Are Out Gay Celebrities Instant Activists?
Submission by Adam Polaski, TNG contributor
Last week, star figure skater Johnny Weir confirmed what many people had already assumed: he’s gay. While promoting his new memoir, Welcome to My World, he opened up about his sexuality. However, he wants to emphasize that “gay” doesn’t define his identity.
On The Today Show, he said, “I’ve never claimed to be straight or gay. I claim to be Johnny Weir. …I was born a white male- a white gay male and I don’t celebrate being white or male, so why should I celebrate being gay? That’s my opinion on the whole thing. I know people who have been activists for years and have worked so hard and tirelessly, and they have definitely wanted me to be an activist, but I think the best way I can be an activist is to live my life and not make that the main thing that is Johnny Weir. I’m much more than just a gay man.”
Weir joins a long list of celebrities who have followed their first public declarations of “I’m gay” with some version of “But I don’t want to be an activist.”
There was Adam Lambert, who kept quiet about his sexuality while competing on American Idol and when he did come out in Rolling Stone said, “I’m trying to be a singer, not a civil-rights leader.” Before that Neil Patrick Harris explained to Out, “My job is jester—not advocate.” And for a long time, singer-songwriter Jay Brannan has stood by his assertion that he’s not a poster boy for the gay community. On his website he writes, “People tell me all the time that I represent the ‘gay community’ whether I like it or not. But I’m telling you right now, you represent who you choose to represent. I represent myself, and that’s it.”
For years, gay media outlets like Perez Hilton and Out have forcefully demanded that celebrities are doing a disservice to the community and to themselves by not coming out. They believe that recognizable figures in the community should be more than willing to stand up and make some public comments about equality. A decade ago, some demands were particularly abrasive, with Candace Gingrich, manager of the National Coming Out Project, saying, “Queer people have no right saying they’re not political. If you wake up in bed in the morning and the person next to you is the same sex, you’re political.”
But with so many openly gay famous people, are we at the point now where not everyone has to be an outspoken advocate? Or is it still irresponsible to shy away from activism?
Some people have proven in the past few months to understand their power and potential to effect change. When actress Amber Heard came out in December, she said, “I am acutely aware of the role that the media plays in influencing public opinion and influencing society, and with that awareness comes the burden of responsibility.”
And just last week, Gareth Thomas, a Welsh rugby player who, according to Sports Illustrated, is the world’s only openly gay current professional male athlete on a team sport, appeared on Ellen to explain his stance. He said, “Sometimes when I speak to some people, I just think [about] the power and influence that famous sports people have on the world. …If they come out and show such a positive story and a positive message, it changes the world, it really does.”
I think Heard’s and Thomas’ observations are accurate: A gay celebrity publicly discussing their sexuality is still a sort of activism itself. They may not be marching in a parade or campaigning for a bill to be passed, but they’re confirming that gay people are a contributing part of society, and that’s important for people to know, especially those who live in conservative areas where tolerance isn’t as pervasive.
Despite Weir’s stated reluctance to take a more active role in advocacy, there’s a good chance he’ll change his tune about his participation in the movement, like many others before him. Lambert made a great It Gets Better video and Ellen DeGeneres, who demonstrated initial hesitation about championing the gay community, has maneuvered her talk show to become one of the most high-profile, subtle tools of advocacy out there, voicing her views on same-sex marriage and anti-gay bullying.
Maybe Neil Patrick Harris, perhaps the least controversial gay celebrity ever, is highlighting the best path for out famous people to take. He’s not shy about his personal life, revealing appropriate, encouraging aspects of his relationship with partner David Burtka, but he’s certainly not one to jump headfirst into rallies and protests. He’s a quieter kind of advocate—one who discusses the importance of equality without being militant, one who selectively voices support for causes that further gay tolerance, and one who aims for normalcy as a way of showing that hetero and homo aren’t that different after all.
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