People in Glass Closets: Anderson Cooper and Straight Responses to Coming Out

By: Emily Manuel

So Anderson Cooper officially came out, writing in a post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog that “the fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.” To many people who’d been paying attention, it was a not a surprise. Cooper, like many other celebrities had long lived in a glass closet – known (or suspected) by many to be gay, but not publicly “out” as a gay man.

Many of the reactions from heterosexual progressives that I observed around social media in response were, to be blunt, really fucking annoying and entitled. The salacious shock, the studied boredom and cynicism, the jokes, the questions about why he took so long or why he needed to come out at all. And on and on.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her landmark book Epistemology of the Closet, argues that

“closetness” itself is a performance initiated by the speech act of a silence – not a particular silence, but one that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.

What Sedgwick means is that to be closeted is only meaningful by its relation to heterosexual supremacy, heterosexual “normality.” Coming out, which only occurs in the first person, is a double statement – “I am [GLBTQ]” and “I am not [heterosexual and/or cis].” To not make this statement is to be very often, perhaps always, taken for heterosexual, because of what queer theorists like Sedgwick call heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity means, at its most basic, the assumption that one is, or should be, heterosexual. And it applies to almost everyone at every time – straight unless “proven” otherwise. It means, for queer people, negotiating a world in which coming out is a never-ending process. Few of us have national media coverage to speed the process, but even for a high-profile person like Cooper, coming out must have been a long process.

So when heterosexuals ask, “Why does Anderson Cooper have to come out as gay?” I reply: “Because you do not have to come out as heterosexual.”

Heterosexuals do announce their sexuality in public, all the time, of course. Walking down the street holding hands, kissing their lover, wearing wedding rings, clothing and other aesthetic codes. But it is not a movement from unacknowledged to public, it has no risk or social consequences in itself. In his coming out letter, Cooper notes that he didn’t come out because a reporter’s private life shouldn’t matter. Indeed. But part of the point is, being heterosexual isn’t private – it’s public.

Contrast this to the news stories which talk about Cooper “admitting” that he is gay, as though it were a crime he were confessing to. The analogy is not really so off, to be honest. Sodomy (the legal category covering anal and oral sex) wasn’t completely legal in the US until 2003 with the Lawrence versus Texas Supreme Court decision. It was a crime to be gay in Texas until then, to have sex in your own home. Criminal.

Even now, Americans like Mr Cooper still live in a country where there is no national anti-discrimination bill for such things as employment and housing. There are still parts of the country where it is completely legal to sack someone for being GLBT, or to refuse them housing, and where parents can lose custody of their children after coming out. Even in areas where there are local anti-discrimination laws, these are often still ineffective – it’s easy enough for a bigot to discriminate without being caught.

So there’s a good reason why so many people in the public eye wait to come out until after their career is largely over – because they may well lose their careers, or part of them. Coming out may cost them in their career or their relationships. And that is a fear that no straight person ever faces for their heterosexuality.

So when heterosexuals ask, “Why did it take so long for him to come out?” I reply with a question of my own: “Why did it take you so long to make him feel safe enough to do so?”

That’s the thing with heterosexuality. It’s not just about who you fuck – it’s a complicated set of norms and expectations about personal conduct, gendered and sexual behaviour, familial relationships, and so on. In his book, The Trouble With Normal, queer theorist Michael Warner argues that:

The received wisdom in straight culture, is that all of its different norms line up, that one is synonymous with the others. If you are born with male genitalia,* the logic goes, you will behave in masculine ways, desire women, desire feminine women, desire them exclusively, have sex in what are thought to be normally active and insertive ways and within officially sanctioned contexts, think of yourself as heterosexual, identify with other heterosexuals no matter how tolerant you might wish to be, and never change any part of this package from childhood to senescence. Heterosexuality is often a name for this entire package, even though attachment to the other sex is only one element. If you deviate at any point from this program, you do so at your own cost. And one of the things straight culture hates most is a sign that the different parts of the package might be recombined in an infinite number of ways. But experience shows that this is just what tends to happen. If heterosexuality requires the entire sequence, then it is very fragile. No wonder it needs so much terror to induce compliance.

