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18 January 2011, 9:00 am 7 Comments

Are Out Gay Celebrities Instant Activists?

Submission by Adam Polaski, TNG contributor

Johnny Weir during the men's medals ceremony at the 2008-2009 Grand Prix Final; David W. Carmichael; Wikimedia Commons

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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  • Mark S. King said:

    No, every gay celeb that comes out is not an activist. But people get confused. They think every guy that’s done porn is a “star.” So go figure.

    Everyone has the opportunity, however, to be a role model for others. Actually, we model behavior, good and bad, every day of our lives. And whether we like it or not, people young and old, impressionable or not, are watching.

    Thanks for a thought provoking question.


  • Jake said:

    Most of the time I adore Jay Brannan, but I’m disappointed in him here. As an out gay individual you represent the glbt community whether you like it or not. It’s a fact in our society. Grow up.

  • lynn said:

    they might not be activists but i do believe that by them out and open about their sexuality is a form of activism in itself. any positive light shone on the gay community in my eyes is the kind of activism that we should be striving for.

    i’ve had a lot of struggle in my gay rights activism in terms of being militant or subtle about it. in some ways, we do need to raise a fuss, but in other ways, the more we separate ourselves and isolate ourselves the more that society will stigmatize and separate us from everyone else.

    so i agree that even openly gay people who aren’t out on the front lines holding protest signs but are living their life honest and openly are still progressing our movement. we need that type of visibility.

  • Mary said:

    Ricky Martin is happy to help LGBT community:

    On being a voice in the gay community.

    “There’s no pressure from anybody. It’s something I feel really good about doing. I have been an activist for human rights for many years. Today, I’m in touch with who I am and I have the opportunity to be in front of a camera and talk to millions of people. After I wrote the book and went on Oprah Winfrey, so many people have come to me, telling me, ‘Ricky, thank you because I understand what acceptance is today.’ ‘Ricky, thank you. I feel better about myself because you have a very beautiful family and the words ‘dysfunctional family’ don’t exist in your life.’”


  • Celebrity said:

    Activism starts at the grass roots, so I don’t really buy the points made here. Celebrities, gay or straight, are not activists by nature.

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