Huzzah for Anderson Cooper, who Monday acknowledged what has long been regarded as an open secret. In an e-mail to The Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan, Cooper wrote: "The fact is, I'm gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn't be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud."
If even one adolescent out there struggling with sexual identity reads those words and feels a greater degree of pride and comfort, then Cooper's acknowledgment will be an extraordinary public service. Gay kids need people in the spotlight whom they can look up to and emulate. Cooper is an award-winning journalist and talk-show host, erudite and witty, respected (and, in some cases, probably feared) by world leaders. His sexual orientation has never inhibited or curtailed his considerable success.
But reading Cooper's explanation for why he chose to remain silent for so long, I couldn't help but feel frustrated. He wrote to Sullivan: "I have always been very open and honest about this part of my life with my friends, my family, and my colleagues. In a perfect world, I don't think it's anyone else's business, but I do think there is value in standing up and being counted."
As a gay person, I'm quite plainly sick of hearing that argument. Saying that being gay is something "private" or that it's "nobody's business" inherently implies that there's something wrong with it. It says that being gay begins and ends in the bedroom, and that it's all about sex.
Would a straight person ever say the same thing, that their heterosexuality is "nobody's business"? Indeed, is there anything "private" about getting married -- which involves obtaining a license, and registering your union with the court, and which straight people have been doing since the founding of this country? Your sexuality is inherently public -- it's about whom you love, and whom you choose to share your life with -- and to pretend otherwise is an insult to those gay people who have had the courage to come out of the closet, consequences be damned.
All of this resonated perhaps more than usual, because over the weekend I was at a Dallas bar, where my partner and I met for drinks with a friend of his who moved out of town a few years ago but was visiting. My partner asked this man, who is in his early 40s and lives with his boyfriend, if he was out of the closet at work.
This man, who works for a not-for-profit foundation that has an anti-discrimination policy, is not. His refrain: "I don't see why it matters or why they have to know about my personal life."
I've encountered this mindset a great deal among gay people in my decade-plus living in Texas. No doubt it is because of the powerful influence of religion here, not to mention the "good-ol'-boy" spirit that abides in the South. Spend enough time in such a culture, and a gay person inevitably starts to think that to be completely open about his sexuality would threaten his entire way of existence.
But the reason it matters is simple: If people hide who they are, they reinforce a sense of shame in themselves. They create a perpetual cycle of half-truths and obfuscation that becomes increasingly difficult to break -- so that they can't even talk about what they did over the weekend without dancing around reality and carefully choosing their pronouns.
They telegraph the message to younger gay people that it's OK to keep secrets and live inauthentic lives.
I don't mean to sound unsympathetic to the struggles of gay people in a hetero-normative world; I know I've been very fortunate to have friends, family and colleagues who look upon my homosexuality the same way as I look upon their heterosexuality -- as something unremarkable and yet essential to who they are as human beings.
Yet we are also at an extraordinary tipping point in American history, where the ultimate step toward equality -- the right for two people of the same sex to get married in every state in this country -- is within reach.
If gay people themselves aren't willing to lead that battle -- to be open to friends and colleagues and even complete strangers, to insist that in fact it does matter -- then equality will never be won.