(This paper was written in early 2010. I love it madly, but decided not to try to publish it because of my own feelings on outing. Now that everyone discussed is out of the closet, I thought I'd share it. Forgive the footnotes if they're wonky!)
Celebrity, New Media, and the Assumption of Unasserted Gay Identity
In March 2010, on the day that Ricky Martin announced that he is gay, celebrity/media blog Gawker.com ran an article entitled "10 People Who Need to Finally Come Out of the Closet."1 The article makes light of Martin's announcement, making the assertion that his sexual identity was so well known as to be understood by the majority of the public, rendering his announcement overdue. It goes on to state that "he's not the only public figure still hiding -- unsuccessfully -- in the glass closet."2 The position that Gawker asserts is that gay identity is a static truth that needs to be revealed, and that refusing to publicly acknowledge that identity in the face of the "general public"'s understanding of one's sexuality is disingenuous. "These people really need to come out because it is so painfully obvious to the world that they are gay," Gawker argues, "and if they finally announce it, we're probably going to be laughing at them." The article also discusses the reasons that these public figures owe their audiences an admission of homosexuality, citing the need for successful gay action heroes, gay journalists, and gay media moguls. Gawker simultaneously argues that the public figures are deluding themselves by not acknowledging that the public has "figured them out" and places the onus on them to perform a public duty, making the assertion of gay identity a political responsibility for these figures, most of whom are not active in the realm of politics. Gay identity in this discourse functions as an easily recognized inherent quality, a political stance, and a component of a mature and integrated persona.
This project is an attempt to synthesize a theory of the way in which new media, particularly gossip media, both reflect and construct notions of gay identity in their coverage of celebrities, and hold celebrities accountable for not conforming to the particular medium's standards of the presentation of a public identity.
In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that:
Foucault among other historians locates in about the nineteenth century a shift in European thought from viewing same-sex sexuality as a matter of prohibited and isolated genital acts (acts to which, in that view, anyone might be liable who did not have their appetites in general under close control) to viewing it as a function of stable definitions of identity (so that one's personality structure might mark one as a homosexual, even, perhaps, in the absence of an genital activity at all. (Sedgwick 83)A fundamental assumption of all the texts that are discussed in this paper is one that Sedgwick articulates, that homosexuality is what one is which can often be proven by outsiders observing what one does and how one acts. In this discourse, gay identity is real whether or not it is publicly asserted, but the lack of public assertion functions as a troubling factor, allowing the media to create a conversation on the way in which it feels it is silenced by the celebrities' refusal to articulate what the media sees as inherent and understood. Gay identity becomes the most important part of the way that the medium interacts with the public figure, with the implication that this is due to the frustration that the medium feels at the inability to categorize.
I will look at the specific ways in which this is argued in reference to three public figures primarily on three specific blogs. This discussion sometimes moves from an internet space to more mainstream media, but the freedom of the internet3 and the way in which blogs function allows for more pointed commentary than that in which traditional media can engage. First, I will look at CNN journalist Anderson Cooper's coverage on Gawker, then Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir's coverage on sports blog Deadspin.com (also owned by Gawker Media), and finally White Collar actor Matthew Bomer's coverage on gay news/media blog Queerty.com. The different venues offer different takes on the way in which they assert a gay identity for the subject, but all of them discuss homosexuality as a salient, if not the most salient, aspect of the way in which the celebrity interacts with the public and crafts his persona.
In this paper, I do not seek to make claims as to the truth of the assertions of any of the media outlets but rather to call attention to the ways in which the discussion itself can be read as function of a "colonizing" discourse, to use Judith Butler's terms (Butler 308). The ways in which homosexuality is read in these texts rely on a sense of homosexuality as something that can always be delineated and understood and have an underlying assumption that the taxonomic categorization of people into identity categories is both liberatory and desirable. Butler argues that "identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of the very oppression." She continues, "to propose that the invocation of identity is always a risk does not imply that resistance to it is always or only symptomatic of a self-inflicted homophobia" (308). In discussing how gay identity is framed in these texts, this paper's standpoint is that the resistance of the label of "gay" may have multiple personal and wider political rationales, but the personal choice to avoid a sexual identity label, as all three of these subjects do, is, I would argue, not the choice that needs to be investigated. Rather, it is the media's resistance to their refusal to identify that needs to be interrogated.
