Have you heard the news that Apple CEO Tim Cook is gay? Are you thinking, "OK, was anybody asking?" or perhaps more pointedly, "Who gives a flying fuck?"? Then this blog post is for you!
First, I have two guesses about who you are:
- You are not gay.
- You have not dealt with scores of people assuming that you, a straight person, are gay.
How could I be so presumptuous? Actually, it's easy:
- If you were gay, you would understand the importance of coming out.
- If you were straight but people were constantly assuming that you were gay, you would understand the importance of coming out.
I'm being snarky, I know. It's just that I get frustrated when I hear people criticize public figures for making announcements about their sexuality with sentiments akin to "I didn't ask, and I don't care." There was a whole lot of this when Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, came out prior to draft day.
To be fair, the media made a ridiculous spectacle out of this story. Even I got tired of hearing about whether he would get chosen by a team and what that might or might not reveal about the NFL, but that was the media's doing, not Sam's.
Which brings me to the reason I get so frustrated with people who feel that Sam and Cook didn't need to make announcements about their sexuality. You see, there's this thing that happens to gay folks who don't fit the general stereotypes (i.e., the shaved-headed butch for women, and the dramatic, gesture-prone hairstylist or interior designer with a propensity for lilting Ss for men.) The thing that happens is that people assume we're straight. I know because it happens to me, and I am neither particularly butch nor girly.
Which leads to my next question : If it happens to me, how often do you think it would've happened to a guy like Michael Sam? I can tell you how often: all the time. And each time it happened, Sam would've had to make a split-second decision to either correct the inaccuracy or keep quiet. My friend's wife, who is a very feminine, Hilary Swank-looking lesbian, has to make this decision when her real-estate clients see the rock on her ring finger and assume that she has a husband at home. If she chooses to correct them, she might lose their business or face hostility, but if she chooses to keep quiet, things can get tricky.
Tricky how, you might ask? Well, imagine that you are conversing with someone and the person assumes that you live in a box. You do not, in fact, live in a box. You live in a house, but you don't correct the person because, well, there are lots of people who don't look kindly on houses, and besides, you had this same conversation yesterday with someone else, and you just don't feel like doing it today. The next thing you know, the person begins asking you questions about the box you supposedly live in: Where did you get it? How do you like it? How long have you lived there? Do you and the box want to have kids? (OK, that last one only makes sense if the box is a husband, which it is in this analogy.)
So, while it may be true that you personally never asked whether Michael Sam was gay, the odds are that most people who looked at him would've assumed he was straight, which means that his options were to either come out or to live with droves of people presuming his heterosexuality. Can you imagine how many questions he'd have to answer about his box?
When I came out to my mother many years ago, she struggled with the news for a time. She was afraid for me, afraid of what I might face if I lived openly. At one point she told me that I ought to keep the details of my "personal life" to myself. My sexuality was my business, nobody else's, she said.
In response, I asked her when was the last time she'd casually mentioned my father in a conversation. She did it all the time. "Nick and I went to the movies this weekend," she might tell a co-worker on a Monday morning. Did she realize that she was talking about "her sexuality" every time she mentioned her husband? Of course not, because she was merely talking about her life, which is, like, a thing that people do, in case you hadn't noticed.
In a perfect world, we wouldn't need labels -- straight, gay, bi, queer, trans -- at all. Instead, people would just be people, but that's not reality. We live in a world where individuals size each other up and make assumptions. As long as this continues, coming out is going to remain a necessity, especially for public figures.
If you yearn for the time where people announce that they are gay and no media outlet is interested in running the story because, yawn, who cares, guess what: You're not alone. Plenty of gay people yearn for that time too. Michael Sam and Tim Cook probably yearn for that time. I know I do, but we aren't there yet.