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.