I also want to draw a distinction between the interaction of the media and public figures that I am discussing here and what is generally discussed in discourses of outing queer people for political purposes. In Queer in America, Michelangelo Signorile articulates his thought processes when deciding whether or not to out public figures:
Here were gay [media figures] faced with the most devastating crisis ever to affect their community, who rarely reported on the government's negligent response to AIDS. Of course, this helped preserve their closets... At the same time they gave space to homophobic entertainers... Doesn't that relationship imply collusion and hypocrisy, and aren't collusion and hypocrisy newsworthy? (Signorile 72).Signorile's outing of public figures, both media and political, took place in the context of political urgency due to the AIDS epidemic. Similarly, Kirby Dick's 2009 film Outrage, which outed political figures, specifically targeted only politicians that regularly campaigned against gay rights, and detailed the anti-gay voting records of all of its subjects onscreen, although Signorile argues that "to out only for [reasons of political hypocrisy] is to make the revelation of homosexuality into a punishment" (77).
By contrast, none of the three public figures covered in this paper present themselves as heterosexual or campaign for anti-gay causes, and often align themselves with queer people or events (Anderson Cooper anchored CNN's New Year's Eve broadcast with Kathy Griffin and Lance Bass, both of whom have a connection to queerness in the public discourse4 ; Johnny Weir is frequently seen at gay rights fundraisers and gay-themed events5 .) The urgency that the media feels for them to assert a gay identity is not due to clear political harm they are causing to gay people, but rather to a sense that their ambiguity does a disservice to the community and makes people uncomfortable.
Gawker, which covers New York celebrity and socialite culture, has long run pieces on Anderson Cooper, starting after his rise in prominence after Hurricane Katrina. One of the recurrent (and most notorious among other bloggers) aspects of Gawker's coverage of Cooper is its years-long insistence that he should come out of the closet, with the implication that everyone in the world knows he is gay, and refusing to explicitly state it is harmful politically, but mostly embarrassing. This attitude is due in part to the sarcastic and irreverent approach that Gawker takes to most of its subjects, but it also reveals an ideology of gay identity being non-controversial in certain circles, and posits the lack of assertion as almost a social faux pas. In an article on a National Enquirer story about Cooper possibly adopting a Haitian baby, Gawker stated:
The story was obviously just an excuse to put "Anderson Cooper Is a Giant Homosexual" on the cover of their magazine so that all the people in all the grocery lines in all the land will know that he is gay. See, no one cares about the baby. They care that Cooper is sleeping in a glass closet like Snow White after she covered a hurricane in South Florida and got hit in the head by a wind-swept poisoned apple. Sorry, Anderson. These are the indignities that await until you come out.6By positioning Cooper's refusal to discuss his sexuality as a persistent source of jokes, Gawker continues to put pressure on Cooper to make an assertion while avoiding an explicitly political stance.
Most of the articles about Cooper focus on who he is supposedly dating, including pictures and extensive profiles, and the ways in which his interactions with people on his TV show or others reveal his homosexuality. Gawker pays particular attention to supposed code phrases that signal the queer-aware or sophisticated audience that Cooper is gay. One striking example was a post covering Cooper's co-hosting of the Live with Regis and Kelly morning show, that Gawker titled, "Anderson Cooper Publicly Outs Himself Yet Again."7 The post starts off with a reference to a previous post about Cooper at a Hollywood party with a man Gawker has identified as his boyfriend, and then goes on to describe the video embedded in the post:
Ripa and Cooper were doing a segment where the CNN anchor was answering questions from viewers and Kelly produced a yearbook picture of Anderson that clearly embarrassed him. She folded the picture up and put it down her shirt saying, "You'll never get this back."The tone of the article reveals the stance of the blog as being cosmopolitan and sophisticated, with its reference to "Floridian tourists" not getting the joke, and it places the discourse of gay identity in that setting, requiring the worldliness of having experienced a wide variety of social experiences to understand the nuances of what it deems to be Cooper's barely hidden deception. It also places Cooper's comment in a context that renders the blog and everyone who can read the code part of a discourse that Sedgwick discusses in her delineation of camp when she describes that aesthetic as, "the moment at which a consumer of culture makes the wild surmise, ‘What if whoever made this was gay too?'...What if the right audience for this were exactly me?" (Sedgwick 156). By reading Cooper's comment as part of a conversation aimed at gay viewers, as a nod to everyone who is in on the joke, Gawker's bloggers make Cooper's refusal to name a sexual identity intelligible to themselves.
