Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Get Your Priorities Queer: How Jodie Foster Ruins Everything

Ok, ok. The title is a bit misleading.

It's not Jodie Foster that ruins everything. It's our reaction to her that does. When I use the word "our," to whom do you think I refer?

LGBT activists and bloggers, that's who. 

By now, if you haven't heard of Jodie Foster's somewhat bizarre and certainly angry "coming out" speech upon her reception of the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, you likely live under a rock, have no internet, and can't read this post anyway. I'm assuming most of you have at least heard of it. She confirmed that she was gay without ever actually using the terms "gay," "same-sex," "lesbian," or "queer," then went off on an angst-ridden discussion of why she had never come out in her 47 years of filmmaking:
I hope you guys weren't hoping this would be a big coming out speech tonight, because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the stone age. In those very quaint days when a fragile young girl would open up to trusted friends and family, co-workers, and then gradually, proudly to everyone who knew her, to everyone she actually met. But now apparently, I'm told that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance, and a prime time reality show. You guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child. No, I'm sorry, that's just not me, it never was, and it never will be. But please don't cry, because my reality show would be so boring. I would have to make out with Marion Cotillard, I would have to spank Daniel Craig's bottom, you know, just to stay on the air. It's not bad work if you can get it though.

But seriously. If you had been a public figure from the time you were a toddler, if you'd had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Someday, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.
For some historical context, rumors have flown about Foster's sexuality since the 80s, when queer activists put her face on a poster labeled "Absolutely Queer" and pasted them on street corners in major cities throughout the US. She's never been able to dog the rumors, but she has always sidestepped the question of her queerness, preferring to remain silent about her sexuality. But now, there you have it: a woman the LGBT press had been trying to get to come out for decades finally did. Hooray. Can we stop talking about it now? 

Uh, nope. 

Bloggers and gay newspapers blew up. It seems that the only thing that is concerning the LGBT community in the past two days is one woman's speech and what it means. Everyone is offering their opinion on her speech and what it means for the future of LGBT civil rights.

Some gave approbation at her admission, siding with Ms. Foster with pleas to have respect for her right to privacy

Some will argue that visibility matters, and she should have come out earlier in order to serve as a role model. I say she’s served the LGBT community in her own way. In 1994, she was the first major donor to provide support for the production of the short film Trevor, about a teenager who attempts suicide after realizing he might be gay. The film won the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action), and spurred the filmmakers to found The Trevor Project, now the leading national crisis intervention and suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youth. She did this in 1994, folks—long before LGBTQ youth suicide became a big issue in the national headlines in 2009-10 and other celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry added their voices. In 2007, Foster gave The Trevor Project the biggest donation in its history. Sure, national out visibility can be a good thing, but it’s not the only way to serve.
Others were not as supportive of her decades-long silence, insisting that in current years it is the responsibility of gay celebrities to come out:
But whatever you thought of last night, you'd have to agree that it was another indication of how it's becoming harder and harder for anyone in public life to have any real credibility and still be living in the closet. Personally, I don't care if people like Jodie Foster are bitter or annoyed at activists. It's the job of activists to challenge people and, yes, to annoy people. What I care about is that the repressive and suffocating gay closet not be seen as a good place even if it is still the only safe choice for many. The only reason that millions are still in the closet is that society forces them there under threat of punishment. But things get easier for all those millions of closeted individuals when Hollywood celebrities and media figures come out. And more and more, it appears that it's becoming their responsibility, as privileged members of society, to do so. 
Some appeared to take her speech personally, and blew up in fury and outrage
Why am I so angry? Because I'm roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago. This was before Glee and Modern Family and Will & Grace -- and even Ellen DeGeneres' historical and culture-changing pronouncement. I, and so very many others, took a leap of faith and dealt with the consequences. Sure, I wasn't worried about losing $20 million a picture, but it's all relative: I feared that family and friends would abandon me, that I'd get passed over for jobs and promotions, that I'd be the victim of violence, and all the other clich├ęs from the after-school specials.
It's not just on Huffington Post and other public forums where these debates rage. I'm on a few listserves for LGBT bloggers and activists, and over the past two days I've had close to 100 e-mails land in my inbox with nothing but the phrase "Jodie Foster" in the subject line. Heated arguments have been exploding in the electronic back rooms of the publications LGBT Americans read, and I can't help but be appalled at the single-minded obsession with rehashing, yelling, and debating a less than 10-minute speech.

