On Anderson Cooper and the Politics of "Coming Out"

Whereas I realize better than most the costs of turning your life and your very identity into a political statement, I also know that it is sometimes our secrets that make us sick, more so than whatever it is that we’re hiding.

Jul 2, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Anderson Cooper (Image via minds-eye on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Breaking news: Anderson Cooper is gay! And water is wet. And the pope wears a funny hat. Still, it’s worth reading the statement Anderson Cooper made on the Daily Beast because it raises some interesting points about just who we are allowed to be-- or, rather, who we are and whether or not we are allowed to talk about it. 

Whereas, as Daily Beast contributor Andrew Sullivan remarks, we live in a time where it is not exactly shocking for someone to reveal that they’re gay, there are still--for many Americans-- very real consequences for doing so. You can still, for example, lose your job or be denied basic rights such as the right to marry the person you love or be terrorized into taking your life.

It wasn’t until July 2011 that President Obama overturned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, legislation that had, since 1993, effectively condoned discrimination against military service people wishing to serve and be openly gay. For many people this is a solution-- “I don’t care who you are or what you do behind closed doors,” you’ll hear people say, “I just don’t want to hear you talking about it.” 

Of course, discrimination is not limited to people based on sexual orientation. Social stigma can result from the perception or attribution, rightly or wrongly, that someone is of a non-normative gender identity, or has a mental illness, a physical disability or certain disease (such as HIV and AIDS). It may be attached to a person based on skin tone, nationality, ethnicity, religion (or lack of religion) criminality (such as whether or not a person has committed or been convicted of a crime) or citizenship/immigration status.

The easiest solution might be for us all to be straight, able-bodied white dudes born in America who only have missionary sex with our wives, right? At the very least, those of us with something that makes us different should blend in and not talk about it. Perhaps we should not draw attention to those things that make us unique. This was one reason Anderson Cooper gave for not publicly discussing his sexuality prior to today. 

“For my safety and the safety of those I work with, Cooper writes, “I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own. I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist.”

“Recently, however,” he later goes on, “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.”

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I’m not an undocumented immigrant, but I can totally relate. Jose Antonio Vargas is a hero of mine.

The word “stigma” is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as the blemished or morally polluted persons they were presumed to be. The older I get, the more I realize most people we come into contact with have such metaphoric scars.

Ironically, the more I share my story and listen to others, the more I realize that I am not so unique in thinking myself different. Whether visible or not, perhaps we all walk this Earth marked by our past and by truths about ourselves and our experience that -- if people knew -- could possibly result in our being avoided or shunned.

Whereas I realize better than most the costs of turning your life and your very identity into a political statement, I have also been taught, and know from my experience, that it is sometimes our secrets that make us sick, more so than whatever it is that we’re hiding.

Despite the costs that my own truth telling caused, I have no regrets. I would rather be who I am -- all of me, the good and bad and everything in-between -- and let people know this, and withstand the consequences, than live feeling as if I have something to hide. There are also the political benefits of coming out -- benefits, I want to believe, that extend past me. When a member of a stigmatized group steps into public view, we make ourselves visible as real people deserved of equal rights and dignity in this society. We undermine the view that we are lesser members, not only for ourselves but for everyone like us -- everybody who, for obvious reasons, may be unwilling or unable to speak up.  

Of course, as I just recently opined, not everybody has the privilege of being fabulously unique. Some people are unwilling to expose that about them which might invite stigma. They can’t afford to jeopardize their jobs. They don’t want to put those kinds of strains on their relationships. They don’t want to put themselves at physical or emotional risk. I get it.

But the more people who step up and say, “This is me, world. So what? No big deal!” the less of a big deal whatever it is will be.  Certainly, Anderson Cooper could afford to take the risk, and so I’m glad he did.