Huffington Post Gay Voices editor Noah Michelson recently wrote a blog about the forcible outing of actor Jonathan Bennett. What seemed like it might be an awesome piece about how we should respect one another, and understand that the information we share is very personal — whether discussing your sexuality, gender, eating habits, medical history, or anything else, really — and should not be taken from us, turned into a lecture on how “public figures” (name a single movie Bennett has done in the past 5 years. If you can’t, maybe don’t call him a “public figure” so cavalierly) have a responsibility to be out because they shouldn’t “be ashamed” or “be afraid” of their sexuality. None of this takes into account the fact that there are dozens of reasons why someone might not feel like coming out; some as simple as, “Meh, I don’t feel like it.”
Anyway, I strongly disagreed with Noah’s message, but I respect his right to put it out there. Without further ado, I give you, “Breaking Down the Media’s Sense of Sexual Entitlement.”
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Earlier this week, “Dancing With The Stars” judge Julianne Hough was discussing “Mean Girls” star and DWTS contestant Jonathan Bennett on “Extra” with host Mario Lopez.
“[Bennett] tweeted me last year and said, like, I had a nice butt, but he also tagged my trainer,” she said. “And so I was like, ‘Oh, he’s hitting on me. I should try to go on a date with him.'”
“What happened?” Lopez asked.
“He’s gay,” Hough responded. “So, I was like, that’s not gonna work.”
The only problem? Bennett has never said that he’s gay. Any insider knowledge Hough may have aside, it isn’t hard to understand why she might be under the assumption that he is and that he’s out. Numerous publications have said as much and until this morning, even his Wikipedia page claimed he’s gay. But if someone never says it himself — and even his publicist declines to comment on whether or not he is or if he’s out of the closet — is he really?
Oh, man. Let’s get ready for the “Don’t out people” smack down. I don’t agree with Noah on much, but this one’s a slam dunk, right?
After we ran a story about Hough’s gaffe, I was inundated with responses (both from Gay Voices readers and my own friends and acquaintances) that mostly fell into two categories: 1. people telling me that he was gay and out (“I did shots with him at a gay bar in WeHo last year!” “My friend had sex with him!” etc) and 2. people questioning why it mattered if he publicly came out and asking why we couldn’t just let him live his life.
Alright. So, here comes the part where Noah talks about how the reaction of group number 2 is the correct, polite, journalistic and ethical approach, right?
There are many different levels of being out. You can be out to yourself, you can be out to your family, you can be out to your friends, you can be out at work, you can be out publicly and you can be out in some combination of all of the above. But when you’re a public figure like Bennett, if you’ve never said the words “I’m gay” or, as many stars have done in recent years, have never publicly discussed or referenced a partner or date of the same sex, you’re not out.
Right! And we need to respect individuals and this super personal decision, right? That is where you’re going with this, right, Noah?
And yes, that distinction matters and yes, being out publicly matters. Here’s why:
Coming out is a radical act capable of upending deep-seated assumptions about who someone is and challenging our fundamental beliefs about what that ultimately means for how we understand and treat them. In a world where you can still go to prison for being queer and hate crimes are still happening, it’s a powerful weapon that disarms people and changes minds. It makes it harder and harder for people to say “I don’t know anyone who is gay” or “All gay people are like this.” And when minds change, so does our culture. Case in point: Republican Senator Rob Portman, who embraced marriage equality after his own son came out as gay.
And it’s great when people make the choice to be out, right? Please tell me that’s where you’re going with this.
What’s more, not coming out continues to feed the lie that there is something shameful about being gay. And there isn’t. By not coming out — or remaining in that gray area where people know you’re gay but you won’t say the words — you are, as Ellen Page put it earlier this year in her stunning coming out speech, lying by omission. By not saying you’re gay, you’re letting others believe you are straight, because straight is still the default — and preferred and privileged — orientation in our society.
Whoaaaaa. Okay, this is veering off track. “Not coming out continues to feed the lie that there is something shameful about being gay?” Huh? “You are, as Ellen Page put it earlier this year in her stunning coming out speech, lying by omission.” Um. Wait, so Jonathan Bennett is now a liar? “By not saying you’re gay, you’re letting others believe you are straight, because straight is still the default — and preferred and privileged — orientation in our society?” I’m for breaking down heteronormativity as much as the next person, but shouldn’t we recognize that this is a deeply personal decision? And really, it wasn’t that he was claiming he was straight. He simply chose not to mention what his sexual orientation is [ed. note: earlier version used the phrase “sexual preference.” That was an error.]. To demand this from someone comes off as very entitled.
