Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who's Gay? Who's Not? Who Cares?

Last week’s revelation that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is gay delivered the usual chorus of applause and catcalls. Some people praised his forthrightness, and his willingness to come forward as a public figure. Others condemned him as the latest embodiment of America’s moral decline. The response was as predictable as online Twilight fan fiction. And it all overlooked one important question: does it matter?

Cooper has spent over two decades cultivating the respect of broadcasting executives and viewing audiences for his solid, authoritative reporting. He gained attention by sneaking into Burma with a forged press pass and providing some of the only quality coverage during the military regime’s repressive crackdowns. This presaged his high-intensity career. He has parlayed early accomplishments into a reputation on par with Edward R. Murrow.

And he has done that without recourse to whom he has sex with.

When Cooper’s announcement hit the news last week, I couldn’t help flashing back to 1997, when actress Ellen DeGeneres outed herself on the cover of Time magazine. I remember feeling quite offended by this news—not that the star of a top sitcom was openly gay, but because a respected news source considered this front page material. Was there really nothing more newsworthy in the world that week?

As a society, we have become grotesquely fascinated with celebrities’ sexual proclivities. Recent disclosures that sitcom star Jim Parsons has been in a relationship with the same man for ten years, or that Gillian Anderson has had relationships with both women and men, have had entertainment rags practically salivating. Whether stars want it or not, their sex lives make profitable fodder for the ancillary media that accrues to them.

Yet I wonder who cares. Jim Parsons’ sexuality will not affect my enjoyment of The Big Bang Theory. I won’t burn my X-Files DVDs because Scully is eyeing the same women I am. I see a certain relevance when Ricky Martin or Melissa Etheridge, who sing love songs, let us know which category of people they have in mind as they sing, but even that runs kind of peripheral, because they’re good songs, regardless.

Yet our obsession with celebrity sex has distorted our approach to popular culture. One side so eagerly wants to make heroes that they rush people into the public eye before they’re ready, like Richard Chamberlain, or after they’re dead, like Malcolm Forbes. The other side is so offended by homosexuality that they invent lurid tales of decadence and moral collapse. Celebrity sex turns liberals into exhibitionists, and conservatives into pornographers.

Admittedly, some people do have legitimate reasons to publicize their sexuality. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, wanted to let constituents know where his loyalties lay, and thus how he would likely vote. Apparently, Massachusetts voters didn’t disapprove. George Takei has a thriving career as an activist, and certainly he has a right to let fellow travelers know he has “skin in the game,” pardon the expression.

But when celebrity sex become public domain, the result is consistently dangerous. Consider the Kardashians, whose romances, marriages, and pregnancies resemble a flea circus on meth. Many people wonder why Kim Kardashian ended her highly profitable marriage so quickly, by airing dirty laundry in public. The answer is simple: because she lacks any marketable skill besides her sex. Without public attention to her genitals, she has no way to make a living.

I don’t want to be seen saying that all celebrity sex is tawdry, or that all gay celebs should keep silent. When Sean Maher came out recently, for instance, he did so with the noble goal of giving gay youth a positive role model. With his stable relationship and growing family, Maher provides a sterling example of how open homosexuals are legitimate members of their communities. His openness helps raise the bar of the discussion of sex in society.

And if Anderson Cooper wants the world to know he’s gay, God bless him. He should no more have to conceal his fondness for men than I should conceal my fondness for women. But that, in itself, doesn’t make him admirable or heroic. Recent coverage threatens to obscure his contributions as a journalist, reducing him to a bland icon like Judy Garland, who reputedly ended life shuffling through motions that no longer interested her.

As a nation, we owe it to our celebrities to stop looking up their trouser legs. Let’s lionize them for what they do, not who they sleep with then the cameras shut down.

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