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It’s Queer Work If You Can Get It: The Celebrity Coming Out Speech

January 15, 2013, 2:47 pm

Sue Sylvester sez: just announce it, Jodie. Photo credit.

This week, in the aftermath of another Christ on a cracker we already knew banal celebrity coming out speech the action was hot on Tenured Radical‘s Facebook page. I had responded to the irritating status prompt “How are you feeling, Claire?” by writing that I was “feeling”:

…a little puzzled as to why Jodie Foster needed to do the drama queen thing about coming out at the Golden Globes. Since we all knew she was a lesbian, a press release would have been fine.

I have received many likes (I like to be liked) and many comments, only one of which has accused me of unfairly silencing the little lamb. How many ways can I describe my annoyance that Foster chose her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award (for excellence in film, not excellence in sex) to make an embarrassingly coy speech (as if it was news) about the love that dares not speak its name? Let me amend that: in Hollywood, should love speak its name, it runs the risk of being photographed for Us Magazine in an ugly housedress with tears tracking through its mascara.

This might be why when love does go on national television to confess, it still doesn’t actually speak its name.

That’s right: Foster did not manage to say the words “gay” or “lesbian” in her so-called coming out speech. However, she did manage to invoke every homophobic lesbian stereotype there is: emotional fragility, invaded privacy, and (for good measure) the well of loneliness. All that was missing was a field hockey stick.

And why did Foster feel this was necessary now, since she came out in a similarly oblique way in 2007? Let’s go to the videotape:

As you can see, the director of the Golden Globes breaks away from Foster’s performance of the tragic lesbian in order to pan to the reactions of other Hollywood stars who had clearly been warned that this was on the program. As a group, they look variously anxious, brightly supportive, embarrassed, uncertain and teary.

What they don’t look is happy that they are there for this moment. Mel Gibson, Foster’s friend (why??? because he is so misunderstood too??), looked like he had been whacked over the head with a brick during the commercial break. My hero, Jane Lynch, who plays the uber-dykey Sue Sylvester on Glee and has been out for years, seems to be working very hard to be completely expressionless. Despite her great success playing a gym teacher in Glee, the price of Lynch’s public queerness has been being typecast as a sexually frustrated closeted lesbian in a campy TV show for kids. Similarly, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell, both of whom are brilliant comic actresses, have been shunted over to afternoon TV talk shows for stay at home moms. It’s a living, but the studios aren’t banging down the door.

In case you missed it, Foster — whose last major motion picture was about a woman who is raped and beaten and responds to it by becoming a vigilante — is seeking love and empathy. Why? Because, as it turns out, being a movie star is a tough slog, and has forced her to fight for a life that was “real and honest” (something we civilians have at our fingertips), a life in which she has sought “privacy above all else.”

Aaaargh. How to think about this little exercise in narcissism, one that so trivializes the struggles of most GLBTQ people in comparison to Foster’s depiction of herself as “a fragile girl”?

Fortunately, at the exact moment when I was wrestling with the many layers if interpretation Foster’s crie de coeur requires, I was also reading My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community & Labor History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), a posthumous volume of essays by queer scholar-activist Allan Bérubé edited by John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman. Bérubé’s vision of what queer history ought to do was far more expansive than I had previously understood; his later essays, as well as fragments of an unfinished manuscript about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, demonstrate intersectional analysis at its very best. This research intensified his efforts to understand things like “why gay stays white,” and the work of both class and race on queer community formation. Not surprisingly, Bérubé’s insights helped me pry open the messiness of Foster’s Golden Globes moment.

I think if he were alive to day and had watched this speech, Bérubé would have pointed out that Foster’s plea for privacy is something that only someone who is simultaneously rich and white, and speaking to a room full of people just like her, would find in the least plausible. By insisting that sexual privacy is normal, and then framing the alternatives to privacy as either starring in a reality show about poor Southern white people or developing a new fragrance a la Ricky Martin, Foster showed complete obliviousness to the class and race privilege that structures her entire life. She also demonstrated how little she understands about how ordinary people survive a time of economic and political crisis. No one who can’t pay for it has a shred of privacy, in part because of the corporations that fund Jodie Foster’s work and pay her bills and in part because we are living in a state of perpetual war, surveillance and imprisonment. People of color, queer or not, rich or poor, can’t walk down the street, or into a store, or into their own apartment buildings, or drive down the street in their own cars, without knowing that they can be stopped, frisked and arrested at any moment on suspicion of being a threat to public safety. 

That’s what it means to have no privacy. Where I live, lots of working class queer kids live their lives out in public because they have no homes at all. They sleep on the A train, turn tricks on the street and they can’t go home because their parents don’t want them.

It has always been a mystery to me, given that Hollywood is dripping with queers, that the Industry is still so homophobic, but I think they can be because they can afford to pay for privacy. People like Jodie Foster not only accept that as the price of doing business but then insist that being closeted is a “choice” they are entitled to. Does she really believe that infringements on her privacy are provoked by an inquisitive audience and not by the power structure of filmmaking?

Alan Bérubé would have also made the point that film making is, in itself, “queer work,” and always has been (see Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet, 1981.) Foster’s shout out to her film crews as her “brothers and sisters” is a queerly coded way (“Is s/he family?”) of pointing out what we already know: that the people behind the scenes in every Hollywood production have always been gay and lesbian in disproportionate numbers. This is also true on other industries, most prominently the theater:see Esther Newton’s ethnographic history of Fire Island, for example.

Foster’s speech is problematic because it both claims queerness as a private thing she can own and perform, but then invokes the “queer work” of film making to insulate her from having to make ethical decisions about what it means to be a lesbian out in public. This is a mistake that Ellen DeGeneres, who I admire more every day, did not make.  Compare Foster’s speech to this clever scene from the coming-out season of Ellen, in which Ellen not only says “I’m a lesbian” multiple times, but Melissa Etheridge signs her to a multi-page lesbian contract and the woman who turns Ellen in gets a toaster as a prize:

Yes Jodie: it’s really “that easy.” Take two?

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