Perhaps more famously than anybody, it was Harvey Milk who exhorted LGBT people to come out. It was, he declared, the only way “to break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions” that drive anti-gay prejudice.
I probably wasn’t the only one who thought of Harvey upon hearing that Anderson Cooper had come out last month. As big a star as Cooper is, though, I wasn’t going to write anything about it. His announcement – not exactly shocking to many – was getting plenty of attention, and there didn’t seem to be much to add. And after the predictable torrent of news stories, the waters seemed to quiet quickly.
But it turns out that the coming out was just getting started. Soon after Cooper threw open his closet door, so did Frank Ocean. Ocean’s a major songwriter, singer, and rapper, and his bold declaration made him the first high-profile rapper to come out. An ascending star in a realm not widely known for its gay-friendliness, Ocean’s act was incredibly brave, and his coming-out internet post is heartbreakingly eloquent:
“4 summers ago I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Every day almost, and on the days we were together, time would glide…By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping. No negotiation with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love.” (read the whole post at http://frankocean.tumblr.com/post/26473798723)
Then there was Sally Ride. The first woman in space. A hero to countless school kids and a name synonymous with exploration, science, and adventure. Coming out through her own obituary, she quietly let the world know by acknowledging her partner of 27 years. Perhaps being tied to her untimely early death made the story especially powerful, as did the low-key but unmistakable way she chose to come out.
And, just this week, the director of The Matrix trilogy came out as transgender: Larry Wachowki is now Lana. And it’s Lana’s name that appears on the upcoming major release of Cloud Atlas.
So do these matter? After all, people are coming out every day – Harvey would smile – some in even more difficult or unlikely circumstances than Cooper, Ocean, or Ride.
I think they do matter – a lot. Perhaps America’s most famous newsperson. Arguably its most famous astronaut. Major cultural figures. As Harvey understood so clearly, as people see more and more and more people coming out, all but the most irretrievably hostile can’t help but be affected.
Famous people who come out aren’t likely to touch our hearts in the same way as, say, a family member, but they do help strip away the stigma attached to being gay. FrankOcean or Anderson Cooper are saying, “I can do my very public work – and be who I am.” As Cooper wrote, “[T]he tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.” By doing so, they seem to have lifted burdens off themselves. They’re also moving society toward a day when no one (or scarcely anyone) thinks twice about someone’s coming out.
And, as Harvey Milk could see, that day is coming.