What was Anderson's clever retort? "Sweetie, that's the last place I'd look." (He also gave some serious gay face while making the crack.) It's actually a funny bit, but it only works if the audience knows that Cooper is gay, and clearly the studio audience of Floridian tourists didn't get the joke.
Unlike the other two subjects of this paper, Cooper's coverage on Gawker bears a striking resemblance to the coverage it gives many of its ostensibly heterosexual subjects. For example, it recently ran a feature entitled, "The Sexual Lives of News Anchors: A Guide,"8 which included sexual details that it stated were too graphic to be printed in other media fora. In this context of discussing the bedroom habits of NBC anchors, a post entitled, "Anderson Cooper is A Giant Homosexual and Everyone Knows It,"9 that includes multiple pictures of him with a man whom they identify as the owner of a popular gay bar, seems almost restrained. The implication in this seems to be that Gawker wants to treat Cooper just like everyone else, but by not saying that he is gay, he is forcing them to continually make it an issue.
In the case of Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, more so than in the other two cases, the issues of gender performance is a constantly contentious point. Much of the conversation around Weir's sexual identity rests upon his refusal to perform a heteronormative gender role, and the assumptions that this choice leads most media to make. Deadspin, unlike the other two blogs profiled here, does not argue that Weir owes the public an assertion of a gay identity. Instead, it covers the work of other media in their constant attempts to discuss Weir without asserting a gay identity for him, while still attempting to heavily imply that he is gay.
Deadspin ran a series of posts around the 2010 Winter Olympics entitled "Today In Euphemizing Johnny Weir's Gayness" which covered other blogs and news outlets and their often clumsy attempts to describe Weir. This series is described on the blog as "an occasional series in which we document — and evaluate — the sports media's pained efforts to call the sexually undeclared figure skater gay without quite calling him gay." (Deadspin, January 18, 2010)10 Deadspin noted the use of language that consistently connoted homosexuality, without ever making an assertion of identity for the subject. Deadspin has no such problems asserting this identity, as seen in the title of the series of posts, but it does not linger on what role Weir's purported gay identity should play politically or publicly. Rather it makes the assertion and moves on, mocking other media outlets for not being able to do the same thing. This approach does not take into account the ways in which traditional media sees itself as having much less leeway about the way in which it frames discussions of sexual identity for public figures, with most mainstream press shying away from making outright claims of gayness without a specific statement from the subject that is being covered. By positioning itself this way, Deadspin manages to cast itself as a forthright, honest media outlet, while other outlets are portrayed as being awkward and unable to handle presenting the truth of Weir's sexuality.
As Michelangelo Signorile argues:
The American media didn't report about the lives of famous queers because they saw homosexuality as the most disgusting thing imaginable -- worse than extramarital affairs, abortions, boozing, divorces, or out-of-wedlock babies, all of which are fodder for the press. Homosexuality frightened straight editors and reporters because it forced them to realized just how many of us there are. The so-called journalistic ethics that they adduced against outing, I realized, were dreamed up a long time ago by straight white men to protect the world of straight white men. (75-76)Signorile describes an environment in which the entertainment media was often complicit in creating a façade of heterosexuality for the closeted subject (which it often still is.) The media chooses not to reveal the closeting in order to preserve the heteronormative order. In the case of Weir and the other subjects in this paper, the heteronormative order is already being disturbed because of their refusal to comply with a system that demands they categorize themselves.
