Rachel Maddow on the ethics of coming out

Yesterday, The Guardian ran a profile of Rachel Maddow. The profile covered her rise to prominence, her approach to covering the news and, of course, the fact that she’s openly gay. It also addressed, or claimed to address, her attitude toward Anderson Cooper:

Maddow is one of the very few gay news anchors in America – well, one of the very few openly gay news anchors. Does she feel frustration towards an equally well-known news presenter who is widely assumed to be gay but has never come out? For the first time, Maddow pauses: “I’m sure other people in the business have considered reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, but I do think that if you’re gay you have a responsibility to come out,” she says carefully.

Well, according to Maddow, that’s not what she said about Anderson Cooper. In fact, that’s not even what The Guardian asked. She responded on The Maddow Blog last night:

… in that interview, I wasn’t asked about Anderson Cooper, I didn’t say anything about him, he literally was never discussed during the interview at all — even implicitly… Although criticism of Mr. Cooper was intimated by The Guardian and picked up everywhere — I did not make that criticism in the interview, nor did I imply it, nor is it what I believe.

Maddow might not have been asked about Anderson Cooper, but it does appear that she was asked about ethics and politics of coming out. And she reiterated that answer in her response last night. Here are her thoughts, laid out clearly and logically and with conviction, as we’ve come to expect from Maddow:

1. Gay people — generally speaking — have a responsibility to our own community and to future generations of gay people to come out, if and when we feel that we can.
2. We should all get to decide for ourselves the “if and when we feel that we can” part of that.
3. Closeted people should reasonably expect to be outed by other gay people if (and only if) they prey on the gay community in public, but are secretly gay themselves.

I’m glad to see Maddow not just clarify her statement in the Guardian profile, but also expand on it in her own words and on her own terms. What do you think, readers? If you could edit or add to her list, what would you change?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/lia1729/ Sarah

    As an LGBT person, I will say:

    I agree with (2), most certainly.

    I do not necessarily agree with (1). I think the responsibility is more to yourself and to your own conscience. For the most part, you have to live with the choices you make with regards to being out. I am not comfortable with trying to guilt people into being out. I do not think that is the point, but that is kinda what it feels like to me.

    With regards to (3), I am not entirely comfortable there either. I cannot seem to muster the glee and schadenfreude that many seem to have when situations like these occur. A very relevant recent example is the rumor of an anti-gay Montana State Representative being a lesbian, which was posted on a different blog. The ensuing misogyny and vitriol there was kinda unsettling. Honestly, cases like those described in (3) make me more sad than anything.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lia1729/ Sarah

      Oh yeah! Follow up question: Does this count if I am not gay? Cuz I am bisexual, and it says “Gay people.” ^_^

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    4. Queer expression takes many forms, so one single person should not be expected to speak for the entire LGBT community. No one should be a media mouthpiece for the community to the whole, nor should anyone define their identity as being said mouthpiece.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    This could be my only criticism of sweet Rachel: it’s scary for some people to come out, what could happen or what happens to whatever relationship you have with that person you’re coming out to depends on how that person will respond. I’ve came out to several good friends of mine and it was fucking scary, Thank God they were so accepting and a few of them lesbian too. But I remember being anxious and vulnerable and hoping everything will end up fine. I don’t blame anybody if they don’t come out right away, they need backup.

    • http://feministing.com/members/naama/ Naama

      I’m right there with you…some of my friends know I’m bi and some don’t. You can’t really take it back and go back into the closet. And there’s a lot of gray area in terms of who you tell, beyond just the “will I still be safe and accepted in my community if I come out” question, so for many people, it’s not this dichotomy of Out/Not Out. Yes, the personal is political, but that’s not the only dynamic in play.
      Heck, my best friend in the whole world doesn’t know, because I have a (totally hopeless) crush on her and I’m afraid she would guess if she knew I was bi, and I’d lose her as a friend…she’s not homophobic, though, and she does her best to be a straight ally. So am I morally obligated to come out to her? It would do more harm than good.
      Another example: I did come out to another friend, who basically dismissed being bi as a phase: “Oh, you’re not really bisexual, you just get girl crushes. You’ll figure it out soon enough.” That level of trust is a huge gift, and she didn’t deserve it. (She actually referenced Katy Perry.)
      So for those of us who are coming out to trusted individuals, the Moral Duty of it all doesn’t make sense. And if we try to say that everyone should come out to the entire universe, all in one go, as a moral duty to the rest of our community…how on earth is that encouraging to those of us who are struggling with our identities and place in society? Choosing when and how we come out is one of the few empowering things we can do.

  • http://feministing.com/members/konkonsn/ konkonsn

    I don’t agree with #3 at all. Yeah, it’s terrible that you’re a hypocrite and hurting the gay community, but there’s a whole other level of issues going on with a person who is gay but attacks gay people.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

    The three point outline sounds reasonable enough, although I would prefer a different wording that that doesn’t leave the “if” dangling at the end after two commas and two dashes. It gets too easy to mentally cut off the sentence earlier when it has all of those breaks. Considering that the disclaimer at the end seems to applies to a majority of gay people, I would avoid piling on all that guilt/responsibility at the start.

  • http://feministing.com/members/radicalhw/ Shannon Drury

    I’m not LGBT, but as a teen I adored the rage and alienation of Bob Mould on the early Husker Du records. “59x the Pain” was one of my favorites: “never feeling normal, can’t accept the truth/resign myself to hating it, I hate it all.” At the time I was considered weird for being a GIRL who listened to hardcore, which was the domain of macho men. I often wonder what the scene would have been like had Mould been open about his sexuality. Fewer jerks in the pit, for one thing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/catnmus/ Chris

    I would add this:
    4. Closeted people should reasonably expect that they could be outed by someone else, at a time probably not of their own choosing. It may be by accident. It may be by a homophobe. But it won’t really matter which. The earlier you come out, on your own terms, the less you will have to worry about this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/markkernes/ Mark Kernes

    I certainly think Point #3 is very important. If more closeted “anti-gay” leaders were outed, it would definitely take the discussion of homosexuality to a new and important level in American culture.

  • http://feministing.com/members/meagan/ Meagan

    I’m personally kind of disappointed in Maddow on this one-I think everybody deserves the right to self-identification and safety (whether it’s emotional, physical, psychological, etc.). The kind of thinking that enables “well, she slept with a woman, so she’s obviously queer” even when the person self-identifies as straight is the kind of thinking that enables “well, that trans man has a vagina, so he’s obviously really a woman.”

    I also think saying that anyone has an “obligation” to come out comes with a lot of privilege. It sounds like she is having some conflict on that one, as the second point completely contradicts the first. She’s essentially saying “Gay people have an obligation to come out if they want to.”

    That being said, visibility is one of the strongest tools we have. Humanization, making people realize that there are queer people everywhere. As Harvey Milk said: “I can only hope that…the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects … I hope that every professional gay will say ‘enough’, come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help.”

    • http://feministing.com/members/cromage/ A Viescas

      There’s no contradiction; what she says here can be summed up in one sentence: if you can, do.

      Every member of a community has an obligation to be a role model — however you want to define that — to other members of the community, and the LGBT community is no exception. Due to circumstances, this obligation can be superceded by more immediate concerns, but that does not mean it does not exist.

      In the same (but more exaggerated) fashion, we all have the moral imperative to not support dictators, but that doesn’t mean we have to start rebellions or even publicly speak against one, depending on circumstances. We always have other responsibilities, after all.

      Maddow’s position is subtle, but it is not contradictory.