A terrifying word, compliance. Part of what it means, of course, is a cultural solicitation of certain kinds of performances, a cultural enforcement of allowable identities. A public performance of heterosexuality, even for those we supposedly know are queer, is demanded.

It means terrifying the last generation of queers so this generation doesn’t have anyone to look up to. It means “minority stress,” that whether you are out or not, you cannot win, heterosexual dominance takes its toll either way. To be closeted is to be “dishonest,” to be out, “making a big deal.” It’s not just about the fundamentalists and the queer-bashers – good, decent liberal people with the best of intentions can make negotiating the heterosexual world tiring, traumatising and even occasionally dangerous.

When someone like Anderson Cooper comes out, it changes things, just a little bit. There’s one less glass closet in this world, one more tiny shift in the public sphere. So as a queer woman, I find cynicism and snark from heterosexual people who’ve never experienced the pressure of either the closet or outness just a little much. It’s not the sign of your comfort with queer culture that you might think it is, and it’s not particularly supportive. We still face immense pressure, and that requires your empathy and compassion, not your judgment.

*cissexist phrasing

Originally published on Tiger Beatdown. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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  1. This is pretty much the conversation I’ve been having with coworkers and friends since Cooper’s coming out, and the article articulates my feelings so much more eloquently than I’ve been able to.

    It’s an exhausting conversation to have over and over again – I may just start sending people to this post.

  2. “Why did it take you so long to make him feel safe enough to do so?”

    I just…it’s amazing.

  3. When I see straight people trying to act too cool by being blase about Anderson Cooper (and Megan Rapinoe) coming out, it’s just glaringly obvious they’ve never struggled for representation or acknowledgment a day in their lives. And then trying to describe what systematic oppression feels like to someone with privilege is also really difficult I feel because a) they don’t want to hear that they have privilege and b) they want to ascribe it all to your personal experiences and not a general trend.

    • whenever i see your avatar/gravitar i think “omg Megan Rapinoe is commenting on Autostraddle!” just so you know.

  4. Wow. I think his article just articulated everything I’ve ever thought or felt about the coming out process. Amazing!

    Also, because I’m still a bit woefully uneducated when it comes to cisgender stuff, could someone please explain to me why “born with male genitalia” is cissexist phrasing? I mean, I know that you don’t need a penis to identify as male, but the paragraph is talking within the context of heteronormativity, which I also take as cisgender normativity, so I’m not quite understanding everything I think. Wonderful fellow Autostraddlers, help me understand?

    • Yeah I was confused about that too. I thought “born with male genitalia” was actually inclusive as opposed to just saying “men.” Because it’s true that if you are born into a male body, you often are expected to perform these gender roles. But I’m sorry if I’m being completely ignorant here.

    • It’s actually discussed in the comments of the original article on Tiger Beatdown, so this is the only reason I can answer the question (I was lost too). It’s basically that when he says “male genetalia” what he is actually talking about is a penis. If he’d referred to it as a penis there wouldn’t have been an issue, but as we all know there are plenty of men who don’t have penises so they don’t fall into the category of assuming that they’ll behave a certain way as men with vaginas.

  5. meg – i think it’s because “male genitalia” presumes that our bodies are gendered when in fact they have just been ascribed that meaning, if that makes sense? like basically the cissexist presumption in that statement is that all male genitalia looks a particular way when in fact there is much diversity in what genitalia looks like/consists of and the fact that this is somehow tied to a binary gender system is a construct. did that make sense? i feel like this is maybe a bit of a jargon-y response. i can elaborate if i’m being unclear. (also other folks are welcome to correct me/clarify!)

    • It’s because, by “male genitalia”, the author intends in meaning one specific configuration of genitalia, when in fact male genitalia are simply the genitalia of a person who identifies as male, whatever their internal or external configuration.

      • Oh, that makes sense. I interpreted “male” as talking about sex, not gender, so as in “people who are born with XY chromosomes and a penis and are thus deemed male by society.”

        One more question–sorry, I’m doing my best here–is “male assigned at birth (MAAB)” then cissexist? Because if it is cissexist to use “male” as denoting someone with a penis, I would conclude that using MAAB to describe a trans* woman is also cissexist. I guess I am still confused about whether using “male” or “female” to describe sex/biological characteristics is incorrect, and what language should be used instead.

