On Coming Out

A few weeks ago, the actor Zachary Quinto came out. This may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but in the short-term, his coming out is a fairly big deal. Quinto is not a big star exactly but he is a rising name. Or perhaps was.  Now that he is out, it will be fascinating to see what happens to him.  For example, will the critics savage his performance as Spock in the next Star Trek?

This news should not come as a shock.  He has played the gay character many times over, including in Angels in America, that landmark of gay and American theater.  There have been rumors about his sexuality for some time.  In his personal life, he has lived as an out gay man for quite some time, and it is therefore odd to call his statements a coming out.  Quinto was out before; he lived an open and honest personal life.

But we are talking about his professional life, and especially in the Internet Age, the personal and the professional are difficult to separate.  Quinto came out to the (nameless, faceless) public at large.  It is a process that most of us who are gay will never have to do, so let us stop for a moment and marvel at Quinto’s courage.  For a public figure, coming out is a different process than for the rest of us.  Everyone who is gay or lesbian (or bisexual, transgender, queer, bent, and so on and so forth) has to worry about the reactions of family, friends, and coworkers, but a public figure has the added pressure of public opinion.  An actor, especially one with star potential, must also deal with the fact that audiences may reject him because of his sexuality.

Probably this is why Quinto refused to answer questions about his sexuality.  When asked outright if he is gay, he neither confirmed nor denied anything.  That answer has historically been code for “I am gay and I live as a happy, well-adjusted gay person, but I am also afraid of ruining my career.”  One can understand why Quinto would not want to do anything to jeopardize his career (and at the moment it appears that the reaction has been universally positive).  But his glass closet was equally galling.

Quinto was one of the first celebrities to make an “It Gets Better” video–over a year ago, and well before his self-outing.  His video was a way to advertise the Trevor Project, and it clearly meant a lot to him.  Throughout the video, his voice cracked repeatedly, and I was surprised he didn’t break into tears.  There was more to what he wanted to say, yet he did not say it.  I watched his video just after it appeared on YouTube, but for all Quinto’s very real emotional reaction, his video felt somewhat hollow.  I hate to say it was hypocritical, but there was a very strong disconnect.

I understand an actor’s need for privacy; I sympathize with anyone’s need for privacy–especially for those who have so little of it.  And I acknowledge that Quinto’s sexuality had nothing to do with his acting, whether he plays straight characters (Spock) or gay ones (Louis Ironson).  But Quinto is not just an actor, he was also very involved in LGBT causes, and had been for some time as his career took off.  Therefore, questions about his sexuality were not out-of-bounds.  By dodging those questions he undercut all his own good work.  Outwardly, Quinto told gays teens that they were okay, but his own reticence and coyness sent the opposite message.

Clearly Quinto understood this, which speaks very highly of both his intelligence and his self-awareness.  It was very appropriately done–a quick reference to his own reactions as a gay man in New York Magazine to the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer.  This was neither a slip of the tongue nor a massive publicity campaign.  There were no agents or publicists involved.  Quinto came out on his terms and in the right way.  This is what he himself wrote on his website:

but in light of jamey’s death – it became clear to me in an instant that living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it – is simply not enough to make any significant contribution to the immense work that lies ahead on the road to complete equality.

Zachary Quinto is a good one.

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Coming out has been in the news lately, more so than usual.  October is National Coming Out Month, but this year had an added meaning because of the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  I think most (sane, rational) people probably expected that business would go on as normal, and to an extent it has.  But the end of DADT has also produced a nascent gay celebrity, Randy Phillips, an airman who had been posting anonymous videos to YouTube prior to the end of DADT about what it is like to be a gay service member.

The night that DADT ended, Phillips (showing his face for the first time) videotaped two calls that he made, first to his father and then to his mother.  He came out to both of them and in the process, he came out to the world.  The videos are heart-wrenching and very private.  One cannot help but feel like a voyeur watching them.  In both videos Phillips was nervous but composed.  The military could no longer kick him out for his sexuality, but he risked his parents’ ire while being thousands of miles away.

Phillips gave a (young and handsome) face to the heretofore anonymous gay serviceman.  Millions have watched his coming out videos and have seen a thoughtful, intelligent, and self-aware man.  It also gave a very real image of the coming out process, which, for those people who have not experienced it, is something that they know only from the movies or television.  But this was real.

I hope Randy Phillips doesn’t go away.  He became a mini-sensation because of the Internet, and in the Internet Age, he has so much to offer.  Whatever his future is, I sense that if he wants to, he could be an integral part of the gay community for some years to come.

I have been watching other videos from newly out service members, and they are all stirring.  Here is one from the Navy and one from the Marines.  One can only root for these young men and wish them happiness.

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One other coming out that I have come across in the past month is a young man named Sam, a student athlete who has been blogging about his life.  He documented his coming out in a series of very moving posts.  It must be the new generation.  When I was in high school, the gay kids were the outcasts, the misfits, and the theater geeks.  As far as I can tell there was about one openly gay kid per class, and I was not him.  (I did not know who was openly gay in my class.  Years later I still don’t know anyone from my class who is openly gay.)  It seems like Sam is doing well, even going to his first GSA meeting.

Reading about Sam, Zachary Quinto, and Randy Phillips has made me think about my own coming out story, which was far less positive than theirs.  It caused a rift with my parents that has not completely healed to this day, over 13 years after I came out.  Of course that is in large part caused by their constant refusal to accept me for who I am.  I have given up hoping.

On the other hand, I do not despair, and it is because of people like Sam, Quinto, and Phillips.

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