Journalists are supposed to be the ultimate Zeligs: We pop up at the right places with faces hidden by the shoulders and hairdos of the famous and powerful. We observe and report, always in the thick of things but never part of them. Journalists aren't usually role models or public figures, aren't elected officials, and don't receive taxpayer money. Who cares which ones are gay?
But Anderson Cooper, 45, the CNN star journalist who Monday came out as a gay man (to nobody's surprise), is as much a TV personality and celebrity (the son of socialite Gloria Vanderbilt) as he is a journalist. Besides having his own nighttime broadcast and daytime talk show, his prerecorded voice narrated "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" on Broadway. But after the "coming-outs" of Ricky Martin, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, and, last year, another CNN anchor, Don Lemon, is this news?
It is. Even in New York City. Even though the landscape changed dramatically since President Obama endorsed gay marriage. Last weekend, when I bumped into an old Manhattan friend and told him how well he and his boyfriend looked these days, the reply was, "He's not my boyfriend!" -- and held up a wedding ring.
Even before the advent of same-sex unions, Philadelphia was pretty relaxed on such matters. Two of the city's culture moguls, Opera Company of Philadelphia's general director David Devan and the Philadelphia Orchestra's incoming music director Yannick Nizet-Siguin, never came out because they were never "in."
From Day One, Devan introduced his male partner as quickly as he introduced himself. And even before Mayor Michael Nutter introduced Nizet-Siguin "and his partner Pierre" Tourville in front of City Hall, you knew what the story was: After all, the guy wasn't legally married and has three cats. Now that it's all out in the open, nobody talks about a gay takeover of the arts, but have seized upon something more novel by referring to "the Canadian mafia" (since both men are from there).
Previously, celebrity outings were the solution to the lying and hiding that's so unseemly and complicated. The public wants details on who is occupying brain space in its heads and resents information being withheld. Maybe they don't have the right to such information, but they're not wrong in wanting it. Even in scholarly circles. At the New York University musicology department (from which I graduated), obviously straight professors led entire classes on whether Franz Schubert was gay.
It's a significant piece of the puzzle. But TV star T.R. Knight could have spoken for Schubert (who died in 1828) when he hoped that being gay "isn't the most interesting part of me."
The new reason for coming out is less about personal convenience: With bullying, bashing, and gay-related teenage suicide statistics very much in the news, the Anderson Coopers of the world need to present themselves as people who found the light at the end of the tunnel that many men and women still go through as part of discovering that they're minorities in the sexuality department. As in race issues, it's a challenge that doesn't go away.
In the extended email Cooper wrote to gay commentator Andrew Sullivan -- and published Monday in the Daily Beast -- the most important words were "I love and am loved. In my opinion, the ability to love another person is one of God's greatest gifts, and I thank God every day for enabling me to give and share love with the people in my life."
Maybe those words wouldn't have stopped 18-year-old Tyler Clementi from jumping off a bridge in 2010 after his Rutgers University roommate spied on his same-sex intimacies with a webcam. But they certainly couldn't hurt.