The curious effect of Deadspin's position in this is that it allows the blog to make observations about the ways in which traditional media, specifically sports media, construct gay identity. In Weir's case, this primarily involves euphemism and language that alludes to femininity. The Deadspin posts quote and link to specific articles and pull out uses of language that are deemed to be assertions of gay identity by the blog. It then rates these on a scale it calls the "Flamboyometer" (referencing the most oft-used term to describe Weir, "flamboyant") which is a scale of "1 to 5 high-stepping Liberaces." One example is an article from ESPN that uses these descriptions: "spandex and sequins ... twirls ... flamboyant [headline] ... as if he had hired the costume designers for Cher and Judas Priest ... wearing something Elton John would consider over-the-top ... would like to go into fashion design."11 The cumulative effect of displaying these other media outlets' attempts to portray Weir as something out of the ordinary due to gender presentation is the uncovering of an assumption of gay identity without an assertion. The texts that the blog mocks rely on the readers' perception of what it means to be a gay man to do the work of saying that Weir is gay, without the possibility of consequences for the media. Deadspin portrays these attempts as ridiculous and repetitive.
Judith Butler argues that:
oppression works not merely through acts of overt prohibition, but covertly, through the constitution of viable subjects and through the corollary constitution of a domain of unviable (un)subjects -- objects, we might call them -- who are neither named nor prohibited within the economy of the law. [The oppression of lesbian identity] works through production of a domain of unthinkability and unnameability" (Butler 312).I would argue that in the case of Weir's handling by mainstream traditional media, there is a position of liminality between the named and unnamed, with the markers of the oppression of gay men that Butler describes, because what is clearly being implied is that Weir is gay, but also with the curious silence around it allowed by his gender presentation. He is not quite intelligible to the media that is profiling him, because he exists in a space that can be easily described but not easily named. If Weir were to have the requisite "secret boyfriend" that the press was barred from discussing, then his sexual behavior would be something to explicitly hide or prohibit, but instead the media is left with discussing his "flamboyance" in a frantic attempt to imply that there is something to be prohibited.
Weir has been known to make specific and pointed comments about his gender performance, including holding a press conference to affirm his right to present himself in any way he wishes12 and arguing that this presents a good example for children in that there should not be limits placed on who they are allowed to be, but his statements on his sexual and romantic behavior have been limited to an assertion that, "there are some things I keep sacred. My middle name. Who I sleep with. And what kind of hand moisturizer I use."13 The discussion of Weir's sexual identity is more about his gender performance than about any sexual behavior or partner choice, and this places him in a category that is distinct from either of the other two subjects of this paper. The media is relegated to discussing his identity in the way that Frank Deford does in an HBO interview,14 saying "when a man dresses as a swan he calls Camille, complete with a red glove for a beak, people are going to, um, notice... when you come out in an outfit that is very frilly and very feminine, I mean, you know what people are going to think." The frustration the media feels is at the ability to see all the markers that they feel connote proper performance of male homosexuality, and still be unable to have that confirmed and regulated. There is no space in this discourse for ideas of non-heteronormative gendered behavior that is not gay-identified, and the frustration that the media feels in not being able to plainly call Weir gay is evident in the interview with Deford. Weir troubles the discourse because he is so open about discussion of his gender and so defiant in his decision to not conform to a masculine gender performance.
While Deadspin is more comfortable with Weir's gender expression and the possibility of homosexuality than many media outlets, it still polices his gender performance and infers identity from it. Rather than start a discussion on why a man skating to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"15 or wearing high heels16 makes the mainstream media scramble to categorize him, Deadspin rushes to categorize him themselves while asserting their superiority to those outlets. They make no effort to expand the discourse beyond pointing out the discomfort of others.
