In light of Anderson Cooper's long-awaited exit from the closet, The New York Times asks us: "Do gay celebrities have an obligation to come out?"
Three columnists responded. One said yes (to quote the author: "When I was a teenager, there were zero out role models; we survived on rumors. But the world is a better place when people aren't lying."); one said no ("If celebrities want to stay in the closet, they're not being immoral. Just silly."); and one waffled ("An openly gay sports star could change the attitudes of older, more homophobic generations").
But here's the thing: All three missed the point. Yes, gay celebrities have a responsibility to come out, but so does everyone else who can do so safely.
Peter Singer, a noted moral philosopher, wrote, "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. This principle seems uncontroversial." Yet, according to the Times and many others, it appears that this moral principle is controversial: Closeted celebrities and, for that matter, everyone else claims their "right to privacy" while all around us queer kids are being denigrated and killing themselves.
This week Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Times:
And yet for many gay people, particularly gay youth, and especially gay youth of color, the acknowledgment that you're gay is still a process fraught with anxiety, if not terror and often violence. The irony is that they are victims of enduring prejudices that persist, in part, because gay celebrities enjoy the protection of a cozy omertà among the social and media circles like the one that shielded Mr. Cooper -- whose homosexuality was an open secret for years in New York -- until his welcome revelation, which took the form of an e-mail sent to the gay journalist Andrew Sullivan on Monday. ... You can't claim to be comfortable with being gay while trying to keep it a secret: When you conceal your sexuality, you're buying, however unconsciously or reluctantly, into the notion that there is, at some level, something wrong with it.
In other words, there are two distinctly different climates for queer people in the United States. Gay celebrities, we have discovered, face little backlash for being openly gay. Neil Patrick Harris is but one example of a very successful openly gay actor; he plays, among many other roles, the painfully, aggressively heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. Many other gay people face similarly non-threatening situations outside the closet: Their friends and families would accept them, they would face no violence or threats, and they would not, to quote Singer again, "thereby sacrific[e] anything of comparable moral significance."
On the other hand, of course, are those who live in parts of this country where, if they came out, they would be kicked out of their home (as some 26 percent of all queer kids who come out are), assaulted in school, or any of a host of other indignities.
We very rarely have a choice between which of these climates to grow up or live in. And there are a lot of queer kids who have no choice about whether or how or when they come out -- often because it's simply very evident that they're not "like the other boys/girls." The queers who stuck out have made it easier for all of us -- because they have had to be out even when the rest of us couldn't. Because of the indignities they've had to endure, the fem gays and the butch lesbians are often far stronger than those who can "pass," who can retreat back into the closet at convenience. Let's not forget: Drag queens started the Stonewall Riots.
Put very simply: We owe them. Not just the ones who came before us, not just the ones who spent their lives fighting for our ability to hold hands with our significant other while we walk down the street, but rather the ones living now, and in particular the kids. Almost all of us had a Queer Who Stuck Out at our high schools, but how many of us ignored the taunting, and how many of us participated in it?
Those of us who were lucky enough to be born into climates safe for us -- because of where we live or because of the identity we have -- have a moral obligation to be out (and yes, I'm looking at you, closeted celebrities). Cowardice and "privacy" are no excuse. Harvey Milk said it better than I ever could:
Gay brothers and sisters, what are you going to do about it? You must come out. Come out ... to your parents. ... I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. I know that is hard and will upset them, but think of how they will hurt you in the voting booth. Come out to your friends ... if they indeed are your friends. Come out to your neighbors ... to your fellow workers ... to the people who work where you eat and shop. ... But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.