Anderson Cooper, At Last

Cooper's silence sent a loud if unintentional message to the straight people who still think gays are different and threatening, and to the gay kids who still don't have enough public examples of successful, happy people who happen to be gay. I was that kind of gay kid.
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So Anderson Cooper has finally come out. That's great, it really is, but it's not exactly news -- at least not for a certain kind of person. For years Cooper has been living in a lavish glass closet. He never denied that he was gay, but he never confirmed it, either. He never hid his boyfriend, Ben Maisani, but he didn't talk about him the way he talked about other aspects of his personal life. He movingly discussed his brother's suicide, but on his emotional life he was dead silent.

And that silence sent a loud if unintentional message to the less media-savvy world -- the world that doesn't read about Cooper's house parties on Gawker; the straight people who still think gays are different and threatening; the gay kids who still don't have enough public examples of successful, happy people who happen to be gay. I was that kind of gay kid, growing up in the Soviet Union thinking that no one in the world felt the way that I did.

All too often we read about American boys and girls who take their lives rather than face a future that seems to offer nothing but dread. As the CNN anchorman himself admitted in his graceful letter to Andrew Sullivan: "It's become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something -- something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid."

What made Cooper's reticence so frustrating was that it seemed so unnecessary. Unlike actors, who do put their careers at risk by coming out (which adds an element of real bravery to the honesty of people like Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, and others), Cooper is in the business of TV news, where his sexuality is more or less immaterial. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and Thomas Roberts have been openly gay for years; more recently, CNN's Don Lemon went public, as well.

I made this point last week in an article about Pride, calling Cooper a "celebrity coward" and urging him to finally come clean about his own life to erase the implication that it was dirty. A number of people took exception to this, and I was surprised at some of their reasons for doing so.

"Leave Anderson Cooper alone," chastised a commenter named Mark, as though he were tearfully defending a helpless Britney Spears. "He doesn't want to be a professional gay." But actually, I didn't and don't want Cooper to be a "professional gay." I wanted and want him to be a gay professional, which is a very different thing. The more people who are famous for doing other things come out of the closet, the stronger the message will be that being gay is just part of a larger life.

"He does more good for international society by education us than all the boa clad gay people combined," Mark continued. Now, first of all, I want to say that I have no problem with boa-clad gays! But if Mark really doesn't want that to be the main image of gay people in public discourse, then surely he would agree that Cooper's coming out helps the cause of social education more than hiding it ever did.

Another commenter, named Michael, wrote that he does not understand "why anyone, celebrity or not, would talk publicly about his or her sex life." This is a revealing remark. When Mitt Romney introduces his wife, no one accuses him of poor taste for telling secrets about his "sex life." Homosexuality is not some shameful sex secret anymore, and it's sad that a presumably gay man still sees it as such.

Several other commenters took the position that the decision to come out was Cooper's to make. To some extent, and in some cases, I agree. Celebrities have the right to make their own decisions. But we also have the right to speak our minds when we think they are being dishonest. This is the tradeoff that comes with being in the public life: In exchange for money and fame, you cede a portion of your privacy. It's a deal that Cooper knew he was making, and it seems fair to hold him to it.

Do I believe in outing all celebrities? No, I do not. The world is still an unfair place that punishes people for being gay. So you have to take it on a case-by-case basis, and Cooper's struck me as a perfect case for calling a spade a spade. He is rich, handsome, and successful, and he had little to lose by coming out; he lived openly as a gay man in New York; his sexuality had already been widely discussed. He reported passionately about anti-gay bullying while ignoring his own potential ability to help that cause. And his failure to speak honestly about himself, under those specific conditions, seemed especially harmful.

So I'm happy that Anderson Cooper has finally owned up to his mistake and addressed this problem himself. Good for him. Good for us. And I hope his example will help others follows in his path, celebrities and high-school kids alike.

Come out, come out, whoever you are.

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