Of all the subjects in this paper, actor Matthew Bomer is the least famous, making the question of his sexual identity and the discussion around it possibly more indicative of the issues at stake in a celebrity's career when questions of the transparent closet are raised than the other two. Much of the internet discussion around Bomer's career rests on whether or not he is gay. A simple Google search for his name brings up three references to discussion of his sexuality in the first page, whereas the other two subjects have discussions of sexuality occur as only one result on the first page, both at the bottom. Bomer is only well known for his role in USA Network's television show White Collar, and has been clear about refusing to identify his sexuality, stating in an article in Details that he is "completely happy and fulfilled" in his personal life, in response to a question about whether he is bothered by speculation that he is gay. Upon further questioning he stated that he had "a network and a show riding on [his] shoulders."17
This seeming linking of a refusal to discuss gay identity with the realities of the homophobia of the entertainment industry and audience18 is part of the discourse surrounding Bomer's sexuality in the gay press. Bomer's sexual identity is discussed in a larger context of what he owes to the gay community versus protection of his career, all without a specific assertion from him of a sexual identity of any kind.
In "Capitalism and Gay Identity," John D'Emilio argues that part of the legacy of "mythology" of the gay rights movement is "an overreliance on a strategy of coming out -- if every gay man and lesbian in America came out, gay oppression would end -- and have allowed us to ignore the institutionalized ways in which homophobia and heterosexism are reproduced" (D'Emilio 101). Bomer seems to be caught in the logic of this strategy, with a significant portion of his fanbase being made up of a gay audience that reads him as a gay man and supports his work because of it, but with the caveat that he is not performing the role of a gay man in the way that he should. As Queerty, a gay news and media blog, stated, "the questions themselves — and your non-answers! — essentially confirm the, ahem, rumors. Which is fine. It's how Bomer is playing the game. And it's not going to keep us from tuning in every week."19
Queerty ran a series of articles on Bomer and the issues surrounding his sexual identity, sparked by an event in which years-old pictures of Bomer kissing another man surfaced on the internet and circulated around first White Collar fan communities and then queer culture blogs. In an article entitled "Why Is White Collar's Matthew Bomer's Sexuality Such a Secret?" Queerty posts the pictures, names the man that other gossip bloggers have asserted is Bomer's partner, and includes a comment from someone identified as one of Bomer's friends who states that posting the pictures is "drudging up his past to reveal something that isn't a secret... He is not hiding, but this kind of post is exactly why so many gay actors do hide."
Queerty's response was that:
as a high-profile television actor, Bomer sells his personal life as much as his acting skills... Our coverage is not the reason gay actors stay in the closet, they stay in the closet to avoid being labeled gay by the mainstream entertainment press. Us? We want to celebrate famous gay folk... Welcome to the fold, Bomer. We're happy to add you to the list of out and proud gay men with mainstream acting gigs. Surely you'll be accepting a GLAAD award this time next year then?20By positioning itself as both the truth-teller and the site where gay actors should feel embraced and accepted, Queerty placed the onus on presenting a gay identity on Bomer, absolving itself of any ethical issues around posting information that implied homosexuality. Queerty's comments about GLAAD awards further positions the blog as being on the side of social justice, and places Bomer in the category of refusing to ally with causes that, as Queerty states, apply to his identity. This moves Bomer from being someone whose sexual identity is a puzzle to be figured out to someone who is steadfastly refusing to participate in something that all right-thinking gay men should be supporting, explicitly linking gay identity to gay rights politics, and finding fault with any celebrity who refuses to participate. Signorile's opinion is that,
Whenever it's pertinent, a public figure's homosexuality should be discussed and inquired about. This should be true only for public figures -- rich and famous individuals who've made a deal with the public: In return for the millions of dollars they earn and/or the power they wield, their lives are open for dissection by the media... By not reporting about famous gays, the message the media send is clear: Homosexuality is so utterly grotesque that it should never be discussed (79).As D'Emilio argues, this connection between coming out and performing gay identity correctly is part of the way in which the gay rights movement has developed its political lexicon (a movement in which Signorile has been instrumental for the past twenty years), and so, even in the face of the possible disastrous results for one's personal career that can result from coming out, the logic of this type of assertion of gay identity states that it is always the right thing to do.
