Queen Latifah and The Case for Not Coming Out
Since it was announced that Queen Latifah will be headlining Long Beach Pride Weekend this month, various blogs have wondered whether this was a small, subtle step out of the closet for the entertainer. The gossip blog Sandra Rose was the first to mischaracterize the announcement as a self-outing, based on a quote from an event official citing Latifah as “the voice of our generation” and a testament to “the strength of our community.” To come to the conclusion that the use of the word ‘our’ constitutes the artist publicly acknowledging what at this point is probably an open secret, we have to both presume Latifah’s people approved the language, and that they meant for it to serve as perhaps the most subtle self-outing in celebrity history. Queerty rightfully expressed doubt, and so do I.
Not that those in the public eye can’t announce their queerdom in similarly sneaky ways—as did Lindsay Lohan when she casually confirmed she was dating Samantha Ronson via radio interview in 2008. The dreamy Zachary Quinto was similarly chill about his own gayness in a New York Magazine profile last year. Nor is it surprising when those in the public eye simply decline to discuss their private life—citing professional concerns, the ever-popular desire for privacy, or a thinly-veiled effort to stir conversation about the subject itself.
All this, in fact, simply confounds a society weaned on mega-outings, usually following years of knowing hints expressed through “the art” and followed by national conversation on who “called it” beforehand. And, of course, there are those who say that the very idea that one does not need to come out if they are in the public eye is selfish and damaging; that being “closeted” has simply developed from an elaborate tower of personal lies orchestrated by the celebrity and their camp, to a silent agreement between the celebrity, the media, and the public to let the star avoid talking about their personal life without questioning what exactly it is they’re trying to avoid talking about.
Whether it is still professionally damaging for a celebrity to publicly acknowledge that they’re not heterosexual has been well-discussed many places, and dissected through various lenses. Since as a culture we elevate our celebrities to a near god-like status, I find myself much more interested in how this new attitude about celebrity self-outing has influenced—or has been influenced by—the larger queer culture.
To me, the idea that I must publicly exist either in or out of “the closet” makes a lot of presumptions about my beliefs, my experiences, and what I think is important. I grew up in a pretty gay-friendly New York family. There seemed no fundamental difference to me between my uncles who’d been together for thirty years and my grandparents who’d been together forty. My loud, goofy uncle’s hetero marriage seemed just as legitimate to my child eyes as my quiet, distant uncle’s marriage to his former husband in Atlanta. Gay and straight couples alike visited my aunt’s high-end adult store to spice up their relationship, while I quietly read science fiction in the back room.
Before I was a teenager, I never knew that there was such a thing as “coming out.” I thought parents just knew their kids were gay, and one day their kids confirmed this information, and (unless they were horrible bigots) everyone had a slice of pie after dinner. And in fact, I remember telling my mother rather casually at the age of 15 that I identified as bisexual. I even quite-maturely handed her a book geared towards the families of LGBT folks for her perusal. Her response was muted (and probably amused) but kind, and it wasn’t until quite a few years later that she admitted she spent a short while wondering whether she’d “presented too strong a female role” before realizing how ridiculous that sounded. So, all that considered, I acknowledge that my personal experiences have not really given me a wide understanding of the shittier families and support systems of some queer folks. But now that I’m older, semi-estranged from those who raised me, and making a concerted effort to be closer to the other side of my family, I am learning that such relationships are often…complex.
And isn’t that what “coming out” has always meant for our community? Cutting through the complexity of someone’s feelings about the morality of gayness, the state of gay culture, so-called “gay politics” or whatever else is a reality and an issue for them; and making a bold, definitive statement about who you are. Hasn’t coming out meant challenging the other person to negotiate you as an individual they care about alongside something they might feel uncomfortable with? It’s saying “I’m leaving it up to you to decide how you are going to feel about me. But I am going to be honest and no longer let my fear and my sensitivity to your ignorance be my silencer.” That’s beautiful, and that’s powerful. But that’s not everyone’s experience.
What if you never really had to come out, or if you did it so young and casually that it barely constituted this major, self-affirming moment? Do you need to now do it with everyone in your life? Am I required to tell my boss I’m queer, because I have nothing to fear knowing she’s an LGBTQ ally and a decent person? Do I need to provide all my relatives with a handy label even if we’re talking about people I only communicate with once a year? And if I choose not to do any of these things, does it suggest I’ve got some internal self-loathing? Am I allowed to be a private person, or otherwise someone simply uninterested in defining themselves to others?
The question ‘why does a celebrity owe anyone a coming out’ is usually met with the answer that living in the public eye means you accept a certain degree of invaded privacy, and that your life and choices have meaning to at least some people you’ve never met. The gay kid who was going to make a bad decision, go down a murky road, turned back because an actor he likes is gay too. Because someone like him made it, and is happy and healthy and whole. And I can respect that both gay and straight culture need positive gay role models, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that many young people (specifically those brought up in pro-gay environments) are being open about their queerdom as early as they can self-perceive it. And if that is a trend that continues as American culture makes the agonizingly slow tread towards legal and social equality, is it really fair to continue to demand that celebrities take on the (perhaps unwanted) task of publicly coming out for the sake of social visibility?
And furthermore, to what degree does the fact that we’re an incredibly voyeuristic society play into this entire conversation? Because it would be dishonest to pretend this expectation is not at least partly borne from the fact that people feel they have a right to know who others love and (specifically) sleep with. I can be irritated at the studio and public relations culture that makes it acceptable to try to shove a previously-open celebrity back into the closet for the sake of “marketability,” while still finding it messed-up that some online bloggers have made entire careers peddling the concept that it’s some kind of service to the LGBTQ community to out celebrities they declare are closeted—a concept I usually have a hard time feeling empowered by myself. As pissed as I was about the entire Prop 8 saga, I wasn’t all together comfortable with how Wanda Sykes was peddled as the great unifier of Black and gay socio-political interests.
But maybe that’s the rub, so the speak—that if you’re in the public eye, you’re going to be packaged and marketed with various labels, like it or not, so you might as well make sure those labels are true and work for you. Unless you want to take the chance someone else will manipulate your image to make it work for them. No one wants their public narrative written without their permission (much less their input).
Either way, the presumption that coming out is both a necessary thing and highly-important in the lives of all queer folks is something that I think we’ll see change in the near future, and I hope that leads to more celebrities feeling like they can address interest in their sexuality on their own terms, without experiencing a flood of unwanted public attention focused on their private lives. And, as in the case of Queen Latifah, it would be great if celebrities could someday participate in LGBTQ-positive events, or otherwise be community allies, without it being seen as something it likely isn’t.
- Aja Worthy-Davis
Aja Worthy-Davis is a queer-identified woman of primarily African descent and American heritage. She lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn — a few blocks away from the house she grew up in — with her wonderful partner, a transman named Will, and their two cats.