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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Anderson Cooper comes out as gay. Does it matter?

Anderson Cooper comes out as gay. Does it matter?

Anderson Cooper has declared that he's gay, and much of the Internet on Monday pretended to shrug. "Pretended" is the operative word.

“Tell me something new this morning,” a commenter wrote on www.people.com. “I thought it was common knowledge that he was gay,” another added.

Cooper’s sexual orientation has indeed been common knowledge — and for a long time, one of the media business’ open secrets: whispered about, never confirmed on-the-record, sometimes to the point of resentment. But Cooper’s coming out, even if it were no real surprise, still clearly matters to a lot of people.

The TV host and reporter came out to the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan in an email posted to Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog, and within three hours, the post had 100,000 shares on Facebook.

The post’s viral nature, and the wall of conversation that followed, is itself kind of ironic; Sullivan, who is also gay, had asked for Cooper’s comment on an Entertainment Weekly story about the increasing number of gay stars who reveal their sexual orientation as if it’s no big deal. “We're evolved enough not to be gob-smacked when we find out someone's gay,” Sullivan wrote before pasting Cooper’s email.

The fact that no one was surprised that Cooper is gay, but that everyone was still fascinated by his acknowledgement, shows that the personal politics behind coming out have perhaps gotten less painful but certainly no less complicated. In this case, Cooper's outing has highlighted the politics behind acknowledging one's sexual identity and the people who pressure stars to do so. It also raises questions about how much the expectations of neutrality in journalism might collide with personal identity.

Cooper’s comments on why he hasn’t talked about his sexual orientation focused more on his career as a journalist rather than his daily life as an American.

“Since I started as a reporter in war zones 20 years ago, I've often found myself in some very dangerous places,” Cooper wrote in his email to Sullivan. “For my safety and the safety of those I work with, I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own. I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist.”

Cooper did not explicitly state whether he was referring to being gay as a threat to his safety. Some countries maintain a death penalty for homosexuality. The Committee to Protect Journalists told the Los Angeles Times that it does not keep data on journalists who have been attacked for their sexual orientation.

Cooper’s email to Sullivan suggests that changing attitudes and feedback from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the United States had forced his hand.

“Recently, however, I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle,” he wrote. “It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something -- something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.”

He added, “There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.”

Comments and reports from those who know Cooper suggest that the stigma of hiding in the closet finally outweighed the benefits of having a veil of privacy while working as a nonpartisan journalist in a time when gay advocacy has become a mainstream topic of debate.

In today’s mainstream media environment, which still maintains some expectations of neutrality, that balancing act is real. As soon as Cooper outed himself, Peter LaBarbera, founder of the Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, tweeted, “OK, Anderson Cooper is *gay.* But he's also proved himself to be a homo'l activist (on air) so he should recuse himself from lgbt stories.”

Pressure came from the other direction too. Gail Shister, a columnist for TVNewser.com, told the New York Times that Cooper had been “under increasing attack from lots and lots of gay people by continuing the perception that he’s somehow ashamed.”

Nick Denton, the boss over at Gawker — which is prone to outing journalists — said of course he’d been publicly “nagging” Cooper to come out of the closet.

“You can call that bullying,” Denton, who is gay, wrote in a comment at Gawker. “But without some pressure, there wouldn't be nearly as many public homosexuals. Everybody agrees by now that visibility is essential if one is going to change attitudes. What they don't yet acknowledge is this: for visibility, you need a searing spotlight.”

And a searing spotlight is what Cooper’s gotten, even if his outing as a gay journalist working in a gay-friendly media environment in New York has not come as a big stunner.

Stigmas live on for public figures — especially for, say, professional gay athletes — which is why Sullivan goaded Anderson for a comment on gay celebrities, even if coming out is supposedly no longer a big deal. “The visibility of gay people is one of the core means for our equality,” Sullivan wrote in introducing Anderson’s comments.

So while the Internet may pretend to think Cooper’s outing doesn’t matter, Cooper’s comments show he clearly disagrees.

“I still consider myself a reserved person and I hope this doesn’t mean an end to a small amount of personal space,” Cooper wrote in closing to Sullivan. “But I do think visibility is important, more important than preserving my reporter’s shield of privacy.”


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