On Jodie Foster, coming out, and privacy

At the Golden Globes the other day, Jodie Foster gave a touching, heartwarming speech, looking back on her life so far and forward to the future [transcript here]. She spoke with a rare kind of emotional honesty about living in the spotlight, and how things might change now that she’s fifty and had finally publicly announced that she is gay. It was a very sweet, and I kind of welled up a bit over it.

Foster touched on some very interesting issues in her speech, in particular, this:

“…be a big coming-out speech tonight because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age, in those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met. But now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

While the speech was treated as a “coming out” speech, it actually wasn’t anything of the sort. Jodie Foster was hardly in the closet, she just didn’t want to make a big public announcement. And that’s perfectly OK, as it’s her life and it’s none of our fucking business how she lives it. From her speech, it sounds like it has been a happy life, with a lot of love, and I suppose I’m happy for her for wanting to share that, but if she didn’t want to reveal details of her personal life to billions of people, that’s perfectly all right too. It’s her life.

Unfortunately, the Guardian, desperate to retain its high from the Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill linkbait trolling exercise, decided to publish a piece with a rather more unpleasant line. Enable an ad-blocking add-on if you want to click, they’ll probably be able to tell from their metrics.

Poor little Patrick Strudwick is rather upset by the speech, and seems to believe that by not press releasing every detail of her life, Jodie Foster has got people killed.

But I could not ignore the message forming in my head from a careers-worth of interviewees – from Jamaican lesbians “correctively” raped, from Cameroonian gay men tortured by police, from the mother of Matthew Shepard, murdered by homophobes and left tied up in a Wyoming field – the message bellowed out: you had choices. You could have left acting at a young age, already rich and cosseted, to live an authentic life. You could have had that privacy if it were that important to you. You could have come out, easing the way for others like you. Instead, you chose your career, and you lied by omission about your orientation.

It is every gay public figure’s social responsibility to be out, to make life better for those without publicists and pilates teachers. Those who cry, “It’s none of your business! Who cares who I sleep with?!” shirk their public duty, and deny the shame that keeps the closet door shut. Do straight people consider their orientation private? You cannot skip the tough part of a human rights struggle. I long for being gay to be nobody’s business, to not matter, but we’re a long way off. You either do your bit, and in the case of an A-list actor, that means blazing a trail for other performers, or you remain concealed, bleating about privacy.

There is so much wrong with this argument that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with Strudwick rehashing that tired old line that the media love to use to justify their grotesque invasions of privacy: that if they choose to be famous, they’ve agreed to have their privacy invaded and every single detail about their lives is fair game. By agreeing to act in films, this argument goes, they have also consented to long-lens photography of family holidays, and so forth. It’s a feeble justification for some vicious behaviour, yet the media rather like to get their scoops on who has gained weight recently and would rather not see this changing any time soon, so will continue to say this over and over again as if they had to wait for someone to make the choice to share information with everyone they would likely sell fewer vile rags.

Coming out, and being out are very personal decisions. Forcing people to be out is just as bad as forcing people to be in the closet: the decision of who to tell should be down to the person and them alone. The talk of a duty to be out is frightening and reprehensible. It’s not a duty, it’s not a responsibility, it’s a decision for each person to make and choose what’s right for them. Being queer sucks enough in this heterosexist environment; we don’t need the gay police explaining exactly what we have to do, if we don’t want people to get killed.

The fact is, nobody was killed because Jodie Foster didn’t throw a big “I AM GAY EVERYONE LOOK AT ME I’M GAY” parade 30 years ago, inviting all of the world’s media to document the occasion. The problem is structural oppression, which is the exact reason many people in the public eye may be reticent to come out in the first place. In this heterosexist society, anyone who does not live a life according to the heterosexual script is seen as somehow weird. At worst, there is outright aggression and violence. At best, queer people become an endless source of fascination. Had Jodie Foster press-released her sexual orientation earlier in her life, I imagine that there would have been a far greater invasion of her privacy–and that of her family–in the vein of OH LOOK THIS IS HOW LESBIANS RAISE CHILDREN. I can imagine that suddenly she would be unable to get roles as a female romantic lead–one of the few roles available for women in Hollywood–because of OH LOOK SHE’S A LESBIAN KISSING A MAN SHE MUST FIND THAT ICKY. I can see why she wouldn’t want that, and her life was no less authentic for having made this decision.

We have no right to hear details about someone else’s sexual orientation. Heterosexism just pretends that we do. This is why “coming out” is a thing, and why nobody has any obligation to do so.

17 thoughts on “On Jodie Foster, coming out, and privacy”

  1. I’m afraid that I have to disagree with you. While I would never ever condone forcing someone out of the closet (it happened to me and it’s a vile experience), I think that every gay person has an obligation to be publicly out. Sure, it would be great to live in a world where we can say that it’s no one’s business and everyone should get on with their lives, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t live in this world and to get there we have to fight for it. The gay rights that we have (in certain countries anyway) have been fought for and won by out and proud activists (either out as gay or as gay allies) and it is only through the courage of these individuals that our rights have advanced.

    Statistically, people are more likely to be supportive of gay rights if they know someone who is gay. Coming out as gay has a tangible effect on societal support of gay people. And this is why I think it’s an obligation – as gay people we owe it to the people who have died for the rights we have, we owe it to each other and we owe it to ourselves to be out.

    1. No. People aren’t “obliged” to do anything. It’s completely missing the point of the problem to pretend that if enough people came out, everything would be fine. It wouldn’t. There are multiple, overlapping oppressions at play here, which people must negotiate, and being out is not an option for many. It’s quite disgusting to use this form of emotional blackmail to try to force people into being outed.

