There was a D-List stench to celebrity coming-out stories in 2013. Not in terms of the caliber of the stars, but the relevance and impact of the disclosures.
The year was filled with farcical outings, from Jodie Foster’s conflicted acknowledgement that the world is not flat at the Golden Globes in January, to the mind-blowing revelation in December that Brian Boitano had been non-openly gay all along. Jason Collins’s potential to be the first openly gay player in the NBA inspired difficult conversations and important attention on the gay experience, but, alas, we had already heard the story of the athlete coming out after his career had ended.
Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” ended the year with a Facebook post that, while widely celebrated, deserved no more than a yawn. Roberts may be an iconic darling of morning television, but that doesn’t mean she should be heralded for making people say, “Duh.”
Nor should her admission be considered brave, although Roberts suffers no shortage of bravery. During her dozen years on GMA, she has built a brand on intimate candor and authenticity, particularly with her health struggles and triumphs.
Roberts opened her life to her viewers – her family, as I’m sure they say in morning television – to the point that there were cameras in her hospital room. Yet, she considered part of her life so unmentionable, so unworthy of being shared, that there was a buffer seated between Roberts and her girlfriend of 10 years when she received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN last year.
Roberts, whom I consider endearing and inspirational, was most deserving of that award, but her coming out experience illustrates how these episodes are not necessarily bold or courageous.
While gay people vigorously decry the closet, it’s considered distasteful to critique our role in its existence, or those who prop up its walls long after everyone around them can see through them. It’s hard to conceive what threat could’ve kept Brian Boitano in the closet all these years, or that it existed anywhere except in Boitano’s imagination.
Neither Boitano, Roberts nor Foster were easily mistaken for heterosexual, and the militant ambiguity of their romantic lives made the thing they were trying to hide become a defining character trait. They persisted with a strategy of their generation: excel, get people to like you, and then tell them that you are gay so that they will see all LGBT people are not stereotypes.
Of course, many LGBT folks in their generation abandoned this foolish and frustrating trajectory years ago, and offered examples of how we can thrive without hiding who we are and those we love. They created a world where younger LGBT individuals can acknowledge who they are without the wrought and peril that has been historically associated with coming out.
Missouri defense lineman Michael Sam became the first major coming out story of 2014 earlier this month, and what a glorious difference a year has made. The NFL hopeful has knocked the staleness off the celebrity coming-out genre, just as I was considering it too vintage to be effective.
Like basketball phenom Brittney Griner, Sam is refusing to compromise who he is in order to enter the arena of fame. These two young athletes have displayed such a casual confidence in who they are that their coming out stories have not seemed tortured, but rather the natural course of their personal identity and our society’s experiment with diversity.
ESPN reporter Marc Schwarz was in Missouri when the network broadcast Sam’s announcement, and described the scene inside Columbia’s Campus Bar & Grill:
“The people in the bar, around the tables watching the television casually, erupted in cheers when they heard that Michael Sam was admitting that he was openly gay.”
We might have reached this point sooner had celebrities like Jodie Foster and Brian Boitano realized earlier that their closets were locked from the inside. The nonchalant courage of Griner and Sam, the almost universal support they have received, gives me hope that the closeted gay celebrity – and the closeted average adult – will one day be as unfashionably retro.