One good reason to maintain a Yahoo email account is that the opening screen is chock full of useless information that you wouldn’t acquire just by sticking your nose in a book or reading Tenured Radical. Today’s news is that Michael Jordan’s son was arrested for some kind of misbehavior at the Olympic basketball trials; and Rupert Murdoch tweeted something nasty about the Scientologists (a struggle between a behemoth conservative corporate media empire and a behemoth conservative corporate church should be fun to watch.) Last but not least (drum roll): Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, has come out as gay.
Awesome. I always like it when someone comes out, particularly older people like Anderson Cooper, who is 43.
I always thought Anderson Cooper seemed a little gay, and I mean that as a compliment. I once saw Eve Sedgwick on a panel about teaching queer studies, and somebody asked how you taught homo stuff to an audience of what would invariably be mostly hetero kids. She smiled kindly and responded: “I always assume that all my students are queer.” She was deliberately using the word “queer” rather than “homosexual,” but she made the point very nicely all the same. (My current newsroom fantasies are about PBS’s Gwen Ifill, and if she is not a lesbian, I really don’t want to hear about it.)
Anderson Cooper started dropping hairpins back in 2007, and I probably didn’t know because I was glued to PBS and MSNBC. Cooper’s sexuality was something he sought to keep private (rather than “secret,” which is a distinction that is truly meaningless for those of us who are not in the closet.) He maintains that he sought this privacy for “professional reasons.” According to Dylan Stableford of Yahoo! News, Anderson’s sexual orientation has actually “been an open secret in the media and gay communities for years.”
Why the big announcement?
Cooper argues that “sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist. I’ve always believed that who a reporter votes for, what religion they are, who they love, should not be something they have to discuss publicly.”
“Recently,” Cooper’s email statement to gayocon Andrew Sullivan reads, “I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something–something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.”
This, of course, assumes that in a media-saturated environment it is somehow just an accident that it was not generally known that Anderson Cooper has always been a gay man. What is also interesting is that Cooper does not list institutionalized homophobia in the media, news and entertainment industries as one of those “professional reasons.”
Andrew Sullivan, who has known Anderson Cooper for two decades, also fails to look at the larger picture here. Like many conservatives, gay or straight, he believes that everything comes down to the individual (curiously, this was a position that was typical of left queers back in the 1960s.) In today’s Daily Beast blog post (July 2 2012), for which he solicited the Cooper quotes, Sullivan argues that it shouldn’t have to be a news item when a celebrity comes out, but it is because there are bad individuals out there who hurt gay folk. Furthermore, there are also good GLBT individuals who need the hope that queer figures of authority can magically convey to them by coming out.
“We still have pastors calling for the death of gay people,” Sullivan rightly points out, “bullying incidents and suicides among gay kids, and one major political party dedicated to ending the basic civil right to marry the person you love. So these ‘non-events’ are still also events of a kind; and they matter. The visibility of gay people is one of the core means for our equality.”
Note that that Sullivan, unlike Cooper, does place the onus of homophobia on at least one institution (the Republican Party) but that the violence of homophobia is not the work of institutions. Violence consists of “incidents” perpetrated by bad apples — not systemic forms of oppression. Most importantly, as a media celebrity, Sullivan has no comment on the institutionalized homophobia of the media itself, and the long history of what Vito Russo famously called The Celluloid Closet.
This, of course, might amplify our understanding of why it took Anderson Cooper so lomg to come out.
It’s just bizarre for Sullivan, when he is actually writing about sexuality in media, not to point out the obstacles, for an ambitious visual media figure, to having anything but a heterosexual profile. The television and film industries are legendarily homophobic, despite their reliance on the creativity and business acumen of GLBT people. As MG Lord points out in her new book on Elizabeth Taylor, this mega-star was “surrounded by gay men” in her studio and theatrical workplaces who she protected and encouraged. (154, 161) She stepped forward to fundraise for AIDS Project Los Angeles when no one else in the industry was brave enough to acknowledge that their queer co-workers were dying all around them.
Hence, Sullivan’s failure to take the story in this direction is either less than courageous or stubbornly ideological. Linking back to our other Yahoo news of the day, for Sullivan to accuse everyone other than the media industry of homophobia is similar to Rupert Murdoch, president of a Sopranos-style weird journalism empire, calling the Church of Scientology a “weird cult” (quoted from the the contested tweet.)
So I’m glad, for his sake, that Cooper has come out, although I do wonder whether Rachel Maddow’s great success at drawing a heterogeneous audience with keen intelligence, ideas and wit wasn’t as much a factor as a somewhat nebulous concern for others. If Cooper really wants to make a difference for people who are actually oppressed by homophobia, he might want to add to his explanation of why he hasn’t made this gesture earlier. But he also needs to know that individual acts of coming out — no matter how famous and admirable the individuals are — are probably less important to the queer young than firing homophobic school principals or making it illegal to abandon your gay child.