As the gay community and its allies have long been encouraging him to do, sometimes gently and sometimes a bit more forcefully, CNN news anchor and talk show host Anderson Cooper came out of the closet today. Yes, the silver fox enjoys the company of other men, a fact that perhaps only the most out-of-touch/in-denial grandmas hadn't yet picked up on. (There were subtle hints for years.) Still, it's a big deal that he's now publicly said it. But did he say it the right way?
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There wasn't a People magazine cover or a stirring declaration on either of the two television shows he hosts. Instead it was in an email he sent to fellow gay media star Andrew Sullivan, which Sullivan then posted on The Daily Beast. (Presumably with Cooper's consent.) In the email, Cooper expresses concern that his long silence on the issue implied that he felt he had something to hide, an assertion that he says is "absolutely not true." So he's proud of himself and his sexuality, but he did not make it a feature of his public life because, "I've always believed that who a reporter votes for, what religion they are, who they love, should not be something they have to discuss publicly." It was a professional decision that eventually came to have personal consequences, so he settled the matter in an almost indirect way, dropping the admission into someone else's blog post. Some folks, like Slate's Dana Stevens, think this was "classily" done, perhaps for its subtlety, its turning of an issue into a non-issue, or its high-minded ruminating on the roles and responsibilities of a journalist.
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And it is all that, and that's worthy of some praise. But calling Anderson Cooper's coming out method classy or anything similar sort of implies that there's an unclassy way to come out, that it's perhaps better to reveal one's queerness in an indirect, almost passive way. Entertainment Weekly recently had an entire cover story on this phenomenon, praising celebrities who come out with "matter-of-fact understatement." Those would be people like Jim Parsons, star of one of TV's highest-rated shows, The Big Bang Theory, whose ten year relationship with another man was casually dropped toward the end of a profile in The New York Times. Or like those stars who thank their partners at awards shows — Jodie Foster, David Hyde Pierce — without really ever saying, "I'm gay." There is certainly a respectable "Yeah, it's no big deal" quality to these public-ish statements(-ish), one that says that being gay isn't some earth-shaking thing, it's just, y'know, being gay.
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But also? Also it's still a bit of a dodge. A lot of these public figures were followed by gay rumors for years. Not only did Cooper say nothing when asked, he employed publicists to keep the question from coming up. Cooper's fellow CNN anchor Don Lemon came out a couple of years ago, and there was no uproar. So why the wait for Anderson? And why employ such a passive, off-hand technique while claiming to understand that coming out is a big deal for lots of people who aren't insulated by money, public esteem, and cultural acceptance? This celebration of the "no big deal" ideology, of deeming an almost sneaky approach a classy move, does seem to fly in the face of the idea of pride. Trouble is, the issue gets tangled up in talking points and notions of privacy and all that. Cooper said in his email to Sullivan, "In a perfect world, I don't think it's anyone else's business," an iteration of many other statements made by gay celebrities who won't come out or do so only after much prodding. It should be nobody's business, it's a personal matter, etc. To that we say: Really?
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In a perfect world nobody talks about their love lives? In a perfect world it's somehow nosy or prurient to wonder if the nice attractive man on the teevee has a special someone? Romance and sex are as much a part of life as anything else, so saying that sexuality, specifically queer sexuality, would be "no one's business" in "a perfect world" kind of does imply that there's something to be hidden. That's maybe not the best message for gay people who haven't come out — among them teens who are hurting themselves or worse due to feelings of shame and loneliness — to be receiving. This is a well-worn argument, but every time a celebrity does one of these little two-steps into the issue, it seems timely to make it again. Obviously Cooper has done a good bit of service to the gay community over the years, but if visibility matters, why does Cooper want to announce his gayness so invisibly? And why are we praising him for it?
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The fact is, Cooper's adamant and long-held refusal to discuss his personal life, even though he's written a memoir about himself and hosts a talk show that's all about other people's personal lives, has probably done more harm to the common gay psyche than his recent coming out has done good. And we're strange creatures for saying that he did something "classily" when the real classy thing would have been to acknowledge the truth long before his 45th birthday. Cooper has been an advocate for fairness and openness in his professional career, so denying a fact of his own life — as open as it might have been to friends and family, it was not to the rest of the world — seems to imply that, well, openness can only get you so far, that he stood to lose something by being honest. I know eventually we'd like to get to a place where it seriously is no big deal, but we're not there yet. Every big, loud bit helps. What doesn't help is praising a shuffle like this as a somehow better or more elegant way to come out.
Which isn't to say that Cooper should have hired a sky writer or called Us Weekly. It's up to him how he wants to handle his own truths. But what if he had done those things? Would that have been so wrong? For some people it would have been, they would call it attention-grabbing and showy. But so what if it's showy or attention-grabbing? Maybe it should be. What's wrong with getting attention when it's for something that can only do good for other people? Let's maybe try to dull our Puritan impulses a bit on this particular issue. In Cooper's case, accepting the responsibility of a journalist and reaping the rewards of a successful career maybe does bestow upon you another set of responsibilities, ones that are concerned with having a healthier, happier society, that demand a certain degree of temerity and leadership from public figures. That line between role model and regular person, between celebrity and call to duty, is a tricky issue to nail down, there is no exactly correct analysis, but for the purposes of today's news, it feels like we should be grateful that Cooper was finally honest, but maybe encourage other public figures to be a little more forceful and, y'know, maybe not wait so damn long. Someone asks you a question, you answer it honestly. How hard is that? It's certainly going to be less invasive of your privacy in the long run than constantly bobbing and weaving around rumors.
Ultimately this is a question of what means more right now: The shoulder-shrug of indifference or the clarion announcement. Both have their value, but in the famous person/regular person conversation, we'd argue that the script has been incorrectly flipped. For many (lucky) young people (and older) the case may be that they can just be gay and, whatever, nobody really cares. And good for them. In high schools all across America that is probably the case, that's all that it takes. But for many people that is not the case. And those are the kids (and older) who most need to see examples of gay champions beaming down at them from the hallowed halls of celebrity Valhalla. The brighter the flash from above, the more light might get down to them. There is no right way to come out — you do you, Anderson — but there are ways that are more beneficial, more productive than others. We're happy to hear the news from Mr. Cooper. We just wish he'd said it a little louder. And a lot sooner.