- Writer Stephanie Fairyington says she's felt conflicted about Cooper's silence on his sexuality
- As a journalist, Fairyington understands Cooper's not wanting to become the story
- As a gay youth, Fairyington found she lacked role models
- She hopes Cooper's coming out encourages gay youths to be proud of their identity
"Did you hear the news? Anderson Cooper came out," I heard one guy tell another on the elevator at the magazine where I work. "Is it really 'coming out' when everyone already knew you were gay?" the other guy joked. To media insiders in New York City, Cooper's sexuality may have been no secret, but to the rest of the world, his romantic inclinations were a mystery -- an ever-present and provocative question mark.
As an out lesbian and journalist, I've always felt conflicted about the uncertainty of Cooper's sexuality. On the one hand, I can delight in the mystery of a person's unspoken and enigmatic preferences, wondering: Is he gay? Straight? Bi? Maybe he's asexual. On the other, before he came out I couldn't help but wonder if he'd felt the need to veil his homosexuality to make himself palatable to the masses. It's irksome to think that he'd have to cater to the ignorant until he could secure a large following. Hopefully his coming out will blast the perception that you can't be openly gay and a widely respected public figure.
When I put on my journalistic hat, I can definitely vouch for his point in an e-mail to The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan about the advantages of remaining unreadable to your interviewees. It's easier to forge a bond and to gain the trust of your subjects if the conversation isn't crowded with your slant on hot-button issues. If they see you as neutral -- or a blank page -- they can assume (albeit, often falsely) that you share their core values and beliefs, which elevates their level of comfort and opens them up.
The truth is I can see the massive benefits of Cooper wanting to secure his professional standing before coming out. As a nationally beloved commentator, he'll successfully test the hearts and minds of viewers who may not be comfortable with homosexuality but respect and admire him. He couldn't have managed that had he come out before amassing a large and loving audience. The political impact of him revealing his same-sex preferences now, as opposed to when his career first launched, are far greater. But even now that he's out, I can't quite put away the idea that there's something wildly subversive and compelling about people who refuse firm categorization.
I'd even argue that it's more radical -- maybe even more progressive -- to resist publicly categorizing one's sexuality, especially given the dark underbelly of those categories, which work to classify, police, target and judge bodies, particularly those imbued with desires and pleasures society terms "deviant." It may unsettle people to not know whether they are looking at a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered person, but in the space of uncertainty and discomfort is a possibility for growth.
We're forced out of lazy habits of thought and compelled to keep questioning and wondering when the nature of something or someone is uncertain. In some ways, sexual identity categories foreclose this opportunity by locking us into place and stemming the possibility of reconceiving and reimagining the world.
That said, I know that there's a pragmatic purpose and power in numbers and visibility -- and that gay role models are as important as ever. With the epidemic of bullying in our country and the shocking number of high-profile gay teen suicides in recent years, Cooper's announcement is no small coup for gay youths. Role models are important for all kids, but especially for those who've been maligned and marginalized because of their difference. I can testify firsthand how important they were to me.
I didn't have any gay role models until I got to college. At UC Berkeley, in the late '90s, I majored in English with a concentration on gender and sexuality. My professors were a wild pack of queer and feminist thinkers intent on dismantling social hierarchies and trying to reassemble the world for the betterment of the misfit and mistreated. It was like living in a John Waters film, where all the freaks got center stage and were made to relish their queerness and triumph in their status as outsiders. Being in a room with an openly lesbian professor and knowing that I was valued, rather than vilified, for the ways in which I didn't fit in was a soothing antidote to all those adolescent years of self-loathing and doubt.
When powerful pop cultural icons like Cooper affirm their homosexuality, it serves a similar purpose for gay kids. They are better able to see their way toward a brighter future and drum up the strength and courage to withstand the scorn and alienation that come -- far too often -- with being gay.
But I'm still fixing my hopes on the day when you won't be marked -- for better or worse -- for whom you choose to love.