I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about Jodie Foster’s ‘coming out, sorta’ speech, and the answer is, mixed. And then I found someone who crystallised for me exactly what’s bothering me.
Patrick Strudwick, writing in the Guardian, nailed it. I urge you to read his piece in full, but here’s a couple of key points. We’ll start with why coming out is important.
” . . every gay TV character, every gay politician, every persecutory law revoked, every last triumph or freedom we’ve ever enjoyed, has come from a single act of defiance, repeated tirelessly across the world: the act of coming out.”
Which is why, in the 21st century, it is every gay persons responsibility to be out. It must be part of everyone’s life plan, like finding a partner, progressing your career, buying a home, marrying and settling down, having children, starring in a Hollywood move before you reach puberty – whatever your personal goals may be, being out has to be on the list.
Each person who comes out makes it easier for the next one. It’s your individual contribution to the overall social good of your community. And this is what irked me about Fosters ‘coming out’. She couldn’t have done it without us, yet she made it sound as if it was all her own work. Here’s Strudwick again:
“She surfed the wave of others’ courage and gave back only when she felt like it. It is every gay public figure’s social responsibility to be out, to make life better for those without publicists and pilates teachers. . . . . You cannot skip the tough part of a human rights struggle.”
And here he hits another nail on the head. It still isn’t as easy as it should be to come out – unless you’re famous. Compared to the rest of us, those in the public eye have it easy. They have ‘publicists and pilates teachers’, managers and employers with a vested interest in keeping them happy and successful. They have counsellors and trainers and coaches to support them, bodyguards to protect them.
Ordinary people – the people whose coming out, over time, has made it possible for people like Foster to a) live a lie by omission and then b) come out when they feel like it and take all the credit for themselves – don’t have any of that.
When we come out, we can lose friends, family and jobs. We may have to leave the Scouts, the church, even the very town in which we live. For us, it truly is a momentous decision. It takes courage. And not just once, but over and over again.
Stars – whether of stage & screen or track & field – only have to find that courage once. One public appearance with their significant other. One release of one photo with their same sex partner and kids. One speech at the Golden Globes. And everyone in the world knows. Done and dusted.
It’s not like that for the rest of us. It’s a big deal when we tell our friends. Another when we tell our parents. Heart-in-mouth time, over and over again each time we tell someone new: teachers, classmates, the sports team, the Mothers Union, kids playgroup, colleagues, workmates, neighbours, doctors, nurses. Again and again and again our whole life long. But we have to. As Strudwick observes
“Without visibility we would have nothing. Without millions of ordinary people, kids in British state schools, activists in Uganda, married Christians in the Bible belt, saying, “Actually, I’m gay,” Jodie Foster would not be able to stand up, resplendent, creaking open the closet door free of consequences.”
For most people the perpetual coming out process takes a sustained level of courage and commitment far above what is required to make one speech, once, insulated and comforted by your wealth and your support crew. So thanks, Jodie, for finally doing your bit. Thanks to every famous individual who has done theirs. Bigger thanks to those who don’t have the support, who don’t make the news, but still take the risks, and diminish the burden not only for themselves, but also for those who come after.
And to those of you still in the closet: what’s your game plan? How and when do you plan to begin the journey? What is your timeframe? What and who do you need to support you through, and what are you doing to find it? Don’t put it off: get started today.
It ought to go without saying, but just in case, I’d like to add: coming out isn’t just good for others. It’s good for you, too. Maintaining a closet is hard work. Spending your time pretending to be someone you’re not, lying to everyone who knows you, is bad for you (though it’s great training for an actor). It’s like smoking. Give it up.