolutely a wasted opportunity for powerful, visible people who probably could come out unscathed to deny young LGBT people the nurturance of knowing that an admired public figure is gay. Privacy and shame are closely connected. Adam and Eve covered their "privates" the moment they gained moral consciousness, an awareness of good and evil, setting the tone for a truism ever since: You don't cover up stuff if there ain't something wrong with it.

Any step a gay person takes to hide their identity that they wouldn't take to hide the fact that they're, say, Irish, vegetarian or left-handed is probably not a neutral quest for privacy but reflects their own doubt about just how OK it is to be gay. Foster's reluctance to just pull an Ellen ("Yep, I'm gay"), and her tortured speech, with its resentful tone and its ultimate avoidance of the "L" word, made being gay and coming out seem tortured things in themselves.

Still, gay people are born with the unique burden of disclosure, one that is supremely unfair. Coming out is never just a single act but a constant obligation if one is to assure that people don't assume that they're straight. We're always encountering new people who won't know, hence stuffing us back into the closet and reimposing the burden of coming out. And for years the world has berated and punished us not only for being gay but for being honest.

For folks like Foster, I'd borrow another theme from the Golden Globes: "Will you join in our crusade?" But that's different from "you're an asshole if you don't." Gay people should understand a bit about the messiness of the public-vs.-private dilemma. What seems to draw many gay people to celebrity culture, perhaps more so than others, is the skill that both gays and celebrities must cultivate to navigate between privacy and disclosure under the watchful eye of strangers.

How hard it is to get it perfect. If there's one thing LGBT people should agree on, it's the importance of compassion, and of not bullying our own.