In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian, and TIME magazine put her on the cover with a big headline: “Yep, I’m Gay.” At that time, what DeGeneres did was considered very brave in the United States, considering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues were not discussed in public as much as now.
But lately, an increasing number of gay celebrities and public figures are comfortable to disclose about their sexuality to the media, especially in the United States. Recently, the prominent journalist and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, for example, came out through an e-mail he sent to The Daily Beast’s blogger Andrew Sullivan.
In the e-mail, Cooper said that he always intended to never discuss his personal life openly, but “I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. … 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.”
Time has changed, indeed. From actors — Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Jane Lynch — to musicians — Clay Aiken, Ricky Martin, Frank Ocean — these famous people are not scared to reveal their sexuality, in a casual way. In a recent Entertainment Weekly article entitled “The New Art of Coming Out,” Mark Harris writes, “The current vibe for discussing one’s sexuality is almost defiantly mellow: This is part of who I am, I don’t consider it a big deal or a crisis, and if you do, that’s not my problem. … By daring anyone to overreact, the newest generation of gay public figures is making a clear statement that there is a ‘new normal’ — and it consists of being plainspoken, clear, and truthful about who you are.”
Asked about her opinion on this phenomenon, Lani, a finance professional in Jakarta, said, “I think one of the reasons a lot of celebrities start coming out in the US is because of President Obama’s support for gay marriage.” This is arguably true: Obama’s backing has become one of the most significant milestones in US gay history.
Nonetheless, for Johan Tampubolon, a transgender university student, “most celebrities have a PR team or staff. Of course, they’ve done the math before coming out publicly.” Johan agreed that their existence would be advantageous to the gay community, “but it will yield more benefit if they coordinate with gay organizations, too, because they will be responsible for the portrayal of the whole gay society.”
Rara Rizal, a lesbian who works as a professional translator, thought it was great that there are more gay role models now. “When I was growing up, Ellen DeGeneres was the only out celeb I know. But now, there are more gay celebrities to look up to.”
But Rara also recognizes the downside of celebrities coming out. “I think it can reduce them to just being ‘the gay celeb.’ Anderson Cooper, for example, is a great journalist who covers Arab Spring and all, but when he came out, he might only be perceived as ‘a gay reporter.’”
Of course, it is a matter of perspective. If you watch Neil Patrick Harris playing the straight womanizer Barney Stinson on “How I Met Your Mother,” you wouldn’t care about his sexuality in real life. Instead, people will focus on what a funny and talented actor he is. Yes, there has been a debate on how openly gay actors are sometimes limited when it comes to the characters they are playing, but that would be a whole another story.
So, do gay public figures have moral obligation to come out? Personally, I don’t think so because everyone has personal right to decide whether to be out or not. Nevertheless, I believe they should at least recognize the impact that they can make if they do so.
It is quite futile to expect any famous public figure in Indonesia to come out as gay (although, admittedly, rumors about gay celebrities keep swirling around in the country). And yet, gradually, many people start their fight to help gay Indonesians become more confident of their sexuality. On Twitter, for example, there is @nickynmita, an account started by LGBT activists Paramita Mohamad and Yuventius Nicky that offers information and advices for LGBT people in Indonesia.
Yes, sexual orientation is just a fraction of one’s identity, and it does not determine whether you are smart or talented on what you do. But in the world where some people still discriminate or, more horrendously, kill someone because he or she has different sexual orientation, the act of coming out by an admired public figure becomes something of a great significance.
And what DeGeneres, Cooper, et al. did is something that we should applaud. They need not hide their true self anymore, and at the same time, they also help further the cause of LGBT rights.
In the end of his e-mail, Cooper said, “In a perfect world, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted.” I could not agree more with this. And, at the same time, I also hope for a future where the news of celebrities coming out will not make the front-page anymore.