First published at Between the Lines News on October 2, 2008
Clay Aiken is gay. This is not news.
Lindsay Lohan might be gay, too. (Her answer during a radio interview was noncommittal enough to leave room for “clarifications” later.) Big yawn.
You know what would be news? It would be news to learn that a well-known pop star called People Magazine to say “I’m gay!” and People responded with a “So what?” I long for the day when a star’s coming out is not worthy of magazine space, much less a cover story.
We have not yet reached that day.
Clay Aiken’s coming out was about as surprising as Elton John’s, only less courageous. (Remember that John came out twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when gay sex was still illegal in many parts of this country.) For years certain bloggers have referred to Aiken as “Gayken,” a practice as otiose as it is childish. An online poll revealed that 96% of respondents were not surprised by his announcement.
The other 4%, presumably, also insist that Liberace was merely “artistic.”
I certainly don’t mean to criticize Aiken for his honesty, and I can’t blame him for wanting to capitalize on it with a cover story. I have no idea what People paid him for the scoop, if anything, but I suspect he got more than I did when I came out in an op-ed in my college paper. (I think they gave me a coupon for a free pizza.)
Incidentally, that was in 1989, a year after Elton John came out as gay. It was harder then, no doubt because so few public figures had done it.
Aiken’s coming out adds to that growing list of public figures, and for that we should be thankful. There are interesting dimensions to his story, including his identifying as a born-again Christian and his generally wholesome image. (My late grandmother, like many grandmothers, adored him on American Idol.)
Some might hope that his revelation will reach a demographic not otherwise friendly to gay issues, reminding them that we truly are everywhere. I’m skeptical. Aiken just had a child out of wedlock, via artificial insemination, with a much older female friend. His fellow born-again Christians will likely see him less as a role-model than as a cautionary tale.
So if progressives shrug and traditionalists scold, what can Aiken’s coming out teach us? Two things, I think.
First, that if you’re going to use the “My sexual orientation is private and none of your business” line, as Aiken did repeatedly, then don’t be surprised if few care when you announce your gayness on the cover of People.
Aiken is hardly alone in exploiting the ambiguity of the claim that sexual orientation is “private.” Private in the sense of being deeply personal and deserving of non-interference? Absolutely. Private in the sense of being secret? Only if you insist on making it so.
That was Aiken’s right, of course. But it was also our right to notice his doing it. It was not our right to nag him about it—he was young, and still figuring it all out—but it was our right to refuse to go along with treating gayness as somehow unspeakable. Aiken’s story underscores how the convention of the closet is crumbling. This is progress.
The second thing his coming out teaches us is that while simple honesty is good, it is no longer enough. It may be enough (for now) to get you on the cover of People, but it’s not enough, I’ll wager, to get readers rushing to the newsstands.
I’m surprised, frankly, that it’s still enough to get you on the cover of People—even if you are the most famous American Idol runner-up ever (my grandmother went to her grave insisting that Ruben had robbed him of the rightful title) and you have a cute baby in an unconventional family arrangement. I don’t expect People to be The Economist, but I do expect something fresher and more stimulating than “Yes, I’m Gay.”
And so let me close with a plea to our LGBT organizations. For the love of Jehovah, don’t invite Aiken to headline fundraising dinners or pride events unless and until he actually does something more to advance gay rights. “Yes, I’m Gay” may be enough to impress People. It should no longer be enough to impress us.
And that, too, is progress.