    2. nobody would have to come out if society didn’t assume heterosexuality, I’m not obliged to do anything, if I tell somebody something private about myself it’s a damn privilege.
      There’s a host of reasons why people don’t come out that don’t magically disappear because someone is living a public life, and to ignore that is heterosexist in mindset.

  2. I wouldn’t say any LGBT person is obliged to come out.

    The bills have got to get paid, and for anyone working in a profession or a career where being honest about your sexual orientation means you will get no more work/get fired – or even just discriminated against – well, it’s up to each LGBT person to decide for themselves how far it matters to them to lie about their sexual orientation, or just keep quiet and let people assume that you’re straight. We’ve all done that kind of devil’s bargain – pretty sure even Patrick Strudwick has, sometime or another.

    But it is a devil’s bargain. I have very rarely outright lied about my sexual orientation, but that is because I am hugely privileged in so many ways – not least, in having a skillset where my employers were usually not likely to care what my sexual orientation was once they hired me.

    I have, as we all have, on occasion just sat down, kept shtum, let the privileged majority think what they would – knowing that what they would think would be that I was straight.

    Jodie Foster got as far as as she did in her career because she lied by omission through most of it. She might have been a role model if she’d come out, but she knew the risks: Ian McKellen is the first (and still a rare example) of an actor coming out and it really not affecting his career.

    It’s been five years since Foster finally admitted that her partner and the co-mother of her children was Cydney Bernard… and they broke up shortly afterward.

    I don’t agree with the theme of Patrick Strudwick’s argument. Everyone has to decide their own level of honesty, no one’s responsible for anyone else. But no, it’s not “heartwarming”. It’s just what it is. Closets are closets, much as we might wish they weren’t.

  3. I’m a Jamaican lesbian, it’s disgusting that as always others trials for rights to their own life and privacy, are being used as a by line for somebody’s tantrum as to why they should be able to invade anothers.

  4. I think there is a continuum – being out and a role model is good, especially in areas which are traditionally homophobic, such as football; protecting your privacy is neutral, on a level of heterosexual people who are LGB allies.

    BUT – there comes a point – particularly with politicians, where being closetted, that is actively denying a non-traditional orientation, while staying silent about, or even actively colluding in the oppression of LGB people is an issue.

    That filters down to a lower level – so that married man who sleeps with men, but who passes as straight in his workplace keeps quiet or even joins in the homophobic bullying of an out colleague in case he himself is “discovered” and consequently also becomes a target.

  5. I totally disagree with that douchebag, it is NOT all gay public figures’ social responsibility to be out. They’re people, they get to decide for themselves.
    While I can see the good it goes for them to be out and encourage others, it’s not mandatory. We don’t force staight people to detail everything about their lives (well, the tabloids do but no sensible people), why should gay people?
    A gay person has no more responsibility for other gay people than I as a straight woman have for other straight women. While it might be desirable for me to engage in women’s rights, the whole point of rights is moot if we force people. Same with gay rights issues, or any other sort of thing.

  6. Foster is a unique case, at a young age (20?) a stalker fan tried to kill a president as some sort of love token, so I can understand her reluctance to engage with public life or be an icon.

    Also I can’t see how her coming out would have changed much, I can’t imagine a homophobic suddenly faceplaming and announcing, Jodie Foster’s gay? OMG!!! I have been so wrong all this time. Equally a religious bigot is not likely to suddenly abandon their bigot ways because Foster came out 30 years ago or whenever.

    1. Oh, YES. Good for him. So diplomatic. Very disappointed in Strudwick – conveniently ignoring the specific problems of gender that Jodie Foster faced/faces, so we’re back to intersectionality AGAIN.

  7. I haven’t read the full article. In it, dd Patrick Strudwick touch at all upon the ‘social responsibility’ that rapists, torturers and murderers have to not, you know, rape, torture and murder people?

  8. “we don’t need the gay police explaining exactly what we have to do, ”

    “Gay police” (unless actually referring to, you know, policepeople who are LGB) sits about as well with me as “trans cabal”, and for much the same reason.

    1. OK, let’s explain the difference here. Trans cabal=imaginary force created by cis women with terrible politics to jusitfy conspiracy.

      Gay police=gay people policing the behaviour of other LGBT people in a thoroughly unacceptable fashion.

      Hope that clears it up.

  9. I’m an anti-depressants user, and sometimes feel guilty that I don’t tell everyone I know, or where a t-shirt or something, because I’m not doing my bit to challenge myths and stereotypes. As admirable as this point is, its not my duty to advertise AD taking, I don’t have to tell everyone everything. I think part of the problem is the Facebook ‘universality of celebrity’ thing. We’re supposed to be totally out about everything, our lives lived under the watchful eye of each other, anything withheld a potential local mini-scandal.
    Thanks for the post, just wanted to throw it wider.

  10. I dunno, I think it’s a micro- vs. macro-problematic thing. On an individual level, of course she doesn’t have to come out and has every right to privacy, but on a societal level, it’s sad that it’s contentious at all, or even seen as particularly private. It’s heteronormativity in action that to merely mention you’re gay is seen as a private detail about your personal life, whereas a casual allusion to heterosexuality, a mention of a husband for example, is not seen as a remotely private thing. You certainly don’t get straight actors not disclosing their sexuality because it’s ‘private’.

    She can do what she wants, it’s none of my business, but my respect and admiration goes to those who are true to themselves, their integrity is inspirational.

  11. Some very sane and true words!

    Also – I thought Jodie Foster was out. I’ve always thought/known she was gay… if other people feel the same, then that really breaks the argument down quite a bit anyway.

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