Content Is (Queen): Anderson Cooper’s Coming Out

Am I really on the defense for a privileged white dude living in NYC? Hell yeah, Anderson Cooper—I got your back.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s op-ed about Cooper’s coming out stayed on my mind all through the Fourth. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it bothered me so much, [1]since his arguments about visibility, pride, and self-definition are agreeable enough. But the title—“A Closet By Another Name”—reminded me all over again what I have always felt about the word “queer.” It’s an either/or proposition, by my view. You’re either out and visible, or you’re shrouded in secrecy, and no middle ground can ever stand.

Why does this vex me? Because “queer” has always meant (to me) white, male, urban, and middle class. I identify as queer only with great caution, and only when I get a chance to spell out how limited that community really is when it comes to diversity. To be as out as Mendelsohn calls for requires someone like me (and a lot of other people) to play second fiddle to the dominant voices and experiences that make up the face of the queer community.

That’s really the main reason why I value witnessing others stick up for themselves when they describe the facets of their total person and purpose in this world, rather than an allegiance to “queer” as “a core facet of identity,” to use Mendelsohn’s phrase. [2] I learn something from their attempts at self-definition, from how they describe their work and circumstances, but also by how they’re attacked for doing so. Cooper’s reasoning for separating his queerness from his journalism is labeled as “tortured” in the op-ed, but I find his explanations to be entirely in keeping with how much he privileges his position as a journalist—it’s a vocation and calling, a life vision. [3] It really spoke to me as a writer, as one who has been perplexed all my life by how to manage the liability of adjectives surrounding me, and the lack of respect around the noun itself.

Reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s take on Cooper’s announcement, I really cringed at his connection between the suffering of queer kids of color who desperately need role models and our fascination with celebrity culture: “The irony,” he writes, “is that they are victims of enduring prejudices that persist, in part, because gay celebrities enjoy the protection of a cozy omertà among the social and media circles like the one that shielded Mr. Cooper.” There are all sorts of things that made my life as a queer kid of color extraordinarily difficult, but one of the last I’d point to is celebrity shielding. There’s a wide (wide) gap between the public/private lives of celebrities and the direct effect it has on young people who do not live in gay metros. All the Zachary Quinto and Neil Patrick Harris statements in the world aren’t going to make the streets of Tucson any safer for queer kids of color. They run off (as many of us did) to the big cities, where the answer to the closet was its inverse: the freedom to be away from it completely. Sadly, that closet sometimes turns into an ivory tower, a foolish way of assuming the social temperature of The City should be the self-evident way to live everywhere else in the country. [4]

Tucson, 12th Avenue, very close to where I get my hair cut--it reminds me of Fresno and home. Celebrity outness doesn't change the fear I have of potentially getting my ass kicked on a street like this because I'm gay, okay? New York, it ain't.

I wish Mendelsohn had given queer kids of color a little credit. Exclusion taught many of us how to adapt. We learned to place ourselves forcefully where we couldn’t see ourselves. If “queer” wasn’t going to be a phrase I could take or use as an equal (because I was poor and brown and rural), then I had to figure out how to make my other identities matter just as much. But not fully embracing “queer” should in no way ever be considered any kind of closet—it’s just knocking the identity down a few pegs in the pecking order of what I value most in my life—and that’s exactly how I was reading Cooper’s self-assertion.

I looked for role models in less apparent places. Queer kids of color always do. Watching how a privilege white dude handled coming out was never my first idea of how to confront the problem. [5] “Cozy omertà”? All that describes is one privileged New Yorker telling another privileged New Yorker what it’s all about, and the dust-up should be called for what it is: localized and specific. For me, just another instance of how the rhetoric in my community circulates first and foremost with a very particular set of lives, with the repercussions and lessons supposedly trickling down to the rest of us. Aunt Bunny, why don’t you tell ‘em?

  1. [1] Quoth Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish, “It’s none of my business what you put in your mouth, Miss Culhane.”
  2. [2] In my life, it is most definitely a, not the.  Being gay is not the only thing I have.
  3. [3] I now entirely respect Cooper as a journalist: what comes out of his mouth is much more important than what goes in it.
  4. [4] And I admit I was guilty of that quite a bit myself when I lived in NYC. So I know smug when I see it.
  5. [5] Given how many doors were shut on queer writers of color when I was growing up, sometimes white was all there was. Hence why I know Paul Monette, but why some of my queer peers know only him.
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