I remember that weekend in Langebaan well, the weekend that, in retrospect, was the start of my life as I now know it. I ended up facing my mother, eager to share some gossip but also anxious about where the conversation might lead because of it. My mother asked before I could tell. And, instead of trying to change the subject, I proudly answered her question: Yes, I am gay.
Coming out of the closet is often an excruciating process for many gay men and women, a step that most realise must be taken at some point in order to live a fulfilled life. Hiding one’s sexual preference from friends and family out of fear of ridicule and rejection places an immense burden on one’s shoulders and usually results in a secretive and unhappy double life.
Many of us have been through this process, some more easily than others, and are now accepted by our loved ones. However, there seems to be a notion out there that being famous means you can not be openly gay. It’s a notion that is not only ridiculous, but also leaves secretly gay celebrities wide open to the threat of a public outing; something that they could spend their lives trying to prevent.
Internationally, we have had a spate of recent celebrity outings, a trend started by our gutsy lesbian friends. Martina Navratilova, Ellen DeGeneres, kd lang, Rosie O’Donnel, Portia di Rossi, Cynthia Nixon and Melissa Etheridge did it and their careers didn’t suffer because of it. Boy George, Elton John and George Michael did it, as did Michael Stipe from REM, Andy Bell from Erasure, Stephen Gately from Boyzone, Mark Feehily from Westlife and Lance Bass from N*Sync. Scissor Sisters are known worldwide because they’ve played open cards about their sexual preferences and we’ve even had Reichen Lehmkuhl from The Amazing Race coming into the open.
Actors such as Neil Patrick Harris and TR Knight from Gray’s Anatomy are now openly gay, as is actor Rupert Everett, designer du jour Tom Ford (of Gucci-fame) and – more recently – Frasier actor David Hyde Pierce. But, was anyone really surprised when they came out of the closet? Probably not. Besides the fact that most guys in the creative industries are as gay as high tea with The Queen, these boys didn’t really show all that much discretion when being out and about (no pun intended).
While we have not had many similar outings in South Africa, many of our so-called celebrities are also not that discreet about their sexual preferences – but won’t publicly come clean about their sexuality. It’s just something that no-one speaks about it. So where are our very own proudly South African openly-gay celebs?
Part of the problem lies with the media – the gay media included. Sexual orientation is a subject of frequent gossip, but never of journalism. In an article for New York magazine, Maer Roshan perfectly sums up the relationship between gay celebrities and the media by saying that celebrities demand complete discretion from the media while displaying none themselves, secure in the knowledge that the media will look the other way.
“And we do,” he says. “Journalists play along in the sincere belief that they are protecting gay people, but in doing so they serve the interests of a few individuals at the expense of the larger community. By dancing around the sexuality of gay public figures, they reduce them to oddly neutered figures,” he says.
Locally, some journalists occasionally ask “The Question” when interviewing a celebrity, but hardly ever get an answer that doesn’t steer away from the topic. And usually, they won’t push any further on the matter – as if a public figure’s sexuality is not newsworthy.
“…many of these people are leading double lives and deceiving their public…”
As gay people, we’ll see many of these so-called celebrities out and about in gay establishments, seemingly without care of being outed, only to read a vague denial in the following week’s Huisgenoot. Yes, Mr Egoli-actor, I’m talking about you. The media and its defamation lawsuit-fearing journalists place too much emphasis on celebrities’ “right to privacy”.
However, the rise of gossip blogs and blog culture has made the subject of public outing much more relevant because now literally anyone can tell the world what they think, feel and have experienced – indiscretions with celebrities included.
A frenzy erupted in May this year when a blog alleged to have been written by a former South African male prostitute started spilling the (apparent) beans on his sexual encounters with, according to the author, prominent in the closet celebrities.
The blog was up and running for little more than a week, but it gave the author (who went under the name Skye) more than enough time to describe more than 12 well-known male celebrities’ alleged sexual escapades. Most media were concerned about being sued if they named the figures referred to in the blog, and so they reported on the subject without actually identifying any of the people implicated. The blogger was promptly discredited by many media outlets, those named threatened legal action, and the blog was shut down.
So why is it so important for our celebrities to come out? Surely people are entitled to present themselves as they wish?
The fact of the matter is that in most parts of the world – South Africa included – homosexuality is still frowned upon. Gay celebrities, gay leaders and other gay individuals who are held in high regard have a duty to come out of their closets. You are role-models, my friends: people the gay youth look up to when times are tough as examples of what can be achieved in life. If the world had more openly gay and influential role models, the shame often associated with being gay would be much diminished – making it easier for young people to come out, facilitating faster self-acceptance and ultimately leading to happier, more balanced and fulfilled human beings.
Regardless of how much damage Skye’s blog did or didn’t do to the reputations of many of our country’s celebrities, or the ethics behind his blog, I do agree with one statement he made: many of these people are leading double lives and deceiving their public.
As a journalist, I’m tired of avoiding the issue and I’m tired of being expected to collude in their deception. I’m not condoning public outings in any form, but I do expect celebrities to answer honestly when confronted with questions about their sexual orientation. As Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon said when coming out as a lesbian: if someone is chasing you, stop running – and then they’ll stop chasing you.
In his article for New York magazine, Maer Roshan acknowledges that there was a time when the closet was a necessary safe haven. But, he adds, it now exists only as an anachronistic monument to shame. “It’s time for our public figures to stop hiding in there and for journalists to stop helping them,” he says, adding that this might seem like a radical idea to some. But I ask you: is it really so radical for journalists to simply report the truth?