        • MAAB is specifically designed to be as un-cissexist as possible i think. Personally, i still go with MtF but this can itself be construed as binarist and/or cissexist. Problem is that most trans* people don’t feel the same way on the issue.

          The reason MAAB is not cissexist is because well, someone else said that and society listened, there is probably not a point at which you yourself said ‘i am male’.

  6. When Tiger Beatdown and Autostraddle cross-pollinate I’m pretty sure my heart starts beating rainbows.

    • That was pretty much my reaction. I was all ‘ooooooh Tiger Beatdown on Autostraddle!’ and then I did a little dance in my chair.

  7. I have been thinking about this very topic, more or less, in relation to a recent (infuriating) conversation with my flatmate.

    He is an otherwise decent, liberal guy; accepting (in his white, middle-class, cis-male, heterosexual, arts-educated, privileged way) of everyone’s special snowflake-ness.

    However, when someone mentioned a friend who identifies as genderqueer – cue explanations – my flatmate complained that the queer community is really shooting itself in its acceptance-craving foot by inventing all these terms that straight people don’t understand and being all exclusionary to straight people by having a tight-knit community of our own that straight people just don’t feel able to be a part of… SORRY, HETEROSEXUALS, FOR MAKING THINGS SLIGHTLY CONFUSING OR AWKWARD FOR YOU!

    Anyway, he is the kind of person who always says things like, ‘Why do people have to come out anymore? Who cares?’ and he said, regarding Lip Service, ‘Aren’t we at a point now where you don’t need a special show just about lesbians?’ So now I have some proper things to say in response instead of just a sense of my own unease with that kind of attitude. Thank you.

  8. Um, yes? I feel like this should be posted in every dorm bathroom ever. Maybe in high school hallways? Haha, if only. Heteronormativity is not a joke and not something to be shrugged at, just like sexism and racism and generalized homophobia are not to be, either.

    I am a gamer, and as such just listened to a gaming podcast (the escapist, to be specific) full of this kind of stuff. ‘Why as a straight person should I be subjected to long lesbian sex scenes?’ Because that’s what lesbians feel like all the time watching hetero shows, duh. ‘I love this character because he didn’t make a big deal about his being gay.’ Whoop dee doo. I love this character because he doesn’t make a big deal about being straight…oh wait his name is Duke Nuke ’em OF COURSE HE DOES. And the list goes on.

    • Yes, yes, yes. Ugh, the homophobia, sexism, and racism that runs rampant in the gaming community. You would think that nerds/geeks would be a little empathetic but then one remembers that insecurities bring out the worst in people. I believe Jezebel already discussed this but still… -.-

      • And this from an out-and-out trying to be tolerant website! Oh well, I contacted them and told them politely to bone the fuck up about privilege and stop whining.

        Also, 1up is a much better and more thoughtful gaming site/podcast. I only branched out because of course I need MOAR!

        As for the rest of the gaming ‘community’…as far as I’m concerned, it can go fuck itself. I am not part of the group until the group can accept me, and I think the feeling is mutual. I avoid it by not playing multiplayer and/or Call of Duty (which the playing thereof is not enough to be rightfully called ‘gamer’, imho).

  9. “To be closeted is to be ‘dishonest,’ to be out, ‘making a big deal.'”

    I really hate that it’s so hard to just BE when you’re gay.

  10. I love this, I got really annoyed with all the straight people acting like it was no big deal when they have no idea what it’s like

  11. Congrats to Anderson for coming out.

    Ugh, it annoys me when people say ‘I don’t have to announce my straightness why should you have to state your gayness?’. Um, because being straight is assumed and the norm in this world.

    I suppose it’s a thin line when it comes to the media. When news is ‘duh’ to you but not necessarily known to the general public, how do you write it? What puzzled me was that when Lohan and Ronson came out as a couple, the Advocate suggested that it may just be a big ‘publicity stunt’ and a ‘genius one at that’. I wondered whether they were just playing dumb or they really were that cynical? Or were they just being snarky?

    Lohan on coming out:
    “That was really scary for me. But I didn’t care because I love her [Samantha Ronson].” <<<<Chutzpah

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