Queer celebrity gossip was big in the media last week, what with Ricky Martin finally identifying himself in a way that those of us who’ve been paying attention since his Menudo days picked up on years ago: he’s gay.
I didn’t say he admitted, or confessed, or spoke in any way that would lead folks to think he had any shame or guilt about his sexual orientation. This is a big change from previous generations of stars who didn’t have the opportunity to come out in their own time, who were pulled out of the closet kicking and screaming. But as I and others have said, Martin’s announcement came as no surprise to many.
Anna Paquin’s announcement last week via her involvement with Cyndi Lauper’s Give a Damn campaign, however, was an apparent shock to all. She was off the radar: nothing in her job history raised any red flags, she’s currently engaged to a male costar, and – okay, I’ll say it. She doesn’t “look gay.” (yeah, whatever that means, but y’all totally know what I’m saying) Was I surprised? Well, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t surprised.
The rumours about Martin’s sexual orientation have been circulating for years. Could he have done so from a point of security 15 years ago? Probably not. It’s a sticky thing: Queers in the public eye hold a lot of power. As a Latino gay man, Martin could have been in a unique position to speak to youth who have been disenfranchised by homophobia and racism. He has had an amazing amount of power to reduce suicide rates, and maybe affect risk behaviours that come from self-loathing. Is that a requirement, though? Does his role as entertainer require that he be a role model? Does the fact that he could have had a greater impact mean that he was/is obligated to do so? Do we all have to be politically out?
My own coming out was, while on a much smaller scale, similar to Paquin’s. I got my own shit together and went headfirst into out, public, queer advocacy. I represented a campus queer organization, and identified as queer in both local and national media. I felt a personal obligation to increase the visibility of lesbian and bisexual women (having identified as one, then the other). I felt responsible for those young people who don’t have their shit together, who’ve been assaulted and/or kicked out by their families, who’ve been isolated away from the spaces and people where we’re all supposed to feel safe. I needed, for my own wellbeing as a queer person, to provide an example of positive possibility, and to work to create space for queer voices to be heard. I didn’t only focus on the public face of queerness: I also worked the front lines, with at risk queer youth, many of whom were street-involved, dealing with substance abuse issues, and involved in sex work.
But, I was poor, and local, and not a big-name star. I had the luxury of anonymity. I had nothing to lose, and no fear attached to the “wrong” people finding out. I could have passed, and arguably, I could choose now to pass as straight. After all, I had children with a man, I tend to date men more often than women. Like Paquin before last week, I could fly under the radar and no one would be the wiser. But we’d know. Those of us who feel we can take the early risks make it easier for folks like Martin to come out when they’re ready.