I was on the road yesterday when Anderson Cooper, in response to an Entertainment Weekly cover story about celebrities who are coming out in increasingly casual ways, came out in an email to Andrew Sullivan. Gawker publisher Nick Denton, reflecting what seem to be sour grapes about not getting the story himself, has already complained that Cooper didn’t make a big enough deal of his coming out, as if a long and thoughtful email to the biggest blog at a major publication doesn’t constitute a significant enough event.
Celebrities’ lives are funny things: we enter them midstream and assume we know an enormous amount about these people who create selves they put out for our consumption, whether it’s old-school rooting for Rosie O’Donnell to find the right guy or the entire sector of the magazine industry that’s supported by speculation about what it means to Jennifer Aniston that she’s divorced. That intense attention and sense of ownership creates an opportunity for stars to either make major news events out of their lives or for them to slip new relationships or new information about themselves seamlessly into the news cycle. Cooper could have as easily just taken his boyfriend to an Oscar party or walked the red carpet with him and acted as if everyone already knew he was gay, as if the proper name of the person he’s seeing is the news, and not the fact that the person he’s seeing is a man.
There’s no question that we’re still at a point where the availability of out, happy, successful, and clearly-identifiable gay role models is important to young people, and where coming out is still changing hearts and minds by forcing people to confront whether they really feel differently about people like Cooper now that audiences know they’re gay. But I wonder if we’d be a lot better off with more casual celebrity coming-out stories that build room for flexibility and growth into the narrative. It would be awfully nice if people like Cynthia Nixon or Lindsay Lohan could go from relationships with men to relationships with women and have the news be the specific person rather than their gender. For some people, coming out is the stating of an immutable fact about themselves. For others, it’s a matter of a specific relationship. Not all coming out stories are the same, and the same formula of magazine covers and talk show sit-downs, won’t make sense for all people in the public eye. Knowing that there are famous, successful gay people among us is a first step. Recognizing that their experiences, as with the experiences of civilians, aren’t all identical is second, and critically important.