In fact, I would encourage my friends and colleagues to talk about... other things. Other more important things. Things that queer and transgender people face every day in our country and around the world.

Let's see what else has happened recently that seems to have fallen by the wayside among our prominent (and predominately gay) voices:

Back in August, a DC cop solicited a transwoman for sex and was refused. Drunk, he then angrily pulled his weapon and shot through the windshield of the car she and her four friends were in, endangering the lives of everyone inside the vehicle. He got off with probation, and while some in the community certainly voiced their outrage, it's confusing how Jodie Foster's speech is getting more attention than attempted murder by one of DC's "finest." I find this personally a lot more offensive than her angry on-stage rant. Guess how many e-mails I got about this in my inbox, by comparison. That's right, only 3.

There's no doubt that the online LGBT community has benefited from this man's work. Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer integral to the success of Reddit and other online communities, was also crucial to a movement in resistance to the passage of SOPA/PIPA. He was found dead after years of harassment from federal prosecutors accusing him of illegally disseminating copyrighted materials. His death has been ruled a suicide, and there is no doubt in the culpability of those prosecutors in his demise. 

Did you know he was queer

People shouldn’t be forced to categorize themselves as “gay,” “straight,” or “bi.” People are just people. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to men. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to women. Maybe you’re attracted to everyone. These are historical claims — not future predictions. If we truly want to expand the scope of human freedom, we should encourage people to date who they want; not just provide more categorical boxes for them to slot themselves into. A man who has mostly dated men should be just as welcome to date women as a woman who’s mostly dated men. 
So that’s why I’m not gay. I hook up with people. I enjoy it. Sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. I don’t see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.

So a person who literally gave his life to give us the forums that we have kills himself (let's keep in mind that LGBTQs are far more likely to commit suicide than straight people) and we hear almost nothing from the gay press? We would rather talk about Jodie Foster? 

Yeah, I didn't get a single e-mail from my LGBT comrades on this one. 

Jodie Foster was the subject of years of intense scrutiny on the part of the mainstream LGBT press, an effort that spanned decades in a campaign in order to give up her privacy against her will to further the cause of gay visibility. This shows immense dedication and fortitude on the part of that press. I can't help but wonder, however, if perhaps those efforts aren't put to better use.

I've written about CeCe and the prison industrial complex before, and while there are currently no new developments in her case, it's certainly a topic worth addressing with as much (and in fact more) fervor than Ms. Foster's sexuality. CeCe, imprisoned for defending her life from transphobic attackers, needs support. Not just in the form of legal support, but in the form of real, material support. She urges people to not just send letters to her, but to other trans prisoners, and cries out for the attention of the LGBT community in examining the plight of transfolk in the prison industrial complex.

Frankly, where is the large, decades-long effort to end the unjust incarceration of our most vulnerable? 

Or is Jodie Foster's coming-out more important? 


In the end, please do not think that I am insinuating my colleagues are terrible, blind people to what goes on around them. Many of them have indeed written about these things, and many of them share my outrage over these topics. Some of them are even as exasperated with this ongoing discussion of celebrity sexuality as I am. And some of them just may not know a lot of the things at hand, such as our brother Aaron Swartz's plight. I do have to say, however, what are we communicating when it comes to our priorities? 

Many young queer people are indeed empowered by a celebrity coming out, and we should allow those who choose to make their sexuality visible to have the forum necessary to continue that process of empowerment. However, there are issues, deadly issues, that are engulfing those with limited agency over their fate that we must make a priority. It's time to let Jodie Foster get off the stage and let the Aarons and CeCes among us have our attention.

Because really, who needs to be more visible. Foster? Or them?

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