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Even cynical journalists have our small moments of infatuation with fame. Case in point, this past weekend at the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) conference in Philadelphia, where a lunchtime appearance by CNN’s openly gay news anchor Don Lemon set the crowd buzzing and Twitter feeds humming.
While Lemon has been out of the closet for years, it’s only recently that he has publicly talked about his orientation, particularly in the context of his newly published memoir, Transparent. As he was interviewed on the conference stage, I was looking forward to hearing more about how being publicly gay influences his interactions with both reporters and subjects, plus other topics of interest to journalism junkies like me.
But first we had to get through the Anderson Cooper question: Is he or isn’t he?
After saying he didn’t know about his CNN compatriot, Lemon gave a metaphorical and somewhat touching answer about the futility of pursuing a person who doesn’t share your desires or interests.
Which led to the follow-up question: So, Anderson Cooper, is he or isn’t he?
It’s a frustrating question that I hear over and over in multiple contexts, and one that highlights so many of our discussions of sexual orientation and the public sphere. Here we have an openly gay man in a prominent cultural position, who has shown a willingness to talk about his own story in such a way that it will advance the narrative of LGBT equality in this country, yet people just want to ask him about his closeted co-worker.
It is vitally important, as always, that we encourage every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender person to come out as soon as they feasibly can. But at some point, when the encouragement is repeatedly and persistently ignored, it’s really time to move on to someone else. Our tendency to treat Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster as the great white whales of the campaign for coming out ends up undercutting the stories of the many, many others who have come out in ways both quiet and courageous.
As for Cooper himself, there’s also the matter of exactly what the closet means in this day and age. To all apparent evidence, Cooper is no Malcolm Forbes maintaining a facade of heterosexuality over a flamboyant gay lifestyle. In his public life as a journalist, he has pushed stories to the benefit of the LGBT community — his evisceration of former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell for the stalking and harassment of an openly gay college student is one of the great moments of cable news schadenfreude — so there’s no real argument to be made about the hypocrisy of the closet in public life. And, given that even the most cursory of Google searches reveals enough information to make an informed conclusion, it’s hard to argue that Cooper has taken great steps to hide things beyond the simple decision not to talk about it.
Some of us who are openly gay in both public and private may chafe at the idea of a glass closet. Fair enough, I suppose. But even if it turns out to be impossible to completely ignore the question of ”Is he or isn’t he?” — the same parlor game now being played with the newly minted head of Apple, Tim Cook — it should also be possible to keep our focus on the people who’ve made the decision to talk openly about their lives, to share their experiences in the hope that they can help others chart the same course. We should save our ire and irrepressible curiosity for those people who, from the depth of their closets, actually seek to set back the LGBT community.
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