Yes, if she'd done it 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago, it would have had a much greater impact.
And yes, she was a nervous mess, her speech often incoherent and oblique -- never quite saying, "Yep, I'm gay" -- and at times defensive and angry.
But Jodie Foster did announce her "coming out" last night at the Golden Globes and thanked her "ex-partner-in-love," her "righteous soul sister in life," her "confessor," Cydney Bernard. It was another win for busting down the closet door among public figures. It was also another example of the new way that celebrities are coming out, embarrassed in 2013 to have ever been in the closet and claiming that they've always been out (even if that sounds pretty ludicrous, as it does in this case). And that's a testament to the coming-out message that activists have made for years.
Jodie Foster's sexual orientation has been discussed since the '80s, when her face was plastered on "Absolutely Queer" posters pasted by activists all over the streets of major cities. I discussed the rumors in my column in OutWeek magazine at the time, when queer activists charged that Foster's 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs was homophobic -- and, by today's more precise definition, transphobic -- and asked what responsibility a closeted gay star should have when it comes to anti-gay depictions in his or her own films. But for decades Foster steadfastly refused to discuss it, even in recent years as she made references to her former partner.
Foster led a rarified life as a Hollywood celebrity who began her career as a child star, growing up and never separating gay identity from all the other aspects and activities of life that the media constantly delved into and put on display. It's bizarre but not completely out of the realm of comprehension that she relates to fellow celebrity Mel Gibson, even though he's spewed homophobic bile, more than she relates to gay activists, who've criticized her for being closeted just as they've criticized Gibson for being anti-gay.
And yet Foster's not an idiot. She studied at Yale and was plugged in to the issues that lesbian activists whom she knew on campus at the time, such as my former colleague and friend, the late Sarah Pettit, were focused on. She has always known why it's important for public figures to be out, and she chose not to do it. She instead kept it a secret while lending financial support to groups like Trevor Project, the 24/7 hotline for LGBT youth, and her generosity was certainly a great thing.
The defensiveness was there last night as she seemed to be trying to jab at us, the public, even while finally giving us what she believed we wanted, and while seeming to announce that she's retiring. The responses on Twitter were as all-over-the-place as Foster's speech itself. Some lauded her for saying she was "proud" and said she came out with "grace," while others shrugged off Foster's coming out as "too little, too late" and still others expressed anger and indignation for her casting it all as so private and never saying the "L" word.
But whatever you thought of last night, you'd have to agree that it was another indication of how it's becoming harder and harder for anyone in public life to have any real credibility and still be living in the closet. Personally, I don't care if people like Jodie Foster are bitter or annoyed at activists. It's the job of activists to challenge people and, yes, to annoy people. What I care about is that the repressive and suffocating gay closet not be seen as a good place even if it is still the only safe choice for many. The only reason that millions are still in the closet is that society forces them there under threat of punishment. But things get easier for all those millions of closeted individuals when Hollywood celebrities and media figures come out. And more and more, it appears that it's becoming their responsibility, as privileged members of society, to do so.