(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.