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September 17, 2014
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“Lying By Omission:” Should Public Figures Feel Obligated to Come Out?

Speaking at the Human Rights Campaign’s “Time to Thrive” conference, the first annual such gathering designed to foster inclusion and safety for LGBT*Q+ youth, Ellen Page (Juno) publicly came out to an audience of several hundred.

In her emotional speech, the actress, usually associated with the dry and snarky wit of the pregnant teenager role that earned her an Oscar nomination, was less brazenly confident, speaking with a shaky voice but a strong conviction. “I’m tired of lying by omission,” she said, later adding, “Maybe I can make a difference to help others have an easier and more hopeful time.”

These poignant snippets from Page’s speech raise important questions about the full implications of a celebrity coming-out. She’s right: giving youth in the queer community a strong role model is a noble and valuable act, and will contribute to an ongoing effort to give these young people a voice and a safe space in a stage of their lives too often characterized by bullying and emotional distress. She’s also technically correct in saying that not coming out is “lying by omission,” but it’s from in that characterization that my question lies:

Should celebrities and figures identifying as LGBTQ who are out in their private lives feel obligated to come out to the general public or serve as community role models?

The word “obligated” is a strong one, which has me tempted to answer with an emphatic and immediate “No.” However, Page’s words about the power to improve the lives of others that the act of expanding one’s “out-ness” from the private to public realm can have has me torn.

This topic immediately brought my mind to Jodie Foster’s unusually lackluster coming out at the Golden Globe awards just over a year ago. It takes courage for anyone to come out, even someone whose sexuality has been a topic of speculation for decades, yet Jodie’s “sudden urge to say something that [she'd] never been able to air in public” was hardly applauded. Writing for The Guardian, Patrick Str udwick criticized Foster for valuing her privacy over a “public duty” to visibility, saying, “You cannot skip the tough part of a human rights struggle.”

Not to my surprise, the highest-rated comments on the piece are from those readers, who, like me, found Strudwick’s criticisms unsettling. “I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Jodie Foster is in some way responsible for electro-shock therapy or bullying or discrimination,” wrote one commenter, referring to Strudwick’s well-meaning but (in my opinion) overstated affirmations of a causal relationship between gay visibility and gay rights. Another summarized my sentiments more succinctly, posting, “She has no duty to nobody [sic] but herself.”

That brings me back around to my initial issue with the “obligation” debate: binding another person to any kind of ‘unwritten duty’, no matter how visible that person may be and how much influence their words and actions may have, isn’t exactly fair.

My coming out experience is not Jodie Foster’s coming out experience is not Ellen Page’s coming out experience is not John Travolta’s being-outed experience. Comparing the significance I attach to my being out in my personal and professional life has to the significance of a celebrity’s out status would be ludicrous and meaningless, so I don’t have any grounds for doing it.

Yes, people with celebrity status should recognize that they serve as role models for as many as millions of fans, and that their words and actions sway public opinion. But no, I’m not about to tell anyone, ever that I think they have to come out.