And this has nothing to do with privacy. I’m so tired of people blabbering on about how we need to respect people’s privacy. Sexuality shouldn’t be a private matter. My being gay is a part of who I am — just like I’m 5’8″ and left handed and allergic to morphine. And sexuality certainly isn’t a private matter for straight people, is it? How many straight people do you know who refuse to say that they’re straight? If Bennett isn’t gay, I’d love for him to say that, too. Contrary to what some people believe, being straight isn’t something to be ashamed of either.
“I’m tired of people blabbering on about how we need to respect people’s privacy. Sexuality shouldn’t be a private matter.” Um… No. No, no, no. Screw anyone who thinks they are entitled to knowledge about my sex life or anyone else’s. This. Is. Totally. Not. Cool. “My being gay is part of who I am.” And? My being trans is part of who I am. My being bisexual is part of who I am. That doesn’t mean you or anyone else is entitled to know this. If I choose to share it with you (as I have, very consciously chosen), then that is my choice. I don’t have an obligation to tell anyone else this. I don’t have an obligation to go to the grocery store wearing a sign that says, “Ask me about my genitals.”
That’s part of the reason I’m grateful for James Franco, a man who has made no secret of his heterosexuality. And still — he’s one of the queerest men I know. He’s helped to challenge stereotypes about what it means to be straight or gay and by doing so, he’s providing another kind of example — another possibility — for who and how we can be.
James Franco, the real hero. So gay that he doesn’t even like boys. I really don’t know what this is getting at, but I wanted an opportunity to reference a Katy Perry song, just because.
Bottom line: our sexuality isn’t something we should be afraid of or afraid of sharing.
Who says that Jonathan Bennett was “afraid” of sharing this information? This is starting to sound very McCarthy-like. “I have here a list of 205 homosexuals in Hollywood…” Chill, dude.
Yes, some people have very good reasons for not coming out — they could be thrown out on the street, they could be fired from their job, their physical or mental safety could be compromised. But if that’s not the case, I believe we have a responsibility to come out — especially if you are in the public eye and your being out will have a positive impact. And today, thanks to people like Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Page and Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto, coming out in Hollywood does not equal career suicide.
“I believe we have a responsibility to come out.” *sigh* Mind you, the author of this piece has done most of his work in LGBT publications, so being gay is not only something he “doesn’t need to be afraid of,” but it’s something his career is built on. It’s what gives him credibility to edit the “Gay Voices” section of Huffington Post. And let’s dial this whole “if you are in the public eye/public figure” rhetoric back. Yes, Jonathan Bennett is going to be on Dancing with the Stars. Good for him. I hear that show pays bank. But can you name a single movie he’s done in the past five years? “Oh, you played a supporting role in a movie from a decade ago, you are forever in the public eye! You have a Wikipedia page about you. Therefore, I am entitled to every one of your secrets!”
Coming out is scary. And it’s not something you do once and then are done with. We have to come out every day. And even I hesitate sometimes. Just a few weeks ago when I was on a flight to Chicago, someone asked me what I did for a living and I paused for a second and thought, Do I really want to get into this? And then I took a breath and told him. Because it matters. Because that’s how things change. We start speaking up and telling our truths and each time it gets a little less terrifying until one day we wake up and the world has changed. And on that day, our sexualities will still matter — just in a different way. Gay, straight, bi, and everything in between — we will no longer be afraid to say we love who we want to love or say we fuck who we want to fuck. But we’ve got some work to do before we get there and we are all on the clock, and that includes Jonathan Bennett and James Franco and you and me.
You just rattled off a list of reasons why someone might not want to come out. “Hey, how would you like to be defined by your sexuality for years to come?” “I don’t know, man, I’m more complex than that.” “Heathen!”
Here. Let me go first: My name is Noah Michelson and I’m a homosexual.
Congratulations. You made this decision. You weren’t outed by an actress on TV and then given a lecture by a journalist.
Now, who’s next?
Come out, come out, before Noah does it for you.