The implicit assumption in all three of these cases is that taxonomic categorization of sexual identity serves some clear purpose that is useful to either queer people or the heteronormative society in which they move. There is a palpable urgency in the way that the blogs position themselves as truth-tellers of sexuality secrets, something that is reminiscent of the political climate of "homosexual panic" that both Sedgwick and Signorile describe. The ability to pin down the subject as gay, using "evidence" that is generally emic rather than etic, reflects a need to account for everyone that can be considered part of the group, even as it participates in what Butler deems an "extension of a homophobic discourse" (308).
1. http://gawker.com/5504885/10-people-who-need-to-finally-come-out-of-the-closet/gallery/?skyline=true&s=i ↑
2. For a similar feature, see http://photo.newsweek.com/content/photo/2010/3/we-already-knew-they-were-gay.html ↑
3. The law on speaking about public figures is actually the same everywhere, for mainstream and internet media (see http://www.eff.org/issues/bloggers/legal/liability/defamation), but blogs are rarely sued for defamation, and gossip media even less often (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-10-02-bloggers-courts_x.htm). Additionally, one can only sue for defamation if the statement is untrue, so the subjects would have to assert heterosexuality in court if they wanted to sue the bloggers for making claims of homosexuality. And this would all depend upon a court accepting that an assertion of homosexuality is damaging enough to rise to the level of defamation. ↑
4. http://gawker.com/5436825/anderson-cooper-lance-bass-and-kathy-griffin-to-host-gayest-new-years-eve-ever ↑
5. For example, The Philadelphia QFest GLBT Film Festival: http://www.mrpoplife.com/2009/07/photos-of-chad-allen-and-johnny-weir-at-philadelphia-qfest-glbt-film-festival-.html ↑
6. http://gawker.com/5464399/anderson-cooper-not-adopting-haitian-baby-still-gay ↑
7. http://gawker.com/5492061/anderson-cooper-publicly-outs-himself-yet-again ↑
8. http://gawker.com/5477942/the-sexual-lives-of-news-anchors-a-guide/gallery/ ↑
9. http://gawker.com/5392766/anderson-cooper-is-a-giant-homosexual-and-everyone-knows-it ↑
10. http://deadspin.com/tag/euphemizingjohnnyweirsgayness/ ↑
11. http://deadspin.com/5450920/today-in-euphemizing-johnny-weirs-gayness-chicago-tribune-espn-and-many-more ↑
12. http://popwatch.ew.com/2010/02/25/johnny-weir-olympics-gender-example/ ↑
13. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/sports/othersports/18skate.html?pagewanted=2&_r=3&hp ↑
14. http://deadspin.com/5469032/today-in-euphemizing-flat+out-calling-johnny-weir-gay-frank-deford ↑
15. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTaVkbl3Dp4 ↑
16. http://snappysnackshack.net/storage/school/weirinheels.jpg ↑
17. http://www.details.com/celebrities-entertainment/movies-and-tv/201001/matt-bomer-white-collar-usa-television ↑
18. See Rupert Everett interview in The Guardian, "I wouldn't advise any actor thinking of his career to come out": http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/nov/29/rupert-everett-madonna-carole-cadwalladr/a> ↑
19. http://www.queerty.com/white-collars-matt-bomer-is-a-proud-out-gay-man-who-doesnt-care-about-the-rumors-hes-a-gay-20100114/#ixzz0lB9NBtDF ↑
20. http://www.queerty.com/why-is-white-collars-matthew-bomers-sexuality-such-a-secret-20091031/ ↑
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
D'Emilio, John. "Capitalism and Gay Identity." Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, & Sharan Thompson. New Feminist Library Series. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. Print.
Katz, Jonathan Ned. "The Invention of Heterosexuality." Women, Culture and Society: A Reader. Ed.. Barbara J. Balliet with Susana Fried. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1992. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Rev. ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008. Print.
Signorile, Michelangelo. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. 3rd ed. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993. Print.