It was no secret that George Washington was straight, at least as evidenced by having been married to a woman — whom most Americans can even name. The same could at least be superficially assumed for 43 of the 44 presidents. James Buchanan was a bachelor and is assumed by many to have been gay, and plenty of rumors persist about the actual sexual orientation of other presidents (including Washington). But the important lesson is that disclosing one’s heterosexuality has never been considered a violation of anyone’s privacy.
Today, Anderson Cooper disclosed publicly for the first time that he is gay. It wasn’t a particular surprise, because Cooper has lived in a so-called “glass closet.” He never denied that he was gay, and he’s been photographed with his boyfriend (who owns a gay bar) on numerous occasions at public events. Still, by taking the important step of coming out, Cooper can now be even more of a role model to LGBT youth and help people across the country become just a bit more familiar with people who are gay.
The Guardian is running debating stories today about the lead-up to Cooper’s admission: Was Cooper bullied to come out or was pressuring him to do so important for combating anti-gay stigma? The problem with the question is that it has a faulty premise — or at least it should. Sexual orientation is a basic dimension of a person’s identity, just like sex or race. In the absence of homophobia, a same-sex orientation ought not warrant any more “privacy” than an opposite-sex orientation. The problem is that for as long as the current understanding of homosexuality has been visible in society (a little more than a century), anti-gay activists have insisted that it be identified solely by behavior.
The reason Cooper and others might still feel that coming out is revealing too much of their “personal life” is because anti-gay stigma depends on reinforcing the “ick” factor. When people acknowledge that they are gay or lesbian, they are immediately identified by (and judged for) who they have sex with — and inherently how. The same is surprisingly untrue of heterosexuals, who often even produce proof of their sexual deeds in the form of children. As acceptance for the LGBT community continues to grow at its breakneck pace, this distinction should disappear. Gay people should no more be identified by their sexual behavior than anybody else.
As a result of societal progress already made, Cooper will likely not face any negative consequences from finally stepping out of that glass closet. The anti-gay people who attack everything gay will attack — and they have — but their impact is negligible. The excited media reaction today reminds us how prolific Harvey Milk was when he insisted that “every gay person must come out” over 30 years ago. Coming out as gay isn’t a disclosure of our personal lives or sex lives; it’s an admission that we as gay people have lives at all.